A significant portion of the first half of this year has been spent on both my novel and my girlfriend Samantha’s novel.
All the stuff to do with my own novel I’m going to save for a separate piece, which I intend to set about writing in the near future, because I’ll need to get… reasonably long and in-depth. (Which is also what I’m wont to say in the boudoir. I find it’s always good to preface coital promises with ‘reasonably’, to manage expectations. I’m twenty-seven now, for christ’s sake; these bones are old and brittle, these muscles are tired and atrophied: my days of Olympic-level fucking are most definitely in the rear-view. But I’ll always look at that bronze medal framed on the wall with great fondness. Though in all honesty I technically had to share it with that year’s Lithuanian competitor, whose virility let’s just say even the editors of Fornicator Monthly strongly suspected to be synthetically enhanced, due to a tie for third place…)
I edited Samantha’s really very excellent and remarkable novel, an experience I’ll just say a little bit about. Obviously I would have been more than happy to do it in any case, but there was a certain pleasing element of reciprocity here, in that she was kind enough to suggest edits to mine a while back. Indeed, we laugh about the fact that we each restrained the… shall we say… less sound writerly instincts of the other, in very specific ways. I had to endure what will forever be known as the ‘Infamous Italics Massacre’, which she — no doubt in all sagacity — inflicted upon my novel. I tried to accept this corrective with grace. By which I mean just a bare minimum of petulant, melodramatic protests. For example, standing on a cliff-edge in the pouring rain, clutching the pried-loose ‘CTRL’ and ‘I’ keys and screaming that she’ll have to rip the italics from my cold dead hands. Like I said, I did no more of that kind of thing than ABSOLUTELY necessary. (I’m still a little bitter though. I really like italicising words and phrases for effect, okay?! I mean, give me a break, let’s not get absurd: I’m hardly a monster!)
And then I repaid the favour. I benevolently subjected her novel to what literary historians have, I believe, already begun to term the ‘Merciless Culling of the Commas’. Seriously, it was a bloodbath. You’d have thought that some wayward comma, perhaps a decidedly unrehabilitated scoundrel just released from maximum-security grammar-prison, kicked my dog when I was a kid or something.
Having never done anything like this before, I foolishly underestimated (by orders of magnitude, really) the amount of time that the editing was going to require. This is my fault and my fault alone. I suppose I had too high an opinion of my own powers of speediness. But, yes, I was very surprised by how long it ended up taking. I should specify that in terms of the level of thoroughness being applied, I was really exhaustively line-editing the prose. Samantha freely admits that she struggles with some of the more elusive minutiae of grammar and whatnot, and I was glad to help her out with that boring nuts-and-bolts stuff. And it goes without saying that when you’re going through a book with a fine-tooth comb and a magnifying glass, you’re in for a pretty time-consuming project, to put it mildly. Still, not at all without its compensations, obviously: although it’s not quite the ideal way to do so, it’s always a damn fine pleasure to read her writing. I trust you’ll believe me when I say that I would aver the exact same thing even if she wasn’t the woman I love. She is dizzyingly fearless in her honesty and she crafts gorgeous, sumptuous prose. Truly, she does things with language that I can only gape at.
There’s a rather daunting level of responsibility placed upon you when someone entrusts you with editing their work. I was very acutely, painfully aware that I was going to be the only person who read her novel before she sent it off to agents to solicit representation for it. And so I was the only person — besides herself, of course, but all writers know how after reading something over a gazillion times during the drafting process, even glaring typos or solecisms can become bizarrely invisible to us — who was going to have a chance to excise any errors or suggest any improvements before it was appraised by highly-critical eyes. This realization that “shit, I have to be operating at the top of my game at every moment! I can’t afford to miss anything!” activated my OCD in a very, very severe way unfortunately, and that contributed to why the editing ended up taking so long. If there are any mistakes left standing in that book, I’m going to jump off a fucking bridge, because I practically re-read every sentence in it at least thrice.
I think it’s fair to say that there’s a rather pronounced difference between my writing style and hers, especially when it comes to fiction (or thereabouts, as the case may be.) This added another layer of difficulty. I’ve always said that the highest, most sacred objective when trying to help someone else with their writing is to determine what their particular voice is and what exactly they’re trying to do with their prose (both in terms of form and content), and then instead of imposing your own conception of how the thing should be written, you very consciously do no more and no less than aid them to better achieve what they’re seeking to achieve. In short, I believe it is no job of an editor to re-write something or even to egotistically try and teach someone how to write. All an editor should really concern themselves with is maximally helping the recipient get out of their own way. I’m happy to relate that I did my utmost to live up to that now that the chance to do so had arisen.
And even though my hands were grotesquely soaked with the blood of countless commata innocents, by the time I had finished editing, there was the satisfaction of a job well done. I can honestly say that I gave it my all.
What have I been playing?
Okay, so this is going to be a very review-heavy post, because I have a large amount to try and cram in here.
(Again, even in the heat of the moment during foreplay, I would be careful to strategically position the word ‘reasonably’ in that claim. Only a damn fool overpromises and underdelivers. Listen, you don’t have to take my advice. But just know that many well-regarded sexual educators ensure that their syllabus reading lists include my bestselling books. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. There’s ‘You’re Not A Numerical Magician: No Amount of Wishful Thinking Can Make 5 or 6 Into 7’, featuring the chapter which every gym locker-room was abuzz with anxious chatter about, ‘The Eye’s A Much Better Ruler Than You’re Hoping!’ And then of course there was my follow-up book ‘If You First Describe It As Vice-like, How You Gonna Climb Down From That?’, which has just been reissued with a side-splitting and eye-opening new foreword by Lena Dunham about society’s toxic expectations of genital perfection. I don’t want to stress this point too much, so I’ll just add one more thing. Because I’m considered the inventor of the famous, patent-pending ‘Pedantically Accurate Dirty Talk’ technique, a LOT of people have described my work as being as revolutionarily important to the world of sexual self-help manuals as, say, Albert Einstein was to the field of theoretical physics. Personally, I think that’s hyperbolic. But I want you to know that they say it.)
((If you’re ever asking yourself “jesus, does this dude even know what the fuck he’s babbling about sometimes?!”, the answer is a resounding “no.” Other writers will, I hope, understand what I mean when I say that there are times when it’s tempting to stall/procrastinate by writing one type of thing because that’s significantly easier than writing another type of thing. For example, writing free-associative ribald absurdist nonsense instead of corralling your recollections, awakening your evaluative and analytic muscles, and writing about very specific things and/or experiences…))
(((Funnily enough, it’s also still easier to explain how/why you put off writing something harder than to do it. For that matter, the same goes for explaining the explanation. And for explaining the explanation of the explanation. And so on. Accordingly, before I fall down this impending black hole of infinite regression, I better just get on with it.)))
(Colonless subtitles usually annoy me, because it tends to just look and sound dumb. It must be admitted that this is an exception to the rule though. What a rad fucking name for a game. It has a kind of formal, almost Miltonesque quality to it that really works.)
You know when you play a new game that everyone else is raving about, and the only thing you come away thinking is “bleh”? That’s how I felt about 2016’s ‘Doom’. It was so highly rated and had made such a splash that I was quite eager to try it and see what all the fuss was about. Then after a sitting or two with it, I just nope’d out. I was renting it, so I just slang that bad-boy straight into the postbox and never looked back. And, truly, it takes a lot to make me abandon an FPS midway through, because even mediocre FPS games are generally like how even bad pizza still kinda hits the spot when you’re craving pizza.
