Thursday, July 11, 2013

Moose's Mental Breakdown: The Last of Us

I am not good at video games. I love them, collect them, go to midnight launces for them, buy all the collectors’ editions and generally just adore them. However, for a solid part of my formative years I did not have a console and subsequently missed most of the video games’ rise to prominence. The last thing I played on an actual, connected-to-the-television, have-to-use-a-controller console was Aladdin for the SEGA Mega Drive 2. So, restarting my love affair with video games meant having to relearn how to use a controller and now, there were so many buttons. I am not good at video games. I still play them - just badly - and while yelling alternatively at my hands, the screen and the camera.

So when I picked up The Last of Us I knew it would take me a while to get through. It has. I knew I would probably freak out and switch over to Flower to calm my nerves down. I did; any number of times. I knew the game would be worth it though, I knew the story would keep my attention and the characters would be dynamic and keep me invested. I did not, however, know how conflicted I would feel at the closing credits.

A quick rundown for all four of you who haven’t heard of or played this game yet – A fungal infection breaks out amongst the populous, proving to be exceptionally fast replicating and easily transmitted from host to host. Chaos ensues, global structures collapse and the end of the world progresses as expected. 20 years later you are playing as Joel, a survivor living in one of the heavily militarised safe zones working as a smuggler. Tasked by a rebel group with smuggling a young girl outside the quarantine zone, things inevitably go awry and Ellie and Joel set out on a journey that will tax them both to their limits.

Gameplay wise I found this game very enjoyable, even though to an outside observer watching me walk away from the game because there were too many clickers in the room might seem to indicate otherwise. I love stealth; I love how I don’t have to directly set myself up across from some other guys with guns and trade bullets until my screen is scarlet. I am an exceptionally terrible shot so the option in this to not shoot suits me well. I found the exploration of various desolate cities and towns interesting and moving, the kind of detail put into each and every object in the game world is amazing. I like to pick up everything, open every door, turn on every light; having the option to be able to go through what amounted to other people’s lives and discover the hell they went through right up to each person’s individual end was endlessly fascinating. 

The thing I found most jarring, in fact, was that I had to keep going back to shooting people or stabbing them in the neck if I wanted to be sneaky. I wanted to truly roam each city, out fox my enemies and escape into the wilderness and the inevitability of having to kill a bunch of other survivors, whether they were in the right or not, irked me. I know, I know, you actually have to have some game in a video game; I just get kind of tired of crouching behind chest high walls all the time I guess. 

Speaking of the inevitable fire fights, why is everything set in the crumbling remains of cities? One thing I was truly hoping for was some interesting forest survival sections. The story takes the two main protagonists - Joel and Ellie - across the country, mostly on foot, looking for salvation at the hands of a group of rebels named the Fireflies. So yes, each time they come to a city the gameplay centres on surviving the other survivors, essential fare in weaving a tale around the end of the world but what about when they leave? Instead of getting a nice cinematic and cuing up the next mouldering town, why not have a chapter devoted to travelling through the wilderness between the cities? It’s been 20 years since most of the continental United States has been abandoned to the infected. What does it look like outside the walls of society? Do they have to travel only during the day to avoid being trapped by infected in the dark? Are the spaces between cities devoid of infected due to the fungus driving them towards the last bastions of habitation? Do the infected go after animals or are they only able to infect human hosts? Does this mean the wilderness is devoid of animals or packed with feral house pets? I loved the desolation and feeling of loss generated by the forsaken cities but was the unchecked growth of the forests not worth exploring as well? Throughout the game Ellie is shown reacting to epitaphs of the past, old movie posters, ice cream trucks and a teenager’s journal. Was not her possible opinion on an unchecked forest, against Joel’s assumed sense of loss that the forest represented, worth even one short section? Just a thought.

So, the story. I gotta say, I love how many strong females there are in this story. Between Marlene, leader of the Fireflies, Maria, Tommy’s wife and leader of her small community, Tess, Joel’s smuggler partner and Ellie herself this game abounds with interesting, faceted women. It’s kind of a shame they keep killing them.

