Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

July 26, 2013

Let's discuss The Last of Us (Part 2).


Spoilers.  Zombies.  Opinions.  You know.  The usual stuff.  Read at your own risk, and…


 I miss the days when games didn’t make me sad and tired.

So.  I think it’s about time I do something I haven’t done in a while…with the proper music, of course.

--A lot of people have already brought up the whole “invisible AI partner” bit as immersion breaking -- and I agree with them -- but has anyone taken note of some of the other weird and stupid shit in this game?  Because I guarantee you it’s in there.

--Would anyone like to explain to me why enemy AI will bug out so hard that you can watch a gunman run around in circles over and over again until you shoot him in the face?

--Why does every third goon sound like Yuri Lowenthal?  I know some people don’t like Sasuke, but is killing him over and over going to do any good?

--Why do dialogues between Joel and other characters transpire when Joel is five rooms over checking bookcases for alcohol?

--By the same token, why do Ellie’s incredibly-vital and character-developing conversations trigger when Joel is nowhere nearby or busy with something, so if you don’t have subtitles on you’ll hear a half-muted mess?

--By the same token, why is it that when Ellie and Joel are having a conversation while riding on a horse about all the delicious murder they’ve engaged in, Ellie will -- immediately after finishing her last line of dialogue -- break into an air guitar solo…and then pick up the conversation a moment later like nothing happened?

--Why does the game simultaneously try to act like I have freedom to explore yet have to follow NPCs to the next trigger simultaneously?  I’m only asking because I have a follow-up question: if I’m supposed to be allowed the freedom to move at my own pace, then why is it that if I don’t directly follow behind Tommy at all times during the power plant sequence (even though he moves without me because I’ve somehow triggered a conversation despite being twenty yards away), I suddenly find myself having to load up a checkpoint because he went behind a door I can’t open?

--Why is it that enemies can detect me from the other side of the map or if I mess up a brick toss a few dozen yards away, but when I strangle one guy standing just a few yards away from another guy, the second guy doesn’t even notice?  By the same token, how is it that if I throw a bottle at a distant wall, a Clicker will run toward the sound, and then double back to where I am even though it has no reason to suspect that’s where the sound came from?

--Why is my movement speed nearly nonexistent outside of actual gameplay sequences?  Why can’t I move at the pace I want when characters are having conversations without me, or I’m ready to move quickly to the next area (or waste fifteen minutes trying to find the next ladder -- or the door Tommy disappeared behind)?      
--Why does Joel have to saunter around drunkenly when he’s near objects, or just trying to move in a different direction (not doing a quick-turn, mind, but just changing his normal path)?  That may not seem like an issue, but it kind of becomes one when you’re trying to escape from a Bloater, but end up running into a wall thanks to being in a foggy spore-infested area with low visibility -- so why force the player to fight the game?

--Why is “upgrade crafting speed” even an upgrade in this game?  Do you want to know how many times I ever had to make more items in a combat situation?  Twice -- and they were entirely optional.  So when is the speed of crafting ever going to factor in when A) you’ll do most of your item-collecting outside of a fight, B) you’ll do most of your crafting outside of a fight so you’ll be ready for the next one, and C) even without upgrades crafting only takes about three seconds tops?

--Why do I get A FULLY FUNCTIONAL FLAMETHROWER?  (No, I’m never letting that go.)

…Okay.  Is that it?  Are those all of the nitpicks?  I think that’s all of them.  Wait, did I mention the flamethrower?  Oh, yeah, I did.  Good.  I guess that’ll do it, then.

Now then.  Let’s talk about the important stuff.  Because as it turns out, Ellie gets to be the protagonist for part of the game.

You know, this actually reminds me of something I encountered in my own writing adventures.  See, there’s a story I’ve got where -- much like The Last of Us -- there is a HUGE focus on the relationship and trials of two characters, one male, and one female.  Granted the two of them end up getting separated along the way and spend a hefty amount of time apart…and they’re the same age…and at one point they nearly kill each other…uh, I guess they’re not all that similar.

Joking aside, there was one complaint I received a while back that’s a legitimate concern, and something that I’ve taken into consideration since then.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the male of the pair is the one that gets more focus (he’s the star of the entire story, and goes through no shortage of insane adventures).  But the issue was that at the time, with that earlier draft, people weren’t getting enough of the girl on her own.  That is, the guy got -- and would get -- plenty of scenes where he was alone, but in the eyes of others the girl was just an offshoot of the guy…or arguably, a half-formed character joined at the guy’s hip.  Simply put, she needed scenes to herself to develop her character -- to give her independence and definition.  And As soon as I was able, I added in a few.  One, then another, then another, then another.  I’ll admit that the girl is still not quite complete without the guy, but then again he’s even more incomplete without her than she’ll ever be.  (Let’s just say the “manic pixie dream girl” trope is explored in full effect -- and goes both ways -- and leave it at that for now.)

