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Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne.
[Spoilers for The Last of Us and Metro: Last Light.]
I’m finding new ways to explain my low feelings for The Last of Us, courtesy of Metro: Last Light. Both are shooters, both are set in post-apocalyptic worlds, both revolve around finding the value of living when no future seems possible. In a huge number of ways they’re kin, which certainly helps us to pit them together in the following dual close reading. And yet, one stark difference emerges when we consider either title’s composition: whereas The Last of Us comes across as a clash of conflicted priorities, Metro: Last Light is a great big mess in beautiful symphony.
The three interlocking things I’ll be talking about here are narrative, design and aestheticism—useful analytical tools, although as we play games these might as well be used synonymously. With respect to how these categories interoperate on one relatively minor scale, let’s consider how Metro: Last Light uses mechanical gimmickry to perpetuate concepts of its fictional world, as hostile and cluttered, and represent it back to the player as if player and world are relational, per the game’s overarching themes.
Of the various threads that make up this web, at any given time you’re pressured by a dozen different environmental and inventorial factors informing your basic survival in the irradiated ruins of Moscow. For many of these concerns all it takes is memorizing which buttons to press once you’ve opened your inventory menu, and then, if relevant, whatever not-quite-a-minigame hoop you need to jump through to finish the job.
For instance, like every other device, turning on your flashlight takes two buttons to bring up the menu and equip it. Alternatively, if your light is shining to dim, you may want to power up its battery, which is a different menu selection followed by another few more presses of the R1 button until it’s sufficiently charged.
Putting on your gasmask is also two buttons, but for it to be of any use against the poisonous atmosphere you need air filters, which can be attached by the press of another two buttons. There’s a timer on your sleeve that shows how much air you’ve left with your current filter, although it’s hard to make out the numbers with your flashlight on, so monitoring this involves bringing up the menu on the fly and switching this off while plugging that in and measuring it against the total number over there, then dropping the menu to see your sleeve and bringing it up again to set this back on and maybe charging your battery while you’re at it. Your gasmask has another few things asking for your attention, like having to tap L2 to wipe goop off the eyepiece, and cracks in the glass that tendril outwards the more damage you take, obscuring your vision and promising the mask’s impending failure.
Even the basic act of using a gasmask turns out to be a little bit complicated. And that’s not even getting into how you have to do this while measuring light sources respective to your needs and maybe taking a moment to pump up a weapon’s gas canister as you measure the necessity to search for more filters against the time you can spare on the endeavour.
In one way, it’s the gameplay version of constantly patting down your pockets to make sure you have everything in order. This creates a wonderful sense where surviving in the open is partly determined by your continuous mindfulness of your resources and an almost puzzle-like navigation of your belongings. Bearing in mind exploration and shooting are still the game’s main avenues of gameplay, really what all this extraneous gimmickry amounts to is mechanical noise, complimenting the game’s visual and auditory noise.
And it is a tremendously noisy game, in each of these respects. Walk into a room and, contrary to the laws of videogames, two conversations will start up concurrently, drowning each other out so you’d break your ears trying to decipher them both. But what might otherwise seem amateurish design comes across as a conscious choice given how it fits into the whole. The world of Metro is in many ways very messy, cluttered with debris and information and endless types of shite scattered all about the place, wholly distinct and overwhelming.
Comparatively, The Last of Us is a much cleaner game, to the point of sanitization. Like Last Light, you’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for a good portion of the story, but the way you as Joel (and Ellie) relate to it differs vastly from Artyom’s relationship with Moscow. There are shooting sections and stealth sections, again as in Last Light, as well as ‘exploration’ sections where you navigate the land.
But aside from bandits and infected humans, there’s not quite anything to put you in any risk. Places where the air is poisoned with spores have Joel and Ellie putting on their gasmasks automatically—it’s not something you need to worry about as a player, and you’ll never fret about the gasmask cracking open or your air filter running out. In essence, you’re not put under duress other than when you’re being attacked by someone, because the land isn’t actively hostile to your presence.1
These exploration sections where all you need to do is fill your appetite by soaking in the environment serve as TLOU’s downtime. There’s not a lot of mechanical noise you need to wade through as part of your (technical, emotional, psychological, aesthetic) interaction with the world around you. Despite the fact that the cities you pass through represent the devastation this future has wrought on human civilization, they’re actually quite peaceful to stroll through. It’s nice.
