Tag Archives: Ellie

Revisitation Hours: The Last of Us Remastered

The Last of Us Remastered

The Last of Us, irrespective of its quality, sits in a weird place. It was a fresh IP from a storied developer, coming to us a full six months after the combined launches of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One and, subsequently, the perceived start of the next generation. It left many that would have played it lingering on the fiscal vacuum of new consoles and others lamenting another take on the zombie shtick.

It even got ignored by those in the industry recovering—and even actively enduring—the onslaught of launch titles smeared across a liberal interpretation of a “window.” Speaking with a lot of people and discussing their yearly top 10 lists, The Last of Us was often left off simply because they didn’t play it. It certainly didn’t help that its official launch in North America was the day after the close of last year’s E3.

Yeah, last year’s E3. The Last of Us Remastered has released for the PlayStation 4 barely a year after its original debut on the PlayStation 3. It seems a bit odd to rerelease a game so soon after its first launch (the ending is still considered a spoiler, for cry out loud), perhaps setting a terrible bar for repackaged game collections as quick cash-in opportunities, but precisely because of all the aforementioned reasons a shameful slew of folk skipped it the first time around, this is a fantastic time for this move.

It’s also a fantastic time to come back and see if you remember that game for everything that it was and not something you’d skewed into a rose-tinted wish as you look back. It doesn’t take a lot for psychological biases to take hold, memories reinforcing themselves as highlight both the good and the bad in some sort of grotesquely growing harmonic frequencies. Even after writing so god damn much about the game already, I wanted to see whether I was victim of my own mental sabotage.

Immediately, I’m overcome with the sensation that I’d just never even bothered to notice something so substantial in lieu of talking at length about the game’s narrative, but The Last of Us is so awfully…rich. Specifically in its environments, it’s like a heavy stew of thick and varied flavors that are distinct and bold that it all feels so fantastically cohesive that the individuality is skimmed over.

Coming across repeated elements is such a rarity. While the cities feel oddly alive after nature has reclaimed the man-ravaged land has been littered with concrete monstrosities, it also feels incredibly lived-in because of the universally remarkable cardinality of set dressings. It would have been easy assume that every wall would just be another half vine, half brick texture, but even the serpentine foliage slithers in particular ways.

The Last of Us Remastered

Chairs, dressers, cars, graffiti, signage, and so much more help place you in regional locales and not just within a specific level of the game. And it makes every little interaction between the characters immensely more meaningful because you have this wholly unique visage to stow away in your memory. This especially comes through in the Left Behind DLC that comes packaged with The Last of Us Remastered.

And considering how many people skipped the main game, it’s not surprising that even more never got around to playing this fantastic bit of DLC. It adds colorful literality to a lot of assumptions and oblique references made in the main story between Joel and Ellie, choosing instead to focus on Ellie’s life before she ever met with her eventual protector and companion.

There’s one particular scene where Ellie and her friend Riley come across a Halloween store in a mall. Each aisle of the store is crammed full of things you simply won’t ever see again. There’s no reason for these pumpkin heads and werewolf masks to ever pop up again, and if they did, it would just be out of place. But each one is seemingly placed with purpose and care, as if there was store stocking logic and narrative impetus behind why each item is where it is.

The Last of Us: Left Behind

The interactions are so expertly written, as well. With such a beautiful economy of words that flows stiltedly parallel to the broken world around them, we learn so much about Ellie and why she becomes the person she is when she finally meets Joel. It paints such a succinct and painfully vivid picture of the tragedy of growing up without knowing a world before the Cordyceps outbreak.

Even beyond that, it’s also a heartbreaking depiction. Not necessarily because it’s so overtly sad that these kids never knew a carefree childhood but because it renders their nature as so pure. There really is no room for grey areas in this post-apocalyptic world, so you either land on being a good person or a bad person, though levels of innocence, acceptance, and compliance all still fall on a spectrum. You either kill and take advantage of others or you don’t as even dealing with the dirty underground still doesn’t make you a bad person—just a survivor.

And because of this, what we get from Ellie and Riley is a purity of spirit that comes from a life where there is no time for the dangerously easy and explosive little lies of our own daily lives. Those that come from the world that we know that is full of superficiality and first world problems, they’ve hardened by the time we meet Ellie. But for those born into this world, they are a perpetually open wound. No time to patch up, just time to watch everyone around you bleed out.

The Last of Us Remastered

If not for the richness of the palette supporting The Last of Us and Left Behind, none of this would have the stickiness it has. Our brains are like ships looking for a dock, looking for something to anchor to in the storm of the everyday blur of just living. With the delectably unique and flavorful sets of the game, we find our port. We come bearing potent words painted across an infected, heartbreaking, hopeful, and sometimes inspiring canvas.

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The Year in Review: #6 The Last of Us

The Year in Review: #6 The Last of Us

The Last of Us is an amazing product. It came in the middle of June, just after E3, and in the midst of many other wonderful games like Max Payne 3, Gunpoint, and Rogue Legacy and it managed to stand out just fine. There are moments where I find myself staring at a broken door or an unkempt lawn and don’t just think about playing the game but feel myself reliving those afternoons and nights.

More games, however, came out, and slowly pushed The Last of Us down the list. It became more and more apparent to me that it is a game that needs to be taken as a whole to be held in regard. Disassembled into its discrete elements, The Last of Us is kind of nothing special.

The enemy encounters become confusing. Some of them can be avoided and others must end with either your or everyone else’s death, so you don’t know if you’re playing poorly or if the game is just poorly communicating its expectations. And the story, from start to finish, is full of tropes and is stocked with factory parts.

The Last of Us

The exceptions are, without a doubt, the sound design, the art direction, and the voice acting. Take on their own, all of those can be the best the industry has to offer. Noises that sound even kinda-sorta close to Clickers still make me jump, and I don’t know if any two people could have fit Joel and Ellie more than Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.

But you have to take into account that Naughty Dog made The Last of Us, and it shows. To say they put a bow on mediocre gameplay and a rote story would be a disservice to them and the game resulted. The narrative touches they imbue into the 25+ hours are incredible. When just by happenstance you hear the fear Joel inspires and when Ellie huddles under you as enemies bear down.

