Friday, 12 July 2013

Back to the food chain: The Last of Us beheads the zombie genre

Maybe I'm alone here, but I'm kinda over zombies. As a lover of comic books, metal and video games, I realise zombies are pretty hard for me to avoid, and honestly I'm okay with that. I don't want to see zombies disappear.

But I am a bit sick of seeing them all the time.

"Infected", "Walkers", “Weepers”, and whatever other buzz-word you want to throw at them might help differentiate the undead-kind from the virus-kind, but the basic premise is the same: people go crazy, bleed a lot, and eat others once they've been bitten.

The moaning and groaning flesh-eaters are an easy way to introduce canon fodder into any medium, because they are pretty malleable. Their actions don't require a lot of thought, and they can be scary as hell, or hilarious, depending on your take.

However, despite being around for a long time, a certain zombie craze definitely took hold of pop culture awhile back, and its splintered nails are still digging in.

With zombies infiltrating everything from Red Dead Redemption to the Call of Duty series, I think it is time we thought about giving them a rest for awhile. You know, like lens flares!
Cinematographers must have nightmares about this sort of thing. (Image: Gameinformer)

So, it was with disillusionment that I discovered "infected" (zombies that can run!) are a big part of The Last of Us. I was a little irked, but the game looked fantastic despite this.

In playing the game, however, I realised there is life in the undead yet, as long as we move them away from the spotlight.

The Last of Us isn't about the infected. Really, it isn't even about the disease and it certainly isn't about what caused it. Instead, the game carries the theme that is skirted by almost all zombie stories, and focused on by a few.

The game begs the classic question of speculative fiction: "What would we do?"

What would we do if the world fell apart tomorrow? If there was an actual threat of a zombie-like virus and it ravaged the world, how would humanity cope? Not in the immediate, but 20 years later? That is the question The Last of Us poses.

I sometimes hear people mention that the "science" in science fiction is incidental, and that the genre is really all about the people. That is half right, but I think that what good science fiction is really about is how the "science" affects the people. The way the robots in Isaac Asimov's stories work isn't important – what is important is that humanity created laws, and how both robots and people react to them.

This is much like how The Last of Us has approached the idea of the infected.

The irritating element for me in a lot of speculative fiction is the presence of an absolute evil. Behind every alien invasion or plague is a big baddie, rubbing their hands together and laughing manically. Misguided? No. Survivalist? No. Just “evil”.

Without giving too much away, this – at least to me – isn't really an element the game is concerned with. Sure, there are bad guys and girls in the game. One of them is being set on fire by a Molotov cocktail, and another is the player throwing it.

Antagonists and protagonists exist within the game, but to call any of the forces at play "evil" and any of them "good" is a bit of a generalisation, and does a disservice to the intricacy of the game's plot, and the meaning behind it.

Instead, Naughty Dog has mused on how people from all walks of life and backgrounds would act in this situation. How would society rebuild itself? How would hierarchies come into place, and what would be necessary to survive?

The human enemies might be out to do some despicable things to Joel, but they aren't faceless goons, and there were definitely some characters in the game who I despised. But like the player, they are out for survival. Both sides will shoot, blow up, stab or strangle the other for the preservation of their kind, as is evident as soon as the player stops and listens to their enemies chat with one another.

What really struck me was how human the enemies were. As I lurked in the shadows, waiting to catch an enemy alone and stab him in the throat, I listened to their conversations. The enemies would chat about how hard life is, how they look out for one another, and sometimes just about watching movies. If one went off to investigate a noise, another would go find him if he'd gone quiet.

These are people thrown into an ungodly situation, and trying to find their way. Sometimes, that path is building up cabins and finding food. Sometimes that is putting a bullet between someone else's eyes in order to stop them from doing the same to your friend. People react in extreme ways to extreme situations. Some do good things and some do very, very bad things.

The Last of Us is a fantastic zombie/infected game, because it goes beyond that. Like The Walking Dead and a number of other films, comics, games and whatever-else featuring the lurching brain-eaters, it is moving beyond placing the focus on them.

The Last of Us demonstrates one of the more promising directions the genre can go by utilising zombies as a device, not a crutch. I didn't learn a lot about flesh-eaters when I played this game, but I learnt a lot about people.

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