Friday, October 11, 2013

State Of Art In Vidya Games. Exhibit 2. The Last of Us.

It's not easy to explain why a game is really neat to people who'll probably never play it,  but I'll take a crack at it.
I wanted to write about The Last of Us. It's an instant classic, and an amazing testimonial to how excellent writing and voice acting can turn an already very solid video game into something truly moving and extraordinary.

However, I think it maps an excellent path to answering the tricky question about what makes video games a unique art form:

In a game that is purely linear and tells most of its story through cutscenes, why not just tell the story as a movie? What unique element makes video games a distinctive art form?

I'll write more about this bit next week, because I think there are some very interesting things to say. Today, because most of the people reading this won't ever play it (Playstation 3 exclusive) I wanted to describe its story and some of the interesting things about it, accompanied by YouTube videos so you can see what I'm going on about.

More of a game design geek sort of post today.

So About The Last Of Us

The Last of Us is a first person shooter with a heavy stealth element set in the zombie apocalypse. Yeah, like 500 other games. It tells the story of a bitter, violent, barely sane, middle-aged survivor named Joel and the teenaged girl who ends up in his care named Ellie.

(Standard Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers. So what? We're trying to have Real Talk about art here, which means looking at the whole thing. So put on your grown-up pants, come along, and don't freak out.)

Quick plot summary. In the prologue, the zombie apocalypse breaks out. Joel tries to get out of town with his daughter. Some idiot soldier, just following orders, kills Joel's daughter. Joel pretty much loses him mind.

(The prologue is pretty fantastic. One thing I need to point out about it: It's not some easy-peasy spoon-fed tutorial nonsense. If you don't take the zombies seriously and run and run FAST, they will kill you. Last of Us is a game that demands you take it seriously from the get-go. Don't mess around during the apocalypse.)

Skip a couple decades forward. Joel is now sort of a thuggish criminal smuggler in a hellish future city full of mushroom zombies, completely closed off and cynical. He goes with his partner Tess to get a job.

(Tess is another sharply drawn, bitter female character, who’s competent, angry, not a love interest, and totally not there just for eye candy. It is taking the game industry a while to realize that the percentage of female gamers is edging real close to 50%, but Naughty Dog gets it.)

Joel meets Ellie. Joel learns Ellie is, for some unknown reason, immune to the zombie fungus, and Joel needs to escort Ellie to future scientists who can use her to figure out how to cure zombieism.

(Now, at this point, you can probably make a pretty accurate guess how this is all going to end. I anticipated it instantly. This is NOT a flaw in the game. Human behavior is usually extremely predictable. This makes it no less interesting. Sometimes good storytelling means having the courage to make the ending go where it needs to go.)

Joel crosses country with Ellie. At first, he can't bring himself to like Ellie. Little by little, both people learn to open themselves up to caring for another human again.

(Side note. Ellie is a fourteen year old girl. The way the game industry is right now, many were terrified that the game would sexualize her and make the whole thing insanely creepy. Instead, they simultaneously avoided any creepiness at all and made Ellie a completely believable teenager. I bet a lot of thought went into it.)

Then, in my favorite section of the game, Joel is heavily wounded, and you switch protagonists. Ellie has to hunt for food and then protect him from bandits. You play as Ellie for a huge chunk of the game, and she gets an excellent and suspenseful boss fight all to herself.

(This whole section completely caught me by surprise and blew me away. Ellie plays close enough to Joel that your skills still matter, but differently enough that you have to adapt. Obviously, a teenage girl is going to have to rely much more on stealth and trickery. Also, the first part of this section is simply Ellie stalking a deer through the snow and hunting it with a bow. It's quiet and lovely.)

But if you can't shoot it, why is it even there?
In one city, in one of many exploration sections that are free of violence ...

(Last of Us understands pacing, and that quiet sections make the fast, scary sections more effective. Smart designers know that sometimes simple, quiet exploration is a lot of fun.)

... you see a tower of giraffes, descendants of specimens that escaped from a zoo.

(Yes, a group of giraffes is called a "tower." This is a great scene. Apart from being really very pretty, the game takes the time to let you know that, if humanity dies out, it's not the end of everything. There is still a world that will carry on just fine without us.)

Finally, Joel delivers Ellie to the scientists. Surprise! They might be able to save humanity, but they will need to kill Ellie to properly analyze her. Joel goes on a rampage, saving the unconscious Ellie, and carrying her away.

(Some people still think that Grand Theft Auto is in some way shocking, instead of just dour, obvious, and tired. These people need to play the last section of Last of Us to see how a horror game can really bring the horror. No zombies required.)

Now, note. It's a linear game. Almost no choices to be made. A lot of players were really angry about being forced to control Joel as he, potentially, damns the human race to destruction. And yet, there is no way that character could do anything but what he did. He had a faceless bureaucrat kill his daughter once, and it basically destroyed him. There is no way he could ever endure it again.

Games For Grown-Ups Should Be Their Own Genre ...

... with their own section in the store.

Everything about Last of Us is for grown-ups. The real characters, acting in believably human ways. The lack of pandering and gratuitous sex eye candy. The occasional difficult sections, showing an awareness that to give a feeling of accomplishment requires a chance of failure. The game length, which is a smidge long but still doable for someone with a busy, adult schedule.

It's easy, sometimes, to look at video games and despair. It's this sort of rare AAA game, that aims for a target above the most simple and base, that gives me hope.

There's some shotgun ammo hidden inside the podium.
It's Not the Citizen Kane of Video Games

And stop looking for one. That anyone thinks we need a Citizen Kane of video games shows a lack of understanding of why Citizen Kane is as revered as it is. Citizen Kane was unusual in having a huge density of innovation in film-making techniques for one film, but there is no reason to expect that one game needs to come along and remake everything. It's just as likely that video games will advance in an incremental way, with lots of new techniques spread out over a bunch of games.

