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.

2 Comments

  1. Dan

    This is a really interesting look at TLOU mainly becuase it looks at the game as an experience rather than a videogame.

    I was actually quite taken aback by this sentence:

    “The story is strong, but strong ‘for a videogame’. Taken on the expectations of a book or film, the plot is thin and transparent. ”

    I was thinking over the this a good while and wondering why it was that I couldn’t agree with though I did feel it was quite correct.

    Upon reflection I think I understand why: The story is generic. There’s no story elements which set this game apart from a generic Zombie apocalypse movie or book. However the game shines because of one über factor:

    -> The quality of the implementation of said generic story

    The story is not the reason why this game is untouchable to me, its the care and attention to detail which went in to creating the cinematic experience which is. I have rarely if ever (none spring to mind) seen a movie scene which manages to make me feel the pain of a character without feeling like the movie is just emotionally abusing me (The Color Purple : not a good film just because it makes you sad. If that were the case then videos of mindless cruelty would be considered ‘good cinema’).

    I would also like to say that the general quality of movies is not increasing (though their budgets are) where as the cinematic quality of the best games is increasing (along with their budgets). I just feel that cinema is like Augustus Gloop these days. Fat, lazy and a danger to itself, scared to do anything new and without a similar type of indie distribution like videogames do for smaller outfits to efficiently experiment.

    Though TLOU is merely a standard genre of game with a standard story and pretty much standard characters : they are all perfectly sculpted. This game is not innovative but it’s nigh on perfect in its execution.

    • james

      Hey Dan. Thanks for your input and great points! I haven’t been to the cinema for years. I prefer quirky films rather than big hitters.

      I agree. Games are trying harder and harder to say something more. This excites me. I really feel that LOU is a turning point game. If it had just been brave enough to throw a curve ball or two. If it hadn’t been so obvious where it went. It could have been spectacular. And, as a new, disconected franchise, it could have been that game. It had nothing to lose.

      Once games become brave enough to take story lines somewhere different, we’ll be in for a treat. Imagine the videogame Matrix. Fight Club. Pan’s Labyrinth. How amazing would one of these be?!

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