Tuesday, July 2, 2013

156 Thoughts about The Last of Us

So a friend of mine decided to be kinder to me than I deserved, and lent me his copy of The Last of Us, the Naughty Dog developed Sony released PS 3 exclusive zombie apocalypse game, to play until he returns from camping next Thursday. I started on Saturday, and finished it today. And I kept a running set of notes on the game as I went. It's partly critical, and partly a first reaction to events as they unfold. Spoilers abound.

156 Thoughts about The Last of Us, after the break.

1. Good use of body language with the girl in opening play sequence.  Really sells the increasing tension.

2. Running with girl sequence: keeps you on the path with automatic game ends via devouring for deviating.

3. I think "cinematic" sums up that opening sequence. Nice use of radio montage to convey passage of time and Fireflies existence.

4. *20 Years Later*: sheesh, that's a jump. Tess? Is that her name? And my dude's Joel.

5. When the guard says "next time you push me, I'll put a bullet in your head," he means it.

6. Coolest "aw" moment yet: there's a little girl sitting in a corner stroking a stuffed giraffe. When you approach it, she grabs it close and glares at you until you go away. I appreciate the attention to small detail.

7. Looking for Robert, we hit a big, open area, with waist-level crates stacked in strategic places. Ah, the old Mass Effect "and now we clearly switch to fight mode" design. At least it's also an early sign (if the fascist guards weren't enough) that this isn't just a slaughter-the-zombies game; you'll be fighting other humans too. The notion that the civilization collapse inherent in an apocalypse is more dangerous than the actual zombies is one of the more significant zombie tropes, I think.

8.  They're also pretty quick to make the point that Tess can handle herself--it's funny how, thanks to years of poor NPC AI and exceptionally frustrating escourt missions, it's become necessary for current games to make a point of saying "No, it's a good thing you're not going alone, honest." It's also funny--in a not funny way--that we've gotten to the point where it's acceptable to demonstrate that the woman who follows you around can take care of herself, but heaven forfend that she have the PC role.

9. Probably a good thing that one of us half competent. I'm remembering why I try to stay away from the shooting games.

10. I will agree with what others have said about the game, that it does seem to be a little odd that Tess can dart right in front of the enemies unnoticed. Sort of takes out the fun of being a master stealther when you spend a quarter of an hour sneaking past guys and your partner waltzes right through them to catch up to you.

11. Whenever you come across an inventory item you can pick up, there's a circle with a triangle in it, indicating the button you should push. The side effect of this design is that, less than an hour into the game, I'm already conditioned so that I hammer triangle if I see anything in the scenery that remotely resembles a circle.

12. I think I pay a lot more attention to the plot in games that don't have voice acting--not because I'm a terrible listener (I am) but in games within voice acting, the spoken words usually have a prompt to push a button to advance; when you have to formally press a button that says "yes, I read this," then a lot more sinks in. Rhetoric question: does the "press X to continue" for speech constitue an Austinian speech act?

13. So I've got another teenage sidekick. ...Really wish I was paying attention to the name rather than writing that bit above about how I don't pay attention to what I'm told in games.  ...Irony. And I also appear to be literally escorting her, which is a worrisome development, given what I said above about escort missions.

14. I do like the way the dumpster handles. Big and bulky, but with clear weight behind it. Unlike most games where you move heavy objects, it's not slow--it's just hard to maneuver, which is, I think, much harder to get right.

`15. The future has identical cardboard boxes everywhere.

16. There's a squirt bottle on the shelf in this scene. White head, clear bottle portion, red trigger. Is it odd that someone chose this household items, out of all the household items in the world, to be rendered 3D and placed in a post-apocalypse?

17. Hah! Take that, electric generator minigame! Although if I define that as minigame, I might as well call pushing a button a mingame.  Ellie!  That's her name.  Thanks, Tess. Man, it's just like being a party where you have to wait for someone else to refer to person again.

18. Waylaid by soldiers. One male, one female. Nice moment of gender inclusivity. Until I kill them both, anyway. Of course, I do so with my pair of girl partners. So that's, like, double gender inclusivity.

19. It feels almost weird when I get out of a pipe and a guitar starts playing. Once you aim at a certain level of realism in a game, I think non-diegetic (ie. music that isn't generated from something in the gamespace) music feels more out of place, outside of a cinematic cutscene. But I guess that's why it's there--not to make the game seem more realistic, but to contribute to mood in the way music in film does.

