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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Horror After Humans: Beautiful Landscapes and Difficult Affect in The Last Of Us

Well look I know that rattling the controller around to charge the flashlight feels distracting but I’m sure if you just let yourself get used to the motion controls--Ah! You’re here! Excellent! We were just about to start playing a game!

Who’s we?

Oh, just you, me, and my friend, fellow trans feminist Vivian James!

She's wearing her Genderqueer Flag hoodie it's very stylish
I decided to invite James over because I wanted to talk about difficult games, and she’s, well, a bit of a difficulty junky. Vivian James is a hardcore gamer, and she and I share an interest in games that really push your limits. It seemed natural that she should help us play The Last Of Us.

What, you don’t think The Last Of Us is that difficult? I suppose if you’re just looking at gameplay… but what about the dark and affecting storyline? What about the hard decisions the game forces you to make, or the perhaps unsatisfying and even frustrating ending?

No, tonight we’re interested in a different kind of difficulty than a difficult puzzle or difficult boss battle or difficult timed jump. In fact, I’m particularly interested in talking about one of the most difficult things in The Last Of Us. Difficult to explain, at least.

To properly explore that, I think what we need is a change of scenery to something more fitting for a horror experience. Something like…

The bleak and desolate wasteland known as the New Jersey Pine Barrens!
Ah, that’s better! What, you don’t think this is a proper setting for a horror game? Well that’s convenient, because it’s the difficulty that comes from setting a horror game in such a beautiful landscape that we’re going to discuss tonight!




So basically TLOU is a zombie game. A zombie game that, incidentally, my good friend Zomburai has talked about on here once before. You’ve got a zombie outbreak based on a kind of fungus that affects ants, which isn’t too exciting sounding on its face until you find out that this fungus controls their actions in order to spread itself and then ends up turning their heads into huge fungal blooms. That’s pretty much what happens in this game… but to PEOPLE, AAAAAAH! and it looks about as fucked up as you’d expect it to.

Civilization is, predictably, fucked.

For most of the game you’re playing a character named Joel, who’s escorting a character named Ellie--who has some sort of immunity to the fungal infection--across what’s left of the US to the resistance group fighting the military government that’s taken over said remains of the US. Along the way he learns to Have Feelings Again and Ellie learns to trust Sad Dad and they both learn to totally jettison all their morals in the name of survival.

But what’s interesting is that while some of the horror comes from the disease itself, much of it comes from run of the mill greed, brutality, and paranoia on the part of the humans in the game. I think, though it’s a narrow margin, the majority of the enemies are in fact still human, and the game is very much about humans becoming monsters (as is traditional in actually good zombie stories) and the game (in contrast to the next two games I’m going to be covering GET HYPE) doesn’t provide a lot of choice in your own monstrosity. To beat the game you gotta slaughter whole villages full of people. It’s not a happy game.

TLOU is not particularly interested in videogames-as-experience-of-choice but rather is interested in the first person experience of a particular narrative. The horror in the game is largely derived from the association between yourself and your player avatar (as opposed to Undertale which, as I’ll explain in a future article, actually addresses the player directly as divorced from the character avatar).

The use of scenery is interesting in this context because the experience of the scenery is so critical to the experience of navigating the world in the place of Joel and Ellie. I’m interested in the way the game uses landscape within the context of horror--the way the scenery contributes to the horror styling and message of the game. I think the game uses scenery in a way different from how we normally conceive of horror experiences in games. The territory in the game represents unexplored stylistic territory as well, territory that can offer some complex and interesting affective experiences that are perhaps difficult to fully assess or grapple with intellectually.

Now, there’s plenty of things in The Last of Us that are creepy--traditionally creepy. There’s abandoned buildings, dank sewers, urban ruins full of bloated, mushroom covered corpses, all kinds of stuff that feels very traditional. But what blew me away with this game is the way it uses gorgeous natural environments for particular purposes. The game isn’t just dark spooky environments but lush, beautiful environments as well. I’m interested in that decision and how that decision impacts the gameplay experience because I think it’s quite exceptional.

We can contrast the choice here with something like Amnesia: The Dark Descent where the horror of the game is deeply influenced by the creepy environment. That stands out as a game that’s effective horror in that there’s lots to alarm you all the way through. Now I really like Amnesia--I’m not saying that it’s a bad strategy!--but I do think this is categorically different from the experiences you’re going to get from The Last Of Us.

