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.

July 4, 2013

Good photography vs. Bad photography

Filed under: Photography — Rob Chang @ 3:45 am

In the world of photojournalism, there’s been a big controversy over Chicago Sun-Times‘ layoff of all the photographers, and instead will simply use photos taken by reporters or anyone with smartphones, video screengrabs, or whatever multimedia sources available.

The result of this shortsighted decision is immediately obvious. Take a look below and compare the coverage of the same exact event by the Chicago Sun-Times (where all photographers have been laid off) and Chicago Tribune (still using professional photographers): (Use the arrow to the right of the photo to go through the whole gallery).

As you go through each photo gallery, the difference in the quality of the photography is almost comedic.

Aside from a few good photos, Chicago Sun-Times‘ gallery is filled with shots that lack any sense of excitement, with no creativity in composition, poor choice of focal lengths and camera angle, lack of intimacy, and missing any sense of the vitality and festive atmosphere seen at such events.

In contrast, Chicago Tribune‘s photo gallery is filled with great photos that get up and close to the action, brimming with life and joy, with compositions that draw you into the images and feel like you’re there with the people.

In recent years, there’s been more and more shifts in our world that is pushing professional photography into an early grave (as if it’s not already got one foot in it already). Technological advances in cheaper photography gear, better smartphones, and gimmicky one-click filters that turn bland photos into cookie-cuter artsy ones have created the illusion that anyone can do what professional photographers do, but that is only an illusion, as demonstrated by the comparison above. Quality photography takes skill and knowledge, and without devoting time and effort into professional-level shooting, you’re just shooting typical snapshots that anyone else with a smartphone can take.

Good photography requires a strong sense of creative composition with the use of effective camera angles and focal lengths to emphasize a sense of place, scale, visceral impact, overall mood, accentuating body proportions or flattering it, and conveying an effective visual narrative.

Effective lighting (and working with available light in creative ways) is also extremely important. You can use lighting to bring out the surface textures, to emphasize the forms, to create a sense of depth, to flatter your subjects, and to create distinct moods.

Understanding of color theory goes hand-in-hand with lighting and composition. An effective color palette in the shot creates a sense of overall cohesion and design that’s an effective match for the intended mood, as well as create interesting composition by using color contrast and harmony to accentuate focal areas.

While manipulating digital images has come a long way, there’s only so much you can push a badly exposed shot. A properly exposed shot gives you optimal exposure that retains enough information in both the highlights and shadows, and it requires technical understanding of aperture, shutter, and ISO settings. The auto-metering in cameras can handle typical shots that are lit from the front or side, with even distribution of light and dark values in the shot, but as soon as you have a back-lit scene, or uneven distribution of values, then the camera’s auto-metering gets tricked into significant over or under exposure, and when that happens, there’s very little you can do to salvage those shots.

And finally, good photography requires the ability to capture the subject (be it an object, a person, a place, a scene, an event, or a visual narrative) so that the most expressive and compelling aspects are conveyed through a creative vision unique to the photographer’s artistic sensibility.

It doesn’t matter how ubiquitous cameras become, or how prevalent photo-sharing is in our age of social media, there’s always going to be a distinction between good and bad photography (as shown clearly in the comparison links posted). Professional photographers deserve respect for their consistent output of high quality images under the stress of deadlines, facing various challenging scenarios (including life-threatening ones such as war zones) and still produce artistically excellent works worthy of magazine covers. That is the difference between casual shooters and professionals.

For the people who think “anyone can take pictures,” until they have done professional photography assignments that really tested their creativity in stressful situations, they won’t fully understand why professional photographers deserve a lot more respect than people usually give them.

July 1, 2013

Elena’s landscaping project completed

Filed under: My Life/Musings,Photography — Rob Chang @ 4:35 am

Elena always wanted to have a nice little garden of her own, since gardening is her passion. When we bought this house she finally got a chance to have the garden she wanted, after having lived in high-rise apartments mostly. Now after about six months of hard-work on the landscaping project for the backyard, it’s finally completed.

