Friday, September 11, 2015

The Last of Us (Spoilers)

The Last of Us is not fun. Sure, there are aspects that might be considered “fun”, but that word does not seem appropriate in any way to describe this experience. “Engaging” is a better word to use, I would say, but that is of course a general term that doesn’t cover every nuance. Getting chased by Infected in a cramped environment from all sides, firing the only four bullets I have with a shaking gun and missing every shot except one, only to get ambushed from behind by a Clicker that rips into my flesh and instantly ends my experience isn’t fun, it’s fucking stressful. Trying to protect my three companions with a sniper rifle as people trying to kill them close in from all sides in a huge open environment with tons of places to hide isn’t fun, it’s nerve-wracking. What happens to Henry and Sam certainly isn’t fun. The Last of Us is slow-paced, breathless moments of hiding and listening before moments of abrupt and frantic violence. Trying to sneak up on an Infected to strangle it from behind only to have it suddenly turn around and scream at me, alerting dozens of other things that want to kill me and having everything go to shit isn’t fun either. There are few things, or perhaps nothing, more heart-sinkingly awful-feeling I’ve experienced in a video game than having something go wrong in The Last of Us, especially when it involves a horde of Infected. During these moments, I would usually just panic, run around aimlessly in circles and fire shots aimlessly at the horde in front of me as more slashed at my back before a Clicker sneaks in and mauls me from some unknown angle. Every. Damn. Time. Except during the times when I actually did make it through in one go. When the more I failed, the more I tried to learn from my mistakes. You can’t sneak up on Runners, Nate, don’t even try. I learned this the hard way time and again, and then finally, one time, I managed to take out a whole roomful of Infected with two carefully placed bombs and a single Molotov. I felt proud. I felt strong. I also felt good when I successfully snuck by a horde of Bloaters, Clickers and Runners undetected later on. I’d survived. Perhaps these moments, what felt like rare moments when things didn’t go horribly and end in cursing and frustration and bitter failure, were the few times where I might call The Last of Us “fun”.

But I still wouldn’t, because this is a brutal game that does not care about you. It will kick your teeth in and attempt to mess you up in any way it can. At least that’s how it was for me my first time experiencing it. It is a frustrating and unforgiving experience, and it’s all by design. I realized something about myself while playing The Last of Us, or rather it’s something I already knew about myself that this experience highlighted: I can’t stand when things are out of my control, and this game forced me to accept the reality that things will be out of my control sometimes, and sometimes I have to improvise and try my best to get out of what seems a hopeless situation. One of my favorite things that The Last of Us consistently does is thrust the player into dangerous situations that they must react to in the moment if they want to survive. Sometimes there may be a cutscene or some kind of brief warning scene beforehand, but then control is dropped, abruptly, into the hands of the player, at which point I needed to try not to freeze in panic, and look around for some way to get away from the tank and horde of angry Hunters suddenly bearing down on me, or move my ass away from behind that tiny bit of cover before the approaching dangerous men find and start shooting at me. Take too long to mourn your dead horse that just got shot through the neck and, yes, the pursuing men with guns will catch up to you and kill you. You need to run. You need to huddle in that nearby cabin, craft some supplies, and stay alive.

Combat was usually always messy for me in The Last of Us. Encounters with Infected were usually chaotic, jittery affairs where I could barely steady my aim enough to kill them. I’d often get away with a sliver of health left and it almost always felt like a miracle I’d survived. Many times, I’d only survive after several abrupt death screens, at which point the game cuts to black and a patronizing message to the effect of something like “Clickers can’t be melee’d, you will get eaten” or “Don’t run directly at enemies with guns, you will get shot…idiot” would greet me before asking me to press “X” to try again.  And if you get out of cover or run at an armed adversary with your trusty pipe with scissors taped to the end of it, you will get shot. When you get shot, your character stumbles backward and blood speckles the edges of the screen. And if you don’t get your ass back in cover fast, you will be killed. You can’t run around like a superman. You need to think, at least in large part, realistically. Sure, there are still plenty of “video gamey” elements here and I encountered a handful of glitches and hang-ups (at least in the original PS3 version) that took me out of the experience, but The Last of Us is more committed to a grounded realism than perhaps any other game I’ve played. It’s far from perfect, but its ambition is admirable. While Joel constantly bandaging up the same arm when he takes damage of any kind is a little silly, the act of having to hunker down and slowly patch oneself up instead of just magically auto-healing goes a long way in adding gravity to the experience and investing me in it more.