Jump forward four years and… the same goddamn thing happened again! I really only have myself to blame, I suppose. The way people were talking about this sequel in such glowing terms, making it sound like such a gem, it’s like I forced myself to forget how crappy I thought the previous game was so that I could buy into the excitement surrounding this one all over again. Because I always want to believe, you know what I mean? Of course I don’t ever want to play a game that’s just not worth my time. So when I commit to giving some new title a chance and I slip the disc in, I’m praying it will be great. Meaning that, if anything, I have an optimistic bias: I’m actively rooting for it to be enjoyable. That’s important to point out, I think. I’m never going into it cynically, just hoping I’ll encounter a million things to ridicule.
(As a random aside, I was just reminded how there’s something about the way that the current-gen consoles kind of smoothly inhale the disc into themselves that really… activates… my cat. He’s mesmerised by it and goes straight into attack mode, trying to paw the disc back out. So I really have to guard the disc as it’s going in, lest it be savaged and clawed something fierce. Perhaps other cat owners can relate?)
But, yes, to get to the point, I came away thinking ‘Doom Eternal’ fucking blows too. I simply cannot grasp why so many people are so gaga over it. I again gave it a couple sittings, to try and wait as long as I reasonably could for it to start being fun and/or good. And… nada! Like I said, I’m really only mad at one person for this. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I hate the simplistic shooting mechanics which seem to be an homage to the series’ planally-constrained pseudo-3D origins, where enemies generally just moronically rush at you and all you’re really asked to do is endlessly circle-strafe and hold down the trigger. Or, at most, match the right gun to the right enemy for maximum effect. I guess if you played those old Doom games back in the day, this sort of anachronistic flattening of the whole FPS dynamic might strike you as a neat nostalgic throwback. But the Doom series doesn’t have those kind of connections for me, it doesn’t have its demonic talons in my heart. I believe I tried to mess around with the original ‘Doom’ — I of course mean the 1993 one here; boy, I sure don’t love it when reboots confusingly reuse the same name — back when it was re-released on Xbox Live Arcade. But I was toying with it more as a dated curio than anything else, and I’m sure not for very long at that. The only Doom game I’ve played properly is ‘Doom 3’ which, well, was certainly fine for what it was.
(But, again, it was frankly way overhyped at the time. This being back when PC gaming was extremely anxious about being overtaken in stature by console gaming, and was thus seemingly always searching for its next messiah to hold up as proof of its unique promise and superiority. God, remember Will Wright’s ‘Spore’? I mean, I barely do, and I’m sure that’s true of most people. But perhaps you recall how it was supposed to be mindmeltingly impressive and reinvent gaming and bring on the singularity or whatever? For some reason, I remember that it won the big E3 awards several years in a row — a rare distinction — as the gaming press let their guard down and were sucked into its brainwashing reality-distortion field because, hey, it wasn’t Molyneux who was making the grandiose claims this time. Then the game finally came out and was just preposterously underwhelming/forgettable. Ah, you’ve gotta laugh…)
I also find the overall aesthetic to be almost unbearably lame and generic. Listen, I like hellscapes and demons as much as the next red-blooded fellow, but they take a real paint-by-numbers form in this game. I get that there’s perhaps an element of irony to it: it’s almost supposed to be a bit cheesy and uninspired on purpose, in that it’s kind of like a pastiche of what passed as cool in old-school games. But, seriously, the art for both the enemies and the environments you’re slogging through is just heinously boring. (And, jesus, the level design gave me flashbacks to everything I hated about PC FPS games from the 90s and early 2000s.) I think it just looks dumb, not ironically dumb, in other words. It’s like a mix between what that artsy loner goth kid in your class would doodle in their red anarchist-symbol notebook and the eyesore album art for some Death Metal band whose lyrics are mostly a screamy, abstruse paean to Satan devouring a Grand Canyon full of fetuses with stone-faced relish.
I trust that this makes my thoughts on the game clear. (Like, I’m guessing you won’t be asking me to drop the coyness and tell you what I really think.) I found this to be a game that just fundamentally isn’t very fun, and also one where even the small degree of satisfaction it is able to offer is depleted very quickly.
When they come out with the next Doom game, I’m going to buck the trend and just trust my better judgement. This shit just ain’t for me.
The Division 2: Warlords of New York
I’ll make this short and sweet. (I heard you say “I doubt it” under your breath just now, you jerk. The truth of a retort doesn’t negate its rudeness.) WONY is just okay enough to hold your attention for as long as it lasts. It’s many light-years away from a rollicking seat-of-your-pants experience, but you could also do a lot worse I guess. That is, if you’re looking for something where you can just vaguely zone out and count on a drip-feed of mild-to-moderate enjoyment. I don’t usually assign a number rating for a game, but here I’ll make an exception: I give it a placid shrug out of ten.
I will say that it wraps up the loose story threads from the first game in a pretty rushed and lacklustre way though, which raises the question of why even bother leaving them up in the air at all if you were just going to bring them to a slipshod conclusion in a mere expansion pack(!) for a subsequent game. This is a shame because back in D1 I thought Aaron Keener was an intriguing enough character, and deserved a better moment in the narrative spotlight all to himself than this. I can’t help but feel like it would have been much wiser to save his return until it could be done proper justice in its own full game.
But I was definitely extremely glad to be back in NYC all the same. I played whilst listening to podcasts, and even though the ‘The Division’ formula is still insanely repetitive, it has such solid fundamentals that it remains sufficiently stimulating. (If they once again decline to mix it up by the time we get a third instalment, I’m probably going to be out of patience, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.) It is, needless to say, still a very competent looter-shooter. It’s something I generally like to play somewhat sparingly though — otherwise the one-note nature of the gameplay starts to become more apparent and tiresome.
I’m just going to say this bluntly, because it was pretty much a thought constantly at the back of my mind whilst playing: “jesus fucking christ, I miss Survival mode from The Division 1.” It would take a long time to explain how much I loved that mode, so I’ll simply say that I have incredibly fond memories of playing it. It’s one of my favourite gaming experiences from the past five years. I played it to death, not just because its form inherently lends itself to replayability but more so because it managed to still be tense and exciting and challenging each time. And I think that they stumbled — not the right word because of its condescending implication, but you get what I mean — upon something truly special with that mode. I consider it to be the ‘The Division’ experience at its very, very best, as it’s where all the merits of the game are allowed to shine brightest. It’s just downright sublime. That blizzard-stricken NYC is always going to have a special place in my heart. (As, indeed, it was perhaps bound to — I’m hopelessly infatuated with the city and I love snowy weather, so it was a match made in heaven from the get-go.)
I mention this because I’d argue that once you’ve played Survival, normal ‘The Division’ gameplay (in either the first or second game) just pales in comparison. It just suddenly seems slightly, but unignorably, bland and pointless. And the most obvious reason why is because in Survival there are actual high-stakes, there’s a thrilling sense of risk and reward. Every shoot-out you stumble into is genuinely gripping and gets your adrenaline pumping a little bit, because if you get killed you may be losing, say, an hour or so of progress. That makes you take it very seriously. You respect the danger that the enemies pose. And there’s also a real, pressing incentive to explore every nook and cranny of every accessible building in the city: you desperately need whatever resources or weapons or armour you can ferret out. When both things are taken together, you realize that it does the most important thing of all… it makes you actually really care about the combat and your surroundings, to fully engage with them. (And, of course, if you’re into that whole Battle Royale thing, there’s a PVP option which adds that element too. Personally, I prefer playing it non-PVP, but that’s just me. I find it stressful enough without having to worry about getting ambushed by a roaming deathsquad of griefing asshats.)
That aim maybe sounds simple or easy. Yet it is in fact deceptively hard to pull off, as many other games have discovered to their chagrin. How many times have you encountered a group of enemies in some game that you realize you have zero chance of beating, based on level disparity or just sheerly being outnumbered, but you plow headfirst into them guns a-blazing just for shits and giggles, knowing that you’ll end up getting killed but who cares because you’ll just respawn nearby at no cost to you? How many times have you found yourself just gormlessly following next-objective markers or staring at a minimap instead of really looking around you in-game and strategically deciding where to explore? I mean, these are far from the worst shortcomings a game can have, and many a nonetheless good game has succeeded despite them, but there is something to be said for games that force you to really, thoroughly be in their worlds, to treat things as if they actually matter and have weight. You know what I’m saying? That’s the cream of the crop for me.
