This Week in Video Game Criticism: From Ellie to Charles Foster Kane
This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including The Last of Us's portrayal of women and a seance with the ghost ofCitizen Kane.
By claiming depression has a clear system, and designing a system around it in which players are encouraged to make the "correct" choices -- ones which lower depression levels in the status bar -- Depression Quest treats the experience of depression as "something to be moved through as quickly as possible" and successfully defines the experience as something without value to the person experiencing it. While, I would hazard a guess that this is far from the intention of the creators, this is what the language of illness does, and this is the language they employ.
The Last of Us aspires to be an interactive, mixed-company version of "The Road," in this case the story of the relationship between an older man and a 14-year-old girl as they try to survive in an oppressive and deadly wasteland. Almost throughout, however, it is actually the story of Joel, the older man. This is another video game by men, for men and about men.
There is a problem with sexism in games and The Last of Us does not solve it. But that's an impossible task for a single game, and I'm not sure casting Ellie as the main character would have made much difference. This is never just Joel's story. The fact he gets more hours of playtime should not detract from Naughty Dog's efforts to represent women in a realistic, intelligent way.
Simply presenting women as people is hardly something that should be considered incredibly praiseworthy. Rather, it's the bare minimum that we should expect from our narratives. To shower a game with praise for doing the minimum is to set the bar extremely low.
The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and The Walking Dead are all fascinating, brilliant games that do interesting things with the possibilities of interactive narrative storytelling – they present rich and detailed visions of wildly dystopian futures. But they all tell the same story of men coming to terms with violence and the responsibilities of fatherhood – and they all do it in such a way as to confirm the masculine status quo. Self-sacrifice in combat, ruthless violence, the sanguine acceptance that there is no other way.
This is probably the last story of the strong man at the end of the world that I need to play. It's probably the last one that ought to be made, too. This is likely the pinnacle of that particular form.
Video games are a product of their time, and the technology of their time. In that sense all video games are allegories. But The Last Of Us is the ultimate game of its type: a video game that renders its own tropes dead or in the slow process of dying. Naughty Dog didn't invent the idea of the jovial confident killer in Nathan Drake, but they perfected it: a virtual Dorian Gray pursuing a life of murderous violence without consequence. Joel is the portrait in the attic, wearing the weight of our debauchery in every wrinkle and scar.
It is and remains my contention that the true lover of the medium is not the sycophantic fan who adores the good and the bad with equal fervor, but the discriminating, hard-nosed reader who refuses to tolerate the mediocre and the banal. If someone sets particularly high standards for a medium, it is a token not of contempt, but of deep and abiding respect for its potential. When these high standards result in the dismissal of most of the work produced in the medium, it takes a perverse logic to infer from this contempt for the general output a contempt for the medium itself.