Tag Archives: The Last of Us

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Standard Audio-ty

A Standard Audio-ty

A lot of concessions are already made for stories. There’s an entire plot device, after all, that does little else but give a name to random events kicking off subsequent action. Characters often act in extravagant or over-the-top ways so as to manufacture drama that can later be resolved in (hopefully) some meaningful way. And that’s not to mention we all experience these things in a largely default state of assuming the good guys always win, which is far from the truth of real life. When was the last time you saw a big ol’ headliner film that ended with the world blowing up and the terrorists/aliens/d-bags won?

In video games, we give up even more in the way of reality. Detachments from our tangible world become our norm and yet we cling to what’s left so as to make sense of these digital realms. For all its militaristic verisimilitude, what, exactly, is the strawberry jam covering our faces in Call of Duty supposed to be? If it’s blood, then are we to believe that when it clears up, we simply stuffed it all back into us and we’re all better now? If it’s really fruit preserves, then how are we losing to enemies that only use jelly-based munitions?

That, however, is the soup du jour of video game concessions. Or at least it was for the longest time. Before, you had to give up whatever fondness you had for accurate medical science when bullet wounds could be healed in a matter of seconds by picking up a little box with a Red Cross symbol on it. But that was just the tip of the iceberg: an endless amount of ammo magazines await you, you got a PhD in Visualizing Grenade Trajectories, and dead bodies fade into the ether.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Those are all concessions we regularly agree to and happily endure when playing most video games. A recent article by Kirk Hamilton over at Kotaku, though, made me think of the more personable, non-mechanical ones that we similarly and joyfully play through. In that piece, Hamilton talks about a bevy of games that both succeed and fail at making compelling in-game graffiti. He tears down Tomb Raider‘s admittedly poor decision to recycle and then needlessly highlight its dire survivor graffiti and then points out that even larger, more critically well-received games like The Last of Us fall victim to nonsensical wall art.

That all is in service of an overarching trend, though, called environmental storytelling. Or I guess it’s not a trend and more just a fact of narrative-driven games now since it is a very potent technique and technology is capable of rendering such things. One of my first experiences with the narrative tactic was in System Shock 2, a game that Hamilton also points to being one of the first aboard the graffiti train. But I specifically remember walking down a curving hallway—lights flickering—with a blood stain smeared across the wall next to me. That alone told a frightening story. It was, however, old-hat then in films and old-hat now in games, but it still does the trick.

One of the points Hamilton makes, though, is rather poignant and salient to my original conceit: most in-game graffiti makes no sense. What’s the purpose of writing “what happens when the food runs out” just outside of a city? Do the members of a fire-loving cult really need a spray painted reminder to “embrace the flame”?

Tomb Raider

It seems, however, that beyond the graffiti-covered zeitgeist, the bigger trend is for environmental storytelling to depart further and further from a staunch veracity and go deeper into irrationally suspended disbelief. Consider all a hallmark of the BioShock series: audio logs. A great deal of them both in Rapture and in Columbia (much more, it seems, up in the sky) contain the last words of dying men and women. Whether holding the front to some firefight, bleeding out from a sneak attack, or simply fading away with the flowing sand, they leave their mark on the world in a touching way. They’ve got family and friends untended to, they’ve got stories with unhappy endings. They all paint an appropriately grim and dark picture in these flawed and fallen utopias.

That is, of course, until you remember that they had to have been carrying these large audio recorders to do that. These big ol’ boxes of arcane technology seem to be both single purpose and single use, only being able to record a single message from a dying man before they’re tossed aside onto a shelf or behind a box or next to a pool of blood and loot. They look to be roughly the size and shape of a Ghostbusters proton pack, so think about someone lying on their side, their own blood slowly but surely running out of them, and they unhitch this behemoth from their back, rewind the tape, and press record to leave a message so perhaps someone other than a Splicer or nutso religious fanatic finds it. It is, without a doubt, absurd.

But this is the recent conclusion to years of experimenting with environmental storytelling, and it amounts to little more than overt narration, the laziest method of relating information to the viewer/player. It’s a handy relabeling to dodge the tired bullet of narration, similar to how The Office and Parks and Recreation fake documentary-style talking head segments to do the same thing.

