For a long time, I was obsessed with insanely difficult games. I can say quite honestly that I think this thirst for unrelenting self-punishment came from a desire to achieve something, and it all started when I watched the movie King of Kong; a film about a natural born loser who was fighting to get the world record in Donkey Kong. He felt that by defeating the game, and the people in the community surrounding it who seemed hell bent on ensuring his failure, that he he would be able to conquer his own perceived inadequacies. And that was something I related too. I watched that movie dozens of times.
When I finally started to get control of my life back and set a direction for myself, I gradually forgot about the pursuit of an unrelenting challenge in my hobby. I put down Dark Souls and stopped trying to master Tetris. I began to enjoy video games again, not for their challenge, but for what they offered me in terms of escapism. I used them to relax because my real life goals were difficult, time consuming, and physically exhausting.
But there is one game that captured my imagination so thoroughly that I wanted nothing more to immerse myself in the experience of it. And for reasons very different than the ones that I suffered through other punishing games, I decided to tackle its most difficult setting.
I decided to play The Last of Us on Grounded mode.
The Last of Us is an experience. I was highly skeptical of it, and in one of my many seething, cynical rants, I attacked it's vague teaser trailer as a cheap ploy to drum up marketing, and brushed it off as “yet another zombie game.” So when I finally got the game with my replacement PS3 last year, I let it sit on the shelf for weeks before finally popping it in to see what the fuss was all about.
Far more like The Road and a lot less like Dawn of the Dead than I had imagined it to be, The Last of Us was a soul crushing reminder of the innate potential for inhumanity and brutality in all of us. It played more like a Jack London novel than a survival horror game in its themes, all while managing to hold up a very believable and sometimes heart breaking relationship between the two protagonists, Joel and Ellie, while also remaining a consistently paced gruelling action experience with a level of tension unseen in so many other games of its ilk. Despite being completely unrattled by the hype, I was sucked into it. And a year later, I got it again with my PS4, a Christmas gift that has consumed all of my free time these last few weeks.
Before beginning the story over again, I read up everything related to the game that I could just out of interest for the lore and the design behind it, and came across a few articles suggesting the play through of the later added Grounded mode; a difficulty level where resources are almost non-existent, almost every bit of damage your character takes is his last, and where checkpoints are few and far between when you need them the very most.
Having done my original run through on normal, I decided at first that this was a little out of my league. Even on that difficulty I had struggled through many parts of the game, and I am just not the type of dedicated player who has the interest to invest the time and be consistently frustrated, all for the end goal of getting a trophy or bragging rights.
But the thing that intrigued me about Grounded mode was its implications on the story and the experience itself. The idea that being set in a world of such violent brutality, maybe it didn't make sense for me to have the resources to craft endless med-kits, or be shot nine times before death, or what have you. So I decided to give it a whirl.
A couple of weeks of grinding later, and I passed Grounded mode, a sigh of relief sounding my victory at the end.
While I agree to an extent that Grounded mode felt like the true Last of Us experience, there were a few caveats that tainted the play through for me.
For one, The Last of Us is a highly scripted game of events and encounters. And while many of these are passable in multiple ways, there are a few specific times in peppered throughout the game where your options are limited, and where you must play in a way that is not well facilitated by the non-existent ammo drops, resulting in an unfair level of frustration and a weird level of dissonance between the mechanics and the experience itself.
Two key places in the game, the basement in the hotel and the elevator room in the room when you are fighting waves of infected with David come to mind. When finding a single arrow or bullet feels like a huge victory because you know it means taking out a single enemy without having to punch them to death, the true lack of resources in Grounded becomes very apparent. While the game tends to give you most of what you need to survive with just enough ammo drops to continue firing your gun in parts where it is necessary, the meta game of Grounded becomes finding an alternative way to fight and get through each encounter by using as few resources as possible. So these parts of the game feel jarring and out of place, and in the case of the fight with David, it ended up being a luck of the draw for me which fell into a predictable pattern of button presses, timing, and a bit of prayer.
