Yeah, that’s right, I review games now! Whadda ya make of that, huh!? I know what you were previously thinking. “This guy, Alex?” You mumble to yourself through bounteous saliva trigged on your thirsting lips brought on by even the mention of my name, “He’s out every night poontang pie eating, his life is all passion, pain and dragon slaying, he wouldn’t even have time to sit alone in his room covered in Doritos dust, slamming down Pepsi Maxes as he twiddles his analog sticks”. Well, guess what ladies and gentlemen? I’m even cooler than you previously thought!
Three things: Firstly, yes, I do play video games, but at a much slower and infrequent rate than, say, the lead game reviewer at IGN. My PS4 is 99% utilised as a way to explore ancient ruins and domesticate live dodos in ARK while playing online with a friend* I bought The Last of Us pt 2 the day it came out in June, and finished it roughly a week ago. It’s my game of the year because, basically, it’s the only game I had time to play this year.
(*if that friend’s reading, I’ve not forgotten that we still need to visit the grasslands in order to hunt pelt to wear to allow us to investigate the mountains, I’ll have time to get to it soon, I promise!)
Secondly, that age old stereotype that I’ve just lazily referred to is based on an archaic Boomer presumption about gamers that dates back to the 80s. Back then, playing games meant sticking 126 floppy disks into your Amstrad CPC 464 and sitting through roughly 72 hours of loading time in order to glance at perhaps an illicitly digitised cleavage in Leisure Suit Larry. Of course these people deserved to be mocked and scorned! Playing video games was purely for children and neeeeeeeeeeeeeerds back then, but now those children have grown into childish adults in a culture that strongly discourages letting go of childish things. In 2020, the average age of a video game player has been said to be as old as 35, while remaining a chief interest of actual children. Now, video games aren’t just a silly pastime for socially awkward preteens struggling with the dangerous sexual enfeeblement of puberty. Video games aren’t just now the biggest entertainment business in the world, but also capable of being legitimate and emotionally affecting pieces of art.
Thirdly, much of The Last of Us pt 2 and the critical response to it seems to still be lost in that debate of the artistic legitimacy of video games, which really shouldn’t still be an open issue. Guys, Majora’s Mask was released 20 years ago!! Many reviews get wrapped up in declaring how this is now proof that games can be considered art, that this is the (sigh) ‘Citizen Kane of video game‘, a lasting monument to the possibilities of the entire form. Then there was an even greater backlash that near unanimously declared that TLOUp2 was actually the worst thing ever, because it doesn’t work as a movie, because they didn’t like plot choices, because decisions didn’t make sense, because, seriously, who is this woman??, and many more. It has meant that what I originally considered to be a somewhat lukewarm explanation of why I liked the game, with dozens of caveats, has actually become a lot more defensive of people’s reasons for hating it that I deem illegitimate. Yeah, there was also the usual sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and transphobic nonsense, which I’m not sure I need to explain the invalidity of.
This will be longer than any album piece I write this year, because- Jesus Christ!- there is so much to say about this game. I’m also venturing into video games journalism, which probably means getting abused online and having my life made into a living hell.
Actually, I’m a guy, aren’t I? I’m gonna be fine. The reason for this extra long introduction is that there’ll be major spoilers for freaking everything after the jump. You’ve been warned.
OK, for those of you who don’t know and don’t care about spoilers, here’s a very brief overview of the very brief plot of the two Last of Us Games (briefly). There’s a big plague that turns people into angry mushroom zombies that kill and/or infect nearly every human being and makes everything all post-apocalyptic among the few uninfected humans. Joel’s young daughter is shot dead in the early post-virus confusion. This is how the game freaking starts, and this guy whose experiences have turned him understandably grumpy old misanthrope with little time for anyone is the person you play as. Twenty years after the Fungal Troubles™, Joel is working as a smuggler between different cliques of surviving humans in Boston. He’s introduced to a rebel militia who tell them that they’ll trade, like, loads of weapons if Joel uses his skills as a smuggler to get a 14 year old girl to a hospital outside their safe zone. This girl is Ellie, who was bitten by a mushroom zombie ages ago and hasn’t turned into one herself, which usually happens in a couple of days. This young girl might hold the key to immunisation, so needs to be studied by medical professionals in order to possibly discover a vaccine that might save the world. Yeah, this might just spark a debate among the few remaining Karens left in the world whether they’d prefer to let their child become a mushroom zombie or catch autism from the vaccine, but we’re thankfully spared that fallout (The Last of Us pt 3?). Joel and Ellie make the long trip to the hospital; oops not that hospital; I wonder what’s in here? Argh! A mushroom zombie! And another one!! This place? No! A freaking load of mushroom zombies!! These people seem nice; No! They’re cannibals! And now more mushroom zomnbies! Etc, and so on, until they reach the correct hospital in Salt Lake City. And you know what happens along the way- they become besties, with Joel growing into the closest to a father figure Ellie has ever known, and Ellie becoming the daughter that Joel lost. It becomes a legitimately affecting paternal love story between a teenage girl and a middle aged man who was once dead inside. Ellie goes into the operating theatre, but then Joel learns that them studying the important fungalus zombiesum part of Ellie’s brain will mean killing her. Joel wants none of that shit, so steals an unconscious Ellie from the operating table, killing all the doctors and racing away with his adopted daughter in his car. When she awakes, he simply lies to her that they weren’t able to find a cure, and the credits roll as this loving family unit based on a lie figuratively rides off into the sunset.
