Monday, December 09, 2013

First Among Us

While it seems like I play a lot of video games - and, to be fair, I kind of do - I’ve never felt remotely qualified to declare something the “Game of the Year” or something like that. At best, I’ll play a handful of new games in a year, most likely entries in franchises that I’ve already decided I love. The rest of my gaming is devoted to catching up with overlooked classics, or revisiting particularly engaging games from my past.

That said, this year, I’m tempted to declare something my game of the year. It’s the game where a middle-aged man takes custody of a remarkable young girl, becoming a sort of adopted father-figure, as they seek to escape their dangerous surroundings.

That game is… well, it could be any one of three games. The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us all fit that bill. The Last of Us maps onto the others with even more precision. It’s the game where the middle-aged man lost a daughter twenty years ago. He’s become stronger, and bitter. He’s contacted by a shadowy figure to escort a young woman out of a hostile city. Shortly after meeting her, he realizes that she has a special ability. She follows him gladly at first, then feels betrayed by his intentions, then they reconnect again, forming a stronger bond. Mechanically, she follows him around, helping him out in combat, never breaking stealth, and helping him get into hard-to-reach places. That’s The Last of Us… and also BioShock Infinite.

Or, it’s the game where a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the land. Social order has broken down, and survivors try to go it alone, or cluster into groups to try and survive. The protagonist helps the little girl stay safe. Along the way they contend with zombies, cannibals, and many bands of dangerous roving men (it’s almost always men) seeking them. Oh no, a zombie has caught you! Press the square button many times quickly to escape! That’s The Last of Us… and also The Walking Dead.

I have to admit, though, that I didn’t think of any of these overlaps while actually playing The Last of Us. It sucked me into the game, and became one of those very rare total successes that seems to fire on all cylinders: it didn’t cover up some shortcomings with greater successes in other areas, but became a kind of perfect game that nails every aspect just right. Often times I’ll say something like “The storyline is really good, but the combat is boring;” or “The mechanics are very solid, but the graphics feel dated;” or “It’s a really cool idea, but the voice acting is inconsistent;” or “It’s fun to play, but feels too short.” Not so with The Last of Us. It feels fully-conceived in a way that many games rarely do, with each aspect of the game supporting the others.

The game I find myself most often thinking of in comparison to TLoU is BioShock Infinite, so let’s take a specific example from there. As I noted in that writeup, I absolutely loved the setting, and enjoyed the story, but found the combat less than engaging… it felt like it was kind of bolted on, and despite some unique mechanical aspect (like sky-hooks), most of the fighting seemed fairly generic and superfluous. At the time I’d thought that the game could just as easily have been an RPG, and that I would have liked that more than the action game I got.

In contrast, TLoU’s combat is an intrinsic part of the game. It’s hard: I played both games on Medium difficulty, but I probably only “died” once or twice in all of Infinite, and I probably died somewhere close to a hundred times in TLoU. It’s brutal: when someone shoots you in the chest with a revolver, you don’t just see a bar tick down, but are actually thrown back a short distance, have the breath knocked out of you, and take a second or two to recover. It’s creative: you need to carefully consider your environment, and can use any of several available strategies to triumph in an encounter (unlike Infinite, where my default approach of “Hide behind a wall, pop out, shoot at the bad guys, duck back, wait for my shield to recharge, rinse, repeat” worked for virtually every fight in that game). And it is tense. It’s hard to communicate in words just how effective TLoU is at ratcheting up tension. Once again, all aspects combine in service of one another. The audio quality helps: you’ll hear your quiet breathing as you try to avoid detection, which might turn into ragged gasps after you’ve taken fire. (Not to mention the terrifyingly almost-human noises made by the Clickers as they stumble, possibly towards you, possibly not.) The graphics help: TLoU is one of the most lifelike games I’ve ever seen, and I can’t help but wince when I see a very human-looking face getting chewed on. But, even the controls help, too. In stealth mode, you’re usually safe so long as you stay out of the line of sight of your opponents. The most dangerous enemies, though, have very keen hearing and poor eyesight. With them, you can safely creep in front of them without being noticed, BUT only if you move even slower than normal. That means you can’t move your joystick like normal: you need to… hold… it… just… a… little… forward… gasp! It’s a unique sensation that I haven’t encountered in many other games: you’ll see an enemy stumbling towards you - or, worse, your back will be to it, but you’ll hear it getting closer - and you want nothing more than to get away from it as quickly as possible, and will need to constantly beat down that impulse in order to continue moving painfully slowly away.