Although I very much admire them releasing a slew of fairly substantive free DLC (which is largely unheard of for a AAA game nowadays, and — woah, I just realized — especially one from Ubisoft) the fact that the people who made ‘The Division 2’ seem utterly allergic to bringing out a Survival-esque mode again just shows you that their judgement is rather questionable. They don’t know what they had. They don’t know how to present their game at its best, at its most special. They unearthed a motherlode of pure gold, but they’re too busy minting shabby little bronze coins to mine it to its full potential. That’s pretty damn worrying, I’d say.
Anyhow, if you ask me what my takeaway from WONY was, I’d answer that the experience was fine but made no lasting effect whatsoever, yet I still remember the crazy moments from even just those few games of D1 Survival mode I was inspired to go back and play afterwards. That says it all, I think.
(On the very last game I played of it — before deciding that I’d dipped back into the pleasures of the past for long enough — I had a pretty epic ending, let me tell you. After having gotten into a massive seemingly-unwinnable frenetic clusterfuck of a firefight in the Dark Zone, which included a bunch of uber-powerful ‘Named Enemies’ I had inadvertently dragged into the ruckus by drawing too close to them as I was running about, I ended up backed into a corner and was forced to make a desperate last-stand and just barely managed to kill them all. Then I had to make a mad dash to a far-away extraction point and somehow speedily dispatch the fearsome ‘Hunter’ that stands between you and safety. Again, I just barely pulled this off, and finally escaped in the helicopter with literally like TEN SECONDS left, having racked up more than two hours on the gameclock and risking everything by cutting it so close. It was aweeeesome. It’s no exaggeration to say that I got more out of that one last playthrough of Survival — in terms of enjoyment, investment, and the stories I came away with about the interesting emergent predicaments I ended up in — than the entire time I spent with WONY.)
PAC-MAN 256 & Nidhogg 2
I suppose I wouldn’t normally even think to give a shout-out to simple, arcadey games like these, but I just ended up digging both of them so much that I feel I really ought to.
There was a bit of serendipity to me stumbling upon them, in that I bought both of them purely because they were on sale for just a few pound each. (Man, it’s so hard to resist impulse-buying games when their price is dropped that low.) I decided to just blindly take a flyer on them, frankly. And wow was I rewarded for that… They both have that lovely supremely moreish quality, where they’re so fucking fun and addictive that every time you die/lose, even if it’s the hundredth time, the only thing you wanna do is jump right back in and try again.
A few points about PAC-MAN 256.
Firstly, I should have known that it would be good, because it’s made by the same people behind the wildly successful ‘Crossy Road’ which, although incredibly simple, I had a good few cumulative hours of fun with as a mindlessly satisfying time-waster game back when it came out. It was the perfect kind of mobile game for eating those vacant twenty minutes when you’re trapped in a waiting room or on a train or the like.
(I will say that they should probably be sending some royalty checks to Konami for totally, shamelessly aping that venerable old arcade classic ‘Frogger’ though. Konami are probably especially pissed because — I just found out when skimming the Wikipedia page — they evidently did their level best to try and give the Frogger franchise modern relevance and success themselves, given that there have been… get this!… more than THIRTY subsequent Frogger games released, none of which I’ve ever even heard of. In response to this odd revelation, I can only say: what… the… fuck? Though I suppose you have to give them credit for a sort of indefatigable perseverance. However misguided and fruitless it may be. I don’t know how many times you have to exhume, reclothe, and trot out the corpse of one of the honoured dead from gaming history before you realize that sometimes the past is best left in the past…)
I really love the (previously fairly obscure) reference that PAC-MAN 256 is based on. The idea that you have to outrun the dastardly ‘Level 256’ kill-screen glitch from the original stand-up arcade version as it consumes the entire board with its multicoloured gibberish-code is just genius. It’s one of those game-concepts which is so simple but so perfect that you almost can’t believe that no-one did it before.
(By the way, the inevitable occurrence of that glitch, fascinatingly enough, made that ancient O.G. version of the game technically ‘unbeatable’. It’s like the very fabric of Pac-Man’s universe was literally tearing itself apart — and revealing the bedrock substrata of scrambled, indecipherable source-code underneath, not unlike a subatomic realm — after enough self-replications. Moreover, this hard-limit on self-replications is, of course, a particularly perturbing thing for us to contemplate, given its similarity to how cancer arises in living cells. I mean, yeah, there’s a lot to unpack…)
As someone who already had a soft spot for the classic Pac-Man gameplay anyway, this game just finds a way to streamline the whole process and give you as much of it as you can handle and in as concentrated and endless-ized a form as possible. I also think it’s super fun in co-op. (Jeez, imagine telling someone dumping quarters into Pac-Man in a dim, stuffy arcade back in 1980 that not only would people still be playing it forty years later, but that it’d be a revamped version with four-player co-op. Their mind would be doubly blown.) My girlfriend and I were playing the fuck out of it together for a few weeks there, feverishly trying to best the absurd high-score we got on that one miraculous run where all the stars aligned in our favour. It’s so enjoyable and riveting when you’re perfectly in sync with the other person and you’re chaining the power-ups with precise efficiency and just zooming up the board like conquering demigods, wiping out dozens of ghosts at a clip in mind-melded tag-team harmony. Never will you feel closer to your loved one than in that moment. It’s like having chemsex with them during a high-speed getaway from the cops on a day you woke up feeling preternaturally empathic. Well, that’s… maybe… conceivably… somewhat of an exaggeration, but only milimetrically so.
“SUCK IT YOU BITCH-ASS GHOSTS! YOU BETTER RUN! YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED!” is the gleeful warcry. No mercy for those spectral motherfuckers. Obviously everyone already knows that Clyde is an asshole, but my anger is especially directed at Pinky, whose dogged vindictiveness is the stuff of legend. When Pinky is able to press its advantage, it will chase you to the ends of the earth and beyond. Such that you end up seeing it in your dreams that night. Pursuing you and pursuing you. Catching you. Ending you. This is why I go out of my way to hunt Pinkies. I corner them and turn the tables and take great pleasure in extirpating them. If you’d played the game, you’d understand. They fully deserve it. If I may be so immodest as to say so: I’m basically doing the Lord’s work. I won’t rest until all our children can breathe easy in a Pinky-free world.
Now a few points about Nidhogg 2.
The art-style is, as you can tell from just a glance, verifiably out of its goddamn mind. It looks like what someone might draw if you asked them to sketch some bizarro humanoid figures duking it out in a bizarro world, assuming you’d also already given them a heroic dose of psilocybin mushrooms and were periodically thumping them in the back of the head with the end of an aluminum baseball bat — using a moderate but still bearable level of force — as they were drawing. It’s a wacky, colourful, comic-grotesque art-style that will no doubt produce a love-or-hate reaction from any given player. Personally, I dig it. I like that it revels in its own outlandishness, that creates a fun tone for the game. I just think it’s delightfully eccentric and insane. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like it before and I am generally of the opinion that games, especially smaller indie ones which have a greater luxury to do so, should be trying to be more idiosyncratic than less.
I should also point out that the soundtrack fucking slaps. I’m not 100% sure I’m using that slang correctly, but it just somehow feels like the exact right word to use here. It really is great, I’ve been listening to it as I write this very piece in fact.
