[Added a second part.]
You’ve probably heard of The Last of Us by now, which means you’ve probably shrugged and said yeah, cool I guess. It’s the gory post-apocalyptic PS3 exclusive developed by Naughty Dog, makers of the Uncharted series. It’s already won a bunch of awards, including “Best of Show”, “Best Original Game”, “Best Console Game”, and “Best Action/Adventure Game” at this year’s E3. There’s no doubt that it will be a highly polished, carefully crafted, and feature unparalleled voice acting and CINEMATIC CINEMATIC CINEMATIC.
How could I possibly hate this game? I’m not biased against big-budget action games with emotional narratives and cinematic shit all over — this is a Metal Gear fansite, after all — and I appreciate that the game is a PS3 exclusive in a console generation strangled by Microsoft’s dirty money and bully tactics. Hell, I didn’t even know for myself why I hated it at first, but I’ve finally been able to put my finger on it: I hate The Last of Us because it’s supremely disingenuous. But if it wasn’t, it could be so awesome.
If there’s one thing I hate in this world, it’s deceit. You can show me the raunchiest, most tasteless bullshit in the world (ie. Saints Row: The Third) and I’ll at least be able to respect it’s straightforward honesty on some level. This game pretends to be something it’s not, and it sickens me. Nothing proves this point like the girl sidekick, Ellie. She’s your 14-year-old survival companion (not daughter) with no clue about the “old world” before the pandemic. On the surface, it seems to make for a compelling source of depth and tension, as you brutally fight to protect her, while at the same time trying to teach her moral values in a world without hope. That’s wonderful! But I know the unflattering truth. “Ellie” is not a girl at all. Ellie an emotional pawn, designed by a hyper-cynical team of unoriginal douchebags to manipulate as many demographics as possible into buying their game and looking past its festering black soul. Worse yet, she’s a lazy crutch for the designers to lean on — but I’ll get to that later.
You play as Gruff, the gruffiest gruff guy this side of Gruffland. You’ve seen it all, done it all, and had everything done right back to you. You have no scruples, but you remember a time when they existed. Now you’re a nomad like everyone else, and meeting Ellie has given you a new lease on life. Together, you’ll explore every post-apocalypse stereotype in existence, climbing over the ruined skeletons of original ideas and battling with frightening manifestations of Naughty Dog’s lust for high metacritic scores. Oops, that’s a Freudian interpretation. But there’s not much more I can say about the story, because — conveniently! — all the characters and the entire story is a big mystery for you to discover! See, that way when you find out it’s 100% boring old tropes, you’ll at least be surprised.
Actually, we do know two important facts: Naughty Dog is a big fan of everything apocalyptic that makes lots of money, and they’re extremely talented at keeping their jobs by ripping off people’s stuff. So don’t worry, whatever the mystery is, we already know it will be perfectly bland. But nobody wants another zombie game. Nobody except people whose job is to leverage market trends, or those who who are too ignorant to know what leveraging market trends means. Even complaining about the zombie apocalypse fad in pop culture has gotten old. And yet games like The Last of Us prove that it must be done, or they’ll just keep multiplying, like… some kind of viral, shambling creatures of the night… without souls, yet somehow alive. If only we could band together and burn them with holy fire. This game may not qualify as a zombie game to some people, but it is, and by the end of the game I’m sure you’ll be driving over them with a bus just like everyone else does. The beauty of a post-apocalyptic setting is that you can be very lazy and creative at the same time, as a level-designer. Everything is broken, nobody is walking around, and every path is sure to be blocked (saving them the effort of making a fleshed out city) just because hey, times are crazy. It solves all the problems for you. Designing Grand Theft Auto is infinitely more impressive, where traffic needs to be simulated, bystanders need to have acceptable AI, there are rules for how things work, and you can’t guide your players through endless series of scripted corridors — and yet you have to make a story work within that open framework. No wonder people are sick and tired of Armageddon.
The Uncharted games never had a soul either, but they could easily laugh it off by calling it “pulpy”, or even parody. The whole premise was to take you on a charming adventure of globetrotting and intrigue, marching loudly and proudly into Cheese Territory. (This premise was largely abandoned during the grueling hours of murdering thousands of human beings without remorse or hesitation, in order to selfishly serve your character’s interests. But that was the idea anyway.) The Last of Us, on the other hand, wants to be taken seriously, and even claims to care about the “moral dilemma” of the situation. That’s just disturbing. If I’m going to squish a homeless man’s skull under the heel of my boot, the least you could do is acknowledge that I’m supposed to be satisfied by it. We’re not killing zombies, here; nor putting partially infected people out of their misery. These are just deprived people with the same priorities as you. At this rate, why not strap a starving infant to the back of a crack-addict and have him choke prostitutes for spare change? It’s such a moral dilemma!! HE NEEDS THE MONEY FOR THE BABY.
That idea is mine, by the way. Don’t steal it for your sequel, Naughty Dog.
