Before I say anything else, I'll say one thing. This post contains no STORY spoilers for The Last of Us. I have finished the game, also, if anybody feels that is pertinent information. I've got no internet at home currently, so this was actually written on Monday night after I finished The Last of Us.
Without wanting to write a generic complaint-ridden statement about why I didn't like a popular game that's received universal praise, I sort of feel like I have to. Usually there's somebody else out there who's better qualified and more intelligent than me who voices my opinion (or one close enough to it) for me. I'm a lazy fucker, if Jim Sterling, Jeff Gerstmann or somebody else said it already I don't feel the need to parrot it outside of my energy-drink-fueled forays into the comments section. I'm not a big blog writer, I'm not any kind of writer at all, really. I'm not good at it.
But I need to talk about The Last of Us and what I feel it represents, and why what it represents is a negative for the medium of video games.
But I should clarify before continuing, despite not expecting to like it, I fucking LOVED The Last of Us. While I have a bunch of personal nit-picky issues stemming mostly from my traditionalist views on Survival Horror and from being hit with the shit end of the glitch-stick repeatedly, (among other things which cannot be discussed without spoiler) none of those are really relevant here and didn't keep me from enjoying the game for what it is. A fantastic script that follows two genuinely well-written and interesting characters on a journey that sees both of them develop in meaningful ways, and a mechanically passable third person stealth action game. But that is precisely where my beef lies. The fact that despite all that effort, all this posturing about pushing the medium forward and 'growing up' to tackle more mature stories and character development, The Last of Us actually represents something far more immature than where the medium was several years prior, it's trying too hard NOT to be a video-game.
These assholes, for example, just plain sucked.
But that's totally irrelevant to this post!
What is my issue, precisely? It's that no matter how hard developers try, what invariably ends up happening is a pretty jarring separation of gameplay and story presentation, each one being fawned over separately, often by a different team of people entire, who are essentially making two products at once, one a decent quality CGI movie, the other an incomplete gameplay wrapper inside of which the movie will be dispersed in tiny chunks. At no point does the combination ever feel like a cohesive whole. And to me, The Last of Us represents the limit to what can be achieved by the current design trend of chasing movie and television presentation techniques, so-called ‘cinematic’ gameplay. This is it. This is as far as we can take it without making significant changes to how we approach blending story presentation and interaction.
The larger issue at play here from my point of view however is what the game represents for the medium as a whole. To many it seems to represent a gigantic step forward for story-telling in video games. And on the surface that seems logical. But in reality the larger message here is that it's totally alright to focus on segregating story and gameplay, and that these two things have to be separated and mustn't get in each other’s way. Now, that's not to say that certain plot elements and points of interest as well as atmospheric considerations are not disseminated expertly throughout the gameplay segments, but that the methods and techniques primarily used for exposition are borrowed/stolen from film and television and are (without modification, at least) not suited to a medium built around the concept of interactivity, in my opinion.
At times I literally felt like I was doing two things at once. Both watching a CGI movie and trying to play a video game. For a medium built purely on interaction this feels like it should be a cardinal sin. But people are so desperate for an interesting and mature story in a haze of boring, cliché, poorly written shite that they are more than willing to overlook this, and worse still many believe that this isn't a bad thing.
I feel that attitude is holding the medium back and genuinely stifling legitimate progression. It feels like the medium itself is a whiny teenager who's trying so desperately to appear "Grown Up" that they are reduced to misguidedly emulating their heroes and peers in a way which is frankly embarrassing when instead they should be looking internally and focusing on who they are and what makes them interesting, and in this instance utilising that to open up more unique and interactive experiences that engage the user in a way film and television simply cannot.
So, what am I saying on a more practical level?
Well, firstly there is the old cliché which I've oftentimes been a big proponent of. That gameplay should by far be the #1 most important thing, much more important than any combination of story elements, art quality, sound effects, etc.
"You think every game should just be like Asteroids!" - InevitableCommenter69
But more recently I've been thinking this isn't necessarily true, I don’t in fact want every game to be Asteroids, or relatively story-less affairs like Doom or Serious Sam. Despite the medium being built solely on the idea of interaction I’ve come to realise that all the stuff we’ve been striving for is in fact very important. Higher quality art, voice acting, graphical fidelity, mature storylines and interesting characters etc etc. However, I do feel we’ve sort of jumped the gun. Before attempting to use these elements to enhance and diversify the medium we must first be comfortable with and accepting of the fact that video games are video games and that this isn’t a bad thing. The more we try to deny or ignore this, the more jarring and ineffectual pilfering techniques from other mediums in an effort to appear ‘mature’ becomes.
I got nothing, I just wanted an excuse to post this.
I want a more significant blending of gameplay and plot that doesn't involve each one stepping out of the limelight for the other to perform; I want a more cohesive whole from a product that doesn’t feel as if it’s ashamed to be a videogame at times. At this point I’m going to say that I have no fucking clue how to do that, but that opening up the discussion might be more important than attempting to suggest some arbitrary and personal solution. After-all, we’ve been struggling with these concepts since Metal Gear fucking Solid and maybe even before that. To me, there has been little to no genuine advancement in the field of cinematic game design since Metal Gear Solid up to the current point (The Last of Us) outside of technical presentation and implementation improvements. On a design level, we’ve reached utter stagnation on this current heading and are in dire need of a change of direction.