As is pretty obvious, this is a multiplayer game at heart. There is a single-player mode but it’s basically just a bare-bones training ground to let you practice. So, yeah, multiplayer’s where it’s at, and I have to say I became slightly obsessed with it for a little while there. Again, this is a very addictive game. Like the best arcadey games usually do — and PAC-MAN 256 definitely has this attribute as well — it has a kind of hypnotically mesmerising quality, where it sucks you in and demands absolute focus and thus you find that hours can unexpectedly elapse very quickly.
I’ve always really dug ‘1 vs 1 duel’ style games. (Perhaps more often in theory than in reality though. There’s a lot of crappy takes on this set-up out there.) But I’m specifically talking outside of traditional fighting games here (e.g. Street Fighter, Tekken, etc), because I’ve never been able to get into those even a little bit.
To pluck an illustrative example from recent memory of the type of game I mean: I remember really trying my damnedest to like Absolver a lot more than I ended up being able to. The silky-smooth fluidity of its martial arts system is just sexy as fuck and a total pleasure to watch play out, no doubt about it. I also think there’s a lot else to admire about that game — I love that peculiar games which are that specialised and attempting that level of depth are getting made and find an appreciative playerbase — and I was able to have some fun with it to a certain extent. Unfortunately, the complexity of its combat, while an impressive technical achievement, just ended up losing me. It’s similar to why I don’t like fighting games actually, in that once you introduce zillions of moves and ask me to memorise a bunch of button combos, I more or less break out in hives. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there is a ‘Bewildered Buttonbasher’ inside of me that gets coaxed out when I find myself having to recall pages and pages of movesets. I also found that getting into one-on-one fights with other players in the open-world was sometimes ruined by a lookie-lou or two joining in and turning it into a group brawl, which is not at all what I’m looking for.
(Hmm, did not intend to throw in that review-inside-a-review there. But, hey, this blog is like the wild west: there are no rules. Although, wait, it does have its own very expansive and complicated internal system of tort law, sure. But, besides that, NO rules!)
Anyhow, for a while now I’ve had a hankering for a ‘1 vs 1 duel’ game that would really hit the spot, is what I’m saying.
Enter Nidhogg 2. Something about this game just really clicked with me. I just couldn’t get enough of it. At first glance, it looks like the gameplay is maybe TOO simplistic and even somewhat luck-dependent, but once you get into it you discern that it’s actually surprisingly skill-based. The crux of the combat is indeed very simple however. And because of that, once you grasp the advantages and drawbacks of each of the four weapons plus your unarmed options, you realize it all really just comes down to timing and basic mind-games. Therefore, it provides a very pure form of mano-a-mano psychological gamesmanship. You just have to figure out (and counter) your opponent’s habitual patterns-of-action before they figure out yours. And once you’ve got momentum on your side… gosh, forget about it. It’s usually pretty much over then. Momentum is the god of this game. It really shows you how powerful the effect is of putting your opponent on the back foot and making them reactive rather than proactive: they tend to wilt under the pressure, doomed by their own blunders as they second-guess everything they do.
Listen, I’ll tell it to you straight. I can’t claim to have been very good at many online games. I can probably count on one hand how many times that’s been true. That’s why I’m willing to toot my own horn here: I have become very good at Nidhogg 2. Like, almost shockingly so. I know that sounds sickeningly arrogant, but I stand by it. There’s just something about the rhythms and subtleties of this game that I seem to be really attuned to. And this is why I’ve ended up playing so much of the multiplayer. Because boy does it feel good to just utterly whup the ass of most players you meet. Even if it does mean being king of a very tiny kingdom… (And I do have a fair claim to that crown, because I reached the very top of the — it goes without saying, not exactly hugely populous — online leaderboard, which to be fair is essentially more a measure of how much you’ve played than your winning percentage. This was also a distinctly evanescent preeminence. Still, it’s a minor bragging-rights feat which I’ve never managed before and will surely never manage again in any other game.)
That’s the thing, alas. The game came out three years ago and, hell, it’s obscure enough that I doubt it had a fantastically large playerbase even then. This means it now has a lamentably small number of people online. (Though it does seem to go on sale frequently, which adds a welcome influx of new players each time.) I kinda have to emphasize this point, so you’ll get the extent of the barrenness we’re dealing with here. Trying to get good at this game is like trying to get good at tennis if you could only play tennis during lunar eclipses. Although there are some days where you get lucky, you typically have to be willing to wait quite a while between games if you want to get into the multiplayer. Seriously, like twenty or thirty minutes sometimes. I got into the habit of just leaving it on, searching for a match, in the background while I’m doing other stuff and then I simply jump in whenever it finds one. The nice thing though is that if you and your opponent immediately re-enter matchmaking after a game, you’ll almost certainly be thrown together again right away — so you can often end up playing quite a lot of back-to-back matches with the same person, which removes the annoyance of waiting around.
There’s something kinda fascinating about being in what is a very small, (mostly) very hardcore pool of players for an online game. You see the same usernames pop up over and over. You sort of form unspoken rivalries with some of these other players — usually when you match up fairly evenly with them skill-wise — where whenever you come across them again, you’re like “oh yeah, shit, that guy’s fucking good! Better throw on my big-boy pants and my try-hard gloves!” or “this asshole and his cheap tricks again? Alright, gameface. He’s going down.” This one insanely dominant player I ended up getting schooled by repeatedly, I’m going to nickname ‘Hawkeye’, because his whole strategy came down to getting his hands on the bow. He had what I can only describe as aimbot-level accuracy with it, where he seemed able to predict my every move way in advance and make sure there was an arrow in flight waiting for me there. You know that scene from one of the ‘Fast & Furious’ films where Dwayne Johnson dramatically proclaims “don’t ever, ever let them get into cars”? Well, this was like that. The only option was simply to try and stop him from getting the bow at all. Because it was his little wooden doomsday-weapon. Once he had it and he positioned himself at the right distance away and he settled into his glorious perfect-archer cadence, he was nigh unstoppable and destined to just steamroll me. He was the only guy I never beat despite many opportunities and I think about him sometimes when I’m trying to get to sleep at night. There’s usually weeping too. But just a little.
There are also some sources of frustration to do with multiplayer which are more inherent to the game than simply encountering a human ‘Final Boss’ you’re unable to beat. The game’s creator has evidently absconded from maintaining their creation, because it has some irksome little problems that would be very easily remedied with a small patch. To take perhaps the most aggravating example: people quitting out of the match when they’re about to lose is an absolute epidemic and not only is there no real punishment for them whatsoever (e.g. a time-out period before you can jump back into matchmaking), when your opponent intentionally disconnects and the match is abruptly ended, you lose ranking points too. Obviously, who gives a flying fuck about the fluctuations — even if unfairly dished out — of meaningless personal-vanity points in a weird, obscure arcade game with a minuscule playerbase? That’s definitely true enough. But, at the same time, for something that hilariously stupid to not only make its way into the game but then never even get removed three years down the line… well, it gives you an idea of the level of abandonware we’re dealing with here.
Some other irritating little oversights include your opponent being able to unpause the game when you pause it. (An option which also shouldn’t even be there in the first place, given that most matches will end within a few minutes.) Then there’s the fact that almost all the outfit options you can progressively unlock are completely glitched and just hover a short distance in front of your body instead of on it. And finally there’s the issue that every time you re-spawn, your character automatically walks forward a few steps — almost as if to subliminally encourage you to push forward and attack, rather than hold your ground defensively — and so if you should happen to spawn right in front of a hole, which some levels are rife with, it’s a guaranteed insta-death. There’s nothing at all you can do to stop it. You just have to watch it happen and hope that your next spawn is more propitiously located. When you’re having a close game with someone, and they’re gaining a head of steam and powering through to the ‘final screen’, this insta-death (or, as sometimes occurs, a successive string of them) can be a pivotal misfortune. It’s frustrating in a way that will make you want to throw your controller through the fucking wall.