Then, early in the second game, someone just straight up kills Joel. And not some nice little execution or honourably on the battlefield or an hilarious gardening accident or any of the other nice and distinguished forms of death, Joel is violently and graphically beaten to death with golf clubs while Ellie is held down and forced to watch. It’s not nice and- thwack!- there’s the gut you controlled in the first game brutally removed from the story. Ellie catches the names of all the people who did this to her (kinda) Dad, lead by some brutal monster called ‘Abby’ and vows to hunt them down and deal out the kind of medieval smackdown that they inflicted on her old (kinda) Pa. Sniff sniff. Do you smell that? Sniff. You know what that is? Sniff sniff. That, my friends, is an inciting incident.
We might have expected that Joel revealing the truth about her ‘failed’ operation to be the crux of the sequel. Instead we are eventually told through flashbacks (TLOUp2’s narrative can be a little too nonlinear at times- we’re given flashbacks within flashbacks, often to events where it’s not entirely obvious are worth flashing back to) that Joel had already broken the news to her, explaining why their relationship had become strained to the pint of nonexistent, evident in other flashbacks (see what I mean?). Ellie sees it as Joel cruelly stealing away an opportunity for her life to mean something, convinced that she should have died a noble death that day, and near enough cuts off the relationship. Towards the end of the game (through, yes, another flashback) we learn that on the night before Joel’s death, Ellie was at least considering working towards rebuilding her relationship with the father figure she still accepts cares so much about her. He tells her that, if he could relive that moment when he stole her from the hospital bed, he wouldn’t change a damn thing. Ellie tells him that she could never forgive him for selfishly putting Ellie’s safety ahead of all human kind… but she would like to try. And, oh my God, it’s amazing.
But enough with this nonlinear nonsense! Ellie set out to hunt down this freaking Abby monster that brutalised her (kinda) Pop. She’s joined by her new girlfriend (deep breath), who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Jesse, who is also Ellie’s friend, it turns out that she’s pregnant by that boyfriend, and Jesse soon joins them as they camp out in a Seattle theatre, near where they’ve learned Abby is likely to be. By this point (seriously, there is so much going on in this game that I don’t have time to talk about). Ellie leaves them to hunt down Abby, but only manages to gun down two of the other people in the evil group, one of whom she afterwards realises is- eek!- pregnant. Traumatised, she gets back to the theatre but soon freaking Abby appears to revenge her close friends’ deaths, shoots Jesse dead and…
Suddenly and shockingly, we’re rushed back in time again, and now we’re controlling that freaking monster Abby, who walks around her own separate group of militia the day after she’s monstrously monstered Joel to death with an especially monstrous golf club. We see her monster camp full of fellow monsters, with their monstrously civil society and their monstrous day care facilities and.. Hmm… Wait a minute… We also learn that monster Abby’s Dad was the monstrous surgeon who was about to monstrously operate on Ellie in order to monstrously save the human race, and that he had monstrously humane misgivings operating on a young girl, before heroic Joel burst in and heroically shot the unarmed monster dead and… Hmmm… You know what Mitchell and Webb sketch I’m going to reference now, don’t you?
It’s an astonishing volte-face designed to rub your face in the consequences of your actions from both games, to ensue that you understand how your self-serving and strong armed attempts to protect yourself and those in your emotional bubble have actually affected the outside world. You’re now Abby, also trying to avenge the death of a (literal) father figure, and trying to protect the little civilisation that her people are building. Neither her nor her particular choice of militia are the ‘good guys’ by any means- and even her close friends find it hard to come to turns with the especially brutal way she vanquished Joel- but they are actual human beings with actual backstories and actual motivations and actual loves and actual pain. Suddenly, you realise you’ve been part of a terrorist group dismantling more, well, civil civilisations, and not only are you the person who destroyed the human race’s last chance at survival, but you killed many innocent people with their own reasons for fighting for survival simply for getting in the way of your own self involved struggle.
