Ethereality News & Weblog

July 17, 2013

The Last of Us review

Filed under: Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 2:11 am

(Don’t worry about spoilers if you haven’t finished playing The Last of Us yet. I will warn you before I get into anything that will spoil important parts of the game.)

I had very high expectations for The Last of Us, because I had been waiting anxiously for it ever since the first announcement years ago. I was immediately on board because everything about it aligned with my taste (heavily influenced by The Road, one of my favorite books of all time). It’s become quite rare for me to get very excited about games because most of them have abysmal storytelling, and as a gamer who’s also a writer, I care deeply about advancing the art of storytelling in the medium of video games. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about gameplay mechanics, because I can and do enjoy games that are purely about the fun of the gameplay, but deep down, games with great storytelling will always be more special to me, because they resonate with me emotionally and intellectually, adding a lot more substance to the experience of gaming. The Last of Us is the type of game that takes storytelling very seriously, and being an AAA title, it also had to get the gameplay right too, so it’s with such expectations that I began the journey through the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America while with a teenage girl in my protection.

I was sure I would enjoy the game, but I had no idea that just ten minutes into the game, tears would be dripping down my face as I sat there with the controller in my hands, heartbroken. In all the years I’ve been a gamer, I have never once shed tears over anything that happened in a game–likely because storytelling in games are rarely done well enough to affect me the way movies or books can. The Last of Us is the first game to bring me to tears, and in the first ten minutes too.

A few hours later into the game, I was worried that the best part of the game was already behind me, and that Naughty Dog had blown their wad in the first ten minutes. The game was entertaining, but the emotional gravity of the opening still haunted me, and it was hard to stay focused when I was still reeling from what had happened in those first ten minutes. In hindsight, I wonder if this was intentional–that Naughty Dog wanted the player to feel emotionally spent and empty during the early parts of the game, reflecting the state of Joel’s emotional landscape.

As the game progressed and more things happened, it drew me deeper into the narrative, and I felt more present (again, reflecting the changes in Joel’s attitude). Towards the end, I was fully captivated, and when the story finally reached full circle, I believed that Naughty Dog had created a masterpiece–one of the very few in the medium of video games that I consider to be on par with accomplished storytelling in literature, film, and television.

As a writer, I loved the storytelling in the game. As a gamer, I really enjoyed myself, although I don’t think the gameplay was on par with the quality of the writing.

The gameplay mechanics in The Last of Us is fairly simple, although it does require strategy and patience. The stealth aspect of the game isn’t optional–it’s a necessity, and I generally dislike stealth in games because they are almost always executed badly, with illogical A.I. behavior and arbitrary rules of concealment and detection. The Last of Us does stealth better than a lot of games, but it’s still running on its own arbitrary logic and still not realistic enough or satisfying.

The crafting aspect gives the gameplay a bit more depth, but it felt too limiting. I’d have preferred a system that’s got more variety, as seen in games like Dead Island or even Dead Rising. It was just odd to see the same set of objects over and over and I could only make a few things with them.

The melee combat was brutal, but way too simple. I wanted something a bit deeper, such as having the basics of a fighting game, but maybe that would have been too much for the average mainstream gamer.

I really liked how the game started with Sarah as a playable character, because it really puts you into the state of mind of being alone, scared, and helpless. Later, playing as Ellie was really enjoyable too, because it’s like a validation of how much she’s learned from Joel and how capable she’s become.

As much as I loved the voice acting in the game, I really regretted watching the behind-the-scenes videos of the voice actors before playing the game. Ashley Johnson has both a distinct face and a distinct voice, and once you are familiar with them, you can’t help but see her in your head when you hear her speak as Ellie. Also, even though Ashely’s portrayal of Ellie’s personality was perfect, her actual voice sounds a bit too old for Ellie’s age (maybe Ellie would sound like that if she was a bit older).

The score for The Last of Us by Gustavo Santaolalla was beautiful. It was moody, haunting, and had a lyrical quality that fit the story perfectly. The sound effects were done very well too, although I think the sound effects during the stealth actions were way too loud to be inconspicuous. The silent kills were anything but, and the surrounding enemies would have to be almost deaf to not be able to hear those so-called silent struggles.