BioShock 2 audio diary

Dead Space, Dishonored, Borderlands, Spec Ops: The Line, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Singularity, and so many more all fall victim to audio logs, and none of them make much more sense than BioShock. Giant Bomb’s concept page for audio logs lists 76 games, a density distribution curve with respect to time looking an awful lot like an exponential growth function. It is a growing trend and a rather subtle subversion of reality, but it is still a disconnect from what we know to be true.

That’s not to say, however, that it needs to be fixed for that particular reason. Breaking from the known and jumping headfirst into the unknown is perhaps the greatest strength of video games. Intuitive understanding—seeing that blood smeared across the wall—sticks around a lot harder than discrete understanding because we make the connections subconsciously, which then bubbles up to the forefront of our minds. It covers all bases of understanding and learning while reading and listening must be digested and extruded in reverse.

These audio logs fall into that undesirable latter, and when they begin to fail to make sense, they detach from our curiosity of the world we’re in and crumple into a pile of questions about the framework of the game. From improbably handy information to impossibly well-timed death rattles, those are concessions we shouldn’t have to make when we’re learning about our environment. We should be asking ourselves “what happened” instead of “how did this get here” but that’s far too often what we end up with.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Taking The Victory Lap

Taking a Victory Lap

A victory lap is such an odd thing. In a way, it’s a bit dickish. You’re essentially rubbing your supremacy in the face of all your competitors, despite the implicit intention of also honoring them. There’s give and take involved for sure, but it’s still a gesture largely based on the premise that you’ve bested the competition and now you want to celebrate and let everyone know you’re celebrating, like, immediately. Fans will stand around and join you, congratulating you as you whizz by, while haters will jeer or turn their backs. It’s a shared moment where those in attendance can let everyone else know exactly where they stand, where on the spectrum of love and hate they lie.

But it’s also deserved. You have toppled the king, taken on all comers and emerged victorious. For today, in that moment, you are indeed the best there is at what you do and you deserve to be recognized. You’ve conquered all those who oppose you and it’s your right to stand above those fallen before you. It’s showy, but it’s also necessary. Sooner or later, the lesser will have to acknowledge that you are their superior, so it might as well be sooner.

The people you’ve come against, however, weren’t your only obstacles. There’s an intrinsic challenge within simply navigating the course. On a racetrack, all those turns were foes that couldn’t be beat but only accommodated. On the half-pipe, every inch of flatbed and coping were facts of life that you had to come to terms with well before returning from the air. Taking it slow necessarily makes these maneuvers easier, allowing time for appreciation of the design and your abilities and how they mesh together in the moment, a singular point in time where empowerment over those things that challenged you enables you to understand how two disparate pieces fit inside one another.

Victory lap at 1991 British Grand Prix

That moment is what I feel is missing from many games. Too often they follow the dramatic curvature of rising action to climax before shuttering out to an inconclusive conclusion. The denouement is similarly the narrative point at which you can mentally comprehend and resolve all of the twists and turns taken before, but the gameplay rarely follows suit. Instead, we often face off against bosses who physically dominate our play space and horde what feels like all of the health in the entire gaming universe. To most games, the climax is simply a rote struggle against an overpowered AI, not the most interesting encounter where all the systems and mechanics dovetail together into an odd but satisfying cocktail of stick movements and button pushes.

It is something missing almost completely from the entirety of modern Call of Duty games. The stories wrap up nicely (if a bit ridiculously), but the gameplay moments leading up to, including, and following the narrative peaks are fairly dull. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare got by on being new and what it did at the time was quite astonishing, but as it went on to World at War, Black Ops, and so on, the spectacle of non-involvement wore thin. Mental complacency of resolving a multi-threaded story and tying them all off with a bow only got you so far when the time surrounding it involves pressing a button to slow-mo throw a knife/shoot a gun, riding an escaping vehicle, and pursuing a fleeing foe. It’s stale and doesn’t feel very comforting knowing that you long ago mined all the mechanical nuance from the game.

The Last of Us, however, gets it partially right. The denouement goes on a bit long following what I consider the narrative climax at the end of Winter. The following Spring hits all the right story beats in brilliant syncopation with its complex themes, but it does drag on a bit longer than I would have liked for a conclusion you feel is right at your fingertips. But in terms of the actual things you’re doing from the start of Spring to the end of the game, it definitely qualifies as a bit of a victory lap.

The Last of Us concept art

That’s because for so much of the game, you’ve held back on letting loose. The name of the game was restraint, and you’ve been playing by its rules for the past 12 hours. Bullets you’ve refused to shoot for fear of encountering an insurmountable situation sat unused in your backpack and in your magazine. Arrows tucked away since Boston stick out like a sore, rotting thumb. But then things change.

