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Why The Last of Us Sucks

the last of us shot one

Along technical criteria The Last of Us is a stunning entertainment product. The art direction is rugged, detailed, and presents a post-apocalyptic American civilization both in ruins and in the process of returning to nature. The character animation, modeling, and voice acting (coupled with an attention to body language) is damn close to the best in the industry, setting new benchmarks for the quality of human depiction in AAA design. The sound design is sparse, evoking a quieter world punctuated by the percussion of gunshots or the wet smack of a fist in the face. It’s not hard to be impressed by Naughty Dog’s production work, which may very well outstrip anything they’ve accomplished in the Uncharted games.

It’s really too bad that the rest of the game sucks.

To get at why, you’ve got to look past the portentously important Serious Themes of the game and the po-faced earnestness of it all. You’ve got to cut through a horde of affirmatively nodding, self-congratulating “game journos” tripping over themselves to connect this game somehow to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – I guess it’s enough for them that there’s a guy and a kid that meet cannibals. Get past the sense that this is somehow supposed to be what a “great” video game looks like in 2013, and you’ll find little more than hackneyed, predictable setting and themes- which drag in elements from pretty much any post-apocalypse fantasy ever made from great examples like ”Children of Men”  to execrable ones like the Will Smith remake of “I am Legend”. There’s also a thick layer of tired, bedraggled zombie tropes weighing down the entire affair that should be exhausting even the most diehard fan of the subject matter.

But beyond the clichéd, expected scenarios and situations, the core of where The Last of Us fails the hardest, is that it’s just another turgid stealth/cover shooter that wouldn’t have been impressive on a gameplay level half a decade ago. I almost felt like the game was trying to make some kind of meta-joke at one point, when the characters walk into an area with carefully arranged waist-high walls. Or when I turned on the main character’s magical mutant hearing ability. I’m also not quite sure how anyone can miss that Ellie is just another version of Ashley. Between Enslaved, Bioshock Infinite, Amy (giggle)and The Last of Us, there still hasn’t been a game that has done the whole “escort the girl” thing better than Resident Evil 4, even if Ellie’s dialogue is far better than her ancestor’s.

It’s disappointing that a game that has such good dialogue and attention to detail falls back on routine shooting action, clumsy melee, sneaking, phony “exploration” and other completely generic and unremarkable simulations of brutality and violence.  You can pretend all you want that the game is about Serious Themes, but really it’s just another game about murdering people and shooting at fungus people to get to the next story-delivering cutscene . In a sense, it’s spiritually close to the “Mondo” films of the 1960s, that purported to be about educating audiences about world cultures…but they were really just exploitation films with plenty of sexual and violent content. It’s dishonest, and in the end the disconnect between the themes of the storyline and what you actually do in the game is vast. I’m still not quite sure how following somebody for five minutes while they ramble on and then helping them press the triangle button to get to the next area qualifies as “gameplay” anyway.

So instead of a game like Catherine, that uses a seemingly arbitrary puzzle game mechanic to metaphorically represent the character’s relationships, growth, and change, we have another game like Bioshock Infinite that wants to be about Serious Themes but fails because the designers can’t think of something better for you to do other than to rifle through drawers and shoot motherfuckers in the face.  This also completely upturns any sense of morality in the story, just as it does in the Uncharted games where Nathan “The Butcher” Drake is revealed to be a completely amoral, psychopathic one-man slaughterhouse.  The expectations of the video game audience are very different than those that passively watch a film or TV show. Video game players expect there to be action, and violent action at that. And that’s where the participation element is unfortunately focused in The Last of Us. It’s really too bad that the developers didn’t take a higher road. But I guess “a higher road” wouldn’t include a multiplayer mode.

Throughout the game, such as it is, I kept thinking about how powerful it would have been if Joel wasn’t a gun smuggler, that he was just a regular guy. Maybe somebody that turned to farming and a solitary lifestyle of peace after the zombie apocalypse. He could wind up with Ellie in a similar story, but instead of the core action being killing people and/or fungus men, the game would focus far more on evasion, ingenuity, problem solving, and developing the father-daughter relationship without the bloodshed. They didn’t get into gunfights with eight or nine bad guys at a time too much in The Road, did they?

