Monday, January 13, 2020

Video Game Reviews: The Last of Us and Innocence, A Plague Tale

For all of my general nerdiness, I don't actually play a lot of video games.  Above all else, I'm a bookworm.  I like reading and writing, and maybe like, three Netflix shows.  (For the curious: Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman, and The Umbrella Academy.)

Part of the problem with video games, for me, is that they require a lot of investment in the medium.  I don't like video games for the same reason so many people don't like reading: it takes me too long.  Reading is less fun if you're not a strong reader.  For me, a person whose coordination is so bad that I can't chew gum and walk at the same time, video games are a difficult story-telling medium.  It's one of the only story-telling mediums in which, if you suck at the medium, you can actually get stuck in the story.  With a book you can technically skip parts you don't understand; in video games, if you are caught on a level, that's it.  For platforming games like Super Mario or Sonic, this didn't matter much, but for story-driven games, it's maddening.

This is one reason I like sandbox games like Skyrim. You can't really get "stuck," because it's an open world and at times feels truly limitless.

Disclaimer: I spend 90% of my time selling cabbages in the marketplace in Solitude, 
not actually doing quests.

Today I'd like to discuss two story-telling games I became acquainted with in the last year: The Last of Us (2013) and Innocence: A Plague Tale (2019).  The two have a surprising number of similarities.  Both are linear story-based horror genre games; both hinge on an "escort mission;" both heavily involve themes of childhood purity.  One is set in a future with zombies, and the other in a past with rats, but their strengths are similar, and both are games I'd recommend.


Let's start with The Last of Us.  It's a pretty popular game and you've likely heard of it; it won a ton of awards, including over 200 "Game of the Year"s.  Like many others born in the '80s, who grew up with arcade-style first-person shooter "House of the Dead," I have a soft spot for zombie games.  House of the Dead introduced us to the big fat zombies and to the chainsaw zombies, which we see in most zombie games nowadays.  Before The Last of Us, my favorite zombie game was probably Dead Rising, which features the standard slow-moving Romero zombies and cartoonish fun ways to kill them.  (It also inexplicably features a boss battle with a chainsaw-wielding clown. The clown isn't a zombie.  He's just sorta... there.)

He dual-wields chainsaws and self-awareness.

The Last of Us does a great job of putting a fresh spin on its zombies.  The zombies are victims of a fungal infection, not a virus, and their movements are fantastic.  They stagger around in a convincingly horrific manner that calls to mind the disjointed mannerisms of an opioid addict, but when they spot you, they suddenly get fast.  In the last stages of the game, we get to see "Clickers," who are people in the late stages of the fungal infection, whose faces are covered with fungal growths and who are sightless, resorting to clicking in order to navigate.  These zombies have a unique design and are also properly scary to look at.

The apocalypse itself is also properly horrible in The Last of Us.  The game is set 20 years after the outbreak, and we see plenty of military quarantine zones and compounds with people.  As the game progresses, there are less and less zombies, and more and more bad guys, including bandits, para-military organizations, cannibals, and crazed survivalists.  The game's message seems to be that the real danger is other people, not zombies, which I can get behind.

The scenery is breath-taking.

 Concept art.

The two biggest strengths of the game are, in my opinion, the story-telling and the voice acting.  There are several cut scenes that could have been cheesy but displayed some really ridiculous raw human emotion and talent.  Among them are when the main character, Joel, loses his daughter; when Joel's partner, Tess, is bitten by zombies and demands that Joel go on without her; when Henry commits suicide after his younger brother turns; and when Ellie, the girl Joel is escorting, makes her first kill.  These scenes could easily be over-acted, but in every one, you feel the full gravity of what happened to the characters, and hear it plainly as they choke up, their voices break, and they express their sorrow.

There are also moments of wonder that keep the game from being a purely nihilist experience.

The storytelling, like the voice acting, also packs a punch.  There are plenty of examples, but the one I'll give is this.  Many zombie games, such as Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead, lack children.  Generally, video games draw a heavy red line when it comes to shooting kids, even zombie kids.  It's a good line to be drawn.  Which is why it was so shockingly unsettling to me when, while exploring an abandoned home in The Last of Us, Joel suddenly stumbles into a bedroom with a crib in it.  This detail, implying the existence of a baby, was a punch to the gut, and was followed immediately by a second punch when Joel walks into the next bedroom to discover a brightly-colored child's room with twin bunk beds.  A note in the room explains that the family was evacuated safely (although their family dog was released into the wild).  Later in the game, a second home with a crib, pet carriers, and toys implies a family life, but this time, the fate of the family is left ambiguous.  Finally, while clearing out sewers, Joel finds evidence of a pacifist community that included children.  Toys and makeshift classrooms in the underground compound are all eerily unoccupied, until finally, Joel stumbles into a locked room, where a man has killed himself; beside him is a blanket thrown over several little bodies with their legs poking out.  Written on the floor beside this pile are three words: "THEY DIDN'T SUFFER."

