Sunday, October 25, 2020

Skill Up's Review of The Last of Us Part 2 and the Art of Video Games

Warning: Spoilers. Do not read unless you've finished the game.

This article is a response to some of the points raised by Skill Up in his review of the The Last of Us Part 2. Unlike a lot of, if not most of the game's reaction and backlash, this article will not be a hit piece or click bait. I hope it is critical but constructive, addressing what was unaddressed or misrepresented.

Unless you were part of the industry's development decades ago, most people would have scoffed at the idea that video games are an art form. Given the state of of video games today, however, it's tough to argue. Like books, movies, etc., video games have the power to speak to us through a medium that is fictional yet relative, and representative yet stimulating. But where books inspire imagination and movies guide you through an imagined experience, video games add yet another layer of imagination: participation. Players vicariously take on the roles of the characters, directing them within the limitations of agency granted by the game/technology. This experience is dichotomous; on one hand (no pun intended) are the technical mechanics of participation/gameplay (control, vision, action, interaction, etc.), and on the other hand are the elements of narrative (setting, character, dialogue, plot, etc.) In Skill Up's review of The Last of Us Part 2, this dichotomy is heavily, heavily biased to one hand with a lack of underpinning knowledge on the other. It does not do the game full justice.

There are many different types of gamers, and Skill Up is one I've come to categorize as a gamer who loves gameplay—the first hand, in-the-moment experience of interacting with the game's virtual world through the mechanics that allow this.  Another way of putting this is: the details surrounding punching, kicking, shooting, attacking, etc. are of utmost importance.  And yet another way of putting this is, some of his criticisms of TLoU2's gameplay are spot on. Gameplay has been slightly enhanced and improved from Part 1, but the loop overall is very similar, nothing truly innovative coming out the game. Naughty Dog clearly did not want to deviate too far from the success that was Part 1, and yes, there are absolutely other games with better control, response, action, etc. on the market. SkillUp nails this. Trouble is, gameplay isn't the game's prime focus, and by focusing so heavily on gameplay Skill Up failed to see what the game's focus actually is.

The Last of Us Part 2 is a 25-30 hour game experience, of which 10-12 hours is purely cinematic (cut scenes in which zero gameplay is possible). Another way of putting this is: 30-40% of the game is focused on plot, dialogue, and character, with particular emphasis on mimetic emotion and facial expression. There are extremely few other games which invest this proportion of time into these elements. Where games like Super Mario Bros or God of War are 80-90% action, TLoU2 is simply not. It's primarily a narrative experience, one intended to examine and expose the inner workings of the psyche and emotions of the main characters, and to make the player - the person sitting vicariously in the shoes of the characters - feel and understand something about the broader human condition in the process. Love it or leave it, toasting zombies with a flamethrower is secondary.

When approaching reviews, one of the first questions I ask myself is: what was the author/creator trying to accomplish? With The Last of Us Part 1, Part 2, and the “Left Behind” DLC, it's obvious that gameplay, while critical, is not where the most energy, focus, and time were spent. Clearly story, character, cinematography trumped the budget. The game's credits read like a film's, for goodness sake. When completing Part 2, Naughty Dog seem to want you to have evolved your understanding of the characters and their situations, to have questioned what you thought before, built new relationships with the characters and their situations, and to have new questions for the real world in which you live. Skill Up calls this a “petty revenge story”, which, even ignoring the fact it doesn't count correctly, misses the plot mark. The fact there is not an awareness there are in fact two revenge stories, not to mention the relationship between the two vendettas is key to the overall experience, shows a lack of understanding of the creator's intent.

Hearing Skill Up's comments on Part 1, “[It] carried a torch of hope into the darkness that was the post-apocalypse", makes me wonder if we played the same game. Joel committed murder for egotistical reasons, denying humanity a cure to the Infected in the process, then lied to Ellie about it. A torch of hope? Further misunderstandings of the first game include: "The fusing of Joel and Ellie into a indesoluble unit..." Really? If this were a Ubisoft game, I could understand the lack of distinct characterization, but, again, is there anything about the game which leaves the pair an amorphous blob? In fact, there are likely only a handful of games in the entire history of video games which has done so good a job of rendering two living, breathing, individuals in pixels.

