The Last of Us and Rugged Individualism

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I just finished playing The Last of Us. I have a lot of shit to talk on a game I couldn’t stop thinking about or playing. All of the spoilers follow.

First, it’s important to note that the game is a post-apocalypse story, more than a zombie story. By that, I mean the fully realized TEOTWAWKI world is the chief spectacle. There are no moaning hordes of undead, and the zombie movie cliches are kept to a minimum. Instead, we have absolutely stunning vistas of overgrown and rewilded freeways, city centers, and suburbs. At the center, we have Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie, a complex and tangled relationship that acts as a stand-in for whatever hope might exist for fixing that broken world.

Second, The Last of Us is a conspicuously American post-apocalypse story. Your Player Character for most of the game is a drawling Texan former country musician. As far as I can remember, the state of the rest of the world outside the USA is never discussed within the game. And your progression through the game takes you, mostly by foot, on a Manifest Destinied path from the jackboot-ruled Boston Quarantine Zone to the lawless expanses of Utah and Wyoming, vast and empty paradises sparsely populated by violent savages, and zombies. Hm. (Also, I just did a Google search and found out that the companion graphic novel is subtitled “American Dream”.)

More to the point, The Last of Us is a game in which rugged individualism runs amok. I suppose you could say that about any story in which one guy kills dozens upon dozens of other guys, but it seems doubly so in this one. Throughout the entire game, you come across hundreds of non-infected humans, but only 4 who aren’t trying to you shoot you. You systematically murder all the rest. These people, all men, are apparently sociable enough to each other that they can form small packs of pirates, looters, cannibals, even a revolutionary paramilitary organization. But every single person, as soon as they see you, starts trying to kill you. Well, one doesn’t want to kill you immediately—he wants to rape Ellie first. Basically (with two exceptions) the game argues that, in the absence of our current civilization, people can only organize themselves to do evil. It’s like a Libertarian prepper convention gone horribly sour. The game eventually points out the repercussions of your murder spree on the personal relationships of those you killed—somebody says, “you killed all my friends!” But that guy turns out to be a cannibal, so who cares.

The rugged individualism is subverted somewhat in the developing relationship between Joel and Ellie, but only somewhat. The major arc of their relationship involves Joel coming to care for Ellie despite the fact that she is not his dead daugher, who gets refrigeratored in the prologue. To do this he must overcome his horrendous insistence on being a total jerkface—never acknowledging his past, never talking about anything ever, etc. He finally gets over this, but only as soon as Ellie proves she can be a rugged individual herself by shooting some dudes. After that, Joel finally acquiesces to let her carry a gun of her own, and their relationship begins to develop.

Ellie eventually acquits herself as a worthy partner to Joel, saving him and taking care of him through a brutal winter when he gets critically wounded. She doesn’t even need him to save her from the evil cannibalrapist, which was a nice touch. But she does need him to be a parent after that experience, which was also well executed. Thankfully, he steps up to the task. Just when it seems like their adventure together is finished and their mutual respect is complete, though, the ending introduces some true emotional turmoil to the story.

For the whole game, Joel and Ellie’s goal has been to get to a science research station run by the aforementioned revolutionary organization, the Fireflies. Once there, Ellie, the first known human immune to the zombie fungus, can be studied to develop a cure. Except, plot twist! In order to do so, the Fireflies have to perform a fatal biopsy Ellie. Somewhat inexplicably, a killing Ellie is the first solution they think to try (what if it doesn’t work?), but whatevs. If killing things works every time for Joel, it ought to work for everyone else too. So Joel kills all the Fireflies and their leader to save Ellie, unconscious on the surgery table, and takes her back to his brother’s utopian settlement in Wyoming. Ellie probably would not have consented to this—but then again, she’s not of age to give informed consent by pre-apocalyptic standards. Finally, Joel lies to her to keep her from knowing what really happened.

The game ends with this as an open question: was Joel right? Saving Ellie means sacrificing the relationship of mutual respect they have built and acting once again as her protector, first and foremost—was that the right choice? More obviously, it means potentially sacrificing the future of the human race to live a normal life with his new daughter. This dilemma is also left open, though the rest of the game gives the sense that, despite the constant horrors of the post-apocalyptic world it portrays, humanity fucking blows anyway, so who gives a fuck.

The game leaves these questions open in part because it has no mechanism for letting you answer them for yourself, which is unfortunate. That said, there does seem to be a slight bias in how it portrays these questions, in the form of the privilege it lends to the POV of whichever character is the Player Character. Interestingly, when Joel kills the Fireflies and rescues Ellie, he’s the Player Character, including a Bioshock-esque illusion-of-choice to murder the surgeon about to cut Ellie open. However, when Joel tells this final lie to Ellie, she is the Player Character. To me, this would suggest that the game respects her agency more than Joel does. According to The Last of Us, the world is not worth Ellie’s sacrifice, but her right as an individual to choose to sacrifice herself anyway is more important. God bless America.

Unrelated: as fun as it was, this game could have been a quarter as long and just as good. The whole game really only follows a single gameplay loop: hide, kill, search for supplies. Push the button, open the door, repeat. Unfortunately, you can’t spend that much money to develop a game this pretty and sell it for less than $60, and you can’t sell a game for $60 unless it’s at least 15 hrs long. I wonder if developers would ever add a short mode and a long mode to games, like some games have an easy mode and a hard mode. Then again, I’d probably play the long mode on every game anyway, because I’d be afraid I’d miss something.