Now, a lot of critics* have rolled their eyes at this, saying that of course we already knew that Joel was a prick, and we didn’t need to see the consequences to be aware of this. He deserved to die for what he did and the person he is, and we shouldn’t have expected anything differently And that, anyway, such shifts of perspective have been done in games like Spec Ops: The Line before, and to much better effect. OK, fine, it’s not necessarily a new idea, but such cynical and unemotional analysis flippantly ignores the real reason that the original Last of Us game is so beloved, and fails to recognise the way the sequel expertly sparks a struggle between cognitive and emotional empathy in the player’s mind. A lot of this jaded criticism can’t help but sound like someone telling you to not get upset over your dog dying considering how often it used to shit in the kitchen and, anyway, loads of dogs have died before. Shit, I’m going to have to talk about the first game, aren’t I?
(*not the original, glowing review critics, the later critics who engaged in the backlash against those initial critics. This is actually a multi caveated backlash to that backlash, OK? Do keep up)
I missed a few console generations. When I was a kid living with my Mum, I loved playing on the SNES and then the N64 in the late 90s. I remember vividly what it was like when Nintendo released Mario 64 in 1996, which might seem like a laughably blocky artifact these days, but was a leap forward in gaming that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Suddenly, these games that we had long been used to scrolling through in safe and simple two dimensions could now transport you anywhere! You could run around in three dimensions! The digital world was your digital oyster! For the first time, you weren’t controlling a crude digital semblance of a being, but an actual living person who could do anything and go anywhere! Mario 64 didn’t just change the game, but essentially ripped up the old rulebook, condemned every game before it to obsolescence and ensured that pretty much every game released in its wake would at least be influenced and would often be a straight up clone. The graphics got better and closer to lifelike, the controls became more smooth, more and more glitches and rough edges were sanded out and, yes, games became infinitely better, technically, but Mario 64 was still the last true game changer for me. It was difficult to imagine how any game could have quite the same effect on either the industry or the player as a casually racist Italian plumber’s foray into a previously never satisfyingly explored dimension. I lost interest in games as I left for university, preferring to instead waste my time chasing girls and drugs. I bought an XBOX 360 after uni, and was admittedly blown away by the complex and astute commentary of Randian individualism of Bioshock, but it wasn’t enough to truly pull me in, and I remained unmoved.
Then, in 2015, disabled and alone in my own flat, I decided to buy a PS3, like my brother Mizdow, to while away those long hours, and borrowed a game called The Last of Us from him that he recommended.
Years later, Mizdow and I would try and work out why exactly The Last of Us was one of the greatest games ever, and it was actually an extraordinarily difficult thing to nail down. The gameplay was fine, maybe even very good, but hardly jaw dropping. The design of the zombies was inventive and legitimately terrifying in places, and the graphics were incredible, but we’re not shallow enough to simply love something because it looks nice. We were truly sucked into and believed in the oppressive and terrifying world we were plunged into, but enough to swear allegiances to the entire game itself?? Did we just like it when we could blow zombies’ heads off with a well aimed gunshot? Well… yes… but we didn’t think it was just that.
The real reason we loved it so was that TLOU was the greatest video game ever at building emotional empathy with the main characters. No game before had ever made me actually feel for these silly collections of pixels that I was battling other silly collections of pixels with. When I played Mario 64, I was drawn in completely by the play style and the immersive controls, but I never cared about Mario’s desperate quest to… to… eat pizza…? Whatever, who cares, let’s wall jump! Even in more recent AAA games such as Uncharted and Far Cry, I never actually cared about the main characters’ personal journeys, I just wanted to skin a giraffe and fight a yeti! And there’ nothing wrong with that! But The Last of Us became a game changer for me in the way it created deep, believable and fleshed out characters that of course I wanted to help because I was them! It’s especially difficult to inspire such feelings in video games, rather than movies. Movies create the entire presentation of a character to you, from beginning to end, with every movement and decision carefully controlled in order to elicit a particular emotion, video games give you a cut scene here and there, but 90% of the characterisation offered is you dicking about with them, throwing grenades against walls and shooting bullets into toilets, undoing whatever careful character building that the game has attempted. Somehow, TLOU manages it, maybe through character design, maybe through writing, maybe through careful level design and by subtle coercion, but you actually cared for and believed in these characters. Even as you dick about throwing grenades against walls and shooting bullets into toilets.