That being said, you do still constantly need to scavenge up some ammo and supplies to fuel your trek, but everything you can conceivably pick up glows white to attract the eye, so finding your business is seldom a bother, contrasting with Last Light where you have to be on top of something before you know if it’s collectible. The game presents scavenging with the same stark minimalism of its overall aesthetic—the HUD is small and visually tidy, as are all the different menus for crafting or switching firearms.2 The design of each system is streamlined and sleek in a gritty, abrupt way; pathfinding, scavenging and exploration mirror this design ethos. It is an exceedingly neat game to play.
Now, it doesn’t do much good to simply say Last Light is messy and TLOU is clean, since whether something is messy or clean doesn’t really inform what we get out of the game by virtue of it being one or the other. Messiness is not inherently positive, cleanliness is not inherently negative. To see how it matters we need to plug this aspect back into the game holistically. By doing this, we’re looking for whether the application of this ludonarrative to its major themes and story arcing ends up producing a smooth, coherent melody or a distorted cacophony.
For this, let’s return again to either gameworld and look at how it applies to the story, and specifically how the apocalypse informs the lives of these characters, since the mechanics we’ve discussed detail how the characters relate back to the world.3
After the Bombs
So Metro: Last Light’s post-apocalyptic scenario is derived from the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust twenty years ago, resulting from a vague war between unknown participants who lived up to a policy of mutually assured destruction. The phantom of the Cold War is seen here, when the threat of nuclear war was very much a present worry for people outside of the political squabbling of the two superpowers, and the thought of losing everything in a conflict between these distant parties presented a fear so large as to be almost inconceivable.
What was only a possibility in Russia’s history is here realized in the Metro universe: a world whose fear of the unknown throttled itself to death. This fear manifests thematically in a few different ways in both Metro 2033 and Last Light—notably, it takes hold in guise of the Reds (and, less prominently, the Fourth Reich) as threats to Artyom’s faction grounded in ideological differences. The communist conspiracy to overtake the metro invites the latter half of Last Light’s story, and although you can say that’s less of an ideological cause and more the result of a power-hungry dictator, it nevertheless harkens back to its Cold War lineage.
On a broader scale, the apocalyptic terror reveals a fear of the alien nature of other creatures, as in the dehumanized race called the Dark Ones, envisioned by the human population as monsters, moreso even than the communist or Nazi enemies. Artyom faces this fear largely in Metro 2033, wherein the monsters are revealed as a misunderstood community of peaceable beings, though canonically too late to prevent their purging by a second barrage of nuclear missiles, to great thematic irony.
The first half of Last Light has Artyom chasing after the lone surviving Dark One, a child, as it’s carted all about the metro by this or that conniving party. By the time you catch up with the little Dark One, Artyom’s resolution to end its life has crumbled into regret that he could have launched the missiles to doom an entire race of the creatures. His newfound empathy for the little Dark One erodes his fear of those of an unknown nature, and he befriends it, as he had befriended an elderly Dark One long in the past.
Larger still out of the looming unknown is a more profound fear—the fear of being small in a vast world, of being subject to the whims of fate and the machinations of men, of finding one’s life proven insignificant. This is both a cosmic fear and a spiritual one, finding expression within the recurring character of Khan, Metro’s spiritualist and Artyom’s guide to Moscow’s more ghostly depths.
Through Khan we find expression of the moral of the story, a unifying resolution to each of the above thematic fears: to keep an open mind and brave the unknown, instead of recoiling at what might at first seem strange and terrible. This theme is at the heart of the game’s multiple endings and the hidden ‘morality’ system that determines the climax of the story. The mechanical ambiguity of the system works in its favour—it’s less about performing actions that are good or bad, and more about displaying an openness of mind in a variety of different ways, like listening to a whole conversation, travelling off the beaten track, and acting kindly towards enemies who are not distinctly hostile.
Since Metro is really about Artyom’s journey to understand the world around him, it fits that this ‘morality’ system presents a mechanical expression of the same for the player: even interacting with the system and trying to figure out how it works is an act in its favour.
It’s in the same spirit that while we travel the metro we’re forced, for the purpose of playing the game, to decipher meaning and relevancy from all the visual and mechanical chatter that clogs up our senses. The process of managing your inventory and juggling all the different gimmicks that facilitate your survival means acquiescing to the cosmic state of affairs—this is a gameworld where, if I am to interact with it, I must think and behave like so. The ludonarrative meshes nicely with this theme of relaxing oneself into cosmic chaos and discovering order among the chaff.
