(This article contains minor spoilers for The Last of Us)
Just as I was finishing a second instalment in an ongoing collection of in-game photography articles for Midnight Resistance – this one focusing on The Last Of Us - the same idea cropped up in Time Magazine. Conflict photographer Ashley Gilbertson was tasked by Time with using the photo mode in The Last of Us Remastered “to document the game's protagonists as they fight to survive in a zombie-infested world”.
Gilbertson hated the experience. He found it hard to connect with the characters, be enthused by the story or create a convincing, emotional photo-document of some of the fictional events that take place within the game.
Gilbertson's main complaint was that the characters showed no distress and little emotion. He also states “I'm interested in a more emotionally engaged type of photography, where the human reaction to a scene is what brings a story to life. That was tough inside this game”. This was very curious to me, as I had just come off the back of several hours' worth of in-game photography where I had been marvelling at the emotions it was possible to read on the characters' faces.
Those of us that follow games and are interested and involved in their culture know that Naughty Dog are industry leaders when it comes to facial animation; so much so that the final, “okay” scene in The Last of Us hangs entirely on their expertise in animating and expressing incredibly subtle, complex emotions. Not only that, but it can be argued that the themes of survival, family, loss, distress and trauma, amongst others, all run strongly through the game and are effectively expressed and explored using a multitude of techniques.
You will also, hopefully, agree that I managed to find some very emotive expressions in Joel's face, using my abilities as a real world portrait photographer to pull out that emotion in the characters. It was the ubiquity of this emotion portrayed by facial animation that took me from being fond of the game to being absolutely in love with it once I'd finished Remastered. At any point, I could enter photo mode and I would find Joel clearly expressing convincing, human emotion on his face. It floored me, it made me care more about these characters than any I can think of in recent memory; they had become dear to me.
Ashley Gilbertson is not a stupid man. He is an incredibly accomplished, multi award-winning conflict photographer who is known for his photographs of the war in Iraq. He creates important and astonishingly powerful images, artfully composed and brimming with humanity, and I greatly enjoy his work. It is clear that his struggle to create impactful images within the photo mode's boundaries does not stem from an inability to successfully manipulate a camera.
So why did he fail to achieve what he set out to do, and why did he not pick up on what are relatively simple themes? The answer must lie in the exclusivity of the language of games.
I, like probably everyone reading this on an enthusiast videogame website, have grown up with games. Our knowledge of the way stories are depicted and presented to us within games is akin to muscle memory. We understand, for example, the idea of placing a particularly slow paced scene after a cliffhanger (for example, the start of Winter) is an effective way of building tension and anxiety stemming from your eagerness to see the resolution of that cliffhanger. You, as the player, must exercise self-control and hold your nerve as you are given a patience-based task to complete. We understand that interactivity and player agency is a unique device that only videogames can take advantage of. This is only skimming the surface of the hundreds of devices large and small, that we implicitly understand as people immersed in videogame culture from a young age.
Gilbertson is not such a person. This lack of engagement he had with the game comes from not having these skills at his fingertips. And it's not his fault. To him, the whole damn thing looks alien, it is a language he does not understand. And that's a good thing; it indicates to me just how unique the medium is.
It is a common complaint that games aren't doing enough to break down these barriers of entry to non-gamers and that many developers fail to alter their systems to make them more accessible to others. As our children grow up and the next generation begin to play, they will have been taught by an older generation of players, and the language of games will spread and embed itself deeper into our culture. The answer is not to compromise game design and its evolution, but to push forward and be pioneering with the storytelling devices already honed and available to us.
I wonder what Gilbertson would think if I told him that there are significant parallels to be drawn between his most recent photoseries Bedrooms Of The Fallen, and my images of the interiors of The Last of Us' abandoned homes and living spaces. Gilbertson's Bedrooms Of The Fallen is a photoseries looking at forty bedrooms, all which once belonged to now deceased soldiers, their belongings preserved by their families, as if they still await their return.
The images carry the same melancholic and contemplative tone that I aimed to achieve with my interior shots; in fact, my accompanying piece of writing beneath the images could just as well be talking about Gilbertson's work as it could be mine:
“They were like time capsules that told unfinished, half-stories about the people who once lived there... the everyday objects elevated to relics, chronicling the lives of the invisible.
"Ghosts and the possessions they left behind.”
“I could never bring myself to even touch anything, just in case they were to return home as I was inspecting a coffee mug. I imagined their incredulous faces demanding to know what the hell I was doing touching their stuff.”
I had found the same themes in a medium impenetrable to him as he had within his own work. It was the emotional and human elements of the story that interested me most, and the unlikely places in which these stories can be found and told. I doubt he would agree, but we're the same, Gilbertson and I.