Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Our Love, Our Faith, and Our Violence

Of all of the cinematic experiences I've had this year, one stands out, and it wasn't even a movie.

It was The Last of Us, a game I played through over the last couple of weeks, although calling it a "game" seems vaguely unfair and inaccurate.  It was a participatory narrative, a story in which you engage and move, but which carries through you through the lives of human beings living after the collapse of our culture.

In that, it played off of some familiar themes in our storytelling.  There's been a fungal pandemic, one that renders its victims both insane and violent before devouring them completely.  It's a variant on the zombie apocalypse trope, and yeah, that's been done a whole bunch.

Before I continue just a warning--if you ever plan on playing this game, there will be spoilers coming up.  And they will spoil what is a simply brilliant experience.

The gameplay was good, and the graphics were evocative, but those weren't the best features of this game.  What was most striking, given that this is technically a "game," was the degree to which the animation and the voice-acting created a really powerful sense of the reality of the characters involved.  Our protagonists are Joel and Ellie, and their relationship is complex and finely drawn.

Joel, a grizzled man in his early fifties, lost everything that was precious to him when the pandemic hit.   Most significantly, he lost his daughter Sarah, a young teen who dies in the genuinely harrowing opening sequence.  All that matters to him now is survival--although he's cynical about even that--and any moral core that he once had has long since atrophied.

Ellie is a fourteen year old girl, who he's tasked with escorting across country for reasons the narrative will soon make clear.  She's never known anything but the fallen world, and is both a child and a young woman, both an innocent and hardened.

Their relationship develops slowly and organically over the 14-17 hours of gameplay, and as Joel bonds with the girl who echoes his daughter, she increasingly becomes the entire reason for his existence.  He's deeply reluctant to make himself vulnerable in that way, and self-aware enough to realize she's becoming a daughter to him, but the connection continues and deepens as their bond grows.  Protecting her, caring for her, watching over her--that becomes the purpose of his life.  By the end of the game, his love for her is palpable.

It also drives him to do terrible things.  The Last of Us is a violent game, intensely, realistically so.  It's not at all like Call of Duty or other shooter games, where violence is empty play.  It's rough, and unpleasant.  The game never lets you forget the mortal frailty of the characters you're playing, or the shared humanity of the people you find Joel and Ellie killing.

What you realize--in some very difficult but well-written sequences--is that eventually nothing matters to Joel but Ellie.  Nothing.  He will torture, he will kill, he will let all of humanity suffer under a plague forever, anything, so long as she is safe.   He will even manipulate her trust and lie to her, so long as he is convinced that his deception will keep her from harm.

There's a moment, the final moment of the story, when she realizes how far Joel will go to protect her.  She knows he is lying to her about what he has done to protect her, and knows he is lying because he only wants her happy and safe.  You see that awareness cross her face, and see her struggle with it.

Her safety becomes his purpose, his moral core, and the goal of his life.  She is the thing he loves above all else.  And while that is what makes him very connectably human, it is also what enables him to be a monster.

For human beings, that's always been true.  When we allow our lives to be defined by a singular goal--our existential ground, our life-purpose--that gives us our integrity as a person.  But that thing, if it is wrought too shallowly, can also be what allows us to inflict terrible harm.

We can be defined by ourselves, our pride, our desire, our ambition.  We can be defined by an ideology or nation.  We can be defined by our love for another person, our partner, our friend, our child.  Those things become the objects of both our love and our faith.

They also become what allows us to not really see those who are outside of that relationship as human, not see their value, and can become the foundation of our violence against another.

Our ability to love, if turned to the wrong end, is also the heart of our brokenness.