In any case, the takeaway from this is simple.  Male or female, partner characters need to define themselves outside of their relationship.  They can do that within the confines of their time together, or -- more beneficially -- they can do so if and when they’re split apart.  That same idea applies to TLoU.  It’s a given that Ellie and Joel will develop in sync (as Elizabeth and Booker did before them), but there are still things we need to see from them that can be done more easily if we see them apart. 

I still stand by the opinion that Ellie should have been the protagonist/player character of this game (and I’ll probably come back to that point at a later date), but to the game’s credit there are a number of sequences where Joel and Ellie get split up.  The problem is that outside of a couple of minor ones -- and the one major sequence where you play as Ellie -- the game puts significant focus on Joel Grumpybuns.  Why the developers would choose to focus more on a character that can be described almost entirely in a single sentence and ALSO gets a huge amount of focus in the story proper is beyond me.  Alas, such is life.

I will say this about Joel’s character, though, and make no mistake it’s actually a bit intriguing.  For someone who is constantly surrounded by and dishing out death, Mr. Grumpybuns is remarkably ill-equipped to handle death himself.  The loss of his daughter no doubt breaks him, he refuses to even acknowledge the death of Tess, and he’s horrifically mum on the subject of Sam and Henry.  So it’s possible that he’s either deeply disturbed by the death of people close to him but puts on a stoic face regardless, OR he’s trained himself to dehumanize and desensitize himself to death, be it friend or foe.  You could say there’s an almost childlike simplification of life and its particulars in his eyes…or you could take the easy route and say “he’s gone insane!” and be done with it.  Which I suspect is the same approach Naughty Dog went with.

In any case, Ellie.  Having put some thought, time, and distance between myself and the game, looking back on it all I’d have to say Ellie -- while a good character in theory -- suffers in practice.  She feels underutilized.  She doesn’t even appear in the first half-hour (and probably more) of the game, and when she does, she gets shoved out of the spotlight in exchange for Tess, AKA Woman Joel.  After that, her character -- and Joel’s, and their relationship -- goes into stasis, remaining largely unmoved from initial impressions.  And then Bill joins the party, and now that Joel’s got another gunman on his side Ellie gets treated like a nuisance/burden once more.  So generally speaking, that translates to hours and hours of these characters being the same people that they were five seconds into their introductions. 

To be fair, there are glimmers of hope throughout.  When Ellie and Joel leave Bill behind in their newly-started vehicle, Ellie takes some time to pal around and show that there’s more to her than just having knee-jerk reactions to the player’s actions (which I suspect is just positive reinforcement of “shit got real, yo”).  If the idea was to show that even in the post-world there are still things to revere and be thankful for, a scene like that is one of the closest to establishing that.  Not quite the only one, but one of the more notable ones.  It’s just a shame, then, that there aren’t more scenes like it; instead, the product and effect get diluted with the constant insertion of side characters that don’t add nearly as much to the story as one would hope (barring Tommy, given that he’s one of the only people in the game trying to make something out of the world…but then again, what he’s doing is far more intriguing than who he is).  Furthermore, the driving scene takes place in a rendered cutscene, not an in-game one; the “development” that happens in-game is much sparser and less filling, and more often than not drills the “THIS IS GONE FOREVER!” theme in over and over.

Whether or not that theme-drilling is a consequence of the devs, the world, or Ellie herself is debatable -- after all, it’s thanks to Ellie constantly asking “what is this?” and “what did they use this for?” and “hey, I’ve heard of this” that said theme gets as much mileage as it does.  So on one hand, you could say that’s an aspect of her personality: curiosity.  On the other hand, Ellie’s other hand is often either empty or filled with the side character/death flag-bearer of the hour.  It’s remarkably irritating that she’s not allowed the time needed to show off (and by extension grow) as a character, just so we can see how many shades of jade Joel’s wearing.  And if Ellie doesn’t get the time she needs, neither does the relationship the game is built on.  Why the devs would elect to tuck away so much relationship-building between the star characters into weeks-long time skips is a question best left to Mensa.

That all said, Ellie is at her best when Joel isn’t around.  When she and Sam are given time together -- to talk, sit on a couch, laugh, and even play darts -- those are some of the most interesting moments in the entire game.  It’s where the juxtaposition of the past and future, hope and despair, AND life and death shine their brightest without resorting to the same bag of tricks the rest of the game might use.  So of course, Sam ends up getting infected and has to be put down.  Because we can’t have something new and exciting -- and certainly not something besides doom and gloom, eh Last of Us?  