The graphics were breathtaking, and it was expected because of Naughty Dog’s track record with the Uncharted franchise. Sometimes when I play graphically impressive games of this current generation, I wonder to myself if we really need better graphics. In the previous generation, because graphics were still quite limited, there were a lot of things you couldn’t do to immerse the players emotionally, but now that’s no longer the case. I think we’ve crossed the threshold in this generation of consoles, where characters can emote at a level that is believable, and better graphics would only be icing on the cake and not really alter the emotional experience much. I guess we’ll see in a couple of years if I’m right.

Ultimately, storytelling was the main reason why I wanted to play the game, and why I loved it–especially the ending. The ending of The Last of Us is what elevates it to the level of a masterpiece. It took video game storytelling to a new level of sophistication and maturity that’s never seen before, and the fact that a AAA big budget game took the risk with such an unconventional ending, really says something about the artistic conviction of Naughty Dog.

Now, I’m going to get into major spoilers about the ending, so stop reading now if you haven’t finished the game yet, because from here on it’s all spoilers.

*****Spoilers Begin*****

For those of you who have finished the game, let’s talk about that scene in the operating room. I thought it was very badly designed in terms of game mechanics, and I wish they could have given it a bit more thought and made it play right. Many people have commented that they couldn’t get to Ellie and take her without killing the surgeon (this happened to me too), while some said it’s possible. This is a huge problem that really takes the player out of the game. They should have made it clear that the player can walk over next to Ellie and pick her up without shooting the surgeon (I remember trying but the surgeon blocked my way and I had to shoot him).

Aside from that blemish, the rest of the ending was beautiful. When Joel picked up Ellie and carried her while running for their lives, it mirrored how he had done the same with Sarah at the beginning of the game, and that full circle really drove home how Joel had allowed Ellie into his heart, despite trying to be indifferent for so long. When he called her “baby girl” like he used to call Sarah, you can just tell there’s no way this man was going to let the same thing happen all over again–he wouldn’t survive another heartbreak like that.

The lie that Joel told Ellie at the end, and Ellie choosing to accept his lie, showed us they both were fine with how things turned out, and their love for each other was enough. In a way, it’s the perfect ending, because it avoided all the possible conventional endings, and was still perfectly logical according to our understanding of Joel as a character.

Throughout the game, we met far more enemies than allies, and it gave us the impression that humanity really wasn’t worth saving anyway, except for the small minority. Joel wasn’t a good person in many ways, and it made sense he acted out of selfishness in the end, trying to protect what he couldn’t be without, instead of sacrificing what gave meaning to his life for the greater good of mankind. I think for most people, if they had lived Joel’s life, they’d turn into a selfish misanthrope that only cared about people closest to him too. Wait, strike that. I’d say that if people are being honest with themselves, even well-adjusted folks might make the same choice Joel did if it involved someone they loved dearly.

The way the Fireflies knocked Joel out instead of letting him save Ellie from Drowning was a nice foreshadowing and mirroring of what happened in the beginning of the game. Authority figures seemed to always mess with Joel and take from him what he loved the most, and it made Joel’s final massacre a bit easier to understand.

Some people might think what Joel had done was unforgivable, and that saving humanity should have been the only right course of action, but looking at it from Joel’s perspective, he’s not even sure if a cure is guaranteed, and Ellie would have died in vain if they had failed. Also, Joel having been on both sides of the fence that separated good from evil, knew too well that most of humanity wasn’t worth saving; one Ellie weighed far more in his eyes than the whole of humanity combined. But more than anything, he simply just couldn’t bear to lose a loved one all over again–not after he’s finally opened up his heart to Ellie and accepted her emotionally as a surrogate daughter. Although I’m not a parent, I’m pretty sure most parents would agree with Joel’s choice.

Some people might think the ending wasn’t “right,” but they forget that endings from sophisticated stories aren’t supposed to make you feel good or offer a conclusion tied up neatly with ribbons. Would The Last of Us be as good if it had ended differently? For example, let’s say Joel tries to save Ellie, and she tells him she’s ready to die for the sake of mankind, and that Joel should let her go. Joel then lets Ellie die and a cure is produced. Would that have been a better ending? It’s perhaps a more satisfying ending and one that fulfills our expectations of heroes, but it doesn’t have the moral ambiguity that’s as sophisticated and unexpected.

