• October 15, 2020 |

    believe in the fireflies

    a video game review for fall semester 2020

    article by , illustrated by

    My first day of this semester, I woke up to a nightmare. 

    A thin layer of ash covered all of the driveways, cars, and California Republic garden flags. My day had started at 6 a.m. Pacific (I had classes at 10 a.m. Eastern), but even by afternoon, there was only a hint of light coming through the windows. Hellish orange smog shrouded the sky for the entire week. As hazardous air quality poisoned thousands statewide, I could smell whispers of smoke invading my house.

    When the sludge of Zoom classes ended for the day, I jumped into bed, not caring whether it was day or night; I couldn’t tell the difference anyway. I opened my Youtube recents on my phone: “Last of Us Part II Walkthrough.” It was a habit that I adopted in August, when the emails about reopening campus trickled in, when my decision to stay remote became real in my mind. I needed the commentary of the walkthrough or I’d be too scared to watch a horror game alone. 

    The Last of Us and its newly released sequel, Last of Us Part II, are set in a world after a zombie outbreak destroys most of modern society. Both games rely on their fair share of tropes from the genre: jump scares, unrelenting hordes of zombies, and desperate people who become monsters themselves.

    But the games also share a paradox. In examining the last, most disturbing trope, The Last of Us rips itself out of the genre’s foundations to question whether we, the players, would be able to live with hope in this terrifying virtual world. The original game’s opening credits reference this question, though it’s disguised as an in-game slogan of a rebel group called “the Fireflies.” 

    VOICEOVER: Remember when you’re lost in the darkness…look for the light. Believe in the Fireflies.

    [CUT TO BLACK] 

    I never imagined that I’d watch an hour of someone sprinting away from shrieking zombies or sneaking around death cults before I went to bed. But when the world outside my bedroom looked as if smoke was strangling its throat, exploring another apocalyptic world was the only form of escapism that had any bite left. 

    As the Last of Us Part II played out on my phone, I felt a sense of familiarity as I watched the main character––a scrappy, awkward, now battle-hardened 19-year-old named Ellie––walk through the ruins of Seattle. Ellie and her girlfriend, Dina, walk through the desolate city, stopping at abandoned music stores and boarded-up coffee shops. They find Seattle beautiful. They are amateur archaeologists, exploring a world that collapsed years before they were born. We are the living dead, smiling with our knowledge of modern life. 

    I could immerse myself in Ellie’s journey through Seattle, because I knew what Ellie felt, trying to find beauty in a decaying city. When I took breaks from watching the game, I would jog to my suburb’s downtown to find the streets deserted, stores boarded up in paranoia, and restaurants left vacant after the pandemic gutted them into bankruptcy. With ash covering the tables and benches and storefronts, downtown was beautiful in a sickening way. This will probably be the closest thing to snow that the Bay Area sees, I thought. 

    Part II’s core story begins when Ellie and Dina arrive in post-apocalyptic Seattle. Ellie is seeking vengeance after a militia forced her to watch them brutally kill Joel, Ellie’s adopted father. As this militia, headed by a woman named Abby, retreats to their home base in Seattle, Dina and Ellie follow their trail, exploring the city and fighting them together.

    Over the first half of Part II, we notice Ellie is not who she was before Joel’s death. She never had time to get closure and she stops making her dumb jokes, the ones that made Joel snort in Part I. She loses any sense of empathy for the brutally murdered militiamen she stumbles across. And once she finds out they need to leave Seattle to travel back home because Dina is sick, Ellie is reluctant to abandon her quest for vengeance. Robbed of her father figure, she adopts the habits of the violent people and the soulless zombies she hunts. 

    My friends tell me that these past semesters have been stolen from them. We all had to move out so quickly without time for proper goodbyes, without time to properly mourn the what-might-have-beens of this year. The college experience we looked forward to, the friends we were making, the excitement of having the perfect housing group—all were taken away, only to leave us stranded in bedrooms back home or in lonely dorms. But a part of me refuses to mourn. A part of me refuses to feel anything.  

    To drown it all out, I go back to watching Part II. By now, it’s the third act, and we find Ellie back near her hometown, living in an idyllic farmhouse with Dina. There are warm sunsets and golden fields of grain that contrast the grayness of Seattle—and it feels wrong. Although Ellie tries to keep up the image of a happy life for Dina, Ellie’s inability to understand her own loss is paralyzing. She can’t stay. 

    Over the last few months, my parents have tried to convince me that everything will be okay. When I was enraged about the counter-protesters who faced us as my friends and I returned home from my city’s first Black Lives Matter rally, my parents told me that changes and reforms are coming. But by the end of the summer, the solid month of black squares on Instagram and Facebook reverted to bright landscapes and colorful parties. Business as usual. I knew everyone meant well, but I wanted to scream out: NO ITS NOT OKAY ITS NOT FUCKING OKAY CANT YOU TELL ITS NOT OKAY—

    At the end of Part II, Ellie decides to go after Abby one last time. She leaves the farmhouse for California, where Abby was last seen. Ellie rampages through a bandit gang’s fortress filled with imprisoned captives to find Abby, tortured and half-alive. By this point in the game, we’ve seen Abby’s perspective too—how she became remorseful of her past violence, and how she overcame her own loss by protecting a little boy she meets.

    By the time I reached this part, I was giving up on this semester. I was behind in all of my classes. I gave up most of my quarantine projects: getting consistent exercise, reading new books, learning how to play guitar. I had lost hope about my little contributions to the critical examination of policing in my city, as the number of friends available to participate in city meetings dwindled and the commanding voices of the police union only grew. So I just kept watching.

    Ellie almost gets her revenge, but right near the end, she sees a quick flashback of Joel, strumming his guitar. So she stops. 

    I still wonder whether there is much hope in doing anything this semester at the social, at the personal, at any and all, levels. I’m just so tired. I don’t see any reason to hope that this semester can be anything more than fending off the hordes of insecurity about what I’m doing with my time, and staring at an open Zoom tab as I increasingly lose contact with friends I can’t see and a campus I can’t be at. 

    Ellie returns to the farmhouse. There is no one there. Everything has been moved out, but Ellie’s old guitar is still in her room. She tries to play it as she did in the beginning of the game. Then, she walks away into a new future. 

    Her story seems tragic, but to me, Ellie’s story is the most realistic depiction of hope I found in the past six months. Even after losing everything—the material order of the old world, her friends and family, and even her sense of self, Ellie is still able to overcome her despair, and she decides to do so.

    When Ellie’s story ends and the credits roll, I leave my phone on the bed and pick my guitar off the couch. As my fingers fumble on the strings, I recall some of my friends tearing up on FaceTime as they vent about difficult situations at home, uncertainty about this semester, losing opportunities they spent hours applying to, loneliness and fear… and how we still end up finishing the call in laughter. There’s a face of bravery from each of them that I haven’t seen before. 

    And I decide that today, I am going to learn how to play the theme from the original game’s opening—when the voiceover whispers:

    when you’re lost in the darkness…

    Believe in the fireflies.