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Watch the Full E3 2015 Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Demo

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

You’ve undoubtedly seen the demo for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End from the Sony press conference this year at E3. It was, also beyond the shadow of a doubt, a banger of a demo. With the frozen Nathan Drake, we learned that the project was far along enough to show it live. And we learned that it is a big, beautiful, and exciting game.

I guess we already knew that last part, or at least assumed it. Coming from Naughty Dog and after three other very successful and rather good Uncharted games, that kind of quality and scope is expected. What we saw, though, appeared to be almost exactly what we’ve seen before: shooting dudes, jumping on stuff, and slinging sass.

Apparently, that is not totally representative. Uncharted 4 sounds like it’s going to be skewing slightly towards the ideal of an open world, not that we see it even in this extended demo with Drake’s brother Sam working alongside his explosive antics. (Hot damn is it gorgeous, though.) In this interview with Polygon’s Megan Farokhmanesh, it’s stated that there won’t just be vehicle set pieces like in the past but they will rather play an integral part in exploration.

During the demo, for example, players are free to escape the market at their own pace. All roads will eventually take you to your destination — which is essentially just the bottom of the hill — but how you get there is up to you.

Lead designer Kurt Margenau continues on to say, “Everything you see, you can go to. We’re not going to arbitrarily block you.” They’ll still continue to bring the heat in terms of huge, memorable beats and whatnot, but there will apparently be a lot more flexibility in terms of where Nathan can go.

That’s an interesting decision because I never quite found the linearity of the past Uncharted games to be all that limiting. The entire franchise was built around the premise of bringing the flawed but enchanted heroism and adventures of Indiana Jones to the video game world, and to that end, they succeeded. They hit all the marks of what makes Indy, well, Indy.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

But perhaps this is playing into some idea that this game needs to do something more than just incrementally improve on what many viewed as a platonic ideal for action-adventure games. The series has already gone the predictable arc of trilogies, and there’s certainly nothing wrong in proving you can do something better than you’ve done before (and we have seen the truck-jumping bit before), which makes this seemingly internal pressure to try something brazenly new all the more interesting.

If you recall the demo from the PlayStation Experience last year, we saw Drake clamber around a rather sizable jungle environment and take out a bevy of bad guys. Looking back on it, it definitely felt like the breadth of the geography was indicative of an open world. It’s the kind of setting you would cross a few times between hub-like structures (I doubt it’s going that open) before getting into a scrape.

Or maybe that’s confirmation bias. Who knows. The Uncharted 4 development story gets more interesting considering how much of The Last of Us is going into it. Not only is the enemy AI making a showing (guess that The Last of Us Remastered port to PlayStation 4 is bearing bonus fruit) but since former series creative director Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond’s departures in March of last year, The Last of Us leads Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley took over.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

And in that transition, they apparently scrapped eight months of work, according to voice actor Nolan North (who plays Drake) in a recent MetroCon panel. It doesn’t quite sound like an entire finish product was thrown away but rather Druckmann and Straley took where the game was already headed and added their own creative spice to it, which is totally understandable. It’s difficult to take something in someone else’s voice and both finish it and make it better when both the past and present styles are so specific and recognizable.

Of course, it’s all up in the air. You can’t and shouldn’t judge an unfinished game because, very obviously, it’s unfinished. You can express opinions regarding that thing that it is, but that’s not a product for you to hold with or against a studio, just like you don’t look at a stack of notecards and tell Steven Spielberg it’s a terrible movie. But as it sits now, Uncharted 4 looks like a particularly interesting thing.

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PlayStation E3 2015 Recap

PlayStation E3 2015

Sony this year came out with some heat. We all thought most of it would just be rumors because—let’s face it—a lot of it sounded absurd. A comeback? A remake? Oh come on. We should know better by now. Go back to your village and take your pipe dreams with you.

But wham, bam, holy shit. We really shouldn’t be calling out “winners” for this sort of thing, but this press conference did actually bring down the Internet. Feel free to read on or rewatch the entire thing.

The Last Guardian

Ummm, what? I guess sometimes vaporware comes back from the dead. After being in and out of development and existence for the past 2007, it was pretty safe to assume the long awaited project was simply dead and buried. After the trauma of numerous rumors, the latest rumblings that we’d see The Last Guardian at this E3 seemed to only freshen up old wounds.

