Friday, May 30, 2014
In addition to giving a substantial portion of my free time over the years to playing video games, I also spent two years of my life working as a game tester on first-party PlayStation titles at Sony Computer Entertainment America. That was many years ago, and I am now back to playing games for fun, not to break them. But, every once in a while, I happen upon a bug so peculiar or so amusing that I cannot help wanting to research it further.
I encountered a couple curious bugs in The Last of Us. Below, I break down a particularly nasty one that sees the player running afoul of a group of sewer-dwelling infected who simply will not die. You can shank them, melee them, burn them, unload every last round of ammo you have. You can even stomp their heads off, and they will just keep getting back up.
After I demonstrate the bug, commentary begins at 1:50. (And, yes, I know they're not really "zombies.")
Version Tested: PS3 Patch 1.07 (May 6, 2014).
Summary: User is unable to progress in Sewers level after initiating combat with pursuing enemies.
Conditions to Reproduce:
1. In The Last of Us: The Suburbs: Sewers.
2. After Joel and Ellie reunite, with enemies in pursuit.
3. Before helping Henry try to break down the door.
4. With Molotov cocktail in inventory.
Steps to Reproduce:
1. User progresses to The Suburbs: Sewers.
2. User progresses to when Joel and Ellie reunite, with enemies in pursuit.
3. User progresses forward through door and closes door against enemies in pursuit.
4. User equips Molotov cocktail.
5. User tosses Molotov cocktail at enemies as they breach the door, before they are able to reach Ellie (timing-specific).
Enemies will catch fire but will not die. User is unable to defeat enemies by any means. Even when shivs and upgraded melee weapons are employed, enemies will persist. Even after an enemy is decapitated, it will rise again and persist without head. User is not otherwise able to progress.
User does not become engaged in combat with undying and headless enemies.
Friday, May 23, 2014
In my write-up on The Last of Us, I referred to Sony and Naughty Dog's PlayStation 3 opus as the "culmination of the entire three generations of PlayStation that preceded it"—not a seminal work, as such, but one that expertly harnesses and synthesizes a number of great ideas pioneered by distinguished forebears. Much of the discussion surrounding the title has touched on its literary and cinematic influences (Cormac McCarthy, Children of Men, The Walking Dead), but I consider The Last of Us truly the product of "video game buffs." Playing through it was, for me, an unexpectedly resonant experience that left me reflecting on games of the PlayStation era (my gaming prime, it's fair to say) that have left indelible impressions on me. Since I named a bunch of them last time, I thought I'd better go ahead and elaborate on the connections I drew between these games and The Last of Us. Be warned, there will be spoilers—for The Last of Us obviously, but also for Shadow of the Colossus, Army of Two: The 40th Day, Final Fantasy X, and Syphon Filter.
I already discussed the great debts that The Last of Us owes, in design and direction, to Resident Evil and Metal Gear—not only mechanics but whole sequences lifted, such as the barricade cabin from Resident Evil 4, the Vulcan Raven-esque cat-and-mouse boss battle against David, or the "cover your slowly moving friends from a sniper's perch" segment borrowed from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Its most literal progenitor is, of course, Naughty Dog's own Uncharted series (itself taking elements from Tomb Raider and Kill Switch), with which it shares tech and team members.
Another direct antecedent may be Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2010), whose lead designer, Mark Richard Davies, also worked on The Last of Us. I haven't yet played all the way through Enslaved, but the similarities are hard to miss. Both were projects where the writing was an area of particular emphasis, Enslaved having been scripted by Alex Garland, screenwriter for the zombie apocalypse film 28 Days Later (2002), an acknowledged source of inspiration for The Last of Us. Both are post-apocalyptic tales set in urban environments that have become depopulated and overgrown with lush vegetation. And both are character-driven stories centering around the relationship between a male player character and a female AI-controlled companion.
On that last point, both Tameem Antoniades, creative director of Enslaved, and Neil Druckmann, creative director of The Last of Us, have cited the influence of one of the most acclaimed games on the PlayStation 2, Sony Computer Entertainment's Ico (2001). Ico was a landmark achievement in the development of the AI companion, its ethereal maiden, Yorda, clearly the model for Ellie in The Last of Us.
In both games, it is the player character's job to escort the companion safely past enemies and obstacles (despite my previous insistence that The Last of Us never feels like an escort mission, that is, plot-wise, literally the job that Joel is hired for). This charge is at the conceptual basis for a great many of the puzzles in either game. Yorda lacks the physical conditioning to make the great leaps that Ico can, and, in The Last of Us, Ellie cannot swim, so it becomes the player's task to somehow rig up an alternate pathway or platform to help them through areas they may not be able to traverse on their own. Sometimes, they will return the favor, and player character and AI companion will work together as a team to get one another through (e.g. lift your partner up to activate a switch that you cannot reach yourself).
It's the little touches in Ico, however, that truly sell the illusion that Yorda is alive, and thereby facilitate the player's bond with this AI character. One of the most effective moments in the game is when Ico and Yorda happen upon a peaceful courtyard. During this brief respite in their harrowing journey, Yorda can be left to safely wander the area on her own, and the player can observe the way, having lived defined by captivity, a caged prisoner when Ico first meets her, she now marvels at the simple beauty of the scene. Perhaps a bird flies past and catches her attention. Yorda's gaze follows, and she extends a hand delicately in its direction. These idle behaviors are extraneous to one's progress through the campaign, but they subtly develop the player's regard for and relationship with the character of Yorda, by convincing you that she is, more than a mere computer program, a person, with emotions, personality, even dreams beyond the action of the game.
The creators of The Last of Us take Ico's lessons to heart. Like Yorda, Ellie will, during peaceful moments, take in the view, point things out, and sometimes explore on her own. Most amusingly (and realistically), her self-awareness will wander along with her attention, and she will start mouthing guitar noises. The Last of Us is able to take things beyond Ico by allowing Ellie and Joel to converse. Thus, the game is able to organically blend the idle behaviors with scripted dialogues triggered by the environment, as Ellie will remark on what she observes and ask Joel questions.