There’s a weight to The Last of Us. A sense of exasperation and heaviness that I don’t feel often in video games. Sure, there are other games that I’ve played with weight and seriousness…but The Last of Us still feels unique in its burdensome atmosphere. It was almost difficult to play, and yet I usually didn’t want to stop. The combat and the violence is brutal of course, but it’s more than that. It’s the way Joel walks, with his backpack strapped with guns and full of discarded notes about the tragic stories littering the world. The weight to his steps. It’s his noticeable sighs and heavy breathing. It’s the game’s use of the environment to show a far-off bridge that leads out of the hellish city-wide prison one is in; how I just want to get to that damn bridge, and I just keep hitting roadblock after roadblock. It’s seeing Ellie finally get a peer in Sam and watching the two of them joke and play darts, shortly before Sam becomes infected and is shot and killed by his own brother (who then kills himself). It’s seeing the completely broken man that Joel is, knowing that in a different world he would be a loving father and a good man still. The way that he desperately wants to protect Ellie so that he can protect himself, and the way that Ellie becomes almost as good at killing as he is.

I think the greatest strength of The Last of Us’s narrative is the attachment it fosters between Ellie and Joel, and it had to be, because that’s like, the whole game. Joel and Ellie’s relationship naturally grows, it’s fleshed out in emotional cutscenes that add depth to their characters and also by conversations and anecdotes that unfold as the two explore the crumbling U.S.. These moments made the action more meaningful, because I wanted to survive. Because I wanted Joel and Ellie to survive. The two of them feel like real people. Adventuring across the U.S. with them made me grow attached to them. The more the experience drew closer to its conclusion, the more nervous and anxious I got. I was afraid of how this was going to end. I was afraid of what was going to happen to Joel and Ellie. Most of the ways I imagined it would end were not positive. How could it be? How could this experience possibly have a “happy” ending?

I do not like the ending of The Last of Us, but it’s the right ending. It feels authentic. It all came down to a brutal choice for Joel: save Ellie or save the world. There’s nothing black and white about this situation. I appreciate that The Last of Us makes some attempts to humanize the non-infected people that the player kills throughout the game; the Hunters in Pittsburgh can be overheard sharing dried fruit with one another, talking about cooking bacon, and generally sharing camaraderie, for example. Marlene and the Fireflies are no different here, and one has to respect the sacrifices they’ve made and how they seem to be the only people in this world who haven’t given up on humanity. Marlene’s journals found near the game’s end serve to garner her in particular sympathy, and I really didn’t want to kill that surgeon putting his life on the line at the end (I shot him in the leg, but he still died). After experiencing just how completely awful this world is over the course of my journey, I had to question whether I would be willing to kill Ellie to save the human race myself, and wondered whether the game should have given the player a choice. I don’t think it should have, because Joel is a defined character, and it was true to his character to save Ellie’s life. Also, even if I had been given the choice, I know I would have done the same thing as Joel anyway.

