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June 7, 2013

The Last of Us: A Pre-Discussion

I’m going to go ahead and be honest.  I really don’t know how I feel about The Last of Us right now.  

I know that’s unfair, but hear me out here.  If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you can probably pinpoint my tastes and preferences.  You know where I want to go with my own works.  And I’m pretty damn sure you know that I’ve been burned badly by plenty of recent releases.  So there’s no doubt in my mind that, even if the quality of the game is actually outstanding, and even if reviews that have started popping up have dished out high scores, I know that I have an unfair, unreasonable bias against The Last of Us.

But…really, can you blame me?  I don’t mind if you do -- because frankly, I blame myself.  And hopefully by the end of this post, I’ll be ready to dive into the game with a smile.

You know, it really is remarkable how many of my posts have some relation -- direct, tangential, or somewhere in between -- to conversations with my brother.  That’s to be expected, considering that he’s the tiger to my dragon, but if nothing else he’s always there to make sure I’ve got plenty of cannon fodder.

He’s been excited for The Last of Us for a while now.  In fact, it was by his gentle urging (i.e. refusing to renew his GameStop card) that we ended up preordering the game together, and his hype has only grown by the day since.  He was the one between us who followed as much news as he could, scrounged up videos of actual gameplay, and kept a pulse on the multiplayer.  I didn’t share his enthusiasm.  I never bothered with reading articles or checking videos.  I could care less about multiplayer (for obvious reasons).  And then, of course, there were the reviews.


As of this writing, I’ve seen two ten out of tens, a four and a half-star rating, and a glowing recommendation from the guys at Penny Arcade.  But as I explained to my brother, word for word, “Reviews are only a suggestion of quality, not a confirmation.”  Remember, Halo 4, DmC, AND Final Fantasy 13-2 have seen scores like a 10, a 9, and an 8 respectively from my site of choice, Destructoid (though to be fair, those reviews were handled by separate reviewers).  Given my thoughts on those games, none of them are even close to the scores they’ve earned, Destructoid, Metacritic, or otherwise.  Then again, that’s the thing; my cute little Let’s Discuss posts might take a deeper look at games, but what bothers me won’t bother, say, Jim Sterling.  It’s a matter of preference, but it’s also a matter of tolerance.  Sterling was willing to put up with DmC’s Dante Donte.  I wasn’t.  So if I were to put numbers to each discussion post -- which I never, ever will -- then DmC would do much poorer.

What I’m getting at here is more than just suggesting that “lol, reviewers don’t know anything!  They barely even played the game!”  The problem is that there’s no way for anyone to be 100% satisfied -- or betrayed -- by a product without trying it out.  Reviews can help you make an informed decision, but in the end, the only one you can trust is yourself.  And in a lot of cases -- games well among them -- that pretty much requires you to cave and give it a shot.  Or in my brother’s case (as it was with Resident Evil 6), you can buy into the “hype”, ignore all the reviews, and get the game on day one…and watch as your “great game, great experience” turns into a pile of slop a starving pig wouldn’t eat.


But that’s just the thing, isn’t it?  Hype.  There is an insane amount of hype around this game, and I feel like I’m missing out by not getting swept into it.  On one hand, I’d say that I’m justified -- in the sense that hype and the “preorder culture” this generation has driven people to act on impulse instead of on information -- but on the other hand, it could mean that I’ve gotten a lot more cynical than I’m willing to admit.  Why am I being so critical?  Why can’t I just go with the flow?  Why can’t I trust that this game is going to be the bee’s knees, and that it’ll be THE game everyone’s been waiting for?  The game I’VE been waiting for?

