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April 21, 2016

UnchartedPalooza?? The Last of Us (Revisited)

You know what?  I’ve always felt guilty about not liking The Last of Us.

As you’d expect from someone who didn’t sing praises about a critical darling -- the people’s champion in disc form -- I took some heat for my opinions.  In the eyes of some, I didn’t get it.  Or I just hate everything.  OR I’m too young to understand it.  I’m not the only one who’s been hassled for not seeing the game as anything short of a masterpiece (and to be fair I’ve only seen a little shade thrown my way), but I find it kind of silly that people can get so wound up just because someone doesn’t like what you like. 

I think the ’94 Street Fighter movie isn’t nearly as bad as public opinion suggests, but am I going to raise hell over it?  No.  Opinions can and will vary because they’re based on interpretations of substantiated evidence.  What’s gold to some is a lump of coal to others, and we shouldn’t hate others for seeing things differently.  I’d say “it’s that simple”, but the fact that I have to use this post’s prologue as an obvious disclaimer says a lot about the situation.

So enough of that.  Let’s get to it.

I played The Last of Us around the time of its release, and I didn’t exactly have a good time with it.  True, you’re not supposed to have a good time in a sad and grisly world where death lurks around every corner (figuratively and literally), but I also didn’t find it nearly as engaging as something like that should have been.  I walked away from the game with resentment and something very close to hatred, and I haven’t even touched the game since (though I did watch a playthrough of the DLC, Left Behind -- which I think is substantially better).

So you may have noticed the obvious point of contention: no, I haven’t replayed the game recently, and I doubt I ever will.  If I’m going to play a game, it’ll either be something I enjoy, or something I can write about -- and since I already did that once with TLoU, I’m not in the mood to do it again.  So does that invalidate this post?  In some ways, yes.  On the other hand, the lasting impression and mental legacy of a game can supersede even the most in-depth analysis.  Memories of a story are worth keeping in mind from start to finish.

More importantly, though?  I’m not just using this post to reiterate what I said years ago.  I’m using it to challenge myself and my perceptions -- especially now that I’ve finished the three Uncharted games.

Like I said, I’ve only recently played all of Nathan Drake’s adventures.  By extension, that means that I played TLoU long before I even touched Uncharted 1, 2, or even 3.  That also technically means that those are the four Naughty Dog games I’m most familiar with -- Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter are beyond me -- but for what it’s worth?  I think that, out of the games I’ve played, TLoU is easily Naughty Dog’s best work.  It’s at least their best work within the past decade or so.

That should come with a qualifier or asterisk, though.  If you read the posts I wrote on the Uncharted series, you might have noticed a running gag where I compared something in those three games to something in the 2013 post-apocalyptic shooter.  (Or is it an action game?  Or is it stealth?  Or is it a puzzle game?  Man, blurred genre lines are a hassle.)  I never would’ve guessed that two utterly-disparate franchises would have so much DNA in common; if not for the sake of that gag, I would’ve gone on at length about how The Last of Us feels like a mod of Uncharted.  Or vice versa.

Now that I’m not so constrained, I’ll say it plainly: The Last of Us feels like a mod of Uncharted.  Or vice versa.

(Is that the chateau from Drake's Deception?  Sort of, but not quite.  Also, I hate that I now know enough about the Uncharted games to immediately pinpoint visual cues and callbacks.  Fuck!)

Failing that, I guess you could say that from a gameplay perspective, Uncharted represented Naughty Dog’s progression into what would eventually comprise TLoU.  The melee combat moved toward it, especially once the third game added environmental kills (and punching at large basically came down to mashing the Square button).  The stealth gameplay that felt like a gimmick in 2 and 3 went on to become a central mechanic -- albeit one thankfully boosted by Joel Grumpybuns’ invincible sonar beard. 

And of course, gunplay forms a big aspect of both franchises -- though in all fairness, that’s less of a Naughty Dog thing and more of an industry-wide crisis of not being able to offer up meaningful gameplay without a hailstorm of bullets.  So maybe the allure of (and mindset behind) TLoU is that it doesn’t bank so heavily on that hailstorm.  People have touted the lack of ammo before, and I’d bet that they still remember being strapped for bullets in the middle of a skirmish.