Ico's spiritual successor, Shadow of the Colossus (2005), is perhaps even more revered among critics and fellow creators alike. In this case, I can't point to any direct influence that Shadow of the Colossus may have had upon The Last of Us, but the two titles tread similar thematic territory. I mentioned last time how impressed I was with how The Last of Us, a survival horror game by genre, went beyond just the gameplay mechanics to considering the idea of "survival" thematically, exploring its implications in the cannibalistic post-apocalypse of the story. The violence that Joel perpetrates in The Last of Us is brutal, but one could argue that that is simply what it takes to survive in a brutal world. Beneath the struggle to survive, however, may be a deeper question—that posed in the marketing for Shadow of the Colossus: "How far will you go for love?"
The question proves more complex than it first seems. A foldout ad for Shadow of the Colossus memorably elaborates with further such questions as "Will you ride across a vast and perilous land, confronting death and your own limitations?" and "Will you summon courage great enough to conquer a living, breathing mountain?" These images suggest a heroic level of commitment to the noblest of virtues. For Wander, the mere mortal protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus, to quest in the name of love means to surmount a series of progressively more forbidding monolithic creatures, for only through defeating them all may he resurrect the maiden Mono. Players are never told who Mono is to Wander. His lover? His sister? His queen? Some girl he admired from a distance? It is enough for us to know that he loves her, and that so strong is that love that he will rise to any challenge, however daunting, on the chance that, by doing so, he might somehow break death's hold on her. The idea is inspiring, as is the image of this tiny man, with only sword in hand, scaling a living mountain, barely hanging on by the hairs of the wildly swinging behemoth, but ultimately asserting himself in the battle of wills to emerge triumphant. At least, that's the chivalric interpretation that the marketing tries to sell us.
A few conquered colossi into the game, you begin to consider that these creatures, as fearsome as they are, are basically minding their own business. Wander is the one disturbing their abodes and pitilessly hunting them. Meanwhile, Dormin, the disembodied entity with whom Wander has struck his deal to resurrect Mono, seems rather ominous. As the game progresses, it becomes harder and harder to deny that the things Wander is doing may actually be evil. But does it matter? The question remains: "How far will you go for love?" Only now we realize that it is not only a question of how great a distance you will travel, how brave you will be, but also how far you will morally compromise. Will you pay the devil's price?
Likewise, The Last of Us begins as a seemingly noble crusade. Ellie may hold the key to ridding the world of the infection that has ravaged civilization, if only she can manage to connect with the scientists belonging to a resistance group known as the Fireflies. Urged on by his partner, Tess, who sees redemption for them waiting at the end of this job, Joel reluctantly takes on the mission of providing escort for the girl on some likely suicidal trek across the American continent. As the story progresses, however, and a bond forms between Joel and Ellie, his guiding purpose becomes, no longer mere survival, and not to "save the world" by delivering Ellie to the Fireflies, but to protect her as a father would his daughter, the most important thing in his world.
It is around this time also that Joel's actions reach new levels of ruthlessness, as he viciously executes prisoners, the wounded and already surrendered, and even noncombatants—basically, anyone he perceives as a potential threat to Ellie. The early goings in The Last of Us, requiring the player to strangle, shank, and bludgeon to death people who are fighting for their own survival, already leave some squeamish, but, as the brutality only escalates, the game finely sets itself apart from its ultraviolent peers in the shooter genre by returning to that question of "How far will you go for love?"
As video games achieve ever-increasing levels of graphical realism, it is distressing how little context or rationale is needed in order to motivate most gamers to begin mowing down digital people. The controversy over Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" stage, wherein the player takes on the role of an undercover agent, who must, in order to maintain cover, participate in a terrorist attack entailing the massacre of many Russian civilians, at least suggests that not all gamers are comfortable with gunning down unarmed innocents.
The Last of Us plays more thoughtfully with this tension. As Joel crosses some definite lines in order to guard Ellie, players have seriously contemplated how far they would go in his place. Making it easier for players to put themselves in Joel's position is the degree to which The Last of Us successfully develops Ellie's character, so that it is not only Joel but also the player that forms a relationship with her. It allows players to engage with the narrative and identify with the characters on a more personal level, rather than dwelling in abstracts (e.g. "Well, if I were a spy and were asked to do spy things, I guess I'd have to do them, because that's what it means to be a spy doing spy things."). In The Last of Us, when Ellie is threatened, you feel, as Joel does, anger at those threatening her. You might not agree all the way with the level of violence or feel that it's justified, but you can understand where it's coming from.
From such influential masterpieces as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, we turn now to EA's Army of Two (2008), a PS3 and Xbox 360 title that is not so well-regarded but even maligned. Even if it had influenced The Last of Us or any other acclaimed triple-A title, I don't imagine anyone would ever like to admit it. But the Army of Two series is one that, while severely flawed, has also been, in my opinion, kind of daring within a typically gutless genre. The first Army of Two was one of the more mechanically inventive shooters of its time, and even if many of its smaller ideas were admittedly unsuccessful, it remains the most integrally cooperative video game I've ever enjoyed.
The Last of Us is strictly single-player in its campaign, but it does try to convey a sense of partnership between Joel and Ellie. What it has in common with Army of Two is fairly superficial, but it's a connection I immediately drew out of my experience. Both games feature, as a staple co-op maneuver, the "step jump."
As it's called in the Army of Two series, the "step jump" is performed by one person offering their hands as a platform on which their partner can step, thereby boosting them up to a high ledge or over a wall. Army of Two is not the only third-person shooter to feature this mechanic (it's also used in the co-op Resident Evil games), and I don't know if it was the first, but its use of it is certainly prominent and extensive throughout its campaign and two sequels—enough so that "step jump" quickly became established nomenclature between my brother and I, to call out any time we recognized an opportunity to perform one, either in Army of Two or any other game thereafter.
The Last of Us does not feature the step jump so extensively in its campaign, but, when it does call for it, it is performed in the exact same manner as in Army of Two. Beckoned by a button prompt, the player approaches a wall and presses the button, at which the player character leans their back against the wall, while cupping their hands to form the step, and waits for their partner to complete the action. This is done a few times throughout The Last of Us, most notably toward the end of the adventure, when it becomes a clever narrative device.