It’s probably helpful to think of this in terms of affect. In the Silvan Tomkins tradition of Affect (the one I’ve used most for my thesis work, and the one that I should really have a tag for on this blog) there’s some number of “primary” affects from which the complex cognitive experience of emotion emerges. Horror is of course most associated with a fear response. But that’s not all it has to be associated with--we can experience disgust, sorrow, or excitement… perhaps even joy! That means that, effectively, limiting horror to just the kind of experience (fear and a little bit of disgust) that you get in Amnesia feels unreasonably narrow. I think there’s other ways of grappling with affect in horror, and the landscapes in TLOU provide a route to this.

The landscapes do not offer a backdrop primarily for fear, though there is that on occasion. Rather than looking at the environment and having an immediate, precognitive response of fear I think rather we have one primarily of delight, even as out of place as it might seem. But within that response is another response, too--one of horror at the actual narrative action that’s happening within that environment. This adds up to a complex affective experience that might increase the sense of unease or disruption or discomfort as the environment resolutely fails to acknowledge the internal experiences that you the player and Joel and Ellie the characters are having. The landscape seems radically indifferent to the experiences of these characters.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the experience of the Sublime here (which I’ve talked about before in relationship to Mad Max, if you need a refresher on the concept). The characters are carrying out their actions within an environment that is radically antithetical to human experience, and like in Mad Max the characters are powerless in the face of nature, even as nature has a complex relationship to those humans.

Humans in TLOU are dramatically irrelevant to the functioning of the world after the spread of the disease in the game, but yet human survival is the core of the game’s focus and probably the core of its message as well. Much of the environmental tension of the game comes from this contrast.

There’s an idea that’s been around for a while, an idea that I think emerged around the mid 2000s, focusing on how long human objects would exist after a full on collapse of civilization. The conclusion folks largely seem to have reached is that it wouldn’t take long for nature to retake civilization and absorb and subsume it. I mean for a while this was a huge idea in pop culture--it was an aspect of big disaster movies, there was a Discovery Channel documentary about this, it just became this big thing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and fears about ecological disaster as people were suddenly very interested in a depopulated world, a world without humans.

This game, I think, is very responsive to that particular element of the zeitgeist.

One of my favorite parts of the game actually is the sequence at the start of the Winter section of the game, where you’re playing as Ellie hunting a deer on her own. It’s this wonderful passage through a pristine winter landscape, a landscape that is utterly gorgeous and tranquil. Like many of the landscapes throughout the series, it seems totally untouched by human civilization.

And like many of the environments in the game, Winter’s landscape is a landscape devoid of humans, a landscape in which animals seem to no longer fear humans. It’s hard to point to this chapter and call it The Darkest Chapter because it’s not a cheery game--what actually constitutes the Most Dark part?--but even within such a grim game Winter has some of the most disturbing content--the creepy cannibal pedophile priest, Joel is dying, things being more desperate than ever for Ellie who is navigating the world without guidance...

And yet we have this juxtaposed with this absolutely gorgeous backdrop, and this moment of really profound peace. This seems like a good example of what seems on paper to be a disconnect between the horror elements of the game and nature expressed through the backdrop. I think Winter’s beginning could have been played very straight as creepy--Ellie alone in the wide world full of monsters. But instead it’s Ellie, the deer, some owls or whatever, snow, trees… it’s incredibly tranquil.

The horror doesn’t set in until the humans show up, at least on the surface.

Why ease up on the horror here? Why have the narrative suddenly take place within a beautiful pastoral landscape?

The easy read of this is that there’s just a contrast between Good Nature and Nasty Humans. Or you could simply say that this provides needed breathing room for the horror of the rest of the chapter. But I think this game is more complex than that. I think the experience does circle around and still remain horrible, because of that affective disquiet I mentioned earlier. In the experience of the absence of humans, the game presses upon the player the horror of nature’s indifference.

This is interesting to me because it’s a strong contrast to other apocalyptic horror stories such as The Stand. That book, which I never was able to finish because this particular element pissed me off so much, is portrayed as a kind of biblical judgment. The spread of a horrifically virulent disease is treated as something that is almost morally necessary, at least in my reading, and what follows is treated as a pretty clear cut battle between good and evil. In TLOU instead we see the chaos caused by an indifferent nature. There’s nothing in particular in TLOU that indicates this is a judgment or a morally significant event on a cosmic scale. Rather it’s merely something that happens, and then humans adapt as they will. The only moralizing we really get is from our creepy cannibal priest friend and he comes off as kind of a sendup of this sort of Moral Apocalypse literature--the Left Behind series comes to mind immediately as something deserving such a sendup.

There’s a kind of horror in this though because in The Stand there’s a sense of some sort of order or driving force whereas here there is nothing, no reason, no logic, there is simply the random disaster and then humanity’s response.