I’m not sure if I agree with that sentiment, though.  Yes, Joel doesn’t get to carry as much ammo as Nate did; the latter may have only been limited to two guns, but the way that game worked, ammo was A) always in full supply by virtue of only needing an easily-earned headshot, and B) easy to come by since enemies reliably dropped dozens of bullets at a time.  Conversely, Joel (and eventually Ellie) doesn’t have the luxury.  They’ve got to rely on the short supply of ammo they’ve got -- in theory, at least. 

In practice, the sheer number of guns compensates for the lack of ammo.  There’s no shortage of tools on hand to handle a situation, especially since you can craft tools (bombs in particular) to give you a major advantage.  Stealth is a concern in the game and should dissuade gunfire, but if you’re a good enough shot with bow and arrow, you can silently take down foes from the other side of the map -- or, alternatively, you can use strewn about bottles and bricks to immediately get the upper hand in whatever way you choose.  Given how common they are, you can think of them as ammo in the standard bullet’s place.

Also, you have A FULLY FUNCTIONAL FLAMETHROWER.  No, I still haven’t let that go.

I’ll say this much about TLoU, though: compared to Uncharted, I vastly prefer the former’s approach to firefights.  Playing with Drake meant taking on wave after wave of enemies, barely differentiated by type save for weapons and armor.  If you kill one goon, you’ve killed a thousand more -- and you probably will by game’s end.  That means that it’s up to you to murder your way through the same enemies, at the same pace, with the same tactics, again and again and again.

In comparison?  TLoU wasn’t wrong for trying to be stealthy, because it makes for a more methodical game (in theory).  Carefully strangling soldiers and stabbing zombies is more engaging by default, and there’s catharsis to be had when you land that perfectly-planned stealth kill.  Likewise (again, in theory), you know you messed up when it’s time to go from stealth to pure gunplay/action.  But does that make the game better?  Yes and no.

Both TLoU and Uncharted, in retrospect, inspired the same feeling in me: “Ugh, fine, whatever.”  Both systems are functional, but nothing to get excited about.  It’s easy enough to die in both (TLoU more than the other, naturally), but the sheer number of tools at your disposal makes it easy to correct even the biggest screw-ups.  Nate can kill anything and anyone -- even flaming, hallucinated djinn -- using the same tactics as the very first skirmish in his very first game.  Joel has to deal with instant-kill zombies on a regular occasion, but even without guns he’s incredibly lethal. 

Uncharted’s problem is that it made you do the same killing over and over again, while TLoU’s problem is that it made you do different kinds of killing veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery sloooooooooooooooooowly.  Even that’s a generous assessment, because there are only a handful of different enemy types: hunters, runners, clickers, and bloaters, the last of which only appears a couple of times in the game.  Either way, patient play is rewarded handsomely with preserved supplies and a reduced chance at death; the consequence is that when you make it the optimal solution to virtually every enemy encounter, it drags things out to the breaking point.  Encounters that should be over and done -- encounters that aren’t tense enough to justify so much import put upon them -- drag on forever, just as much as Nate’s firefights.  Or like this post, inevitably.

The combat in TLoU is similar to Uncharted’s -- and nightmarishly so -- but there are nuances that set them apart and make the effort of the former a little more appreciable.  Still, there’s more to both games than just shooting a bunch of dudes.  It’s also about exploration -- though Joel Grumpybuns isn’t quite as spry as Nathan Drake, so he tends to keep his feet rooted on terra firma.  That’s not to say that there aren’t moments where you get to experience an area’s verticality, but dizzying heights aren’t ultra-common in TLoU, at least compared to Uncharted.  Is that a bad thing?  No.  It just means that there needs to be meaningful content to compensate.

And it’s here that the game kind of falters.  I’ll lambast Uncharted as much as I want (a right earned by suffering through the three main games in rapid succession), but it’s hard to hate the environments.  I’ll hate that I had to explore them with a waste of pixels like Nate, but I constantly found myself wishing I could truly explore these wonderful spaces instead of sticking to a linear path on an adventure going nowhere fast.

