Saturday, February 15, 2014

Don’t Go: My Impressions of "The Last of Us: Left Behind"

I cried.  I knew full well how it would end, but I still cried.  I didn’t try to steel myself for what was surely going to be an emotional ending.  I knew it wouldn’t help.

Left Behind is the first and only single-player DLC for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, and although I’m disappointed there won’t be more to this title (ignoring the rumored potential for a future sequel), the developers and story writers couldn’t have closed this game more beautifully or tragically.  They didn’t go out with a bang so much as a heavy, thoughtful breeze that chills you to the bone.  Much like the rest of the game, the action is just a tool for the greater story to unfold, exploring the strongest and weakest moments of the characters and everything in between.  In the end, we’re left to gather the fragments of our thoughts and emotions, trying to piece them together while finding a way to move on.

Spoilers for Left Behind and the main story are ahead.  Usually at this point, I’ll tell you to read at your own risk.  But this time, if you have yet to play either the main game or DLC, stop at the end of this paragraph, hit the red X in the top right corner, close your laptop, toss your monitor out the window, whatever you got to do, then do yourself a favor and experience The Last of Us and Left Behind with fresh, unspoiled eyes.

I’m calling this “My Impressions of Left Behind” rather than a “review” because I just don’t like that idea.  The Escapist, IGN, Destructoid, and every other video game blogger will be sharing their opinions and reviews.  If you want to see a score out of ten, plenty of other websites will be happy to oblige.  Also, I can’t quite call this a review because I won’t be saying anything negative here. I’ve been a heavily biased fan of this game since finishing my first play through, so I didn’t go through this DLC thinking of what could have been improved.  I went into this with the express purpose of enjoying every minute.

Left Behind is a prequel that focuses on Ellie and her best friend, Riley, in between the events of the comic series, “The Last of Us: American Dreams,” and the primary narrative of the game.  Interestingly enough, the DLC starts off immediately after The University chapter with Ellie desperately searching for a way to keep Joel alive.  As the story progresses, we jump back and forth between Ellie on her own in the present, and Ellie and Riley together in the past.  In a clever parallel, both of these storylines take place in different malls.

Playing as Ellie the entire time, this DLC isn’t very combat focused (provided you’re better at sneaking past enemies than I am).  Instead, we see more of the other major elements of the main story’s gameplay, such as puzzle solving, stealth, and spending gratuitous amounts of time in each environment searching for artifacts and staring at everything because it’s so damn gorgeous.  The chapters with Ellie and Riley together especially are more about exploring their relationship rather than the mall itself.  I spent a solid ten to fifteen minutes in the Halloween store alone trying on all the masks, reading each answer from the fortune-telling skull, and following Riley so I wouldn’t miss a single line of dialogue.

This is in heavy contrast with the chapters in the Colorado mall, where Ellie is alone with only herself to rely on for help and conversation.  As she digs through stores for medical supplies, there are artifacts scattered about telling pieces of story involving a helicopter crew who crashed in the mall and were forced to fight infected and each other.  Through these artifacts, including a heart-crushing photo of the crew in happier times, we see the slow disintegration of the bond between four good friends.  In the Boston mall chapters, however, we see a relationship being mended, but not without its own tests.

With The Last of Us, the task at hand – whether it be navigating a building full of infected or battling fist and gun with hostile survivors – only serves as the surface conflict.  At the same time, the lighter moments, such as Ellie reading aloud from a joke book, asking the fortune skull if she’ll ever get boobs, or snapping pictures with Riley in a photo booth, are hiding the tension following them from the start of their journey.  While Ellie’s challenges become more daunting in the Colorado mall as she risks her life avoiding or fighting survivors and infected, her emotional tensions come to a head back in Boston when Riley reveals the Fireflies are sending her away to another city.

Ellie is a strong character, physically and emotionally.  She keeps her walls up, as Winston comments in one of his written notes Ellie can find in the Boston mall.  She buries her sorrow in sarcasm, telling Riley she can make her way without her.  But a person can only keep their defenses up for so long, and as she and Riley dance together, both of them knowing their final goodbye is just around the corner, Ellie utters what is probably her most heartbreaking line in the entire game besides her “Okay” at the end of the main story.

"Don't go."

And here is where I started to tear up, and it’s the same reason I still tear up every time I play through this game.  Even though Riley pulls off her Firefly pendant, a wordless promise that she’ll stay by Ellie’s side, we still know that their time together is running out.  Thanks to Ellie’s admission to Joel at the end of the game about the events that led to her getting bit, we already know that she is the only one who is going to walk out of that mall alive, and what happens to her and her best friend will shape the person she becomes and her motivation to keep going from that point forward.

