|Posted on December 11, 2013 at 1:55 AM|
A Generation of Games
As 2013 Wraps, I thought it would be nice to spend one year-end blog entirely on video games. Not just “Games of 2013” but games for the past generation of gaming (about 8 years or so, depending on who you ask). So while I’ll be going through some games at the end that I enjoyed the past generation of gaming, there’s really only one that I can confidently say “This is my favorite game.”
Normally, I don’t like to play favorites. Even on year-end movie lists, you could swap out the top 10 in any fashion and I’d be pretty happy, but on this, there was only one…because The Last of Us is just that damn good. There are few games that can evoke an emotional response, because there are few games that even bother. This is why "bothering" is a good thing...
I wrote a piece on The Last of Us over the summer after my first play through, it was more of reactionary blog about storytelling in video games and evolution of narrative driven games and how it sets the bar high (but shouldn’t be strived for in every game out there). It was because I hadn’t seen a game quite reach in to that human element quite like it, as well as have great level design and gameplay alongside it. I quickly made the determination it was my favorite game of 2013 and at least in my favorite Playstation 3 games.
However, it grew beyond that. I recently played through it a second time and have come to the conclusion it’s probably my favorite video game from the past decade of gaming: not for what it is, but for what it isn’t or isn’t trying to be. You can take a look at a lot of titles that are similar to other titles, inspired by them, taking cues or, in some cases, just being blatant retreads. Not here.
The Last of Us came to me fully formed. By that I mean you can sense the craftsmanship of everything and the purpose of each plot point or bit of dialogue. There’s nothing that felt insular here, each moment had a point, each line said something about the situation or character, every glance or look (in easily the best “video game character acting” out there) had a sense of emotion and depth that video games rarely capture. Some can get those subtle mannerisms and expressions well, but here they had a meaning behind them. A sad look, or a quiet moment, had a purpose.
Moments of allowing the story to breathe, to take a moment and take it all in...those things are appreciated. If you've played the game, you know the importance and relevance of the above scene as well.
What I love most about The Last of Us is how it understands pace, how it appreciates a player’s intelligence and how a player can appreciate a quiet introspective moment just as much as one where you’re being chased by infected people trying to eat your succulent flesh. The Last of Us touches on an element of the human condition, and from that element everything grows: the story and characters feel more real, the gameplay feel more threatening and risky and, more of then than not, frightening because you don’t want to lose, you pay more attention to what people say, and you come to an understanding of how the world works without it being explicitly stated.
There’s only a handful of games that I would say master storytelling; even less that can make us feel something about the characters. The Last of Us is at the top of that list. It’s full of memorable moments throughout, both cutscenes and in gameplay. For example, my favorite part of the game is the season “Winter” (the game is divided up through seasons) not because it’s the most interesting part of the story, showing human beings at their very worst, but it’s visually amazing from an artistic standpoint and the setting makes the gameplay similar but different enough.
During “Winter” you meet a man who isn’t all that dissimilar to who you play as, but he’s just slightly different. He eats people. Yeah, gross, but the way he presents it as so matter-of-factly almost makes you understand him. That’s the world today, and he doesn’t get pleasure out of it, it’s only survival. Winter also has you playing through a blizzard, unsure if who or what you see is a person or just a lamppost. You can practically feel the stinging snow as it blasts you, and shiver as you duck in to some abandoned gas station to get your bearings.
"Winter" showed game story and game design taking risks and chances, and as a result it took The Last of Us from "damn good" to "damn great." Ellie turned from a good character into a fully-realized great one...and not for her betterment as a person as she loses any hope of being "just a kid" and having any resemblance of a normal childhood.
But “Winter” also made me realize that The Last of Us wasn’t just a good game, the two previous seasons of “Summer” and “Srping” more than met those requirements, but a great one and why I have no hesitation in saying it was my favorite game of the past ten years at least. In “Winter” I “felt” something. I saw characters that already seemed very realistic and interesting and were evolving and now were at their very lowest…and they hated that and I hated witnessing that. I realized that as much as the story was about Joel, your main character, it was every bit as much about Ellie, whom Joel is trying to get to a facility in the west in the post-apocolyptic world. Ellie and Joel feel every bit as human as any movie or book I’ve come across, and for such a young medium to find some way to “Master” that is remarkable.
The second play through had me notice other subtleties. Certain motifs throughout (lots of American flags torn asunder), how each season had a different focus (Summer as a “birth,” Fall as a “childhood,” winter as a “Maturation” and so on) and I was able to get more of those little “side talks” throughout the game which I missed because I ran too far ahead or just didn’t notice that somebody wanted to talk about something. They’re not required, but the fact that I can hear someone with something interesting to say about themselves or the world and wanted to hear it says a lot about the quality of the writing.
Hell, most games people just skip the cutscenes. I don’t think anybody could imagine doing so with The Last of Us. There's something to always be said, just as there's always something to be seen in the stark beauty of the ruined world.