But it’s all true. Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida confirmed it would release for PlayStation 4 in 2016. Coming from Team Ico and director Fumito Ueda, the same combo that brought you Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, its expectations were high. After all these delays, are they just as lofty?

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Guerrilla Games, developer of the Killzone series, is throwing quite the delicious curveball here. Going from a stock FPS to this is rather incredible. Perhaps filling the PlayStation 4’s required space marine quota earned them some laterality.

But Horizon: Zero Dawn has a fascinating premise. Something along the course of humanity’s development caused them to plunge back into a pre-civilization structure except machines are still rampant and necessary. So instead of hunting for food, they hunt for parts. Sure, the gameplay looks fun enough, but that setup is incredible.

Hitman

Even if you don’t care for the Hitman games, this is a well put together trailer. It finely composes the idea that he’s a killer of tactics, brutality, and skill. Also, the backing track that surreptitiously features ragged breathing slowly sinks in and is reinforced by the kill shot.

The trailer itself, however, doesn’t reveal much except that the series still animates people a bit too cartoonishly. I guess Square Enix assumes we already know what to expect from the game, which is kind of a sad notion anyway. Hitman lands on PlayStation 4 and PC on December 8. (Franchise reboots that simply start off with the same name is an organizational nightmare, by the way.)

Dreams

Media Molecule is still very much about games in which you create, if you were wondering. The latest is Dreams, and while the trailer is very obtuse about what you’ll actually be doing, you’ll definitely be creating…something.

It looks like you’ll be using your controller to sculpt out characters inside of scenes. The “dreams” motif comes in where everything is fast and impressionistic rather than details and builds upon a previously known (read: made) lexicon of items. You can then grab your creations and puppeteer them to life. (The short demo preceding the trailer shows more than anyone could ever say with words.)

Destiny: The Taken King

While I found Destiny to be somewhat lacking in its original release, the more that Bungie puts out for the game, the more I want to go back and play it. It seems like they’re solving the two biggest problems simultaneously with each DLC, being the lack of content for a massive world and a refinement of how to use that world in interesting ways.

Coming September 15, The Taken King will cost $39.99 for the regular edition and $79.99 for the collector’s edition, both of which will also include Destiny itself. The expansion will include new Guardian subclasses and super moves.

Final Fantasy VII

Part of the crazy heat Sony threw around yesterday. Even more dubious than The Last Guardian comeback rumors, we heard voices on the wind talk of a Final Fantasy VII remake, something fans have been clamoring for since dinosaurs walked the Earth.

And now it’s happening. This isn’t a tech demo or a PC version or an upgraded PC version for PlayStation 4, but this is a remake. At this point, it’s unclear as to what that means. This could end up just an HD remaster for all we know, but hopefully they’re not just misleading us with the word “remake.”

The bigger question, however, is if anyone still cares. Tetsuya Nomura is coming on as director after guiding the Kingdom Hearts series (and directing Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) while Yoshinori Kitase, original director of Final Fantasy VII, will be returning to produce. Is that enough to garner interest beyond the 18-year-old fan base?

No Man’s Sky

This is the first lengthy gameplay demo anyone outside of the press has seen from No Man’s Sky. Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray hopefully imparted upon the audience the sheer size of what they’re attempting with this procedurally generated universe simulator. (If you still don’t get it, read this piece over at The New Yorker.)

Still no release date, but we do learn that every world is fully destructible. Plus there are fish!

Shenmue III

And here’s the real surprise of the event. No one was even expecting this, but Yu Suzuki, creator of an immense number of classics like Space Harrier, Out Run, After Burner, and Virtua Fighter, came out on stage to announce that he’d like to revitalize the Shenmue franchise through Kickstarter.

And then everyone lost their god damn minds. Which is the appropriate response, I might add. It brought down Kickstarter itself for a brief time as it rocketed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. It’s already hit its $2 million goal in its first day. If you’re not jacked for this, then you’re a fool. Or you were too young to have played the first two.

Call of Duty

Now we know why Call of Duty was mysteriously absent during Microsoft press conference. PlayStation CEO Andrew House announced that Sony will get all of the military shooter’s map packs first. The deal will start up with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, coming to PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One November 6.