Well, maybe I’ve been hurt worse than I thought.  Like a lot of people, triple-A releases have really started to wear on me.  For a genre in and of itself that should constantly be delivering, somehow I haven’t gotten what I’ve wanted out of a surprisingly large percentage of them.  As I’ve said, my problem with triple-A games isn’t that they were built with fat sacks of cash; it’s that they don’t know what to do with that cash.  They try to be an experience without building an experience.  Conceit, shallowness, delusions of grandeur, all that and more -- that’s what I’ve started attributing to the big-name games.  There are exceptions, of course (BioShock Infinite, Far Cry 3, and the Mass Effect titles are triple-A games done right), but it feels like games that generate the most hype -- a result of willingly “making it rain” on any passerby -- are the ones most likely to disappoint me.  The Last of Us is supposed to be the PS3’s last big title, but I’m concerned that the emphasis is going to be on the “big” more than anything else.  Anything meaningful.  And if reviewers aren’t being as critical as they could -- and should -- be, then that praise they’ve dished out might ring hollow in the end.


With all that in mind, I think I know myself pretty well.  I know my tastes, my preferences, and my biases.  And I have a pretty good idea of why The Last of Us, in spite of being so close to release, still hasn’t won me over yet.

It’s gritty.

Yep.  This again.


If you get issues of GameInformer, you may know that one of its recent releases has details on the upcoming Batman: Arkham Origins.  I’ve played the other games before, and while I will gladly recognize that they’re good games, there was just something about the cover of one magazine -- featuring a shadow-soaked Batman lunging at the reader in a world drained of color -- that just made me groan.  Likewise, when I opened up the magazine and flipped through, I spotted details on Telltale’s next game, The Wolf Among Us…only to have my excitement tempered by descriptions of “dark interpretations” of fairy tales.  (It certainly didn’t help that in the same paragraph, “quality” products like Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Killer, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters are mentioned quickly.)  Again, I’ll admit that it sounds like an interesting game, but reading the descriptions of each character just made me go “uuuuuuuuuuuuuurgh”.  And then when I flipped the page, I started reading about Double Fine’s upcoming adventure game, Broken Age…and my eyes pretty much lit up.  Colors!  Crazy worlds!  Characters that aren’t grizzled, tough, or world-weary!  Mentions of riding through the sky on a big friendly bird!  Fuckin’ colors!

This is a subject that I’ll get into on a later date (I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, after all), but let’s not go off on any further tangents.  You probably know this by know, but I’ll make it clear as day how I feel: I am completely and utterly burnt out on grit.  So when I hear that The Last of Us focuses on things like “a post-apocalyptic world” and “zombies” and…well, pretty much everything revolving around Joel, none of those things appeal to me.  At all.  Same goes for the violence that’s bound to be on display -- which I’m pretty sure was well among the highlight reel of violence from last year’s E3 and helped contribute to that little shitstorm issue.  But for me, the grit is the central problem; it’s the package that, in my eyes, is more repulsive than a box full of piranhas.  And I think I can pinpoint why.


I’m of the opinion that people consume stories -- wherever they may appear -- to have a good time.  To be entertained.  Why cry when you can laugh, after all?  I know that’s not always the case (the concept of “catharsis” goes a long way), but I would think that it’s a general idea.  We’re hardwired to seek out happiness.  That’s why we have things like The Simpsons, The Avengers, and even My Little Pony.

But things are different with -- to use a blanket term -- gritty stories.  Considering that they can (and regularly do) feature less-than-ideal environments with less-than-ideal-heroes in less-than-ideal situations, one would think that the aesthetics and goings-on would be an immediate turn-off.  But I know that’s not the case.  In fact, I can see the appeal.  If gritty stories are going to refuse to offer us immediate good times, then the expectation is that they’ll offer up something in exchange.  In other words, they need to offer up merit -- intellectual merit, ideally.  The expectation is that the characters, world, events, and themes can come together to explore ideas that a brighter story can’t.  The grit should be in place to surpass limits.  Leave no stone un-turned.  Demand and reward deeper thought instead of guttural, instinctual delight.  A story shouldn’t be boxed in by its nature, gritty or otherwise, and ideally a gritty story should be the FIRST to try and break the mold. It should NOT just be a chance to revel in pessimism porn and have everyone become assholes while they bathe in blood, sweat, grime, and bad decisions.


That’s my expectation, at least.  Now, I’ll acknowledge that there are not only gritty stories I’ve enjoyed (Looper and The Godfather, arguably), but gritty stories that are made stronger because of their grit (Spec Ops: The Line and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and on a similar -- albeit debatable -- axis, Fallout 3 and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin).  So no, I’m not immediately opposed to something just because it’s gritty.