The Last of Us’ post-apocalypse is more psychological and personal than nuclear and cosmic. Here were see America twenty years4 after a zombie outbreak tore apart its infrastructure and left the bulk of the land lost to the state of nature. Surviving civilization built around the wreckage of such a massive loss again takes inspiration from its past trauma. In this case, the fear of zombies is a fear of losing one’s mind, represented as it often is first by the disintegration of concepts and customs of normalcy, specifically the collapse of society as we know it and the structures which define our present lives.
This theme takes the background throughout The Last of Us—it’s not quite about exploring topics raised in Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead. Instead, it’s taken for granted that what little humanity survives hides in walled-off settlements or nomadic groups, with the wilderness in-between the domain of bandits, survivalists and entropy. Although we briefly see glimpses of Boston’s quarantine zone as dystopian, and we know the Fireflies fight a cause against the present authorities, they’re never expanded upon. Not once throughout the duration of the story are we made privy to the motivations and details behind these societal struggles, since it only really serves as ambiance for the journey of our main characters. Joel accepts that society has fallen and the world’s turned to hell, and there ends his interest in the subject. He has adapted to it.
However, rather than the zombies of TLOU being of the old fashioned walking dead variety, it takes a more original spin on the old formula. Cordycep-infected react to prey much like the livelier crazies, but heed the underlying causes and logic from its real life reference: a parasitic fungus which consumes the brains of insects and overtakes their bodies to further its propagation. A cruel horror made more sinister by the reality of its existence.
By this, the fear of these zombies carries a teleological edge, since Cordyceps essentially function as mind control that irreparably degrades the host victim. The fear is less like dying and being replaced by a living dead, where there’s at least a clear delineation between where you end and it begins, and more like being eaten alive from the inside out while being made to do the bidding of some unfathomable lifeform.
The fear of losing one’s mind is more literal here. It’s a degradation and perversion of self, a corruption of one’s brain which would set the host upon their nearest and dearest. Partly, it’s a fear based in the betrayal of intimacy, which haunts Joel more than anything throughout his character arc, albeit subtly, since he roots his concept of self so heavily in that more personal societal structure: the family unit. And he disdains the world for taking it away from him.
This is a tricky one to pin down because Joel at once derives so much of himself from these interpersonal relationships at the same time as he holds them at arm’s length for the fear that they and he might destroy each other. To highlight how this fear is thematic within the game, we’d need to both show how integral family is to Joel’s sense of self and his resistance to succumbing to that self-perceived weakness.
So clearly his mourning for Sarah and his longing for the restoration of father-daughter bonds inform his relationship with Ellie the whole game through, since it’s the central relationship of the story and the one which most defines Joel at any given point. Otherwise, with Tess he lives within a certain comfort zone, a stable working relationship—their partnership being clearly defined to the ease of Joel’s self-establishment. With brother Tommy things are a bit rockier after their falling out: their relationship is strained but still Joel feels he can depend on his brother when his need is greatest.
To greater or lesser degrees, Joel’s emotional and psychological stability is linked to how well he feels himself fitting into each of the three roles of father, partner and (elder) brother. When his self-image is farthest from any of these roles he is at his weakest and most volatile; for example, after Tess dies and before he begins to form a fatherly bond with Ellie, and when Ellie rejects this bond coinciding with Tommy’s shirking of Joel’s brotherly authority.
The game extends the theme of family outwards to its minor characters, Henry and Sam, and Bill and Frank, so we’re given several stories of how the family structure is a guard against the horrors of this world and how loss of those relationships affects a person’s mind. Never so deeply as in Joel, however, whose psychological need to be a father ultimately compels him to doom humanity. This is the culmination of Joel’s arc, his “happy ending”—the overcoming of his fear of loss of self, and the cementing of his self-perception as a patriarchal figure to Ellie.
Which brings us to the last facet of the world’s trauma which I’ll be talking about: the fear of loneliness. Inverse to the comforts of family and friendships, when the gripping terror of turning against one another grows too much to bear, then we see the rising fear that one must face the world alone. It sparks many of Joel’s character traits—his over-protectiveness, his jealousy, his antipathy towards risky altruism and his hatred for self-sacrifice. As he grows more and more volatile after Tess’ death we can see how this fear consumes his soul. The very way he reacts to his daughter’s sudden demise as an abandonment, and the way he crawls up from his sickbed to rush to Ellie’s side, further suggest that Joel is petrified of being left alone.
