Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Last of Us

Every once in a while even I play hyped titles. It comes down to quite random things, and in this case I largely picked The Last of Us up because of two things: it felt like a game that will be discussed so I had to get it early to dodge spoilers; I just happened to have an empty spot in my gaming schedule since I had drastically decreased my Dota 2 playing. Despite being a horrorish game, it actually felt like a decent summer game due to lots of well-lit environments. I would have probably jumped on this game even harder had it not been for the zombies. Goddamn zombies. I'm not a big fan of post-apo either, but at least The Last of Us is the better kind of post-apo - i.e. not that frigging boring-as-a-brick-wall desert shit. Yeah, there's some things in gaming I *really* don't like.

1. Realism is overrated... again

In a way, The Last of Us is a spot-on example of how Ian Bogost described the persuasive power of games in his book Persuasive Games. In the book he defines the concept of procedural rhetoric: whereas verbal rhetoric appeals to us through logic and compelling writing, games persuade through modeling processes. Through the model, the player can experience the circumstances and interact with them. For instance, Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus teaches asthma management through simulating it - the player controls a dinosaur with asthma. The model can be based on reality, but typically is not realistic as such. So it is with The Last of Us - its gameplay is a compelling model of scarcity. The model is not compelling because of realism - rather, it is compelling despite its lack of realism. Allow me to explain.

The Last of Us uses several different mechanics to simulate scarcity. Since it has a post-apocalyptic setting, guns are expected as is scarce ammunition. Survival games in general use this mechanic to create suspense and force the player to seek alternative ways to defeat enemies. Generally the next best thing would be melee weapons, and they too have been made scarce. A typical melee weapon is only good for a few hits and the most effective melee weapon is the shiv - a single use stabbing weapon. The shiv is especially important because it is the only way to silently kill clickers, a type of enemy that detects the player based on sound. Normal enemies can also be taken down silently by surprise with unarmed attacks, but it takes time. Generally going stealth is the only option when the player has no ammunition left and usually shooting is plan b in any case.

Of course none of this makes sense from the perspective of realism. After a firefight with even a handful of enemies, the protagonist would have weapons and ammunition to last a small lifetime (at least considering how carelessly the enemies fire their weapons - which means they must have no worries about running out). A good melee weapon lasts almost forever with proper maintenance and shivs are just poor replacements for knives, which are clearly ubiquitous in the game world. Thing is, had the developers considered the realism of each game situation, encounters would be rather dull - in order to avoid giving the player too much equipment, they would be facing unarmed opponents for the entire game or only zombies. Simply put, there would be so much less variety. Instead the developers have chosen to model the economy of scarcity through artificial resource limitations - and it works phenomenally well.

The same goes for the game's crafting system. It is very simple with only six or seven items that can be crafted, but it serves an important purpose. First of all, it adds to the survival theme: useful items are very hard to come by, but materials to make them are slightly more available. Second, it does force the player to make some choices about what to do with their resources. The system is simple enough to not get in the way - at the same time it is not too simple to the point it would be redundant. Is it even remotely realistic? Not likely. Instead it's a functional subsystem in the game's repertoire of mechanics. Resources are also scarce enough to make scavenging always worthwhile, which adds value to exploring corners of the world. It also does not feel out of place, because it is consistent with the game's story - unlike excessive looting in certain other genres!

Games often don't follow the WYSIWYG paradigm when it comes to loot. Although it is from time to time called out as unrealistic, it is important to understand that realism would actually make things very though. Anyone who has tried to run a tabletop campaign where scarcity of resources is an important element has likely run into this problem. In tabletop RPGs players are much more likely to play the realism card if they cannot loot stuff enemies were using. Some settings allow for workarounds with varying credibility but others do not. It can become a major challenge for the game master to prevent their players from gaining too much power while still creating challenging combat situations. It helps that mechanics in tabletop RPGs are less rigid - in videogames the designers cannot adapt on the fly.

Finally, let's talk about stealth. Often when sneaking around, at least one other party member is following you. It seems a bit out of character at first, because they are actually entirely invisible to enemies as long as the protagonist has not been detected. Sure, the AI does its best to make it look like they're also sneaking, but very often they end up running around - even bumping into enemies - while the player is trying to sneak as quietly as possible. It sounds pretty awful, but ultimately didn't retract much from the experiene at all. Imagine if, instead, they had made it so that allies can also trigger enemy awareness. The sheer amount of frustration would have caused a massive outcry as yet another stealth attempt fails because the AI-controlled characters accidentally revealed themselves. Considering that stealth in the game is quite demanding, I don't think it would have been possible to implement an AI that could navigate the situations well enough.

In general it is far more important to consider what is the aesthetic experienced by the player than it is to consider its realism. Likewise the actions taken by the player are more important than how they look. Thus Dark Souls can incorporate a lot of the mentality of actual fencing even though it looks completely different. Likewise, The Last of Us incorporates the dynamics of surviving in a world of scarce resources without taking into account the realism of scarcity. The most compelling games do not impart their message through narrative or graphics - they do so through gameplay. This is essentially Bogost's message in his book. Instead of considering realism, designers should consider whether the game's dynamics are able to model the process they want the player to explore. Making sense is voluntary.

