***Warning: spoilers for The Last of Us ahead***
You don’t often feel like you’re winning when you play The Last of Us. It has a story mode that can be played through to a definitive conclusion, but it’s not one that ends in triumph and celebration. There’s no flagpole to jump on, no place to punch-in your initials, and Princess Peach isn’t waiting at the finish line with a fresh slice of cake. As you trudge toward the finale, you’ll have immediate objectives to achieve and obstacles to overcome, but their reward is the cold comfort of having survived to face whatever new threat is lying around the corner. Instead of getting a pat on the back, your success is marked by sighs of relief, usually after having slipped through an encampment of enemies, or just pulled off a life-or-death headshot on an advancing ghoul (which was probably more the result of dumb luck than your own skill).
Even the obligatory multiplayer mode, which upon cursory inspection appears not at all dissimilar from every other shooters’ Deathmatch offerings, comes with a meta-system where your profile’s “level” is measured in the welfare of a band of survivors under your care. Skill in combat results in you becoming better able to provide for the faceless, but not nameless dots that depend on you, yet their numbers growing only makes the stress of another match greater. Continued success becomes harder and harder to achieve with each new mouth to feed, and you’ll quickly grow to resent the microbial swirl of specks after your poor play in a match gets half a dozen people killed.
When you can’t even enjoy the simple pleasures of online shootouts without being reminded that lives are at stake, it’s clear that The Last of Us is ignoring basic design principles of video games, and just games in general. Whether counting out bills at the start of the family’s annual Monopoly session, plugging a token into the skee-ball machine, or teeing up for your first drive of the season, you engage with entertainment to make yourself feel better during, and after the experience than you did before. Sometimes, that means beating a personal best, and sometimes that means just not coming in last place, but even in failure, the reason for playing games is just that: it’s play.
That’s the exact notion that has made video games the red-headed stepchild of the entertainment world ever since 1s and 0s started rubbing up against each other vigorously enough to make Pong paddles. It’s right there in the name, so unless “interactive entertainment” suddenly catches on in a big way, it’ll be awhile before the term “video game” loses the stigma it formed during its nascent decades. Hell, even the term “gamer” still seems derogatory in most circles, because the medium as a whole is still defined by images of basement-dwelling nerdlingers, or energy drink-crushing dude-bros (given recent sale figures, it’s easy to see why the latter stereotype is coming to replace the former).
Gaming is still used as a punchline in just about every other media, so even as the percentage of people who could realistically self-identify as “gamers” increases with every new mommy app and edition of Angry Birds, the march toward respectability has been a slow one. There is, of course, a big difference between “acceptability,” and “respectability.” Most won’t be startled by the appearance of an ad for The Last of Us on national TV, as trailers and game announcements now frequently grace major sporting events. All the same, trying to convince someone that a particular game stands out from the crowd will often be a futile effort, like trying to convince your soft rock loving mom that, no really, she would totally dig this one Phish song.
Serious discussion of gaming’s cultural capital only ever breaks out of into public forum when the Games as Art vs. Games as Entertainment rigmarole blows in every couple of years like El Nino, bringing in lots of hot air and wasted spittle. The debate is often sparked when particularly harsh criticism of gaming comes from outside the community, or a new, and quickly beloved game appears, and is hailed as the chosen one destined to lead its kind into the promised land of artistic integrity –or, barring that, at least aiding in changing a few minds on the other side of the issue. It’s a futile argument, as what actually constitutes art is a moving target seen from a different perspective by each person, but it’s a conversation that’s becoming more important as the ratio of “art” to “entertainment” games continues to fluctuate.
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