Video Game, Comic Book and Novel: A Pop Culture Pairing

I’m relatively new to food and wine pairings, but my recent meal at Boatwright’s Dining Hall (Vegetable Jambalaya paired with Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon) convinced me of this simple fact: pairings are the way to go.  That jambalaya and cabernet pairing was so perfectly spicy, robust and satisfying, that it reminded me of that scene in Pixar’s Ratatouille when the main character/rat Remy combines two different flavors at once.  The animators visualized this as an explosion of color, music and vibrancy.

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I love Remy the rat’s reaction and I recently had that same experience, not with food and wine, but with a video game, comic book and a novel.  While each of these elements worked extraordinarily well as separate entities, bringing them together was an entirely different and elevated experience.  This post’s “pop culture pairing” includes Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Remastered (video game), The Last of Us: American Dreams (comic book by writer Neil Druckmann and artist Faith Erin Hicks) and City of Thieves by David Benioff (novel).

I hope to do more of these pop culture pairings in the future, but until then, here is my breakdown of the pairing for you guys:

On SPOILERS: This post isn’t super-spoilery but if you are minimally concerned, you should stop reading now.

The Video Game – The Last of Us Remastered
I am by no means a hard core gamer; I’m a casual gamer at the least, having ever only owned a Playstation 2 and played games like Kingdom Hearts and 24, based on the Kiefer Sutherland show (I was obsessed with all things 24 and Jack Bauer and bought the PS2 solely to play this game). When my husband and I were still dating, he owned a Playstation 3 and I would occasionally dabble in games like Mirror’s Edge, Heavy Rain and Infamous.  I also played the co-op version of Resident Evil 5. One of John’s favorite games of all time is Resident Evil 4, which I eventually was scared to play, but then before you knew it, I was up until 3 a.m. playing it and also calling him to ask him how to successfully harpoon the lake monster or make it through the level where the undead are falling through the ceiling in the creepy castle.

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The Last of Us Remastered on PS4 was an entirely new and different experience for me as a casual gamer and may be my new favorite game of all time.  The Last of Us features the story of Joel, a hardened survivor and Ellie a young teenager.  Their story is set 20 years after an outbreak which wiped out most of the world’s population.  You play as Joel (voiced by Troy Baker), and must escort Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson of Growing Pains) across the country with scarce supplies (makeshift melee weapons, Molotov cocktails and limited ammo) that you scavenge in countless abandoned buildings, all the while avoiding or taking down infected Runners (fast zombies), Clickers (fast blind zombies that use echolocation to find you) and Hunters (violent bandits that have taken over the fallen world).  You constantly have to use stealth, strategy and puzzle-solving skills to navigate this gorgeously bleak world.  The locations were astoundingly beautiful; many times, I found myself simply stopping and enjoying a misty sunrise on a beach or a gold and pink sunset from the tops of buildings, a much-needed respite from the violence and darkness.

Despite being a survival horror game which is typically rooted in fantastical, post-apocalyptic settings, this one felt extremely grounded in reality.  You feel every punch you take and throw.  Every time you swing a melee weapon, you still feel the weight and gore of it.  And throughout this journey with Ellie, you begin to care for her and look out for her with the same grit and tenacity that Joel does.  Joel’s relationship with Ellie truly is at the heart of this game.  Some of the more touching moments are simply conversations that Ellie has with Joel, as she is 14 years old and has never known the world outside of post-apocalypse. She asks Joel about coffeeshops and hotels, simple pleasures that we take for granted in the modern world.  She also curses like a sailor (or like Deb from Showtime’s Dexter) which is really, surprisingly funny and absurd when it happens.

My husband called it the “Breaking Bad of video games” and I have to agree with him!  The plot and characters are incredibly well-developed, the gameplay engaging and challenging, and the environmental design is simply gorgeous.  There’s a reason this was voted Game of the Year 200 times in 2013.

The Comic Book: The Last of Us: American Dreams
The Last of Us: American Dreams
comic book serves as a prequel to The Last of Us video game and also a supplement to Left Behind, the side game that is also a prequel, set 3 weeks before the events of the main game.  In Left Behind, you play as Ellie and see her relationship with her best friend Riley, whom she mentions toward the end of the game.  The comic book is set even earlier than that, and you see how Ellie first meets Riley and you find out more of Ellie’s quirks (for instance, how she knows how to ride horses but doesn’t know how to swim, and why a knife is her weapon of choice).  This is also best read assuming you’ve played the Left Behind side game, but it works well as a story on its own.

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The artwork was more cartoony than the game, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, having become accustomed to the beautiful and realistic visuals of the game; however, with the story being centered more on two young teenage girls rather than the older, hardened survivor Joel, the more cartoony, juvenile visual style made sense.

The Novel – City of Thieves by David Benioff
Bruce Straley (Last of Us game director and designer) said in an Indoor Kids podcast that City of Thieves, a novel by David Benioff (from the duo D.B. Weiss and David Benioff behind HBO’s Game of Thrones series) is a direct inspiration for the game itself.  Intrigued, I bought the book to read on my vacation this past weekend to Tennessee.  The book features the story of Kolya and Lev, two young Russians arrested for looting and desertion who have to buy their freedom from a colonel who runs the prison.  The price?  A dozen eggs for colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.  To find the eggs, they must travel through World War II-torn Russia with only their wits, a couple rounds of ammo, and a stolen dagger to guide them through.

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I enjoyed the book immensely, drawing connections from the novel to the game (elements of stealth, pluck and ingenuity to survive abound, and then also to my delight there is even an offhanded mention of animals from an escaped zoo, which integrates a key scene from The Last of Us video game) and the story balances bleakness with humor as adeptly as the game does.   The game and novel have similar themes, namely that despite violence and depravity that can cripple a nation during the onslaught of war, sometimes helping your partner survive is the one good thing.  I am a huge fan of Russian literature (Brothers Karamazov, anyone?) so this novel was just enough Russian for me to enjoy.  Much like The Last of Us, the unlikely friendship between Kolya and Lev is ultimately at the heart of this story.  Also, the simple absurdity of Lev and Kolya’s mission (a dozen eggs for their freedom) mirrors the simple absurdity of Joel’s mission with Ellie (safe delivery of Ellie in exchange for a stash of weapons).  In both, there is the faint glimmer of survival amid a backdrop of hopelessness.

Benioff is very cinematic in his writing, so I am honestly perplexed as to how this hasn’t been picked up for script production.  The plot is quite economical, with very specific beats and cliffhangers mapped out throughout the book and I can easily see this novel translating to the big screen.  I guess Benioff has to wait until he’s done with Game of Thrones, because I imagine he would want to write the script himself.

The Pairing
Each of these elements stand well enough on their own, but if you have time and resources to go through all three, I highly recommend it.  There are deep character moments and humor in all of them, and it’s lovely to see how brief moments and imagery from the novel filtered beautifully into the game itself.  Also, there are some poignant moments in the comic book which enhance meaning from the video game.  Playing and reading all of these three elements so close together helped enrich each of these individual experiences.

What can I say?  Remy the rat was right 🙂

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