When winter hits. When the fire burns. When a trigger is pulled. It seems painfully obvious, but Naughty Dog knows they were making a video game, and the actions and choices they put in front of you take that into consideration. It’s these moments where they decide to exercise that power of interactivity in a narrative that The Last of Us shines.

The Last of Us

It’s almost as if the entirety of the game built up to winter. Dire straits, tests of faith, and steely, wildly irresponsible, and absolutely admirable determination might as well be falling all around you along with the snow. From that moment on, you know nothing will end well. And after winter, you know it won’t end well in the least pleasant way possible.

But the genius is that the game continues. It lets you stew in your paranoia as you panic and you wonder. Inside, you are pushing down the fear. Not fear for their lives or anyone else’s but the fear that a decision the worst possible decision you can think of is going to be made and it’s totally out of your hands.

And it is. The choice isn’t yours. It was made from the very beginning. For all the middling experience in the first two-thirds of the game, it was necessary. It set up every domino necessary because in that last moment, the game takes your hand, thrusts it forward, and says, “Watch.”

The Last of Us

And you do. You watch. But in the back of your mind, you know it took you only 99% of the way there. The last 1%. That was you. This messy pile of raw emotions, exposed like a shredded cable, was you. This is The Last of Us, my number six Game of the Year.

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A Bit Of Separation (No Breathing)

A Bit of Separation (No Breathing)

Putting ourselves in the shoes of the hero has become the norm. Our default action is assuming that the person we’re playing as is the person we’re supposed to be. For better or worse, “immersion” is the industry watchword, whether we speak it aloud or not (most likely not since it has been Voldemort-level of taboo to utter it). But it is still the standard by which we judge many game narratives, seeing if we cross that line from casual observation to psychological integration. We aim to take that next step into making ourselves and each other believe that we are in a different life amidst an impossible world.

(Also, yes, the title of this is a play on Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” so you can stop wondering and start humming that guitar riff for the rest of the day.)

We tend to forget, however, that it was never the point of stories to allow you to assume various identities of space marines and treasure hunters and master assassins. Mostly they exist to give a perspective of a particular series of events, often told in a way to maximize emotional impact or lessons learned. We don’t become a person but instead relate to a character, allowing us to watch over interactions and pick apart details rather than be the ones to create and fuel those developments.

Halo Xbox One

Of course, those vary in certain cases, such as adventure games and RPGs that build based on player choices, but by and large, this holds true. Simon Parkin of The New Yorker (and The Guardian and New Statesman and Eurogamer and plenty of other places) put it quite nicely, perhaps better than anyone else can put it:

We stand back and watch from afar in books, but it just so happens that video games let us get a little bit closer to those cages and occasionally rattle them. But the tigers and monsters are still behind those bars, something we often lose sight of while we shoot and drive and fly our way to the end of whatever story we’re being told.

That’s because those bars represent the fact that the narrative we’ve immersed and invested ourselves in is not ours but is instead one crafted by the storyteller. Often a single person or team with a huge creative vision, the beats of the game from the beginning to the end are predetermined and thus out of our hands. Because we spend so much time controlling the external actions of a character—moving our soldier to this corner and hunkering down, forcing our raider of tombs to punch this guy instead of shoot him—it becomes a lot easier to believe we also control the internal motivations as well, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tomb Raider

Spoiler Warning: I’ll be talking about the ending of The Last of Us for the next few paragraphs with the ones following just vaguely touching the conclusion. Feel free to skip them or revisit this at a later time. Or feel free to do whatever you want, but be sure to tweet about it for posterity.

As you may be well aware, I recently revisited the ending of The Last of Us, and going through the last part where you kill the doctors trying to remove the mutated whatever from Ellie’s brainstem, it struck me that this assumed personal integration from our eyes into the mind of the character we control is so irrepressibly automatic that writer/creative director Neil Druckman saw fit to toy with it through our hands. In our final moments of rescuing Ellie, we stumble upon the operating room where probably the last surviving neurosurgeon capable of performing such an operation is about to put the knife to the savior of mankind. And Joel just stands there.

I don’t know about you, but I panicked. I froze. I thought it would end on a melancholy double sacrifice with Joel giving up his surrogate daughter and Ellie her life. But then Joel begins to charge through the hospital in a murderous rampage, more armed and capable of wanton killing than ever before. And then he bursts into the operating room and I wait for the resignation, the realization from Joel that Ellie’s death is necessary for the salvation of the human race. It’s necessary to become the hero of the game.

The Last of Us

And as I stand there, waiting for something to happen, I come to my own realization: I’m not looking for the ending that I want to happen but I’m looking for a way out, an escape from the ending that is inevitable. I freeze because I’m frightened of what I have to do. The outcome is set. The entire story has been building toward this moment where Joel’s psychosis comes to the forefront and we realize that he’s not the hero at all; he’s just the guy we’ve been watching for the past 15 hours. And now, in a brilliant move from Druckman et al., we are forced to do what Joel would do but now what we would do: kill the doctors. Kill Marlene. Abandon humanity for the sake of forlorn substitution.

This is the toying I was talking about. For so long, we’ve been conditioned through our own misplaced beliefs and irrational justifications that what we do in a game—all the killing and looting—can be waved away because we separate our gaming actions from the gaming narrative. And for so long, we didn’t bother to question it. It was a concession we made to inject longevity into these things we busy ourselves with at our computers and in front of our TVs.

But The Last of Us brings that errant thinking into stark light. All that killing and murdering Joel did was not just because this was a game but because that’s who he is. He’s been unhinged for so long, scaring and killing people for years, that if we’d been paying attention, it would have been obvious that this was the inescapable conclusion to the game. All that space we put up between ourselves and the characters we play allows us to believe that we can be that person and we can be the hero we want to be (or don’t want to be, but out of convention believe that it’s the hero we’re supposed to be).