The thing is, if The Last of Us were an unashamed, unpresuming VIDEO GAME- I wouldn’t mind so much. I love video games, and in particular games that revel in being in the medium. Left 4 Dead succeeded because it didn’t pretend like you paid admission to do anything other than shoot a bunch of zombies and holler at your friends. Resident Evil 4 is a game about shooting zombies in the face. It doesn’t pretend like it’s anything but that.  It is also squarely a video game focused on (great) gameplay, player engagement, and activity. There’s no somber appeal that it’s really all about parenting issues and dealing with loss. Shinji Mikami was never under any impression that Resident Evil 4 was in competition with movies and TV shows.

Don’t get me wrong- I want video games to reach for bigger, more literary themes. I like that developers are at least trying. The problem is that games like The Last of Us exist in this sort of twilight existence between game and film, and if games are to be successful as an artistic medium then it’s the unique-to-the-medium qualities of gameplay we should be looking at, and how that gameplay articulates context, subtext, and meaning. Not how those things are described by the production values, because if you put The Last of Us up to cinematic or literary comparisons then you are also holding it up to a much, much higher standard informed by films made by people like Kubrick, Tarkovsky, McCarthy, and hell, Shakespeare.  You are, at that point, no longer comparing the work to Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. “Good…for a video game…” no longer makes the grade.

Developers like Naughty Dog are doing it wrong, tacking the gameplay as a gating system for story progression in a “good… for a video game” CGI film. It should be the gameplay and the mechanics of gameplay that define the experience and tell us what it’s about.  It’s pretty telling that when you inconsequentially die from a random one-hit kill in the Last of Us, there is no “game over” screen. It’s a perfunctory, obligatory half-assed video game stuck into a routine zombie movie with stellar production values. That’s all there is to it.

Lots of people love this game, more power to ’em. I guess this formula works for some folks. For my part, I’m hitting the Wikipedia summary after six hours of play and realizing that I’m just really, really bored with the game. I don’t care enough about the plot to sit through another six hours of snooze-inducing stealth and man-shooting bookending dialouge scenes. I’ll read what happens in the plot (which I think won’t be much of a surprise) and then I’m going back to Guacamelee. Now, that’s a video game.

Columbia Falls: Why Bioshock Infinite Sucks

BioShock Infinite

Last night, I was playing the much-ballyhooed Bioshock Infinite. I had rescued Elizabeth, a dead-on cross between a Disney princess and one of the kids from Akira voiced by someone that sounds straight out of drama school, from her towering monument. We wound up on a beach. Sunbathers relaxed in the warm, Maxfield Parrish-like glow that blankets virtually every visual in the game. It was a peaceful scene after a hectic action sequence. As I’ve done in System Shock 2, Bioshock, and Bioshock 2, I dutifully looted everything in sight. Right there on the beach, in a picnic basket, I found some machine gun bullets. Suddenly the world of the sky city Columbia- which is really described mostly through advertising posters and cute graphic design- fell apart and I was just playing another idiotic shooter with tedious looting, ho-hum gunplay, and pointless bloodshed that does nothing for the story but provide the player with something to do in between the movie parts.

Columbia fell apart again when I made it to the vaunted Hall of Heroes sequence that some have mentioned as a high point in the game. It’s a walk-through carnival exhibit/museum celebrating the military exploits of Columbia’s founder- who apparently took great liberties in embellishing his role in quelling the Boxer Rebellion and his participation at Wounded Knee. Suddenly- as former Gameshark writer Mitch Dyer once said- that this game wants to have Something to Say About America was literally blasting me in the face with far more deadly accuracy than any of the braindead AI thugs that routinely run up and try to bludgeon you while you shoot flocks of birds and rocket launchers at them. I suppose if I weren’t 37 years old and hadn’t already sorted out that America has a history of revisionism, hubris, bloodshed, and outright racism I might have been shocked or fooled into thinking that this supposedly ambitious, supposedly intelligent shooter had a profound or meaningful statement to make. But it doesn’t. Throughout the entire segment, I was all too aware that I was playing a video game trying far too hard to be meaningful or resonant. It comes across as silly, childish, and naïve. Like a fifteen year old telling you that the government is, you know, real bad man.