I personally consider things like Dark/Demon’s Souls and The Walking Dead to be a starting point. They’ve begun to take a few steps backward and to examine the medium’s history for inspiration in both gameplay and presentation. But there are countless other examples of genres and styles that have fallen under the yolk of ‘cinematic gameplay’, both old and new, classic and overlooked. And with any luck, more experiments of this nature can lead us to better, more immersive and more cohesive gameplay experiences that may one day be comfortable accepting the fact they are not film or television and never will be. While The Walking Dead might seem like an odd choice given my criticism of emulating film & tv, what it does do is offer something that film & tv never could, a level of interaction that shapes and moulds the unfolding plot around the players actions. This simply cannot happen with film or television, and this is where we should be focusing our efforts.
A lot of this might seem like pointless, borderline whiny philosophising, maybe even pretentious (definitely), but I feel like this needed to be said because The Last of Us to me does not represent a step forward for the medium. In order for the medium to truly ‘grow up’ it needs to stop emulating its heroes and take its own path, wherever that may lead. It needs to graduate from its teenage years and go through that bullshit ‘finding yourself’ phase of life.
Ultimately, The Last of Us isn't a negative, despite what I've said. It does go a ways toward helping bring some of these issues to the table for discussion, but at the same time there's only so many times you can push a dumpster up against a wall and say "Yeah! I solved a puzzle!” and then put the controller down to watch a cut-scene.
I’ve been hearing a lot of people describe The Last of Us as the ‘Citizen Kane’ moment of video gaming. I think that’s presumptuous rubbish, we’ve got a long way to go before that happens. But I would say that, for reasons other than the obvious similarities, The Last of Us is more like 28 Days Later. It’s taken a stale, tired and in some cases laughable genre and made it relevant again. The question now is what to do with that new-found relevance and how to move forward from this point, not just with the genre but with the medium as a whole. I feel this is where we need to stop blindly charging forward on our current path and pause to reflect on where we came from and how we got here and how we can proceed down a genuine path of diversification of experience that isn’t simply homogenized gameplay duct-taped to budget television drama.
Taking a few steps back and embracing video games for what they are might help us decide a more productive direction to take that doesn’t involve making the player mash on the square button and telling him that qualifies as interactivity. If we’re going to do that, we might as well tell the player so sit down, shut the fuck up, and watch the movie.
Enjoy the movie. No, really, it's fucking fantastic. Wait, video-game.
I meant video-game. Dammit, it's so hard to tell these days.
Right now, I’m genuinely excited to see what people like inXile are going to put on the table, Brian Fargo has been trumpeting his ideas for story telling via a basic skeleton the flesh of which is built by the player, layer by layer from a huge network of individual choice, interaction and character progression. I cannot wait to see what happens here because the computer RPG genre provided something that in my opinion has never been matched by any modern spin on RPG gaming, and was cut down in its prime so that elements of it could be grafted onto the flanks of first and third person shooters and sandbox hack-and-slash games alike. It’s great to see it back and being developed naturally from the point it left off in around 2002. You can’t fast forward 10 years of genre progression in 18 months, but what you can do is start fresh and let the genre continue to develop naturally which is something I think we should be doing for a lot of other areas of game design, reeling them back and asking ourselves what we liked about them 10 years ago and how that stuff can better influence our design techniques today.
Here's a recent interview with Brian Fargo you might find interesting, he talks about the idea that the Golden Age of the RPG is yet to come. An idea I cannot deny I find somewhat appealing. Understatement of the century. I'm so desperate for more developers to think this way that I gave this guy $1000. And when Wasteland 2 drops, I'll probably write a post on that as well.
Lastly, I just want to re-iterate that I don't think cinematic gameplay is a bad thing, or something we shouldn't be pursuing. But I feel that pursuing this avenue at the cost of pretty much every other area is a bad thing, and something the bigger budget games industry needs to break out of if it ever really hopes to be taken seriously as an art form. Cinematic gameplay can help enhance the experience and offers us many benefits for certain types of game. But the current level of cinematic dominance I feel is contributing un-healthily to both rising budgets and stagnation, so maybe we should take a break, go through a more experimental phase. Who knows what could happen? We might find something beautiful (or we might prove me wrong, in which case at least we've learned something!). Every game somebody makes contributes something to where we will end up in 10 years, yes even Amazing Frog, it'd be nice to see some of the larger developers stray from the 'golden' formula we've cornered ourselves with just to see what happens.
I want to know what you think. Does The Last of Us represent a step forward? Is this all just pissing in the high winds of ‘multimedia’ homogenization? Should we be handing out praise so willy-nilly just because a game attempts to have a decent storyline? Should that even matter for a video-game so long as you enjoy the overall experience? I want to hear your thoughts whether you agree with me or disagree.
NO STORY SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US, please, for anybody who wants to get in on a discussion without having played The Last of Us because it's not really the focal point, it was just the catalyst that made me want to discuss this.
And thanks for reading this massive wall of text, I did warn you I wasn't a writer :)