As the characters close in on the end of their long journey, the player comes upon one more puzzle that requires boosting Ellie up to a higher platform. And so the player initiates and watches as Joel, assuming the usual anticipatory step jump pose, waits for Ellie... and keeps on waiting! Apparently, Ellie, her mind elsewhere, misses her cue and leaves Joel hanging. This sequence follows one of the most harrowing chapters in the game, during which Ellie, as the player character, must fend for herself and an incapacitated Joel through a series of violent struggles with a gang of cannibals led by a machete-wielding sicko who means to have her sexually, one way or another. Afterward, Joel and Ellie never discuss the incidents of that chapter (at least not on screen), but it's evident that the things Ellie went through and had to do herself during that time have had an effect on her. In the ensuing chapter, she is less talkative and seems distracted when Joel tries to engage her in conversation.
But the clearest sign that not everything is okay comes in the form of that missed step jump. This should be a routine gameplay maneuver, but The Last of Us here turns the player's own expectations against them, jarring them out of gaming autopilot and into the narrative, as a way of communicating that something is troubled between these two characters. The moment was all the more effective for me, because my expectations had been shaped, not by the few times previous that the step jump had been performed in The Last of Us, but by the dozens of times I had reliably executed it through three Army of Two games.
The Last of Us triggered, for me, even more memories of the sequel, Army of Two: The 40th Day (2010). The defining feature of The 40th Day was a new system that presented players with moral choices at predetermined points in the campaign. For example, an early mission starts the players off working alongside a third mercenary, but, as you're about to wrap up, your handler suggests over your earpiece that you kill the third man, so that the two player characters, Salem and Rios, can take his share of the reward for themselves. It's up to the players then to decide whether to kill him or let him go. Spare him and you'll be rewarded with some positive morality points, which, if you remain consistently moral, can eventually net you unique items or assistance from AI friendlies. Kill him and you get dinged with negative morality points. In this example, you also get the money for killing him, but, a lot of the time, making negative decisions doesn't get you squat, other than the sick pleasure of the deed itself. The morality system is not entirely original, but, in the context of a series that otherwise shrewdly eschews black-and-white characterizations, it yields unanticipated results, becoming a punishingly ironic mechanic, no matter which side you take on any of the choices.
Thinking it would get us the best rewards, my brother and I agreed that we would always make the "good" or "right" choices. Unfortunately, maybe my own moral compass is a little off, because I didn't always recognize which one that was. At one point in the story, Salem and Rios are taking heavy fire, when a young boy accompanying them spots a rifle a few meters away. The boy offers to make a dash for the rifle, so that he can use it to cover you, but it's up to the players whether or not to send him. Seeing that the boy was itching to get in on the action (as any young boy would be!), and that we certainly could have used the help, I made the call to let him have a shot ("Go for it, kid!"), whereupon he was almost immediately gunned down, and we were penalized with a massive deduction to our morality score. D'oh!
Of course, in The Last of Us, Joel faces almost that same scenario. For as long as he can, he resists giving Ellie a gun. Then, after an enemy nearly kills him one-on-one, he realizes that he's going to need her help if either of them is going to make it. In the next combat sequence, he finally relents and hands Ellie a sniper rifle, so that she can cover him. She does, and thereafter she is consistently packing. It's a sweet moment, for me a moment of vindication, as I pictured myself turning to the ghost of that boy and saying, "See, would that have been so hard?" After which I would have turned also to the court of The 40th Day and said, "You see, it was the right call, just the wrong kid!"
This was not the only moment in The Last of Us that echoed The 40th Day in my ears. In The 40th Day's final morality moment, a sadistic terrorist leader informs you that he has a nuclear bomb rigged to a dead man's switch. Shoot him, he says, and the bomb will detonate, killing millions. On the other hand, if either player is willing to kill their own partner, the bomb will be disarmed. Your final decision, thus, comes down to the lives of millions of innocents versus the one life of your partner.
For me, this was the easiest decision I'd faced all game. Of course I chose to shoot the mad terrorist! As I did so, a message popped up to inform us that we had committed an act of extreme negative morality. I can't say the penalty came as any great shock, but I hadn't really anticipated the game's ruling one way or the other. It hadn't even been a consideration when I made my choice. For the first time all game, I had acted with no regard for the game's values system, but simply according to what felt most honest—honest to me personally, and certainly honest to the characters Salem and Rios, as I understood their bond as brothers in arms.
The Last of Us ends with Joel having to make a similar choice: the life of one girl versus the hope of a cure that could save millions or more. More bluntly, it comes down to Ellie or the world. Joel chooses Ellie.
There is no morality system in The Last of Us. Joel makes his decisions in the story without any input from the player. He is his own person, not some blank slate like Commander Shepard, and presenting a Mass Effect-style moral choice here would introduce absurd contradictions. You can feel uncomfortable with Joel's choice, but there is little question that it is the only course of action that would be honest to his character in this situation.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is remarkable in that, although it features a morality system, it avoids any contradictions in character. Whatever your choices, the game possesses its own fixed sense of morality, you come to realize. This becomes especially clear in the consequences to the final decision. What the players discover only after making their choice—and this is actually made much more apparent in the cinematic where you kill your partner in order to stop the bomb—is that the bomb was never real. Kill your partner, and you will have done so for nothing. Well, maybe not nothing; you do get those positive morality points. But this is how cold this game is: making the morally "right" choice nets you the bad ending. Getting the "good" ending—the real ending, as it were—requires you to make not the most moral choice, but the most honest one. I'm betting the writers of The 40th Day would appreciate Joel's decision at the end of The Last of Us, and also that, if Joel were to play The 40th Day, he'd get the good ending.
(Video by GamingAhead.com)
The gun upgrade system in The Last of Us also vaguely reminded me of the weapon customization system that is such a perennially prominent feature in the Army of Two series. But perhaps the more applicable comparison is to Square's Vagrant Story (2000) for the PS1—not a game I particularly enjoyed, but one that I'll never forget. Like The Last of Us, Vagrant Story is an often grueling, psychologically oppressive experience, where even the most routine enemy encounters must be approached with intense concentration. The two games don't play very much alike, but one feature they have in common is the workbench.
In Vagrant Story, there are workshop areas located at various spots in the dungeon setting. These are safe rooms, where protagonist Ashley Riot can forge and assemble weapons from parts collected. Doing so is pretty much the only way to acquire powerful equipment, as scavenged weapons, in their default forms, are generally of poor quality. The Last of Us contains a more rudimentary take on this system, as Joel periodically happens upon workbenches, where he can safely tinker and upgrade his guns with collected parts and tools. Like the other RPG-inspired systems in The Last of Us (including pills that upgrade Joel's abilities), it is largely superfluous. The upgraded guns make a small difference, not so great that you'd feel anything missing if you were to simply ignore the workbenches. For what it's worth, as comparatively essential as the workshops are in Vagrant Story, the truth is I never bothered with them, finding the system too opaque and cumbersome. For that matter, I found upgrading one's weapons even in Army of Two to be more a matter of vanity than of necessity.