(Leading to, one would presume, no small embarrassment when you have to go sheepishly knock on your neighbour’s door to collect it, as well as to negotiate an on-the-spot cash settlement to pay for damages and emotional distress. I would also imagine it would be quite awkward if when you return to your couch you discover that the newly punctured hole in the wall is in a spot which leads to you being able to make accident eye contact with your neighbours whilst they’re lounging on their own couch. In which case, you might possibly cover the hole with some newspaper and sellotape — though there would be yet more, now further intensified in awkwardness, silent eye contact as you stand before it and go about covering it like a troublesome porthole. These are the possible consequences you MUST consider when you wind up that throw with controller in hand.)
So yeah, given this surfeit of gripes, it’s kind of a mess online. And it’s probably stuff like that which limits the degree of even niche popularity it’s able to gain for itself. But I’ve found it to be a lovable mess nevertheless. Which tells you how tight and satisfying the gameplay itself must be, if it’s able to compensate for all that…
(To continue appraising game names, something about this one bugs me a little bit. Ehh, maybe bug isn’t the right word, actually. It’s more like it bothers me because I really like both the vibe of it and the specific concept it’s trying to express, but it just doesn’t sound quite right. I wish they had thrown a ‘The’ or ‘The Last’ or even just an ‘A’ at the front and really nailed it.)
I never knew — or could ever have guessed — that I wanted an extremely weird hiking and terrain traversal simulator from Hideo Kojima. But, blow me down, turns out I did.
However, to be completely frank, in hindsight I realize that I like the idea of this game (and the ballsiness needed to execute something so out-there) a hell of a lot more than I did the experience of actually playing it.
That’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes fun or that the gameplay doesn’t have its charms though.
I know this might sound overly abstract, but I’ve long been drawn to and enamoured with games — which can come in VERY different forms — based around making a long journey (preferably on foot) or even several of them. And ‘Death Stranding’ scratched that itch rather well. I did often very much enjoy the experience of figuring out how to travel across the difficult sections of terrain. I can’t say quite why, but something about that being the crux of a game really, really appeals to me. Planning out a route and then strategically using your limited number of ladders and climbing anchors (and so on) to scale it or descend it, whilst also taking care not to damage the cargo hoisted on your back, sure was satisfying. Who knew that making you think and act like a human pack-mule would make for good gameplay?…
And I also really liked the communally-beneficial aspect of this path-finding and enabling others to follow in your footsteps via the equipment you leave in place. I liked that other players could take advantage of that clever shortcut I had created by painstakingly erecting a series of ladders up an opportune part of a mountainside, and that next time I logged in to the game I’d even get a notification telling me how many of them had left me a ‘like’ because of it. It’s a simple but very nice little system which shrewdly allows the experience to feel cooperative whilst still retaining that sense of self-reliance and solitude which is key to being a Porter. Quite a feat of game design, really. Being the odd mix of antisocial and lonely that I am, I’m a fan of these kind of passive-multiplayer features. And, of course, it fits in perfectly with the in-game fiction about the importance of reciprocal back-patting/mutual oxytocin-boosting for social creatures like human beings. I appreciate that they went the extra mile and found a way to actually integrate it into the fiction like that. (Assuming I’ve got the ‘chicken and egg’ order right.) A lot of developers wouldn’t have even bothered. They’d have just been like “fuck right off! Jesus, do you also want us to include some bullshit fictional reason why when you hit reload whilst there’s still ammo left in the magazine you throw on the ground, it magically teleports into the next magazine?!” But you know what? Yes, sometimes I do want you to explain shit like that. Sue me.
I have to point out that although journeying across the map in the various vehicles can be alright, in the way that something challenging being made easier for you is always superficially pleasant at first, I nonetheless have a bit of a bone to pick with their inclusion. Once you gain access to a good long-range vehicle and the ability to create a Generator whenever you like to recharge its battery, there’s really no reason to walk anywhere anymore. (Besides in some rare cases where a delivery’s destination is, say, way up in the rocky mountains, where vehicles generally can’t get to. Or, at least, not without maddening slowness and arduousness.) I didn’t much care for this because I think the game’s special-sauce is that on-foot clambering around and once it encourages you to largely leave that element of gameplay behind, the overall experience noticeably suffers — or, rather, is dampened and downgraded — in my opinion. Once you can dump a metric fuckton of cargo in the back of a truck and just drive straight to your drop-off point and back in a jiffy, you no longer need to actually think about what you’re doing and it just starts to feel like the filler delivery missions from any old open-world game. Given how much effort they otherwise put into it to make it feel new and unique, I’d argue that this really just equate to shooting themselves in the foot.
I do have to dock the game for its stiff and slightly unwieldy camera controls. (I’m often a tad wary about third-person games, though I always hope they can win me over, because it seems like they have a much harder time nailing that than first-person or really any other type of game short of maybe overhead-camera RTS.) I must admit that this is a particular pet peeve of mine though. I cannot believe that big-budget AAA games can still get away with dodgy camera controls in this day and age. I just don’t get it, man. This is shit we should’ve left behind a long time ago during the infancy of 3D games.
Forever and always, though especially when you’re paying full-price for a game, good camera controls should be a right, not a privilege. They should be so responsive and natural that they’re utterly seamless and inconspicuous. This isn’t exactly asking much, either. Making sure that the player’s ability to look around in your game doesn’t suck is literally the least you can do. It’s the foundation upon which all the rest of the experience is built. In fact, I would go far as to say that camera controls in video games are kind of like air in real-life. Normally, you don’t even notice the air around you, but it makes everything else, all the awesome parts of human existence, possible. Yet when you have, for instance, a really bad burn, even the invisible currents of the air around you become incredibly noticeable, because them merely passing over your damaged and raw skin is mildly excruciating. That’s what playing a game with shitty camera controls is like, it’s like trying to go through life with an exposed burn: it’s harder to focus on the good stuff because you’re constantly wincing and scowling a little.
I know we’ve all heard the undoubtedly astute observation “one of the reasons why games are so much harder to create than movies is that every time you make a new movie you don’t have to first invent and build your own camera,” but I have to say that I think too much is made of this. (In particular, it fits too neatly in the slingshot of apologists for shoddy work.) Firstly, it really only applies to studios who dare to build their own proprietary engine from the ground up, whereas studios opting for the ease and safety of licensing a versatile, established commercial option (and even specialised middleware tech) is still far more common.
And secondly, it’s not like some miracle when a game has well-tuned camera controls. It’s not a magical stroke of luck. It’s very doable, as evidenced by all the examples of it being done which come out each year. You see it in games with budgets which dwarf the GDP of some mid-Atlantic island nations, you see it in games which were cobbled together on a shoestring budget that a beggar would look at you askance and insulted if you were to toss into his cup, and everything in between. You see it in games made by hundreds of people, you see it in games made by a hobbyist in their spare time with an antiquated laptop which still has a peeling and faded ‘Pentium Inside’ sticker on it, and everything in between. You see it in games which are so beautiful that playing them is near enough a numinous experience, you see it in games which are so offensively hideous that you find yourself asking Google what’s a safe number of disinfectant eye-baths to do in a twenty-four hour period, and everything in between. So when a game doesn’t have it, there are no excuses. It’s just a case of not trying hard enough, of deciding that once you’ve crafted something functional but subpar, you can stop because that’s actually good enough.