The Last of Us

It’s folly to see it that way and to be so naive as to subscribe to such notions. Parkin laid it out for us and Druckman played it out for us. Through our actions—the necessary actions to progress the game into its final moments—we’re shown that what we control and what is the truth are vastly different in a video game. Narratives aren’t meant to put us behind the wheel of thieves and pirates and post-apocalyptic smugglers but rather to put us alongside them and watch. Those shoes already have feet in them. We just get to walk behind them.

Of course there are exceptions. Some stories are written for the express purpose of putting your eyes in someone else’s sockets and have their thoughts flood into yours and The Last of Us is not the first game to pull this trick, but addressing such points in full would easily triple the length of this write-up. I assume you don’t want to read over 3,000 words from me on the ending of The Last of Us and the merits of storyteller dissonance.

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Aware Of The End

Aware of the End

The ending is coming. Can you see it? To me, it looks an awful lot like a finish line, but to you it might appear to be a light at the end of a tunnel, a runway cleared for landing, or pool full of jelly beans. Whatever it is, you can see it, and it lets you know that you’re almost done. It’s a little bit reassuring and a bit reluctance-inducing all at once. We’ve been on this road for a while, but at this point, we’re so intimately familiar with it, stopping the journey seems cold. Unbearable.

Being able to see the end, though, and knowing it exists are two vastly different things in terms of psychology. Most things we can logically assume will, at some point, stop. They run their natural course and then slowly fade away. With the exception of the worldwide desire to purchase and consume Coca-Cola products, a sudden and poignant cliff face appears, a drop-off in existence, one that we slowly inch towards until we tip over the edge and go over forever.

We know this exists, this line in the sand between existing and not. It’s a fact of life. But seeing it rouses a drastically contrasting feeling within us. It’s something I was thinking about when I went back to play the final few hours of The Last of Us again. A friend of mine had recently finished it and wanted to discuss it, but I’d long forgotten many of the finer details of the story and the turn it takes in terms of gameplay. So I went back just before it was very clear the game was on its downward slope, readying itself to dump you out into your jelly beans.

The Last of Us

Spoiler Warning: I will be talking about the last section of gameplay of The Last of Us. I’ll leave the very last story bits untouched, but that’s simply because I don’t think they’re necessary in this discussion. So stop reading or stop caring about spoilers or save this for later or whatever it is you do when you encounter a spoiler. Maybe cook up some churros? Man, I really like churros.

I started right at the beginning of Spring when Joel and Ellie are walking down the highway around Salt Lake City. It’s a stark contrast with what occurred moments before during Winter when Joel grabbed Ellie after she killed that super creepy David dude at the lakeside resort, but it feels somewhat comforting as well. Joel is back in what appears to be fine health and Ellie is, well, distant.

At this point, you kind of suspect that the ending is approaching, and rather rapidly at that. You’re coming up on a full year in terms of story timeline, so it kind of makes sense that for a game that would divide itself up into seasons, you would wrap it up after you’ve seen all four. You’ve found every weapon according to your filled-in upgrade display. The number of upgrades you desire has finally fallen below the number of upgrades you can buy and you’ve stopped seeing new things.

The Last of Us

The types of enemy encounters have varied somewhat consistently since the beginning of the game. Infected will rush you or Clickers will stumble around and you have to maneuver around them or you’ll hide and take out armed humans, but they’ll almost always be put in new or interesting configurations. In one particular encounter in Salt Lake City, you are in an underground tunnel, and it appears as if they’ve done nothing but put you at the start of an area and filled the space you need to navigate with everything you’ve seen yet. Including Bloaters! Before, you’d just seen them in isolated situations. Now there are multiple Bloaters in a single environment. Less different and more of the same? It kind of tickles the “this is it” sense of your gamer brain.

In terms of story, Joel has had a revelatory moment of changing wholeheartedly in his perception of Ellie, calling her “baby girl” as he picks her up from the burning winter cabin and now openly engaging her in personal conversation. For a heavily themed and bleak narrative like this, it’s obviously all downhill from here. Ellie is aware of—or at least suspicious of—something that Joel either doesn’t know or is choosing to ignore, which can really only end poorly for both of them.

And I don’t know about you, but for this much of the game, I’ve never dipped below a certain threshold of supplies. I’ve always been fully stocked on health kits and other craftable items like bombs and shivs and consistently had to leave supplies lying about in the world untouched. Ammo has never been a problem as only once do I recall ever being absolutely empty on any particular weapon. I’ve been hording for the entire game out of fear for the next encounter being insurmountable lest I come stocked and ready to rock.

The Last of Us

So when Joel gets knocked out trying to save a drowning Ellie and wakes up with Marlene and the Fireflies, you truly know that this is the beginning of the end. We just went through an entire downtown area reinforcing the notion that we’ve seen all the game has to show us in terms of mechanics, systems, and inventory. Narratively, we’re finally back with the person who first gave us the impetus for this gargantuan journey and with the group of people that can solve our and the world’s problems. Either they are going to take Ellie and tell us they can use whatever made her immune to save humanity or that they can’t do anything with her. Either way, this is it.

Then, when things get hostile, you are Joel on your own. This happens so rarely in the game, but every time it does, something huge comes out of it. In this case, he is killing the very group that saved him and Ellie and means to save the world. There’s only so much forgiving people can do, and I don’t think shooting and choking dozens of dudes fits within that quota.

And you are given a new weapon, the assault rifle. As you pick it up, you realize that there was no slot for this at any workbench for upgrades. It appears this is a weapon to simply pick up and use, and use it you do. The encounters in the hospital seem especially geared towards firefights instead of sneaking around. You are presented with ample hallways with cover that can handily operate as chokepoints against the Fireflies. Pin them up in the hall and then shoot them as they come out.

The Last of Us

I was burning through ammo and just taking shots for the sake of getting a kill, two things I never did in the rest of the game. Missing shots wasn’t that big of a deal since these dudes were dropping ammo like crazy and this thing could hold almost 100 rounds. And if I had a good bead on a guy’s head, I would stand out of cover just to make sure I got the shot, even if I was getting peppered while I was doing it. Health kits were in abundance if you wandered the floors of the hospital. Everything was pushing you to play this game like you hadn’t played it for the past 12 hours.