It was another Square RPG, Final Fantasy X (2001), that The Last of Us more deeply resonated with for me. The Last of Us does not look or play at all like the PS2 turn-based JRPG, but the two games feature surprisingly similar plots. Like Joel and Ellie, the characters of Final Fantasy X's post-apocalypse embark on a world-saving errand that sees them journeying across a continent desolated by primal forces while still haunted (in this case, literally so) by the ghosts of bygone civilization. Such a premise is hardly novel in the realm of JRPGs, but there's a twist in Final Fantasy X. As the characters approach the end of their pilgrimage, it comes to light that their mission to save the world can only succeed at the expense of the summoner Yuna's life. But that's not the twist I speak of. The real twist is that, the entire time they were journeying, everybody knew all along that this was how it had to end—everybody, that is, except for Tidus, the newest member of the blitzball team, who has fallen in love with Yuna.
As Tidus is the point-of-view character throughout Final Fantasy X, the player would likewise have had no idea that all the other party members were keeping this secret. Those with free time enough for a second playthrough (or for YouTube replays), however, may find that the knowledge dramatically reshapes their appreciation of the game's first 30-or-so hours. On review, I could not help reading sadness in Yuna's eyes, in her voice, behind her forced smile. Meanwhile, Tidus's suggestion of affected laughter as a placebo becomes all the more asinine, while his clueless promise to Yuna of the joyful life waiting on the other side of their victory becomes downright tragicomic. There's also a moment when Tidus walks in on Yuna seemingly talking to herself. On a first playthrough, one doesn't know what to make of it before the story rolls along. The player will likely have forgotten about it by the time it resurfaces, hours later, as a recording Yuna made containing her farewells to her friends.
In The Last of Us too, players learn only in the final chapter that any hope of restoring the world would have to come at the cost of Ellie's life. Joel rejects that plan, of course, and decides instead to massacre the Fireflies who conceived it. Afterward, Ellie, who was sedated during the conflict, confronts Joel about what became of saving the world. Not wanting to burden Ellie with the knowledge that he had condemned the world so that she might live, he tells her that the Fireflies had already given up looking for a cure, and so there was nothing left for them to do but live their lives.
The general consensus, based on the look of unresolved anxiety in Ellie's expression, is that she knows Joel is lying at the end. That was how I read it too. Joel's a pretty bad liar, after all, and Ellie is smart enough to catch his little hesitations and the overall illogic of his explanation. As I continued to reflect on the ending days after completing The Last of Us, however, I came back to Final Fantasy X, and I wondered, did Ellie, in fact, know all along that the journey was supposed to end with her sacrificing her own life for the greater good?
Even though Joel didn't put it together until the end, and I didn't until after he did, I had to admit, in hindsight, that it should have been obvious all along, given that the infection clearly took root in the brain, that the doctors would only have been able to reverse-engineer a vaccine by studying Ellie's brain. It's entirely conceivable that Ellie could have deduced that much earlier (assuming she didn't know from the beginning, having been there at the plan's conception).
The strongest support for this theory is again that missed step jump sequence. I earlier attributed Ellie's apparent preoccupation then to the traumatic events of the preceding chapter, which is surely the intended interpretation. But there may be a second layer to it, especially when you consider that, although the transition between chapters for the player is instant, for the characters a whole season passes. Maybe it isn't what is behind them but what is before them that is nearest in Ellie's thoughts—namely, the end to her journey. When Joel promises to teach Ellie how to play the guitar after everything is settled, and Ellie fails to respond, maybe it isn't because her mind is still distressed over the events of winter, but because she knows there won't be an "after" for her.
Viewed in this light, Ellie and Joel's journey takes on the character of a pilgrimage not unlike Yuna's, purposeful not only in the destination but in the miles traveled. For Ellie, who has grown up in the post-infected Boston with little knowledge of the world beyond the quarantine zone under martial law, the trek itself represents life—an opportunity to see and experience as much as possible in her brief time on this earth. Most of that experience, as a percentage of the gameplay hours, is horrific, but some of the game's most effective moments are the more lighthearted, as when Ellie reverently examines cultural artifacts of the pre-infected world—arcade games and vinyl records—or when she beams at seeing live monkeys for the first time in her life. As Ellie says, "It's got its ups and downs, but... you can't deny that view, though."
There's also a moment there where Joel, even before knowing the Fireflies' plan for Ellie, suggests that they turn back and leave all that "saving the world" business behind. The scene echoes Final Fantasy X's most memorable sequence, when Tidus makes the same suggestion to Yuna. Ellie's final answer is much the same as Yuna's: "After all we've been through, everything that I've done, it can't be for nothing." If you suppose that Ellie knows the price that she will yet have to pay, then her words, and her conviction, become all the more loaded with weight and meaning. And when Joel ultimately takes the decision away from her, I find that it is Yuna's words to Tidus—"If I give up now, I could do anything I wanted to, and yet, even if I was with you, I could never forget"—that inform my reading of Ellie's unspoken heartbreak at the end.
The last game I want to mention is one of Sony Computer Entertainment's own that goes back to the PS1 days. More than a decade before "No Russian," Syphon Filter (Eidetic, 989 Studios, 1999) had players executing civilians on the PS1 to no controversy whatsoever.
Midway into the story, protagonist Gabe Logan's commanding officer orders him to infiltrate the stronghold where terrorists are developing "Syphon Filter," a next-generation biological weapon. A mandatory mission objective is to eliminate ten scientists in the enemy's employ. As Gabe encounters the scientists, a few of them will fight back, but most will flee until he corners them, at which point they will get on their knees, hands behind their heads, and beg for their lives. Some will even run toward him to immediately fall on their knees and plead for mercy. But mercy is not within the player's power to grant; in order to proceed with the mission and with the game, you must kill all ten scientists.