The Last of Us is going to be one of those games I go back and replay a lot. I find the craftsmanship of it amazing, from a brief pause or character sigh to taking out a group of infected in various ways with the various tools I have at my disposal. I love seeing the rendering of this world fallen and reclaimed by nature, seeing familiar yet not familiar locations. The music, a quiet guitar or piano key at most, sets the mood and atmosphere of bleakness perfectly.
But it really comes down to the writing and the performances (Ashley Johnson as Ellie and Troy Baker as Joel). You’re journeying with Joel and Ellie and feel their relationship, their pasts and their hopes and not-so-hopes for the future. The friendship that evolves, the pain that occurs, the emotional toll it takes on them.
I know when it comes to video game design that one hand washes the other: story drives gameplay and gamepllay often determines where the story should go. The Last of Us felt seamless and organic in that relationship, as organic and believable as Joel and Ellie themselves.
As for the rest of gaming…
Favorite Games of This Generation
Obviously, The Last of Us is my favorite game, but it’s not like that’s all I’ve played. Here’s a few briefer thoughts on my favorite games this past generation of gaming.
Red Dead Redemption - I wrote something on this a while ago (you can tell from the old font), but I also replayed it again recently. It just scratches that itch that I love, all while having an unbelievable world to play in. It’s my favorite open-world game, although…
Sleeping Dogs - I fell in love with Sleeping Dogs probably because I had no idea what to expect. It’s like playing in a John Woo China gangster movie. A lot of the fun comes form the fighting system and gunplay, something the Grand Theft Auto games still have yet to figure out.
Bioshock - Perhaps second to The Last of Us, Bioshock created a world that I fell in love with. It’s grotesque yet intriguing, and though it’s not entirely considered a “horror” game, it sure as hell scared the hell out of me enough. I prefer it over Bioshock Infinite, though that’s still a remarkable game, only because it’s more focused. Similar to...
Batman: Arkham Asylum - Most wouldn’t put this past Arkham City, but I prefer it. It feels more intricate and the story far better than its sequel. Sure, we may give up flight, but I’m more than happy to if it means I can have a more concentrated effort on a narrative and not shoe-horning every character in the Bat-verse in to things. I also wrote a brief thing on it a while back.
Mario Galaxy 2 - It’s fun. Just flat-out fun. It’s one of those games that, once you learn the controls, is hard to put down.
Ni No Kuni: This and Xenoblade Chronicles are probably the two best Japanese RPGs you could ask for. Though the often overlooked Lost Odyssey and Resonance of Fate are up there too. Not the best generation of JRPGs, at least not on consoles.
Uncharted 2: It’s action-gaming arguably perfected. Naughty Dog was probably the best and most consistent game developer of the past generation.
Alan Wake - I’m a sucker for a good horror game, and Alan Wake just nailed it. I played it on the 360 initially but revisited it recently on the PC. It’s my kind of scares.
Modern Warfare - The First one. The good one. The one actually titled Call of Duty 4 before it all spun out of control. This is one of the only games I played online, but it had one hell of a memorable single-player campaign.
Far Cry 3 - This along with Blood Dragon made me giddy as a schoolgirl. The best part of the game, though, wasn’t even the main story. Like Red Dead Redemption, it’s all the other stuff you could go off and do. Hell, liberating “bases” was arguably the most memorable and fun part of the game because it allowed you to plan and attack at your leisure.
Fallout 3 / Last Vegas - They both do what they do so well, and I became lost in the worlds they created. These are two games I keep forgetting I played, which is surprisingly considering how many hours I lost doing so.
Skyward Sword - It’s Zelda, and there weren’t a whole lot of Zelda or even Zelda-like games out this past generation. While I don’t think SS is a top-tier Zelda title, even a middle-of-the-road one is still better than most.
Ratchet and Clank: a Crack in Time - Well you could put any of them here, to be honest. Some people say platformers are dead, I say you haven’t played Ratchet and Clank. A Crack in Time really brought in a ton of inventiveness in to the series with some of the most fun and challenging puzzles out of all of them.
So that's that. There were other games but none that spring to mind as quickly. Assassin's Creed II was pretty good, but I never really loved that series. Didn't like God of War III all that much. Halo Reach wasn't bad, something different. Skyrim was enjoyable, as well as the Mass Effect games from a sheer universe-building aspect. I really dug that Ghostbusters game too, and Sly Cooper was awesome. GTAV is good at first, kind of waned towards the end. Indie games like Fez, Brothers and Braid were a nice change of pace too.
But this generation began and ended with The Last of Us for me. I never played a game like it, and I don't know if I'll ever play a game like it again because as high as the bar is that it set, not too many developers are going to look at it and think its viable as an example. For me, it shows what games could be...if someone just takes the tools it offers to make it happen.
This upcoming new generation of consoles is going to be really telling. Will people try to emulate The Last of Us? Will there be another game this generation that will throw all preconceptions of what we think of videogames out the window again? I worry that, because of the costs to make these things, that might not happen. If it does, my money is probalby on Naughty Dog to do it, though. And I'll be there waiting.