Last Of Us and the adolescence of video games

Videogaming is coming of age. Revenue from the videogaming industry now stands proudly alongside the music and film industries. A entire generation has grown up playing games and the unjust prejudices are dying away. Smart phones and tablets place these games with us everywhere we go.

But are the games themselves growing up?

I recently played the Playstation game “Last of Us” . Arguably the critical darling of 2013, winning a slew of awards. I was late to the party, granted, but regardless this game made me think a lot about where videogames sit right now.

Firstly – this is a great game.

Visually it is a treat, especially considering the 6 year old hardware upon which it is hosted. The audio is clever, restrained and well recorded. Interestingly, the music score is credited to one man, Gustavo Santaolalla, Academy Awarding winning score writer for both Babel and Brokeback Mountain. The auteuristic nature of the score is quite readily heard, with minimalist instrumentation throughout. The gameplay is both tense and involving, and the digitised acting is perhaps the finest I have yet seen in a game.

“Last of us” is a zombie survival game. This is gaming cliché dating back many a year, but oddly, it didn’t bother me whatsoever as the handling of both story and setting was immaculate. Yes, the Zombies are called “Infected”, and airborne spores are a secondary method of infection alongside the old-school biting methodology, but rest assured, this is a zombie tale through and through.

The story centres around Joel, a middle aged survivor of the infection, and Ellie, the 14 year old girl whom he is tasked with transporting across country. I shall avoid any further talk of the story to avoid spoilers for those yet to play. The story is strong, but strong “for a videogame”. Taken on the expectations of a book or film, the plot is thin and transparent. A third-act side-story was welcome and even a little surprising, but in general the arch is very predictable.  Good “for a game” is a loaded compliment and clearly indicative of our lowered expectations. Considering the extent games like this are shooting for Hollywood style presentation, the plot should be given as much care as the visuals.

I did care for the characters from very early on. Human, carefully considered dialogue is a boon for this game, and the voice acting is sublime. Add to this some wonderful facial capture and we have digital acting you actually care for.

However, the game is not perfect. The game is held back by videogame tropes that date it and hold it back from true artistry.

Enemies, whether Zombie or human aggressor, abide by predefined paths. Put another way, they walk in circles, until alerted of your presence. At which point, they charge directly at you, occasionally second guessing themselves. Artificial intelligence is somewhat muted in this game. Games such as the “Halo” series has shown us that more intelligent foes are possible even on dated hardware, but my guess here is that the computing horsepower is being used primarily on the visuals. This game is a pretty one, but darn stupid at the core.

The game builds in a very “videogamey” way. At one point, I was impressed; I was led to believe I was reaching the story climax in a more unique, understated way. But no – this was a lull before the inevitable more-is-more approach. Throwing more guns and more enemies at me in that climax-by-numbers way so many videogames insist upon. This game could have been better than this.  It should have been braver.

Early on, I spent an infuriating hour with the game which nearly ruined my experience. Let me explain firstly, I am a seasoned gamer. I am no pro as I don’t play enough (Music is my wife; Gaming my mistress.) So when an early encounter in the ruins of a skyscraper took me the best part of 20 attempts, I was so very close to quitting, ne’er to return.

The gameplay balance was shot and the “reaction” zones of the enemies flawed. A quick Google search proved that many, many players had succumbed to anger at this section. It isn’t just me. This period of frustration utterly destroyed the pacing, the ebb and flow, otherwise dealt with so well.

On this note, this is a gamer’s game. It is a complex, full controller game (“hardcore” is perhaps the correct term). Which is perfectly fine. Not all videogames need to be accessible by the iPhone convertees. But I mention this because this type of gaming will never have the all encompassing appeal of music of film for the very reason we enjoy it. The learning curve, the tension, the mastery – these are not for everyone. However, it doesn’t mean developers can’t aim to cement these more hardcore games as an art form of their own.