Joking (but not really) aside, at least around and after that point the lead characters at least try to have a bit of onscreen chemistry…but given that A) so much time is devoted to exploring in near silence, B) the characters are more likely to talk to each other over matters of finding the next ladder or plank, C) they’re too busy going over what’s been lost to the world again, and D) the aftermath of certain events aren’t even tangentially discussed, there’s a huge difference between what I expected and what I got.  It’s at the point where I find myself wishing Joel Grumpybuns wasn’t in this game.  Not if the only reason he’s in it is to have a safe and predictable stand-in for the player.

And I guess the game agreed with me.  Most of the winter chapter of the game is played from Ellie’s perspective, because Joel is out of action from his close encounter with a rebar spike (now you know how it feels to get stabbed, eh?).  Putting Ellie in the spotlight at last was just what I was waiting for.  Finally, she’d get the respect she deserved.  Finally, I’d get to see some aspect of her personality that she’d never be able to reveal in Joel’s presence.  Finally, I wouldn’t have to deal with any more dumbass side characters tying her down.

Guess what?  It turns out when Ellie is by herself, she just turns into Mini Joel.

Gruff?  Cynical?  Needlessly confrontational?  Immediately resorting to threats of violence when challenged?  That’s Joel in a nutshell…along with Tess in a nutshell, and Bill in a nutshell.  (And to a lesser extent, Tommy and Henry in a nutshell.)  Is that really all we can expect out of people in the post-world?  Even if it is, where is this characterization for Ellie coming from?  It’s true that she’s always had a fire in her belly, but when her lines could have easily been spoken by the better part of the cast without much difference, that’s a problem.  Even if we assume that Ellie had to “toughen up” in Joel’s absence -- which she likely didn’t have to do, considering that she was already tough enough to wallop Bill a dozen hours ago -- what is the point of having her turn into Joel?  What is the point of keeping your name hidden in a world where identities barely even matter? 

If the intent was to show that this is Ellie’s final form -- that the time she’s spent with Joel Grumpybuns has turned her into the person she is when she meets David -- then something vital has been lost along the way.  Ellie’s character development is either too subtle, too muted, or too out of focus to make significant differences between start-Ellie and end-Ellie distinct.  One of her earlier conversational bits is a very clear “Fuck you, Joel!”  And while she doesn’t say anything quite so strongly throughout the rest of the game, that’s the general intent behind her dialogues.

You know she wants to say it after their argument in the hotel, and you know she wants to say it after their argument in the cabin.  And you know she’s thinking it at plenty of other points.  You could argue that they’re offset by sequences like the driving scene, the horseback-riding scene, and the rifle lesson scene, but for me that’s not enough.  Not with the memory of huge swaths of silence fresh in my mind.  And even beyond that, if becoming Joel is the final stop of Ellie’s character arc, then why is it that once she passes the reins back over to Joel she slides back into her normal character?

It’s clear to me that TLoU wants to be challenging.  It wants to challenge the player (more so intellectually than in terms of gameplay).  It wants to challenge conventions.  But if you ask me, it fails in both those regards -- primarily, because the game fails to challenge itself.  Some conventions may be tossed out, but those that it clings to are held with a grip so tight you’d need a crowbar to pry them free.  The people in the game aren’t being challenged physically, because there’s a disconnection between the threats onscreen and the player’s easily-accessed armory.  And they’re not being challenged mentally because every time there’s something to talk about, it’s either glossed over or hidden behind a time skip.  And since there’s no dedicated antagonist, there’s certainly no way for them to --

Oh, right.  Him.

What can I say about David?  Well, to be honest I was happy to see him when he first appeared.  Someone who was more than just a shadow of Joel?  Someone calm, helpful, and reasonable?  Someone who’s more than just a random hunter (well, sort of), and is in fact a leader of a small group with all the responsibilities and considerations that would entail?  Finally, things are getting interesting.  And different.  And it only took the majority of the game to

It turns out David is a cannibal, a pedophile, and a rapist.  And if you’re really picky, an arsonist.

…Oh wait.  Wikipedia says “hebephile” is the proper term in this case.  Okay, then.

…Fucking what?

So let me see if I’ve got this right.  We meet one of the only three (four, if you’re generous,) nice characters in the entire game, and the first of them in hours.  He cooperates with Ellie over the course of the winter chapter, helping her fend off zombies and giving her medicine for Joel Grumpybuns so she can go on her merry way.  He tells his men not to kill her, or harm her, or anything, and the only reason bad dudes start coming after her is presumably because they disobey his orders.  If he wanted to kill her, he could have at several points -- but he didn’t.  And they made this guy out to be a villain as realistic as Dick Dastardly?  Did they seriously borrow from the DmC school of thought where asshole = good guy and nice guy = ultra-mega-evil-asshole?