Closing out this DLC in a way that couldn’t have been more appropriate, both girls, bitten and infected, sit in the sunrise near the mall exit that was so close but not close enough.  Riley goes over their options, and in a speech perfectly reminiscent of Joel’s at the very end of the game, she sums up the reason why we have been playing since the start. 

“To fight for every second we get to spend with each other.  Whether it’s two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up.”

Finishing this DLC and thinking back on my multiple play throughs of the main story, I’m reminded of what it is that both Ellie and Joel were fighting for, what kept them going when their own worlds fell apart along with the larger world around them.  Now that we’ve seen the story from the “American Dreams” comics to the Left Behind DLC to the main narrative of The Last of Us, we can see just how alike Joel and Ellie really are, whether or not it’s obvious on the surface. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Last of Us Story DLC Revealed

Back in August, I wrote a post about what I thought would make some pretty cool ideas for the upcoming story DLC for The Last of Us.  This week, Naughty Dog officially announced the content of this DLC which will be released early next year.  And I was dead wrong on all my guesses.  Honestly, though, I’m glad I was, because the story they chose to tell is possibly the best and most appropriate one they had.

The story will follow Ellie (who will be the playable character throughout the DLC) and her best friend Riley, who we learned about at the end of the game.  As we learned in the game, the two girls had snuck into an area of the quarantine zone that was off limits, and the events that happened there eventually lead to the events of the main story.  So in this DLC, we will likely see what happened on that fateful day, and much like Joel and Ellie’s emotional bond throughout the main game, we will also experience the close friendship of Ellie and Riley back before the main story unfolds.

When I wrote my post about what I would like to see in the main story DLC, this scenario was one that I had considered writing about.  I chose not to, however, because I wasn’t actually expecting Naughty Dog to go in this direction.  For one reason, it was because they had talked about focusing on a new character(s) and a different story, so I wasn’t expecting either Joel or Ellie to make a return for the DLC.  Another reason I wasn’t expecting this story was because the relationship between Ellie and Riley is already covered in the prequel comic series "The Last of Us: American Dreams."  I haven’t read these comics yet, so I don’t know exactly what they cover as far as the two girls’ story.  I ordered the trade paperback as soon as I saw the news about this DLC, and I’m really interested to see how the comics and DLC compare.

Overall, I’m incredibly excited to get an expansion on what quickly became my favorite game on the PS3.  Below, you’ll find the official launch trailer for The Last of Us: Left Behind, as well as a link with more information about the DLC.  It’s a short trailer, but it says everything it needs to.  This is going to be a good one. 

For more info about the DLC (as well as Uncharted for PS4) click here.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Female Characters Aren't a Burden

DICE, the developer behind such titles as Battlefield and Mirror’s Edge, has recently announced that it’s “seriously considering” adding playable female soldiers to the latest installment of the Battlefield series.  This, obviously, should be great news.  Another small step of progress for greater and more equal female representation in video games, especially a genre (military FPS) that is currently a testosterone factory.  While I’m excited to hear about this, as well as the revelation that Call of Duty: Ghosts will also have female soldiers (which is likely what prompted DICE to do the same), I’m having some issue with a quote from the developer that I read on this article from The Escapist.

 “We have been talking about it quite a lot. We've been looking at how much it's worth, compared to how much we'd have to sacrifice. Because it's quite complicated, It's not just [creating] the actual character models, it's all the voice-over work. We have hundreds of thousands of lines that would need to be duplicated, because even now we're cheating quite a lot - we have random male voices, and then you have to multiply that by two. If we do it, we'll do it right, not just to tick a box or something.”

Now, I play a lot and write a lot about video games, but I don’t claim to know the intricacies of game development, or in this case, what it takes to create, write, and voice characters.  However, I seriously doubt that including female characters in Battlefield 4 will be a “sacrifice” as tough as this quote makes it out to be, and there are a few reasons why.

Just the idea of this process being a sacrifice is laughable.   Battlefield is a AAA series and a direct competitor to the Call of Duty franchise.  In terms of funding, the development and voice acting for female soldiers shouldn’t be an issue.  If something like that would break the bank, then these developers have bigger issues to worry about.

There’s no question that creating the female soldiers will be a lot of work.  As the quote from DICE details, there’s the matter of developing the character models and doing voiceover work and re-recording thousands of lines.  For a AAA title like Battlefield, though, I don’t see this being such a huge problem.  It’s not like it hasn’t been done before on a larger scale.  The Mass Effect series gave players the option to create a male or female Shepard.  In order to do this, the male and female characters would have needed to be developed, and every single line across a massive THREE GAME SERIES would had to have been recorded by both the male and female voice actors.  Then there’s the Saints Row franchise.  From games 2 through 4, both the male and female character options had three different voice options each, and that’s not including the special Nolan North option in Saints Row 4.  I don’t recall any complaints about “sacrifice” from these game developers about how difficult it was to include female characters.

