A victory lap is such an odd thing. In a way, it’s a bit dickish. You’re essentially rubbing your supremacy in the face of all your competitors, despite the implicit intention of also honoring them. There’s give and take involved for sure, but it’s still a gesture largely based on the premise that you’ve bested the competition and now you want to celebrate and let everyone know you’re celebrating, like, immediately. Fans will stand around and join you, congratulating you as you whizz by, while haters will jeer or turn their backs. It’s a shared moment where those in attendance can let everyone else know exactly where they stand, where on the spectrum of love and hate they lie.
But it’s also deserved. You have toppled the king, taken on all comers and emerged victorious. For today, in that moment, you are indeed the best there is at what you do and you deserve to be recognized. You’ve conquered all those who oppose you and it’s your right to stand above those fallen before you. It’s showy, but it’s also necessary. Sooner or later, the lesser will have to acknowledge that you are their superior, so it might as well be sooner.
The people you’ve come against, however, weren’t your only obstacles. There’s an intrinsic challenge within simply navigating the course. On a racetrack, all those turns were foes that couldn’t be beat but only accommodated. On the half-pipe, every inch of flatbed and coping were facts of life that you had to come to terms with well before returning from the air. Taking it slow necessarily makes these maneuvers easier, allowing time for appreciation of the design and your abilities and how they mesh together in the moment, a singular point in time where empowerment over those things that challenged you enables you to understand how two disparate pieces fit inside one another.
That moment is what I feel is missing from many games. Too often they follow the dramatic curvature of rising action to climax before shuttering out to an inconclusive conclusion. The denouement is similarly the narrative point at which you can mentally comprehend and resolve all of the twists and turns taken before, but the gameplay rarely follows suit. Instead, we often face off against bosses who physically dominate our play space and horde what feels like all of the health in the entire gaming universe. To most games, the climax is simply a rote struggle against an overpowered AI, not the most interesting encounter where all the systems and mechanics dovetail together into an odd but satisfying cocktail of stick movements and button pushes.
It is something missing almost completely from the entirety of modern Call of Duty games. The stories wrap up nicely (if a bit ridiculously), but the gameplay moments leading up to, including, and following the narrative peaks are fairly dull. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare got by on being new and what it did at the time was quite astonishing, but as it went on to World at War, Black Ops, and so on, the spectacle of non-involvement wore thin. Mental complacency of resolving a multi-threaded story and tying them all off with a bow only got you so far when the time surrounding it involves pressing a button to slow-mo throw a knife/shoot a gun, riding an escaping vehicle, and pursuing a fleeing foe. It’s stale and doesn’t feel very comforting knowing that you long ago mined all the mechanical nuance from the game.
The Last of Us, however, gets it partially right. The denouement goes on a bit long following what I consider the narrative climax at the end of Winter. The following Spring hits all the right story beats in brilliant syncopation with its complex themes, but it does drag on a bit longer than I would have liked for a conclusion you feel is right at your fingertips. But in terms of the actual things you’re doing from the start of Spring to the end of the game, it definitely qualifies as a bit of a victory lap.
That’s because for so much of the game, you’ve held back on letting loose. The name of the game was restraint, and you’ve been playing by its rules for the past 12 hours. Bullets you’ve refused to shoot for fear of encountering an insurmountable situation sat unused in your backpack and in your magazine. Arrows tucked away since Boston stick out like a sore, rotting thumb. But then things change.
(Slight spoiler warning: I’m about to talk about the last two weapons you get in The Last of Us. Not really a spoiler, but some people care about that sort of stuff, so I’m just covering my bases.)
First you’re given a flamethrower, and immediately following that you’re given an excuse to use it. You’re presented with a room full of runners. As soon as one starts running, they all start running. You know this. It’s cramped quarters and there’s no way you’ll be able to draw them out one at a time and stealth through this encounter. So you step up, let one of them see you, and let the fire flow. And it’s amazing. It’s empowering. It’s intoxicating in how much pleasure you get from seeing and hearing the infected flesh sizzle and crack at your feet. And then it’s sobering. It’s what you’ve been wanting to do this whole time and it’s still starkly violent, a reminder that this is a cold, cold world.
And then you’re given an assault rifle and it fuels the rest of your combat encounters. You know you’re approaching the end and it seems enemies are dropping way more ammo than before, subtle hints that it’s time to let loose. Stand and take a hit, stand and shoot back. Stand and take the time to appreciate how far you’ve come from hiding in the darkness to walking through the light with a gun at your side. It’s the contrast in restraint that enables this victory lap of sorts. And it works because it feels so incredibly gratifying in terms of gameplay but so confusing narratively because it works in concert with both. It addresses your desires and places it up against the themes it’s been laying out for you from the beginning.
There have, of course, been other games with great victory laps. Consider Super Metroid. You fought the Mother Brain. You saw your grown baby Metroid come back to save you. And now you have the Hyper Beam. You’re standing at full health, taking every hit the Mother Brain throws your way. You see your health depleting but it doesn’t matter because you are just laying wasting with this supercharged weapon. You crush a foe you just barely bested moments before, mere seconds after seeing the one emotional attachment you have in the game disintegrate and the single objective given to you irrevocably broken on the floor before you. It is, once again, a wonderful confluence of narrative and mechanical appreciation for how the two intertwine and shed new light on the growth you and the game have achieved.
Then you have to escape the crumbling world around and above you and all those Space Pirates and shutter doors that caused momentary pause before are now cannon fodder. The whole last third of the game when you get the Screw Attack and Space Jump is masterful in leading you around and teasing you with power until you finally unleash it all. (Truth be told, that whole game is masterful, but let’s leave that for another time.)
Journey is another great example. For the entire rest of the game, you’d been standing around, trying to gather enough, um, sparkles to float and jump and fly around. And it’s momentary bliss at best. It feels amazing while it lasts, but then you are earthbound again and awestruck and sobered in light of what you were doing followed by what you are doing, which is to say freeing yourself from the confines of the world to being wholly trapped in them.
This leads up to the narrative finale where you are at the top of the mountain, struggling to make it up the final pass. You trudge, slower and slower as the wind and the cold beats you back. The levity seemingly imbued into the game at the binary code level has been replaced with strident indifference. It’s painful to see a light and airy and joyful creature walk as if it has been laden with 200 pounds of sadness.
And then you are flying. You are soaring through the sky in a way you didn’t think you’d ever manage. All that time spent collecting wanton resources for skyward flights of fancy and watching life drain from the sole living, benign thing on the mountain is tossed out by the unrepentant ecstasy that fills you as you finally fucking fly. It’s unbelievable beauty that follows heartbreak, incredible empowerment that trails bleak oppression. It’s the ending to an ambiguous story you didn’t know you wanted or were capable of, but your pounding heart and your giant, dumb smile are impossible to ignore. It’s a victory lap for the ages. You’re no longer struggling. You’re flying.
Perhaps that’s the real point of the victory lap, to show that you’ve overcome so much, that what you used to think impossible is now firmly within your grasp. The track is clear of racers and the turns no longer seem like daunting challenges of managing throttle and brake but a chance to slow down and remind yourself to wave to the crowd. They want you to acknowledge that you’ve grown so much and come so far in this short amount of time, that despite standing up against it, the track has become a part of you in this moment. It’s something more video games could do with instead of ending with an uncompromising allegiance with the stricture of compounding enemy difficulty. Not every game needs to do it the same way, but give us a chance to appreciate our time with the game. Give us that victory lap.