20. Health supplements: "Hey. Hey you. Pop this pill. It'll make you be able to listen to things that are further away. No, really."

21. "No, you guys go on ahead. I'm going to ignore our mission entirely and just poke around these abandoned cars for a bit." Sometimes, the exploration part of games doesn't jive well with the objective part.

22. The whole crumbling building is a nice touch. I'm not usually focused on a game's graphics, but it's impressive how much more "real" it seems than, say, the abandoned buildings of Fallout 3.

23. Just the option to sneak around and do stealth zombie slays is nice. I'd bet dollars to donuts that the next Resident Evil game is going to borrow very liberally from The Last of Us.

24. "See, we're doing all right." Dammit, Tess, that's exactly what you say before everything goes to hell.

25.  And now she's talking about how she wants to take it easy when they get back. Tess, are you one day away from retirement?

26. I have to say, being able to stand on the other side of the gap and look at buildings we saw from a distance before is a very effective way of establishing goals for the player, and verifying that those goals have been reached, without ever having to say anything overtly.

27. You could probably do a little write-up about American History and the museum, and the contrast between preserved history and the game's ruins--another thing it has in common with Fallout 3.  I'll admit to being a little surprised when I stumbled onto what looked like the Liberty Bell. ..I'll admit, I totally tried to smash priceless history. Alas, the game's environments in this instance are non-interactive.

28. Called it. Alas, poor Tess, we knew ye well. Or, actually, barely at all, as she points out. I do like that, the player, Joel and Tess' relationship is kept in ellipses. They're partners. Are they more? Maybe. Probably. Fill in your own story. "I think there's enough here that you feel some sort of obligation for me." Oh, Tess, you helpless romantic. You had me at "obligation."

29. You can tell a lot about how the game wants you to traverse a given area by how fast Joel's sprint works. If he moves at a half-jog, you can be reasonably sure you're not going to have to shoot anyone. If he starts running like he's the road runner thwarting an ACME trap, it's time to expect trouble.

30. The combat's impressive; Ellie jumps in to help you, bad guys will pull you away from a guy of theirs that you've cornered.

31. On the other hand, they don't seem particularly perturbed that one man and a 14 year old girl can bring down a squadron without firing a shot. At least Batman's opponents have the decency to panic.

32. Lured them into place with a smashed bottle (here's a tip--never run toward the thrown object) and then followed up with a Molotov cocktail. The ol' bait and burn.

33. I like that Ellie is in the game and is more than a "damsel in distress," but I feel like "lone wolf must protect sacred girl" is an establish trope too. Princess Maker 2 is the obvious reference point. What else? I suppose Bioshock Infinite is another obvious example.

34. In the ongoing "my PC is clearly a deranged maniac" and games discussion, I'll admit, Joel has sleeper-hold-murdered his way through a lot of downtown Boston.

35. I feel like Ellie stands a lot closer now that the Three Musketeers have become a Dynamic Duo. ...That fits narratively, I think, though I can't imagine we're getting along well when I'm pushing her out of the way every few seconds.

36. There's a moment when you come to a gate that's jammed on the other side. Someone needs to get over there. If you examine it, Joel puts down the idea that Ellie gets boosted up. Obviously, she says, she can't boost Joel. So I  was at a loss for a few minutes as to what the game actually wanted me to do. Well, what it wanted me to do was to examine the gate again, and have Joel agree reluctantly to trust Ellie. It's barely interactive at all, but it's a nice moment of him realizing he has to trust her--and a nice comparison to him working with Tess, as this sort of "help me over the wall" thing was done a few times with them.

37. Ellie comments on gnomes. Fairies creep her out. I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of these little moments. I can't decide whether it's good writing, to just go with the flow, or vaguely resent the implied emotional manipulation.

38. "Angel Knives" will be Naughty Dog's next game.

39. Nice role reversal with Bill's leg trap. That was also one of the game's tenser fighting moments.

40. Manly men talking about how those fragile dames need to be protected and thus aren't worth it. Admittedly, Bill is making me like Ellie more.