If DICE really is interested in adding playable female soldiers, they seem to be committed with doing it right.  However, if they’re going to do it, they shouldn’t be so begrudging about it.  If you want to add female soldiers to your game, it should be as a reflection of the growing role female soldiers are playing in the armed forces.  It should be in recognition of the fact that there are female gamers who play and enjoy military shooters and that they deserve representation in the medium.  It should be because in the 21st Century, it shouldn’t be this difficult to expect at least a little bit of equality in the medium.  Your sole motivation for adding female soldiers to your FPS shouldn’t be to one up your competitor then play it off as an incredibly tough decision to make. 

Instead of talking about sacrifice, why not talk about the benefits that a move like this can have for the developers and players?  Instead of looking at it as a burden, why not embrace the challenge to make a better and more diverse game in a genre that severely needs it?  Who knows if or when the inclusion of female soldiers in Battlefield 4 is going to happen, but if/when it does, I only hope that it’s just the beginning of a growing trend for military shooters in the future.   

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Force Fed Emotion

Getting someone to cry can be difficult, especially if they’re the hardened, desensitized killing machine that news pundits and politicians would have you believe that all gamers are.  This year, however, some of the big gaming releases have been turning on the waterworks for a lot of players, myself included.  Bioshock Infinite’s ending, confusing as it was, left a deep emotional impact in the pit of your gut even if you didn’t completely understand everything that happened.  Then The Last of Us came along. Since I already wrote two posts on the subject, I won’t repeat myself.  In short, anyone who played that game and actually has some semblance of a soul will tell you that that story was a roller coaster of heartbreak, bittersweet laughter, and an ending that tore straight to your core.

Speaking of souls, I recently bought and finished my first playthrough of Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s latest big release following their hit, Heavy Rain.  Right on the back cover of this game, there is a promise to players that they will “Uncover the mystery of what lies BEYOND in a powerfully emotional journey through the remarkable life of Jodie Holmes.”  Promising that someone is going to feel an emotional impact from your story leaves a tall order to fill, and this is something that I think, to a certain extent, Beyond: Two Souls delivered.  As a psychological thriller, the game offers plenty of drama, lots of twists, and some soft, tender moments which are really the parts that hit the hardest.  However, the game didn’t tug on my heartstrings quite as tightly as I'd hoped it would, and I’ve come up with two main reasons why.  There will be spoilers for Beyond: Two Souls and a few from The Last of Us from this point on, so if you haven’t finished either game, proceed at your own risk.

Fulfilling expectations:
I will readily admit that I’m a sensitive guy, especially when it comes to a good video game.  I cried during Valkyria Chronicles, I cried during The Last of Us, and I certainly got teary eyed playing Beyond: Two Souls.  However, I didn’t get to the point of full-on bawling while playing Beyond partially because I was practically expecting to the entire time.  Leading up to the game’s release, players were told it was going to be a powerfully emotional journey.  While it certainly was – in no way to I want to take credit away from the story writers and developers – there was so much build up in advance of the game’s release that my expectations of being sad while playing gave me time to fortify myself against the incoming feels train, thereby lessening its impact.

This is the same reason I didn’t cry after watching "The Notebook" or "Grave of the Fireflies."  After being told for so long by so many people that these movies would make me cry, in a way, it ruined the visceral emotional experience that I would have gotten otherwise.  It’s almost like ruining a good scare. If someone tells you that a monster is going to pop out at you in a certain room of a haunted house, it’s not going to be as scary when it actually happens.  If you’re going in blind, however, each spooky noise and each ghoul jumping from the shadows is going to be an unexpected and raw experience.

Too many tears:
Speaking of crying, is there a single chapter in Beyond: Two Souls where Jodie doesn’t cry at least once?  I'm exaggerating here, but it seemed like Jodie had a consistent inability to contain herself throughout the game.  Certainly, there are many moments in the game, especially in the childhood chapters, where for Jodie crying would be a perfectly acceptable reaction.  When she’s a six-or-so-year-old girl who’s experiencing terrifying paranormal activity every time she tries to go to bed, that would be enough to drive any child to tears.  When she’s a young adult who lies her way into a bar and is almost raped by three grown men, that is a traumatic experience to where it would probably be strange if she wasn’t crying.  When she loses Aiden – the soul entity who had literally been by her side her entire life and who she had just found out was really her stillborn twin brother – after destroying the CIA’s Black Sun condenser, that is a deeply personal loss that warrants Jodie’s tearful reaction.

