Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Last of Us


   I'm that one guy who's late to every party- figuratively speaking. I'm not fond of your average party, but I am of course speaking about video games. I won't buy a triple-A title until it more or less hits the bargain bin. I never feel comfortable spending more than $20-25 on a single game. Which means I'm trailing everyone else by about a whole year or more when it comes to popular video games. Such was the case with the last two games I discussed on here, Grand Theft Auto V and Saints Row IV. And, predictably, such is the case with The Last of Us.
 
   I'm sure there's plenty of people who haven't played this game yet, I know because I was one of them until the other week. But, this is a game that needs to be played. So many other games get labeled 'cinematic' and 'Hollywood', but playing them feels like you're playing the half-retarded lovechild of someone who's seen one too many Michael Bay movies. If The Last of Us is drawing inspiration from movies, it's drawing on the best aspects of films like The Road, I Am Legend, and very possibly Children of Men as well. Yet somehow, The Last of Us manages to outshine most post apocalyptic movies and it features characters that feel real enough to make us really feel in return.

   It says more about the state of cinema today than it does about video games that the characters in The Last of Us feel more authentic and alive than most characters headlining modern blockbusters. Only in it's most mundane moments do you feel like you're playing a video game. Occasionally repetitive combat, and overly familiar problem solving are the two main issues of the game, but not because the combat isn't fun or the problem solving isn't challenging at times, but only because they momentarily break through the cinematic immersion that the dialog and story line has built up. So, despite being issues, they're also largely insignificant because the game itself is... well, fun.

   Playing the game, I was never in a rush to move things along. I listened to every scrap of dialog I could, watched every single cutscene in it's entirety, and took advantage of every optional interaction prompt. Recalling my experiences with the game, I'm more likely to talk about moments that I, as a player, had little to do with. A moment from a cutscene, or a conversation the main characters had. Also, I'm more likely to talk about how "Joel and Ellie escaped a pack of clickers" instead of how "I" did it. Most games these days let you customize your character to the nth degree, and no matter how well voiced or acted they are, you still feel like it's your character, and to an extent, even you.

   That kind of thing has it's time and place, for sure, but it's not here and it's not now. I'd have been content to watch someone else play the game because it's just that engaging to watch. I didn't need to be in the driver's seat to appreciate the game. At it's core, The Last of Us has a story that succeeds both despite and because of the fact it is a video game. For example, lets look at the original Uncharted game. Great game. It's fondly compared to the gaming equivalent of an Indiana Jones movie. However, if it had been a movie instead of a game in the first place, that comparison might not have always been a fond one. It might have been a critique.

   I do firmly believe that The Last of Us would've been praised regardless of whether or not it was a movie or a game. So long as the caliber of storytelling and characterization was consistent, it would be a hit regardless. This isn't a game I look at and think "Oh this NEEDS to be a movie!", no, because it's perfect as is. I'm sure the sentiment would be true even reversed. There are moments though when it's format compliments it's story amazingly well. (Mild spoilers ahead) There's a scene where Joel and Ellie come literally face to face with a giraffe, bringing to mind an iconic scene from Jurassic Park. They end up racing to the roof to watch the herd of giraffes cross a deserted baseball field. The game doesn't nudge you to move on, it doesn't insist on it. It lets you stay there, enjoying this moment of peace for as long as you see fit.

   That kind of control is the best kind of control. You can upgrade guns and punch people in 9 out of every 10 major blockbuster games these days, and in the one you can't, it's probably because you're playing an adorable anthropomorphic rodent of some sort who has to collect some kind of shiny object over and over. Rings? Coins? Who cares? It's this kind of control, to let that moment last, that made The Last of Us so special. It's core gameplay mechanics are solid beyond reproach, so I've no complaints there, but it's in it's quieter moments that the game really shines. There's a strong and emotional narrative from beginning to end that doesn't let you go until the credits roll. I could barely put the game down and ended up finishing it in just a few days.

   Unfortunately, I'm torn about this. I can't justify spending $60 on a game that I'll be done with in under a week. There's multiplayer, and DLC, sure but still... I like my games to last. To take it's time getting to the end. Movies aren't like that. If they run much longer than two hours, it better be damn good or else I'm going to lose interest. So, when games emulate movies- when games are telling these beginning-to-end narratives, and they're only maybe... a few sittings worth of gameplay, is this the right or wrong direction for gaming in general?

   There's very few games I'll beat and re-play because there is a lot of time and effort involved in doing so. Sometimes there's parts so challenging that you never want to go through it again. However, if a movie is that good, I'll watch it often. I can't bring myself to do that with narrative driven games. It's a bit of a conundrum for me, but one I'm happy to entertain so long as the games are as amazing as The Last of Us. Every single moment of gameplay was riveting because of the characters and the story, and that's how it should be- regardless. I wholeheartedly recommend this game to everyone- no matter your gaming preferences. This is a great story before it is a great game, but make no mistake it is both. It's a post-apocalyptic adventure drama that packs a hell of an emotional punch. Be prepared to feel, bro.

 

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