Really good movie, though.

Also, The Last of Us is not, for the most part, an innovative title. (The switch to playing Ellie is ingenious, and I hope more games play with the POV character like that.) This game mainly does stuff many games have done before. It just does it perfectly.

And There's No Choices

It's a purely linear story. It's their story, and you're experiencing it.

Why did this need to be a game? Why not a movie? I mean, this thing could be an insanely cool A&E miniseries, like Walking Dead but with actual characters and interesting events.

But, even in the most linear shooter, video games bring their own unique features to the art table. Still working that one out, but I should have a post on it ready next week.


  1. I enjoyed the story a lot, but I felt like the pacing went all wrong when combined with the scavenging gameplay. The story would be moving at just the right pace, then you'd have to pause for 15 minutes to search a neighborhood up and down for spare scissors. I'm not sure how I feel about that - it felt like the gameplay was getting in the way of the game.

  2. Having read your review I'd like to play the game (don't have a PSIII) - but I have to say, there's no reason that I know of to not give the player a choice to save Ellie or not at the end of the game; the choices are part of what makes for some deep moral thought in games like the Knights of the Old Republic series and Jade Empire: I still remember JE as hands-down the most immersive video game I've ever played, in any genre.

    1. As I mention in my post below, you can watch it as a movie on youtube where someone has pieced all the cutscenes together. It's over 2hrs but I enjoyed watching it.

  3. To my mind the city section post car crash goes on far too long.

    In terms of the ending I think a cure was hardly guaranteed and that if one had been found how could they have produced/ distributed it.

    Secondly for me the real hope is Joel's brother Tommy and Maria's settlement; humanity doesn't necessarily need a cure to survive so much as being able to stop tearing each other apart.

    Not that it excuses Joel's actions.

    1. (Sorry for the double post) As to why a game not a movie: complicity in Joel's actions.

      But I feel it's a weird question, Roadside Picnic would work equally well as a book or (faithful film, Fullmetal Alchemist equally well as a manga or Anime. Many stories work regardless of medium.

      Maybe it's better to only question choice of medium when it doesn't quite work; Contagion, Uncharted, and modern action films.

  4. @John Smith: Yeah, it's not a perfect game. I had a handful of complaints about it, but I wanted to focus on the good ideas instead. My biggest complaint was the same as yours. Pittsburgh goes on FOREVER.

    @Everett: But here's the awesome thing ... You don't need to give the player the choice to enable you to have "deep moral thought." I actually think that forcing the story to its inevitable conclusion is far more affecting and thought-provoking.

    - Jeff Vogel

  5. one small correction, it's not a first person shooter, its from third person perspective. i know, i'm the douche. anyways, interesting read

    1. Oops. I made the same point, haha. But you easily beat me to the punch. :)

  6. Primarily, I wanted to share one thing -- in case you weren't already aware:

    Richard Lemarchand (ex Naughty Dog lead designer) gave a great speech at GDC called "Attention Not Immersion" (slides: In it, he talks about (a lot of things, including) goal-oriented gaming (which gets you in that zone where time distorts), and trusting the relationship formed between gamer/developer, established through the game, enough to purposefully eliminate goals and allow the gamer to have an experiential moment (like the giraffes).

    But while I'm here I will also point out that you made some great observations about the Last of Us.

    I like your comments about Tess and Ellie. Sometimes I wonder if people care about Tess since she's not a sex object, and she's not soft/devoted. But I liked her. She comes across as a real person with baggage which helps ground the story. And she brings us more understanding of Joel.

    The only complaint I've heard of Ellie is that she's capable yet often defers to Joel. I didn't find that to be a problem at all. It makes sense considering Joel's background and character.

    I agree with you that zombies are overdone, but I didn't mind them as much here because they were "realistic" zombies. It was grounded in some level of science. Makes it a bit more creepy to me that way.

    I also enjoyed that switch in POV from Joel to Ellie, and saw it as a good thing which makes you care about both characters as much as they care about one another.

    Not quite the same, but a POV switch was one of my favorite moments of Knights of the Old Republic. And while it wouldn't work in every context it could certainly work in more than we currently have (yeah yeah, art, animations, memory, etc.)

    PS Somewhat persnickety, sorry, but it was a 3rd-person shooter, not 1st. As stupid as it sounds, I'm honestly not sure I'd have enjoyed it as much in 1st person.

    1. "The only complaint I've heard of Ellie is that she's capable yet often defers to Joel."

      I find this criticism to be bizarre. She's exhausted, scared, and FOURTEEN. People defer to each other all the time for all sorts of reasons. My wife and I defer to each all the time. Does that mean we are both failures as strong or feminist characters, or whatever?

      The only real goal is to create complex, believable characters. Once you have that, nitpicks about whether someone is "strong" or "feminist" enough it just a distraction.

      - Jeff Vogel

  7. I agree with you, definitely. I thought the fact she deferred to Joel made perfect sense. I think what maybe gets to a good answer as to why The Last of Us receives criticism for women that need to be rescued, etc. comes via one of the developers: "I think that there’s a little bit of a sexism valley, for lack of a better term, like the uncanny valley. The more progress we make, the more those problems stand out."

  8. Jeff, Very timely post. I was listening to the "Gamers with Jobs" podcast and they mentioned how great this game was. Seeing as I do not have a PS3 I watched all the cutscenes in a row on youtube (yes someone has turned it into a movie playing all cutscenes together). Though obviously a bit jerky at times it was a great 2hr (yes just over 2hrs!) movie and I enjoyed watching it...

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