The politics are trite enough but the world of Columbia- and in fact, the entire game that is Bioshock Infinite- is a house of cards that completely collapses every time you dig through a trash bin to find a hot dog and some money or when you rob an ice cream shop’s cash drawer and the family eating there just sits, going through a repeated animation. Or when you walk around carrying a shotgun in a penny arcade and no one minds. And also when you do things like jump 50 feet in the air to hook a “sky hook” onto a latch and slide around on rails just like Samus did in the floating city that was in Metroid Prime 3. No review I’ve read has mentioned this similarity.

The problem is that so much attention to detail- even if it is facile, juvenile, and completely superficial- tricks the player into thinking that the frankly quite dated gameplay is something more than it actually is, and when the façade drops as video gamey concepts intrude (like a hat that gives you combat bonuses) what is revealed is a stunningly mediocre game with little actual substance. It looks incredibly expensive. It’s cosplay-ready. It apparently won 80 Major Awards before it was released according to one banner ad. Tom Chick’s negative review was flamed to hell. It’s one of the few recent games to hit the high 90s on Metacritic. So it has to be good, doesn’t it? Right?

Mind you, I loved Bioshock and I loved Bioshock 2 even more. Those games had Big Heady Themes too and they had some of the exact same mechanics. It’s not too hard to map the “vigors” to the “plasmids” if you want to compare the whole left hand magic thing, which is totally incongruous with this game’s setting. Those games were shooters as well, and so was System Shock 2. But those games knew their places, and they had more restraint. There was so much more subtlety and ambiguity rather than ambition and excess. They weren’t trying to shock you with OMG racism. The second Bioshock had one of the most profound statements about parenthood I’ve ever seen in a video game, and it also had some amazing tactical combat. The first game had atmosphere, mystery, and this incredible sense of aftermath. Bioshock Infinite has none of the above, even though it copies the much less interesting parts of its predecessors down the line. Without the more compelling qualities of the past games, it’s just a dumb shooter. Don’t kid yourself.

That anyone is finding the writing intelligent or thoughtful blows my mind. Last night, when I hit one of the big plot twists, I almost felt insulted that it was presented as one. Elizabeth bellowing “yeah, well, just because I want a puppy doesn’t mean I’m going to get one!” had me laughing. I mean, seriously. Who writes this shit? Haven’t we outgrown “this is great writing…for a video game” yet?

The violence is more evidence of this game’s stupefying immaturity. For the first 30 or so minutes of the game, I was kind of buying it and I was enjoying the process of discovery. The intro is very well done. There is a sense of revelation and wonder. But then, out of nowhere, I’m chopping some guy up with the sky hook and suddenly I’m a one-man butcher shop mowing down people. The sense of adventure and imagination is gone, replaced by dull slaughter. Every gunfight is dull as dishwater in the game, and even on the hardest difficulty there are no tactics or strategies required. The vigors are boring because they’re just the plasmids. I’m just shooting people because, well, that’s what you do in video games, right? And I say this as a person that likes shooters.

So Irrational has gone and done pretty much the same thing they’ve done since System Shock 2 with the only upgrades being budgetary or technical. Everything else feels like a downgrade. It’s a game rife with hubris and preposterous self-importance, desperately trying to hide that it’s just as shallow and meaningless as a Call of Duty campaign. Tonight will likely be my last night playing it before I look up the ending on Wikipedia and go back to playing Injustice, or possibly even firing up Metro 2033 to get ready for Last Light. I don’t know why I’ve given this game so many chances to validate itself. Maybe it’s because I can’t believe it’s been so widely praised. Or that so many people have been fooled into thinking that this game is anywhere near greatness.