People sneer at Joel as always being an absolute prick because, yes, he basically doomed the entire human race because he wanted to spend more time with Ellie. And, yes, looking at it with cognitive empathy, that’s absolutely the case, he is the bad guy for being the reason the entire human race has to continue living their lives battling not to turn into ugly mushroom heads, so many people are now irreversibly fucked. But, while playing the Last of Us, nobody was thinking that. When we learned that Ellie would die, we had to stop the operation, she was our daughter, we loved her. Fuck those doctors, shoot anyone who gets in our way, we have to save that teenage girl that we’ve shared so many emotional experiences with. That’s why it hits so hard to be confronted with the consequences of these actions in the sequel: you already know you did a bad thing, you already know you (yes, you) chose to do something in complete self-interest, but it’s a video game, you’re always killing faceless enemies, you’re never going to face consequences for it! And yet, even after being faced with them, like Joel says, you’d do it all over again.
So, yeah, we’ve also got the scores of people who simply hate the game because they killed off Joel*, which, while being a clear case of having far too much emotional empathy to the point where it completely blinds you to rationale- really? You don’t think there are any reasons why someone might want to kill him??- it at least illustrates the depth of emotional empathy that the first game managed to inspire in people. To give him punishment that he arguably** deserves, to remind the players that there are many other (imperfect, flawed, broken, equally pointlessly vengeful, whatever) people outside their own little emotional bond is, yes, I’m sorry, a brave design decision. Yes, there are millions of caveats to that- this is still a megabudget, ultra commercial, AAA game that overworked its employees to the bone to produce, so let’s not start calling it a marvelous humanitarian achievement. But taken out of context, it was still a brave choice to subvert expectations like that.
(*and, sigh, even the fucking voice actress behind Abby has received death threats because, ugh, come on guys, really?? I’m not going to add to this post by explaining why that’s abhorrently dumb, because if you don’t already know you’re likely not intelligent enough to read so it’d be a waste of time)
(**arguably to some people, the game itself is basically a commentary on how pointless neverending revenge against revenge against revenge is, and how such circular personal death penalty judgements are never satisfyingly concluded. But, seriously, you want me t write at length about that as well??)
Let me be clear though- that aspect of TLOUp2 is brilliant. There are many brilliant aspects. There are also a fair few flaws. It’s an almost unbelievably miserable game. In fact, I can’t really think of a game I’ve played (as explained though, my experience is hardly complete) that’s less shamed in caking itself in a greasy and bubbling hot dirty layer of sheer grief and despondency. It’s like if Ken Loach made the original Pac Man and instead decided to focus the game on Pac Man sitting around his house unemployed and occasional weeping at the fact that all his friends are now just ghosts and coming to turns with the fact that, really, he chased them all away. There would also be a subplot involving his dangerously toxic and emotionally abusive relationship with Ms Pac Man, but the general message would be that everyone is a bastard and everything is fucked. There just isn’t any hope in TLOUp2, everyone is damaged and their motivations are just all the more unhealthy and sure to lead to heartbreaking consequences. Yeah, again, you could argue that this is a brave decision, and that even the portrayal of bad beliefs combatting with bad beliefs is somehow more realistic, if you’re particularly cynical. It might be the intention, of course, but it’s an intention that’s hard to love. The unwavering grimness can just feel crudely exploitative at times. Making things ‘dark’ and ‘upsetting’ is often a cheap writing attempt to make things seem more ‘mature’. Shit, they might be losing interest here, let’s shoot another pregnant woman! The original game had the underlying theme of finding beauty underneath all the horror, of being reminded of nature’s elegance growing through, climaxing with the famous (and maybe a little on the nose) scene with the giraffes. The sequel attempts something similar with Abby’s dad saving a zebra (in, yes, a flashback) to lazily convince us how good a guy he was, but it’s not the same because, seriously, fuck zebras, right? Fucking stripy horse cunts? Get to fuck.