41. Now that I've got my level one tool, I can do some holster upgrades. That means that any given time, I'm carrying two "long guns" (shotgun and bow), a melee weapon (a board with spikes tied on it), a molotov cocktail and a nail gun, and two smaller guns (9mm and revolver). Honestly, I don't know why all the characters don't take a look at Joel and run the other way, because this guy is clearly batshit insane.

42. Wandering through a cementary killing undead things brings back memories of  Buffy: Chaos Bleeds. Fond memories, since it was the first combat-oriented game I managed to beat without playing till my hands developed callouses.

43. Aw, one of the house's master bedrooms have a cradle in it. That's sad.

44. Oh God, and there's a diary in the kid's room, where he talks about how he had to abandon his pet because it wasn't allowed in the quarantine zone. Dammit, game, low blow.

45. I should probably mention that I'm playing on easy. It changes the game from survival horror resource management to Rambo shoot 'em up, but... eh. I really don't have the time to play another style.

46. Uh. Never mind about the Rambo thing. I forgot to take into account that I suck at videogames. Man, that was a good introduction to the Bloater. Nice and chaotic.

47. Actually, the school scenario reminds me of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds too. If the next level is an alternate reality blood factory for vampires, than I think there might be a plagiarism case here.

48. Found Frank's note. Ouch. Frank had an attitude problem.

49. Bye Billy. That's a chapter break if ever there were one.

50. I'd be upset with Ellie, but kleptomania is a pretty useful addiction in a post-apocalypse. It's also a little weird, as I associate Hank William's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" with "The Life and Times of Tim." And that was some vintage dude porn. That had VALUE, Ellie. ...Crap, the game manipulated me into liking her, didn't it?

51. Okay, that was a pretty awesome con/sequence.  Man, I'm terrible, though. Nice contrast with doing the chain door with Ellie as opposed to other characters. I'm guessing the addition of a smoke bomb which "makes enemies not shoot at you because they can't see you" means I'm going to be shot at a lot in the near future.

52. "So have you killed a lot of innocent people?" Ellie, I imagine he's got a scalp collection that looks like a tribble infestation.

53. The manual = upgrade system is nice, and I always love the text = knowledge equation in videogames, but it's kind of troubling that Joel has lived twenty years in the apocalypse without already picking this stuff up.

54. Three guys who work with the highway guys walk by. Could have let them go, but instead, I kill them all. I'd like to say it was karma for them killing all those folks, but really, I just wanted to hit them back. Videogames!

55. Is there anything quite as bizarre as kids messing up joke punchlines? Seriously, this was always one of my favorite thing about party-based RPGs: that moment where the rest of your party just starts chattin' it up with each other. Lunar Star was great for it, as was Dragon Quest... VIII, I think. And Dragon Age 2.

56. Found a note saying that the enemy has gotten control of a mortar launcher. Gee, I wonder what's in my future?

57. I like that the gang calls their victims tourists.

58. "Man, you are a weird kid." Good banter. A few more games like this, and the "lone wolf" PC thing will be a distant memory.

59. About damn time the "move the ladder wherever you want" suggestion was actually worth doing.

60. Probably best that Joel never gives Ellie a gun. I think a 14 year old on a murder spree might have raised some eyebrows.

61. A guy just begged for his life, then attacked me as soon as he got up. Lesson learned, game.

62. I like that plant growth has sort of exploded everywhere; it seems like a good thing on the surface, but given the spore-based Zombie disease, all that green space is a bit threatening.

63. Hammer square to turn a 14 year old into a murderer.

64. Hmmm. When you die in a mass fight and come back, the enemies you killed stay dead (or at least in this mass fight). I had no idea, 'cause I kept resetting the encounter. How embarrassing. 

65. I appreciate the hotel setting; it's certainly got everything you'd expect: lobby, restaurant, maintenance rooms, hotel rooms, conference rooms. Not a pool yet, but there's still time. And it makes sense that a large gang would set up in a hotel, given its plentiful rooms. But the setting also means there's a sameness to everything, even with all the variety of room types. Yes, the bedroom is different from the conference room, but they're still just rooms designed to look respectable but unremarkable.

66. This may be more in my head than in the game design, but it seems like Ellie is hanging back after she and Joel had an argument; she falls behind more and I don't have the problem of stumbling into her. Nice touch, if deliberate. Moving the piano in the lounge is a great sullen teenager moment. She definitely gives the sense of being more of a free agent than most games' NPCs. I find myself wondering how she's going to react to the game--and that's a weird situation to be in.