Map packs have traditionally gone to Xbox platforms first since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare back in 2007. While not necessarily everyone’s thing, this is a huge move for PlayStation.

Firewatch

Firewatch is pretty much exactly the kind of game I love playing. Or at least it’s the kind of game I love thinking that I would love playing based on the trailer because the trailer sells a very particular kind of game.

The adventure game from Campo Santo and director Jake Rodkin (co-host of the Idle Thumbs podcast) tells the story of a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989. Numerous mysteries begin to unfold as he goes about his patrols.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

While the return of the Uncharted series still doesn’t seem like the best creative decision, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still looks pretty incredible. Like, visually, I mean. It seems like it’ll play like the other games, so you probably already know if you’ll be into that or not, but there’s certainly something to be said for a masterful refinement of a craft.

After a little technical hiccup where protagonist Nathan Drake froze in front of a still animating crowd, we go on a classic Uncharted whirlwind ride of shooting bad guys, running from overwhelming odds, shooting more guys, and (as a franchise first) driving a vehicle. Oh, and crackin’ some wise. Don’t forget that.

There are some other odds and ends that came out of the conference (like a new Street Fighter V trailer), but that’s the gist of it. There were several genuine surprises, capping off a rather momentous start to this year’s E3. Look for more coverage as the show continues the rest of the week.

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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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Highlights from Sony at E3 2014

Highlights from Sony at E3 2014

Well, as good as Microsoft was on Monday morning, the general consensus seems to be that Sony somehow surpassed the Redmond efforts. Honestly, I’m inclined to agree. Not only did we get a far more varied selection of game demos thrown at us with Sony, there were more significant surprises, which is really what a press briefing should be for.

Granted, journalists really shouldn’t be cheering or hollering (as someone much better at this job once told me, you only clap for people and not for spectacle), but some of the announcements Sony pulled out of their seemingly rabbit-filled hat really made me want to fist pump. I guess, however, it only serves to highlight how even press has been reallocated to something on par with seat fillers at the Academy Awards.

But let’s put such depressing ruminations behind us (and likely save them for another time). Let’s relive Sony’s numerous tweet-worthy shenanigans like they didn’t just happen on Monday!

Entwined

My immediate reaction to this was similar to everyone else’s: this is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons + Tempest. But once I played it, I realized you definitely need to throw a little Panzer Dragoon and Child of Eden in there, too. Its one-line summation is heartbreaking (“it’s about two souls that are in love but can’t be together”) and it plays just beautifully. And it’s out now for $9.99! A review will come sometime when it’s, you know, not god damn E3 week.

The Order: 1886

The Victorian Era aesthetic is one of my favorites. And I’m not crazy about the button prompt situation going on in the video, but the lurking in the darkness and the pacing and pretty much the other 99% of what was shown on stage seems pretty great. Besides, it’s about time those Ready at Dawn guys get a shot at their own IP. Look for it on February 20, 2015.

Infamous: First Light

You know what? I liked Infamous: Second Son. And more than that, I thought Fetch was a pretty cool character with an interesting backstory, so I’m pretty excited at the prospect of learning more about her within a framework that I already know I enjoy. The only problem is that instead of multiple powers, now we’ll just get the neon set, but come on, that was everyone’s favorite anyways. Releases August of this year.

LittleBigPlanet 3

While substantial that LittleBigPlanet 3 is indeed being made, it’s hard to not notice that 1) it’s being made by Sumo Digital and not Media Molecule (and their attention is being split a high profile exclusive for Xbox with Forza Horizon 2), and 2) it seems to feature basically every fundamental problem that has not been addressed in LBP 1 or LBP 2. However, it does look as charming and fun with friends as ever. I loved that the demo seemed so natural. Expect it this November.

Bloodborne

This is where the hype led. Project Beast is now Bloodborne, though I honestly like the name Project Beast a lot more. But this game, led by Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki, looks to be everything we’ve been hoping for: creepy, gross, and wholly compelling. It also kicked off the day’s trend of trailers with double title cards. Double! Set for release sometime next year.

Dead Island 2

The complete polar opposite of the original Dead Island announcement trailer. That’s what this is. It’s unfortunate that trailer even exists because this is quite fun and the E3 demo is quite solid as well. But my god that trailer hard to live up to. Also, it’s not being developed by Techland (they’re busy with Hellraid and Dying Light) but Yager Development. Expected early 2015.

