What happens when a game franchise is no longer an escape from reality and instead becomes a reflection of it?
The Bad Old Days
In 2013, I was halfway through a series of painful operations that were being done to control an autoimmune skin disease I had genetically acquired. That particular affliction is called Hidradenitis Suppurativa, and it is not a pretty disease. It eats away at your flesh, creating weeping pustules that spread tunnels beneath the top layer of skin that sear through your nerve endings like hot razors.
Whenever I looked at my wounded and scarred flesh in the mirror, all I could see was a hideous monster staring back at me – but, I reasoned with myself, I was alive at least. I had been lucky – even if I didn’t feel very lucky.
Two years prior, I had moved from my home country in the U.S. to the U.K., and I knew only one person. I had no family. My parents were dead, and my siblings scattered and out of touch. Before each surgery, I was afraid. Only, no one knew I was afraid because there was no one to tell. I had no visitors. The nurses and the surgeons would remark throughout my solitary 2-year stay that I was considerably brave.
I wasn’t brave; I just didn’t have a choice.
Alone and afraid, I did what I always did to cope: I played video games. Ever since I could remember, I played games to escape the horrible realities of my world. In open-world games, I could explore and feel like I had the control I didn’t have in my chaotic, abusive home life. With first-person shooters, I could be the hero and kill all the scary bad things that I couldn’t destroy in reality. In simulations, I could suspend my mind and its racing thoughts while passing the time under the illusion that I was doing something productive.
Above all, though, I remained lonely.
No video game could alleviate that.
Waiting, Waiting, Waiting
I remember when The Last Of Us came out. There was controversy over Ellie looking like Ellen Page, but outside of that, it didn’t stick out in my mind as a game I’d ever be interested in. I was tired of the glut of zombie games, and it looked so brown and dull.
I still picked it up, though, while waiting on Bioshock: Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V to be released. On a break from the hospital, back at my rented abode, I started it up. I went in with minimal expectations and a short attention span, but I was hooked from that first soul-crushing scene. I’m autistic, and a lot of people mistakenly believe that we have no emotions or feelings. That’s completely wrong. We do have emotions – it’s just that most of us don’t know how to express them properly.
This inability to express my pent up, misunderstood feelings has always drawn me to overly dramatic forms of entertainment. I love games, movies, theatre, anime – anything that allows me a valve to open and express intense emotion. The emotional intensity of The Last Of Us felt…right. It made sense to me. I felt a connection to these bits and bytes on screen. I won’t say they relieved my loneliness, but they distracted from it.
Joel’s pain was real. Ellie’s anger and impulsiveness was real. Mo-capping was in its relative infancy but even going back now and replaying it; the authenticity is there. Outside of the graphical design of these characters, there was something about Ellie’s personality that reminded me of myself. I had always been quick with a sarcastic remark and possessed a stubborn streak so strong that it could easily be confused for a mutant power. I am independent and resourceful, and I allow no one to get close to me until they’ve proven themselves.
Watching Ellie and Joel’s relationship unfold had more depth than simply watching a movie – even a really good movie. You see, there was another reason I identified with Ellie. I’m a walking, in-real-life trope known as “little girl lost”. My dad abandoned me when I was two and left me with my emotionally damaged mother. She frequently let it be known that she, in her words, “hate(d) all men.” I was raised to believe that they as a group were useless, lazy and only wanted one thing. She lived by her ethos, as there were no men in her – and by extension, my – life. That is until I entered the school band at 12 years old. That’s when I met Mr Kelly.
With hindsight, I now see how much I saw of him in Joel. Salt and pepper hued beard, a direct style of speaking, no-nonsense and a protective streak that could suddenly appear out of nowhere. Mr Kelly helped me through school. There’s a part in The Last Of Us where Joel is showing Ellie how to shoot. The way he speaks to her, it was so full of the care and concern that Mr Kelly had shown me while teaching me how to wash a car. It sounds silly, but those mundane moments while growing up were the few bright spots in a harsh life.
That’s what I found in Joel and Ellie – a non-sexual yet deeply affectionate relationship. It felt so familiar and so warm and so wonderful. Mr Kelly often told me to stand up for myself. I was quite hated in school – the different ones always are – but he wouldn’t fight my battles for me. At least, not in front of me. I would sometimes hear through the grapevine how he had threatened a few of the bullies to leave me alone. They would as he was rather imposing, but it never lasted.
Then one day, we were all on a band trip. I had purposely picked the seat behind him because it was the only place on the bus that I felt safe. He stood up to make an announcement, and a girl behind me started picking on me, saying their usual crap. His face changed instantly, and he barked an order at her to stop. She did, and I looked at him with a deep, abiding appreciation that I would never be able to voice.
We came to our stop – Disneyworld – and as everyone began to file off the bus, he had me stop and wait in my seat. “Kiley,” he said, “there are scary rides here. I don’t want you to be afraid. You don’t have to be. Just close your eyes, and all the scary things will disappear.” (I’ve told this story in detail on the Rapid Reviews Radio Podcast.)
Love And Loyalty
As Joel, Ellie and I made our way through the scary terrain and fought off infected and awful human beings. The strongest theme remained throughout: their love and loyalty for one another. I finished the game feeling as if I’d gone on an incredible journey.
Because I had.
Ok, so it wasn’t the strongest shooter on the market but the story – the characters – elevated the game above its flaws.
DLC was later released and, although not as in-depth as the original game, I enjoyed the idea of a person exploring their sexuality in post-apocalyptic times. The shooting didn’t improve but, again, story.
A few years pass, and my life took a few dramatic turns. I found and then lost someone that was so very dear to me in the span of 10 months. I was diagnosed as an autistic person. My sister died in another country, and I was unable to attend her funeral. I became more isolated and lost more friends.
That’s around about the time that The Last Of Us Part 2 teaser trailer dropped. You know the one – where Ellie’s face morphs from the big-eyed innocent to the angry adult. I felt an instant connection. I knew that pain – I recognized it as my own! I followed Druckman’s feed, getting excited as The Last Of Us was announced as a television show and gleaning any clues for the next instalment of the game.
As 2020 dawned, I would soon find out that some realities are impossible to escape from.
…Continued next week in Part 2.