This leads me into my next point, alas. I hate to say it, but the combat itself is pretty baaaaad. And is only memorable in the sense that it positively abounds in frustration. Not only are you, as aforementioned, fighting against the wonky camera and the jerky aiming, but the guns you have at your disposal just fundamentally aren’t very satisfying to use. I usually find myself drawn to a stealthy approach anyway, but I was doubly so in this game. You really, really want to take out all the enemies with your improvised-garrote ‘strand’ thing if possible, simply because if you attempt a frontal attack and the bullets start flying, you know you’ll have to deal with the vexingly maladroit shooting controls. Whenever I was surrounded by enemies on multiple sides in close quarters, my first thought would be that I might as well hit the Pause button and reload a save, because you need to be able to be nimble and extremely aware of what’s happening around you to survive something like that and I felt too hamstrung to pull it off. (Also, I can’t tell you how much it makes me grind my teeth when you can be stun-locked over and over in a game. Fighting those MULEs with the shock-spears or whatever the fuck they’re called was just… just… well, let’s just say it made me ring my doctor and ask about blood-pressure medication.) So you’re given somewhat of an unintentional practical incentive to just straight up avoid a part of the game, which is — it must be conceded plainly — quite a black mark.
(Unfortunately, in some of the boss fights you’re more or less forced to rely on your guns. And against MANY enemies. Oh what a joy that was. It’s right up there with a root canal or having to pass a watermelon wrapped in sandpaper through your urethra. Okay, that’s maybe a tad harsh. But those levels do deplete your patience and sanity very quickly.)
The game’s story is just a clutter of fascinating ideas lost in the whirlwind of a confused and screwy plot. Now, to some extent this is perhaps par for the course. Hideo Kojima is kind of known for this, for being batshit in such a winsome, ingenuous way that you’re induced to ignore the storytelling deficits. And it’s true: there is something very seductive about the involuted nature of his imagination that you do want to just drink in. But in this game, that trade-off no longer flies. Because it’s missing the fun element of it too. The story gets lost in its own seriousness too often, and that’s deadly because it’s not terribly good at pulling off serious in the first place. Whenever it tries for a scene that’s just sober drama and pathos, you can’t help but remember all the cutscenes from earlier on where the story just openly crosses the line into preposterous theatrics. Additionally, there’s just too much nuttiness to the world and its inhabitants, and too many unabashedly brutally obvious (and endlessly repeated) metaphors which hit you over the head like a lead mallet. You realize at a certain point that this is a game that’s interesting but not actually gripping or affecting. You want to see what will happen next because you know it’s bound to be so eccentric that it’ll hold your attention, not because you actually care what happens next or are emotionally invested in any way.
For real, I don’t mean to really pile on here, but I have to add that I couldn’t make myself connect to any of the characters. Not at all. I also think that the celebrity/high-profile actors they got for this game are totally wasted. Given he’s the protagonist and the face you see in all the marketing, it’s shocking how incredibly little Norman Reedus has to do in this game. I mean, call me crazy if you want, but it seems like he should be carrying the game to some extent. You keep expecting them to let him loose and provide him with some real meaty acting to do, but it never quite happens. I just don’t get why they give him such light-duty. I really don’t. It baffled me that throughout the entire game he’s such an empty shell. They could have paid some no-name actor to do that. Hell, I could have personally phoned in his lines if that’s all they needed. (I know that makes me sound like a prick but the point stands.)
The talented Mads Mikkelsen fares only slightly better. He’s at least clearly given more heavy-lifting to do, but the bottleneck is that his character is just desperately in want of complexity. You kinda come away feeling like they just wanted Mads to provide his very unique and arresting on-screen presence to the game, and that’s about it. This is a damn shame, due to it being such a squandering of someone who can do so much more.
Next there’s the deservedly prolific and always value-adding Troy Baker, who is — god love him — doing the best with what he’s given. You can almost sense him straining to make the weak material sing any way he possibly can. This is a doomed effort, alas. His character is nothing more than the classic, paper-thin “I love death, though I can’t quite articulate why” nihilistic villain. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. I get that in a way he’s supposed to just be a distractionary hate-sponge to make the reveal that Amelie is the true antagonist/threat all the more ‘shocking’, but I don’t see why he couldn’t have been fleshed out more all the same.
I will say that the premises behind most of the supporting characters are cool and very intriguing. And I like that they each have their own little self-contained arc which provides a side-story to dive into for a short while. I should also highlight that Margaret Qualley as ‘Mama’ & ‘Lockne’ gives by far the best, as well as the only notable, performance of the game. (Well, with maybe Léa Seydoux deserving an honourable mention, even though she’s merely alright, for at least attempting something fairly understated with ‘Fragile’.) I don’t mean to turn that into a backhanded compliment after-the-fact, because it’s really not that at all, but it does have to be said that this is a game which has a surprising amount of poor and/or bland performances. Amelie springs to mind very emphatically as a prime example. Anyhow, I don’t know whether this is the fault of the actors or their direction, but it does really stick out like a sore thumb. In fact, now that I think about it, I suspect the fault is probably to be laid at the feet of the latter. I have noticed in previous Kojima games that he seems to like his characters to have a certain… uh… feel to them, a sort of stiff theatricality which I find tends to come off a bit silly and wooden. This inclination has definitely been somewhat toned down for this game, but it’s frankly still there in spades.
I actually think there’s something neat, if slightly gimmicky, about including film directors as characters in the game. That being said, I think that Kojima should have gone all the way and asked them to at least provide the voice acting too (given that motion-capture performances are a much more involved process.) I mean, if they’re there getting their appearance scanned in, they might as well spend a bit of time in the VO booth whilst they’re on hand. I understand that neither Guillermo del Toro nor Nicolas Winding Refn are actors, and so they would be stepping out of their comfort zone and learning on the job, but I think the player would grant them extra leeway because of it. I also think it could create kind of an interesting effect, given that the game is often trying for an undertone of surrealness anyway. Both their characters are weird dudes, to put it plainly, and so the intrinsic meta-weirdness of having semi-recognisable non-actors playing their parts in a totally deadpan, non-winking way can only help augment their aura of strangeness.
It’s also worth noting that the voice actors they got for Heartman and Deadman end up giving rather flat and muted performances anyway — a non-actor could easily have mustered that. Again, I’ve no idea whether this affect was intentional or not. But golly is it disquieting as fuck when Heartman is talking about his dead family and his tireless quest to self-administer suicides until he can reunite with them and yet he’s not really noticeably emoting almost at all. That just seems like a deeply… odd… choice if it is indeed on purpose. There’s a fine line between stoicism and roboticness, and I think you should really be very sure what side of that line you’re aiming for when depicting a character…
Not only is it a wasted opportunity, it feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch. (I don’t mean that in the nefarious sense. It’s just the only phrase which seems to fit.) Many players will not have heard either GDT or NWR speak before, and so will not realize that they have lent only their likenesses to the game. I have to admit that this was the case for me: I only learned the truth after finishing the game and looking it up out of curiosity.
As is always true for Kojima’s games, the aesthetics of ‘Death Stranding’ are one of the most engaging parts about it. It just fashions such a singular, inventive look for itself in so many ways (the character design and the various technologies especially). Regrettably, this visual genius is employed very unevenly. Case in point: Sam’s whole get-up is just undeniably cool as shit, in particular the BB pod attached to him like some sort of external, portable, extra vulnerable-ized womb. But then you’ve got someone like Die-Hardman who’s not just a dumb character with a dumb name but he also looks like a cross between a bring-your-own-costume extra from ‘The Purge’ movies and the lame bad-guy waiting for you at the end of an 80s beat-em-up game. Or even take someone like Fragile, who’s actually a fairly interesting character, but whom the designers still sexualize in an asinine way by having her wear these stupid fucking skin-tight latex(?) leggings and then making sure to have plenty of lingering low camera angles from behind so you can stare at her ass to your heart’s content. I’m saying, they create a female character whose whole thing is that almost her entire body is horrifically disfigured and she can’t/won’t take off her clothes, and they still find some workaround to employ her as titillating eye-candy. It just boggles the mind. It’s so cheapening and tawdry. Why put all that effort into trying to mould a complex character and then give the shiny curvature of her butt as much focus as her tragic backstory?