(Slight spoiler warning: I’m about to talk about the last two weapons you get in The Last of Us. Not really a spoiler, but some people care about that sort of stuff, so I’m just covering my bases.)

First you’re given a flamethrower, and immediately following that you’re given an excuse to use it. You’re presented with a room full of runners. As soon as one starts running, they all start running. You know this. It’s cramped quarters and there’s no way you’ll be able to draw them out one at a time and stealth through this encounter. So you step up, let one of them see you, and let the fire flow. And it’s amazing. It’s empowering. It’s intoxicating in how much pleasure you get from seeing and hearing the infected flesh sizzle and crack at your feet. And then it’s sobering. It’s what you’ve been wanting to do this whole time and it’s still starkly violent, a reminder that this is a cold, cold world.

The Last of Us

And then you’re given an assault rifle and it fuels the rest of your combat encounters. You know you’re approaching the end and it seems enemies are dropping way more ammo than before, subtle hints that it’s time to let loose. Stand and take a hit, stand and shoot back. Stand and take the time to appreciate how far you’ve come from hiding in the darkness to walking through the light with a gun at your side. It’s the contrast in restraint that enables this victory lap of sorts. And it works because it feels so incredibly gratifying in terms of gameplay but so confusing narratively because it works in concert with both. It addresses your desires and places it up against the themes it’s been laying out for you from the beginning.

There have, of course, been other games with great victory laps. Consider Super Metroid. You fought the Mother Brain. You saw your grown baby Metroid come back to save you. And now you have the Hyper Beam. You’re standing at full health, taking every hit the Mother Brain throws your way. You see your health depleting but it doesn’t matter because you are just laying wasting with this supercharged weapon. You crush a foe you just barely bested moments before, mere seconds after seeing the one emotional attachment you have in the game disintegrate and the single objective given to you irrevocably broken on the floor before you. It is, once again, a wonderful confluence of narrative and mechanical appreciation for how the two intertwine and shed new light on the growth you and the game have achieved.

Then you have to escape the crumbling world around and above you and all those Space Pirates and shutter doors that caused momentary pause before are now cannon fodder. The whole last third of the game when you get the Screw Attack and Space Jump is masterful in leading you around and teasing you with power until you finally unleash it all. (Truth be told, that whole game is masterful, but let’s leave that for another time.)

Super Metroid Mother Brain battle

Journey is another great example. For the entire rest of the game, you’d been standing around, trying to gather enough, um, sparkles to float and jump and fly around. And it’s momentary bliss at best. It feels amazing while it lasts, but then you are earthbound again and awestruck and sobered in light of what you were doing followed by what you are doing, which is to say freeing yourself from the confines of the world to being wholly trapped in them.

This leads up to the narrative finale where you are at the top of the mountain, struggling to make it up the final pass. You trudge, slower and slower as the wind and the cold beats you back. The levity seemingly imbued into the game at the binary code level has been replaced with strident indifference. It’s painful to see a light and airy and joyful creature walk as if it has been laden with 200 pounds of sadness.

And then you are flying. You are soaring through the sky in a way you didn’t think you’d ever manage. All that time spent collecting wanton resources for skyward flights of fancy and watching life drain from the sole living, benign thing on the mountain is tossed out by the unrepentant ecstasy that fills you as you finally fucking fly. It’s unbelievable beauty that follows heartbreak, incredible empowerment that trails bleak oppression. It’s the ending to an ambiguous story you didn’t know you wanted or were capable of, but your pounding heart and your giant, dumb smile are impossible to ignore. It’s a victory lap for the ages. You’re no longer struggling. You’re flying.

Journey

Perhaps that’s the real point of the victory lap, to show that you’ve overcome so much, that what you used to think impossible is now firmly within your grasp. The track is clear of racers and the turns no longer seem like daunting challenges of managing throttle and brake but a chance to slow down and remind yourself to wave to the crowd. They want you to acknowledge that you’ve grown so much and come so far in this short amount of time, that despite standing up against it, the track has become a part of you in this moment. It’s something more video games could do with instead of ending with an uncompromising allegiance with the stricture of compounding enemy difficulty. Not every game needs to do it the same way, but give us a chance to appreciate our time with the game. Give us that victory lap.

Tagged , , , , , , ,