Forty hit and I lost the ability to sleep in on days off. Between 3 and 4AM I have my first wake-up; sometime in the 5s I wake, berate and cajole myself to go back to sleep; sometimes I am successful and can make it all the way to 6:30, but most often I give up at 6 and quit my bed.
When the necessary bodily evacuations are made, coffee is brewed, and the kitchen is tidied I find myself in a quiet house, able to engage in whatever pursuit I wish. For the past year this has been playing video games, the last of which was The Last of Us.
The Part 2 in the title above shows that I have previously written on well-done, story-driven video games. Here again Naughty Dog studios got me in the proverbial feels.
I suspected it would. While I deliberately avoid learning anything about a game’s story before playing it, preferring to “play blind” as it were, somehow I had heard that The Last of Us had some sad moments. The clerk at GameStop when I bought my copy commented, “Oh man. Anybody that can get through the first twenty minutes without crying has got no soul.”
But being aware and prepared took none of the power of the game away, and when Sarah died there I was, crying in a quiet morning living room. And though those were the only tears engendered from me by the game, the way each major section of the game ends with an emotional plot point—Tess’ last stand; Sam’s fate and Henry’s reaction; Joel calling Ellie “baby-girl”—hit me hard; to the climax, with Joel’s essential betrayal of the human race by saving Ellie, which was essentially a human response—a father’s human response.
I played the game through three times in succession, first on Hard, then Survivor and Survivor + modes, plus two playthroughs of Ellie’s backstory Left Behind, earning all of the single player trophies in both. That left only the most difficult Grounded and Grounded+ Modes left, but I figured that I would want to revisit the game sometime in the future, and would play them then. So I browsed through our game collection, and decided to move on to The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword.
Having grown up with the Zelda series since getting the original for my NES when I was eleven, I had been looking forward to Skyward Sword for years. I played for a few days, but didn’t seem to be warming to the game. My son, a Zelda fan in his own right, asked me how I was enjoying the game: I said it was alright so far; I complained that the motion controls were frustrating; I’m sure when I’ve played for a bit more I’ll like it better. A few weeks in I accept that transitioning from The Last of Us to Skyward Sword has affected my enjoyment of the latter, and a lot of that has to do with me being a father.
Last of Us is set up so that the player is charmed by Ellie, the one individual immune to the outbreak, falling in love with her character well before Joel can. But from the opening sequence we understand why Joel is so reluctant to love: his apocalypse begins with the death of his daughter—losing what was most important at the outset. In his post-apocalyptic world, twenty years later, death is too commonplace, and Joel’s philosophy of survival leaves no room for emotion; feeling love to Joel is antithetical to survival. But then Joel is stuck escorting a girl across country, a girl near his daughter’s age when she was killed; a feisty, delightfully foulmouthed girl that revels in bad puns that, despite her own loss of loved ones can still see the benefit of finding joy in her life.
Here Naughty Dog has done a brilliant bit of storytelling, first by having us start the game playing as Sarah, letting us be confused and scared with her as she experiences the beginning of the outbreak; then by having us play as Ellie after Joel is wounded. As Ellie we hunt, are trapped, don’t know who to trust, and eventually have to do some harrowing things in order to protect Joel and survive. No one likes dying in a video game, and Joel’s deaths are often brutal, but the first time playing as Ellie and she died, an infected ripping into her neck, a “No!” burst out of me. As a player, even though I was playing as her, I had taken on the Joel role of protector; and because I loved her character, a love enhanced by my being a loving father to my children, including a daughter Ellie’s age, I took each of her game deaths hard. There was a shame to it, not playing well enough to keep her unharmed; but then at the same time when I did play well all the men we had to kill to survive were doing her psychological harm, culminating in the vicious final fight with David—who the best of what he was going to do to Ellie if he prevailed in the fight was cut her up to eat. Here at an impasse in their struggle, with both wounded and unconscious in a burning building the narrative returns to you playing as Joel. So that here, in a game that rewarded slow exploration and stealth, where taking the time to be thorough in your search for the necessary materials of survival was essential, and any battle you rushed into only quickened your death scene, your impetus is to get to Ellie as quickly as possible. To prevail you have to force yourself to suppress this urge to run and gun, to rush forward, while the character Joel catches up to the feelings you have had for some time already, realizing that despite all his efforts to remain cold and distant he has become a father to Ellie; finally reaching her—not saving her life, for in a last character switch we play Ellie in her last struggle against David—but saving her from the frenzy of what she had to do to survive the fight, and Joel calls her “baby-girl,” the term he had used with his daughter Sarah.
From set-pieces such as this to Skyward Sword, with its bright colors; from scavenging for items that would ensure your survival to hunting for bugs and rupees; from morally ambiguous supporting characters making life-or-death decisions to NPCs with exaggerated movements and expressions who whine about their boring jobs, broken chandeliers, not being able to attend a competition; from the frustration of sneaking by a clicker without them hearing you and attacking to the frustration of moving a stack of pumpkins to a storage area. Things I would never have minded, or might have been charmed and felt nostalgic about before seem frivolous when compared to the experience of protecting Ellie. Being a father I could relate to Joel, considering what I would do in the face of such circumstances: how far would I go? Would an uncrossable line exist when it came to keeping one of my children safe? Playing as Link I can only relate to my younger self: which is a fine thing to do in the right circumstances; but going from the dark of Last of Us to the light of Skyward Sword was too jarring a contrast for me to adjust to.
Often when playing I would think of my children, especially my daughter who is Ellie’s age. Would they prove as feisty and resourceful as Ellie? Would they be able to retain their humanity in the face of death and the dealing of death? Would I have the will to continue surviving if I lost any one of them?
And this gets to the heart of the effect of good stories on receptive audiences, and how video games are an exceptional vehicle for such storytelling. A video game can be as powerful as a book, film, or television show, but unique because you are a part of the story when you are experiencing it. It would affect me while I played, and keep me engaged in the story and characters when not playing.
I’m sure given a few weeks I’ll be fully engaged in Skyward Sword; I’ll have gotten used to the motion controls, the characters will begin to seem amusing to me, and I will finish the game having enjoyed it. Then I will play a few of the other unplayed games in our collection. But then I will have the urge to return to The Last of Us to play Grounded Mode, where in the first twenty minutes there will be a good chance I will cry.