A Bit Of Separation (No Breathing)

A Bit of Separation (No Breathing)

Putting ourselves in the shoes of the hero has become the norm. Our default action is assuming that the person we’re playing as is the person we’re supposed to be. For better or worse, “immersion” is the industry watchword, whether we speak it aloud or not (most likely not since it has been Voldemort-level of taboo to utter it). But it is still the standard by which we judge many game narratives, seeing if we cross that line from casual observation to psychological integration. We aim to take that next step into making ourselves and each other believe that we are in a different life amidst an impossible world.

(Also, yes, the title of this is a play on Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” so you can stop wondering and start humming that guitar riff for the rest of the day.)

We tend to forget, however, that it was never the point of stories to allow you to assume various identities of space marines and treasure hunters and master assassins. Mostly they exist to give a perspective of a particular series of events, often told in a way to maximize emotional impact or lessons learned. We don’t become a person but instead relate to a character, allowing us to watch over interactions and pick apart details rather than be the ones to create and fuel those developments.

Halo Xbox One

Of course, those vary in certain cases, such as adventure games and RPGs that build based on player choices, but by and large, this holds true. Simon Parkin of The New Yorker (and The Guardian and New Statesman and Eurogamer and plenty of other places) put it quite nicely, perhaps better than anyone else can put it:

We stand back and watch from afar in books, but it just so happens that video games let us get a little bit closer to those cages and occasionally rattle them. But the tigers and monsters are still behind those bars, something we often lose sight of while we shoot and drive and fly our way to the end of whatever story we’re being told.

That’s because those bars represent the fact that the narrative we’ve immersed and invested ourselves in is not ours but is instead one crafted by the storyteller. Often a single person or team with a huge creative vision, the beats of the game from the beginning to the end are predetermined and thus out of our hands. Because we spend so much time controlling the external actions of a character—moving our soldier to this corner and hunkering down, forcing our raider of tombs to punch this guy instead of shoot him—it becomes a lot easier to believe we also control the internal motivations as well, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tomb Raider

Spoiler Warning: I’ll be talking about the ending of The Last of Us for the next few paragraphs with the ones following just vaguely touching the conclusion. Feel free to skip them or revisit this at a later time. Or feel free to do whatever you want, but be sure to tweet about it for posterity.

As you may be well aware, I recently revisited the ending of The Last of Us, and going through the last part where you kill the doctors trying to remove the mutated whatever from Ellie’s brainstem, it struck me that this assumed personal integration from our eyes into the mind of the character we control is so irrepressibly automatic that writer/creative director Neil Druckman saw fit to toy with it through our hands. In our final moments of rescuing Ellie, we stumble upon the operating room where probably the last surviving neurosurgeon capable of performing such an operation is about to put the knife to the savior of mankind. And Joel just stands there.

I don’t know about you, but I panicked. I froze. I thought it would end on a melancholy double sacrifice with Joel giving up his surrogate daughter and Ellie her life. But then Joel begins to charge through the hospital in a murderous rampage, more armed and capable of wanton killing than ever before. And then he bursts into the operating room and I wait for the resignation, the realization from Joel that Ellie’s death is necessary for the salvation of the human race. It’s necessary to become the hero of the game.

The Last of Us

And as I stand there, waiting for something to happen, I come to my own realization: I’m not looking for the ending that I want to happen but I’m looking for a way out, an escape from the ending that is inevitable. I freeze because I’m frightened of what I have to do. The outcome is set. The entire story has been building toward this moment where Joel’s psychosis comes to the forefront and we realize that he’s not the hero at all; he’s just the guy we’ve been watching for the past 15 hours. And now, in a brilliant move from Druckman et al., we are forced to do what Joel would do but now what we would do: kill the doctors. Kill Marlene. Abandon humanity for the sake of forlorn substitution.

This is the toying I was talking about. For so long, we’ve been conditioned through our own misplaced beliefs and irrational justifications that what we do in a game—all the killing and looting—can be waved away because we separate our gaming actions from the gaming narrative. And for so long, we didn’t bother to question it. It was a concession we made to inject longevity into these things we busy ourselves with at our computers and in front of our TVs.

But The Last of Us brings that errant thinking into stark light. All that killing and murdering Joel did was not just because this was a game but because that’s who he is. He’s been unhinged for so long, scaring and killing people for years, that if we’d been paying attention, it would have been obvious that this was the inescapable conclusion to the game. All that space we put up between ourselves and the characters we play allows us to believe that we can be that person and we can be the hero we want to be (or don’t want to be, but out of convention believe that it’s the hero we’re supposed to be).

The Last of Us

It’s folly to see it that way and to be so naive as to subscribe to such notions. Parkin laid it out for us and Druckman played it out for us. Through our actions—the necessary actions to progress the game into its final moments—we’re shown that what we control and what is the truth are vastly different in a video game. Narratives aren’t meant to put us behind the wheel of thieves and pirates and post-apocalyptic smugglers but rather to put us alongside them and watch. Those shoes already have feet in them. We just get to walk behind them.

Of course there are exceptions. Some stories are written for the express purpose of putting your eyes in someone else’s sockets and have their thoughts flood into yours and The Last of Us is not the first game to pull this trick, but addressing such points in full would easily triple the length of this write-up. I assume you don’t want to read over 3,000 words from me on the ending of The Last of Us and the merits of storyteller dissonance.

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