Further SkillUp quotes about TloU2 include: "A central theme of this game is deconstruction. The game actively tries to deconstruct your memory of the characters from the first game." Really? I would have said “evolution” or “transformation”. Joel did a bad thing in TLoU1, to say the least. If anyone thinks of him as a hero, it should only be in the context of Ellie's life. Otherwise, his killing of hundreds has a name: mass-murder. He'd been “deconstructed” before ever getting to Part 2. (Is there the possibility that a game reviewer like SkillUp has become blind to the quantity of killing in video games and thus missed this aspect of TLoU1?) In TLoU2 Joel pays the ultimate but natural consequence for his actions. Is that deconstruction? And Ellie, who was such a forthright teen in TLoU1, is now trying to find her feet in life as an adult during perhaps the most trying times possible. Given the trauma and vulnerability, her behavior and reactions seem wholly organic to me, that is, rather than a forced “Gotcha!” on the player in order to “deconstruct” what they expect. It's thus difficult to not shake your head hearing SkillUp say: “The problem with TLoU2 is that there is no commitment, whatsoever, to the story and characters that so many people fell in love with." Really?  Each character finds themselves in a state that evolves naturally from Part 1. Just because they are not sustained in standard, Hollywood fashion does not make them less, or a shadow of what they were. In fact, I would laud Naughty Dog for choosing not to trod the “hero” road the overwhelming majority of video games choose to. This fact alone belies how un-petty the revenge stories are.

At another point in SkillUp's review, the emphasis, or perhaps better stated, the expectation for stronger gameplay rears its head when he states that the game should have been 10 hours shorter—better without the Abby sequence. Without the Abby sequence, in fact, the game's central narrative drive and ultimate substance almost disappear. The juxtaposition of Abby and Ellie's plights creates and enforces the main points of the game's story, driving home the value of empathy, compassion, forgiveness, etc. Again, SkillUp failed to grasp this from a narrative perspective. From a gameplay perspective, I agree. While Abby has different toys to play with than Ellie, her gameplay loop remains essentially the same. It's her singularity as a character in the context of Ellie's life (and vice versa) where the value of the Abbby sequence comes shining through and becomes wholly necessary for the experience.

And there are several other missteps in SkillUp's review, including wondering if TLoU2 would have been better as open world (answer: no, given scene escalation would be lacking, the creators would not have been able to drive home the points of the story with the same strength, etc., etc.) and stating that it was difficult to connect with the characters (name five easier characters in video games, please), it's clear the lack of understanding about how narrative impacts the gaming experience played the strongest role in the negative review.

Closing this commentary, let me say that I thoroughly enjoy Skill Up's reviews. There are very few on YouTube as thought out, intelligently written, or as knowledgeable in the context of video games at large. I put a lot of trust in his reviews of games, and I will continue to. It's only in the instance of The Last of Us games that his personal preference for gameplay-driven games (versus narrative-driven games) has effectively left him blind to the game's true qualities. Thus, where SkillUp states "The story is a complete mess. Foregoing any of the relationships, themes, and tones that were central to the first game, it replaces them with a petty revenge story driven by unlikable characters, making decisions that seem ridiculous and unbelievable." My view is the exact opposite. The narrative is one of, if not the most complex and sophisticated of any video game ever made. Revenge is the surface, while beneath that is the pulsing reality of the human condition, for all its darkness and lightness, played out by very realistic characters living in the most dire setting possible. Is it the greatest game ever made, we'll never know. But is it a game worthy of praise for the manner in which it represents humanity in video game form: absolutely.

1 comment:

  1. It is fascinating to see the amount of criticism to TLOU2 that, like you said, is "blind to the game's true qualities". I am glad to read your article and I agree with it 100%.