We open with Sarah, Joel’s daughter. Immediately you know she’s going to die. Sarah is not the girl on the cover of the game, Sarah is not that’s girls’ name. There can’t be two young children in one game so you know - this one’s ticket out is already punched. Ok sure, it’s the first few minutes of the game, we need some motivation, lots of people die during end of the world shenanigans; I’ll let this one slide. I’ll give Naughty Dog this though, Sarah’s death is excellent. No ‘last minute tearful goodbyes’, no instant anger or revenge story arc, she gets shot by a faceless man making the wrong choice in a bad situation and dies crying with pain. Joel isn’t even looking at her when she goes. It’s gut wrenchingly believable. I knew it was coming but was glad it was at least well handled.

Fast forward 20 years and Joel is working with Tess. Oh dear, another woman who isn’t on the box art. Ok, maybe she chooses not to go gallivanting across the country? Throughout the course of the first few chapters set within the quarantine zone and just outside the wall you truly begin to bond with Tess. She’s strong and hard because the world has forced her to be; yet her personality is well rounded, not just the ice queen bitch you expect from this kind of character. Through her interactions with Joel you learn they have been working together a long time, not simply lovers, not just comrades, but a unique relationship brought about by their shared history. In the few subtle allusions they make to their relationship you really feel how well they know each other and how strong their bond is. Then you meet Marlene, leader of the rebel group the Fireflies, who is wounded and tasks you with bringing Ellie to some other rebels waiting outside the quarantine zone. Tess pushes for you to take the job. Ok, so Tess is here to push the story forward and Marlene gives you a reason (her presumed fatal wounding) for it, fine. In the process of trying to find the Fireflies, unfortunately, Tess becomes infected. Thus it is revealed that Tess is here to give the protagonist motivation, like Sarah before him, in the form of her death. Damn.

Skip ahead a few seasons and our intrepid duo (having had to team up due to the unfortunate deaths of all of the Firefly guides) have arrived at Joel’s estranged brothers’ safe haven. Here we meet Maria, Tommy’s wife, who serves to give Joel further motivation to continue on with Ellie alone, as he does not want to take his brother away from the town he has helped to create. She also creates temporary tension between Joel and Ellie by telling Ellie all about Sarah, which Joel had so far refused to do so. At least she doesn’t die.

There follows a really excellent story arc here of Ellie having to come into her own. Her character previously, while helpful, felt like little more than reasoning to allow for the story. Throughout the Lakeside Resort chapters, however, you truly get to see Ellies’ character evolve from the young ingĂ©nue into full blown Heroine. Finally being able to play as her character, due to Joel being wounded in a previous chapter, is fascinating, not in how her gameplay style differs from Joel’s (it doesn’t) but in how her character reacts to the hardships you are putting her through. This culminates in a high tension scene where you expect Joel to save her, dashing in as a white knight tasked to protect his charge, but instead are forced to participate in the brutal murder of another. It’s a kill or be killed scenario that catapults her character from sidekick to lead, from child to adult. I felt it a pity they didn’t dwell on the implications further, instead choosing to skip ahead again to a few months later.

Thus we come to the final acts of the game. Over the course of the story we have learnt that Ellie is immune to infection and that the Fireflies want her to help find a cure. Knowing how these things go I expected that the game would require me to make the choice to kill her for the cure, the old “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. I had been expecting Ellies’ death from about an hour in. I had not expected Marlene to still be alive, and to have already made that choice for me. I further didn’t expect to have to kill the doctor attempting to operate on Ellie and then kill Marlene to escape. Well done Naughty Dog, you managed to kill Marlene twice! Once in theory and then in actuality.

‘So Ellie gets away’, you say, ‘you don’t save humanity but you give her a real life, that’s ok isn’t it?’ Well, not exactly. In the very last cinematic, when you have arrived back at Tommy’s safe haven to begin your new life, Ellie stops you and asks if what you had told her about the Fireflies was true. You see, she was unconscious when you killed Marlene and in order to spare her any pain Joel lies to her, tells her there are others who are immune and that the Fireflies had tried to find a cure but they had failed. And here, on the cliff edge overlooking the safe haven Ellie asks you if it’s true. She asks you to swear it’s true because otherwise all the other deaths would be in vain. Joel answers yes and you see it right then. Ellie dies with that affirmation. Maybe not physically, but she is dead inside.

So yes, I enjoyed The Last of Us. The visuals are amazing; the story is many faceted and arresting. The characters are well acted and more importantly well rounded. I feel there was more that Naughty Dog could have explored, and some things that could have been dialled down but overall an excellent game. Next time, however, can I play as Tess?

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