The game has a major boss-fight problem. Namely, it wants to do them a lot, but they uniformly suck. You have to complete what is essentially the exact same straightforward encounter against Mads’ character Clifford Unger three times throughout the course of the game. I like their settings (because I’m a sucker for WWI/WWII stuff), and they make for decent set-pieces, but that’s about it. They’re just not fun, because not only do you have to deal with the janky combat ad nauseam but poor Clifford, despite being billed as an accomplished, cunning solider, is actually dumb as a fucking rock and seemingly has little to no AI smarts on his side. You don’t really have to worry about him flanking you or otherwise surprising or outfoxing you; you can just keep finding positions where you can shoot him without him being able to effectively return fire. And so the showdowns with him are just tests of patience, tests of your willingness to bear the repetitive tedium.
And don’t even get me started on the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks horseshit you’re greeted with later on. The end of the game has… hmm, let me think… well, conservatively?… I’d say about nineteen or twenty boss-fights. They’re only vaguely chained together and they all feel like stepping stones in the same anticlimax.
I mean, the game’s ending is actually just an absolute shambles all round. It stretches on way, way too long, and in a meandering fashion. (Indeed, it gave me PTSD flashbacks to being subjected to like an hour and a half of wearisome cutscenes and other nonsense at the end of MGS4: “oh god, make it stop…”) For me, the cardinal sin of any game’s pacing is not knowing when to end. Dragging it out is just the worst thing you can do. And this game is very, very guilty of that. It gives you a pseudo-ending and then, for some reason which confounds rational explanation, a whole obnoxiously and exhaustingly long other segment after it, where every last little thing has to be gone into at great length and often from several different angles. And there’s so goddamn many meaningless faux-twists, it’s out-fucking-rageous. I honestly got to the point where I was just dying for it to be over, dying for there to be no more filler bullshit to pad out the ending. And inspiring that feeling in the player is exactly what game designers should be frantic to avoid at all costs. I cannot remember the last time that a game’s ending was so protracted and so boring that it seemed to be doing its utmost to make me hate it and to sour my retrospective opinion of the game as a whole.
Okay, let’s take a breath. And… on we go.
The exotic philosophical notions that are being explored — and the way that they’re actually folded into the very nature of the gameplay — are, I would opine, one of the best aspects of ‘Death Stranding’. I really admire its willingness to delve into such mind-bending, heady stuff. Though I can already hear all the carpers who will jeer the game for being ‘pretentious’. (These are the same rabid connoisseurs of mediocrity who, never let’s forget, feel that games needn’t try to attempt anything more sophisticated than, say, an FPS having its protagonist voice the stunningly original and powerful moral conundrum “wait, I’m just not sure anymore… is it right that I’m mowing down all these thousands of anonymous foes with my machine gun?!”) I think the game doesn’t quite stick the landing with some of the deeper stuff it tries to unpack, but I appreciate that it took a shot at it, and it sucks that they have to be subjected to hectoring from those who will reflexively mock anything which seeks to break the mould and branch out a little. The thing about trying something new is that naturally it never quite works out perfectly the first time. But someone does have to take those pioneering risks and incur ridicule for the execution being half-baked.
HOWEVER, and yes that’s a however emphatic enough to warrant being capitalised, there are some other very unadmirable creative choices in this game. The Monster energy drink product placement — and its implementation as an integral part of gameplay — is… I’m not going to mince words here… horrendously embarrassing. When I saw those big ugly black and yellow cans first pop-up in the game, I almost couldn’t believe it. In fact, I cringed so hard I think I may have passed out for a second. (Thank god for that mini-drone always hovering above my head, the one trained by a neural network to recognise whenever the need to dispense smelling salts arises. Everyone laughed at me for spending a fortune and hiring all those world-class computer scientists, but who’s laughing now?!)
Look, as tempting as it is to tear into them at great length over this appalling decision, I find I just don’t have the heart to do it. It’s too sad. I feel too much vicarious embarrassment for them already. (It’s like I want to crawl into a hole in shame on their behalf.) They have, in other words, already punished themselves enough, by tarnishing their work with this absurdly in-your-face in-game advertising — indeed, it’s the most prominent and garish product placement in a serious AAA game in recent memory — which just totally pulls you out of the game. It feels like a bad joke you’re not in on every time it pops up. I really hope that the Monster energy drink company presented the developers with a long line of dump-trucks full of cash in order to induce them to whore their game out in this laughable way. Not that that would make it okay, but I just hope they were at least super well-paid for this nonsense.
Y’know, that actually constitutes the main paradox of this game. In one sense, it’s so bold with its choices, aiming for all this highbrow artsy symbolism and all these philosophical ponderings, which may well limit its potential audience. And yet, at the same time, it has you drinking brand-name EXTREME! caffeinated sugar-water whenever you want to restore stamina and when you shower in-game a promotional image for Norman Reedus’ TV show is displayed to you, the captive audience. (You could even argue that latter case is more egregious, because it utterly, flagrantly demolishes the fourth wall. I don’t know who in the fuck thought it might be a good/acceptable idea to introduce quasi-commercial-breaks into video games.) What I’m getting at is the fact that the game has so much creative integrity in one way, but so little in another…
The Last of Us Part II
[I’ve noticed that sometimes my reviews (for severe lack of a better word) kind of accidentally end up being weirdly spoiler-free. I don’t at all intend this — and I think you would be wise to assume that any review you come across is likely to be thoroughly spoilerific. Though I do feel the need to add an extra disclaimer here all the same. I should warn you that I’m going to be venturing very, very deep into spoiler territory, and erecting not just a tent there but an entire sort of tent-city with its own full-fledged barter system and even a Town Hall, because a lot of what I have to say concerns the story itself and thus requires in-depth comment. I’m talking pretty fucking minute explication here, you dig? So, if you haven’t played the game, I more or less forbid you to keep reading. Just go and play it and thank me later. Then come back even later and finally finish reading this and thank me again, preferably publicly and volubly.]
First things first, and to get the obligatory/obvious out of the way, this game is unquestionably a masterpiece. If you’ll permit me to get a little sappy for a moment, I have to say I do feel very privileged to be around playing video games while Naughty Dog is plying its craft to such incredible effect. I’m such an ardent fan of their work and have been for a long time. They really have that unmistakable, ineffable spark of greatness. Something which just a handful of studios have had, and usually for just a certain stretch of their existence. Where each new game they put out is not just a marvellous tour de force but sometimes also, in one way or another, actually pushes forward either the medium of gaming itself (exceptionally rare) or its own genre (more common) or its specific niche in its own genre (most often).
(The prime example of that which always springs to mind for me is Bungie during its Halo era. It’s just a spectacular ten-year run, where they were unceasingly at the vanguard of the FPS genre, with the first three Halo games substantially advancing it — though for different reasons — each time. I really don’t know that any other studio in the modern era can put up a respective decade of their own toilings to best it. Though, if you look at Naughty Dog’s output from 2007-2017, it can’t be denied that they’ve got as strong a case as anyone. It’s impressive as hell. Bravo.)
I say all this upfront to emphasise to you how jarring it was to find myself regularly thinking, whilst playing TLOU2, “damn, I wish I could love this game more…”
I use the L-word very intentionally here. Because even though I truly enjoyed the shit out of TLOU2 and think it’s amazing in so many ways and regard it as an absolute creative triumph, the first game made me fall head-over-fucking-heels in love with it and… despite how primed I was to feel that way all over again… despite how much I deeply wanted to and expected to… this sequel just never inspired that level of affection from me. I kept waiting for it to happen, for something to click. Waited and waited and waited. And then I got to the end and realized that this was a game that I really, really dug and even downright admired, but which hadn’t forged that special, powerful, indissoluble connection with me in the same way that the first game did. And… that’s okay. With a little bit of hindsight, I’ve realized that’s okay. It’s not a demerit for the game itself, it just is what it is.