Conventional endings are more concerned with pleasing the audience or fulfilling some kind of heroic myth instead of conveying something that’s true to the often fallible nature of mankind. We already have plenty of endings out there that celebrate the nobility of heroes; we can afford the mercy of giving a broken man a chance to hold on to the last remaining meaning of his life.

February 19, 2013

Dreamfall/The Longest Journey saga continues!

Filed under: Video Games — Rob Chang @ 6:51 am

WEBLOG:
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Finally, after six years of waiting, Dreamfall/The Longest Journey continues! I have never backed a kickstarter project before, until now. How could I not back this project when the intro video had me in tears (of joy)?

Ragnar Tornquist (creator of TLJ saga) is one of those few creators I feel a strong connection to (along with Joss Whedon) because we have such similar sensibilities as storytellers (romantics at heart, but sipping on the elixir of the bittersweet, while soaking in the intoxicating pool of fantasy/sci-fi and have a weak spot for lovable female protagonists). I adored The Longest Journey (my all-time favorite adventure game) when I played it all those years ago, and I really enjoyed Dreamfall. I can’t wait to continue the saga and see how it ends.

While all kickstarter projects have that appeal of supporting the underdog, Dreamfall Chapters is the only one that tugged on my heartstring like no other, because I believe in Ragnar as a creator, and I love the characters and worlds he’s created. But most importantly, it’s because I’ve walked the streets of Stark, seen the wonders of Arcadia, and I long to return to that world.

September 15, 2012

Black Mesa finally released (after seven years)

Filed under: News,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 3:04 pm

NEWS:
Some of you might know that years ago, I was briefly part of the MOD team that worked on the just released Black Mesa MOD. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s essentially a remake of the original Half-Life, but completely updated with Source Engine quality visuals, new music, new dialogues, updated graphics and designs for everything (characters, levels, enemies, etc).

Originally, I wanted to compose the score for Black Mesa, but that position was already filled (by the very capable Joel Nielsen). They needed concept art, and although I was already trying to transition into doing music and wasn’t particularly interested in doing concept art anymore, I agreed to help out with concept art because Half-Life was the game that turned me into a hardcore gamer, and as a fan I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

I was only on the Black Mesa team briefly as concept artist. At the time, I was working full-time as the studio art director at iWin, and I was also composing the score for Galactic Melee in my free time. Later I moved from California to China and had to focus on designing and constructing our new home, as well as my new music production studio. I just couldn’t devote any time to Black Mesa, so I had to quit.

Anyway, it was just released today, and I immediately downloaded it as soon as I woke up, and I’ve now played up to the point where one of the scientists told Gordon the soldiers are coming to rescue them (those of you who understand what that means, are snickering right now). So far, it’s been an interesting mix of nostalgia and new discoveries. I can’t really think of an apt analogy, because this isn’t like watching the remake of a movie, a screen adaptation of a book, listening to a cover song, or reading a book based on a movie or game franchise. I’m really enjoying all the additional dialogues and the updated levels, as well as the drastically improved visuals. I currently busy as hell (teaching the current run of Becoming A Better Artist workshop, as well as dealing with our upcoming move back to California, not to mention a bunch of backed up blog posts, photography to edit, and the novels I’m writing), but I’ll try to make time to finish Black Mesa.

I doubt anyone besides fans of the original Half-Life really cares, which is fine, because the reason Black Mesa was created in the first place was to pay tribute to the original game, while contributing something new to it by upgrading it to the standard that the Source engine is capable of. I do hope some of the younger/newer gamers who’s never played the original Half-Life will try it though; after all, it is one of the best games ever created, and Black Mesa improves upon it in every way, except for the voice acting. The soldiers are especially bad; they sound like silly cartoon versions of what uninformed people think special forces operators sound like, and the dialogues for the soldiers are some of the worst I’ve ever heard in gaming in a long time. But to be fair, so many big commercial releases get this wrong too–the NPC enemies say some of the dumbest things to you when you fight them in battles. What is it with bad writing and fight scenes?

Originally, Black Mesa started because people were disappointed by Valve’s release of Half-Life Source, which was nothing like what the name suggests (it used the Source engine, but almost everything about it was pretty much identical to the original–nothing was really updated except for some physics that Source allowed). That was how the seed was planted, and now, seven years later, Black Mesa fulfills the promise of what Half-Life Source should have been.

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