And it’s wonderful in that sense. You finally get to let loose not because certain elements of the level design nudge you in that direction, but because you know this is the end. This is the last charge you have to make and everything you’ve been holding back can come out. For 12 hours, I never took a shot unless I knew it was going to be in the head and it would be a killing blow. I never used my melee weapon unless I had to defend myself against Clickers. All of my Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs and smoke bombs went unused because paranoia told me that the next room was full of things that I could only take down with a Molotov or a bomb.

But now it was all I could do to get to Ellie faster. The fact that the narrative and mechanical impetus for slowly revealing to the player that this is the final segment of the game (or at least believe that it is) is masterful in its dovetail. The meld together and you come to only one solid conclusion: that you must use everything at your disposal to rescue Ellie (or rather “rescue,” but that’s for another narrative-focused time) as quickly as possible. The Last of Us may not be a game that forces ticking clocks on you as a player, but the narrative push to see this through and the desire to make sure your young ward is still alive are what makes you want to go faster. And knowing that you have nothing to lose by blowing through your stockpile of post-apocalyptic wares facilitates that.

The Last of Us

The confluence of factors that indicated the approaching end in The Last of Us made me appreciate how finality affects us. It, for the most part, pushes us to do new things, drives us to be new people. That’s why we like to fantasize about what we would do with our last day on Earth. When a game manages to ask that same question and make our answer meaningful, it’s striking, just as it was striking in The Last of Us. It was my last day—my last moments—with that game. What would I do with it? Apparently nothing involving jelly beans.

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The New Antihero

The New Antihero

Pop culture goes through cycles. It’s called the zeitgeist for a reason; nothing remains the same forever. Tastes and conventions and cultural influences change on an almost regular basis. Fads come and go in fashion, children’s toys, and, somewhat surprisingly, narratives. The stories that people tell are very much informed by the world they live in because those, in some way or another, are the ones that people want to hear. They may not know it, but the things people desire feed back into the things that are given to them through art and agriculture and so much more.

The clearest example is the almost immediate success of Captain America as a brand new comic book property back in 1941. It was a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor but a year after the war started, so when the first issue landed on store shelves and showed Cap socking ol’ Adolf in the jaw, selling one million copies almost seemed inevitable. It was what the people wanted, so that’s what they got.

It’s not always so obvious, though, what sort of influences current national and world events have on the movies and books we watch and read, but they’re still there. It’s not always going to be as blatant as Rolland Emmerich making a movie called 2012 that’s about the impending 2012 phenomenon; sometimes it’ll be as subtle as the types of heroes being portrayed to us. Some of the most popular movies in the past decade have featured antiheroes because we as a country feel very antihero-ish. “Morally dubious” could sum up the entirety of the United States’ foreign policy since the start of the Iraq War, and the whole world seemed to follow suit in nuclear threats and deterrent flexing, energy and population bargaining, and so on and so forth.

2012

Watching stories similar to our own find resolution was comforting. It inspired to believe that a happy end was possible, even if it wasn’t in the same sense as the new king and queen living happily ever after or the hero riding off into the sunset with his recently rescued damsel in distress by his side. So we embraced our glut of antiheroes in our movies and television shows.

Video games followed suit. True enough, the industry has always had its fair share of Byronic heroes, but it may have all culminated in this past year. Two of the largest and most respected developers put out two of the biggest and most well-received titles this year, and they both feature antiheroes. (They’re also both just big ol’ escort missions, but that’s a topic for another time.) Irrational Games put out BioShock Infinite with protagonist Booker DeWitt as a former Pinkerton whose hands are caked in an ivory crimson blood and lingering in puddles of gambling debt and addiction. Naughty Dog just recently released The Last of Us, a game that features a man named Joel who tells a little 14-year-old girl to let of her morals or die and seems to come from a life bent on putting that axiom to good use.

SPOILER WARNING: I won’t go into plot specifics, but there will be light spoilers for The Last of Us (I figure BioShock Infinite has been out long enough to where spoilers don’t matter) regarding Joel’s characterization and personal traits. So if you consider those to be precious enough to the story—and they kind of are—maybe return to this at a later date.

BioShock Infinite

With Booker, you get everything you need to know about him from the first story impetus: “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” Well, heroes don’t 1) “bring” people to ominous pronouns but rather rescue them from said clutches, and 2) they don’t have debt. Traditional heroes are upstanding, morally right, and shining examples of what it means to be a good person. Just based on a note we find on a door to a lighthouse, we already know Booker is none of those things. I mean, he does do some hero-ish things—including one of the trope-iest things you can do as a protagonist at the end—but that doesn’t make the person an actual hero, just someone who happens to do something heroic.

Joel is a bit more complicated. He starts, as far as anyone can tell, a good man. He has a house and a daughter and doesn’t appear to be making money by killing people in his basement or slinging rock on the street corner. He just does honest work in a town in South Texas. Or at least he did until the Cordyceps fungus breaks out and infects humans and ruins the world as we know it.

But 20 years later (like 20 seconds later for the player), we find that Joel has changed. He is feared by many, his name spoken only in hushed tones in safe areas. At first we question what has changed in him and if he’s even the same man we knew before, but it slowly becomes clear that he almost definitely isn’t. He’s a killer now, if it isn’t evident by the trail of blood in his wake as he moves Ellie from location to location. But he’s proficient at it and experienced. He knows Hunters—groups of murderous folk that trick and trap “tourists” for the sole purpose of killing them and taking their clothes, food, and whatever else they have—and how they think because he used to be one of them. He shows no mercy towards them and little compassion to even those he knows like Bill. Once again, not heroic.

The Last of Us

Perhaps most of all, though, is that neither Booker nor DeWitt exhibit the single greatest quality of a traditional hero, and that is confidence. In a traditional story, the hero only suffers a crisis of conscience once just before the climax, but at no point through BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us do Booker or Joel show anything resembling an abundance of confidence. And I don’t just mean that they know they are capable of doing what they mean to do, but rather that they sure about what they’re doing. Every action and word is tinged with desperation and doubt.