Fantasy (flash fiction)

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s all about boxes, borders, barriers. He walks into a new room and immediately looks for the walls. He sits in the corner, facing the door. He feels free. She builds worlds in her head—universes peopled by aliens and powered by magic as vast as her imagination, then ties herself down with their laws and rules. Give her freedom, and she’ll find herself a cage. Maybe it’s something about the invasion of brusque, digital geometry into their lives—first their living spaces, then their thought patterns expressed in stucco squares and wireframe polygons. Maybe it’s the real world, which tells them that they can be anything and do anything, with its fingers crossed behind its back all the while.

The Pros Character Files: NASS

January 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Meet Tommy “Nass” Nassif, one of the four members of The Pros. He knows how to get things done.Tommy "Nass" Nassif, by Steve Stormoen and Jelena ĐorđevićNass served two-and-a-half tours as a medic in Afghanistan. Then, on leave in 2008, he refused redeployment. Between his mood disorders and dishonorable discharge status, life for him since has been pretty difficult. After the war, he joined the peace movement, but got discouraged by the movement’s waning numbers and level of commitment as new issues sprang up, but the war continued on.

Tommy "Nass" Nassif, by Steve Stormoen and Jelena Đorđević
With The Pros, Nass is a masterful tactician, able to quickly interpret complicated situations and understand how to change them. In his new job, he sees a way to help people in a way he wasn’t able to in the military or the peace movement.

He asks The Pros to follow one rule: nobody dies on their missions. But, as intense as their missions end up, can they really maintain such a zealous moral stand?

Tommy "Nass" Nassif by Steve Stormoen and Jelena Đorđević—from the upcoming comic The ProsAll characters and panels are from Proactive Insurance: The Pros, issue 1 by Steve Stormoen and Jelena Đorđević, coming in 2014.

Who I am and where on the internet to find me, Dec 2013

December 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m Steve Stormoen. I live in Lompoc, California—a semi-rural town cornered on three sides by the US military. I want to start making a semi-regular check-in of all the crazy shit I’m doing and how other people can find my work, because I’ve been told that I don’t do that well enough. Well, here goes.

I do the following things, in addition to stuff like eating, maybe seeing friends, and sometimes showering:

  • I write and work in marketing for RightSignature in Santa Barbara.
  • I do community organizing training for Families ACT, also in Santa Barbara.
  • I am an active board member of the Lompoc Theatre Project.
  • I am a partner, editor, and co-publisher of Giles Corey Press.
  • I write and am producing a comic book about four accidental spies working for an insurance company, called It is planned for release in 2014.
  • I have a semi-regular opinion column in the Lompoc Record.
  • I contribute to a book club blog as we read through The Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.
  • I add in some freelance writing when I have a good idea and the time to pitch and write it. Most recently and significantly, I had an ongoing gig with the Bradley Manning Support Network this summer.
  • I help out with the Right to Write campaign when I can.

Where to find me/how to contact me:

My website is still incomplete (hint hint, JdV), but once it’s all together, I’m hoping it’ll be an adequate collection of this sort of stuff. The content I’ve added so far is all stuff I really like that used to be hosted elsewhere but fell off the web—short stories, a webcomic. I use facebook to talk to people I actually know and Twitter to talk to spam bots, when I remember. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to use this blog for, now that I’m moving towards trying to get my longer writings published in other publications. I have a tumblr I use almost never, though it also gets updated by the other two-thirds of Giles Corey Press. I sure do love email, though.

What else? Fantasy Baseball/Basketball profile? Steam profile? DCI number? You might have to just ask me for those.

Lessons Learned from Occupy Lompoc (Lompoc Record)

November 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Lessons Learned from Occupy Lompoc (Lompoc Record)

New column by me up at the Lompoc Record.

When Occupy Wall Street first set up their tents in New York City, much of the media was left scratching their heads. There were no leaders, there was no single demand. Instead, Occupy united around two principles.

The first was economic justice, or the idea that all people deserve the opportunity to survive, thrive and prosper in a world that fairly rewards work and recognizes basic human dignity.

The second principle was direct democracy. After the economy crashed, governments and corporations were not interested in economic justice. We would have to try to achieve it ourselves.

I knew the Occupy movement had to come to Lompoc, a town where demanding economic justice holds real weight. And I soon heard about a small gathering in Centennial Park to kick off a nascent Occupy Lompoc group.

Read more (from

2013-14 NBA Predictions

October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just jotting this down to have handy in the future. Feel free to ignore.

NBA 2013-14 predictions

Regular Season
1. Nets
2. Pacers
3. Heat
4. Bulls
5. Knicks
6. Cavaliers
7. Pistons
8. Wizards

1. Clippers
2. Spurs
3. Warriors
4. Rockets
5. Thunder
6. Grizzlies
7. Timberwolves
8. Pelicans

Nets over Wizards
Pacers over Pistons
Heat over Cavs
Bulls over Knicks

Bulls over Nets
Heat over Pacers

Bulls over Heat

Clippers over Pelicans
Spurs over Wolves
Grizzlies over Warriors
Thunder over Rockets

Thunder over Clippers
Grizzlies over Spurs

Thunder over Grizzlies

Bulls over Thunder

MVP: Kevin Durant
DPOY: LeBron James
ROY: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
6th Man: Luis Scola
Coach: Doc Rivers
Executive: Daryl Morey


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