Make no mistake: TLoU is also very linear, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  And to its credit, there are turns and open spaces worth stumbling through for supplies.  But there’s a limit to how many times you can explore the same general type of area -- an empty, dilapidated city or town with lots of overgrowth -- before the allure fades.  Naughty Dog was not aware of this limit, to say the least.  It’s a case of “different verse, same as the first” repeated again and again and again with no shortage of self-awareness or restraint.  Individually, the environments are interesting -- but string them together so much and so often, and they lose their impact.  The same goes for the message explained covertly and overtly: the sentiment that “this thing from the past is gone, so cherish it” is made obvious within the first hour or two.  TLoU hammers that in until what might as well be the final minutes.

I said in the Drake’s Fortune post that I appreciate visual consistency and a unified aesthetic, which (at the very least) TLoU has on lockdown.  I also said in Among Thieves that I like variation in levels.  Which one wins out?  There’s no right answer, obviously; it’s something that should be taken on a case-by-case basis.  But nearly three years on, TLoU’s areas are really starting to blur together.  I know that there were sewers, and I know that there was a dam, and I know that there was a snowy area where you had a “boss battle” with a deer, but outside off the odd suburb (and even then) the areas haven’t left that big of an impression on me.  That’s a problem.

Then again, we’ll see how much of Uncharted I remember three months from now, so there’s a little consolation.  Maybe all that paddock-pushing and ladder-carrying paid off in the long run.

The rest is where things get more complicated (if they weren’t already).  The common statement I’ve heard in the time since the game’s release is that even if TLoU doesn’t have the most original story -- and boy, it sure doesn’t -- it’s at least a story told well.  It’s a game about emotions, and connections, and bonds, and all of that.  And you know what?  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  I appreciate the idea behind it, because the alternative is that you get unambitious schlock like Uncharted.  Like I said once before, I got behind the idea of TLoU because I thought it would be the tale of a father-daughter duo exploring a ravaged world en route to potential salvation.

What was the actual game?  Insubstantial on that front.  I mean sure, it was kind of the only way you could have the game play out; Joel Grumpybuns is emotionally stunted and scarred thanks to past traumas, with no chance for reconciliation in the twenty years since he lost his actual daughter.  It’s a little hasty to expect him to welcome Ellie with open arms -- but even if that’s more realistic, it doesn’t make the game more entertaining.  The bond develops, but does so at a glacial pace; more pressingly, time skips happen every time there’s a chance for the two of them to develop their characters. 

Assuming that the game takes 15-17 hours to beat, there were plenty of opportunities to add in some crucial scenes.  But here I am now -- and I find it hard to believe that Naughty Dog thought they should have more drab enemy encounters than shed a couple for the sake of the “cinematic” moments they’re so fond of.  The ramifications of Sam and Henry’s deaths and David’s true nature are never truly felt, or even discussed after they happen; they basically come off as shocking moments to cap off acts in the game.  (Likewise, teleporting from the end of a scene to a different season in a different area feels pretty close to cheating -- but that could just be me.)

I get that Ellie and Joel need to argue over the course of the game, but A) it’s done too often for my tastes, B) it’s at the expense of bonding, and C) what’s there isn’t what I’d call entertaining.  I suspect that Naughty Dog was going for subtlety and nuance, but given that this is the same company that pushed a scene with a non-consequential point-blank grenade explosion -- in two separate games, debatably -- I wouldn’t count on them to know how to handle it.  Also, as a reminder, this happened in what was supposed to be a gripping drama and probe of the human condition:

And beyond that?  As much as I appreciate subtlety, sometimes there are just moments when you need to have that stuff out in the open.  Sometimes Joel just needs to say “thank you” or “I’m sorry” or, most appreciably, “I’m not good at this, so go easy on me.”  He’s not an open character?  Fine.  But it feels like his characterization creates conflicts and stalls the actual merit of the game just because he wants to be difficult -- because somebody mashed the conflict button.  It wouldn’t be a problem if the entire game wasn’t built around the relationship between Ellie and Joel, but it is. 

