I mentioned this briefly on last week’s podcast, but one of my favourite things about The Last of Us was how it successfully married theme and gameplay. This was particularly noticeable given what a huge problem I had with the disconnect between the two while playing Bioshock: Infinite. In Bioshock, the player is presented with a marvelous world that appears “open” in many ways but in practical purposes is not. However, that’s not my major issue with the game in regards to the clash between theme and actual gameplay. Rather, Bioshock becomes terribly repetitive in asking you to kill people, over and over again, before closing with a bold narrative denouement that in many ways subverts and rejects the typical paradigm of (supposedly) masculine style gameplay. I loved the ending to the game and I loved the statement, but it felt a little hollow considering I had spent hours upon hours killing people whose only real crime was being sent to kill someone their superiors told them was an enemy of the state. Sure, it’s an evil state led by a racist dictator, but still. What did these people do wrong? I was reminded of Rob Lowe and his friends waiting in vain for Dr. Evil’s henchman to join them for his bachelor party only to be informed that he was in fact now deceased.
It’s a major problem for the game that is only exacerbated by other decisions. For example, fighting ghosts and then conversing with them as a significant part of the game’s plot. Bioshock:Infinite ended up being frustrating in many ways, though perhaps only because it raised the bar so high. Ken Levine’s thrilling closing statement genuinely brought the game to another level, and one could argue brought the craft of story-telling in games to another level, but we were still left with some pretty well worn tropes and that basic inequity of the modern video game: killing dudes. Lots and lots of dudes.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last year. I’ve become a different type of video game player as I’ve gotten older, but there remain millions of video game players with a similar mindset to my own. I was never bloodthirsty, but I excused an awful lot. Killing people in video games didn’t carry any serious weight. It’s a tough place for video games to be. Do we really have to limit ourselves to killing Nazis and aliens? Surely that is even more limiting. The larger issue here is how frequently developers feel confined to basic narrative and gameplay norms. I find it completely understandable. Video games often take years to make and from a project management standpoint alone a completed video game is a remarkable achievement. Herding the skills, interests and creative desires of large groups of people together into one project is no mean feat. It’s extremely challenging to start challenging basic archetypes beyond that.
The success of The Last of Us in breaking some of those archetypes had a profound effect on me. The game is remarkably violent. You can’t escape the fact that it’s violent. There’s nothing fantastical about the violence(bar some odd decisions regarding “finishing move” type animations) and it’s difficult to simply dismiss it. There are some out and out villains in the game, it’s true, but the majority of the characters presented in any detail occupy a nebulous territory between evil and not all that evil. Including the characters that you yourself control. Indeed, one of the things I like most about The Last of Us is that the most admirable characters in the game are NPCs. The melee combat in the game forces you to confront the humanity of those that you are removing from the game.
The reality does break. The game, despite appearing to promise early on that sneaking around will always be an option, occasionally places physical obstacles in your path, forcing you to engage. Some parts of the game have traditional “waves” of enemies. And, as mentioned above, there are a few animations here and there that look like they came from a Gears of War game. However, all in all, the violence in the game is challenging and not escapist. I found The Last of Us difficult to play at times. Particularly in the last half of the game, the player is asked to back the character s/he controls against opponents that are not clearly defined as “bad people.” Perhaps misguided by principle or by an evil figure; not innately evil in their own right. The Last of Us does not cheapen the narrative by bowing down to the hero worship so typically accorded by video game characters to the player. There is no walk through a gaggle of NPCs where your character’s name is called out and his general coolness and popularity confirmed. In fact, you walk through a group of people that want little to do with you and are far more interested in your companion.
As the game goes on you watch your character make difficult decisions, not always appearing to need an awful lot of time to weigh up the options. A clear theme comes through: in this world, where danger is ever-present and trust of others is virtually absent, you do what you can to survive. This is understood by all. The principle dominates interactions between people with relatively intimate relationships, people with strictly commercial relationships or other relationships driven by interests related to security and self-preservation and people who have just met. You will do what you have to do. When it comes time to take up a weapon against an uninfected human, you will do what you have to do. It is hard. It is unrelenting. It is violent and messy. You will not be allowed, as the player, to duck the clear moral implications of what’s happening. Whereas in Bioshock: Infinite you killed large numbers of faceless cops and other foot soldiers of a corrupt regime with little or no consequence, in The Last of Us you are confronted with the harsh reality of a world filled with human predators and are forced to fight back. The experience of playing the game, not just in terms of observing character exchanges and watching the well made cut scenes, was remarkably immersive and always congruent with the narrative themes being explored.
Perhaps it’s not always possible. To be fair to Bioshock:Infinite without wanting to ruin the game completely, the game’s ending makes clear demands of the player and in many ways turns the dynamic on its head. The problem is that the dynamic was so consistently displayed and presented without question to the player for hours of gameplay. There is also significant difficulty in controlling the desire of the player. When playing MMOs for example, my prime interest is in exploring the game worlds created. I’ll grind along the way but I want to see cities, rural communities and the mountains, rivers and wildlife of the game’s broader environment. For me, well made territories enhance that sense of exploration and the “theme,” if one can call it that, is at one with the gameplay.
Similarly, the PC interface allows the player to experience theme with an intimacy not always possible on console. Games set in space, in particular, allow the player to feel a sense of immersion, the HUD representing an actual window into this other world. Particularly with more complex games such as the X3 series, the complexity of having a large number of commands spread across the keyboard does just enough to leave the player with a strong impression of actually controlling one’s ship. In this latter example, the concept of thematic involvement is open to the player from the start: you might never choose to actually try and complete the game’s main story.
The Elder Scrolls games similarly offer this power to the player, but not all games can offer such a deliberately broad experience. Indeed, even games that do find themselves caught in the same limitations of many other games. Take Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that produces the feeling of a living city so expertly that a simple game mechanic such as fast travel can be enjoyed as part of the gameplay itself if the player so chooses. Sitting in the back of a taxi cab and looking out upon the city Rockstar created was one of my favourite parts of that game in the early hours. At some point however the time arrives to shoot some guys, get in a car and drive away quickly. Although of course you don’t have to. You can do what you like, I suppose.
By no means am I arguing that all games should aspire to align theme perfectly with the mode of gameplay. I myself enjoy many video games that don’t even try. There is a certain language you learn as a video game player, dependent on the success of certain games. Halo defined what shooters “felt” like to a generation of video game players, for example. That language allows us to choose to ignore things that clearly don’t make sense. For example, in many games my character becomes an odd, huddling kleptomaniac, scurrying around kitchens and drawing rooms grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down while people are trying to talk to him or her (normally him). It rarely bothers me. If I let it bother me, it would have an extremely negative impact on my ability to enjoy a huge amount of video games, and I don’t want that. However, The Last of Us showed me that it can be done effectively, that the player can experience the story not just in between cut-scenes and thanks to the occasional interchange between the characters while exploring a relatively safe and isolated environment. While playing the game I was continuing to live the story and digest its themes while engaging in its most scripted and, for lack of a better term, “game-y” parts. It was remarkable, and I hope there’s plenty more to come.