On The Last Of Us and videogames’ apparent ‘Citizen Kane moment’

Citizen Joel

You can imagine how thrilled I was at the prospect of getting my hands on what everyone on the Internet was assuring me was videogames’ ‘Citizen Kane moment’. Although I ridiculed that cliché several years ago, I now understand – having done slightly more scholarly research – that the phrase ‘Citizen Kane moment’ is in fact wonderfully apt. Because before Citizen Kane was released in 1941, it is now clear to me, literally no good films had ever been made.

Movies such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), or Jean Renoir’s La Règle Du Jeu (1939) were basically clunky trash with low-res textures, the equivalent of 1990s-era ‘interactive storytelling’ on CD-ROM. Citizen Kane, bouncing heftily on to the scene like an enormous and perfect water balloon, caused all observers to breathe a sigh of relief – at last, here was a film director who knew what the hell he was doing. Citizen Kane was the equivalent of… well, apparently, of The Last Of Us.

Imagine my surprise, then, when The Last Of Us turned out to be – well, very much like other videogames. Here is a guy with a beard, sitting on a sofa. His daughter gives him a nice watch for his birthday. He is grumpy and not very grateful. Then the zombie apocalypse breaks out. I cause some avatars to rotate and move forwards a bit, and I find myself being encouraged to press certain buttons in response to symbols flashed on the screen, so that the predestined narrative can play out as intended. Yes, there are QTEs – apparently, no amount of merciless ridicule can dilute their authoritarian popularity among videogame designers who fancy themselves cinematic auteurs. Like I said, it’s a videogame.

Anyway, eventually my daughter dies, because the game wouldn’t let me even try to run away from the guy who shot us, and we fast-forward 20 years. Now my beard and hair are a bit grey. After some tutorials on how to use the totally unexplained aural superpower I have somehow acquired – I can ‘see’ zombies and humans through walls by listening carefully – I find myself in some prettily decrepit venues, randomly murdering a lot of men.

If I’d paid more attention to the dialogue I might know exactly why I am murdering all these men; in any case, murdering them I am. Like I said, it’s a videogame.

I’m not saying it’s not fun to be introduced to all these new ways of murdering men. I can murder them with bullets, of course, but they don’t hand out bullets like candy around here. I can also murder them by sneaking up behind them and pressing a button in response to an onscreen symbolic prompt, and then pressing another one to strangle them until they are dead. I can even bash them with planks or stab them with shivs. If I get into a one-on-one fistfight, I can just keep mashing the action button until the bearded fellow – with whom I don’t for a moment identify – smashes my enemy’s skull open on the handy corner of an iron box. At one point my partner minces and dances right past a guard, no more than a foot from his nose. He doesn’t notice her at all. Like I said, it’s a videogame.

I try to open a door. ‘NEED KEY’ appears on the screen in red text. I guess I’ll have to look for a key, not exactly a revolutionary mission in interactive entertainment. I go happily in search of the mandated item.

Oh, look, here’s a broken-down truck full of crates. I wonder what’s in the crates? Could be food, could be weapons. No doubt something useful. I try to look inside the crates. I can’t. Like I said, it’s a videogame.

At length, The Last Of Us does furnish some wonderfully tense setpieces of stealth and hurried weapon-building improvisation, and it has a rare heft and thunk – one of the most convincing illusions yet of heavy (and not ridiculously acrobatic) flesh moving around through hard, solid environments. Mechanically, though, it is hardly without obvious inspiration, playing somewhat like a mash-up of Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid and Arkham City. Like I said, it’s a videogame.

The Last Of Us does represent the consolidation of some kind of advance, at least, in that now an ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ videogame is no longer one that features scantily clad women whose obsessively coded breast physics take up 90 per cent of available clock cycles. Instead, people praising The Last Of Us for its ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ qualities seem to take those terms to imply something relentlessly humourless and grim, a sub-Cormac McCarthy trudge through the bleak post-apocalypse.

Personally, I found all the blades of grass far more affecting – as a beautifully silent symbol of life’s indomitability – than the much-bruited subtlety of the relationship between Bearded Grump and his daughter-substitute. Maybe, indeed, the aspiration to seamlessly downbeat bleakness represents only a slightly later stage of adolescence than bug-eyed breast fixation. Still, progress is progress. And, like I said, it’s a videogame.

Illustration: Marsh Davies