This is The Last of Us’ spiritual component, or rather, how its world seeds a spiritual fear. We see through Bill how loneliness gnaws at one’s soul; we see it in Henry’s suicide; we see the spiritual sacrifices David’s crew chose to make to maintain their community. And all throughout, we see Joel’s petulance in how he clings to his current comforts and aptitudes, and the toll his chosen life is taking on his humanity, to which he is oblivious. It is a condition he supposedly triumphs over as the game arcs to a close, although bearing in mind how he prescribes his own spiritual completion perhaps that victory remains dubious.
So throughout each of these facets of the gameworld’s central theme, where fits the ludonarrative of the player’s interaction with the world? We have an abrupt and clean ludonarrative, almost peaceful and accommodating to the player in how it relates the world around them, and we have the various ways in which the world tears at the psyche of its inhabitants, threatening them with loneliness, insanity, and brutality. How does the manner we as players view the world play into or against the narratives of these characters or the story on a whole?
Perhaps the answer will come to me in time but as I write this I can’t for the life of me see how the one part could apply to the rest. The themes we’ve gone through are so heavily predicated on horror and one’s inner destruction that the pleasantry with which we come to the gameworld and engage with it is alarming, almost sociopathic. It’s as if Joel’s personal conception of the world is so stoic and emotionally divested, the fervour we then see in cutscenes where he shouts and laughs and cries is entirely faked for the benefit of the people around him. Or in other words, we have to doubt the passion of this game towards the emotional journeys of Joel and Ellie in order to adequately contextualize this ludonarrative within the whole.
Half of me is inclined to take that interpretation at face value and accept it as canonical. It’s an arseways jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t often fit each other very well, and you know, that’s generally the way of it. The other half of me balks at how artificial that reading would actually be, how much of the narrative we have to contrive to have it end up making sense, and the fact that this interpretation has us disregarding huge portions of the text as hollow, contrary to the clear effort gone in to making it.
Of course, this incoherent totality is a product of a design ethos that deliberately splits narrative from gameplay and formally compartmentalizes them. You have your cutscenes (where the story and narrative goes) and you have your gameplay (where the act of play goes), and never the two shall meet. It’s a delineation that comes, not from the loading screen that separates the two bits, but from the mentality with which its authors approached the game’s composition. That would be my exegetical explanation.
1. To clarify, there is a flashlight in TLOU that you can turn on and off as per your needs, and it sometimes flickers and dims as if the battery is coming loose in the casing. There’s a great solution here where the player waggles the controller to put the light back in order, so it’s not like TLOU is absent of gimmickry. Except, by the way the game is structured, you’ll never have your light on if you want to keep a low profile, and places where you don’t care about your profile are also places where you can take all the time in the world for waggling the controller. In effect, the gimmick is playful, not stressful.
2. All the nameless bits and bobs you collect are grit for the game’s crafting mechanic, or for upgrading Joel’s weapons or his personal survival prowess. We can haggle over whether these aspects succeed at simulating Joel’s resourcefulness or charting an arc of personal growth in his abilities—I’d argue crafting loses its touch once your inventory overflows with weaponized toys and supplies, which is bound to happen if you collect every glowing trinket that presents itself, and that most of Joel’s survivalist upgrades are so underpowered as to lack utility.
3. For the sake of setting these two games as analogous to one another, a few points of clarification: Metro: Last Light uses a first-person perspective, and given how the story plays out (Artyom is a silent protagonist, except for diary entries and loading screen synopses; his/the player’s actions influence the plot’s trajectory) it’s safe to say the player is expected to identify with Artyom through an appropriate lense. The Last of Us uses third-person camerawork—we can see Joel and his expressions, read the silence on his face when he can’t speak words he wants to, understand and extrapolate narrative from his body language in relation to Ellie. While the game uses various techniques to bring us close to Joel, I don’t think we’re quite meant to identify with him as if he were an avatar. Instead, Joel is held as an independent character to player self-identification. We like him or hate him, but we are not him. This is all a preamble to point out the fact that Joel’s and Artyom’s methods of interacting with the world differ by fact of their representation on-screen as well as in their relationship with the player. It’s not a 1:1 comparison. Anyway, some of this business about camera perspective impacting player identification might be contentious so I’m relegating it to a footnote.
4. I don’t know why twenty is the magic number for post-apocalyptic worlds.