TIME Actually Gets Last of Us Analysis| 11/11/2014


[Versão em português ainda não disponível para este post.]

TIME did an interesting piece in which war photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson was “sent into” the action/adventure videogame The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013). KillScreen commented on this with an article titled What Time Got Wrong About The Last of Us, in which said publication is accused of procedural illiteracy – in other words, of not understanding how digital media works.

I agree. But I don’t think the creators of The Last of Us – and most game developers – understands it much either.

Read more about my research on the expressive use of digital media here.

Unrealistic Hiperviolence

The Last of Us is a game set in a post-apocalyptic world ridden by zombie-like creatures. The player controls Joel as he protects Ellie, a teenage girl that might hold the key to the cure for “the zombies”.

[caption id="imageCaption" align="aligncenter" width="440"]Ellie, the immune. (Ashley Gilbertson) Ellie, the immune. (Ashley Gilbertson)[/caption]

When playing the game, Gilbertson was bothered by it’s hiperviolence. He also had difficulty in connecting with the situations and characters, which is essential for his work as a photojournalist.

The reason is not just because the events in the game aren’t real, and so there’s nothing really at stake. There is also a lack of urgency, since the game can be paused at any time, allowing him to carefully choose the best lens and angle for his shots.

This prompted him to intentionally disturb his compositions, in order to emulate the aesthetics that he is used to in his work.

[caption id="imageCaption" align="aligncenter" width="450"]Gilbertson02 Still, nice compositions. (Ashley Gilbertson)[/caption]

Pictures Allowed

Digital media allows for a unique approach to representation and expression because of it’s procedural nature. As explained in KillScreen’s article, this medium is about actions, not still (or moving) images.

But this is a potential, not a limitation. When KillScreen says that, because of this quality, digital media “does not lend itself to photographic capture”, this seems to me a very narrow view of both mediums.

Not only is it valid to take pictures in games and virtual environments, there are actually many artists who specializes in it. A good example is the interesting series The end of the virtual world (Robert Overweg, 2010).

[caption id="imageCaption" align="aligncenter" width="450"]Overweg The end of the virtual world (Robert Overweg, 2010)[/caption]

If it were true that games don’t lend themselves to photography, then neither should sports. They shouldn’t even be watched by passive viewers, for that matter. War is all about action too, but Gilbertson doesn’t need to pick up a gun to be allowed to document it. ((The article also adds to the confusion by mentioning GIFs and videos as a way of better representing the action, contradicting it’s own argument that “moving images” are fundamentally different than “actions” (which is true). A youtube video of someone describing his reaction to an action is still a video.))

Indeed, Gilbertson does not seem to “get” digital media. But maybe he is not the only one to blame for this. After all,  The Last of Us doesn’t seem to “get” much about it either. ((Actually, when he talks about “imperfections”, he isn’t talking about the game so much as he is revealing something about his own profession/art. He would probably make the same observations if he was reviewing the Lytro camera for example, which allows the shots to be refocused afterwards.))

The Last of Us: The Movie

Like several other similar triple A titles, The Last of Us seems to be a movie trapped in a game’s body (and vice versa, depending on the part).

Granted, there are several moments in the game in which narrative and expressive elements are communicated through gameplay and mechanics. But to me these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The Last of Us is essentially an action/adventure game with puzzle/RPG elements, tied together with a mostly linear plot.

It doesn’t matter how beautifully well crafted the cutscenes are, or even how seamlessly they are integrated into gameplay. This is still essentially the expressive grammar and strategies of cinema, not videogames (or digital media).

Going back to Gilbertson: maybe he wouldn’t focus so much on the superficial aspects of what makes the character’s behavior in The Last of Us so unconvincing to him if the game’s creators hadn’t focused so much of their effort in them by trying to emulate a Hollywood production (instead of figuring out how to do this through… actions). ((It should be noted that most artists and creators use digital media primarily as a way to emulate traditional artform/languages and media, such as film, painting, music, literature and so on. Most of these artists choose the computer for practical reasons. They are not interested in learning how to program. Even among videogame developers, it is common to use traditional (static, linear) elements in their titles, such as cutscenes and prerecorded music and dialogue. This is not a problem in itself. The issue with games like The Last of Us is that they seem to be constantly confused about their own rules and mechanics.))

Digital Memento Mori

I like Susan Sontag’s quote mentioned in KillScreen’s article, about how “[a]ll photographs are memento mori.” – that is, they represent (or reflect on) moments that are already passed (or dead).

Virtual worlds are certainly less capable of evoking the same feeling of “mortality” present in the physical world.

But considering the broader notion of ephemerality, I think Sontag’s quote can apply to games as well, specially those based on a more open world design. Even more so when procedural generation techniques are used, which allows every moment or instance to be unique from one another (more about this topic in this post).

PS: Different Perspectives

Trying to understand (or communicate with) people from different backgrounds than our own can be an interesting opportunity to see things through a different perspective, even though this usually leads to misunderstandings, both in content and in form.

I think that the exercise proposed by TIME, to have a photojournalist interact with a videogame, is a good example of this. ((Of course, considering other people’s opinions doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them. Gilbertson’s claim that his work covering war zones is “an antidote” to violent videogames is not only a pretty simplistic view of this medium, but also a very debatable view about journalism in general. One could argue that there is something very disturbing in the way that journalists depend on, expect and even look for that very violence he claims to be an antidote for. From the TIME piece: “I shot through a dirty window at one point […] trying to emulate the refugee-in-bus-window-at-border-crossing image, but the subject, my virtual daughter, didn’t have the required expression of distress.”))

Here are some other possible variations that I think could also be interesting:

  • invite a different, procedurally literate, photojournalist;
  • use a different game or digital experience, that really explores the full potential of digital media;
  • send an artist who specializes on in-game “photography” to an actual war zone;
  • explore other kinds of intersections between games and photography, such as the art installation World Skin (Maurice Benayoun), in which taking pictures is explored as an expressive game mechanic.

[Posted 2014/11/11. Edited 2015/02/13 for clarity and small corrections.]

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