Grim Fandango

This was basically the surprise of the briefing. This is what these sorts of things were made for. Journalists get big news pieces and questions to ask and interviews to set up while fans get to drool and hoot and holler while executives roll around in their money pits. Also, Tim Schafer confirmed via Twitter that this remastered version will eventually make its way to other platforms. I’m also going to go ahead and guess John Vignocchi had something to do with this.

Abzû

Much like the Mesopotamian breakdown of the title itself, Abzû is a beautiful game. I do mean on a purely visual level since I’ve yet to play it, but it surely seems like this game was made just for people like me. It looks a bit like Journey (not unexpected considering Giant Squid was founded by Journey art director Matt Nava and the project itself includes composer Austin Wintory and thatgamecompany’s lead designer Nicholas Clark) while certainly something all its own. It will launch in 2016.

Magicka 2

I love how stupidly and impressively absurd every Magicka trailer has managed to be despite, you know, reality. I mean, I also like Magicka and how surprisingly deep the co-op elements were, but the trailers are just so fun and ridiculous. I guess that also applies to the game as well.

No Man’s Sky

I can tell you firsthand that even hours after the event, this trailer and this game is all people were talking about. It’s still something I want to talk about. It looks like the game has grown even more impressive and that’s considering that the studio Hello Games flooded around Christmastime and had to redo quite a bit of work. And this quote: “We’re dealing with planet-sized planets. Even if a million of us played on one planet, we’d still be really far apart.” Yes please.

Let It Die

Yep, definitely looks like a Suda game. And apparently it’s being shown somewhere at E3, but you have to either know the right people or be lucky to see it. I have one more day to find out if I’m one or both of those things. I’m not even entirely sure what Let It Die is about, but I’d really like to find out.

PlayStation Now, Free-to-Play, and TV

The free-to-play thing was weird. It was more like they were trying to get away with saying “these games are free!” and then whispering “…to play.” It was definitely not well received. PlayStation Now and PlayStation TV, however, were pretty well on point. Now is Gaikai rebranded but still totally a gaming streaming service and TV is a little $99 microconsole that pairs with a controller to play games and watch things. PlayStation TV come this fall, as will PlayStation Now, though the latter will go into beta on July 31.

Ratchet & Clank Movie

It was only a matter of time. It and a “reimagined” game will be hitting PSN in 2015.

Remastered The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V

I promise you I will play both The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V in their entirety over again just because. I did it for Tomb Raider and I will do it again because I think all of them are fantastic games. The Last of Us will come out July 29 and Grand Theft Auto V sometime this fall.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

If the title wasn’t telling enough, Nolan North, voice actor behind Nathan Drake, also believes this will be the last Uncharted game that Naughty Dog will make. It makes sense and I sincerely hope so. No matter how good Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End ends up being (or bad, who knows), I don’t think anyone wants to see this storied franchise end up becoming a commoditized burden, especially without Justin Richmond and Amy Hennig behind the wheel. Look for it in 2015.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

While not as classic as last year’s E3 trailer, this is classic inscrutable Kojima. I can’t wait to look at my TV with a dumbfounded layer of confusion plastered across my face.

Batman: Arkham Knight

One word: Batmobile. Glad to see Rocksteady Studios back at it. Comes out in 2015.

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Something Make-Believe

Something Make-Believe

It’s pandering. To believe that no one would mind the ineffectual choices laid before them is almost insulting. To think that such cursory options are satisfactory is laughable. Living this way is enough to make one indignant, boiling over like a pot of unsalted pasta.

That, of course, is an overreaction. It’s an obscene knee-jerk to a rather inconsequential thing: choices in a linear video game. I say inconsequential because in pretty much any narrative game (or “digital media experience,” to broaden the scope and rope in some buzzword bullsh—err, fun times), the outcome is always predetermined. There may be multiple endings, but they are set in stone, like dropping a ball into a pachinko machine.

Those concrete possibilities are exactly what got the Mass Effect in such deep trouble. Three large, expansive, and mostly high quality games and we got a three-by-three, color-coordinated chart of nine possible outcomes. I still hold that the creative authorship is the key in that debacle, but I also agree the expectations—realistic or not—were absolutely set forth by the developers to believe or hope for something more…custom.