Holy shit, Last of Us!  You really didn't shy away from shit here, and I commend you for it!  While a zombie child might have been tasteless, the desperation evident in the whole scene and the graceful way it's handled deliver a perfect emotional impact that not many games could pull off.

The Last of Us does a really good job of making a serious and emotionally impactful post-apocalyptic game.  It has some first-person shooter elements but manages to avoid ever having a cheesy or cartoonish style.  Any time you start to get desensitized, the game lobs a new whammy at you, ensuring that you never quite shake off the feeling of wrongness that so many other post-apocalypse zombie games fail to capture.

There are a few minor errors that can be pretty easily forgiven.  (For example, in one scene outside of Pittsburgh, you find a boat by the river with a note saying it came back from sea, which doesn't make sense, as Pittsburgh is a land-locked city whose river feeds into the Mississippi, not the ocean.)  The gameplay mechanics are smooth and the AI isn't awful; unlike most escort missions, the people you work with don't interfere with your sneaking or get in your way much, which is a downfall of so many other escort-mission games.

Innocence: A Plague Tale feels like a sister game to The Last of Us.  It's set in the past, the 1300s to be specific, instead of the future.  Playing as a young girl, you move through a village and later a town that are infested by hoards of plague rats, escorted your very young, frail brother. Like The Last of us, we have some scenes of upsetting, grotesque disease that hit an emotional note.  There's an ominous vibe from the beginning when the main character, Amicia, loses her pet dog.  Later, the game does an exquisite job of balancing disgust with tension, as Amicia and her brother, Hugo navigate through a farm where cow carcasses are stacked up high, and later, the aftermath of a battle field covered with corpses.

Like The Last of Us, the story-telling does a great job with pacing and upping the ante.  Like The Last of Us, the rats are more of a problem in the beginning, and as the game unfolds, you spend increasing amounts of time avoiding people, including English soldiers, town guards, and members of the Inquisition who are hunting you.  Like The Last of Us, there are some truly devastating moments; Rodric's death near the end hits with a surprising amount of raw emotion.

The mechanisms are similar in terms of crafting weapons and relying on ranged attacks; like The Last of Us, there's a lot of sneaking around.  There's more puzzle-like elements and little platforming, but the puzzles are not overly boring and the scenery keeps the game from ever getting frustrating.  The voice acting here, too, is incredible; the children's voices and dialogue are well-done and manage to side-step the shrillness or overly babyishness that so many children's voices have in video games.  In particular, the main character, Amicia, has a great voice actor, who is able to communicate complex feelings toward her brother: affection and concern is often mixed with annoyance and impatience.

There's definitely a degree of hyperbole in this game; the number of rats, dead cows, bones in the catacombs, and so forth are beyond a reasonable amount.  Yet the game manages to hold on to the same serious, grounded tone as The Last of Us.  Both games take slightly ridiculous concepts and use them as a backdrop to explore very real human emotions, and I think they're nuanced and elegant in the stories they choose to tell.

One curious contrast between these games comes in the animation.  The Last of Us uses a copious amount of water in its scenery and gameplay.

There's definitely a bit of flexing in the animation; there's one segment that occurs in a snow storm, with flurries of snowflakes and prints in the ground showing a high degree of attention to detail.  Everything from the blood splatter to the shadows on the walls is incredibly detailed, and the studio that developed this game deserves some recognition for that.  The studio, Naughty Dog, was established in 1984, and according to Owler, it has a staff of 316 and generates an annual revenue of $100 million.  Innocence: A Plague Tale was produced by Asobo, which was established in 2002, has a staff of 140, and generates an annual revenue of $7 million.  Innocence isn't as polished as Last of Us; the individual rats, for example, have a slick, rubbery appearance instead of furry.  A lot of the textures in this game are a little more "shiny" and inorganic, but it's still very easy to get sucked in.  The game feels like a much older game, at least animation-wise, simply because there were less development resources and talents behind it.  But this isn't a criticism; considering what it was working with, Asobo produced a remarkable game that's lovely to watch.

"What kind of person watches video game play-throughs on YouTube?"
That's right.  I'm the target audience for those videos.  It was me all along.

Like any game with a very linear storyline, these games don't have a huge amount of replay value, but I still think they are well-worth a purchase.  There are plenty of games out there for people who like gaming for the interactive elements, but there are too few who really invest in their characters and plots.  The Last of Us and Innocence: A Plague Tale are two rare gems that capture the human experience and don't cheap on on the artistic elements of their games, and I would be more inclined to play video games if I felt like all of them put as much effort as these two titles into the writing, acting, and story-telling.

Until then, it's Skyrim for me.

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