By extension?  I have a hard time believing that a “zombie outbreak” could dismantle an entire civilization given that one guy can kill dozens of them with enough patience and makeshift knives, but I guess the beauty of a zombie apocalypse is that you don’t have to show how it went from Patient Zero to the destruction of order and civilization as we know it.  Just skip ahead twenty years, and the story practically writes itself.

I might have some residual salt left in me.

I’ll admit that TLoU is a quieter, more somber tale than most video games (except when it adds in QTEs or teleports in baddies for a random firefight).  But it’s at the expense of some content that could liven up the experience.  I will argue until the end of days that Ellie and Joel should’ve developed their inevitable relationship much faster than they did, and had more meaningful interactions than they did, i.e. more than Ellie just asking about stuff from the past.  What I remember isn’t necessarily the game’s touching moments, but the bickering between characters that are all permutations of Joel Grumpybuns.  That content isn’t enough to sustain a 17-hour game.

But the groundwork was there by default.  The David incident ended with Ellie crying and looking to Joel for support, and he hugs her as he would his blood daughter.  Then the scene ends, there’s a time skip, in a new setting, and it’s never really brought up again.  I can see why Ellie wouldn’t want to gab on about it, but what a missed opportunity it is!  Ellie -- a sheltered child that doesn’t know what the world used to be like -- discovers the evils of the world firsthand and needs someone to consul her -- someone who may have had to do adult things, but is still ultimately a child.  Joel has grown numb to the pain and suffering inherent in the broken world, but he still has a spark of decency and humanity inside him; otherwise, he would’ve pawned Ellie off to the first taker.

The post-David sequence should’ve been an emotional high point of the game.  Two disparate characters that have traveled together for so long have been through their roughest experience yet -- one more than another, but a shared bond means that they share pain.  So imagine what would happen if Joel and Ellie actually had more scenes -- a way to culminate their arcs and prove how far they’ve come. 

Joel would’ve had to open his heart to a degree he probably didn’t know he could reach, even with memories of his real daughter on his mind.  Ellie would’ve had to cement her trust in Joel, despite the differences they’ve had in the past -- and choose then and there whether she wants to be the same dumb-yet-innocent kid, or turn into a pint-sized version of her rugged surrogate father.  Instead, you get nothing.  Just a jump to the next scene, devoid of context and consequences.

I thought this game was supposed to be dark.  And in my eyes -- as I’ve discussed many, many times before -- being “dark” doesn’t just mean having more violence, death, swearing, sex, amorality, and/or cynicism.  It means being willing to explore ideas -- to follow any event, however unpleasant, to its logical conclusion.  And sure, the devs probably thought that Joel consoling Ellie was one of those moments where “nothing more needs to be said”, but it kind of does.  Otherwise, it just comes off as shallow.

And that’s one good word to describe TLoU: shallow.  It wants to explore these ideas and themes and circumstances, but spreads out too far and too thin.  The stuff that could’ve added tremendous depth ends up getting glossed over, and the more I think about it, the more I feel insulted.  The way it plays out, Henry’s suicide is just there to have a suicide.  Bill’s sexuality is only there to have a different sexuality.  David is just a cartoon character cannibalistic rapist because…hey, it’s a “dark” story, and you can’t have that without the threat of rape.  And yet, none of that really amounts to anything substantial.  Characters come and go, with nothing to show for it but lots of arguments followed by a “shocking moment”.

So there’s another good word to describe TLoU, and Uncharted by extension: flat.


Nothing ever really escalates in these games.  Plot points happen, and events happen, but it never leads up to a real payoff for me.  It’s just an even, tension-free progression from one moment to the next.  The supposed low points of TLoU are either nonexistent or fall flat; Joel getting impaled on that spike and being out of commission should’ve been a nail-biter, but it wasn’t -- partly because I didn’t feel anything for him or the world around him, and partly because it was obvious he’d survive (since you dump so much time and effort into upgrading him). 