I’m not going to waste time talking about every single flaw here- there are five hour YouTube videos for that- but there is one main problem which overrides all the others- despite everything, there really isn’t enough justification for this game to exist. The original Last of Us was an absolutely perfect game, with an absolutely perfect ending that got you to question the moral consequences of what you’ve just done. There was nothing that needed further explanation, everything the game offered was finalised, and we were left with questions revolving around man’s own morality, rather than what would happen to these characters next. To follow it, TLOUp2 would have to be REALLY special, rather than the extremely well made and occasionally thoughtful computer game that it is
And it is a computer game. I just wanted to make that perfectly clear. It seemed at times that all the suggestions that this was the latest example of the (sigh) ‘Citizen Kane of video games’ blinded people to its actual form. Often gamers are like wrestling fans (yes!! Knew I could tie wrestling in if I tried hard enough!) in the sense that they are constantly conscious of how their passion might not be viewed amongst the tastemakers as being an entirely legitimate art form. Wrestling fans afflicted with this inferiority will show you clips of wrestlers getting hurt, or tell you how much work and physical toil it takes to be a professional wrestler. See?, they say, Wrestling is pretty much a real sport! Which it clearly isn’t. It’s fake bullshit. But it’s fake bullshit that you love- that I love!- and that really should be enough. Many gamers and game journalists instead believe that their beloved art form should be treated with the same reverence as films. Hence the tired old (sigh) ‘Citizen Kane of video games’ trope (TLOUp2 was also compared to Schindler’s List, which… yeah, cool… you do you).
The desire to be considered alongside films as legitimate works of art can often lead to tunnel vision over what games deserve to be put on the highest pedestal. Amazing but slightly esoteric games such as Celeste, Undertale or Hollow Knight are never held up as the (sigh) ‘Citizen Kane of video games’, because they are simply too much like video games. There are no cut scenes, no heart stopping set pieces, no nudity! The games that people are always desperate to point to as the great opportunities to finally allow video games to be considered as cinema’s equal amongst the ‘mainstream’ (you’re the biggest entertainment industry in the world! Chill out!) are always just the games that could be considered the most ‘cinematic’- the ones with strong plot lines, emotional high stakes and, ideally, women who take their top off. “You’ll like this one!”, games journalists cry to the mainstream as they shuffle to them on their knees, eyes respectfully down, “It’s just like a movie!”
It’s not a movie.
It’s a video game.
There was a long 30 minute stretch of TLOUp2 when I went back into an abandoned house because I’m sure I remembered some collectible cloth was there when I passed theough that I couldn’t pick up at the time, but really needed now. I couldn’t find it, so left the house. Then there was another 10 minutes of me going back and forth because I couldn’t remember which way I was supposed to be going. That would be unlikely to work in a movie. TLOU involves a lot of searching for supplies and going through drawers and cabinets. Often, you open a cupboard or a box or a door and it’s empty, which in games is just unheard of, but ensures that the desperation and the scarcity of resources is really communicated to the player through their own actions. Finding Nemo doesn’t start with the dad searching every cupboard in the house, then every house on his street, because that’s not how movies work. At one point, I didn’t even have time to play the game for about six weeks. Imagine if that was in a film. Pretty fucking dull.
Even the game’s elongated running time works in respect of its form to me. Ellie and Aby have a fist fight, but Aby decides against killing her, so the game apparently ends with Ellie and her girlfriend literally retired to their farm, with a beautiful and healthy baby to dote over. Then, Joel’s brother turns up (I told you there was so much pot I didn’t have time to mention) and says he has new info on Abby’s location, and they should go after her. Ellie’s girlfriend shouts him out of the house, telling him that part of Ellie’s life is over… then Ellie gets up in the middle of the night to follow the lead. If it were a movie, yes, this would just be a frustrating and infuriating plot point, but Ellie isn’t making a movie decision, she’s making a decision as a real person in a video game about the impossibility of breaking the cycle of violence, and as she’s making it she’s implicating you as you are the one that will have to helplessly help her live out this pointless and damaging crusade. You feel tired and angry, as frustrated at Ellie’s decision as her girlfriend is. It’s maddening, but not because it’s a bad ‘narrative choice’ or ‘plot contrivance’, but because it’s an intentional video game choice to make you feel a certain way while playing the game. Find problems with TLOUp2 by all means, there are plenty to choose from, but don’t rank its failure as a game on movie terms, and just everyone stop taking this whole (sigh) ‘Citizen Kane of video games’ trope quite so literally.
So yeah, did that all make sense? It’s not as good as some people say, but much better than what other people do, and it’s not a movie, which also means you shouldn’t criticise it as one. Christ, I can’t wait to get back to talking about music…
Perhaps the biggest issue with TLOUp2, this most divisive game of recent time that shouldn’t have ever really existed at all, is that despite being confronted with your actions, despite learning of the consequences of everything… you still want Ellie to beat Abby, don’t you? You formed emotional bonds with her years ago, and Abby and the game’s cognitive empathy never comes close to breaking them.