“The Last of Us Part II” and my fractured attention span

Slightly more than twelve hours ago, I finished my first play-through of The Last of Us Part II, a videogame by Naughty Dog. I wanted to write something about it because it (meaning both games in the series) might be, without exaggeration, my favorite piece of storytelling that I have ever engaged with.

This isn’t going to be a review of the game – heaven knows there are already plenty, and my garbage opinion is not going to add anything. Rather, this will be a reflection on how the games use the media of their storytelling to create a powerful and unique experience. WARNING: I will try to write this with as few spoilers as I can, just in case, but those of you reading this who haven’t finished the game(s) have been warned.

Now, the two games take place more or less sequentially, with the events of part two happening shortly after the events of part one. The setting is a post-apocalyptic North America, a decade or so after a zombie-fying pandemic of cordyceps fungus sweeps the world. As an aside – I enjoyed the original twist of parasitic fungus rather than a typical zombie virus for this concept. They follow the story of Ellie, the ostensible protagonist, who is seemingly immune to infection by the fungus. To avoid spoilers, I will try to say no more about the plot points.

By far, the most impactful aspects of the games are the storyline and character relationships that develop as you play through. In terms of the mechanics, the main story beats are fixed and the player navigates between them linearly (i.e., there are no player choice-dependent plot outcomes). It is a powerful story that is bleak and desperate and hopeful and tender and brutal, all at once. On the merits of narrative alone, it could have been a successful novel or miniseries. However, the skill with which the creators have leveraged the media of interactivity to enhance the experience is what really stands out. The player is forced to actively participate in everything that the characters do, for better or worse. For instance, if the protagonist has to kill another character to advance the plot, it is literally the player who pulls the trigger.

Upon reaching the conclusion of the game, I wanted to weep, but could not for how emotionally drained the game had left me. The active-yet-helpless participation in the plot had immersed me into the story to a degree that honestly surprised me. I think (one of) the reason(s) for this is that I am not accustomed to engaging with a piece of art so deeply. When I listen to music, I don’t sit down listen to a whole album back to back – I pick and choose an individual song from an individual artist (and frequently don’t even finish it). I have not made it through a single movie without multiple pauses to do something else in at least a decade. When I see great works of art in a museum, part of my attention is always partially devoted to thinking about what other works I can see, how much I paid for the ticket, lunch, etc. My attention span is such that I rarely have the opportunity to truly humble myself before a work of art and engage with it entirely. However, this video game forced me to do exactly that – the story was already set in stone, but would not progress unless I solved the puzzle, killed the boss, evaded the enemy, etc. Its nature demanded my full attention, which I gave without realizing.

I don’t know that there is a deeper point to this post other than a) the fact that I have a diminished attention span and b) The Last of Us Part II is so goddamn good I almost cried. It, along with other narrative-heavy video games, have created a space, in a world full of constant distractions and fractured focus, where it is once again easy to lose yourself in a story, which is a really wonderful thing.

There’s probably a lot more to say about this, but I think a longer discussion specifically about TLOU should be saved until the game has been out for a while longer, so spoilers are not so much of an issue. If you guys have any opinions about the game, or narrative games or storytelling in general, leave a comment or shoot me an email. I am interested to know what others think.

/millibeep

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