67. They bond over him letting her act as sniper to cover him. It's a weird moment: he grudgingly shows respect by encouraging the 14 year old to murder people.

68. Ellie's face as she comes down and looks at the slaughter is kind of heart-breaking. Uh, never mind what I said before about not giving a 14 year old a gun.

69. Ellie and Joel are ambushed by another pair, with a teenager in tow. Henry and Sam. It's a foil team! They're either going to die horribly or betray us. I don't see the game deviating from the main relationship at this point. I suppose it would be a reasonably novel twist if they died horribly when we betrayed them.

70. People talk about food a lot in the game, and its scarcity, but it's never a necessity, except as one of the ways of healing. That's probably for the best; games that require eating to stay alive tend to get a little tedious. 

71. Now I'm wandering through an abandoned architectural studio. Oh, the places I go.

72. Okay, they left us to die. Option B, then.

73. Game's got a weird glitch; some of my item icons have disappeared. That's fine with most of them. But it's not so great that my health meter has also disappeared. I could pretty much die at any moment--or be perfectly fine.

74. Like the building in Boston, the bridge has made a pretty good "middle term" goal--most games don't have landmarks definitive enough to allow locations to serve in a middle goal purpose, but this game really sells that aspect.

75. Joel's upset with Henry for leaving them. I feel like that's a reasonably response.

76. Found a note by a guy named Ian, where he finds some people with kids, and decides to bring them back to his hideout. Considering said hideout is no longer populated by Ish, I'm going to go for the optimistic choice that they all became one big happy family. That's a common zombie apocalypse theme, right?

77. And now we're getting domestic notes that Ish is leaving around, about getting in water gun fights with the kids, and complimenting Susan and Kyle. Establishing mood or laying it on a little thick?

78. A trap's separated me and Henry from Ellie and Sam. Okay, they're clearly sticking around for a while. And the game's pulled a reluctant team-up--staple of the superhero genre.

79. Cockroaches scatter when you turn on the flashlight. Nice detail.

80. Found: stick figure drawing of Ish and Danny, labelled "our protectors." A little thick, then.

81. And now the landmark is a radio tower. Distant goal, ho!

82. Very different residential feel than that of the suburbs earlier in the game.

83. There's a lot of situational conversations--you go to certain spots with characters, they start chatting. It's a pretty natural idea, and it's more or less what would happen in real life, but for a completitionist player like me, it's enough to drive you nuts. Did I miss that conversation? Is there some key bit of background there? I can sympathize with the view that you need to look at the game's code to really understand it--it's hard to say for sure you've seen what a game has to offer by playing it.

84. Another note explains that Ish and Karen survived the sewer massacre. I'm not sure why Ish is leaving notes about it, but... whatever. Game convention, at this point. He's talking about how he'll keep going because of his faith in humanity. Generally, the game's alternated between zombie threats and human threats. The sewer was a zombie threat, so I bet I'll be up against some people pretty soon, and that Ish and Karen fell afoul of them. Or they are the people I have to fight.

85. Now Ellie and Henry are having an impromptu dart contest. Honestly, how did we ever play games without NPC tag-alongs?

86. Yep, called that. Fighting a sniper and his friends. Voice actor sounds familiar.

87. Ah, the return of Chekov's tank. That was appropriately climactic. Also: staring at the three from a sniper's lenses kind of made me want to shoot them.

88. And now the zombies are here. That was a fast switch between zombies and people fighting. I guess the next logical twist is to fight them both at once.

89. Two young adolescents having a serious conversation about their hopes and fears. Has such a thing ever happened in videogame history before?

 90. Ouch. So long Sam. I guess I should have seen it coming from the last scene. Henry is the older one, and Sam's the younger? Huh. Well, mentally change every time I referred to either of them. That's easier than me actually changing.  And exit Henry stage right. Yep, that's an act break. Okay, they turned out to stick around longer than I thought, but the tragic ending still happened. So it goes.

91. New location: the dam. Now does anyone have any dam questions?

92. Well, Ellie, if you don't like crouching on the dam board, maybe you should have learned to swim at some point in this month long journey.