Both men seemingly irrevocably missing their daughters and both men wary of taking another young female ward. Both kill by the drove and, while protecting the lives of their charges, do nothing to protect the youth of them. You can tell they want to, but they don’t. They’re unsure of their actions and their aim. Leaving aside the moral ambiguities of killing hundreds and hundreds of men and pursuing two of the most tragic stories told in recent memory, their lack of clarity of intent is what makes them most like antiheroes.

That is still reflective of our personal experiences on the world stage. No country seems particularly assured in its steps, but unlike these video games, those problems are still ongoing. The resolution is missing in real life, but the finite ends to these digital narratives are as close to a warm embrace and a pat on the head as we’ll get.

The Avengers

But it seems as if a shift is occurring. From the anti to the anti-anti, the zeitgeist may very well be moving beyond the Bookers and the Joels of our stories and back into the untainted good. Instead of a drunken and salacious Iron Man, we go back to the perpetually morally right Captain America. Instead of a dark and brooding Batman, we aim for the otherworldly iron constitution of Superman. The new antihero, the new symbol of counterculture narratives, is the plain vanilla hero.

Look at last year’s game of the year contenders where a story about a wandering fellow that can quite literally do no wrong in a beautiful landscape of sandy dunes and snow-capped mountaintops went head-to-head with a man, on his way to prison after being convicted of murder, must take care of a nine-year-old recently orphaned girl in a zombie apocalypse. Consider that one of the bright spots at this year’s E3 was Hohokum, a Sony indie game from Frobisher Says! that’s all about exploring its non-linear, visual beauty. Have we moved beyond the antihero and started to make the transition back into the undying adoration of the hero? Are we done with the dark and the indifferent of the Byronic? The answer, it seems, is as ambiguous as their morals.

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Forced From Hiding in The Last of Us

Forced From Hiding in The Last of Us

There’s a certain comfort afforded to us in death. If only in video games, it’s a chance to try again but with new knowledge. It borders on precognition, if not prescience. When you fall and rise again, you are the only one keenly aware of this infernal cycle, the only one knowing how this ended before and how it will end soon enough. It’s a bit like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. No one else knows that this is the 100th time you’ve done this, but you do.

Eventually you begin to call out rote patterns of easily manipulated behaviors. From your cozy vantage point of interminable life from a bed and an “I Got You, Babe” alarm or from behind a crate and a rifle scope, choices from autonomous agents become less interesting and more rote, adherence to a strict schedule that you fill in for yourself. If I got here, then he goes there and I can do this, or then that guy does this while I do that and so on and so on. Your list of causes begins to find its effects, pegs to their holes.

In some ways, this is a satisfying loop. It is, at its most rudimentary, a form of learning, albeit an interactive one. Such as in Call of Duty games when you play Veteran difficulty, you end up playing the same two-minute chunk of a level over and over and over again until the AI and routines of enemies and friendlies alike become an extension of your knowledge of the natural world. Gravity pulls at 9.8 meters per second, inertia is a property of matter, and in 10 seconds, a grenade is going to come through that front window and I’ll dodge into the next room so I can shoot three guys coming from the back so that in three more seconds, someone will set off my proximity mine at the side door. It’s the same sort of satisfaction of setting up and fully executing a Rube Goldberg machine except you are every piece of it.

But that is not a very deep type of learning. It can be ingrained in you deeply, yes, but that is not the same thing. These hamster wheels are pure operant conditioning in the cognitive sense; you are punished or rewarded for your ability to tie together cause and effect, a process that borders on simple habituation or rote learning. Memorizing your multiplication tables earns you the ability to recall very quickly what two times two or eight times five are, but they don’t gain you any deeper understanding of what it means to integrate a differential equation.

The Last of Us, the big title release for Sony from Naughty Dog this Summer, is a really good game with a trite but exceptionally well done story, but I’m sure you already knew that since you read our review. Just about everything in The Last of Us is superb from the acting to the graphics to the music to the systemic design of the combat encounters and the game’s mechanics, but perhaps one of the greatest things it does is one that few people ever bring up: it teaches you how to die.

Or rather, it teaches you how to get the most from death. With most other games, when you die and reset at a combat checkpoint, you and all your enemies reset to the same positions. This much is also true of The Last of Us, but then what happens after the game gets set back into motion is wildly different. All that cause and effect stuff that you learned before as Joel remains true (if this guy goes this way, I can go this way and choke him out), but it doesn’t matter; it all changes. That guy will not go that way so you cannot choke him out. You cannot simply sit idly by and wait for you moment to come because by then, they will have found you. And killed you.

These deaths force you to throw away the meta conditioning within conventional games as whole where once you begin to make progress, you keep hammering on that point of ingress until you succeed or retreat to the last point of failure and hammer somewhere else. It’s a bit like the algorithm for depth-first tree traversal except the tree is full of bodies instead of nodes. But in The Last of Us, deaths force you to try new tactics in a more consistent manner. There are still situations where you can get by with simplistic repetition and process of elimination such as with Clicker and Runner patrol paths, but enemies in search mode instead of patrol mode break that warm, cuddly blanket of wait and see.

The best example I can think of is when Joel makes it into the building about a third of the way through the game and fully commits to Ellie (careful to avoid spoilers). There are multiple instances where you enter a new encounter and enemies come in on the other end and are actively looking for you. I would start out behind a couch, move left behind a desk, and wait. One guy would come by, another would come by, and finally a third would strangle behind and I would take him out. Then I moved on until I messed it all up and died.

Then I would start out behind the couch again sans Cher (sorry, Murray). I would move left again to the desk and wait for the three guys to come by again, but instead, one of them comes around the left side of the desk as the other moves along the far right of the couch. My only recourse is the middle, but the third guy can see me from ther—yeah, you know how that ends.

