I am told that in Papua New Guinea, the lay of the land and the unique way in which Time has unfolded has meant that on a small strip of land, there are hundreds of ways of life and ideas about what it means to be human. And most of them don’t intersect.
It used to be that the Big Questions were around what the meaning of life was, what and who God was and where the Universe came from.
But in this Age, where everywhere you go, the definitions of everything are relative (as they should be) and the Big Questions have become about moral dilemmas. If everyone in the room agrees that Life itself is meaningless and momentary, then how would you construct a social order?
It used to be that when we pushed our imaginations far enough into the future, we could create worlds and peoples which presented these dilemmas to the reader/viewer. Do robot’s need a Zeroth Law? And if so, why does it not present itself directly? What is the difference between artificial intelligence and biological intelligence. And what are the moral boundaries of dealing with one or the other? What is the meaning of the word Alien? What is the relation of the Alien to the Other? What is Time, and how do events and causalities determine how we see our lives and the ones we love? What is choice? Does it even exist?
Science fiction has been our pop philosophy for a while. (Except that if I were to look to my heart, I know that I believe there is no deep distinction between pop and formal philosophy. The distinction to me is just one of class and privilege. Is that because of my jealousy of formal philosophers? Or because I agree with Shiv about the democracy of thought, I do not quite know. In any case, I trust myself very little these days. So consider this the ramblings of a man lost in a labyrinth.)
But with the threat of the Bomb having morphed into the threat of the After, life after the fall of Civilisation as we know it, has become the canvas on which we paint our fears, our questions, and philosophize. What if everything we know is just a computer simulated illusion? What is life going to look like when the Watchmen fail? What happens when we the nations have wiped each other out? What if a global plague comes.
This canvas is also prey to some very mundane, very cliched conversations and narratives. The same old scorched Earth. The same old zombies and last survivor.
From the outside, The Last of Us looks no different from a ‘Day After Tomorrow’ or at best ‘World War Z’. But its advantage is that it comes after. It understands where all of these fail and that the true, lasting experience is in using these scenarios as a metaphor for the human condition itself. To ask questions that matter, and that will continue to echo in the halls of Time. Zombies, Infected, Fallen, Aliens, Bomb, Ash whatever. Because, unlike the rest, this narrative is about what it means to be all too human.
‘The Last of Us’ creates a synaptic connection. Not just between a deeply involving and moving narrative and my motor functions. The underrated organic genius of the PlayStation controller and the canny behavioural insights of the game designers ensures that. But it also creates a synaptic connection between me and the Big Questions of my time. It is a game which finds ways of continuously asking of you – will you push on now? Everytime you fail and the screen cuts to a set of shots showing you dying, you wonder if you actually botched it up, or you found yourself letting go.
By letting the characters take the moral decisions and instead asking the questions of my soul, it felt like a post-apocalyptic book speaking to me almost like a Pensieve. Inside my head. So now, the question of when cannibalism is a morally condonable choice, is not just a question I ask myself – its in my head. Choosing to drive past a couple waving us frantically down as I drive past is no longer a hypothetical question I would debate at a spooky drunk party with strange people. It is almost scar tissue. For I know I would have stopped. Except I did not. And what do I know. I had a daughter and brother to protect.
I juxtaposed this synaptic experience with a film I recently watched which also presented hypothetical dilemmas, and I realise now that it is not the same thing.
I will probably love and be as moved by the original material Last of Us is based on – McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. But I am pretty sure this synaptic experience is something that stay different, and unmatched.
There is so much of the Last of Us that is subconscious, that for once, I want to just be like the industry reviewers and use tired hyperbolic adjectives and number scores. But I do not think that does it justice.
Here’s to the most moving gaming experience made yet – Thank you Naughty Dog and Sony.