Honestly, I’d rather have a crying baby than the 14-year-old, but it has nothing to do with story. It’s because of the gameplay. Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer for BioShock Infinite, which also looks like shit, for the same reason:
Aww, how touching! She’s such a sympathetic, sweet, yet strong-willed contrast to our cold, uncaring player! She wants to save the horsie! She wasn’t asking for our permission.
Both games feature a female sidekick who circumvent a myriad of otherwise challenging design goals. They serve as mobile storytelling entities, hint systems, and of course a replacement for real empowering gameplay. They share the load! Isn’t that great? Of course, they’ll only help you if you’re doing whatever the designer wants. Games like these look amazing when you’re watching somebody obediently following the Most Cinematic Path (MCP), but the moment you get rebellious and try to improvise something it all goes to shit. Eventually developers will learn to skip to the logical conclusion and put the player in the shoes of the helpless sidekick who follows a powerful man who can do everything for us. Who really wants to “do stuff” or think for themselves, anyway?
Whenever these bitches talk, all I hear is an insecure developer, constantly explaining shit in the worst way possible. I’d rather have a big red arrow at the top of my screen, and a checklist, thank you very much. “Look out! There’s one coming up behind you!” is the designer equivalent of “Here, let me take the controller, I’ll beat this part for you.”
Games are so paranoid and lazy these days, it’s maddening. “What if they don’t know where to go right now?” “What if they forget what the objective is?” “What if they don’t know what to do in this situation?” “How are they supposed to beat this poorly designed challenge using the lame abilities we’ve given him?” “Is there some way we can we trigger their protective instincts any time we want, without having to actually write a good story?” These questions are all answered by the female sidekick. Oh, and shitty button prompts. Classics like Half-Life were linear as well, but they let us figure things out for ourselves, equipped us with unique and powerful weapons, and didn’t feel the need to redistribute responsibilities. And yes, for the record, Alyx Vance is the only real blemish on the Half-Life series.
Worst of all is the surrogate conscience. I don’t care what kind of woman it is, or what the story of our relationship may be, I don’t want to hear them yammer at me about dying horses or gasping at the horrors I’ve wrought, because we both know that’s not a girl, it’s a contraption made by some middle-aged guy who thinks he’s got you in the palm of his hands. Those sensitive reactions are as scripted and forced as the very shit they comment on, so it doesn’t work. I didn’t design the murder simulator — you did, sir. I didn’t spend a week creating the physics of the Molotov cocktail, or take a microphone to the back yard to record what boiling flesh sounds like. Maybe, by the time the developers are done constructing their 40th way to slaughter a man, they get so insecure about their own moral code that they have to start vocalizing it in the game. “Oh, that’s so horrible!” they have someone say. Then they walk into every interview promoting the game as some kind of deep, provocative thriller, when all they really wanted to make was a really brutal game about an dude surviving the zombie apocalypse. Just be honest, man. Don’t give us the song and dance.
In the case of BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games decided to make the woman a cleavage-wielding adult, so that there’s no moral dilemma once you start fantasizing about the thanks you deserve for saving her life repeatedly. Uncharted did an okay job making the female sidekick seem human, even if she is as one-note as Drake himself, but there’s a “will they, won’t they” chemistry there. The Last of Us is all about moral dilemmas, so having a mature female sidekick would be too easy! I’m not sure if Ellie is supposed to be attractive to fellow puberty-goers, but they obviously felt they couldn’t have made her flawed-looking, because then nobody would care about saving her life. Every artist knows that. And hell, she probably doesn’t have a sexy line of dialogue in the whole game; from what I’ve seen she’s is as masculine as any guy you meet. That’s not the point. Naughty Dog knows that in the back of our minds, we’re imagining what those rapey dudes walking around the apartment building would do if they got their hands on Ellie and we weren’t there to stop them. (They’d probably rape her.) The unofficial subtext of the game is this: “What would you do to save your attractive teenager daughter from being raped if society crumbled?” See how much that resonates? Now make it official.
But no, this game’s not about murdering rapists, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and hard choices, and shit. It’s got plausible deniability. It’s played its cards right, and covered its ass at every turn. Everything is a gray area for you to feel awkward about, because this game isn’t like the other ones, and you’re the one holding the gun and making those brutal choices. And Ellie? She’s just some girl — a strong, but slightly flawed girl, of course — who you’re trying to protect — but she protects you too, so it’s not just one-sided or anything — and who may or may not be raped by a gang of dirty hobos if you don’t hurry up and disembowel that guy with a broken table leg. And then destroy the skull of that guy with the butt of a magnum revolver. And then splash acid in the face of that one, so that she can sneak up from behind and puncture his lungs with a switchblade. And then strangle the next one with the intestines of the first guy. Then stand up, dust yourself off, and seriously contemplate what kind of real moral dilemma that all was, because of course nobody is trying to glorify any of this violence, or disrespect any women, or anything like that. Our hands are clean! Enjoy!