So: I like that! The gameplay reinforces the story, and the story reinforces the gameplay, and the mechanics reinforce both. You’re not some superman, leveling up and gaining enormous powers, crushing those in your path. You’re a lone man, in a world filled with danger, taking the tough actions necessary to survive. The constant death reminds you of just how precarious your position is, and fills the game with caution.

This is also true of exploration and even looting. I often complain about how games train me to be OCD about obsessively going over every patch of ground in search for loot, trying to make sure I pick up every single item in the entire game, and then I complain about how the economy is broken and I end the game with way too many resources and too little to spend it on. Well, uh, I think the gaming gods heard my whining and rewarded/punished me with this game. Like many survival horror games, your equipment is incredibly limited in this game. There’s a finite amount of ammunition, and a finite amount of raw resources that you can collect, and I only rarely reaches the maximum amount of either. This in spite of my continuing obsession with searching out everything I could find. And it isn’t exactly easy to come by, either… many times you find a desk, and open the drawer, to find… nothing. Then you’ll move to a nearby locker, and open it to reveal… nothing. Again, this isn’t just a matter of game mechanics, but something that also flows very logically from the game’s setting: we are twenty years into the zombie apocalypse, and almost everything that can be scrounged, has been scrounged. You’re left picking over the detritus, and delighted when you find half a pair of scissors, or a scrap of cloth. Survivors like you have learned how to get by with these things, improvising creative solutions from unlikely materials. The setting explains why you need to do this, and doing this helps you feel the setting even more keenly.

Creative solutions form the core of the gameplay. The game is divided into a series of “encounters”, which typically have you and one or more allies, facing off against a collection of foes. The nature of those encounters can vary drastically: sometimes you’re infiltrating a secure location, and can use stealth and guile to advance; other times you’re fleeing a disaster, and need to race away from the enemies as quickly as possible. In almost all cases, though, you have choices about how to proceed. My personal favorite M.O. was to use stealth when possible: I would carefully observe (and listen for) my enemies’ positions and movements, wait for one to separate from the group, sneak up behind him or it, choke it out, then retreat to safety and look for my next victim. However, in many cases this is difficult or impossible. In a room filled with a dozen non-chokeable Clickers, I would often try to sneak slowly and evade them. But, sometimes they might be blocking my exit, in which case I would need to evaluate further trade-offs (use a precious shiv to silently kill a lone threat? or use my more plentiful ammo, but draw the attention of others?).

You have a huge repertoire to work from. You can use silent take-downs. You can use firearms (but with limited ammunition). You can use improvised explosive and incendiary devices. You can toss bricks and bottles, either at an enemy to briefly stun them, or away from you to draw their attention. (Even that is a tradeoff, though. In the short term you’ve diverted their attention, but they’ve also become aware that someone is here, and they will become more active and alert while searching for you.) Your companions can help, too. They’re a bit more active than Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, who played a purely supporting role; here, they can draw enemies’ attention, or provide covering fire, or even attack them outright. Thankfully, this game does follow Bioshock’s lead in making companions zero-annoyance: they will never break stealth, will never be noticed, and will only attack after a fight has started. You do need to keep them alive, but that’s only rarely a factor, and you get plenty of warning when someone’s in trouble.

