WARNING! MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US!
Let’s start with a little RICHARD FEYNMAN storytime!
(See the video here!)
RICHARD FEYNMAN AND THE BROWN THROATED THRUSH
“All the kids were playing in the field. And one kid said to me, ‘See that bird? What kind of a bird is that?’
And I said, ‘I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.’
He said, ‘It’s a brown throated thrush. Your father doesn’t tell you anything.’
But it was the opposite. My father had already taught me, looking at a bird, he says, ‘Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush. But in Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Pieda. In Italian, a Chutto Lapittida.’
He says, ‘In Chinese, it’s a Chu-long-tah. In Japanese, a Katano Takeda.’ Et cetera.
Now he says,
‘You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely NOTHING about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing–that’s what counts.’
I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
Something that bothers me about just about every subject is jargon. It seems like learning anything starts with learning a bunch of buzzwords the academics think you should care about. Walk into an economics class and you’ll be spoonfed the business cycle, aggregate demand, gross domestic product, etc while vaguely circumventing the actual IDEAS of economics.
Go to a writing class? Character development, conflict, show not tell, three act structure, etc.. Instead of using examples and letting a student naturally come to an understanding of these concepts, the terms are presented with little or no context for the students’ memorization. In my opinion, and experience, this is a poor way to learn something.
Terms are important, but they must flow from the student’s natural exploration of the subject matter. That’s why I like to start with examples.
So when I recently watched a playthrough of The Last of Us, as soon as I reached the ending, this cartoon came to mind:
It broke all the rules!
It made a statement about the cruelty of humanity!
It was groundbreaking!
Question: What’s GOOD about ANY of these things?
I’m not saying any of these things are BAD. And I’m DEFINITELY not saying the ending of the Last of Us was bad. I’m trying to highlight a non-productive way of reacting to stories that stories like the Last of Us lend themselves to. This is the kind of reaction that leads to “buzzword analysis”:
“Whoa, this is different. I don’t know how I feel about it. But liking it feels bold! (And also safe, which is a weird combination.) So I’m going to like it!”
When we see something new and unsual, often times we go right to our buzzwords (e.g. is this conflict? is it character development?), our rules (e.g. is this showing not telling? is this moving the plot or character along?), our structures (e.g. what part of three act structure does this fit?), etc. instead of looking at what the bird is doing.
Worst of all, once we find the appropriate buzzword or rule, we make a judgement without even stopping to LEARN something.
What’s a more productive way to react to new stuff?
How does this make me feel?
Did I like this?
Why on both questions?
If I can trace my feelings back to a principle we already know, great!
If I can’t? Even better! We have a new principle!
(Principles, by the way, not rules. Similar words, but principle (for me) implies some SENSE behind it. Rule implies a degree of arbitrariness. You can use either word for either idea, but the important thing is that the rule involves some kind of analysis and not just blind application. The same goes for buzzwords and structures–without analysis=name of the bird, with analysis=what the bird is DOING.)
Let’s go back to the ending of the Last of Us.
A brief summary for those who have not played the game (a full summary can be found here):
On the night of the apocalypse, Joel lost his teenage daughter. Twenty years later, he is tasked with bringing Ellie, a girl with a unique immunity to the zombie virus, to a group of scientists who hope to create a vaccine. Over the course of their journey, the two of them bond and develop a close friendship that resembles what Joel once had with his daughter.
When they reach the facility, Ellie is taken by the medical team. Joel is then informed that the growth causing her immunity is in her brain. Getting what they need for the vaccine will kill her.
Joel was prepared for the possibility that his friendship with Ellie might end after they reached the facility. But this is too much for him.
He breaks into the operating room, kills all the doctors, kills the revolutionary who was leading them to find a cure, and escapes with an unconscious Ellie.
When Ellie wakes up, Joel tells her they tried to make the vaccine using her and other subjects, but they failed. Now they’ve given up trying.
The final scene shows Ellie and Joel walking towards a village. Ellie stops Joel and asks if he was telling her the truth. She makes him swear it. He does. Ellie thinks and looks away from his eyes. The audience can tell by her body language that she knows he was lying.
But she nods. And she says, “Okay.”
And the game ends.
How did this ending make me feel?
It made me feel a ton of intense and frustrating emotions.
Did I like it?
Why did it make me feel that way? Why did I like it?
I, as Joel, made a decision that shocked and horrified me. Not in a way that was out of the blue, but in the way it happens in real life. You surprise yourself by making decisions you never thought you’d make, but you look back and see that the groundwork was laid. You discover not only who you really are but who you were this whole time.
Shock and horror themselves are frustrating emotions, but what made those emotions so INSTENSE was the conflict I felt. I had thought this whole time that letting Ellie die for the greater good was what I wanted. But having learned who Joel really is, I can totally empathize. I can understand the lying. I can understand that he doesn’t have a strong desire to end the apocalypse (since being a walking death-machine WOULD make the apocalypse fairly comfy). And I get that he now wants to live for the present, especially since he spent the entire game learning to NOT live in the past. Seeing him faced with such a horrible decision, I don’t know WHAT I would have done if I were him. That confusion definitely takes the shock and horror to a new level.
Another element that contributed to the intensity was the pacing. The shock, horror, and conflict were condensed and concentrated by the short time frame in which the ending took place. There was a sense of urgency to the tragedy as it unfolded. As if it was all happening too fast and we couldn’t stop it.
However, what I liked the most about the ending was that it was INTERESTING. It made me think and brought me to IDEAS that rang true.
The most interesting thing in the game to me was the change in perspective on the amount of KILLING that takes place in the game. There’s SO MUCH killing in this game. But your judgment of it is affected by three considerations:
1) This is a post-apocalyptic world. It makes sense that people are more violent.
2) It’s a video game. There’s going to be killing.
3) It’s all for the greater good of getting the zombie vaccine, so it’s okay.
Mostly, it’s that third consideration. The killing makes us uncomfortable, but we’re fine with it because we can morally justify it. When other characters condemn Joel as “a monster”, we make recourse to the moral justification and can comfortably conclude that Joel is actually admirable for doing what needs to be done for a greater cause.
But as soon as he kills the doctors–in that moment–our perspective switches COMPLETELY. He’s no longer a hero, but a murderer. Perhaps, he really WAS a monster this whole time. Maybe that identity was just hiding behind a moral facade. And having learned this, we see that Ellie is okay with it, which changes everything we thought about her as well.
We now question the WHOLE story looking back. Was this really a story of two people trying to save the world from the zombie apocalypse? Or was it really just the story of a serial killer on a cross country rampage?
The IDEA the story brings forth is also quite powerful:
At the end of the day, we’re not afraid of the apocalypse. We’re afraid of being alone.
Humanity probably could face the physical challenges of the apocalypse, but it’s the mental burden that would be too much for us. Forget suvival, forget zombies–the loss we’d experience, the loneliness, the desperation–that would be the biggest barrier to repairing the world.
Bottom line, in order to learn from fiction, we have to set aside our buzzwords, rules, and structures, and actually THINK about what we like or don’t like in what we saw. We must react honestly and organically without letting convention determine how you feel about something. And once we know how you feel, we must analyze why we feel that way.
Buzzwords are not bad per se. But they must ONLY be used to make other people think we know what we’re talking about. Use them to sound really cultured and academic and to end otherwise complex conversations before you get proved wrong. Use them to frighten children. And you can shout them to scare dogs too. Just don’t use them to analyze.