Pleasure is an odd feeling to associate with the post-apocalypse. As visions of societal collapse extend before us in numerous triple-A and indie titles, the critiques of such spaces and such narratives, from the game industry and game critics, are frequently ones of rapturous awe. The Last of Us is just such a marvel: critically celebrated, enormously successful, and certainly enjoyable, there is seemingly no end to the accolades promising how much fun the player will have traversing decimated cityscapes and slaying infected monsters. And yet the game’s pleasures exceed the act of play alone, as the unfolding narrative situates the “cure” for civilization’s end as the eventual reconstruction of a white, heteronormative family unit, overseen, and frequently saved, by a resourceful and crafty father figure. One can take pleasure in both the experience of play and the assurance that their actions will reinforce the status quo, with emphasis placed on the efficacy of the player-controlled Joel, the patriarch, to guard and teach Ellie, his surrogate daughter, and shepherd her to a safe-haven where she will become the figurative mother of a reconstituted humanity.
The Last of Us is not alone in possessing such a narrative goal, but it does not exactly find itself in good company. Other apocalyptic games, such as I Am Alive, the main focus of this presentation, also tell the story of a patriarch searching the ruined wasteland so as to be reunited with his family, but normative pleasure is not exactly in abundance. Failing as a designed object, due to programming glitches, visual lapses, and unappealing interface design, I Am Alive, I argue, extra-textually and actively questions the cultural dominants at play within the narrative as they fall apart during the play experience. In so doing, I Am Alive and games similar to it open themselves to subversive pleasures that are unintentional, a pleasure in the subjugation of society’s reconstitution due to the failure of the game itself, combined with the pleasure of witnessing the commercial, industrial failure that the game is firsthand. As such, I attempt to question the common notion that failure during play is just another step on the road to success, noting that failure may exceed both player and play and instead be quite literally systemic. I argue that failure does not, however, necessary relate to or cause displeasure, and may instead be understood as an opportunity for the construction of non-normative identifications with games and their narratives, undercutting and questioning entrenched heteronormativity within.
Harrison Gish is a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program and a lecturer at Chapman University. His work has appeared in CineAction, eLudamos, Mediascape, and The Video Game Encyclopedia.