I must have tried this encounter at least five or six times before I made it all the way through. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t have scraped by the skin of my teeth a few attempts earlier (I could have, or at least I think I could have) but I chose to just stand there and take a few bullets to the chest so I could start anew. It’s not that I was desperate for resources and wanted a perfect run. No, instead I knew I needed another lesson. The Last of Us does not allow for passive survivors. Perhaps it was a narrative facet of Joel’s aggressive nature, but it was something I sorely lacked when I first started playing.

And that’s less about learning a new way to play but rather learning a new part of The Last of Us. It is a wide- and deep-reaching systemic lesson taught through death that this does not play like many other survival horror or stealth games. Death in The Last of Us breaks open each knowledge-bearing coconut and makes us drink the juice before asking us again if we get it yet while other games throw the coconut at us and then tell us it threw a coconut at us. We must learn instead of memorize and we must move instead of hide. It is an exemplary design tucked away inside a trite zombie tale, a revelation found only in death’s sweet release.

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A Little Touch in The Last of Us

A Little Touch in The Last of Us

Orson Welles can be a pretty depressing dude, and The Last of Us can be a pretty depressing game. There’s a quote, actually, from Welles that puts both in a succinct little package of words: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” But there is hope in these words; it’s about the moment. A successful life is simply about stringing together as many of these little moments as possible, though the actual act of wrangling in these wild horses may not be simple at all.

We’re lucky that in video games, these little refuges of the harsh storm of a daily life are specifically crafted just for us. Designers and writers and developers and actors and so many other people pour their lives into making these tiny bits of hope and happiness. They spend countless hours, sleepless nights on making sure you don’t feel alone in their virtual worlds.

In effect, they’re making digital funhouse mirrors. These reflections of life show to us a warped version of reality, an idyllic one that fits neatly into categories and slots into a whirring machine of spinning cogs and steaming pipes that does nothing more than makes us feel less alone. And The Last of Us is all about fighting that overbearing sensation, that paranoia that once the book closes on your life, it will be nothing more than a story bookended by loneliness.

The title itself is a reference to its dramatic themes, chief among them being the last of a society. Whether last to leave or last to die, you are the loneliest of them all despite, in terms of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungal maniacs, finding the greatest amount of success. You have, after all, outlived everyone else in the world, and yet you will die alone.

But there is a little touch in the game, a small effect that combats that overwhelmingly depressing notion. It is that moment of love and friendship that Welles talks about, the same one that creates the illusion of not being alone before having it shattered by heartbreaking tragedy. When you take cover, this minute affectation of character animation occurs that is endearing, encouraging, and altogether frustrating because you know it can’t last.

When you crouch down behind a broken wall or flipped desk or rusted car, Joel puts his hand up against it. It’s something he does when he walks closely to walls, too, much like Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake would do in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. In this case, it not only builds worldly interaction that supports narrative immersion but also is a realistic thing that someone would do when they are crouched down. Hand up, head down, and quiet all on the Cordyceps front as another Clicker meanders by.

Your ward, though, comes roadie running up to you and takes cover, too. Ellie will sidle up next to you and then slip in between you and the wall as you push out to accommodate her. The first time I saw this happen, my heart erupted with warmth. It was one of the most affecting things I’d yet seen in an already affecting game. And it’s such a trivial thing to happen otherwise, just a trifling animation throw in there for good measure. But it ends up being so much more.

And it’s not about protecting Ellie, though the father-daughter relationship that fosters would suggest Joel feels that way anyways. No, our 14-year-old bundle of attitude and aptitude is fully capable of taking care of herself (a wonderful break from the traditional damsel trope). This is a comforting motion. This is as close as you can get to a warming embrace or holding hands when you’re hiding and running for your life. It’s an interaction that tells you both that you’re okay because you’re both facing this together.

These small moments run rampant through the most powerful pairings in video games. These seemingly throwaway bits actually lay a foundation for things beyond the discrete narrative and the game’s base systems and mechanics. In Ico, the way you hold down the button to hold her hand crafts a physical relationship with a physical manifestation of wonderment. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, having Monkey pick up Trip reinforces the idea that his physicality and her technical prowess makes them each one half of a whole.

When Elizabeth throws a coin to Booker in BioShock Infinite, it puts in your head that she worries about you as much as you worry about her, that a platonic love is never far out of sight. Hell, even pressing a button to fist bump in Army of Two creates a similar facade of emotional dependency in a fictional world of bros being bros. Having you necessarily utilize a completely inanimate but impossibly charming Companion Cube in Portal to get you through doors and over gaps lays the foundation for feeling compassion for a box with a heart painted on it.

But they are all moments, moments that fade away and get lost like tears in the rain. They’re tiny bastions that stand up against the onslaught of shooting faces and smashing heads, moments that don’t tell you are not alone and instead remind you that you are creating your own isolation. Every step to the end of this tiring journey is just burning up these instances of solidarity (time, after all, is a nonrenewable resource). In Welles’ own words, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But when Ellie nudges you aside and shelters herself in your keep, all her faults and perfections that fit neatly alongside your own that make you hate and love her reminds you that, if only for a moment, you are not alone.

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The Last of Us Review: Living Among the Dead

The Last of Us

I’ve been punched twice in my life and both were directly in the gut. If you’ve never been in a fight, you should know that they are intense. Your hands are shaking from a briny cocktail of adrenaline and nerves and your vision narrows as it blurs out everything but the guy in front of you. It’s something you don’t really forget, so those two punches and their effects are still rather fresh in my mind. The ambiguously placed pain, the need to double over and just breathe, and way your lungs feel like they’re collapsing from the lack of air in your entire body. I know what it’s like to be hit in the stomach.

And I still wasn’t ready for The Last of Us.

In the latest from developer luminary Naughty Dog, The Last of Us tells the tale of a hardened fellow named Joel and an oddly sprightly young girl named Ellie. The two are stuck together in a journey across the country as they try to survive the perils of suburbia, public transit, and shopping malls. Oh yeah, there are also zombies everywhere. The very real Cordyceps fungus that infests and controls the minds of insects and arthropods (before bursting out of their bodies like the most tragically beautiful piece of modern art you’ve ever seen) has taken a terrible turn and started to infect humans. So they’re not really zombies, but they’re the closest analog you’ll find.

