Why the Last of Us is Art: The Prologue

The Last Of Us

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Before we begin our journey into the twisted and beautiful world of the Last of Us, let me make one thing clear. This isn’t a videogame review blog. I’m not going to be handing out stars and gushing about how great the graphics are or how smooth the controls are or how great the online is. I’m afraid I have to be far more pretentious than that. Yes, this is one of THOSE blogs. Sorry.

If I haven’t scared you off yet, what I aim to do is tell – and show – why videogames should be considered art.

What do I mean by “art”? Various scholars and lunatics (with these terms being anything but mutually exclusive) have been poking at this for years.  Which means that finding a definition is a thousand year old bag of snakes that would need a whole other blog to unravel. To save you the time (and the sanity), what I mean by “art” is a work of human expression that can instil an emotional or psychological effect on the perceiver in such a way that it challenges their own perception of themselves and the world around them.

Thomas Merton, a significantly smarter man than I managed to put it in significantly prettier words: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”.

In other words, I view “art” as something that makes you think and feel, not necessarily in that order.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at our game of the week, the Last of Us.

The Prologue

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The Last of Us was released in June 2013 for the Playstation 3. You take control of Joel, a grizzled survivor in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a fungal virus that turns them into mindless, flesh eating monsters. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Joel is forced to look after a teenage girl named Ellie as they travel through post apocalyptic America. Sounds familiar? Despite the new bells and whistles (they’re not zombies, they’re infected by “corduceps”, a real life fungus that infects ants), let’s be real, it’s essentially the set up for every zombie movie ever. But there’s a few things that set the Last of Us apart in a major way, which you’ll soon find out.

You start off the game not as Joel, but his daughter, Sarah. She wakes up to an empty house and you take the reigns, manoeuvring her around the eerily quiet halls as she tries to figure out where her father has gone. You’re given little information. You know just about as much as Sarah does, fed scraps of exposition through phone messages and television reports until your dad comes bursting into the house and murders your neighbours.

Sarah is driven away from her home by her father and you control her as she shifts from window to window, watching the horror unfold.  But even though you’re in control of her, it’s a completely on-rails experience. When you see your best friend’s house on fire, there’s nothing you can do. When you see the entire neighbourhood tear itself apart from the inside out, there’s nothing you can do. Even though you’re in control, really, you’re not. You’re just as helpless as Sarah is. This is the trick the Last of Us employs that sets it apart from another zombie flick like Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later. It’s a trick that all good games of this kind use.

When you play a story driven game like the Last of Us, you’re given a sense of agency that makes you truly part of the story. You’re not just watching characters running around on screen. By controlling the characters as they experience these horrors, on some level you are these characters. On some level, you feel what they feel. The best works of art take advantage of their medium and games are only just starting to explore the potential of this connection inherent to the art form. The Last of Us takes full advantage of this connection by the time the prologue draws to it’s shocking conclusion.

 Bummer.

What do you guys think about the prologue? Was it effective? Or is this just Walking Dead with mushrooms?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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