Can you understand me here, people?  You don’t go from zero to rapist in the span of an hour.  You don’t strip away all of a character’s humanity just to make the good guys look better by comparison -- especially if you’re planning to overshoot it drastically by giving him every vice in the book.  You don’t throw in an antagonist at the tail-end of the game, especially when the antagonist up to that point has been man vs. nature/society.  And even if you do throw in a character like David, you have to give his actions repercussions.  What you have to do is show how this affects the characters (Ellie, and to a lesser extent Joel) in the long run.  What you have to do is show the impact, and the emotions and thoughts  -- and bonding -- that emerge as a result.  What you DON’T do is fade to black, skip to a different season, and NEVER TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN. 

Listen.  I know I’m the Eternal Optimist.  I know I’m idealistic, and more than a little naïve.  But even so, I know that bad things are out there, and bad things happen to good people.  Murder.  Suicide.  Rape.  All those things and more.  Discussing those things is never easy, and requires a level of maturity and rationality to explore...but they’re things that are worth exploring.  They’re things that are worth talking about, even in -- or rather, especially in -- the context of a story.  If you’re not willing to explore those heady themes, don’t put them in your story.  But it’s in this one…and lo and behold, it’s completely glossed over.  After the time skip Ellie’s uncharacteristically sad and quiet, so you’d expect Joel to confront her about it (given that for the player, it’s been about five minutes tops).  As it turns out, Ellie isn’t sad about that; she’s sad because their journey’s almost at an end, and she’ll be saying goodbye to Joel soon.

This is exactly what I’m talking about.  TLoU is flat because it doesn’t challenge itself.  It’s not a story about the zombies or the hunters, but about the journey -- the trials of a man and his daughter.  But at every turn the game seems to take sick pleasure out of kneecapping itself every time there’s even a chance of going in a surprising direction.  A budding relationship between Joel and Ellie?  Here, have a side character and some dudes to fight!  Moments that threaten to come off as shock value if they’re not fully expounded upon?  Here, have a time skip!  Hordes of zombies and squadrons of armed forces in your way?  Here, have A FULLY FUNCTIONAL FLAMETHROWER!  (Told you I wasn’t going to let that go.)

David is just emblematic of that problem.  He’s made out as a villain -- and a total monster of a villain -- just because, and dealt with in almost the same breath as his introduction.  What could have been a character who puts a unique spin on the story, offers some insight into the human heart, and most of all a glimpse at the transformative nature of Ellie’s journey ends up having the same impact as getting the basement key from Bowser in Super Mario 64.  And the less said about that “boss fight”, the better it’ll be for my blood pressure; you can get two hits off of him easily thanks to him mouthing off and revealing his location, and for the third hit you can take advantage of respawning to pinpoint his location.  (And let’s just set aside the fact that this guy decides to try and have his way with Ellie inside of a burning building; clearly the developers did.)  Like Ellie, David could have been interesting -- if not fantastic -- if given the proper treatment and exploration, and not just saddled with issues as a last-minute attempt to spice things up.  There’s something fundamentally wrong when I’m more affected by the character being voiced by Nolan North than I am by the character himself.

But then again, you could say the same about the entire game (sans the Nolan North bit).  And by extension, the ending.

To reiterate, the thrust of the game is a journey to get Ellie across the country to the Fireflies’ base of operations; once she’s there, they have a chance to use her to develop a cure for the zombie outbreak.  A vaccine -- and with it, a chance to start rebuilding society.  Granted it’s not the be-all and end-all solution -- getting people to even believe there’s a vaccine is just one of a thousand challenges -- but it’s a start.  It’s something.

Joel does eventually manage to get Ellie where she needs to go, and after a near-fatal run-in with a submerged bus, he wakes up face-to-face with Marlene (who, honestly, I thought had died in the opening hours of the game and thus necessitated Joel Grumpybuns to go on this little quest).  She explains that they can probably make a vaccine from Ellie, but there’s a catch: they need to perform surgery on her brain to get the cure.  Simply put, she has to die so everyone else can live.  Or at least, you know, live better.  In a “shocking” twist, Joel Grumpybuns decides that he ain’t havin’ that, and opts to kill everyone in his path so he can snatch Ellie from the operating table.  As the player, you have no choice in the matter; it’s the final level and your toughest…well, tough-ish…battle so far.  When you find Ellie, you have no choice but to attack the doctors.  (Seriously, I tried; you can walk out of the room and stare at some suddenly-locked doors, but the endgame demands murder.)  After that, you cradle Ellie in your arms -- a call back to cradling Sarah from the opening -- on your way out of the building.  

And then this happens.

Now, I’m going to stop you right here.  If you’re a frequenter of this blog, then you know me by now.  And I know what you’re about to say.  “So your problem with the ending is that Joel does the wrong thing and acts selfishly instead of heroically, right?”  And I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true…to an extent.  Yes, I would have vastly preferred for Joel to do the right thing after all the gleeful murdering he did over the past dozen or so hours of game time -- but I get it.  What he did at the end is consistent with his character.  I don’t agree with what he did, and I would have handled the ending in a different way (preferably one that doesn't invalidate some seventeen hours of gameplay, which is admittedly a problem a lot of games have this generation), but I get it.

