Once, we were like you

This article does not contain any real spoilers for the story of The Last of Us Part 2. Read at your own risk though.

Nothing of this is real, I always tell myself. It is a game, a tale. Or is it not? The Last of Us Part 2 is set in a world that went down the drain in 2013 due to a zombie creating mushroom pandemic. Today is the year 2020 and while pandemics have become cruel reality recently, the thing with the fungus did not happen in the same world in that we live, obviously.

Fortunately, post-apocalyptic sceneries are fiction, a conceptual “what if…?”. They also try to answer questions about the change of culture and social behavior in the light of extreme circumstances. The criticism of the chosen answer, that basically says “people are evil and irredeemable” is understandable. I don’t see myself or the people around me reflected by that idea.

Alas there is this one scene in Naughty Dog’s recent work, that manages to shorten my emotional distance to this brutal parallel world.

This game is not merely about zombies, moral ambiguity, loss, ruthlessness and mania – it is also about guitars. Surprisingly realistic-coded guitars, free to play. Late in the cycle of the PS4, the touchpad of the Dual Shock controller is used for something valuable, namely the stroking and picking of the strings of those guitars.

In the first act of the game, after many intense and overwhelmingly cruel encounters with zombies, foes and death, we find a working western guitar in an abandoned music store in Seattle, ready to play for Ellie, who we are controlling at that point. She grabs it, and we play some chords following a preset pattern on this very warm sounding instrument. Dina, our ally and girlfriend, comes to listen while Ellie tunes in a song on her own which she performs with brittle voice.

The song is Take On Me by the Norwegian band A-Ha. A worldwide hit from the 1980ies telling a story about last chances for romance.

The style of the performance, the point in time, the expressions of the characters all add up. But what brings me close to tears is the creators choice of that particular song.

Of course, all along movies and games work with “real” songs (those which are not soundtrack-only) for their soundscape. If those are songs with great international success it is often not only a good choice of music, it additionally wakes up all the associations and feelings that we had when we listened to that song for the very first time. That is called “associative-emotional” listening.

But it is not only nostalgia that goes through me here. It is Ellie, who seems to know that song herself. This fictional character from an unreal end-of-days-scenario knows that song, that I sucked into my consciousness during my childhood and youth. That is my pop culture, my growing up, which is quoted by this PTSD-filled, Chucks wearing killing machine. Did she grow up with that song, too? Does she know that all good synth-pop tracks sound way better on an acoustic guitar? Did we experience a similar socialization – do we live in the same world, after all?

I feel like Bastian who cannot fathom that Atreju just talked to him from a book. A 4th-wall-break but without any flippant remarks towards the camera lens.

Dina reacts absolutely authentically to that mini concert. Her head a bit tilted, her eyes and ears wide open, every sound and syllable creates a micro expression on her face. Just like me. Just like you. Just like us, back in the days and today. I witness in awe while the medium “Video Game” grows from the surrealism of the uncanny valley into the here and now.

Take on me
Take me on
I’ll be gone
In a day or two

Ellie sings, and she means these lines. To “be gone” in her world is not a matter of moving or traveling, but one of life and death. Did A-Ha really hide such a severe message behind a curtain of happy melodies and artistic falsetto, is this song about our sheer existence?

The universe of The Last of Us is not the same for me after this scene. It is much tighter connected to mine, the figures are more human, the events more thinkable, less fictional and due to that even more terrifying.

Meanwhile, my universe changed as well. That cheesy pop song became cultural heritage out of a sudden. Twenty years ago, nobody would have used Take On Me seriously in that format. Now it is a piece of art, like a painting, newly interpreted in the real world and the fictional. In The Last of Us Part 2 it is like a quote from a world that wants to say “once, we were like you”.

Take on me: The Last Of Us Part 2

(Take On Me starts around minute 2)

The Last of Us Part 2, developed by Naughty Dog (also famous for Uncharted and Crash Bandicoot), is a PS4 exclusive and the second entry in its post-apocalyptic 3rd person adventure zombie shooter universe. It created a double buzz on release in 2020: on the one hand for the very explicit and intense depiction of violence, on the other hand due to user review bombings based on very questionable reasons. The game is a major success nonetheless.

This post is also available in: German