The Last of Us

Anyways, it’s 2033, years since the outbreak began, and Joel has since gotten over—or rather managed to cope with—such an incredibly well done and immensely heartbreaking opening 30 minutes to a video game I’ve seen in quite some time. The rest of the world hasn’t done much better, though, as quarantine zones are overly militant compounds of malnutrition and smuggling operations while the outside is full of murderous bandits and unknown infected. Joel, however, has made a name for himself here in Boston as a smuggler not to be trifled with and eventually falls into an encounter with a rebel group known as the Fireflies, other smugglers, and a whole mess of trouble.

I won’t go into much detail about the story like how Joel and Ellie end up together, their histories, and their eventual destinations along this bloody road trip, but I will say that their relationship is so…genuine. It is disgusting how well realized and heartfelt every word and movement is that comes out of their mouths and bodies. Every prop and compliment must be given to voice and motion capture actors Troy Baker (who is nigh unrecognizable as an old Southern fogey) and Ashley Johnson (who plays 14 years old so much better than anyone over the actual age of 14 has the right to) but the writing is also just terribly immense. Little touches like the conversations they have about music and whistling to how Ellie sidles up right under Joel’s arm whenever they take cover really adds to their relationship so that when you get socked in the stomach, it hurts all the more.

Which is good because without those two and their bond carrying the story, it would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill tale of the undead and a cross country trip (to wit, when things go wrong). Most of the story beats were easily guessed, but the way they are presented and the way they develop are masterful. Even the genre itself of survival zombie horror is a bit tired, but it’s a bit of meta tragedy when you hope against hope that the things you don’t want to happen inevitably happen and you curse yourself for allowing your heart to be fooled again. By the end of it, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve been through a fight.

The Last of Us

The combat itself, however, is less pugilistic than you’d think. For the most part, you’ll spend a lot of your time crouched behind desks and tables and slowly walking behind dudes. Joel—for reasons I won’t get into—is a fairly proficient killer, but he is also still realistically fragile, or at least compared to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted hero Nathan Drake. At least in the beginning, it only takes a few hits for you to go down, so it’s often best for you to sneak around enemies rather than engage them directly. Not to mention that one of the more terrifying enemy classes called Clickers are a one-hit kill, so mind your surroundings.

Clickers are a totally blind enemy, what with their entire head engulfed in Cordyceps fungus, but they can sufficiently navigate based on sound and touch. They emit this unsettling croaking sound that will eventually haunt your dreams, so they’re impossible to miss, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to avoid. A listening mode allows you to similarly echolocate enemies through walls and floors which facilitates your sneaking—which unfortunately and strangely doesn’t work when the game wants to deliberately hide enemies from you to scare you—but you’ll often find yourself battling a mix of Clickers and Runners (generic, fast fodder enemies) and such, which makes it quite interesting to navigate each encounter. And that adds into the feel that each arena feels unique while remaining open, so running away and simply poking and prodding at the rather impressive AI until your hand is forced into action is a totally viable and heart-pounding tactic.

The problem is that each encounter is a specific type of encounter, and you don’t really know which type it is until halfway through. You either have to kill everything in the area before being allowed to proceed, forced to actively engage in open combat with throngs of foes, or you have to sneak by the best you can. Of course, you can always go for open combat if you want, but unarmed melee doesn’t work on Clickers and getting overwhelmed by Runners is a common effect of your brutish cause. But the game seems to present to you the notion that stealth is always the best option early on and then throws that out the window by forcing you to get violent.

The Last of Us

It’s really quite unfortunate because sometimes these encounters devolve from intricate stealth to chaotic brain-bashing due to ineptitude or carelessness, so those moments of pure, abject terror are lessened, a quality further brought to light with somewhat ineffectual boss fights. Especially towards the end where enemies and bullets far outweigh sneaking and shivving, you start to feel like these are less instances of your scraping your way out of a skirmish and more like you are playing into the game’s hands.

Those hands, though, are quite nice as this is a spartan survival game through and through. At first, it feels like you don’t have nearly enough of anything to get you through any meaningful portion of the game. Health packs hover around one, ammo supply can’t fill an entire magazine, and your crafting supplies are dwindling. And as the game progresses, you eventually squirrel away enough to have what appears to be a stockpile before you’re forced to use most of it just to survive a single chapter. This inventory economy and progression is nicely done, and feels even more appropriate when you play on Hard difficulty.

The great thing about it is that you have to make choices. Molotov cocktails are great at taking out clumps of infected and dudes, but they take the same supplies as health packs to craft. Shivs can take out any Clicker or Runner quickly and silently but they also can crack open locked doors that hide workbench parts and valuable training manuals. And you simply won’t have enough parts to upgrade all of your weapons, so you have to choose what attributes and what guns are most useful to you. It’s a nice contrast from most other games that make you choose what to do first and instead asks you what can do you at all.

The Last of Us

A perfectly viable option for not progressing in the game but thoroughly enjoying it is to just stop and look around. In a delicious Cormac McCarthy-ish slant, the world has been reclaimed by the whole of nature. Trees take root where construction workers had once laid down foundation and vines climb up skyscrapers like they would a sheer cliff face. It’s a direct visual metaphor for things The Last of Us and McCarthy’s The Road address: the conflicting will within ourselves for protecting those around us with only keeping yourself alive. There’s a character that you meet about halfway through that shines an especially sad light on this contrast.

Ellie and Joel will, in fact, remind you to breathe every once in a while. Walking through the woods, Ellie remarks to her grayed and grumbling companion that it’s a remarkable sight to be seen. It’s a reminder that all the horrible things that they do and see (both of which Ellie will comment on with stark relatability) are still in service of a blissful hope, and that’s necessary in such a dark game. The Last of Us is unequivocally tough to play; you will feel exhausted and drained at the end of each session.

