With the end of the year bringing with it the inevitable decline of first party support for the Playstation 3, The Last of Us looks to be Sony’s swan song, much in the way Shadow of the Colossus and the God of War games were for the Playstation 2.With this in mind, I felt it fitting to look at the strengths of what will certainly turn out to be one of 2013′s games of the year and what the next generation of both consoles can draw from it.
Just as a disclaimer, in no way am I claiming that any of these points are unique to The Last of Us, I do however feel that it is the best attempt at bringing all of these qualities together.
So without further ado, here are 5 things I think the next generation can learn from The Last of Us, be warned, minimal spoilers ahead - :
1. Both Sides of the Story – Interesting, Believable and Relatable Characters and Story
Though the occasional Kratos and Marcus Fenix brainless macho are fine, I need characters that I really care about to fully invest in a single player experience. No, not a dog, Infinity Ward. I cared more about Sarah from the opening 15 minutes of TLoU than I did for anyone throughout the entire duration of the aforementioned GoW games. Now, I know that I may be drawing an unfair comparison here, but one of the most important progressions I feel that we’ve made during this generation is the way that video games, as a medium, have matured and become arguably more like plot driven movies. Ask anyone who played TLoU; the developing relationship between Ellie and Joel was one of the driving forces behind the narrative. Not only that, but I’d almost go as far as to argue that it was the main reason for wanting to progress through the story. Naughty Dog is as subtle in the way it teases you with breadcrumbs of the origin of the Cordyceps infection as they are outright audacious in severing ties with key characters at a moments notice. If we take a look back to a few examples from the beginning of this generation, what did we have? Oblivion; not character driven by any means, but this was one of the few complaints of the single player story, or lack thereof. Side quests are all well and good, but a killer single player narrative would have made Oblivion (and to a certain extent it’s successor, Skyrim) peerless. Perfect Dark Zero tried to tell us the origin story of Joanna Dark, but did anyone care? Not really. How did it fair for the developers? Well Rare have gone from one of the industry leaders to a fringe team at Microsoft; a hollow shell of what they used to be, forced to work on the likes of Avatars and Kinect Sports. Personally I put this down to a failure to evolve. Don’t get me wrong, story isn’t the only important attribute of a video game, nor is it TLoU’s only strength. However, I believe that if we’re really going to demonstrate to the rest of the entertainment industry that video games deserve to be fully acknowledged as a medium, we need to maintain a level of quality and consistency similar to that demonstrated by Naughty Dog.
2. Message Through the Motion – Motion Capture is the Way Forward
I’ll keep this one brief; while one of my less prominent points, this relates to my first, so I felt it was necessary to include. The realism in the delivery of each and every one of the performances in TLoU added so much to the immersion and believability of each personality that this one is somewhat of a no-brainer. We’ve seen it already in the early footage of inFamous: Second Son, Ryse and Metal Gear Solid V; it’s looking like mocap is going to feature ubiquitously next gen, in higher budget titles at the very least. With the caliber of visuals that we’ve become accustomed to, nothing ruins the sense of immersion more than a comedic dub over flapping mouth; yes I’m looking at you Bethesda. I’m not saying that visuals are the only important influence in creating atmosphere, but they’re certainly important and a large contributing factor.