93. I love that it gives you the key prompt to return Ellie's high five.

94. Food talk again; everyone's hungry.

95. There's two paths leading to a grave marked by a teddy-bear. I guess the game really wants me to have the conversation with Ellie over Sam and Henry, without forcing me into it.

96. Nice family reunion moment with Joel's brother.

97. Horses and electricity: it's pretty standard direction for a long-term post-apocalypse story. You get past survival mode, and start rebuilding. Of course, since it's still a zombie story, everything goes to hell. Pretty sure this isn't going to be any different--wouldn't be much of a game if it did.

98. I also love that you get the option to pet the horse. Sorry, the dam horse.

99. Press triangle to pet dog.

100. It's a little over the top to have an American flag on scene when the generator comes back. Yes, yes, we know Americans are smart too.

101. Interesting to see Joel's brother call him out on his excessive violence. And of course, the plant's under attack. Oh, I see how it is. When it's horses and electricity, It's "Joel, you're a monster." When it's bandits and guns, it's "Joel, do your thing." Subtle, game.

102. Well, it took this long for Ellie to do a stupid teenager thing: she's taken a horse and rode off.  Can't say I'm looking forward to some horseback riding; feels like too big a thing to add to the game at this point to be more than a novelty.

103. Ellie and Joel have a heart to heart. Joel's an ass. But nothing like a bit of slaughtering others at close quarters to bring people together. It looks like Joel's brother's plant isn't going to get completely destroyed. That's a welcome relief. And I have a horse now. So I guess it is something you can introduce into the game at this point.

104. New medium goal: the mirror-shaped building where the Fireflies were last known to hang out.

105. "So... these places? People would just live here and study? Even though they were all grown up?" Oh, Ellie. They never grew up.

106. I think I've seen someone write up how the Firefly medallions are basically a pointless quest for completitionists, and against the spirit of the game. I'm not so sure; diegetically, they could serve as a "people were here" sort of thing.

107. You know things are ramping up for the end when you get the game's last weapon. Hello, flamethrower.

108. Every time animals appear in this game, I expect to get attacked by zombie animals. Hello, Monkeys. Keep you distance.

109. Yeah, I chased the monkeys. WHICH PROVES AGAIN THAT MAN IS THE REAL ANIMAL.

110. And now Ellie stays with the horse. I kind of miss her.

111. Zombies in university dorms. That brings back memories of undergrad.

112. Starting to get an abandoned space station vibe from this university now.

113. "Stay close." This is apparently Ellie's signal to run up the stairs ahead of me.

114. "Stay down." There's a progression from the "holy crap, you shot a dude" Ellie to the current model. I guess if the PC doesn't show any character development, it's up to the NPC.

115. Ouch. That's a painful place to get a spike through the body. As opposed to all those comfortable places to get a spike through the body. Awesome switch in their power dynamic.  Totally not the right time for this observation, but Ellie swears like a teenager.

116. The screen blurs and dims, and the controller vibrates. Simple, but effective ways of communicating Joel's state through interface.

117. And now I'm playing as Ellie, hunting a moose. Quite a shift, action-wise, from the options Joel's daughter had at the beginning of the game--which is the point, of course.

118. I suddenly see the appeal of hunting games. Not hunting, mind you, but hunting videogames. 

119. Ellie negotiates with two interlopers for antibiotics. It's a nice scene. Very cinematic, and well-written.

120. So forget everything I said about not giving a 14 year old girl a gun. And about not seeing her die horribly. Man, those zombies got to munch on my face a lot.

121. Ugh. You can always tell when the game is arming you up for a big fight.

122. Man, the game waited a long time for that second bloater, but it made good use of it.

`123. Aw, poor horse. No non-virtual animals were hurt in the making of this game. (Actually, the use of animals throughout the game is a topic of interest. They've survived the apocalypse, and they don't seem to be humanity's enemies. No zombie animals, knock on wood.)

124. Fourteen year old girl takes out half a dozen armed men. Sounds right. (I've really mentioned Ellie's age and gender, together, a lot, haven't I?)

125. She talks to herself a lot more than Joel does. It fits the character, though it's also because this is the first time the player's avatar has been really alone.