2. About segment lengths

I basically have only one complaint about The Last of Us, and it is one that applies to a bunch of other titles too. I guess I just truly pinpointed the problem while playing this game. In a nutshell, a single segment in the game is way too long. Several times it feels like it is ending and the game is about to move forward, only to start yet another thread that prolongs the experience. Although it is only a single segment, it can have far-reaching consequences to the gameplay experience. The player only needs to get bored once. After one segment that drags, I started to be far more critical towards the game and the length of its segments. Fortunately the problem was not repeated but its shadow still retracted from my enjoyment. I recall this happening in other games too; a single long segment severely affects my playing mentality. The entire games feels more boring only because one segment lasted too long.

I would like to say I know a psychological basis for why this happens, but I actually cannot recall having read anything directly similar. However, since I like to do some guesswork, it might have something to do with how expectations affect our actual experience of something. The same phenomenon that makes wine taste better from a finer glass is just as likely to affect a gameplay experiene. For instance, if I consider a game worth preordering, chances are I will like it more just because I had high enough expectations to opt not to wait. Expectations during gameplay are a living thing. Players usually arrive with some expectations, and will build upon them after experiencing the game itself. A single instance of bad experience can then set the (possibly false) expectation that similar instanced might occur in the future. The player will become suspicious of the game in a way - e.g. Is this turn in the plot another ruse to get me into a long gameplay segment?

The sad reality is that players are more likely to base their expectations on a single bad experience than to a positive experience. That's why you can read fans complaining about the smallest things. Although the things themselves feel small, it might have happened that they have changed the player's expectations and in doing so in fact ruined the entire experience for them. Although this is just my (educated) guesswork, it definitely is something to think about. I have no doubt that The Last of Us's lack of realism has been a turn-off for some players.

3. About stealth, again

I keep going on about this topic - and that's a good thing since I keep re-evaluating my feelings about stealth games. This is the essence of this blog: coming to understand why certain solutions work for me while others do not. I am doing so because I believe it will help as a player (to pick games better) and as a developer (obviously). The Last of Us is a game where I both loved and hated stealth mechanics, and thus it is a good ground for me to explore my relationship with this subgenre. The biggest differentiating factor between stealth scenes I liked and the ones I did not was their setting: I consistently liked outdoor encounters and disliked indoor encounters. Being indoors or outdoors is not the actual explanation though. Rather, it is indeed the degree of freedom which simply happens to be larger in outdoor environments - especially in The Last of Us.

This preference also explains why I consider Dishonored my absolute favorite game in this genre - not only does it take place in quite open environments, it also gives the player superpowers that open up even more possibilities. The more closed the environment, the more stealth starts to feel like a puzzle. This happens because the solution space for a given problem shrinks. Turns out I don't like this one bit. While I have nothing against puzzles, if I want to solve puzzles, I'd rather play puzzle games. There's often a sort of uncertainty in stealth puzzles, and I really don't like that largely because there are too many variables that are hidden from the player. The control of the situation slips from the player's hands because instead of being able to make their way through the encounter, they are playing a guessing game to figure out the one solution that actually works.

Free saving is another feature that highly affects my stealth experience. I don't mind redoing boss-fights in arcade games, because the challenge remains interesting even after defeating the boss for the first time. Likewise, I love strict time attacks in racing games - driving the same track, perfecting one corner at a time, great times. However, I really really hate redoing stealth segments. It is fun to stalk an enemy for the first time, especially if it ends in their death - it's not fun to do the same thing all over again. The difference here is that the "mechanic" involved in stalking is often *waiting*. So while I don't mind playing through a challenging segment again because it will improve my skills, waiting is not really a skill - it's just a colossal waste of time. The more the stealth segment is like a puzzle, the worse it gets because I will just be doing the exact same things every time. I always succeed because I already figured out how to do it.

Coincidentally, Dishonored has free saving while The Last of Us did not. A lot of games are better off without free saving, but seriously, that feature is absolutely necessary in stealth games. Moving very slowly and waiting simply are not fun game "mechanics" - the real challenge was in scouting the situation and figuring out a way through it - and since that knowledge is not lost when the player dies, all they have left to do is to repeat the same steps. I guess we can coin a term for this: retry value (related to replay value, obviously). If repeating a segment poses no challenge to the player, its retry value is very low whereas if it remains challenging every time, its retry value is high. Games with high retry value can actually benefit from not having free saving whereas games with low retry value absolutely must have free saving or very frequent checkpoints.


The Last of Us is worth the hype, and calling it PlayStation 3's last big game might very well be appropriate. It is impressive in so many ways - it's beautiful to look at, runs smooth and has a solid story to boot. Most importantly though, it has so much elegant design. It is one of those games that really make the player feel like the world has ended. It accomplishes this not through realism, but game mechanics that give rise to compelling model of scarcity. Yet another strength that went unmentioned is that the game achieves a lot in segments where nothing at all happens. As opposed to what might be expected of a videogame, The Last of Us actually has rather lenghty parts where no fighting is going on and the player is simply wandering through scenery - and somehow these feel like the strongest moments in the game. Part of their allure is built by conversation. There's a lot of that, and most of the game's dialogue takes place in-game rather than cutscenes.

Although the game is beautifully designed, its mechanics are not ultimately *that* interesting on their own. The beauty is in the atmosphere - the final aesthetic - of the game. In this sense it is the paragon of modern games where everything from technology to writing to game mechanics come together to support an enchanting player experience. It is also a game that uses the strengths of the medium to create something powerful that simply could not work in any other media. I do think it's required playing before putting your PS3 to rest - whether you like zombies or not.

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