And beyond that, it’s not like there’s ever really a challenge gameplay-wise or story-wise.  Taking on the Fireflies in the endgame is about as different as it gets -- barring the introduction of the bloaters and the “boss fight” with David -- and even then, they’re only a half-step above the soldiers you’ve already strangled en masse.  TLoU’s conflict, theoretically, is man against nature, but the constraints of a video game forced Naughty Dog to make that into an obvious battle against zombies and gunmen that can be taken out once they turn their backs.  It would be one thing if you actually had to worry about food, shelter, and weather conditions, but you don’t.  Just sneaking and killing, from start to finish.

Oh, and a little emotional manipulation for good measure.  Because getting a reaction out of an audience is as easy as playing sad music and showing little girls in distress.

So I guess that feeds into the fatal flaw with these two Naughty Dog franchises: they really are too long for their own good.  They’re trying to ape movies and such, and while they have a handle on the visual affect, there’s an underlying misunderstanding each time.  Most conventional movies tend to run for an average of about 130 minutes, or a little over two hours.  Drake’s Fortune, the shortest of the trilogy, ran for at least twice that amount.  That’s a lot of content that needs to be filled, and the effort isn’t even close to self-sustaining.

The Uncharted games suffer by virtue of having to fill (or pad) their run time, creating “reasons” as to why things are happening.  TLoU fares better, since it’s easy to see it formatted as something more like a TV show or miniseries; still, it overstays its welcome.  It doesn’t have enough content to last for as long as it does, and what content was prioritized ends up feeling like anything but.  Would the game have lost its impact if its play time was slashed in half?  Probably not.  True, the game compares favorably to something like The Walking Dead -- Season 5 alone has 16 episodes that measure in at a little under an hour -- but let’s not forget how much wheel-spinning that show has had to do in the past.  Sure enough, it’s wheel-spinning loyally recreated in The Misadventures of Joel Grumpybuns.

But it’s still better than Uncharted

As far as I’m concerned, Nathan Drake’s franchise up to this point hasn’t been a success.  It’s a financial overman, sure, but it’s some of the most insubstantial entertainment I’ve seen in a while -- especially since “entertainment” is a generous word to use for it.  TLoU at least tried to be more, and tried to be something else (by copying something else, arguably).  It’s not a hit with me, but it was with others -- resonating emotionally with droves of gamers.  Is it the best example of what a game could be?  Not even close. 

But for all its faults, it likely showed others what games could be.  I’ve been blessed enough to have seen stories across the board that have brought me to tears (like Kamen Rider, for one), but not everyone had that chance.  So Naughty Dog has shown people who have just seen games as murder simulators -- those practically weaned on the seventh generation of games -- that it doesn’t have to be about killing.  It doesn’t have to be about power fantasies.  TLoU has left me with a lot of bitter memories, but for others?  They’re as sweet as it gets.  And maybe that’s worth celebrating, even if it’s from an imperfect product.

So one question remains: what does that mean for Uncharted 4?

I don’t envy Naughty Dog’s position right now.  They need to do something to follow up on TLoU, but they can’t (and shouldn’t) jump straight into TLoU2.  They need to figure out what to do about Nathan Drake; the obvious problem is that what worked from 2007 to 2011 isn’t going to work in 2016 and beyond.  The franchise has taken heat.  The characters have taken heat.  The gameplay mechanics, from cover shooting to setpiece bonanzas, have all taken heat.  The stuff that made Uncharted “great” in the first place has become so commonplace that it’s almost as if there’s no place for it anymore.

I’ll say this much, though: I hope that they don’t try to bend the game into a spinoff of TLoU.  If they have to distort the character and style of the game to fit what earned them accolades once before, then they might as well chalk that up as a failure.  People like TLoU for its grim air; people like Uncharted for its breezy tone (such as it is).  Seeing a downcast and weathered “hero” on the box art and hearing someone act so pensive in trailers makes me worried that Naughty Dog will hunt for success by chasing its own tail…which it already did to make two out of the three Uncharted games.

I don’t know what they’re going to do next.  But I guess we’ll all find out this May.  And we’ll all see just how far the devs have come -- if they’ve taken a single step at all.

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