Even understanding that Gabe was only following orders and there was really no other option, still, faced with these unarmed doctors in lab coats offering no resistance, I felt, for the first time ever, uncomfortable with the violence that a video game was asking me to commit. Truly, this was a watershed moment in gaming, albeit one that went unnoticed even by most of the people who played Syphon Filter.
In order to conserve ammo, I turned to my air taser to get the job done, and winced as the scientists' pleas for mercy turned to bloodcurdling howls as they burst into flames. (Believe it or not, this was a T-rated game back in 1999, and it still maintains that rating as a downloadable on PSN.)
Besides being in questionable taste, this objective in Syphon Filter is also arguably rather cheap in execution. The game goes out of its way to depict the scientists as completely helpless before you, causing you to hesitate before killing them, and urging you to rightly question the justness of your commander's orders. But then the game doesn't offer you any other option; you still have to kill them. How bad can you really feel, then, over actions that the game forces you to take?
But, lo and behold, this arguably underdeveloped trick has been almost exactly recycled, over a decade later, to become one of the most discussed parts of The Last of Us. During the game's final sequences, Joel interrupts the Firefly surgeons' preparations. An unconscious Ellie lies on the operating table, but it's not enough for Joel to just pick her up and get her out of there. He needs to eliminate the surgeons as well, so that they can never threaten Ellie again. One of them, trying to play hero in his own mind, weakly raises a scalpel. The other two cower in fear. None of them pose any legitimate threat to Joel, but again mercy is not an option. Well, this time, you actually can choose to spare the latter two doctors, but the first one must be eliminated. You cannot get past him any other way.
The question that must always come up now in any conversation about the ending of The Last of Us is "How many of the doctors did you kill?" Quite a number of players, including myself, didn't even know that there was any other option but to kill all three. After taking out the first one, I checked Ellie, saw no button prompt and could not seem to trigger any action there, and so I figured the remaining doctors needed to be dealt with before I could proceed. It seems a roughly equal number of players kill only the one doctor or only two of them, though the game misses an opportunity to gather hard statistics over the network. But just about everyone at least hesitates before killing the first doctor, thrown by how totally at the player's mercy he is. Maybe that moment of hesitation is not the game trying to make the player feel bad, but simply about engaging the player's moral framework at all—a noble pursuit for a video game. That you hesitate is proof that you have a conscience, that you're aware of where the line is drawn. And, as you realize what Joel is inevitably going to decide, you awaken to just how far over the line he has crossed.
I'm genuinely curious whether anyone at Naughty Dog had Syphon Filter on their mind. It was one of Sony's own games, after all. But this isn't really about what games may have influenced The Last of Us. These are the titles that most shaped and informed my appreciation of The Last of Us, as a work that eloquently speaks to the substantial portion of my life that I've given to gaming over three generations of PlayStation.
Gaming receives far less of my time and attention now than it did fifteen years ago, when Syphon Filter was first released. When I finished The Last of Us, part of me felt ready to declare it a bookend to my personal gaming history. How fitting it seemed, given how much the game resonated with that history. But, of course, that would have been a ridiculous thing to do. Not only its resemblances to games past, but also the quality of The Last of Us in its own right, reminds me why I love video games and that I remain passionate about them. Bravo to Naughty Dog and to Sony for this worthy addition to the canon, and may there be many more.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
2012's The Amazing Spider-Man was a film I fairly enjoyed and then, a week after seeing it, promptly forgot had happened at all. Partly, it got swept aside by the sheer weight of The Dark Knight Rises releasing later that same summer. Moreover, as a reboot of a property that had been dormant but five years, Marc Webb's take retread too much familiar territory, while also comparing unfavorably to the Sam Raimi films almost wherever the two interpretations diverged. I just wondered what the point of it was—its reason for existing—and, unfortunately, there seemed little to it beyond "Spider-Man makes money for Sony Pictures, which needs to continuously pump out new movies in order to keep the license." Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man was a pleasant but uninspired production that, by the redundancy of its existence, served to diminish both itself and the Sam Raimi trilogy. Does Webb's sequel, the much darker and weightier (though unexpectedly so, on both counts) The Amazing Spider-Man 2, manage to attain a sense of consequence that the previous film was so sorely lacking?
Honestly, the movie is kind of a mess. As with the last one, it's generally entertaining and enjoyable. For both better and worse, there's a lot more going on this time. The previous film was, in spite of the circumstances of its production, a neat and rounded tale, and, for that one narrowly defined generation that only came to moviegoing age during the five years in between Spider-Man 3 (2007) and The Amazing Spider-Man, perfectly valid as the definitive take and their Spider-Man. The sequel, on the other hand, has all sorts of weird elements that wouldn't spring to mind as things we would distinctly associate with any incarnation of Spider-Man. Chief among these is the entire character of Electro, the primary antagonist.
The original comic book Electro was not one of Steve Ditko's finest creations—basically a petty criminal and traditionally laughable villain. Stories involving him were all the more unbelievable and intolerable because, if you were to treat his abilities seriously, he should clearly be one of Spider-Man's most powerful foes. The movie version is, in many ways, a very different character. The ridiculous "star head" of the comics has been discarded, in its place a digitally face-painted Jamie Foxx, which, frankly, looks just as ridiculous. No longer is the character some low-minded bank-robber, but the film does portray Electro, before he acquires his superpowers, as a pathetic creature, the volatility of his pysche being initially the only check on his otherwise near-limitless capacity for destructiveness. He is at least a character that hasn't been done in a Spider-Man movie before, which is not to say that he is remotely an original concept. The guy looks and plays basically like he walked in from a '90s Batman movie. His origin story is a cross between Catwoman's (discarded cog resurrected by animals) and the Riddler's (unstable sad sack disappointed by his hero), and his appearance kind of resembles Mr. Freeze.
I would have preferred if Electro had been only a first- or second-act villain. I think having multiple villains actually makes sense in a Spider-Man movie, because most of his classic foes were neither grand scheming megalomaniacs nor enemies bearing him any personal animus, but rather were of the more petty variety (albeit with superpowers), engaging in the sorts of crimes that an active urban superhero would be expected to confront and resolve on a daily basis. And the film, like all of the Spider-Man films before it, does do a good job of portraying its hero as a full-time crime-fighter and peacekeeper. One of the better moments in the movie is when Spider-Man first attempts to talk Electro down, considering force only as a last resort. Unlike the trigger-happy cops, Spider-Man has the awareness to recognize that Electro, at that point, does not mean any harm but simply cannot control his abilities. It's a moment that shows what really makes a hero—not superpowers but the conviction to help those in need, which in this case included the confused Electro. A pity it did not take, and Spider-Man was forced to beat him down after all. And an ever greater pity that the Electro storyline did not end then and there.