There are other moments, however, when I expect more restraint from a character as strong as Jodie Holmes.  After assassinating Jamaal, and at the same time, inadvertently killing Salim’s father in the process, Jodie is hounded through the streets by angry citizens and militants as she makes a dangerous escape…and she’s crying pretty much the whole time.  In a way, I can see why.  She just willingly killed more people than she probably ever had up to that point, and unknowingly using Salim’s father to do it, she destroyed the short yet special relationship she had built with the young boy.  At the same time, though, she is a CIA agent.  She has been specially trained for missions like this, and considering she was sent in alone (still with Aiden, of course), her superiors must have thought she was tough enough physically and mentally to handle the stresses of being a government assassin.  This was a moment in the game where I started to become just a little exasperated with Jodie.

As a female protagonist, I thought Jodie Holmes’ character was especially well done.  She is a tough, capable, and independent person, but she’s also a human with weaknesses and desires.  When trying to write a strong female character, so many times, that character falls into the trap of being written as an emotionless hardass to prove how tough of a woman she is and that she can run with the boys.  Even with the supernatural spirit entity perpetually tied to her, Jodie is still part of a growing trend of believable and likeable female characters, and Ellen Page’s stellar performance in this role is a big reason for that.  This is why I feel that the over abundance of crying that Jodie does throughout Beyond: Two Souls is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise great character.

Did Jodie ever smile like that? Can't remember.
As humans, it’s natural to react to crying with empathy and sadness, and despite how much of it there was in this game, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears at certain moments as I was playing.  Over time, however, I felt that the tears were becoming a crutch to tell us how we should be feeling as players rather than letting us feel it ourselves.  Looking at The Last of Us, the writers of that game, I think, found a very effective balance in presenting the emotions of their characters.  There were so many points in that game where Ellie’s hardened shell could have broken down: when she killed her first human being with an execution-style shot to the head, or when Joel was critically wounded, leaving her essentially on her own.  These were moments where I was expecting her confident and cynical demeanor to collapse, leaving behind only a scared little girl.  But she didn’t.  If it would have been Jodie in these situations, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what happened.  She would find a way to pull through the situation, but she would have been an emotional wreck throughout.  Once Ellie’s breakdown moment finally came after killing David, the fact that she had been stoic up until now makes the moment all the more powerful.  When she falls apart for the first time in the entire game, we realize just how strong she’s been, as well as how vulnerable she really is.

So, where does all this leave us on the issue of portraying intense emotion in a game?  More and more, video game stories are becoming intricate, thought provoking, and can take their players across the spectrum of human emotion in ways that I believe (as I’m sure many others do) rival that of film and literature.  Because of this, I’m going to use an old workshop cliché and say that when it comes to getting your players to feel deeply for your characters, more show, less tell.  It’s okay that Jodie cries in Beyond: Two Souls.  Considering the life she’s had, she’s got a lot to cry about.  But don’t use that as an easy trigger to tell the player to be sad.  Let her express her sadness and anger in other ways, as well.  She has violence inside her, she has cynicism inside her, and she has bitterness inside her.  Humans have so many different ways of expressing all these feelings without resorting to tears.  Utilizing that range of expression can be a much more effective way of leaving a lasting impact on your audience.  When Jodie Holmes is crying, I want to be right there with her reaching for the tissues and just pretending there’s something in my eye. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Just a few DLC ideas for "The Last of Us"

At the time of writing this, Naughty Dog has yet to release any official details on the content for any upcoming DLCs for The Last of Us.  All they’ve said for sure is that they have no intentions or desire to expand upon the ending for Joel and Ellie.  This link (with minor spoilers) gives more detail on that specifically, but basically, what we do know is that the single player DLC is going to be a side story that “tell(s) more about the characters” and that will “reveal more about the characters and about the world.”  Nice and vague on the wording there, but that just means we all get to have a grand old time speculating on what new story we could possibly be playing when the DLC is released.

Of course, I want to get in on this action, so here is my list of single player DLC stories I think would be plausible or that I would at least like to see.  According to this article, there will probably be more official word as to what we’re getting later this month.  I’m not going to bother speculating on multiplayer DLC, mostly because I’m just not that interested in it (and I really suck at TLoU multiplayer).  Before we begin, I must point out that these will be filled with potential spoilers, so readers beware.  Also, none of this is as a result of any kind of insider information or official news from Naughty Dog.  This is all purely from my imagination.