Like most games these days, TLoU also has some mild RPG-ish elements. You don’t gain XP or money, but in addition to the consumable equipment you can find, you can also collect Gear and Pills. Gear is roughly analogous to money, and is used to create upgrades for your weapons. Some of these are gated by Tools, so you’ll need to wait until late in the game to craft the highest-level upgrades (and may or may not want to keep some Gear in reserve until you reach the next level of Tools). Personally, I maxed out my Hunting Rifle (which is great for sniping once you add a scope), and also the Shotgun. I wasn’t as big on pistols, but gave a decent amount of upgrades to the Revolver, and also a bit to El Diablo (a scope-equipped single-shot handgun). If Gear is money, then Pills are XP. There are a couple of areas that you can improve, generally with 2-3 ranks available in each, for varying Pills costs. I got the most utility out of Weapon Sway (a single point helps a ton when sniping), Maximum Health (very expensive but worth it), and Listen Mode Distance (lets you locate enemies from far away without exposing yourself). The crafting and healing speed ones seem fairly useless, since you should never do either of these in combat.

Pills are the one thing that sort of strains credulity in the game - hey, look, I swallowed a bunch of pills and now my hands don’t shake as much! - but it’s still miles better than just adopting an XP system would be. Almost everything else is handled very logically. For example, you can find some upgrade manuals that improve the utility of your items, and these are fairly well explained through in-game lore. One book describes how to use a whetstone to sharpen a non-knife blade, which results in making your shivs sharper and thus able to be used more times without breaking. Another manual will note that, when tossing a molotov cocktail, you should time when you throw it so it shatters before igniting, which will increase the burn radius. And so on.

Probably the single greatest achievement in the “realism” department, though, is how it graphically depicts your inventory. Action RPGs and survival horror games almost always give your character a ludicrously large number of weapons: hey, look, I’m carrying a gatling gun, a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, a flamethrower, a sniper rifle, and a half-dozen pistols! The Last of Us also features a fairly large inventory, but - and here’s the amazing part - it actually shows how it could work. In a first-person shooter, when you switch weapons you’ll see your old weapon lower down off the bottom of the screen, then your new weapon rise up to take it’s place. In the third-person-camera view of TLoU, you see Joel holding a weapon in his hands, with one or more accessible in a holster on the side of his body, and carrying a backpack containing the rest of his arsenal. When you switch weapons, he’ll actually put one away and take the other one out. Incidentally, you can upgrade this, crafting an additional holster that lets you quickly access another weapon… and you can see where it goes on your body. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but there it is!

I noted earlier that the game is good at giving you multiple choices in how you resolve encounters: depending on your skills and playstyle, you might tend more towards stealth, or shooting, or evasion, etc. I should note that this is just about the only choice you get in the game. In terms of exploration, it runs on rails: you’ll enter an area, do whatever you need to there, then move on to the next. You can never revisit earlier areas, and never have a branching choice of where to do next. This extends to the story, too: there are no dialogue choices, no picking whether to kill or save a particular NPC, no “Press the green button to save the city, press the red button to destroy it”.

And you know what? I’m totally fine with that. I increasingly feel like, if a game is going to offer choices, they should be difficult, interesting, compelling choices (like those found in The Walking Dead). By avoiding choices, TLoU is making a different kind of game, but doing it very well. They control the environment more tightly, giving the protagonist a very specific and very well-crafted arc. I occasionally felt bummed when Joel would do or say things that I disliked, but after a while I recalibrated my expectations: Joel wasn’t an avatar of me, but a flawed hero in an excellent story I was watching/playing. I would MUCH rather have that experience than another game with inane decisions that exist only to artificially increase replayability.

That’s an awful lot on mechanics! Before I dive into spoilerville, I’ll note that The Last of Us is almost certainly the most realistic game I’ve ever played. There are a lot of scenes (particularly the pre-rendered cinematics) that are so lifelike that it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at a video game character. To compare with Bioshock Infinite, I’d say that Bioshock is deliberately a bit more cartoony, and has a more fanciful setting that I enjoyed more; but TLoU is more realistic, and they do a terrific job at depicting the grime and despair of a wrecked country. Both games have great character animations, particularly for Elizabeth and Ellie. (Ellie’s ponytail is especially well-designed, and gives me great hope for the future of animated hair in video games.) (Also, kudos for featuring a major American city other than New York or Los Angeles. Their Boston is wonderfully realized.) Again, it’s technically excellent on every front: great level design, great art direction, great voice acting, good dialogue, compelling story, great music (subtle and affecting), terrific sound effects, etc. etc.