The worst part is that, even though Electro is Spider-Man's main foe through most of the movie, the truth is that the character could be removed entirely from the story with negligible effect on the final outcome. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a story of two halves that don't really complement one another. On one side is Electro's arc, while Peter, Gwen, and Harry's stories are mostly together on the other side. The two plots have almost no relevance to one another, either thematically or sequentially. I suppose, rather than remove the Electro plot, it would make more sense to say that, if you were instead to remove the considerably more abrupt part of the Green Goblin, you would be left with a neater, more rounded story.
Amid all the competing threads, what's missing is that essential Spider-Man angst that has always been what makes the character so compelling in the first place. In the quintessential Spider-Man tales, the superhero elements are only one part of the story. Equally explored are Peter Parker's everyday problems, as a struggling young man from Queens, who doesn't always feel himself adequate even to make it through his civilian life. His girlfriend needs more from him than one half of a secret double life, his aunt's health is deteriorating, his studies have to be put on the back burner, and he doesn't know how he's going to pay the bills. The guy already can't catch a break, and now he also has to deal with Doctor Octopus! At its best, the Spider-Man story so strikes a chord with audiences because they are able, on a personal level, to relate to the challenges and understand the stakes. These are the qualities that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 overlooks.
Much of it has to do with this series' take on the Peter Parker character, as a much cooler and more confident personality than in traditional incarnations. Whereas Sam Raimi's version, played by Tobey Maguire, was a socially awkward nerd with serious anxiety issues, this new Peter Parker, played by Andrew Garfield, seems like a guy who, all things considered, has it pretty sweet—smart, good-looking, well-spoken, awesome girlfriend, superpowers—and so, when he agonizes over whether to continue his relationship with Gwen Stacy (a "predicament" that everyone in the audience should rightly perceive as totally asinine), he comes across as a mere drama queen, needing to manufacture challenges to obsess over, because he actually doesn't have to deal with the everyday problems that the rest of us do. He's just graduated high school, as a good student with what should be a pretty bright future, but college isn't something that crosses his mind at all. Aunt May does mention not knowing how she'll pay for it, and that has Peter briefly feeling guilty, but then he doesn't even try to do anything about it. He's more concerned with investigating the truth about his parents—a subplot that really leads nowhere and adds almost nothing of worth. In this story, the only major conflicts arise from random lunatics harboring some pathological beef against Spider-Man.
Coming out of the theater, I didn't know what to think about the shock ending, because, even as significant as the twist was, it seemed not at all of a piece with the rest of the movie, and so was hard to evaluate as anything other than a crammed-in and tonally incongruous scene that I might normally gloss over as a throwaway moment, except that, in this case, this one scene completely changes the tone of the entire movie. A little over a week since viewing it, I now realize that the twist—that is, SPOILER, the death of Gwen Stacy—is really the only thing anyone cares to discuss from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the only thing about the movie that might endure in the public consciousness until the sequel arrives in another two years or so.
I'll say that the scene afterward, which depicted the seasons passing as Peter continued to mourn at her grave, was the most effective scene in the entire movie. Even the heart-stopping sequence ending with her death was one of the more auteuristic pieces in a movie that rarely musters a level of personality as found in the Sam Raimi films, or as found in Marc Webb's own theatrical debut, (500) Days of Summer.
But, mostly, I think it's unfortunate. I maintain that, thematically, Gwen's death fulfills nothing, and it just comes across somewhat nihilistic. I feel like the movie only went there because a) the comics did, and b) the Raimi films didn't. Neither is in itself a valid justification for killing off Gwen Stacy this time. When they did it in the comics, it surely was a mercenary stunt, or, more disgusting yet, a way to bail Spider-Man out of having to settle down in a long-term relationship (which was perceived as bad for business). And Emma Stone as a charismatic and capable Gwen Stacy was the one thing that the Marc Webb movies absolutely had over the Sam Raimi trilogy, so what a stupid move to let that go!
Maybe the point was to capture the crushing hollowness when a loved one dies suddenly and senselessly, this grief too a part of the human experience. Maybe this was meant to be a watershed moment for brightly colored superhero flicks, or for those young viewers who had never been exposed to anything so dark before. But, unfortunately, the rest of the movie—decently fun but not great—doesn't earn such distinction. It doesn't earn itself the credit to have audiences backing this play as an artistic decision.
If the only point was to make me feel bad, then mission accomplished, I suppose. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the feel-bad movie of the year. Better than a feel-nothing movie? I suppose. I'll definitely remember this more than I remembered the last film, but not in a way that will have me particularly looking forward to a third installment, sans the first two movies' best element.
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
The Last of Us, one of the last significant PlayStation-exclusive titles of the seventh generation, is not the most innovative of games. In both design and narrative, it treads familiar territory. Its gameplay is a mix of survival horror, stealth action, and cover-based third-person shooter, while the storytelling is conventional, relying heavily on scripted encounters and non-interactive cinematics. And yet it is a rare case in at least one way. It's a new IP whose release was anticipated with enormous triple-A expectations. From the moment its first trailer debuted at the Spike Video Game Awards 2011, fanboys and the press alike, without any idea yet how the game was even supposed to play, latched onto the confident maturity of the presentation and Naughty Dog's pedigree as developer of Uncharted, Sony's flagship series on the PlayStation 3, immediately pegging it as future Game of the Year. Gaming is a culture where serious criticism is all but nonexistent, reviews are increasingly a pointless exercise, and most consumers make up their minds on whether to buy a big-budget game well in advance of its release. And so, as the months counted down to release and anticipation built, enthusiasts, having already committed their money and emotion, were depending on this game being one for the ages. Remarkably, faced with such lofty expectations, The Last of Us mostly delivers, numerous perfect scores and Game of the Year awards giving testimony to Naughty Dog's achievement. I don't know that I'd call it "Game of the Generation," but I also wouldn't argue with anyone who would.