Tuesday Meditation – We Had Subs Edition

We Had Subs It Was Crazy

So, yeah, there’s no JTS post this week because there’s no JTS this week. We’re sorry about that. But you tell Brandon he shouldn’t be exhausted from his move or Bill that he shouldn’t watch OSU’s elite eight game live or me that I shouldn’t enjoy a pre-spring break evening with my kids since they were about to spend the week out of state. The stars aligned against us this week, but we’ll be back and all will be well. In the meantime, it’s Tuesday and things happened. Richard Garriott was kind of a dick. Bioshock Infinite was awesome, but not as awesome as everyone says. Also, Michigan did something even more awesomer… and there were subs… it was crazy. (God, but I love MGoBlog’s style.)

Richard Garriott and the Art of Winning Friends. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I wasn’t all aflutter about Garriott’s Ultima-rebooty thingy, Shroud of the Avatar. The game’s presentation itself wasn’t really enough to grab me, though I’ll always follow anything the guy does. Maybe it’ll work. But regardless of that, I have to say that Garriott going around acting like a dick isn’t helping matters when he says things like this:

“You know, I go back to the day when I was the programmer, I was the artist, I was the text writer, etcetera,” said Garriott. “Every artist we’ve ever hired ever is infinitely better at art than I ever was. I was never a good artist, or audio engineer, or composer. I was a pretty good programmer, but now all of our programmers are better than I am—but if I’d stayed in programming I could probably keep up.

“But other than a few exceptions, like Chris Roberts, I’ve met virtually no one in our industry who I think is close to as good a game designer as I am. I’m not saying that because I think I’m so brilliant. What I’m saying is, I think most game designers really just suck, and I think there’s a reason why.”

Yes, he’s trying to make a larger point in proclaiming to PC Gamer that other game designers suck and nobody is really as good as him. And, yes, a lot of sites ran with the “they suck” quote without providing any context to it at all. (That context being that people are trained enough to be designers as opposed to the usual artist, programmer, janitor roles.) And, yes, in context, and wading through all the prideful braggery, there is a reasonable point to be made. But let’s not pretend Garriott A) didn’t know exactly what he was saying and B) wasn’t being a dick about it. He was. A consummate dick, in point of fact.

Then, when the whole thing blew up on him, as was inevitably going to happen, instead of offering even a token apology that hinted maybe he should have used different words, he went and insinuated it was PC Gamer’s sensationalism that caused the stir and, oh, here’s what I really meant now that I am being shamed into acting more reasonably. And PC Gamer’s Logan Decker, instead of starting a ridiculous flame war, took the high road and said, hey we don’t think we’re to blame and we even sort of agree with the man. It’s nicer than I would’ve been about it.

It’s hard to watch a guy you really rather idolized for a very long time behave this way, especially when he really hasn’t done anything noteworthy for gaming in 20 years. Maybe if there were a line up of great 21st century games to his credit I’d be more willing to accept that bravado. There’s not. Given that, just a small dose of humility would be nice. It is one of Ultima’s eight virtues after all.

Infinite Praise. Except Not. Tom Chick is taking heat for his Bioshock: Infinite review from exactly the sorts of people you’d expect. I’ve only got a couple hours spent with the game (I’m barely even into the shootery parts) and even based on just that taste I can tell you that he’s absolutely right about this game. It’s a beautiful, beautiful package. It’s also the same damn shooter we’ve been playing. What’s funny to me is Yahtzee called this one waaaay back in his review of the first Bioshock game (right around the 44-second mark) .

“It isn’t like System Shock 2. It is System Shock 2.”