This game is very much the Joel And Ellie Show. They cross the paths of many other people, and travel with some for a while, but everybody else pales in comparison to those two. So, it’s definitely a good thing that they’re so well-developed.

Joel is a good character, but in all honesty, not really that great of a human being. I went through the game with a regular low-grade irritation that he couldn’t be nicer to other people. This isn’t entirely the fault of the zombie apocalypse, either: even in the prologue at the beginning of the game, while he’s definitely a good, loving dad, he’s also not the most emotionally available person. His arc is very believable: you can see how he struggled to find something worth living for after his loss, then grew increasingly embittered as promises of hope failed, and eventually settled into a grim mode of survival that seemed motivated by spite as much as anything else. He resists making any connection with Ellie because he fears reopening old wounds or exposing himself to tragedy again. If you don’t care about anyone, then nothing can hurt you. Over the course of a year, he gradually adjusts to their relationship, finally accepting the role of a surrogate father. Not the kind of father you or I would want, but the perfect father for the nightmarish world they inhabit: someone dangerous and resourceful enough to keep you safe.

Ellie is way more likeable, and has some unexpected layers of her own. She has a lot of attitude, which tends to really grate on me when I encounter it in child actors in movies, but it feels fully earned and appropriate in the context of the game. She’s lived a hard life, even by the standards of the post-disaster world. She blurts out little snatches of profanity, propelled by hints of fear and anger. She is a child, and wants fun and safety like any other child; but she’s old enough to know that she won’t be able to find those things. She’s also incredibly brave, and remarkably unselfish for an adolescent. (Well, unselfish in the big picture. One of my favorite minor plot threads of the game is Ellie’s background as a juvenile delinquent. She never directly steals from Joel, but seems to have acquired interesting objects from almost everyone else she has met.)


I may be alone in thinking this, but I actually felt like Joel got less sympathetic as the game got further along. Or, specifically, he’s a jerk in the beginning, and a deceitful… uh… potential populicide at the end, and sympathetic in the middle.

Frankly, if I were somehow in Joel’s shoes, I would almost certainly have made the same choice at the end as he did. Still, though, the more I think about it, the harder it seems. Joel did the virtuous thing, and may have exterminated the entire human race as a result.

I wasn’t totally surprised by the situation. Ever since first finding out Ellie’s situation, I’d had a hunch that the cure would cost her personally. In the best case, she would just need to give up some blood or something; more likely, her life would be subject to a long series of painful tests; and there was an outside chance that it would require her death. From early on in the game, I started rehearsing my objections to the scenario: what if they were wrong? If she ever died, they would be able to get what they needed from her body, but once they kill her, they would lose their chance at studying it in a living organism. They actually did a good job of explaining/justifying this once we got to that point, by describing how the fungal infection had infiltrated her brain, but still… yikes! I suppose I should be happy that Joel was able to make that decision without any input from me.

The game was bleak, and the ending as well, though in an interesting way. I’d kind of prepared myself for one of the two protagonists to die, or for there to be a cliffhanger, or something of the sort. Instead, we get what on the surface seems like a happy ending: Joel and Ellie both survived, and are about to reunite with Joel’s surviving family, in one of the only safe places left on the planet. But the very last words spoken in the game are a lie, an enormous lie, one that attempts to cover over the massive sins Joel has committed, and will almost certainly drive a permanent wedge between him and his would-be daughter. You know why he told that lie, and may even agree with his reasons for speaking it, but it casts a very dark shadow on the end.


Hey, it’s list time!