It is pretty much all her hard-work too. She had an idea of the kind of garden she wanted, and she did almost all the physical work (she’d only ask me for help when it’s something that requires two people, such as lifting/moving big objects). My other contributions are in the forms of giving her pointers on aesthetics of visual design (how to create harmony and contrast in the visual composition of the landscaping by using effective color palettes in both the plants and the building materials), helping her with research (her English is still at beginner level, and online translators are often problematic), driving her to nurseries and translating for her, asking professionals for advice and tips, finding and hauling building material home one car full at a time (900 lb. maximum capacity in our 4-door coupe), and running shopping errands when she needed certain things (on one particular day, I drove to Lowe’s five times for different things she needed while fixing an escalating problem with a leaked drip-watering system). And of course, taking pretty photos of the garden and her in it after it’s all finished.

Here are some photos of the completed garden:

Having a finished garden meant I could use it as a nice backdrop to shoot Elena in:

Here are photos of the garden before and during landscaping:

This is how the backyard looked when we first moved in. Big difference, eh?

Here you can see the work in progress. Elena got rid of the lawn and flattened the soil. She also moved the soil she removed from the lawn to the side of the garden to elevate that area and then created various borders with the bricks.

The black cloth is to prevent more weeds and grass from growing.

A layer of sand is put over the black cloth, and then paved with bricks.

Here’s one of the deliveries from Lowe’s–over a thousand bricks and dozens of bags of lava rocks. Initially, we just tried to haul materials (bricks, sand, rocks) with our 4-door coupe, which only has 900 lbs. maximum capacity, so it took many trips. Eventually we decided it’s better to just pay the delivery fee and have Lowe’s haul the stuff for us.

She used this little hand-cart to transport the bricks and rocks from the driveway to the backyard. She couldn’t load too many at once, or else it got too heavy to move.

The side of the house was all mulch, and very hard to pull the hand-cart over, so she ended up…

…paving the side with bricks, which made it a lot easier.

Elena happily putting her green thumbs to work during the landscaping:

When Elena posted about her landscaping in her blog, some people found it hard to believe she did it all on her own, and one husband of her blog reader outright refused to believe it was possible for a woman to do all that. I find it kind of funny, since we have TV shows about home improvement that features experts who are women and can do everything a man can do, including building houses, decks, remodeling kitchens, landscaping, etc, so why is it hard to believe that Elena could do it too? It’s not as if she’s physically disabled and can’t haul bricks with a hand-cart, use gardening/landscaping tools, or pave sand and bricks, etc. It took her six months, but she did it, and I’m proud of her.

The first couple of months she really just focused on typical gardening such as planting stuff she wanted in the garden, and didn’t do any landscaping. The next couple of months, she started with the lawn and loosening/flattening soil, moving soil, and dividing the sections with brick borders. The actual paving of the sand, cloth, and bricks was only during the final two weeks. (BTW, the bricks are each glued down, otherwise they’d get knocked over/loose accidentally). Here a blog entry where she showed all the various tools she used during the landscaping.

Elena was very impatient during the landscaping, because she wanted to get it done before summer really kicked in, which would make the weather quite unpleasant for working outdoors all day (it can reach above 110 °F in Placer County on the hottest days). As the result of overworking her hands, she ended up having problems and had to get Cortizone shots for her fingers and wrist and wear wrist-braces while sleeping. (I was dealing with a twenty-year old shoulder injury that acted up at the time, and had to get a Cortizone shot too, and am currently going through physical therapy.)

I tell ya, once you turn forty, your body starts to break down faster just like clock-work, and it’s kind of eerie. Neither of us are into sports or exercise, but Elena is very health-conscious when it comes to food, so we eat very well (although I sabotage her efforts by adding junk food on top of all the healthy stuff she cooks, so she definitely eats healthier than I do). I still find it hard to keep up an exercise routine, but I do my physical therapy stretches/weights religiously, since that’s an injury that I need to heal and the treatment is expensive, so I have to be vigilant about it. Elena’s hands are much better now that she’s had plenty of rest after the landscaping was finished. She still wears the wrist-braces when sleeping because she still has some pain in her fingers, but it’s much better now and getting better everyday. She should be fine without having to go to the orthopedic doctor again.

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