Coming into the PS3 generation, two of my favorite game series (which I haven't enjoyed quite as much lately), were Resident Evil and Metal Gear. In a lot of ways, The Last of Us plays like the best Resident Evil ever AND the best Metal Gear ever.
As a survival horror game, The Last of Us plays much more faithful to the classic Resident Evil formula than do Resident Evil's own PS3-era sequels. It's one of the more truly unnerving games I've ever played, as well as one of the most unforgiving high-profile titles in recent memory, the two points being not unrelated. The "infected" in this game are at first scary for the reasons that zombies usually are; they are grotesque in appearance and manner yet eerily resonant, their blighted forms still recognizable as something once human, and embodying our fears of what we are one day to become, when we reach our own expiration dates.
In the Resident Evil series, zombies have become less and less frightening with each installment, because, once you see through their threatening facade, they rarely pose a legitimate danger. Consider Capcom's most recent entry, Resident Evil 6, where Leon S. Kennedy is able to carve a destructive swath through a horde of zombies simply by kicking and punching them to smithereens. This is in sharp contrast to the original PS1 Resident Evil, where every encounter could be a mentally and physically draining exercise, as you had to consider your approach—fight or dodge—and then grapple with the clunky controls to try to execute, understanding that even a single mistake could be very costly.
The Last of Us marks a return to those classic Resident Evil days, as the stage-3 infected "clickers," in particular, pose a serious threat to player character Joel, able to cause instant death if they get their hands on him. This is true even on the easiest difficulty, and the clickers are introduced fairly early on in the campaign, before the player is likely to have the tools to effectively combat them. Segments that task you with navigating through rooms full of these monsters, when even a single one could mean the end of you, are psychologically exhausting, requiring intense concentration and patience, as you observe their movements and plan your approach accordingly. Perhaps, after silently shanking two of them in separate, very carefully planned and executed maneuvers, you'll decide, with only one left to take out, that you'll try to conserve your shivs and bet instead on your common brick to brain the last one, hoping that the somewhat clumsy melee combat doesn't let you down, and understanding that, if that three-hit combo doesn't go off according to plan—if, say, the erratic clicker lurches the wrong way just as you're about to strike—there's a very real chance that you'll end up having to replay the entire sequence over again from before the first kill. The game thus brutally conditions you to react with dread at the distinctive rattle that signifies the presence of one or more of these creatures in the vicinity.
As menacing as the clickers are, eventually you learn to dread encounters with enemy humans even more. The human foes in The Last of Us are just as disturbingly malevolent as the infected, and, although they cannot cause instant game over, they are often packing firearms, and, unlike mindless zombies, they will summon reinforcements and work together to try to flank you. The game does possess some third-person shooter DNA inherited from Uncharted, if you choose to go that route (and there are segments where you have no other choice but to shoot it out), but, with no regenerating health here, and with weapons and medicine in short supply, firefights in The Last of Us feel a good deal more desperate than in typical cover-based shooters. A stealthier approach is advisable through most of the campaign, and this is where the tactical side to The Last of Us shines through.
Again, the player has a lot of decisions to make on how to proceed through a room full of hostiles. Do you have enough ammo to try to fight your way through? Are you even confident enough in your mastery of the crude firearms at your disposal to wage a gun battle? If not, which guys might you be able to safely slip past, which had you better take out, and can you possibly strangle them stealthily, rather than using your noisy guns and melee weapons, which would be sure to attract other guys and escalate matters into a very hairy situation indeed? You also must adjust your strategy depending on whether you're dealing with humans or with infected, which adds a nice bit of variety. While humans rely primarily on sight, clickers and other higher-level infected are blind and depend on their enhanced sensitivity to sound to track you.
Aiding your decision-making process is the "Listen Mode" mechanic, functionally equivalent to the Soliton Radar from Metal Gear Solid, which lets you sense foes through walls, so that you can better observe their patterns as you formulate your strategy. No explanation is ever given for why Joel's senses are so superhumanly acute in this game that otherwise so aspires to realism, and things get even more ridiculous when Ellie becomes the player character and possesses the same ability. Use of it is optional, of course, although I personally feel that playing without it reduces the tactical component immensely, since you're often left flying blind and having to scramble in its absence.
The combat does become progressively more manageable as Joel learns to craft more useful items, such as the Molotov cocktail and the nail bomb. Even so, the stealth gameplay never takes on the mischievous bent of the Metal Gear Solid series, which has always encouraged the player to somewhat sadistically experiment with all the ways one can lethally prank dopey guards (I mean, distracting them with dirty magazines—really?). In The Last of Us, staying hidden is about survival, and those interminable moments when you're holding your breath, crouching behind a desk, waiting anxiously for the clicker or well-armed human lingering on the other side of it to just move along already, rate among the all-time nail-biters I've experienced in any stealth game. So too is the sense of relief incomparably exhilarating, when such moments finally pass without incident.
Even if the enemies don't intimidate you, it still behooves you to always maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible, picking guys off quietly one at a time, so that you can conserve your resources, which, in classic survival horror fashion, are scarce and must be managed judiciously. The constant scavenging of the environment for items is, for me, one of the more tiresome aspects of adventuring in video games, but at least, in The Last of Us, whatever supplies you may find are almost certain to be something you'll be low on and in need of.
The player's examinations also reveal, through notes and journals left behind, and just through the game's intricately detailed environments, a secondary narrative about how the infection has ravaged civilization, and how humankind has responded to this new order, whole societies pushed out of the towns and cities, which nature has now reclaimed in their absence. A particularly compelling subplot, explored only through environmental storytelling and Resident Evil-style documents, concerns the harrowing journey of a group of civilians, who, for a time, managed to band together into a sustainable underground community. From the remnants of their sewer settlement to their abandoned former houses in the nearby town, the player is able to follow these ghosts backwards through the unfortunate circumstances and tragic decision-making that led to their ultimate downfall.
It is the main story of Joel and Ellie, however, that will leave the biggest impression for most players of The Last of Us. Although, as I mentioned, the story is conventional in presentation, linear and frequently non-interactive, it is nevertheless superbly written and acted. The material is uncompromisingly, but never gratuitously, adult. The characters inhabit a dark and ugly world, that idea of "survival" taken beyond the genre's gameplay conventions to heavily inform the narrative's tone and theme. The brutal methods that enemy groups mean to employ against the player throughout the game are all strongly implied to have been tactics utilized by Joel himself many times before to survive. Our grizzled player character is clearly not a nice guy, but as the relationship between Joel and Ellie, eventually a surrogate daughter to him, grows and deepens, the player comes to understand and identify with his ruthlessness that seems merely a necessary evil to protect the things we hold dear.