126. Location: Ski Chalet. All right. So far, it's clearly an ammo restocking place, which doesn't bode well.

127. This might be the best action movie videogame ever. Or at least yet.

128. Wild prediction: finale is Joel fighting to reclaim Ellie. I base this on no other reason that every game needs an end villain, and Not-Joel (as I call him) is the only villainous speaker that has lasted for more than a few minutes. On a related note, this is the first time in the game that there's been anything that can be construed as sexual regarding anyone's conduct with Ellie, which is a nice level of restraint for an AAA game with women involved.  And of course, it's a clear indicator that *HERE IS THE GAME'S BIG VILLAIN.*

129. And now torture. My goodness, it really is an Action Movie videogame. And then I give them painless deaths. Well, actually, that one looked pretty painful.

130. And now I'm an unarmed 14 year old girl running from a guy with a gun. It's a horror movie! I hope we're cycling through all the film genres. Musical's next, right?

131. The blizzard's adding a whole new level of atmospheric freakiness to the proceedings.

132, And now I'm in a cat and mouse fight against said villain. Ellie, be a better mouse. Okay, that was a really unnerving, Steven King-esque scene.

133. And we switch back to Joel in a cliffhanger moment. I immediately come across a man slain by arrows, which implies that what the game wants me to do is switch to the bow for a while. And it's a great idea, considering that the bow works well for a low visibility situation like a blizzard. Too bad I get caught murdering people in the garage and have to fight a four on one brawl instead.

134. My screen's covered with snow and frost to signify the cold. I wonder if the amount has been increasing gradually, to reflect Joel's slow freezing to death. It's also noteworthy that the area I'm in now has no indoor bits; it's just a gunfight down a street. Very Old West.

135. I got a note regarding the cannibals' meat haul per week. It's another pretty common zombie trope: you want to escalate the "zombies eating flesh," then you add a bunch of humans who figured "when in Rome...."

136. And the reunion. That was well done. Interesting that the scene ends with a pan back to the knife rather than Not-Joel's body. Maybe the last act will be coming to terms with the violence they've unleashed?

137. There's a clear role-reversal; now Ellie's the one that stays silent and Joel has to prompt her. Or, rather, you have the option to prompt her. I can't remember any other point in the game where two "talk" prompts were placed so close together.

138. And the next goal: the Firefly hospital. I think part of what made the town and the blizzard so claustrophobic is that the game took away the destination--rather than reach some predetermined point, the only goal was to escape, and there was no where to go.

139. You could do a nice read of how this game interprets the US through the locations chosen. Utah, now?

140. And another cool use of animals. Hello, my long-necked friend.

141. All right, it looks like the chalet detour was just that--we're clearing ramping up for the ending, though.

142. I've been collecting comics for a while. They serve the basic purpose that they're not just random hunting, they're hunting for Ellie, and seeking them out implies Joel's bond with her is growing. But I wonder if the story serves some sort of narrative purpose--are they the Tales of the Black Freighter to the game's Watchmen? Probably a bit lofty; on first glance, it seems like they're typical sci-fi space opera frontier stuff.

143. And now Joel's volunteering info about his post-apocalypse experience. It's the bonding moment that Ellie was looking for earlier, and he denied. And now I'm basically just telling you what the game is telling me.

144. Hmmm. The back and forth nature of the game leads me to believe there's a heavy zombie section ahead.

145. "Well, no matter how hard you try, I guess you can't escape the past." DO YOU GET THE MESSAGE PLAYER? Seriously, it's a sweet moment.

146. Yup, zombies. I manage to walk past the bloater without fighting it, which makes me feel like I'm wearing my Big Boy Stealth Pants. "Oh my God, there's so many of them."  Not on easy difficulty, there isn't.  *progresses slightly.* Nope, you're right, that's a lot. And THAT'S why you don't attempt to melee bloaters.

147. This last(?) ladder/platform "puzzle" feels a like the developers went, "no, we don't have anything new to do with this, but we created these elements, and by God, we're going to use them."

148. "Maybe it was meant to be." Destiny's come up a few times in the game. That might be worth looking into. I have to say, this is a much more interesting final conflict than Not-Joel and his band of happy cannibals.

149. "Give me an excuse." Kind of an attitude problem, considering I've more or less saved the human race. I imagine he's being unreasonably belligerent to justify... yep, there it is. I typed that last sentence before it even happened. What Joel's interrogation technique lacks in finesse, it makes up for in speed.