My problem with the ending is that it completely falls flat.  What should have been the highlight of Joel’s character arc and the high point of the game -- as well as a shocker beyond compare -- didn’t do much besides make me go “yeah, whatever.”  And it’s because of that fact, that irrevocable blandness, that I just can’t give this game the praise it lusts for.  It’s a severe fault in the game when I can’t bring myself to care about what happened in its ending, the hours leading up to its ending, or everything following the prophesized Bill’s house.

Here’s my issue.  In order to get to the final stealth run/firefight of the game, Joel has to escape from custody, get his gear back, and find out where Ellie is.  How does he do that?  A bit of quick thinking on his part…which culminates in the grisly torture of one of the Firefly guards.  Gasp!  He’s engaging in brutal activity uncharacteristic of a lead character!  Except…in the last section of the game (the winter chapter, as opposed to the ending’s spring chapter), we see Joel torturing some other guys for the information he wants.  And in the summer chapter -- not long after we’re re-introduced to Joel following the twenty-year time skip -- Joel is torturing Robert for the info he wants alongside Tess…who shoots Robert anyway, and ends up making Marlene’s life a lot harder.  So basically, we’ve gone from a guy who’ll torture people to get what he wants to -- drum roll please -- a guy who’ll torture people to get what he wants.  How…edgy.    

Where do you go from there?  Where do you take a character that’s willing to break an arm over a minor inconvenience, and a game that’s willing to make a point-blank headshot a consequence-free affair?  A legitimate question, I’d say -- and one that the game isn’t willing to answer, like so many other things throughout.  And that’s the problem with the game at large: it presents things, but it never presents anything beyond the level where it starts.  There is rarely, if ever, a consequence for the actions of these people, or the events that transpire.  When there’s no consequence, there’s no risk.  When there’s no risk, there’s no tension.  When there’s no tension, there’s no excitement.  Or am I supposed to be excited by Joel doing pretty much exactly the same thing he’s done against hundreds of other guys, simply because the guys I’m supposed to kill are part of a named organization?

I suppose the implication -- or at least my hope for future endeavors, now that there have been mumblings about a sequel and potential for a sequel AND mutterings of a movie deal -- is that the consequences of Joel’s actions are going to surface one way or another.  Killing off so many people in the past led to David and his group seeking revenge, but given that David’s presence in the game at that point was tenuous, so too is his connection to everything that follows.  I was under the impression that this little incident was going to drive a wedge between Ellie and Joel; he lied, she accepted the lie, and while things are A-OK on the surface, there’s always going to be this dark cloud hanging over their relationship.  On the other hand, considering how many other important issues and events end up getting dropped without comment, I can’t help but wonder if, should TLoU2 come rolling around, this plot thread is going to be pursued (by Ellie and Joel genuinely discussing it, or by other Fireflies on the lookout for the cure) or if it’s going to be thrown out like month-old mac and cheese.

Frankly, I don’t care either way.  I stopped caring about what happened to these people a long time ago.  I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of the story, and it became abundantly clear the longer I played that the game -- the gameplay or the story -- had no intention of giving it to me.  So many chances, so many roads, and so many opportunities go ignored or untapped because there’s a stunning lack of curiosity here -- no drive, no desire to offer up anything beyond what could be understood from the average episode of The Walking Dead…and even then TWD explores certain ideas more thoroughly than TLoU

The biggest betrayal here for me -- and the source of many of its problems -- is the complete disregard for the sanctity of life.  I mean that in the obvious, humanitarian sense, but I also mean that in a mechanical and writing sense.  I’m the kind of guy who HATES killing off characters.  It’s not something I enjoy doing, but if I have to, I will (and if I have my way as a writer, I definitely will).  That said, killing off a character, no matter what their role, is something that I feel has to be done with great caution and grace; kill off characters left and right and the effect is cheapened.  Kill off characters just to “ratchet up the stakes”, and there’s no effect period.  You have to take countless aspects into consideration before taking the life of a person -- even if the context of the story makes it “okay to kill someone.” 

TLoU doesn’t.  Sarah’s death in the opening is one of the few (if only) deaths given merit and weight; even then its effectiveness is reduced thanks to a twenty-year time skip immediately after Joel cradles her lifeless body.  Tess is able to shoot a guy in the head from a few feet away, and is given more than enough time to run into cover in spite of at least two other armed guards standing not a foot away -- and she goes on to shoot Robert without a second thought.  Tess herself bites it and is only tangentially mentioned in the future thanks to Joel banning the subject.  

