Why Roger Ebert Needs to Play "The Last of Us"

This isn’t Pacman, Roger.

I do not typically review games. The last time I did, with Mass Effect 3, I was attacked by a gang of hater nerds, and it took me a good few months to get rid of them. I review books, on the other hand, because I have insight into authors’ mental processes, understanding what choices were made and why, and how things might have been improvedThough I’ve played through hundreds of games, I have no real expertise in the matter. But books themselves, binding and paper, have no innate value, only what they can convey. Books are more likely to contain superior story telling in that a blank page offers the greatest freedom from constraint (all games, by definition, necessitate a goal, something for the player to do). However, I am just as passionate in defending a story telling medium from the literary snobs who thumb their noses at comics and movies. I adore Shakespeare and Steinbeck, but feel no less love for Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Recently, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad proved that the very best fiction can sometimes be found on TV. Still in its infancy is the video game. As the newest medium to tackle this age old form of expression, it has yet to prove itself to the high brow community. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert has gone so far as to state that video games are not art and will never be art. Now there are many amazing examples that contrast this view, but perhaps the most compelling, to date, is The Last of Us. If I could tie Mr. Ebert to a chair and force him to play one game, this would be it. Whatever emotional impact one hopes to attain from a great work of art, whatever inspiration or perspective, it all can be found in this game. Without hesitation, I will say that The Last of Us earns its place on the same mantle as Citizen Kane (sorry, Roger) and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. So while the focus of my blog is not games, every now and then two of my passions will collide, and the very best story will come out of a game.

The Last of Us rises above its roots because of Neil Druckmann, who penned the story, and the actors providing the voice talent (yes, I said actors). For anyone who’s TV and computer have been in the shop this past decade, The Last of Us takes place in an apocalyptic future overrun by zombies. Now I’ll be the first to admit to zombie fatigue. After so many Resident Evil titles, the abysmal World War Z and starting-to-put-me-to-sleep Walking Dead, I could go the rest of my life without another zombie reference. But the undead only sets the stage for the characters and the struggles they overcome, and I found myself rushing to the conclusion not to see how many zombies I could kill, but, as with any good book, to learn what would happen to the characters I love. The game could just as well have been set during a nuclear holocaust, as it is partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, with only minor changes.

Ashley Johnson plays Ellie, a young girl who somehow becomes immune to the zombie virus, and Troy Baker voices Joel, a father who loses his only child earlier in the game. Both actors play their roles with subtle pathos and subtext. You can truly hear the fatigue in Joel’s voice, the horrors and loss he must have endured. He’s no hero, nor is he an anti-hero, but rather, a genuine and complex human being. As for Ellie, she walks a fine line between innocent child and someone who has lost and must lose their innocence to survive. Last of Us tackles some of the deepest subjects in fiction, exploring how humanity is transformed after tragedy on both a societal and personal level, and it does so with intelligence and compassion. Often, the smallest details will stir the heart, like the crayon drawings in an abandoned, makeshift preschool in an underground bunker; or the herd of giraffes roaming a college campus, offering Ellie a temporary reprieve of childhood wonder. Unlike most games in the end-of-the-world genre, The Last of Us is not about death and destruction, but how we deal with those things on an emotional level. It’s not about heroics, but sacrifices. It’s not about overcoming the enemy, but finding the courage to love someone in a world where the people you love are too easily taken away. Finally, The Last of Us throws us an ethical curveball in its climax, something that pushes us to think and to ask the really tough questions about life, and isn’t that what great art is all about?

2 thoughts on “Why Roger Ebert Needs to Play "The Last of Us"

  1. Interesting post. While I didn't really enjoy The Last of Us as a game (but that's a whole 'nother topic entirely) I did enjoy the story, especially the controversial ending. I don't really understand why people were so upset about it, because the game was not an RPG. You didn't get to make choices. You were just playing out Joel's story, and the decision Joel makes at the end of everything makes sense for his story and his character. I really enjoyed the ambiguity presented by the ending, and thought it perfectly encapsulated the themes of the game.

    A lot of people have this idea that video games “need” to be something in particular, but I disagree. I think that you can enjoy video games in many different ways, in a way that transcends other mediums. Some people think gameplay is the most important aspect of a game but if you play games for the story or the immersion or whatever then who am I to tell you that you are wrong? I think it's wonderful that people can find enjoyment in such different aspects of games. That said, I also think it's important that we don't pigeonhole games into being one thing or another. I have seen many people posit that games with an emphasis on narrative and cinematic experiences (such as Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us) are the way to progress video games as an artform, but I disagree. To me, the beauty of video games is that they combine so many different things into one package. The video game as a medium is inherently full of unprecedented variety and possibilities, and to assert that there is any one way to make it art is ignoring the other aspects of the medium in my opinion. I believe that art is simply what you make of it.

    Anyway, sorry for getting so off-base, but I too am passionate about video games and writing, so this is a topic I don't get to speak on too often. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Only one factual problem with this post however: Roger Ebert passed away a few years ago. He couldn't play The Last of Us even if he wanted to!

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  2. I agree with everything you said! I enjoy a good action game, and I believe that even something like Street Fighter can be “art”. The reason I wished for Roger Ebert to have played “Last of Us,” is that I think it has more in common, in narrative terms, with the films he loves. It really is too bad that he never got a chance to play it. Such a game might have helped him better appreciate this generation's newest art form.

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