150. One easy way to increase the difficulty of an encounter is to increase the time between autosave.

151. The Fireflies leave a surprisingly large number of fire arms lying around. No wonder they're on the losing side so often.

152. I remember one of the complaints about Bioshock Infinite is that it was ultimately nihilistic; unless there's a happy ending tacked on here, this game's pretty far in that direction. Although to be fair, it is a post-apocalypse story. Adventure Time notwithstanding, those don't tend to be happy.

153. All right, I complain a lot about using in-game tapes for plot points--apparently show don't tell doesn't apply to videogames--but Marlene's records and journal really add some humanity to this whole section. There's a definite parallel between her and Joel, in terms of their desperation and their need for something to justify the lengths they've got to.

154. I chose to only kill the doctor who drew gun on me, not the other two. Knowing this game, I suspected that I was quickly going to be punished for that, via one of them immediately pulling a scalpel or something.

155. And that's a good use of a jump cut. Ellie's got to have an inkling, though, right? You don't go from the hospital to the road that quickly without something odd happening.

156. Good choice to have the player control Ellie, not Joel, in the epilogue. Man, how rare is it for a game's final scene to NOT feature some climactic boss fight? I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that there's going to be a DLC or a sequel with FIREFLIES VS. JOEL'S BROTHER'S PEOPLE, ROUND 2! Hopefully, for once, a game can just end where it ends.

That was a pretty great game. Yes, it's arguably another damn zombie game (dam zombie game) in a long list of hundreds, but I can't think of one that was better executed. There's a lot of talk about how games HAVE to have choice, and let the player decide the course of the story, and so forth, but I think the game demonstrates amply that the player can be just as happy guiding characters around and watching them interact. Switching from Joel to Ellie in the last third was essential too--it's important that we DON'T empathize entirely with Joel in his final choice to save Ellie's life at the cost of a cure, and if nothing else, switching to Ellie for a bit reminds the player that their POV, their interpretation of events, isn't identical to the PC they happen to be controlling at the time. It's a  little disappointing that Ellie doesn't really play any differently than Joel, besides having a smaller range of weapons, but that fits with what an actual 14 year old would be capable of in comparison to a grown man.

I hope other designers take some notes with this game. First, that game writing is important; without the banter between Ellie and Joel (I'd bet the rest of my donuts someone on the writing team was drawing from their own experience with a 14 year old), everything falls apart. The world the game depicts isn't particularly complicated, the levels are basically beautifully designed set pieces, and the plot is pretty typical zombie story fare when you get right down to it. It's a zombie action movie in game form at its core, no more, no less. But the dialogue is so far above the average for games that it stares down on the others from orbit. And that dialogue is absolutely essential to make the player care what happens to Ellie or Joel--or rather, Ellie and Joel. Likewise, I hope other lessons here are that single player experiences can be well-done, and don't have to be sandboxes to allow the player to feel like they had a choice--the combat options, ranging from stealth to super slayer and a well-guided system is enough. I also like that the game deviates from boss fights, and the saving the world theme. There's memorable scenes, and noteworthy encounters, but the game makes the point that there's more than can be at stake than the fate of the world or solving your problems by killing the local champ. (Now, if we could just get a game that does the same thing, but without zombies...) And last, I hope more games follow with the NPC / player team dynamic, and with alternating PC control. I brought myself up videogame-wise on JRPG games with large casts, so it always bugs me when a player says they're forced out of a game whenever the game has the PC do something they wouldn't do in real life. The PC doesn't have to have the personality of the player, and if a game shows the player that it doesn't, the player is willing to allow that distance.

My, this is a long post. What else? Um... I liked the use of animals, the way the game staked out medium-level destination goals, and the little glimpses into the lives of other survivors. I thought the level of violence, the upgrade system (Joel grinds his own pills?), and Ellie the Invisible were all kind of silly.

So... GTA V next, huh? The virtual killing spree has just begun...

Later Days.

1 comment:

RPP said...

Great post, Mike. Inclined to agree with most of it. Although I found that I played Ellie very differently compared to the way I played Joel. I rarely threw anything as Joel, but with Ellie, the old belt-a-dude-in-the-head-with-a-bottle-and-then-jack-him-in-his-neck was my go-to move.

There was definitely a greater sense of desperation as Ellie, which, I think (as you noted) could be attributed to the fewer weapons at hand.