Mass Effect 3

Sometimes games lean into that, though. The ending of The Last of Us (and the game as a whole) works as commentary on choice. BioShock Infinite is a bit more deliberate in that, utilizing it as a theme throughout its runtime, but the result is largely the same. And Spec Ops: The Line actually hangs wholly on the idea of agency. You end up contemplating what it means to make a choice in a video game, drawing metaphysical parallels and philosophical quandaries to real life choices.

But not every game can do that. For one, that is a pretty tough thing to pull off. Irrational Games and Naughty Dog are some of the best in the biz (or were the best in Irrational’s case). For two, that would get boring. Think about knowing precisely how and why a game is doing what it’s doing every single time. Consider how you feel knowing that every Hollywood comedy has to go through the fun -> crisis -> redemption loop. You slog through that middle part to get back to the laughs because you just know how that’s how it works.

The choices that I find more problematic are the ones that seem most superficial. Infamous: Second Son made me think about this when it gave me four options just before protagonist Delsin Rowe was about to deface a sizable DUP-controlled (the enemy organization) outpost. And I just had to wonder: why?

Infamous: Second Son

Besides the fact that the interface for it was not obvious at all despite taking up the entire screen (same goes for vest selection in the menus), it grinds the entire thing to a halt. And to do what? Choose between three mediocre graffiti textures and one good one? Paradox of Choice is a fine concept to implement, but when the act of choosing is more or less meaningless, the paradox becomes an annoyance of choice.

Not once when I saw that spray painted embellishment out in the wild again did I think, “Hey, that was something I chose!” It just got logged into my brain as a thing that exists in Delsin’s world, not a conduit (ha!) through which my agency as a player is portrayed in the game. I can’t tell if Sucker Punch intended it to be a point of pride in toppling part of the regime or a highlight that a user can point to and excitedly say that they did that, but nothing close to either of those happened.

I likened it during a conversation with another games journalist to the shaping mechanic in Shaun White Skateboarding. In that game, you can utilize your manifested creativity and freedom from oppression (the story got really weird) to extended real rails and ramps into Green Lantern-esque constructs of pure imagination. This allows you to really jack up your score and liberating influence in the drab, totalitarian world.

Shaun White Skateboarding

The problem is that every rail and ramp shaping sequence has a predefined ending just as they have a beginning. The ability to express your athletic creativity is actually more like a platforming puzzle that has one very obvious, not very fun solution. But the expectation to create as freely as you desire, free from the evil Ministry, is impressed upon you by the game. And that faux choice becomes a bit insulting.

Granted, Second Son‘s graffiti is a real smattering of options with discrete outcomes, but the sensation is the comparable bit: it’s grating. It’s wearisome. Aside from the world customization in Second Son, it purportedly has the legacy feature of a karmic dichotomy, though, as with the case the game picking a canonical ending anyways, your choices are sullied, made worthless.

That is where it becomes just enough to pick at your nerves and make you want to say something. It asks you go forth and give something of yourself, to deviate from a line drawn from point A to B, and then takes it, crumples it up, and throws it in the trash. At least you can choose to just stop playing, I guess.

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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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Highlights From the VGX 2013

Highlights From the VGX 2013

This Saturday saw the first VGX, the successor to the VGAs, or Video Game Awards. Or it’s just a rebranding. Whatever. It’s the video game awards show trying to be the Oscars of the industry, but since it’s coming from Spike TV, expectations are, quite honestly, low.

Regardless of the show’s successes and failures from this year, there was quite a bit of news streaming forth from our computers and televisions over the course of three hours. (That still seems ridiculous to me, but here we are.) Here are the big ones.

No Man’s Sky Blows Minds

Let’s start off with the biggest of the big. This absolutely blew up my Twitter feed as well as my mind. No Man’s Sky comes from UK studio Hello Games who you may know best for Joe Danger. In fact, that is the only thing you’d know them for since that’s the only thing they’ve put out.

But here comes this game that we’ve only heard buzzes about (namely from Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker), one that you should, from this point forward, pay extremely close attention to. No Man’s Sky is an exploration sim that procedurally fills an entire universe. I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s a moment where you just might go OH FUCK YEAH. Managing director Sean Murray calls it a “huge game.” To that, I say, “No fucking shit.”