…Is what I would like to say, but I know myself pretty well.  There are a few caveats to what I just said.  First off, just because gritty stories CAN be good doesn’t mean that EVERY gritty story will be good.  Gears of War was wall-to-wall grit from start to finish, and we all know how that turned out; ideas and themes and characters and the world at large went unexplored, either banished to side materials (comics and novels, from what I’ve heard) or ignored in exchange for focusing on Marcus Fenix yelling “Go, go, go!” for the eight hundred fifty-sixth time that day.  Second, even if every gritty story was a masterpiece of design and execution, the absolute glut of them does no one any favors, especially since the glut of them ensures that huge percentages of them are weak and full of problems, and end up becoming less mature in spite of (or even because of) the content therein.  Would you rather play as the no-nonsense soldier in a torn-up urban warzone, a snarky-but-troubled superhuman fighting against the establishment as transparently as possible, or a scowling, unsympathetic warrior/god who murders his way to and through other unsympathetic gods?  I don’t mind if some characters are unlikable and some worlds are harsh, but for fuck’s sake, let’s not make everything grimdark.

Tl;dr: grit + merit = a hit.  Limit + grit = shit. 


So what does that mean for The Last of Us?  Well, if nothing else I hope you can understand my apprehension for the game, whether you’re hyped or not.  I have a very strong hunch that while the final product will be good -- great, even -- it won’t be worthy of the hype it’s garnered, and said hype may end up proving detrimental -- building it up for a big fall, of sorts.  (The fact that some reviews have had ominous comments about the ending makes me eager to reach for my umbrella early.)  By the same token, I have high expectations for the game.

 If this really is the PS3’s big sendoff, then I expect -- if not outright demand -- that this game be the best the system, or any other system, has offered yet.  I expect the grit, and the zombie apocalypse, and the chaotic world, to be explored in depth.  I expect Joel and Ellie to go through more than just the expected character arcs of “grizzled gunman’s heart grows three sizes” and “wide-eyed child toughens up and loses her naiveté.”  I expect this game to earn and prove its hype AFTER people have played it, and completed it in full.  THEN when all’s said and done -- when people can sit in circles and have chats about the game, myself included -- I’ll acknowledge that it’s great.  Gladly.  And I’ll be sure to post my thoughts on it here on Cross-Up when I’ve got everything in order.  No more, no less.  And no sooner.

So.  With all that said, here are my predictions for The Last of Us.


1) I’m going to end up invalidating this post with the impending praise I give the game.
Reviews are a suggestion of quality, not a confirmation of it -- but the overwhelming praise that’s been dished out so far has to stand for something.  In the end, I may have no choice but to admit -- of my own volition, no less -- that it’s a fine game that’s one of the increasingly-few titles deserving of a TENOUTTATEN.

2) This is not going to be a perfect game.
Because no such thing exists -- and as a corollary, I’d like to assume that I’m going to find some flaw that I can’t help but overlook.  Will it be a deal-breaker?  No.  But I’m ready for it, no matter when or where it appears.

3) Joel and Ellie will be cool characters, but Ellie > Joel.
I feel as if we’ve done this dance before. 


I called it back with BioShock Infinite, and I’ll go ahead and call it now: I’ll end up liking Ellie a lot more than I’ll end up liking Joel, to the point where (once more) I’ll end up wishing/wondering why I couldn’t play as her instead.  Such untapped potential…

4) The world WILL end up being fully realized.
You can chalk up my lack of hype for the game to an unintentional media lockout…or alternatively, the fact that super-duper-good-graphics have as much effect on me as a Frisbee to the head.  Screenshots can only do so much for a game, and there’s no point in salivating if they’re just going to be window dressing.  But the setting of The Last of Us is at once its lynchpin and (potentially) its greatest strength; in the same sense that Columbia was a key part of Infinite, so too will this post-apocalyptic world -- god, I’m so tired of hearing that phrase -- be a vital element to the game’s success.