Wait for zombie A to attack david. Throw brick at zombie B to stun him. Stab zombie B in fact. After David has punched zombie A and stunned him, stab zombie A. Try not to get horribly mutilated in between.
The analogy I have heard referenced comparing Grounded to “The Last of Us: Dark Souls mode” is insufficient at best. Dark Souls was challenging due to the high level of reflex and skill it took to survive. And while the highest difficulty of Last of Us requires a tremendous amount of careful skill to navigate, it is also far more scripted and linear than Dark Souls with a careful focus on story and characterization, which is very out of line in my opinion with the repetitive nature of Grounded mode. It is difficult to follow the story when you die thirty times in a single area. It simply pulls you out of the experience.
In my case, I had already experienced the game in normal mode. And while it was challenging, it was far more of a consistent flow from beginning to end that facilitated my enjoyment of the story. Grounded mode was a treat to play simply because it was a new way to enjoy The Last of Us. It encouraged exploring every nook and cranny of the games mechanics in order to learn the skills necessary to survive. It promoted stealth over EVERYTHING else, something that isn't necessarily emphasized in the lighter difficulties due to an overabundance of resources. And while this brings light to a lot of the games design flaws, since you are essentially playing it in the same fashion a game tester might, exploring every single avenue of possible paths and routes in order to play through each encounter as efficiently as possible, it is also thoroughly engaging and addicting after a certain point to see just what might be possible under the harsh restrictions that Grounded mode imposes upon you.
What it did do for me was remind me that every now and again, a good hard challenge can be a fun way to enjoy games. Not just for the bragging rights or the feeling of victory at the end, but just in the fact that when setting the bar to eleven, you are really pushed to dig into the nuances of the game. It taught me a lot about the design of the games mechanics, and illuminated a lot of the finer details of the games world that I passed over when I was rushing to get to the next plot point or cutscene. With so many games coming out all the time, it's not only tough to keep up, it's really easy to treat the game like a one-shot, throw away experience where you pick it up, fire through it as quick as possible, and chuck it back on the shelf to collect dust so you can get to the rest of your intimidating backlog.
After a year of hiatus from The Last of Us, I knew that I wouldn't be able to relive the initial awe I experienced during my original play through. So I found a different way to play, and got a little more life out of a game that I thought had already delivered everything it could my way. Turns out I was wrong. And after my second, roughly 25 hour play through, and one of the most difficult experiences of my gaming life, I sat there staring at the trophy screen and felt a little deflated.
Was it really over? Where could I go from here? Guess I'll play the DLC, read the American Dreams graphic novel, listen to the soundtrack a few times...maybe write a fanfiction?
Grounded mode had not only made me recall the good ol' days of my personal gaming hell, it went on to be one of the most satisfying triumphs I had ever had in a game. I didn't NEED it to make me feel like I was worth a shit. I had figured that out on my own. It was just one very minor, infentisimal achievement I had made that was important to ME, personally, for reasons that are difficult to articulate. For a period of my life, I had lost all of my confidence, and it had been a very painful road to get it back. The defeats in my life were seemingly endless. I just couldn't catch a damn break, and it always felt like I was climbing an avalanche.
Grounded became a bit of an analogue for that experience. A reminder of where I had been, and where I'd made it too. I resolved to beat it not for any other reason than that I KNEW I COULD. Despite my fears of my lack of skill or resolve. I wouldn't rest until I had. And when it was all over, as liberating as it was, it just reminded me that my experience in the game was limited. The story I had gushed over, the characters I had come to care about, they were all just a static narrative projected on a background of polygons on high definition sound. They were finite, and had an end, and the second I finished, I just wanted more.
And then I remembered that the goddamn thing also had a multiplayer mode that wasn't shit.
Like a membership to the jelly of the month club, It really is the gift that keeps on giving.