Elijah Wood Joins Broken Age

Even if you don’t like adventure games, it’s worth watching this new Broken Age trailer just to see the art. Seeing it all in motion is absolutely beautiful. Lead artist Nathan Stapley has quite the eye for making fantastical yet realistic worlds in a painterly style.

And then if you’re into it anyways, you’d be happy to learn that Elijah Wood is joining the voice cast of the likes of Jennifer Hale, Jack Black, and Wil Wheaton. He’ll be playing the male half of the two protagonists, a boy held captive by a ship originally intended to save him from his dying homeworld. Apparently Wood also loves to make Rice Krispies treats. Look for (hope for?) the game to finally launch in January.

Telltale and Gearbox Confuses Us All

The first announcement of the night was also the most befuddling. It wasn’t bad but it also wasn’t…desired? It’s hard to explain. Telltale Games, developers of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, is teaming up with Gearbox Software, the studio behind the Borderlands series and taking Duke Nukem Forever to the finish line, to make an episodic adventure game called Tales from the Borderlands, the first episode of which will come 2014.

Yeah, right? Unexpected, but not unwelcome. I’m just not entirely sure anyone was asking for this to happen. Are people really that invested in Pandora and its mythos? It’s not a bad thing if there are; I just always went into Borderlands to shoot guns and loot corpses. It also begs the question of how many teams are going on at Telltale at the moment. They’ve still got The Wolf Among Us going and the next season of The Walking Dead coming up. Will we see the A-team or will we see the Jurassic Park: The Game team?

Game of Thrones Game from Telltale

Oh yeah, Telltale is also making a Game of Thrones game for 2014. Aaaaaaand that’s all we know.

New Destiny Trailer

From Friday, we know that we have quite a ways to go before Destiny actually comes out on September 9, 2014. To tide us over, Bungie has given us a new, sprawling trailer that includes highlights on music, weapons, characters, and the world of the game.

Two New Titan Classes for Titanfall

You know what? I really can’t wait for Titanfall. I played it at PAX Prime and E3 and then and now, all I want to do is play Titanfall. It is quite the game from what I’ve seen, though more extensive play once it releases only can tell if it is good as whole. But seeing these two new trailers for the heavy Ogre and the nimble Stryder class Titans just reminds me of what excites me about the game. Look for it on March 14, 2014.

Time Control in Quantum Break

Aside from all the buzzwords Remedy Entertainment creative director Sam Lake throws around, this look at Quantum Break actually seems kind of interesting. I’ve been marginally tepid on the game for the longest time, but seeing that the time manipulation looks nothing like Max Payne‘s bullet time has me looking forward to seeing more.

Oh, and Naughty Dog is the Best

To accept awards for the VGX, studios got to create videos instead of having to go up and awkwardly say words out of their mouth holes. Irrational Games may have had the most endearing and charming, but Naughty Dog went full Banderas. It’s amazing.

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PlayStation 4 Launch Event Recap: Uncharted, The Last of Us, and More

PlayStation 4 Launch Event Recap: Uncharted, The Last of Us, and More

How was your night last night? Go out anywhere? Maybe stand in a big line and get a $400 piece of technology? I didn’t, but I did go check out a couple of midnight launches of the PlayStation 4. For one of the biggest metroplexes in the country, Dallas didn’t really have anything crazy to offer, although a couple of dudes offered me some queso, so there’s that.

UPDATE: just kidding. Apparently I missed Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant buying five lucky line-standers their PlayStation 4s.

Of course, it (and whatever was happening at your closest GameStop) didn’t compare to Sony’s big launch event in New York. It was just a big ol’ celebration for Sony’s step into the next generation, but they still decided to throw some news in there. Geoff Keighley even asked about The Last Guardian! (We’ll get to that in a second.)

New Uncharted for PS4

In perhaps the teaseriest tease of all teases, we see nothing more about the upcoming Uncharted for the PlayStation 4 except that 1) it exists, and 2) it has betrayal. Oh, also, I guess that is has a super high resolution logo?