5) For better or worse, The Last of Us is going to set an example.
Well, you know me.  Even with months between posts on things like Halo 4 and DmC, and me almost conclusively closing the book on both, I can’t help but look back at them when it’s time to illustrate a point (or make a cheap joke).  As much as I hate to admit it, if a game does something wrong -- grievously wrong -- then I’ll be sure to remember it for a while.  By the same token, if a game does something very, very right (Devil Survivor, Ratchet and Clank, Xenoblade Chronicles, which I should probably get around to posting on one of these days), then I’ll gladly hold them up as examples of what people should do instead of…well, not do.


What did I tell you?

Reviewer testimonies and my personal hopes (I’m the Eternal Optimist, remember?) suggest that The Last of Us is going to offer more examples of what to do than what not to do.  If the game can manage to make its world meaningful, and -- in the same vein as Infinite -- give the player a chance to explore a well-crafted environment at his/her own pace, AND give us worthwhile characters to act on our behalf, then…really, that’s good enough.  But if the game can somehow offer even more than that, and give me something that I didn’t even know I wanted, then the game will do more than just set an example.  It’ll be a game that, potentially, has a chance of becoming one of my favorite games ever.  Well, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.

So.  That’s just about where I stand.  The Last of Us?  Probably gonna be pretty good.  But screw the hype.  I’ll decide for myself if I think the game is good, just as the rest of you should.  And that’s really all there is to it.


…Actually, scratch that.  After The Last of Us, I really, really, REALLY hope that the video game industry lays off the zombie stuff.  And the violence.  And the grit.  Just for a little while, can we just have this be a happy place?  Please?  Am I really asking that much?

4 comments:

  1. I'm on the fence regarding the issue. One part of me wants more elements of Heavy Rain. You know the helplessness / suspense factor and all. But I find myself admitting that if a game doesn't have a fair share of pulse pounding adaptive action it become woefully linear.


    Mind you, linear isn't always bad. These days I don't really play games ten times through... but it's nice to present to illusion that you had a choice. This is something Heavy Rain did well.


    I agree Last of Us looks good. It'd take a great deal of tripping to have it spiral into the abyss past mediocre and splashing into the stinking murk of crap-tastic.

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  2. I guess that I wasn't the only one taking a hard look at The Last of Us. I'm with you on this one; the game can get as many perfects as there are stars in the sky, but that means nothing in terms of whether an individual - myself, yourself, your brother - will enjoy it and consider it a fulfilling experience. Only the player can ultimately determine whether a game, even one that's being hailed as spectacular, is actually spectacular for them, or if it's just okay, or even bad.

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  3. I've heard a lot of conflicting details on Heavy Rain. Some say it's good, some say it's awful...it's hard to figure out what the general consensus is (for me, at least) beyond "it's flawed, but A for effort." Maybe I'll have to take a closer look at the game myself; I DO need a new LP to listen to since I finished one on Sonic '06. So many loading screens...

    But that aside, I will readily admit that The Last of Us looks good, and I'm not anticipating it becoming something worthy of infinite scorn. Then again, I said the same thing about The Dark Knight Rises, and...well, it didn't go too well for me. So anything could happen, I guess.

    Now that you mention it, though, it'll be interesting to see how the linearity (or lack thereof) of The Last of Us plays out. Guess that's just something I'll have to be on the lookout for...among other things. I just realized that Ellie is a nickname for girls named Elizabeth, and Joel is voiced by Troy Baker, who ALSO did the voice for Booker DeWitt.



    IT'S A CONSPIRACY! QUICK, TO THE BOMB SHELTER!

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  4. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I gave The Last of Us a free pass just because of the hype (or alternatively, that it'll be good because it was made by the guys behind Uncharted, which just brings up its own issues of hype). There's only so much that we can rely on reviewers to give us, and -- beyond guys like Yahtzee or Spoony -- that level of critical application is something that we need...and in the absence of it, we'll have to count on ourselves to fill in the gaps.


    Of course that just brings up issues of whether or not people can BE critical enough in their own gaming adventures...buuuuuuuuuuut that's neither here nor there.

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