  • Favorite weapon: Ellie’s knife! Unlimited stealth kills? Yes, please!
  • Favorite long gun: Hunting rifle with scope upgrade
  • Favorite pistol: El Diablo
  • Favorite craftable item: Shiv
  • Least favorite enemy: I HATE the combination of Clickers and Runners in the same room. Either individually is fine, but put them together and it’s death.
  • Favorite playable character: Ellie
  • Favorite NPC: Tess
  • Favorite NPC, non-pictured division: Ish
  • Scariest map: Boston T station
  • Prettiest map: All of the outdoor nature scenes were wonderful. The area around the hydroelectric dam might have been the best.
  • Prettiest view: From the nature trail in winter. Those mountains, wow!
  • Favorite map (mechanics): Escaping Pittsburgh was fun. Took me several tries (of course), but felt great once it was all done.
  • Favorite cinematic: Hrm… maybe the long one that starts with Ellie declaiming Bill’s stash, and ends with “He ain’t hurt.”
  • Saddest cinematic: “What are you scared of?”
  • Most intense confrontation: Ellie versus David
  • Favorite in-game scene: Monkeys! (Close follow-up: Giraffes!)
  • Favorite artifact: Ish’s notes were wonderful. I also really liked the various maps. The sniper’s log was good, too.
  • Favorite field manual: Shiv upgrade
  • Most terrifying sound: A clicker who is just starting to become aware of you
  • Most familiar sight: An empty container
  • Likeliest prequel story: Joel and Bill


It looks like I haven’t mentioned this yet, so I’ll do so now: I keep saying “zombies” even though they technically aren’t. TLoU’s creatures are the “mycologically infected”, or just “infected”. The game goes into much more detail about the condition than most zombie stories do, explaining how people get infected, and how the disease progresses, and why it makes former humans act they way they do. Still, while it’s a step up from talking about a “rage virus”, it’s obviously deliberately drawing on the long and plentiful legacy of zombie fiction.

So, one wonders: why zombies? Out of all the horror genres, what makes zombies so bankable in our culture, able to support a major television series, frequent movies, and tons of books, comics, and video games? And, more specifically, why do two of my favorite games of 2013 feature a man and a girl struggling to survive the threat of zombies?

Patton Oswalt actually touched on a form of this question in his titular essay in “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland”. I won’t try to replicate his argument, but one of the observations he makes is the natural progression from Zombie to Wasteland. A work of fiction like Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later is set at the brunt of the zombie assault, when the world has turned upside down and everyone is scrambling to figure out how to respond to the threat. The current wave of “The Walking Dead”-ish zombie fiction, though, is set after the transition to Wasteland is mostly complete: zombies were the cause, and remain a persistent threat, but they’re not really the point of what’s going on. The most frightening enemies now are not the mindless ravening undead, but the cruelly intelligent brutal survivors.

And, if I can be forgiven for making a gauche cross-genre analogy, I think the tone set by works like The Walking Dead is very similar to that established in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, with zombies sitting in for cylons. The franchises open with incomprehensible tragedy, so many humans perishing that the very continuation of the species is at risk. This upends our moral calculus, and forces us to consider questions that we never encounter in the real world. Should we grant the accused the benefit of the doubt? Yes, of course. Well, what if getting it wrong means thousands of people die? Well…. Do people have rights over their own bodies? Yes, of course. What if making certain choices meant that the next generation will not survive? Well…. And so on. In a lot of games, it’s relatively straightforward to map our morality onto events and decisions within the game, deciding whether certain things are good or bad. But the zombie apocalypse has upended our existing measurements for morality, and forces us to reconsider previously settled values with fresh urgency. It’s disturbing, but gripping, and that can help make for great fiction.

Hooray for tangents! Anyways: it should be clear by now that I really, really like this game, and I’d make an argument for it being the best game I’ve played this year if it weren’t for (a) the fact that I’ve just beaten it, and am undoubtedly experiencing a post-victory high; and (b) the fact that I played The Walking Dead back in January. Speaking of which, new episodes for that are coming out soon. And a prequel DLC for The Last of Us! I think I need to take a break from all these zombies, but I’m really looking forward to making their reacquaintance in a few months.

No comments:

Post a Comment