Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Game review and musings: The Last of Us

I recently finished playing through The Last of Us (warning: some minor spoilers ahead). It's a beautiful-looking game, the characters and acting are quite good, and though the story is somewhat ridiculous at times, the overall environment and context provided by the game together with the characters make for some affecting experiences. You play the game mostly as Joel, survivor of a global pandemic that's killed much of the population by transforming infected into violent, brainless zombies. A bit silly, but all right, we'll go with it. Survivors huddle in heavily policed and well-guarded settlements ("quarantine zones"). Beyond these zones lie roaming infected and nomadic groups of bandits and independent settlements, with lawlessness and violence the norm. Joel works as a smuggler in this typical post-apocalyptic world. We learn in a flashback at the game's opening that he lost his teenage daughter 20 years earlier at the start of the outbreak.

Enter Ellie, a 14-year-old girl who we discover early on has an immunity to the disease, the first case anyone seems to know about. Joel is hired to help smuggle her out of the city (Boston, nicely recognizable), and through a series of events, the trip leads the two of them across the country. Outside the walls of any quarantine zones, Joel and Ellie must do what is necessary to survive, often extraordinary violence, gruesomely realistic in its rendering. Ellie is mostly believable in her evolution as a character grappling with this violence. At first, she's oddly cavelier about it, though in a way that feels appropriate for a teenager not able or willing to consider the full reality of her situation and what is demanded. Joel, for his part, attempts to insulate her from this violence and he has a clear fatherly instinct that develops further over the course of their journey. Amidst all the violence, the obvious psychological story here, mostly unstated, is that Ellie evolves into the role of a surrogate daughter for Joel, "replacing" the daugher he lost 20 years earlier. And Ellie, likewise, comes to view Joel as a father figure.

Though nothing about the narrative arc is really surprising, I found the characters, their evolution, and their relationships believable and compelling. And the game's final scene is poignant and beautiful, given everything the characters have been through.

To me, this shows a glimpse of what games are capable of. Games offer something that movies and books can't--interaction. And this ability to interact with the characters of a game is a powerful vehicle for developing relationships and attachments to these characters. Likewise for the environment of a game--in a book or movie, we are merely shown the environment or a situation with no control over how it is explored or experienced. Being given even limited control makes us feel more connected to the world being imagined. There are some nicely quiet moments in Last of Us I enjoyed--simply walking along a path, occasionally climbing over obstacles, stopping to admire the wonderful scenery, and listening to Ellie's occasional musings about this or that as she follows along. These moments were oddly engaging to play through, which is interesting because there is almost no "gameplay" in the traditional sense. If I were watching the same events in a movie, it wouldn't be engaging, but when experienced interactively, it is, and helps deepen the relationship the player has to the characters and the story. For comparison, the movie adaptation of The Road has a similar arc to The Last of Us, but with better writing and acting, and while I certainly cared about the characters and enjoyed the film, The Last of Us was in some ways a richer experience for me.

Unfortunately, amidst the rich backdrop of character development and immersion in a beautifully rendered and desolate post-apolocalyptic world in The Last of Us, we get the usual insipid, tedious gameplay largely confined to the framework and mechanisms of the third-person shooter and survival horror genres, with occasional breaks for adventure game style puzzles. I'm not a hardcore gamer--I always set combat difficulty to easy, I don't really care to learn complicated mechanics, and I get easily frustrated by puzzles. In the real world, and in my field of programming, there are usually fifty different ways to accomplish the same thing, and I get to use my creativity in determining what approach I take. Nothing about this is exactly "hard", but there is something satisfying about simply being able to choose an approach, implement it, and have an intended effect. Puzzles in games, on the other hand, can usually be solved in exactly one way, which is arbitrary, unguessable, and unsatisfying. To take just one example from Last of Us, by no means unique to that game, you can't stack boxes on top of each other or climb to reach a ledge, you need to find a ladder. Over time, you certainly get better at guessing what arbitrary sequence of actions gets you to your goal, but it's still tedious.

Likewise for the repeated violence and endless killing throughout the game--again, not at all unique to Last of Us. There is nothing wrong with violence in a game. But playing through area after area of mindless baddies that must be "cleared" to advance is just tedious. The gameplay mechanic of running around shooting and killing has gotten old--it's boring and breaks immersion by virtue of it feeling contrived. In Last of Us, I'd estimate the player must kill upwards of a thousand people. This is ridiculous, and the gameplay stands in stark contrast to the verisimilitude shown in the character development and their relationships in the rest of the game. The characters are more real than the situations they are placed in.

Imagine a game where let's just say fewer than five people (or creatures) are killed or attacked. What would such a game be about? Removing the gameplay crutch of endless violence means more time to focus on character development and interactions, and interaction with the environment, which can all be made much richer. And violence that does remain in the game can then be given appropriate weight and attention and experienced more believably by the characters. The world is an interesting place, it's not just about violence and military strategy, so why can't games reflect that?

I am interested to see how games develop in the coming years. Will the arms race toward greater graphical realism continue, with games largely operating within the confines of the usual tired gameplay mechanics and frameworks? Or will games develop into a powerful and expressive new artistic medium?

I certainly hope it's the latter.


Chad said...

This is fantastic!

Jesper Nordenberg said...

Nice read. I've been gaming for 30 years and during that time I have come across a few games that really stood out as works of art. To mention a few from the top of my head: Elite, Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld 1 & 2, System Shock 1 & 2, Half-Life 2, Deus Ex, Portal 1 & 2. Some of these games were technically revolutionary, but more importantly the were made people who really care about transporting the player to another world with a unique, believable atmosphere where you actually care about what happens in the game while at the same time being highly interactive.

About your comment that the world is an interesting place, yes, it is, but I think an important aspect in game playing is being transported to another place different from the world we normally live in. I mean, who wants to do the dishes in a game? ;)

Paul Chiusano said...

@Jesper - thanks for that list, I've played Half Life 2, Deus Ex, and a tiny bit of Portal 2, but none of the others. I can't say I got much out of HL2 or Deus Ex, even though they were fun to play through, but to each his own. :) For me, I get very hung up on the writing, characters, and story. Standard gameplay tropes and B-movie quality writing and characters really break immersion for me.

I agree that games can be about being transported to a different world. But I still want the game world to at least have some of the richness of real life, even if the setting is very different. Also, speaking of doing dishes in a game, there's an interesting game I started playing, Heavy Rain, where some of the gameplay is indeed doing mundane things like *brushing your teeth* and getting dressed! I haven't gotten very far into it yet but it is making me think more about what constitutes engaging gameplay. I may post a review of it if/when I get through it.