If not for a note the player can overlook, Bill’s late friend Frank would be forgotten about by the end of the cutscene he’s mentioned in.  Sam is Ellie’s only legitimate (on-camera) friend, yet his infection and his brother’s suicide are never given the proper investigation they deserve.  Ellie breaks down over killing David, but was only mildly freaked-out when she had to shoot a man for the first time, play the role of The Littlest Sniper to cover Joel, and go in guns blazing to save a bleeding-out Joel from rushing soldiers.  Even Marlene and her effect is marginalized; she hadn’t been relevant to the plot since her introduction, and if not for a suddenly-enforced relationship with Ellie and her mom she could have been played by any given NPC -- she certainly dies with all the fanfare of one, at least.

And you know what the sad thing is?  The game is at its absolute best when it remembers that life is precious.  I’m serious.  All the best scenes in this game occur when there aren’t humans killing each other, but animals just being animals.  Case in point:

The giraffe scene is, by far, my favorite scene in the entire game.  It’s different.  It’s unexpected.  It’s impactful.  And yet, it’s undeniably simple -- and shows what the game wanted to be instead of what it is.  In that moment, the game being about the journey is made clear, as is (to some extent) the relationship between these two characters.  Words don’t have to be spoken -- and indeed, outside of the lines before and after it, you’re free to put down the controller and let Joel stand there with Ellie for as long as you want.  

And I did.  I didn’t want that scene to end; hell, I wouldn’t have minded if that was the last scene in the game (especially if I knew what was coming up).  It makes me wonder why there wasn’t more of that instead of more meaningless slaughter…and certainly why this is taking place in the last section of the game instead of having scenes like it sprinkled throughout, like a smart person would do.  An adventure is supposed to be about ups and downs, highs and lows, triumphs and failures.  If everything is so down and grave all the time, then the road ends up becoming smooth enough to pass as a comfy bed. 

With that in mind, I’d have to say one of the more affecting scenes in the game is, incidentally, its lowest low…and once again, it involves animals.  During the winter chapter, Ellie’s out looking for food, and stumbles across a deer.  The gameplay segment that follows is…not one of my favorites, considering how much trouble it was hunting after that nigh-omniscient and fast-moving deer (my brother calls it a boss fight, and in retrospect I have to agree).  But if you land hits with the bow and arrow -- the only weapon you can use at the time -- the deer will let out a pained squeal…and an utterly jarring one, at that.  But you have to keep shooting it and shooting it, hunting it around in a snowy wood.  Land enough hits, and suddenly you won’t have to poke around the woods hoping you’ll get a lucky shot. 

If you shoot the deer enough, it’ll start to bleed.  And you can track it thanks to the blood it leaves on the snow.

I may have my issues with the game, but I kid you not when I say that was one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve gotten from a game in a while.  It’s in that sequence where the weight of life -- and the weight of death -- is made more evident than anywhere else.  You’re responsible for killing that deer.  You didn’t just blow it apart with a shotgun blast, or strangle it from behind.  You tracked down an innocent creature and punctured its body for your own gain.  The consequences are made clear quickly and effectively, and not a single line of dialogue was needed.  No dialogue, no commentary, no cutscenes, no heavy-handedness.  It wasn’t what I expected, but it was exactly what I wanted.

So why wasn’t there more of it?

That’s the question I keep coming back to.  Why?  Or rather, why wasn’t there?  Naughty Dog had the talent, resources, and sway to make whatever they wanted -- and they could have easily made the best game we’ve ever seen.  But in my eyes, they didn’t.  And it’s not a matter of “We’re out of time, so let’s put this in” or “I think this will be all right, so let’s move on to the next bit and hope for the best”.  No, I genuinely believe that everything that happened in the creation of this game was intentional.  There’s no way it couldn’t be.  Every line, ever camera angle, every mechanic, every sound, every idea -- all of it was part of some master plan.  A design philosophy.  A final goal.

So what went wrong?  That’s hard to say for sure; the overwhelming consensus is that this game is amazing, incredible, or just outright flawless.  It’s chocolate -- something that everyone but a scant few (myself well among them) enjoy and consume without a second thought.  So maybe it’s me.  Maybe everything I’ve said here is a result of preferences.  Preferences, and biases, and misremembered or forgotten events, and hyperbole and generalization, and outright misinterpretation.  Maybe I just don’t get TLoU.  Or maybe it just wasn’t for me to begin with.

Maybe.  Maybe.  But here’s the thing: if TLoU is going to be the gold standard of games from now on, is it really enough?  Is it really okay to make use of conventions and convenience so readily, as long as they’re arranged in the right order?  Is its execution something to be praised without challenge, or something demanding debate?  Is TLoU truly earning its love because it understands that acclaim is a privilege?  Or is it acting the way it does because it believes it has the right? 