Death in this game is handled well. You honestly do try to avoid harming Joel and Ellie. And the “fail state” of death on screen is gruesome and harsh. But death is not punished too harshly from a gaming perspective. You are back to where you were a few minutes ago quickly and smoothly (kudos here to some wonderful RAM allocation by the developers)

The visual beauty of the game is a marvel. But it comes at a cost. She is a beautiful game, but she knows it, and wants you to explore her every nook and cranny. In order to be well stocked in ammo and supplies, you must scout around every area. It is almost as if the makers are saying “we have worked our asses off to make this game look good – we want to make damn sure you look at it all!” The problem here is twofold. Firstly, this is utterly inorganic and ruins the flow. Scanning every area just in case kills pacing. Secondly, gamers like myself end up seeing the world at a 30 degree downwards angle. We strafe around, carefully aiming the camera, looking for loot. Thereby, missing the perpendicular glory of the world the designers and coders have created. A home-run if never there was one, common to all games like this. I am happy to explore your world – hell, I have paid my money to do so! I don’t need the breadcrumbs.

The game is involving and brilliant. But, it isn’t always “fun”. At times the action and story are harrowing, nasty even. This is good – great media needn’t be sugar coated wonderment. We have a gamut of emotions to use in art. In this respect more than many others, “Last of us” is very grown up. It dares to make us feel.

The game takes many cues from film and TV. The cut scenes (non-interactive, “watch only” sections) are very well directed and have the modern features of quick-cuts and jumping timelines, keeping you on edge.

I felt involved. I was actively moving the controller sticks towards that knife which was just out of reach during the cut scenes, forgetting I was only a passenger on this part of the ride. I also felt like I earned my victory when I completed the game. The challenge (other than that scene in the skyscraper) was well balanced and kept me wanting to try again whenever I failed. Now I have completed the game, I have that odd feeling of loss that it is over. That feeling reserved for only the very best books, films and games.

I have avoided too much talk of games as art. This is because not all games need be art. Pure gaming can be explicitly joyful by itself. The finest Nintendo games tend to remember this every generation while everyone else is trying to take itself more seriously, for better and worse. Nevertheless, “Last of us” is aiming for big-boy, grown-up gaming and is demanding that we take it seriously. It does perhaps the finest job yet of making us sit up and listen while still enjoying the ride.

“Last of us” and games of its kin are perhaps the industry’s adolescence in full force. A spotty, awkward teenager of a game. But a teenager with a razor sharp mind and ideas to burn, who will hopefully grow into something quite spectacular if they fall into the right crowd. Finger’s crossed.

Going Loopy – My time with a loop pedal

Last week I bought a loop pedal. Tomorrow, I am taking it back.

That is the short version of the story. Here is the long version.

I am getting more gigs now. This is a good thing. I gig solo, just me and a guitar. I have no band, in part because I haven’t the time. But largely because I haven’t the inclination. Music is a solo affair for me, other than when recording – in the studio I love having other musicians get involved on my songs. Plus – as a music producer in my day job, I need my ears in perfect condition. Drummers are great behind a sheet or two of sound proof glass, but not next to me on stage, thank you very much!

So my mind has been wandering recently for ways to make my live set more varied. This is where the loop pedal idea came from.

A loop pedal, for those unaware, is a clever little device that allows you to “loop” a section of music you play live over and over, and then layer this loop with more sounds, creating a real-time soundscape on stage. Every note is played by you, but it simply repeats and layers the sections you lay down. Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall have both been big advocates of this, in no small part because they are also solo singer songwriters. Especially true in the early days for both, as bands are expensive things to trek around on tour!

I duly took my cue. I went out and bought a loop pedal that seemed perfect. The pedal has two inputs and two outputs. One for my guitar, and one for my vocal. Perfect! Well… not quite. I will not go into the full technical side of this, but, in order to get a gig-ready setup that is workable by a front-of-house sound engineer, I would need to spend more money and use roughly a dozen leads of various types in the chain. My current setup up is two leads – one guitar, one vocal. This move from straightforward to complex is disconcerting, especially in the hazy world of live sound where simplicity is king.

At first, my inner tech geek was salivating. Don’t get me wrong – in the comfort of the rehearsal studio, with a careful set up, this pedal works. Looping in time came naturally, and I have had a lot of fun layering in real time. I started to plan some of my songs to adapt to this set up, coming up with some funky ideas.