3. Choose Your Fate – The Importance of True, Natural Freedom and Choice
Defining freedom and choice in a video game was always going to be difficult. You play a video game exactly the way that the developers allow you to, therefore there are always restrictions. However the method in which some games have offered choice has differed greatly throughout this generation – let’s take a look at some interesting examples first. The Mass Effect series gained it’s reputation by offering players varying consequences for their choices. The trilogy did this in the least subtle method possible – spelling out your options on screen in binary form, which did it’s job but certainly had it’s drawbacks. Another example of a series which has its roots buried deeply in choice is The Elder Scrolls; both of the iterations this generation were as bold as to throw you in at the deep end straight from the start, leaving almost all of the map open to you, should you be so bold as to explore it. Then you look at The Last of Us’s approach, which offers you choice in a completely different way. It doesn’t tell you how to play; it challenges you to play in a certain way, it dares you to try and play it like a traditional third-person shooter. The intentionally diminished resources only add to the immersion, as you find yourself scavenging through each environment; rummaging through each individual set of drawers the tension builds because you actually need every last scrap. TLoU is not a stealth game, nor is it a third person shooter; it’s a survival game, through and through. (Warning: here come the arbitrary comparisons again). This is a stark departure from the tonal dissonance seen in the likes of the Bioshock games and similarly in the Elder Scrolls. The approach to loot sees our protagonist’s insatiable hunger is appeased by feasting on whatever out of date candy bars of leftover apples in tombs which just disengages the immersion completely, quite frankly it adds nothing and the level of freedom could be toned down to remove down time between encounters. To conclude, developers (ironically) have a choice to make – my point is that binary choice has proven to be one of the most exciting and underwhelming features this generation at the same time. Too much choice and we suffer the diamond effect; where everyone starts and finishes in the same place, but share travel a different path to reach their conclusion. You only need to look at the huge backlash from fans over Mass Effect 3 to see the negatives, yet a couple of hours of Mass Effect 2 to see why it’s such a powerful tool for immersion. I’m positive that developers will continue to find new ways to give us a sense of freedom and choice in our games that feels both natural and exciting.
4. Who’s the Boss? Are Boss Characters Really Still Relevant?
Dodge, dodge, block, stun, attack glowing, obvious weak spot, repeat. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same formula you’ve followed against 90% of the huge, screen-filling monsters thrown at you over the last decade. When done correctly, boss battles can make you feel like an absolute god. As I write this piece I cast my mind back to Psycho Mantis, the final battle with Gannon from the Wind Waker and Wheatley in Portal 2. These set-pieces, which not only challenged the skills I’d learned up until that point, but also called upon my lateral thinking felt so much more satisfying for the endeavor. Personally, I think that boss fights are somewhat archaic in the age of realistic military shooters with where they quite simply don’t fit. But there’s plenty of other examples of great games this generation that I feel just didn’t need boss battles. Uncharted 2 broke the immersion with Lazarević, Bioshock was universally criticised for it’s ludicrous Fontaine battle and Batman: Arkham Asylum had numerous arbitrary and repetitive fights including The Joker and Bane. The Last of Us takes an interesting, stripped back approach by making each encounter as challenging, or more so than the last. When you finally reach the closest thing to a boss battle in Ellie’s encounter with David, it has all the right ingredients to give you that perfect balance between helplessness and desperation. After all, you’re just a girl with a pen knife against a fully grown, psychotic cannibal. So I ask all developers, please stop and think before you force these arbitrary time-sinks into your would-be masterpiece. Sometimes less is more and there are certainly other ways to leave a lasting impression without force feeding us a boss battle; look at Bioshock Infinite, Red Dead Redemption and The Walking Dead
5. Trust in New – First Parties and Big Publishers CAN Still Rely on New IP’s
I suppose this point is aimed more at Microsoft’s policy of taking a back seat while third-party publishers populate their line up. Sony has been very generous to gamers in endorsing an abundance of exciting, innovative and profitable projects and new franchises such as Uncharted, Journey and LittleBigPlanet. While not all of the aforementioned enjoyed the same instant success and critical acclaim as The Last of Us, they all went on to make plenty of money. There’s only so many times that we can play the same, rehashed levels against the same re-skinned enemies, Nintendo are slowly (but surely) teaching us that we all need a break from time to time. With the likes of Watchdogs, The Order 1886 and Sunset Overdrive on the horizon, it’s certainly looking promising for those looking for new franchises. Let’s just hope that they receive the support they deserve in order for the industry to continue masterpieces like those seen in the Halo Franchise, Uncharted 2 (My personal favourite) and of course, The Last of Us.
Have you played The Last of Us? If not, WHY?!If so, I’m keen to hear your thoughts and what you took away from the experience. I made a lot of references to other games so counter arguments are more than welcome, but agree or disagree; let me know what you think in the comments section below and let’s talk about it on Twitter.