Difficult questions, to be sure, and questions that I’m not ready to answer -- because when all’s said and done, my bias against the game makes me ill-equipped.  This was never a game for me, but it didn’t have to be.  It just had to put on the right clothes, show up, and get ready to be ushered to and fro atop a mosh pit of customers.  And that’s a dangerous precedent to set -- or rather, a dangerous one to continue.  I have issues with the game, but in the end I have no choice but to let TLoU pass; I’ve made my peace with the game, and there’s not a single word I or anyone can say to change that.  But next time?  Next time, I hope for something different.  I’m ready for a game to challenge me.  Engross me.  Reward me.  Make me feel something in a way that so many others have failed to do before.

TLoU is not that game.  But I know that there is a game out there for me that’s sweeter than chocolate.

…Wait a second.  What game is there?

There’s something out there for me, right?  I mean, there has to be.  It’s not going to be a triple-A release, that’s for sure, but there’s plenty more on the way that’ll cater to my tastes.  Like…Titanfall…or…Ryse...or…Destiny

No, no, no.  Those won’t do at all.  I need something different.  Something new, something better.  But what?  There’s a game out there for me somewhere, right?  There must be.  There must be.  This is my favorite pastime!  Sure, there have been plenty of failures up to this point, but if this generation’s taught me one thing, it’s that…that…

Hold on.  This generation has taught me that there have been TONS of failures!

They’re everywhere.  Final Fantasy is dead.  Capcom’s bashed Devil May Cry and Resident Evil in the skull with a crowbar.  Assassin’s Creed has lost its spark.  Halo and Gears of War aren’t options anymore.  Borderlands and Darksiders are worthless.  I can’t even get past the first thirty minutes of God of War without wanting to flay myself.  What’s left, Call of Duty?  What kind of future is that?

What the hell…?  When did gaming become such a desperate affair?  Is there really nothing out there for me? Has the industry abandoned me?  Are developers chasing after an audience that doesn’t want anything to do with me?  What’s going to happen if this keeps up?  Am I going to get locked out of the medium I’ve loved since I learned to tie my shoes?  Am I…am I going to have to quit gaming?

No.  There has to be more out there.  There has to be something.  There has to be -- the one game that’ll make this generation, and the whole medium worthwhile.  There has to be something…there has to be --

…I think I’m gonna be allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll right.


  1. Ni no Kuni. I had a feeling you two'd cross paths eventually. Haven't played it myself, but I've heard nothing but good things about it. Though, given your recent experience, that may not be indicative of anything...

    From what you've written about TLoU, it sounds an awful lot like the Telltale The Walking Dead game. I enjoyed it (though it seemed to have done some things better than TLoU; you don't have to be a murderous ass, for one), but when one year's "Game of the Year" seems so similar to the next, I start to wonder how homogenerized the latest and greatest in this medium is becoming. Then again, that has been a pressing concern for a lot of us lately, hasn't it?
    Well, if ever mainstream gaming gets swallowed up by rich dark chocolate fondue, I guess there's still retro and indie gaming? It'd a cheaper alternative, if anything else, but I'd rather it not come to that. And it probably won't, I'm sure. Just have to wait out this grimdark chocolate drizzle.

  2. Seriously. This game just forgets it's a Zombie Game, then forgets it's a video game. It cracks me up how many people cry about this game getting an 8 on major game sites. When a 6 or 7 could be easily justified. Allow me to shed light on how this could be fixed. Joel and Ellie need to hang out with Chuck Greene from Dead Rising 2, let him show them how to craft diabolical zombie (and people!) killing devices that make the game fun as hell.

    Then maybe my issues with the 'game' parts of this would fizzle. Needs moar paddlesaw.

    As an aside, I have a fourth guest chapter that needs your stamp of approval in the Bat Cave.

  3. "Joel and Ellie need to hang out with Chuck Greene"

    You just made the game a thousand times better with a single stroke.

    I'm not the type who enjoys (or puts too much stock in) review scores, as you might have guessed by me...you know...NEVER using them. It feels like reviews are the sort of thing you want to read, so you can figure out what issues are in the game; you can't just pick up important details from a number. But I guess a number IS a badge of honor for certain games (or a scarlet letter), so I can see why people might get their knickers in a bind over someone dishing out a less-than-perfect umber or even a hint of criticism. Seriously, did you SEE the comments on Yahtzee's review of the game in the forums?

    But yeah, I'm with you on a lot of fronts. There are only four different types of enemies in this game (five if you split the humans into hunters and soldiers), and I wonder if a bit of variety on the zombie encounters -- and how you deal with one besides going all strangle-happy on them -- might have helped the encounters in the long run. But I guess that's a non-issue, given that there are probably more encounters with human enemies than zombie enemies. Problematic, if you ask me.

