Steinbeck, ant fungus and the Zombie apocalypse
On why we play video games and read books.
Are you a gamer?
Full disclosure: I’m not and never have been.
Aside from a brief phase of being obsessed with an idiotic jumping coyote game called Crash Bandicoot when I was 15 (in which obsession I was apparently not alone), gaming has always left me with a deeply unsatisfied feeling.
You know the one. It’s the same feeling you get from clickbait or scrolling social media. The next thing will be something good, no, the next, no, the next, keep going.
Etc, ad infinitum.
As a kid, I encountered it in Inspector Gadget and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons (The bad guy always gets away at the end! There’s never any satisfying resolution!) or those awful Choose Your Own Adventure books that took you round and round in unsatisfying circles and never seemed to go anywhere.
Gaming has always struck me as being like that. Primarily a drip feed thing: repetitive, hypnotic, addictive. It’s for the junkies with the itchy trigger finger. Keep scrolling for likes, keep shooting the zombies. The only computer game that ever kept me engaged was Kings Quest VI when I was nine, an adventure quest the precise details of which escape me now but I remember there was a labyrinth and a minotaur and a boatman across the River Styx and riddles to be solved. I played it for hours and hours in 1994 on a grey desktop monitor with dial-up internet. [Side note: I recently learned that it now enjoys cult status among gamers].
Anyway, apart from King’s Quest, there was nothing. I remember cruising totally uninterested past the early days of Mario Bros. Arresting TV commercials that ended with “Sega!” are all that really stick in the mind.
So, with the greatest will in the world, I concluded gaming is just not my thing. And while I appreciate that things have moved on considerably since 1994, I’ve never yet been tempted to reconsider my assessment.
This is why.
My boyfriend Joel is a gamer and, in particular, has for as long as I’ve known him, banged on and on about a particular game called The Last of Us.
It’s a game premised on the yawn-familiar trope of zombie apocalypse, the twist being that you play variously as different characters: the daughter; a battle-hardened veteran; a tough 14-year-old girl.
SPOILER ALERT: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US.
STOP READING IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.
Now, despite having never played this game, or really any video game, I have a pretty solid grounding in The Last of Us, because Joel really does talk about it a lot. So, without offering too many spoilers if you’re starting from a baseline of nothing, The Last of Us is about a mutation of the cordyceps fungus that starts to affect humans and the game opens with the main character Joel (same name as my boyfriend, no relation)’s daughter getting killed during the initial outbreak. Cut to twenty years later, you (as Joel, the game character, not my boyfriend) are tasked with smuggling a 14 year old girl who seems to be immune to the infection - and who may carry the hope of a cure - from the Boston QZ (that’s Quarantine Zone, people) to some secret cadre of doctors working on a cure out west.
So far, so Children of Men.
I could tell you more of the story but don’t want to give anything away. I know a lot about the narrative arc because he talks about it All. The. Time.
It comes up whenever the subject turns to story-telling. I might share with him details of a book I’m reading, explain what I love or loathe about it, ask if he’s read X or Y.
His frame of reference, his story-telling benchmark, always comes back to The Last Of Us.
And, not being a gamer, this has always irked me. I have always operated from the assumption that gaming is lowbrow, certainly not the road to telling a good story. I read books and, while these can be of the unsatisfying, keep-scrolling variety, when you get a good one, it feeds you, it satisfies you. It gives you an insight into another person’s world that you would never otherwise have had and shows you things you wouldn’t have seen.
This isn’t a groundbreaking observation. Novels (or just the writing of anyone else, really) create empathy by showing us the inner world of others. They do battle with our inherent onism.
Onism, by the way, is a wonderful word I learned recently - in the excellent Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, since you asked - which, not to be confused with onanism (also wonderful, in its way) is the frustration one feels at being limited to one body with one set of experiences. Onism is standing in front of the departures board in an airport - Miami! Tokyo! Honolulu! - when your flight to Cleveland is being called. Reading does battle with onism. Reading, you experience myriad lives.
Coincidentally, the book I am reading at the moment is The Overstory, which if you haven’t read yet, you should go and read immediately instead of this as a much better use of your time and which is about the underground fungal network that binds together the roots of trees. I am riddled with thoughts of the strange, secret and terrifying world of fungal microspores; the ant with its jaws clasped to the underside of a leaf. If at some point in the future, there is a mutation that sees us all brain-controlled by a mutated ant fungus, that is probably the universe righting itself and wiping the human aberration out of existence.
I always vaguely assumed Joel’s obsession with this apocalyptic game might be explained in part by his very unconventional upbringing. An attraction to survivalist fantasy a hangover from being homeschooled and raised in a Christian fundamentalist family, valuing self-reliance, resilience and physical strength, like a milder British version of American Judgment Day “preppers” - but without the stockpiles of ammunition.
Who can say.
Anyway, the reason I’m banging on about a zombie video game is that the TV show adaptation of it has just come out. And I really do mean JUST come out - it was released in the UK at like 2am this morning, or something.
Joel (my Joel, the boyfriend, not the game character) has been hotly anticipating its release for months but also (forgive me) plagued with concerns that his adored game wouldn’t translate to a TV show and that his favourite game would be remorselessly (again, forgive me) butchered.
So, coffees in hand, we drew the blinds and today watched the first episode of The Last of Us, the TV show. And it is good. It is really, really good. It is harrowing, intense and surprisingly moving. There are a lot of thrilling and spectacular effects.
But it is not groundbreaking, I’m not watching it feeling like I’m seeing something new. It is, at base, a zombie apocalypse plus a dystopian future and a Children of Men quest to save the hope of humanity. It is very well done and it is definitely quality entertainment but there is nothing new here.
And this brings me around (at last!) to my reassessment of gaming. Because, I realise now, the reason Joel loves it is the same reason I love The Overstory. It lets you see through different eyes. Where I read novels to get that insight into a different set of experiences, to see the world through another set of eyes, Joel plays The Last of Us as one of the characters - and it crafts empathy, in the same way a novel does. The game, where the world is already built for you and you move through it roughly as the game’s architects intend, isn’t a million miles away from what the author of a book does. They provide the landscape, the story that you move through and the rest is up to you.
The only difference is that I am a wordsmith, a lawyer. I trade and think in words. My highest respect is reserved for masterpieces of the written word: War and Peace, East of Eden, The Shipping News. Words on a page have the power to move me; to bring me into other bodies and allow me to see through other’s eyes. I still remember with lucid clarity the first time I heard in my head words written on a page, age 5, the first book I ever read. It was about rabbits racing.
Joel, on the other hand, is a software engineer. He trades and thinks in code. He grew up in a book desert, the only written word the Bible. Dulled by words on a page, he was enthralled instead by the wonders of his computer. Age 10, he altered the cache on his home desktop so that the Wikipedia page entry for the common cold listed chocolate as a cure. He showed his mother and, from that point on, she gave him chocolate whenever he was ill. He reserves his wonder for the power of computers. He contemplates with great respect the amount of engineering, the volumes of code, required to craft a single wild animal in a video game. He steps into other bodies, not as a novel reader but as a gamer.
So we are neither of us wrong and neither right. There is space for different kinds of story-telling and I finally recognise that, as a non-gamer, I may be missing out on a whole world of story-telling.
So, there may be hope for me yet as a gamer.
I am watching and enjoying The Last of Us, the TV show.
And I have told Joel I’ll play The Last of Us, the video game, for him - when he reads East of Eden or The Shipping News for me.