About a week ago I embarked on a foolish quest to play The Last of Us on its infamous "Grounded" difficulty: a mode where supplies are scarce, damage is high, and HUDs are nonexistent. I could write plenty of anecdotes about my heart-pounding misadventures, or about me finally coming around on a game I didn't like all that much, but the thing about the experience that stuck with me the most was the small glimpses into the inevitable imperfections of a human creation.
A Crate Between Us: Abusing The System
I hit my first difficulty wall at the Capitol Building. A hallway stretched ahead, and a set of four enemies stood between me and the exit. After failing the sequence miserably for the fifth or sixth time, I began to realize that one of the enemies who patrols down the hallway would change his pattern depending on where I was positioned. If I was at the very end of the hallway, he'd come marching right down and check the end of the hallway where I was clustered. Alternatively, if I was hiding behind a set of crates inside the hallway, he'd stop short of his other patrol route and find his way over to investigate the crates instead.
This is something that would plague me throughout the remainder of my playthrough: the enemies don't know where you are, but they know where you are. The AI seems designed to smoke you out of cover, and keep you moving through areas; keep the tension high.
Unfortunately for the game, this trick only works so many times in an area you're repeating for the sixteenth time. Almost naturally, I began to use it to my advantage. Sometimes I used it to get an enemy to pathfind their way into a dark alley where Joel's sweaty mitts awaited. Sometimes I used it to lead enemies away from my intended path. Other times I just wanted to feel like I had some control over the level.
But perhaps my true triumph over the game came in a section where Ellie covered me from on high, while I did my best to sneak around and Batman all my foes into submission. In yet another moment of becoming overly familiar with the level, I ended up making my way into the second floor on a building in the very back of the map. having never made it to this part of the level, the same old AI "cheat" appeared and brought a new enemy up to patrol the second floor. He was quickly taken care of, and just in time for me to disappear, his buddy showed up to investigate (and meet his prompt end). Now, I could detail how the rest of this encounter played out, but it'd be quicker to just say "that, x10". I never left that room on the second floor, which became a fun ball-pit of dead guys and hope. For the first time in my playthrough, I felt like I'd truly defeated the game at its own, uh... game.
Trucking Along: Abused By The System
Enough about tricking the AI though, let's talk about hard-coded, hand-crafted developer fuckery. I'm talking about moments where you're doing too well at the game for the intended sequence to play out, so the developers need to find some trick to mess everything up. Perhaps the most egregious example of this I can regale you with begins with "truck".
Did I say "truck"? I actually meant "fuck", as in: "fuck this stupid truck sequence". In this setup, you are presented with two buildings, a street separating them, and a big ol' truck with a big ol' gun slapped right in the middle of everything. The solution at this point seemed simple: skirt around the back of the building and cross the street to find cover in the second building. Easily making my way across, avoiding the enemies along the way entirely, I entered the door to the second building and was immediately greeted by a fully alerted enemy running into the room and into my face. It went poorly.
Plan B involved a new strategy: set off the obvious enemy trigger in the doorway and then hide again. This worked great, until the enemies I avoided in the building across the street decided they needed to change their patrol and stumble over to my new position to ruin Joel's face.
Plan C involved the additional step of taking out the enemies in the first building. Everything was going great now. The truck was blissfully unaware of me as I twisted the neck of my doorway-triggered pal and continued on my merry way. Peering through the window into progress, I made sure the truck was scoping out some other area. I hopped through the window and was immediately greeted by a hail of bullets from the now alerted truck. You see, the developers only designed this next sequence to play out one way: get chased through an alleyway by a big dumb truck with a dead guy strapped to its hood. Unfortunately for my beautifully crafted Plan C, this involved the game denying my mastery of its parlor tricks and showing me who was really in control.
Beating The Game: A Stalemate
When I started out on my Grounded Adventures, my main goal was to take a look at the neat concepts that had been implemented to make this difficulty unique from its contemporaries. What I found was an intimate journey through the game's systems, finding all the quirks in the coding, the imperfections in the sequences, and seeing where human hands had shaped it. What started as a challenge became a back and forth between developer and player; each of us trying to outsmart the other. As the credits rolled, I called it a draw.