    In any case, I'll give that guest chapter a look. You can probably go ahead and post it whenever you're ready -- since I'm not anticipating any issues -- but I'll slide on into the Bat Cave and check it out soon.

  4. I've actually had Ni no Kuni for a while, but didn't get around to playing for...dumb reasons. I played through DmC first because I assumed I could jump back to it right afterward -- but then came the posts I did on that. And then Metal Gear Rising came out, and I did posts on that...and then I decided t finish Xenoblade first to clean the slate...and then came Bioshock Infinite...and then The Last of Us...so yeah, I've gotten a little sidetracked.

    I haven't gotten very far in the game, but I'll tell you this much: it is IMMENSELY refreshing to play a game that doesn't feature a brooding/scowling/cynical/sarcastic gunman/zombie killer/human killer in a war-torn/post-apocalyptic/demon-infested world. It deserves props for that alone.At a glance, ir reminds me of Kingdom Hearts 1 (AKA the best one), and if you ask me that's a good comparison to draw.

    That aside, I'm just as worried about the future of games as you are. I can almost guarantee that people -- i.e. developers and the bigwigs behind them -- are going to be looking at TLoU and using that as a template for their next move. Problem is, I can ALSO almost guarantee that they're going to take all the wrong lessons from it. More young female partners that look sad! More violence given flimsy justification! HnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngZOMBIES! We'll likely see this directly from TLoU2, but there have been troubling precedents set, and precedents that'll get followed without question or deviation.

    Truth be told, though, I'm more worried about the precedents set by gamers themselves. I won't say that anyone's wrong for liking the game or that it's objectively terrible, but I'm not seeing the level of criticism and thought that I'd have expected from a 2013 audience. TLoU does some things well, but nowhere near everything -- and the fact that it seems like people aren't even allowed to criticize the game makes me worried that our standards as a whole aren't high enough.

    TLoU could have been a whole lot more. And if people are willing to accept the game as it is instead of realizing what it could have been, we're going to get more like it down the line.

    *sigh* Better grab my umbrella, then.

  5. Thank you for your write-up. Without it, I'd have been tempted to take a shot

    Whenever I think about this game, I have a nervous breakdown. How? How
    is this sort of thing rewarded?
    Money gleams from every seam of this game,
    yet the seams are, in fact, gaping holes where storylines should be. Talented
    voice actors, script writers, mo-cap models, animators, and Cormac McCarthy have
    been injected like Botox into an (un)dead corpse. What a tiny imagination this
    game exhibits, playing a Mad Lib with Children of Men and a million other
    scripts by a million other men, swapping "outbreak" for "spores."

    Whenever I
    see this game praised, I see people betting on the House in Vegas, the safe bet,
    and that depresses me. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination.
    Technically, it's unparalleled. But it's creatively bankrupt and an arrangement
    we've seen endlessly. Typically such a heavy use of cliché acts like an usher
    hurrying us on to a part of the exhibit upon which the curators have lavished
    excessive attention. These clichés, though, lead . . . nowhere. I don't see an
    ounce of love wasted on the characters or the plot or. . . .

    There's nothing
    new here in either composition, juxtaposition, or arrangement. Naughty Dog has
    contributed nothing to the form while acting like the king of the pile.

    touched on all these points, I know. I'm just in shock.

    Love must be earned.

    Show us something new, something to endear us.

    Words to live by.

  6. And there the formatting problems kick in. Now my post looks like a set of haikus from someone who doesn't know how haikus work. Sorry.

  7. Eh, don't sweat it. I can still see the intent and the passion behind your words, and that's what matters. Actually, I'd say the haiku format is a happy coincidence. It adds a little visual flavor.

    But back on topic. I'm not so furious at the game or Naughty Dog that I'll let TLoU get me down. More importantly, in spite of all that I said I don't think that the devs didn't have any love for the world, characters, or game in general. They have to have put in as much effort as they did money into the game, and while I don't have any proof, I'm willing to assume that they're holding this game up with pride BECAUSE they worked so hard on it.

    The problem, then, is that they put their effort in all the wrong places. Either that, or they were so misguided that they didn't see the issues that would pop up before it was too late. Or, alternatively, Naughty Dog HAD to take the safe path in their own right because they were trapped in the triple-A video game model; I think that the game would be stronger if Ellie was the protagonist, but there's no way that would work from a marketing standpoint. It would be too bold, too radical -- and considering that the devs had to fight just to get girls in focus testing, I don't blame them too harshly.

    I still blame them, though. TLoU isn't the worst thing ever, but it's exactly as you said and then some. This game could have been so much more. SO MUCH MORE. This game is no masterpiece, and while it could be a stepping stone toward something more, it could also be a chance for Naughty Dog to stay in its rut. And the way things are looking, I'd bet they're pretty comfortable in their rut.