Much of the experience hinges on how the player responds to the character of Ellie, and it is greatly to Naughty Dog's credit that they have managed to craft a child character who doesn't come off as one of those "annoying whippersnapper" types (as are most child sidekicks in movies and TV). A typical teenager, she can be irreverent but also approaches the world with a fresher set of eyes, providing some necessary levity and gusto to balance out Joel's stoicism and the overall bleakness of the story. Part of it is that actress Ashley Johnson, who voices the character, is, unlike the character, not an adolescent but an adult with decades of experience. That's one of the advantages that a video game can have over a live-action film or TV show. In a live-action movie, you would need a kid to play a kid, when, the truth is, most kid performers can't play much of anything. Beyond that, Naughty Dog was clearly determined that Ellie be not a mere tagalong kid to get in the way and periodically need rescuing, but a full-fledged co-protagonist, who can carry the story together with Joel, and potentially even without him.
This transfers over into the gameplay, as, even with the player having one or more AI companions at almost all times throughout the campaign, no part of it ever feels like an escort mission. Although failing to protect Ellie can lead to a game over, this actually doesn't happen, in practice, nearly as often as it realistically should. Ellie and the other AI companions mostly disappear during combat (or potential combat) situations. They can be of limited assistance, sometimes pulling an enemy off Joel, but their bullets seem to be made of rubber, and so it takes forever for them to actually put an enemy down. But they also don't get in the way and are surprisingly adept at avoiding detection during sneaking segments. Or, rather, it is, by design, impossible for enemies to notice AI companions until the player is spotted first. Occasionally, this can lead to absurd instances where the computer-controlled Ellie might take cover in the wrong spot, ending up out in the open, right in front of an enemy, but, so long as the player remains hidden, the enemy will walk past her as though she is invisible. This happens fairly regularly and is hard to ignore, as it totally breaks the spell of the game. But I take it, along with Listen Mode, as one of those concessions to gamey-ness that is in service to the player. I think it's fair to accept these advantages to balance out such an equally absurd convention as, for example, enemies who have seemingly unlimited ammo when they are shooting you, but who then leave none behind after you kill them.
The gunplay in The Last of Us is not its strongest suit, and the handful of sections where the player is forced into exchanging fire with enemies from behind cover, while competent, are unremarkable, feeling like any generic third-person shooter. At least most every gun feels distinct and has a use, and a nice touch is that Naughty Dog actually shows where on his person Joel is carrying each of his many weapons, thereby avoiding the common issue of video game heroes presumably carrying grenade launchers in their pant pockets. I do find the game suffers somewhat from a clumsy interface that makes it tricky to switch to the right weapon in the middle of a firefight. I would have preferred a simple wheel system to cycle left/right through all of the guns (and another, vertical wheel for explosives).
Naughty Dog has purposefully limited both Joel's selection of firearms and his ability with them, as a way to dictate, not only how one plays the game (stealthily, rather than aggressively), but also how one feels while playing (desperate, rather than like a badass killing machine). As someone who has played and enjoyed a lot of more straightforward shooters this generation, this feeling of gun inadequacy in The Last of Us could be frustrating for me at times. The upside to it, however, is that, because the game so conditions you to scraping by while feeling under-equipped, consequently it is that much more satisfying when it does throw you a bone.
Toward the very end of the game, with only a few rooms of guards standing in my way along the home stretch, I grew impatient with sneaking and decided finally to just go in loud, whereupon I quickly found myself hilariously outgunned and shredded by flack jacketed goons armed with assault rifles. Before I fell, however, I did manage to take a few of them down with me, and, for a split-second, as I stood looking down upon a slain foe's body, right before my own character collapsed, I glimpsed a button prompt indicating that I could pick up the fallen soldier's rifle. And so the new plan solidified as the game reloaded me into the mission. I used smoke bombs to cover myself as I rushed that soldier, took him out immediately with my hatchet, then, as quickly as I could, claimed his gun as my own and immediately swung it around, opening up on my pursuers. There was not a second to spare in execution, but everything went according to plan. Once I had that assault rifle, the tables were turned, and I quickly gunned down three of them in as many seconds. It was one of the most thrilling and empowering moments in gaming. Truly, having that gun in my virtual hands made me feel like a god. What's silly is that, really, that rifle was a weaker version of the most basic weapon in Gears of War, a series I've toured four times and never felt as much a badass in. But, because nothing else like it existed anywhere in The Last of Us, once I was finally able to wield a fully automatic weapon, after some fifteen hours spent making due with less effective handguns and shotguns, of course it felt glorious.
The same could be said of the combat as a whole. Make no mistake, combat does constitute the majority of the experience in The Last of Us, but there are also regular stretches where you're just investigating your surroundings, looking for items or working on simple puzzles (e.g. where does the wooden plank go?), and, during these quieter moments, Joel and Ellie will often walk and talk, and you can enjoy the scenery. And the game is surprisingly sparing in its use of the infected, saving clickers from ever becoming commonplace and ho-hum.
The Last of Us deserves no accolades for innovation. It's not a new experience in any significant way, although I can't, offhand, think of any game before so unflinchingly and soberly mature (and I don't just mean that it's violent, or that there are swear words). In this still-young medium, where enthusiasts are always looking for the next great idea, what truly is the contribution of this prospective "Game of the Generation" to the evolutionary arc of the form? Personally, I do feel The Last of Us is a masterpiece, one of the great games of its generation, or ever—not a turning point, no, but a culmination of the entire three generations of PlayStation that preceded it. Playing it, I was reminded not only of Resident Evil and Metal Gear and Uncharted, but also Enslaved, Army of Two, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Syphon Filter, Vagrant Story, even a bit of Final Fantasy X. I'm not saying that Naughty Dog was necessarily influenced by each of those titles, only that its members are clearly ardent disciples of game, having assimilated from across the canon to craft their own brilliant synthesis of potent ideas. The Last of Us is, if not a bold new invention, nevertheless a crowning achievement in the form. For me, playing through it was like embarking on a journey through some of my favorite memories of games past, as valid and vital as ever.