*Major Spoilers abound – you have been warned!*
I’m going to preface this by saying I actually quite like Alien³.
So, to get the obvious stuff out of the way, Last of Us is an amazing game. Building on the smart, challenging and emotionally gruelling original, this is a tour de force in interactive fiction told through 20-30 hours of exploration, combat & world building. Played on a regular PS4 onto a pretty decent 4K TV, the graphics are approaching photo-realism, the mechanics are not quite seamless but not far off, and the voice acting is superlative.
Here’s why I didn’t really like it that much:
It never bodes well to read a bunch of online reviews proclaiming something as literally the 2nd coming in Gaming before you get your grubby little paws on it. I mean that is a guaranteed recipe for disappointment! I fully intended to wait my customary few years to actually play this, thus reaping the economic benefits. Only I went through a rough spot a month or so back, and the gorgeous creature who just so happens to be my husband, decided to get hold of it to cheer me up!
Last of Us Part 2 uses a few tried and tested tricks to keep things fresh, and I want to dissect these in some detail.
First off – playing through multiple perspectives: Playing as a secondary protagonist is a legitimate way to inject some variety into gaming narrative. There you are, shooting your way through some scenario or other, get to the level end, cut into the cinematic which propels you through the story, and then, wham! You’re suddenly Playing as Someone Else. And that can work pretty well, providing a welcome change of perspective, and building up the textures and back story of this created world.
Secondly: Playing through Flashbacks can similarly be an effective tool for adding depth and gravitas; contextualising the decisions made by your avatar and the surrounding Non Playing Characters.
Last of Us Part 2 deploys both of these strategies – to somewhat troubling effect.
I have no problem with games using flashbacks as a form of discoverable fiction (in the manner of Gone Home) whereby the player retains responsibility for their interaction with the universe, and gets to learn the lore of the land at their own pace and in a non predetermined order. The ‘peril’, if that is the correct term, is only of missing a bit of back-story. This both distinguishes this mode of play from the passivity of the cut scene, and incentivises replay.
However making flashback scenes fully playable, with the mortal consequences of failing to vanquish enemies, risks a jarring temporal paradox. Obviously Ellie didn’t get mauled to death by an animal in the Wyoming Museum of Science and History, because if that were the case then we wouldn’t be here.
Likewise, I have no issue with a switch of playable character. For example the occasions to play as either MJ or Miles in Spiderman provides a fun twist on both the narrative perspective and the gameplay mechanics.
But in the context of LoU2, forcing the player to inhabit the murderous Abby, who is literally the uber-boss Ellie is trying to kill, seems kinda fucked up! I mean, sure, the extended sequences of Abby being ‘afraid of heights’ (that not-far-off-seamless gameplay mechanic looks a bit 90’s when your avatar suddenly throws themselves off a bridge for no reason) and buddying up with Yara & Lev go a long way to humanising her character. Except how much humanising was really necessary? The player is already invested in the context: society has crumbled in the wake of a devastating outbreak (!!!), and a potential cure didn’t come to fruition because of a schism between those who believed the collective benefit was worth the cost of an individual’s life, and those who valued the absolute rights of the individual over the Greater Good. I’m imaging John Stewart Mill and Immanuel Kant having shotguns.
The specifics, for those who have already played or who are unperturbed by spoilers – a doctor can generate a vaccine against the infection, but the process will kill Ellie. Joel is not willing to permit Ellie to be sacrificed, and in saving her he kills the doctor. The doctor’s daughter therefore undertakes to kill Joel. She does so (with rather more vigour than is necessary – which merits its own blog post) in front of Ellie, then (for narratively necessary, but strategically baffling reasons) lets Ellie go.
My point is that the player doesn’t need to take a huge empathetic leap to appreciate both Abby and Ellie’s positions. Both are grief stricken and traumatised by a situation which has eroded humanity (both literally and figuratively) to the point where survival is all anyone can hope for. But, in the context of the video game, Abby is the Baddie, and beating the game consists of beating her. Or, to put it another way, LoU2 forced to me play about 8 hours of meditations on the consequences of killing henchmen.
So when these two issues are combined, ie the player plays as Abby in flashback, there comes the doubly jarring risk of a temporal paradox which renders the entire purpose of the game null and void!
It’s like the game is trying to engender a personality crisis in the player. After the aforementioned 8 hours or so, I started to identify as Abby. Whereupon I came face to face with Ellie. And, following a miss-step onto a crafted trap, I (Abby) met a grisly demise. Only the game didn’t end, despite the inescapable fact that Ellie had at that point fulfilled her objective and could presumably have toddled back to Jackson with Dina and Tommy. Similarly, following a switch back to Ellie, a mis-timed dodge resulted in a watery grave for the Ellster, that proved temporary in nature.
For anyone wondering what the connection is between this and the oft-maligned 1992 threequel of the admired Alien franchise, it’s this: Audiences don’t like feeling cheated! The 3rd Ripley instalment crash lands the fearless heroine on a prison planet alongside the corpses of her ertswhile compatriots who survived to the end credits of the previous film, but no further. And people lost their shit, because it seemed like lazy writing to inherit a story and write out a bunch of characters before they’d even started. So: I don’t much care for being jolted out of the story because it’s chronologically inconsistent for Abby to get shot by a Scar (sorry, Seraphite) on the train tracks next to a very much alive Owen & Mel. Nor do I like battling a Conglomerate Cordyceps monster in a hospital to acquire desperately needed medical supplies to save the life of a young girl, only for her to get shot 3 scenes later! (Newt flashbacks – seriously!) It feels… cheap!
Last point – the pacing feels a bit off. After Acts 1 & 2, I was fully expecting the game to end. In fact the long suffering Dina squares up to Ellie with a cast iron argument against anyone ever considering throwing their life away in the pursuit of revenge: “We have a family. She doesn’t get to be more important than that!” Instead Ellie trundles back out, assuring Dina she doesn’t intend to die (Sorry Dina, but she dies a few times actually) to put her demons to bed. What follows feels like a rushed few hours of what could have been a far more interesting story regarding the mutual enemy embodied by the sadistic Rattlers. The enemy of my enemy is always an intriguing angle to explore three or four way conflicts, and IMO it’s a missed opportunity that this part of the story wasn’t given more breathing space.
Having said all of that, obviously Last of Us 2 is a minor masterpiece and gets a lot of stuff right. From issues of representation and inclusivity through to minimising the dreaded ludonarrative dissonance, it’s a tremendous game, and rightly deserves the accolades getting thrown its way. If the above sounds harsh, it’s because I’m taking it more seriously as a piece of fiction worthy of critical analysis than most other games I play. A solid 4 stars!