Something like gods exist in the world of From Software’s Bloodborne. They’re hanging out in ruined chapels and atop castle walls, often just waiting for the hapless player’s Hunter to stumble upon them. Some of these gods are gruesome beasts–the kind of unthinkably horrible, bizarre things that inspire a genuine sense of awe. Others are humbler creatures, taking unassumingly human forms. Whatever they look like, the power these beings exude is felt constantly in the game’s setting, the city of Yharnam. Despite the intricately crafted mechanisms and finely detailed buildings that suggest the application of advanced, scientific human knowledge in this city, unknowable forces are felt in the margins of even the most recognizably familiar of the game’s environments.
Apocalypse stories are as old as humanity itself. From the Norse Ragnarok and Sumerian flood myths to the centuries of religious doomsday watchers, people from across the world have long maintained an obsession with the end of days. In the postwar era, these stories have only become more common. The incredible destruction of the First World War, the nuclear detonations that obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the impending devastation threatened by the Cold War standoff not only demonstrated that the annihilation of entire national populations was possible, but also that it was–and still is–downright probable in the event of renewed global conflict.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the last sixty-odd years have seen a widespread revival of fiction centred on the end of the world. Our species has attempted to come to terms with the inescapable possibility of our complete destruction–something that could happen, really, at just about any moment–by doing the only thing humans can be counted on to do: rationalizing an idea too large and frightening for us to easily comprehend. Rather than lose ourselves in existential despair at the incredible notion of the complete breakdown of our world, we compartmentalize this overwhelming anxiety through art. Post-apocalyptic fiction, probably the most popular example of this tendency, allows us to cope with enormity in the same way that apocalyptic myths helped our ancestors force narrative order on the unknowable vastness of a mysterious reality not yet made sensible through scientific discovery.
This attempt to impose logic on essentially disordered concepts is at the centre of all of these stories. The dramatic tension always results from this very struggle between control and chaos; order and the complete absence of it. It is especially clear in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, a game that uses its ruined world and two main characters to explore these themes.
[This article discusses plot details from the entire game, including the ending.]
Videogames are fond of constructing imaginary versions of real world locales. The Grand Theft Auto series invites open comparisons between its Vice City and the actual Miami; Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation that is Iraq in everything but name; The Banner Saga‘s faux-Scandanavian setting is meant to evoke Viking era Northern Europe. Everyone who plays these games knows that the fictional places they’re exploring are only stand-ins for somewhere that really exists in the world. Because of this, it’s possible to, say, offer a new spin on the Norse sagas by breaking away from what we already know about them. It’s even possible to make commentary about the legitimacy of Coalition forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan by abstracting elements of these nations into a single imagined one. That being said, an unwillingness to set fiction in real locations isn’t always motivated by a desire to make interesting art. In some games it may serve as nothing more than cultural cowardice.
I shot a gun for the first time about two weeks ago. I mean, I shot a real, physical gun for the first time– I’ve been shooting digital ones for years now. It was an interesting experience: one that has stuck in my head, and has made me think about my relationship with the many, many firearms found in videogames a bit differently.
I was nervous to head to the range, but I was going with a cousin who has been hunting since he was young, has a gun license, and knows how to teach an anxious novice how to shoot. Just the same, I felt like a visitor to an alien world when we bought our day passes from the front office and headed through a shop stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of ammunition. Hearing shotguns blasting at clay pigeons and rifle shots crack in uneven intervals had me stifling flinches as we drove down the path to the firing range. The body’s instinctual reaction to gunfire is probably to hit the ground or run like a maniac, but this is obviously discouraged at a professional shooting venue so I tried to keep as calm as possible. Still, while my cousin unzipped his two rifles from their carrying bags and took off their trigger locks, I was transfixed by the row of people to our left. They seemed so relaxed–maybe a bit excited, but still relaxed–as they unloaded rounds from the sort of high-powered weaponry I’d only seen in movies and games before.
“Videogame,” as a descriptor, is a bit problematic. It’s a compound of two words that, apart, don’t do a whole lot to encapsulate the medium. When smashed together they do even less to sum up the wide range of experiences that playing videogames can offer. In some ways none of this matters: a catch-all term is easy enough to ignore in most cases and only really shows its shortcomings when the boundaries of the medium it’s used to describe start to expand.
Unfortunately this is exactly what is happening with “videogame,” a word with a definition so vague that those who interpret it a certain way (games, from Tag to Monopoly to Halo are meant to be, above all else, fun) take issue with titles that don’t feel the need to offer a traditionally enjoyable experience. People who believe that videogames must always be fun haven’t had many reasons to question their vision of the medium until recent years. Now the rising influence of indie developers has begun to alter mainstream titles in significant ways. This process will continue to broaden the established definition of videogames to such a degree that the importance of fun as the ultimate goal of creation can be called into question.
That long introduction is all to say, basically, that playing Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptathon, The Last of Us, made me wonder what, exactly, I want from a game.
Killzone 2 exists in a strange place where the Michael Bay inspired bombast of Modern Warfare shares space with the gore-soaked dialectics of The Iliad. For all of its surface problems (and there are many), it is a game about shooting dudes that frequently attempts to impart something far different than the mindless jingoism of its brethren. Killzone 2 has a generic science-fiction plot — the “good guys” of the Interplanatary Strategic Alliance (ISA) are fighting a war against the “bad” Helghast army — but it is also a story about the futility of assigning values to combat fuelled by nationalism and historical injustice.
War is hell, it says, and not just for our team.
I’ve spent the last five Christmas Eves having dinner with a table full of people speaking a language I don’t understand. My partner was born and raised in Canada, but her parents were born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, leaving several decades ago when the country was still under the thumb of the USSR. She, her brother and her cousins are (frustratingly, perfectly) multilingual while I only speak English fluently and can somewhat passably read and understand spoken French. At Christmas family gatherings with only two or three others who can’t speak/understand Polish it’s only natural that conversations eventually shift away from English. The older members of the family are most comfortable speaking in their first language after all and, especially after several bottles of wine and vodka have been emptied, their usual consideration for including everyone in every conversation starts to dissipate. The first year I came to the big Christmas Eve dinner I felt extremely awkward because of this. I imagine a lot of people surrounded by a language they don’t understand get to wondering what the hell is being said and, most anxiety-inducing of all, if they’re being talked about without understanding it.
The next year it seemed a bit better. I knew these people, had grown more comfortable drinking my wine and sort of drifting out when the conversations turned to Polish. The Christmas after that I barely noticed a thing and now, all these years and several failed attempts to learn the language (it is goddamned impenetrable, but I’ll keep trying until I die) later, I find that I can follow the gist of my in-laws’ Polish dialogue despite only recognizing a handful of words. It is possible to intuit the rhythm of a sentence, to understand how changes in tone and volume communicate a joke or sarcastic remark without a proper understanding of the complexities of the language. This is, I think, a common phenomenon. In lieu of properly interpreting a language, those regularly surrounded by it will at least learn to “feel” how it works.
By the end of two hours with Journey a similar thing had happened.