There’s plenty of discussion out there about horror and powerlessness within games, that taking power away from a player influences horror (which, again, we might see in Amnesia: THe Dark Descent where there is no way to fight back against the freaky monsters) but this game seems to use this not merely in terms of its mechanics and the narrative that it’s constructing but the actual environment that the player navigates and the wider context in which all of humanity is relatively powerless.

In this context of powerlessness as a central theme the decision to make landscapes nonresponsive to the narrative is pretty interesting. I’ve already mentioned the scene at the beginning of Winter, but I think there’s some other analogous moments throughout the series. What’s happening to the characters is not necessarily reflected in the landscape that they traverse. A tragic death does not cause the sky to weep. The land doesn’t care about whether or not these characters are having a bad time.

Some of our most beautiful scenes as far as scenery are concerned take place in the narrative context of pretty unmitigated horror. The sunset bathed town that Joel and Ellie traverse for example is pretty gorgeous, and yet through the whole thing we see pretty relentless tragedy and horror capped by the revelation that Joel’s friend’s lover has been killed. And of course much of the landscape is filled with decaying buildings. But it’s also undeniably gorgeous. There’s lots of pretty scenery in the game filled with awful horrors.

When Ellie rides off on her own and Joel races desperately after her, fighting off bandits to get to her, the forest is a beautiful autumnal landscape, peaceful and full of sylvan bounty if you’ll excuse the purple prose. The landscape is utterly at odds with the terror of that sequence.

They’re not hamming up the scenes, basically. I mean obviously there’s no actual “nature” in the game, there’s no process generating the weather, but it’s naturalistic to an extent that it comes across as indifferent to the moods and needs of the characters, just like nature and weather is in real life. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the profound narrative disconnect of experiencing tragedy or trauma on a clear, sunny day. The affective disconnect of that, the dissociation between the internal and external, between the stimuli prompting one response and the stimuli prompting another, baffling one’s bodily experience of emotion, this is what The Last Of Us plays into.

This is a kind of horror that is a few steps away from the visceral threat of the zombie coming at you. Here, it’s the horror of realizing one’s irrelevance, being confronted by a nature that is fundamentally uninterested in human concerns. This nature may be destructive but it isn’t consciously so or moralistically so, humans simply get destroyed by a combination of being caught in the reproductive habits of some random fungus, and of their own inability to interact without slaughtering each other for often petty, dogmatic, or self serving reasons. There’s a horror, too, in this last point--in being confronted by the fact that most of the horror in the game stems from a human inability to respond to nature productively.

Now I can understand why game devs are reluctant to explore this space. I think it’s just straight up more difficult to pull off than other more traditional types of horror, and there’s loads of conventional wisdom saying that the environment should be an integral part of the experience of Spookiness. I’m not even sure how I would do it, were I to do something like this, because environment is such a big deal. It really works here, I think, because it has meaning to it. (And, well, things like the passage with the deer act as breathers for the action so that later stuff can have an impact--that’s still something that’s true and even though I’ve played down the role of contrast I do think it’s ultimately pretty important.)

This isn’t the kind of thing that just anyone is going to want to attempt, particularly because I can see a lot of people reacting negatively to a game that’s so interested in player powerlessness and insignificance and true anti-heroism in the sense of an absence or negation of heroism whether dramatically good or dramatically evil.

But nevertheless I think TLOU is offering an experience that deserves further expansion and exploration, a kind of affective experience that is difficult in both its affective complexity--the way it relies on multiple kind of affective triggers at once--and in its positioning of the player within the world. And if we’re serious about games as an artistic medium, then reaching for thematic content that’s a little more difficult to achieve, that requires an engagement of the environment that goes further than merely reiterating standard tropes and strategies for generating simple affective responses, this seems like the kind of thing that we should be willing to explore.

After all, there’s all kinds of ways for games to be difficult for players, and it seems a shame to narrow our focus down to mere mechanical difficulty. I’m not satisfied with that, and Vivian James definitely isn’t either, and I’m sure there’s lots of others like us out there.

Luckily, I’ve got two more games that I plan to talk about over the next couple of weeks that explore some other great space for difficulty, so stay tuned while we continue our journey into the realm of difficult horror in games.

I hope to get the next one of this series, which is all loosely held together by a theme of difficulty, horror, and gamers being weak, next week, March 6th or 7th.  If you're a Patreon backer, you can view my whole list of upcoming articles here though it's admittedly pretty out of date at this point. The next three articles can be accessed ahead of time as I write them if you're a $1 backer.

These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, listen to the podcast versions of each week's article, or even to commission an article from me.

COMING SOON: NEIGHQUIEM FOR A DREAM! A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS ON MY LITTLE PONY

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