And then the pedal crashed.

The red recording light stalled in the “on” position. The pedal had “stuck” on record mode, layering upwards without punching out of record. No button presses were stopping it. The room started to heave with low end hum from the undying loop… I dived for the master volume on my mixer and unplugged the loop pedal.

Concerned, I powered on again and all was dandy. However, since this occurrence, the pedal has crashed twice more over this week. Now – the pedal is reliable over 95% of the time. This would be fine in the studio. But live, it is all or nothing, and I feel uneasy at the risk of that 5% cropping up on stage.

As such, I am taking the pedal back. I considered an exchange but (a) it seems the model is new and other people online are reporting similar inconsistent behaviour and (b) I am having other concerns…

The set-up using this device is complex and will take me from being a breeze to manage on stage to a potential nightmare. This is because I want all or nothing. I want to loop vocals AND guitar. Looping just the guitar is straightforward. My desire to push the boundaries created  4 outputs and a string of connectors. I actually like the simplicity of my current guitar/vocal set up. It gives me comfort to know very little can go wrong, and, if it does, I have a spare guitar and spare mic. Easy fixes abound. Should this new, fancy loop-pedal set up go wrong on stage, I’d be in trouble!

I think I also liked the *idea* of a looper more that the actual result. Adding a looped, 8 beat guitar clunk as a rhythm track, then layering some guitar lines and vocal oohs seemed cool. Later that afternoon, I played the same song vanilla, unplugged in a reverb heavy lobby at the studio. I liked the vanilla more, even though, technically, it was less impressive. When it is just me, I found I concentrated more on the notes and words I was performing. Once I started looping, the mesh of sound stated to take over, and keeping track of it was reducing my performance. Or, at least I felt like it was, putting me ill at ease with the set up.

I’ll admit, I wanted a “wow” factor. And I wonder if I am looking in the wrong place, or whether I need it at all. Yes, looping can be really cool, but it is no longer a “new hotness”. People have seen it before. For those that are new to it, once the wow passes, you are left with songs that are potentially hamstrung by it. Either the loop has to cut out for the chord change sections, causing a sudden drop in arrangement density, or you simply keep the same chords looping throughout a song. I am no dance music artist, and I found myself grating on my own songs, dying for a middle eight, a relative minor, a rhythmic variation rather than addition.

I do feel that perhaps I am jumping ship too early. Perhaps I should replace the pedal and persevere. However, I have spent many hours this week acclimating. Hours I could have spent writing. Recording. Mixing my new record. Put bluntly, I fear I am playing technician, not musician, and as such not getting the returns I crave.

I also wonder whether I am trying to fix a problem that isn’t there.

Last weekend I played my longest live set yet. A full hour to a chilled Sunday afternoon crowd at a lovely venue in Hertfordshire. This was me, my acoustic guitar, a microphone, and a dozen of my own songs. No cover versions, no guest musicians, no gimmicks. And it went really well! The feedback I got was all positive. The hour flew by on stage and I felt really comfortable. The compliments I received from both friends and strangers afterwards mentioned the intimacy of the set. Hearing the words clearly. The variation of styles I use.  No one but me seemed concerned that the guitar/vocal set up wasn’t enough.

Some of my favourite gigs as a spectator have been these intimate close-quarter set ups. Laura Marling, Amos Lee,  Scott Matthews… Seeing each of these artists play solo with their guitar, I never longed for a loop pedal, a sampler, or any other tech gadget. I was happy with the music, the words and the artist. The focus is beautiful when the material is strong. Why dilute this? I should be writing better songs, not orchestrating complex technical set ups.

Earlier this evening, I looked across my studio at my Yamaha stage piano. I have recently started tinkering again on this lovely instrument. I even have a rather pretty piano led song on my second album, (which I am heading towards completing over the coming months). Perhaps here lies my new “thing” for the stage. Not a gimmick, a real tangible skill. I should practice and gain some proficiency, one day dragging the piano on stage, bringing a few new songs with it. Piano skills would be useful all round, so this seems like a no brainer.

This has nothing to do with a minor Tim Minchin obsession of late. Nothing whatsoever…