Infinite is System Shock 2… too. They’re all the same game, mechanically speaking and at this point I don’t think it’s completely out of line to call Irrational a one-trick pony. They’re just really, really, really, exceptionally good at that one trick. Nobody does that trick better. And, you know, that’s okay. It beats the hell out of yet another Call of Duty. That doesn’t mean, however, that regardless of how good the setting is (and Columbia is amazing) that it’s not all getting to be a bit rote to actually play through. Bioshock at least had a decade separating it from System Shock 2. We had warm fuzzy memories, but little in the way of equivalent experiences. Now, we’ve done that. It was practically yesterday and I don’t think it’s asking too much of Irrational to suggest they need to come up with something more than shoot with this hand, use magic with that hand, listen to some audio logs, and scrap for money in trash bins. You don’t have to re-revolutionize everything, but a bit of game mechanics evolution to go with these brilliantly imaginative environments would be swell is all. Also, the save system sucks. Hard.

Final Four!!! It’s been 20 years and a lot of dark times since the maize and blue of Michigan saw Final Four action. Down by double-digits with just a couple minutes to play (and a statistical .6% chance of winning the game), that elite eight victory over Kansas had precisely zero business happening, which makes it all the more glorious. That game-tying three from Trey Burke in the waning seconds to send it to overtime will live in tournament lore forever. Also, there were subs and it was crazy. M fans, you have a T-shirt to buy.

BioShock: Infinite Set for October 16 Release

Ken Levine via the Twitter dropped this little nugget this morning: BioShock Infinite will ship in the states on October 16th with an International release date of October 19th. Now, this is pretty standard “news” but consider this:

BioShock, the original, was released in August of 2007. August is a fairly slow time as far as releases are concerned. It’s still summer. It’s not quite holiday rush. It’s for games that publishers feel are “tweeners” and if you recall BioShock was in NO way a slam dunk from a sales perspective because everyone was harping on the “System Shock was great but sold poorly” mantra and BioShock was being compared to System Shock at every turn.

Fast forward to BioShock 2. New developer. Hit/miss buzz. 2K releases it on February 9, 2010. February is another interesting release window. It’s smack dab in the middle of the 2nd quarter fiscal year for public companies. Early February is an odd choice because people are still reeling a bit from holiday spending. This year we see games like The Darkness 2, Amalur, UFC 3, Syndicate, Neverdead, Ashura’s Wrath, etc. all dropped in February. February could also mean a release date push from 4th quarter.

March, on the other hand, is (usually) when big AAA releases start to flow again (unless you are releasing a Blizzard game but they are a very unique circumstance). Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil, etc. These are clearly not hard and fast rules and it’s easy to point out outliers when it comes to release dates but companies don’t throw darts at a calendar when they decide on when to drop a game on the public.

I do find it interesting that this is the first Q4 release for a BioShock game. That’s either random chance or 2K has more confidence in Infinite than the other two games in this series. And there’s a lot of eggs in this particular BioShock basket.

Oh, yeah, the press release. Here ’tis:

2K Games announced today that BioShock® Infinite will be available in North America on October 16, 2012 on the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system and Windows PC. The title will be available internationally on October 19, 2012.

Developed by Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite won more than 75 editorial awards at E3 in 2011, including the Game Critics Awards’ Best of Show. The title has been named one of the most anticipated games of 2012 by more than 50 media outlets, including WIRED, USA Today, TIME, GameSpot, and GameTrailers. The BioShock franchise is one of the interactive entertainment industry’s most successful and critically acclaimed series, which has sold-in over 9 million units worldwide.

“After BioShock, we had a vision for a follow up that dwarfed the original in scope and ambition,” said Ken Levine (@iglevine), Creative Director of Irrational Games (@irrationalgames). “BioShock Infinite has been our sole focus for the last four years, and we can’t wait for fans to get their hands on it.”

BioShock Infinite puts players in the role of Booker DeWitt, a hard-bitten former Pinkerton agent, together with the revolutionary AI companion, Elizabeth. The two struggle to escape the sky-city of Columbia, in a 1912 America that might have been. Armed with an arsenal of new weapons and abilities, they face menacing enemies, in unique expansive environments. Classic BioShock gameplay joins innovations such as aerial combat on high-speed Sky-Lines in the service of a immersive storyline – an Irrational Games signature.