There is one thing, though, that tends to break this cohesion created by the world: your companions. All of them are fully capable of handling themselves in combat, but as a concession to you as a player, their actions are nipped in the bud during stealth sections and never alert enemies or anything. So they never ruin a perfect ninja run for you, but seeing Ellie run headfirst into a Clicker and bounce off with zero consequences is rather world-shattering. The incredibly impressive enemy AI with its flanking and retreating and searching tactics more than makes up for the necessarily blundering companion AI.

The Last of Us

However, that is a fault I’m willing to give considering how much better off the gameplay is for it. And there’s still so much in The Last of Us that just works. Joel and Ellie are now ranked among my favorite duos in any sort of fiction, let alone video games. They help spin an unbelievable and somewhat rote tale into a humanized and empathetic story of loss and compassion. And the combat and systems therein craft an interactive version of that narrative where a strident brutality manifests in figuring out when to kill and when to let sleeping Clickers lie. How many other games have enemies react differently when you brandish a weapon?

The Last of Us is a massive story and enormous emotional undertaking and substantial mechanical device. It presents a complex woven fabric of morality and questions of what it means to live and love and need that occasionally gets torn by the game itself, but perhaps that’s because of its heft. Such a heavy game is bound to put stress on the struts, but I do love it all the more for that. Even after getting punched in the gut and the face and everywhere else, even after feeling like I just finished a fight with the biggest kid in gym, The Last of Us is something that simply won’t be forgotten.

+ Believable and heartbreaking relationship crafted by amazing actors and fantastic writing
+ Genuine horror moments brought to you by Clickers and darkness
+ The immensely depressing and overbearing world of an infected land is totally engrossing and tonally and thematically consistent
– The dopey companion AI breaks the narrative fabric you envelope yourself in
– Pulls a bait ‘n switch on open stealth tactics with generic gameplay scenarios

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Last of Us
Release: June 14, 2013
Genre: Survival horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: 1, 2–8 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.thelastofus.com/

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A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

“Shut up, man. Don’t you know who that is?”

He doesn’t. His friend, apparently, does and apologizes for speaking out of turn. The pair was simply lingering out on the street, leaning against a wall and talking about the rather mundane activities within the quarantine zone. Walking by, I stop and listen for a while. What they’re saying is filling in a lot of blanks that I have about where I am and what’s going on, but I drop one too many eaves and the confrontational fellow instigates with a hearty “what the hell are you lookin’ at?”

I don’t know what I’m looking at. In fact, I don’t know who I am. I’m not capable of answering either question, despite both being mostly rhetorical in nature. Gruff as I am, though, an apology is thrown at my feet, one that I dismiss. “No harm, no foul.” But what if there was harm? What if these two fools had crossed me in some way? The hasty verbal retreat, the confidence with which I respond, the assertiveness I bear as I stand my ground. What exactly am I capable of?

Having played so many franchise titles as of late (in this year alone we saw DmC Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Crysis 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum), it’s somewhat rare now that we get to experience a triple-A title in hazy wonderment like in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Reboots and spin-offs skew only slightly from the source in Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Sequels like Crysis 3 continuing pulling out the thread their predecessors had already teased loose.

It’s a specific type of mystery, though, that I’m talking about. BioShock Infinite had plenty of questions to answer, mysteries to solve as you played the game. But those were tied to telling a compelling narrative. Even by forcing myself to limit the amount of marketing I took in, I already knew the setup to the story. I knew Booker was looking for Elizabeth, I knew Elizabeth had unknown powers, and I knew we would be in a city in the sky that was ruled by a fellow named Comstock. I knew all of the ingredients to the soup. I just didn’t know how it would taste.

But I also knew Booker. I knew all about him before we started the adventure. He was a Pinkerton, he obviously regrets the things he did, and he is in a bad way with some unsavory people. Finding out about who Booker is and used be was not the point of BioShock Infinite‘s story. Instead, it was all about finding out how he fit into the skyward city of Columbia and the blossoming life of Elizabeth. The mystery shrouded the story, not the character.

These men on the street, though, seem terrified of me and I don’t know why. The opening chapter of The Last of Us is powerful and intense in ways I haven’t experienced in video games in quite some time (maybe ever), but it shows a different man. Joel pre-plague and Joel post-plague only share a name and a past, but now they are different people. Would that same family man with a brother and a daughter be the one that scares people just be staring at them?

Slowly, things begin to come into focus. We take our lens and point it at Joel and Ellie and the image gradually sharpens. And it’s not because we can but because we want to. Situations like this where two men are visibly scared of a single man beg questions and questions always deliciously demand answers. They had vocalized what I’d been wondering for the past 10 minutes. Who is this man?

It’s a subtle psychological affirmation of your gaps in knowledge. Something diegetic to the game doesn’t know the answer to your question, so it feels reassuring that you don’t know either. But that makes your thirst that much stronger. To find the solution to the riddle, to crack open this peanut of answers and be able to push back against this substantive intellectual pressure is an intrinsic human desire. We may not have the answer right now but we’ll get it, god dammit.

This type of desire is reinforced with the introduction of Ellie. Joel doesn’t care to find out who she is and doesn’t even much want to go through with the deal that brought them two together in the first place, but pertinent questions arise that tie back to things we want to know about Joel. The implications of who Ellie is and what she’s capable of invite a deeper analysis of what Joel hopes to gain from this newly ravaged world. And it opens up a wound long sewn shut that left little more than emotional scars and a strident personality.

Same as before, we know what we’re making. We know this is going to be a stew, but what are the ingredients? We know Joel takes Ellie across the infected country, but we know nothing about either of them. Joel is a man, Ellie is a girl, and that’s it. With BioShock Infinite, I could have at least pumped out two paragraphs on both Booker and Elizabeth before the game even started. The Last of Us crafts a more complex narrative around the question of what we’re doing with who we are. It adds texture and layers to a rather straightforward tale and set of tropes and is refreshing amongst a familiar world of well-met cyborg soldiers and space miners.

“Don’t you know who that is?” No, but neither do I.

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