As I said, the ending feels authentic, but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, and I’m sure that’s purposeful. It’s unsatisfying for a few reasons. It’s clear that Ellie is discontent and uncertain, at least where we last leave her. It’s not by a whim that we spend the game’s final, brief controllable moments as Ellie, because the game’s developers wanted us to see this from her perspective. We’d seen it from Joel’s perspective: a father whose daughter had died in his arms before twenty years of surviving in a hellish world, slowly growing into a jaded, murderous shell. Joel didn’t know any other world except this one anymore by the time we catch up with him in Boston, and all he needed was a reason to survive. He found his best one yet in Ellie. Having to lose Ellie, having to go through the same thing he went through with Sarah is too terrible for anyone to bear, and so I completely sympathize with Joel. We then saw things from Ellie’s perspective during the “Winter” portion of the game, when she did everything she could to save the life of her companion, of the only person she had. But during the game’s final moments, we see things from a more mature Ellie’s perspective. Joel is someone who stuck by her, protected her and taught her the skills necessary to survive. Ellie’s grown quite a bit by the end though, and perhaps she now begins to realize that she is Joel’s misplaced daughter. Joel lies to her and it makes me hate him a bit. Joel is just kind of an awful person; he’s a killer who we see kill even when it isn’t entirely necessary and now he’s manipulative of the best thing to happen in his life in years. I do think Joel is redeemable, and he is relatable. I can understand why he’d lie to Ellie and do what he does at the end, but it’s still shitty. I want Ellie to know the truth. I want her to decide for herself. The other aspect of the ending that’s unsatisfying is that it simply doesn’t feel like a conclusion. It leaves me bitter not only because of the lie Joel is willing to base he and Ellie’s life on, but because I question just what kind of life the two can have in Jackson, in a world still ruined. As inviting as Tommy’s town seems to be compared to everything else I’d seen, I question how long it will hold up before something goes wrong. I also question whether the Fireflies will simply give up on looking for Ellie; I don’t think simply killing Marlene will stop them from looking for her and Joel. So I don’t like the ending, but I don’t think I’m supposed to. The ending is bitter. It’s cold. It doesn’t feel like a conclusion to anything. But it’s appropriate somehow. It’s accurate.

The Last of Us is a depressing game. It’s bleak and weighty and stressful. It made me long to play something like Mario Kart 8, something bright and colorful and cheerful. It’s not a perfect game and it’s not a demonstration of the peak of what video games can do or be and what makes them unique. It still relies a bit too much on the language of film for that, among other things. Perhaps its biggest flaw for me, besides the not too frequent but still frequent enough glitchy moments I encountered, might also be a strength actually. I think “dying” in a game like this is an interesting challenge for developers. It was especially frustrating to die in this game because it always broke my immersion, and I think in a game aiming for such an immersive, “realistic” experience, this is something of a flaw; it’s just a challenge when it comes to the nature of video games like The Last of Us. At the same time, these deaths are part of what made this game so memorable to me; I don’t think the game’s unforgiving difficulty is a negative (I played on Normal, by the way) and I think that such brutal circumstances serve the experience well. While the game’s punishing nature would still be effective if I had never failed once, the failures I suffered reinforced the harshness and cruelty of the experience and not only that, but I learned from them, so that by the game’s final third or so, I was more often surviving than dying, and suddenly I knew just how to handle a horde of Infected in a dark tunnel, and aim and fire my gun with a cool head and a steady hand, albeit with still some sweat on my brow afterwards. I’m not sure if others struggled with the game as much as I did, and I’m sure if I had made it through the whole thing without ever getting a “game over”, it would have been very rewarding, but perhaps my frequent failures enhanced the experience somehow as well. This is all just something to consider.

The Last of Us isn’t perfect, but it’s ambitious and it strives to take this medium to new heights. It’s not the zenith, but it’s a step and it demonstrates the potential of video games to deliver an emotional experience that can do more than simply entertain. It contains a narrative that is grounded and relatable and perhaps most importantly, it is an experience that is incredibly human. Is this the Citizen Kane of video games or whatever praise people were giving it in abundance at its original time of release in 2013? I don’t know. Truthfully, I don’t even know what that really means. If it means that The Last of Us is highly innovative and big step forward for the video game medium, I’m not so sure, but perhaps…it is these things in some ways at least. Ultimately, here’s what I think: The Last of Us is good. It’s not like I play every game that comes out, not even close, but I’m willing to guess it’s one of the “must-plays” of recent years, and for a “AAA” title, it does a fair job pushing the bar forward for the medium. I plan on picking up the remastered PS4 version when I eventually get the console and going through it again there (hopefully that version irons out the technical blunders and bugs). I do think this is an experience worth undertaking again for me. It’s worth my time and it’s worth yours.

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