Marlene and the Fireflies

Just like with the main story with Joel and Ellie, this has all the makings of an epic cross-country journey.  While our two main characters were fighting across the United States in search of the Fireflies, a significant faction Fireflies themselves were dodging the military and infected from Boston to Utah, led by Marlene in a desperate struggle to regroup with their allies in the west.  In the final chapter of the game, Marlene discusses through dialogue, journal entries, and voice recordings her own loss and struggle for survival, trying to maintain the hope and confidence of a leader in order to keep her soldiers going during the dangerous trip.  With this storyline, there’s great potential for some intense gameplay such as major firefights with government forces or fending off overwhelming infected attacks.  More interesting, though, would be toward the end, being able to see firsthand Marlene’s heartache and internal conflict over whether or not to sacrifice Ellie’s life for the chance to find a cure.

Even if they didn't follow this particular storyline, a DLC focusing on the Fireflies has plenty of opportunities for an engaging story and dynamic gameplay that lets us see more of the faction that we really didn't see too much of during the main game.

The takeover/loss of the Pittsburgh Quarantine Zone

As a native of the Pittsburgh region, I was stoked to see so much of the city featured in The Last of Us.  While it would be personally fulfilling to see even more of my favorite city in a DLC, like with the Fireflies, there’s a huge backstory here that we only get to experience secondhand throughout the main game.  A DLC such as this could follow a Hunter in the fight to drive the soldiers from the city, or it could give us the perspective of a government soldier caught up in a desperate bid to hold onto the quarantine zone.  Or better yet, we could get both perspectives.  Both of these groups are maligned enemies for Joel and Ellie during their journey, but like our main characters themselves, good and evil isn’t so cut and dry.  The Hunters are trying in their own way to survive this apocalypse, and the soldiers are attempting to maintain some semblance of order so they can preserve some of the last remnants of human society.  In a world where there really are no “good guys,” the player has to decide for his or herself what is right and what is wrong.  The fight for Pittsburgh would be a morally ambiguous and epic battle to see firsthand.

The saga of Ish

We “meet” a lot of minor characters in this game via notes and messages left behind.  They are miniature tales of survival going on behind the scenes of the larger story.  Probably my favorite is the story of Ish the boat captain.  We find his first note on his decrepit, abandoned boat on the river shore outside of Pittsburgh, and as we make our way through the sewers that he called home, we find scraps and memories of what was a small but thriving underground community of survivors.  The further we make our way through the sewers, and later the suburbs, we find out how one little mistake spelled the tragic end for this group that thought they had found a safe haven from the deadly world outside.

I can’t recall if I found all the artifacts related to Ish’s story, but as far as I know, it’s indicated that himself and a handful of others from his group survived the sewer ordeal, but we don’t learn anything of what became of them afterward.  There are building blocks here for plenty of drama, tense gameplay, and maybe even some comic relief (some of Ish’s notes were pretty funny). 

Tommy’s story

From the early days of the outbreak when he was surviving with Joel to his time with the Fireflies, and finally to his eventual leaving the militia group and building a community in Jackson, Wyoming, Joel’s brother Tommy went through his own hellish journey in a search to find a safe and normal life.  We have hints about some of the things he had done in the 20 years since the Cordyceps pandemic began.  He was a member of the Fireflies, apparently even knowing Marlene very well.  After leaving them, he traveled out west, got married, and worked with his wife and other survivors at maintaining a vibrant community of multiple families.  We also, however, get hints of a darker past.  Tommy says he still has “nightmares” of his time surviving with Joel, which likely led to their falling out and going separate ways.

Even though we don’t see a whole lot of Tommy, he is a major character in this story.  His backstory (at least as a Firefly) is critical in progressing Joel and Ellie’s narrative.  It would be great to see more of his post-apocalyptic life in its own DLC.  I also wouldn’t mind learning how the hell he escaped all those infected in the opening chapter.

The Adventures of Bill and Frank

Bill is easily one of the most interesting characters you meet in this game.  Is he crazy, or is he the only sane one left?  No…he’s pretty much crazy, but he’s also got a whole town to himself for some infected killing fun.  Imagine playing as Bill, maybe with Frank as your NPC partner.  You could set up traps and lure enemies into them, scavenge for supplies, meet Joel and Tess to deliver what you find.  More importantly, Bill has to have one hell of a story to explain why his personality is the way it is now.  His relationship and fallout with his partner Frank obviously plays a big part in this.  Whatever the case may be, getting a DLC centered on Bill would make for some incredibly fun gameplay along with an emotional narrative of one man’s descent into solitude (and a little madness).