And another thing
You see this? Now I don’t pretend to know exactly what The Last of Us has up its sleeve. For all I know, Gruff will wind up on the Moon by the end, or wake up in a mental institution. But I know we live in an age when games this gorgeous costs $20 million to make and $50 million to market, and with numbers like those, a selling point is not something you hide.
Artistic projects have historically kept a sense of mystery around themselves, letting potential audiences feel intrigued and tantalized. They took risks, made controversial statements, and weren’t afraid to keep their best parts hidden, because they had something called “class”. But that’s history. Today, everybody from the multi-billion dollar corporate publishers to the lone YouTube vlogger has gotten wise to the marketing game, and decided to adopt the oldest strategy of all. It’s called “The Wisdom of the Whore”, and it goes like this:
Shake your money maker til it starts making money.
Let me put it another way. Whatever they show you is the best they have to offer; whatever they don’t show you is something they want to hide. If you see a news headline reading “End of the World?”, you know it’s not the end of the world — they’ll never use a question mark when they’re legally allowed to use an exclamation mark. They’re doing the best they can with the nothing they have to offer, creating false expectations, hoping you’ll pick up the paper or click on the text, knowing you’ll be disappointed, but hoping you’ll fall for it next time anyway! The more I look at The Last of Us, the more question marks I see.
Which brings me back to the safehouse scene. In this day and age, when a company like Naughty Dog — which is known for filling their cinematic flagship title with excruciating amounts of linear hand-holding and repetitive gun padding — features a character who walks in front of me and says “Best stay on my ass”, while I’m being followed closely by a little girl, this is all I see…
We’ll be sandwiched between two characters who’ll never shut up, never let us have real freedom (ie. the freedom to become lost and figure things out for ourselves,) and never add anything meaningful to the gameplay. Tell me I’m wrong.
You have played AAA games lately, haven’t you? They’re all whores, waddling around in high heels and short skirts, leaving nothing to the imagination (unless it’s repulsive!) and begging for your money. That’s the great irony of the “Free to Play” model. Without the payment barrier, with its amazing ability to hide all the defects until after you’ve given them the cash, what are they going to do? The game industry (as we know it) is going to crash pretty soon, and it’s games like The Last of Us that are going to push it over the edge, and its all because they can’t stop lying to us. They may know how to leverage market trends, show us the Most Cinematic Path, and rub their voluptuous visuals in our faces in the hopes of snatching our money, but people are noticing the pattern, and it’s going to get more and more expensive to maintain those lies. And that’s why Ellie crosses the line, for me. She’s the guardian angel of this sleazy, creatively bankrupt project, protecting it from shame and criticism.
Naughty Dog knows we’re getting older, having families, and are worried about the future. They know there’s a world-crushing economic depression, which threatens to collapse any fiscal quarter. They know that videogames provide the ability to explore our inner hopes, as well as cope with our inner fears. They know that we’ve watched the movie Super starring Rainn Wilson, and that deep down, we were uncomfortably fantasizing about having sex with Ellen Page during that one scene where she aggressively forces Rainn Wilson’s character to have sex with her, because even though she’s an adult she looks like she’s a 14-year-old…
…and that, as Young Hardcore Gaming Fathers, in this economy, we have a recurring nightmare in which we try to protect our own daughter (who in some Freudian twist looks and sounds exactly like Ellen Page, and also happens to share her name!) from other homeless nomads created by the economic depression, who also watched Super, but don’t have any uncomfortable feelings about having sex with her, perhaps just as aggressively as her character did in the movie…
…and that, as Young Hardcore Gaming Fathers, we also have progressive game-tolerant wives, who’re also worried about such a bleak future, except without the awkward fantasies about Ellen Page. Instead, they project themselves onto Ellie, and look up to the strong and handsome Gruff, who is totally cynical (like her hardcore gaming husband) but would still do whatever was necessary to protect her, or their daughter.
And trust me, I appreciate how clever that is. But that’s just emotional manipulation, unoriginality, and subconscious marketing strategies. The game itself is going to… well… maybe it won’t suck… it does look like it has the potential to be awesome… but it’s the disingenuous heart that makes me hate it. Being self-aware and honest requires you to stand up for your real, raw ideas — not coat them with a veneer of lies and politically correct bullshit! They don’t even have the balls to admit that they modeled “Ellie” after Ellen Page!
Naughty Dog has said that it’s a “complete coincidence” that the studio changed the appearance of Ellie in The Last of Us after she was said to resemble Ellen Page – and before the actress was confirmed as the star of Beyond: Two Souls this week.
Now do you see what I’m talking about? They won’t admit that it’s supposed to be gratifying to go all Manhunt on these depraved assholes, either, but they have no problem making the moment when you blow a pleading man’s head off with a shotgun the epic climax of their trailer. Rockstar at least owned up to it, and whether you played it for the brutality or the catharsis of overcoming a nightmare scenario, it was at least honest.