At least it tells us what Naughty Dog has been up to since putting out Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and The Last of Us. And over on the PlayStation Blog, it has been confirmed that creative director Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond are both attached to the rather green project and that Todd Stashwick of Heroes fame provides the excellent voiceover.

The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC

Speaking of Naughty Dog, we see them release their first single-player DLC with Left Behind. The teaser is short and poised for a lot of emotional drama as the franchise is wont to do: Ellie and Riley Abel, her school chum from the Quarantine Zone, happen across a carousel.

Like, nothing happy can come from that, right? But it will hopefully at least be a fantastically sad. It’s based somewhat on the Dark Horse comics The Last of Us: American Dreams (which are pretty great) where it shows Ellie and Riley meeting, but this is Ellie telling Joel what happens after that.

Don’t worry, I’ll bring the tissues. Look for it in early 2014 for $14.99.

Destiny Beta

Along with the above trailer, Bungie COO Pete Parsons (what a comic book superhero name) announced that the beta for their upcoming online first-person shooter Destiny would be coming first to the PlayStation 4.

“We’re going to give first access to the PlayStation nation, PS4 and PS3 owners,” he said. If you want to get in on it, you’ll have to have preordered before October 1st, though I’m sure there will be other avenues available as it creeps closer.

Classic Snake in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

I guess not everything old made it out when the new stepped in. In a confusingly nostalgic move, Konami will be including Classic Snake as a skin in the Sony-exclusive mission “Déjà Vu” for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. So yay next-gen graphics? Whatever, as long as I get to choke dudes.

Dammit

Geoff Keighley asked Sony’s Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida and Vice President of Publisher Relations Adam Boyes about Team Ico’s mysteriously missing The Last Guardian. God dammit. JUST GIVE IT TO ME.

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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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Lengthy Merit

Lengthy Merit

Size matters, or something like that. In this particular case, we’re talking about things of the entertainment industry: video games, movies, books, etc. But we don’t necessarily tie merit directly to length because, as we’ve learned over the years, duration has nothing to do with quality. A Pixar short film like Paperman has the ability to impact a viewer just as hard as Gone with the Wind. That’s because they both attempt to play to their strengths. Paperman goes along to the tune of brevity so much better; it tells a short, concise tale of a man finding and losing and desperately looking for again a fleeting love. Gone with the Wind takes its time to span over a decade, something it can afford to do with such a long running time.

It’s to the point where constructing narratives for either kind of film completely detaches from conventional film making, mainly to the conclusion that there is no such thing as conventional film making. Only in medium are short films and long, three-hour epics similar, but spinning up a proper story takes time to account for the strengths and weaknesses of their particular delivery methods. Ambiguity, for instance, can be found in heavy quantities in a lot more short films than in long-winded historical dramas.

With such a disparity in ability in a single facet of multimedia entertainment, it becomes increasingly strange that folks would want to directly correlate video games to films (or books or television). Interactivity and ludic engagement separate our industry from the others by a wide, incomparable chasm, so the unending search for a Citizen Kane or Roger Ebert of video games seems already ridiculous. I get why those questions and comparisons exist; these are tent-pole figures in film that represent the successful traversal of a rocky path to legitimacy, so it would make sense to want to pave a similar road for and with video games.

Citizen Kane

But that is disregarding much of what makes our industry so special. You can read about much more from much more insightful folk than myself by checking out what Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun and John Teti of Gameological have to say on the matter (both of which I point to in the last Things to Read), but there’s one specific aspect they fail to mention: the length of games.

Outmatched perhaps only by novels and particularly lengthy jazz odyssey albums, video games have the greatest potential to hold your attention for the greatest amount of time. RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can top out at over 100 hours while more linear action-adventure games like Tomb Raider or BioShock Infinite can go on for 15 or so hours, orders of magnitude longer than the average film or episode of Gilmore Girls.

That’s because between the bits of storytelling, we often have discrete chunks of gameplay. These are moments where the narrative doesn’t even really have to develop other than getting you from one place to another. All those times where a movie would fade to black or a book would start a new chapter, we play through those parts. We are actually engage in the act of chasing a car or walking from room to room in a haunted mansion. Interactivity weaves in with non-interactivity and, in effect, pushes the duration of a game well beyond static narratives.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This has the additional consequence of making slow-to-develop stories much more bearable. With proper pacing, you can really milk moments of little to no consequence simply because they need to be there. In movies, almost every line and action written into a screenplay has the express purpose of moving the story along. They operate on a much slimmer, tighter economy of time and words.

