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July 27, 2013

The Last Of Us

This isn't a videogame review of the new Playstation 3 game The Last of Us. It's more a reflection what a game is...and what it isn't.

Naughty Dog (the game developer) has been making "movie games" for most of the PS3 generation (with the Drake's Fortune series and now this one). Which is to say, they are building scripted, dramatic stories with segments of player control but no real decision-making ability on the part of the player. The game only moves in one direction, and you are essentially on rails for the entire experience. Thus, to me, it isn't a game -- it's an interactive movie.

And this is a problem, both in terms of design and in terms of art.


A movie and a game are two completely different forms of entertainment. Movies are a "lean back" kind of entertainment: I participate as an observer, a Greek Chorus, an assessor, a judge, a jury. I do not interact or guide the action. I watch events unfold, and judge the outcome based on how well the production achieved its goals. A game, on the other hand, is a "lean forward" experience. It is interactive, and I am in the game to win or lose. That is, the whole point of a game is to allow the player to affect the outcome. Without that power, the experience is not a "game" at all.

The "interactive movie" concept is unfulfilling both as game and as movie. As a game, it fails because the player can have no real say in how the story unfolds or ends. You are an actor in the drama, in other words -- even less than an actor, really, since you can't even put your own spin on the drama. As a movie, it fails because the drama is broken up by the interactive portions; all the running and jumping about actually kills the dramatic momentum.

The Last of Us is beautifully mounted, and might have made a decent movie. It's garnering raves as a game, however, and I simply can't fathom this. It's not a game, any more than the Drake episodes were "games". You can't control the path you take, you can't make any real decisions about how the story will unfold, and you can neither "win" nor "lose". You can finish the "game", of course, and get the ending that all players will inevitably get, but there's no real skill involved. Even the clumsiest, slowest, dumbest gamer -- me -- will eventually get there. There is no way to "lose" this game other than to choose not to finish it.

It makes me wonder why Naughty Dog has decided to go this route. It costs a huge amount of money to make a video game like this -- as much as it would to just go ahead and make an actual movie, in fact. So I wonder why Naughty Dog doesn't just do that: make a movie. The kind of interactivity you get in this game actually detracts from the dramatic arc, and it adds very little. Oh, it's exciting in parts and has some interesting puzzles...but in the end it's a waste of time because you can't change anything. You can't "win" because there's only one way the video game can end. There's no real achievement involved.

The usual response from the game studio is that giving players too much choice over the outcome of the game ruins the story. This was the excuse behind Mass Effect 3's shitty ending. The writers had a vision that they were bound and determined to see to the end, and they only allowed players to influence that vision up to a point...which was actually none at all, since the end result was the same no matter what you did. To many gamers (including me), it was a giant "fuck you" from the studio. It made all those endless hours of gameplay and "moral choice" completely meaningless.

If this is the direction video game developers are going, I don't understand why they don't make movies or write books instead. If you're going to call it a "game", that implies that I have a significant amount of control over how things will come out. It's up to me to win or lose. I may violate your "artistic vision", but games are defined by rules, not plots. If I play within the rules, the outcome is perfectly acceptable, even if you don't like it.

Oh, and about that "artistic vision" thing, Naughty Dog developers: your writers aren't exactly Hemingway. As drama, the game strives to be deep but barely achieves mediocrity. Mostly, it's the equivalent of a B-grade zombie flick. The game takes itself so damned seriously, and marries itself so totally to the "harsh and gritty" world, that it's a bummer to play. That's okay in a movie, which is over in a couple of hours, but it's a drag in a game that can stretch on for 30 hours of play-time. Fallout 3 had the same gritty, depressing vibe, and it also got to be a chore to play for long periods of time. But at least Fallout 3 was an actual game, where you could actually affect the outcome.

People are throwing accolades at this game like roses at the feet of a diva, and I just don't get it. It's a great-looking game, and the voice acting is pretty good, but as a game it's a pretty abject failure.

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posted by Monty at 11:42 AM

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