Friday, October 25, 2013

(Not a) Games Review: The Last of Us

It's been remarked on before, but video games feel like they're in an odd place at the moment, torn between increasing mainstream popularity and new-kid-on-the-block insecurity as an entertainment form. For all Angry Man Crime Simulator VII and Call of WarBattle: Explosions! and their ilk turnover enough sales to stand alongside any major blockbuster movie, gaming also seems to struggle with legitimacy as an art form, both in terms of wider acceptance as such, and in it's own ambitions. The ongoing, rolling debate within gaming about the darker side of gaming culture, and how it approaches having it's bastions challenged, is a symptom or this, I think, as the form struggles towards more complex ways of using "gamification" to tell stories or explore complex themes. Which brings us neatly to The Last of Us.

One of the hallmarks of current AAA gaming releases is that it is, as a far cleverer critic than I once put it, "stories of a man interacting with the world down the barrel of a gun". The seeming dominance of the shooter as a genre in this generation doesn't look to be passing any time soon, but over the last year or so I've seen a few games that are starting to use this increasingly familiar structure to explore notions of violence in an interesting way. The other big drive in gaming recently seems to be a fetishisation of cinematic technique, to make games playable movies, for good and ill. And of course one of the poster-children of a mix of "playable movie" and "man-shooter gunplay" was Naughty Dog's Uncharted series, which did it very entertainingly indeed.

So with that in mind The Last of Us is a real change of pace. Sort of. It still wears it's cinematic influences with pride, but this time we're not in a quippy action movie, we're in a survival-horror film, an empty, abandoned world where a fungal infection has wiped out most of humanity, leaving the increasingly desperate survivors huddled around the remnants of civilisation, as the lights slowly go out. Our grizzled hero, Joel, is tasked with escorting Ellie, a 15-year-old girl across America, where she may become a beacon of hope for the future.

The problem is that I don't want to play it anymore.

In many ways The Last of Us is fantastic. The story is heartbreaking, and affecting, and really well written - not just "well written for videogames" but actually, well written. The voice acting and character animation is top-notch and the environments are fantastic, as towns and cities slowly revert to nature. Whats different, and what puts me off, is the violence. Which is odd, when you think how many virtual targets I must have killed in the last few years.

Bioshock Infinite has an interesting relationship to it's own violence in so much as it lets you enjoy the power fantasy of it all, then presents you with a story that points out that its all ultimately pointless and self-defeating and circular. Dishonoured let you kill your way through the game, or not, and lets the world around react to it in subtle ways, and the less-subtley in how the girl you've done it all for choses to rule. The Last of Us doesn't give you too many choices, but it does make sure you're in no way going to enjoy killing anyone. Both stealth kills and melee kills are gaspy, stark affairs as you struggle with your victim, and the animations are often wince-inducing as you "interact" with the scenery to put someone out. It fits the tone of the game perfectly, but it's uncomfortable to watch.

Which is of course the point - gaming may live in the realms of escapist fantasy, and the attempts to build in consequence is another of the things games of last couple of years have tried to do. But for all the excellence on show in The Last of Us, and for all I really, really want to follow the story, I  found myself not wanting to fire it up because in some strange, hard-to-fathom way, its the first game to make me feel complicit in the virtual murder I'm making happen. It feels too real, on an emotive level, and just too hard to return to and play.

And that's certainly an achievement worth talking about.