Video games have the privilege of being played at leisure and their quality merits continued play (unlike films, which you must go through all in one sitting if you’re in a movie theater). Because of this, they much more freely allow things to be missed for the sake of what feels like spontaneity despite the fact that almost everything is already predetermined. Take, for example, BioShock Infinite. Wandering around with Elizabeth in tow allows her to comment on things around you and for Booker to interact with her. In these moments, pieces of those characters begin to fill in, but they’re pieces that don’t necessarily contribute directly to the overall story. They simply flesh out these two people for the player, and because doing so was your choice, make their growth wholly more personal.

And they happen on such a small scale. With a story stretched and fortified from two hours in a theater to 15 hours on your couch, you can fit in a lot more of these tiny details. In the early moments of The Last of Us when Joel, Ellie, and Tess are making their way to the Capitol Building, the trio has to cross across some rooftops. As they move forward, Joel lingers slightly and checks his watch as the two climb across a spanning ladder.

The Last of Us

It’s a tiny, infinitesimal thing that would not have been communicated as subtly or effortlessly in any other medium. A book would have to mention specifically that Joel did that, hitting too hard on the nose that he views this as just another job. A movie wouldn’t have had time to linger for such a deep puddle of seconds to give that moment the time it needed. Joel needs to acknowledge Tess and Ellie, then push it out of his head, then check his watch, and finally move across the rooftop. There’s one too many actions for something with a time limit.

The entire ending to Red Dead Redemption is an excellent example of this. The average playtime is about 30+ hours while the minimum, critical path is something like 20 hours. The ending, after John is back on the farm, is over an hour of some of the most incredibly mundane, mind-numbing stuff you’ll ever play. You look for a drunk, you rope some horses, you herd some cattle, and you shoot some crows. I guess things get kind of fun with Jack since you get to kill some more deadly animals, but those are little drips of excitement in an IV full of tedium.

There is, however, a point. That was the life John had been seeking all along. He was back with his family, and instead of defending wagons from land pirates or planting bombs on a bridge or getting involved in a war in Mexico, all he has to worry about is his family and his farm. We visit MacFarlane Ranch and have a conversation with Bonnie that puts the nail in the coffin of his old life. It’s simple, just as John’s new life.

Red Dead Redemption

And then everything goes to shit when those government dicks come back to clean up loose ends. It’s made all the more poignant because we’d just spent the past couple of hours doing absolutely nothing but being the down-to-earth, not-exciting farmer John and his wife wanted him to be. The contrast is so shocking, that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s happening. But the inevitable, sacrificial conclusion is one that slowly dawns on us as we play it out, and its emotional impact is made all the more severe because of the monotony we’d just gone through.

That wouldn’t have been possible in pretty much any other medium. A film can’t break its denouement into three more acts with its own climax and resolution (Red Dead Redemption‘s epilogue was a mighty fine resolution) because it simply can’t afford the time. The time on the farm was its own opener and inciting action for the events that followed, showing off how much time it had to play with, almost rubbing it in our faces. The incredible amount of time we’ve afforded the game to take and shape and mold for our pleasure allowed Rockstar the ability to craft moments like that and payoffs like that.

Movies and books don’t really get multiple chances to reinvigorate a story in the middle of telling its ending. Can you imagine if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s final chapters just before he went down the trapdoor were nothing more than Harry sleeping and studying and eating? We got through that in the beginning because it was all new and meeting people and learning things were exciting. But reading words about a boy—even a wizard boy—sitting through hours of class doesn’t fly. We don’t come to appreciate the tedium; we come to hate the author. And movies simply don’t get the time to even try that unless the entire film was about said tedium. They have to pick and choose while video games can try it all.

Red Dead Redemption

That’s part of being a video game. The format allows for earning time with the player. Whereas long and short films play to strengths determined by their length, video games are in a constant state of give and take with the player in terms of controlling the story and giving control to the gamer. That allows for making time for watching Elizabeth look through a rack of posters or having Joel glance at his watch or catching horses as John. We have time for those little, boring, exciting, gigantic, strange things. We just have to earn it.

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