To drill down to the core of the matter, TLOU2 is probably a victim of ‘lightning in a bottle’ syndrome, because the first game felt so fresh and so perfectly wrought and so much like a revelation that I suppose it’s impossible to recapture that magic once again. I have such fond memories of TLOU1 and it had such an impact on me. The way it made no apologies whatsoever for attempting mature, restrained storytelling and complex characterisations was so goddamn refreshing. The way it strove to be ‘cinematic’ not merely in the manner that movies are, but in that unique and bracing manner that games could be. I was really blown away by it in the truest, fullest sense. It’s so rare that you’re playing something and you feel like you’re witnessing a new milestone in gaming. That engenders such an electrifying experience, like you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time, just breathlessly waiting to see what it’s gonna hit you with next. In short, you get the tingles, in both your body and your brain. Do you know what I’m talking about? The fucking tingles.
I kept willing TLOU2 to make me tingly, and really strained as hard as I could to feel that again, but that shit just wasn’t there. Which was kind of heartbreaking. I was so excited, so hyped to play this game. I was so prepared for it to completely rock my world that it ‘just’ being incredible, without being mindblowingly so, ended up feeling like a bit of a letdown. I know that’s ridiculous, but there you go.
Anyhow, yes, it is indeed excellent in… shall we say, a very unsubtle way. In a way which really doesn’t require much explanation or after-the-fact cheerleading. Simply play the game and you will most assuredly not find yourself wondering where all the lavish praise for it derives. It’s just so superbly well-made, through and through. It is tangibly the product of such exceptional finesse and confidence. With a game like this, almost all you can do is point out the various little facets which cause it to nonetheless fall short of perfection.
I’ve got a whole lot of miscellaneous thoughts about the game to dump out, but I’m gonna begin with matters to do with the story, because I think it’s the most useful starting point.
Again, I’d say that TLOU2 perhaps had somewhat of an uphill climb for me (and no doubt many others) because the relationship between Ellie and Joel was just so awesome to watch unfold in the first game. There was just something really enduringly special and endearingly touching about it. Whereas I think this game not only doesn’t manage to pull off a relationship that interesting again but, in fact, arguably isn’t even trying to. Although there is some focus on Ellie’s connections with other people, they are mostly used as a tool to service what is clearly the prime preoccupation of the game, which is examining Ellie herself, as a solo figure, and what she’s going through both internally and externally. The other characters in her orbit are not fully expanded as characters in their own right because they are just a means of prodding her in certain ways and displaying her reactions in sharper relief. (The same is actually true for Abby in her ‘half’ of the game. Though not quite to the same extent.)
I liked that they made a lot of bold choices with the storyline. The biggest one being to kill off Joel, and not only that but to do it right at the outset. To be fair, it’s sort of the obvious choice to make. And also one that kinda had to happen for myriad reasons: to preemptively eliminate the undoubtedly strong temptation to just repeat the first game’s formula, to show that the consequences of Joel’s all-important decision were bound to catch up with him, to give Ellie an impetus to leave the safety of Jackson (which otherwise would have been quite hard to come by), and so on. All the same, it’s commendable that they had the nerve to go through with it. Doing away with TLOU1’s much-loved protagonist is not an easy thing to do. Nor is having enough creative principle to decline to do the partial-cop-out, fan-servicey thing and somehow contrive for Ellie and Joel to have a classic heart-to-heart deathbed exchange. I can’t tell you how pissed I would have been if we’d been treated to “Ellie, *bloody sputtering cough* you’re like a daughter *wheeze wheeze* to me…”, y’know? I very much respect that they avoided this artless pandering. (It was absolutely the right move. Ellie needed to be denied any form of closure, as is the lynchpin of all good revenge tales.) It allows us to instead have that breathtakingly poignant moment — which just destroyed me — where an immobilised Ellie can only stare into Joel’s concussion-bleary eyes as the finishing blow is about to be landed. It also makes the few final glimpses you get of him, via fleeting flashbacks, all the more powerful and affecting.
And then, even beyond Joel, the game really sticks to its guns (no macabre pun intended) by killing off so many of its side-characters and thereby reinforcing the fact that this is a dangerous world where you can inadvertently zig when you should’ve zagged and receive a bullet to the dome for your trouble. I would just offer a few small quibbles though. I think the game maybe goes to the well a little bit too much with the ‘Shockingly Sudden Manner™’ in which they are killed. (I.e. consider the symmetry between Jesse and Manny’s deaths.) That is, of course, a cherished trick which resides in every storyteller’s toolbelt — it’s part of the Basics package they hand out gratis with your diploma once you graduate from the make-’em-ups academy — but it is best used sparingly. Furthermore, it’s a little disappointing that the deaths seem to always come during a climatic showdown and at the hands of a known, named character. It would have REALLY doubled-down on that aspect of ‘gunfights are uncontrollably, unfathomably chaotic and anyone can die at any moment’ if your current companion-character had their chest become an impromptu catcher’s mitt for hollowpoints during one of those unspecial, dime-a-dozen shootouts with lowly rank-and-file enemies. That’s a ballsy move right there. To make their death genuinely meaningless and random, instead of using it to strategically heighten an important story moment.
Let’s talk about Abby for a second. Look, am I going to crack wise about the fact that she must have been doing preacher curls morning, noon, and night, or about the fact that she has a scowl at her disposal which could blast the paint off a wall? Well, I suppose that’s somewhat of a done deed now. But am I going to go into greater detail about it? Negative. Because… A) I rather liked that she was such a stone-cold bad-ass bitch, and B) who cares about that stupid superficial shit? (Besides neurotic, hypercritical boneheads on Reddit, I mean. The type of people who get into week-long screaming matches about whether anabolic steroids would still be extant in the apocalypse.) I’m just gonna talk about her inclusion in a general sense. I’m guessing that making her co-protagonist in this game has probably been somewhat of a divisive choice with the fans. I know, I know, it’s a really out-there prediction… But, listen, gamers are not known for their abiding love of change. (I feel I can say this glibly because, after all, I’m one of them and unfortunately share in their affliction.) And, to be fair, after asking them to wait seven long years for a sequel, to then immediately off Joel, halve Ellie’s screentime AND introduce a new playable character they’ll understandably start off (and possibly never stop) passionately hating… you know, that is asking quite a lot.
Still, as much as part of me would’ve preferred that Ellie get the undivided spotlight, I found I didn’t hate the move to split and interweave the narrative. I think they did enough with Abby and her respective storyline to justify it. However, there are indeed some caveats to this. It has to be said that Abby takes… uh, really quite a while to become interesting and to truly feel like a character in her own right. Up until then you’re kind of just thinking “shit, guys, I’m fully down to go wherever the fuck you wanna take me, but it sure would be nice if you could start keying me in to why it’s worth going here sooner rather than later.” As well, I think Abby and Ellie are maybe too similar. I know that the overlap between them (e.g. they’re both lone wolves at heart, they each lost their father or father figure, they’re both consumed by a need for revenge, etc) is partly intentional in an important way because it’s meant to show how vendettas just instigate other vendettas, with the chain of violence potentially continuing endlessly and usually involving much collateral damage on all sides. Nevertheless, I’d still say there were a lot of other, narratively irrelevant areas where more stark differences could have been drawn between them, to in turn make them each more distinctive. Otherwise you run the risk of seeming, to the typically sceptical player, like you siphoned Ellie’s precious screentime in order to insert someone who’s merely like a more surly, hardened, and unlikable version of Ellie herself. It becomes harder to see the point of it then.
That segues nicely into what is probably my single biggest problem with the game. There’s a certain palpable lack of characterisation work being done with both Ellie and Abby. There’s just not enough time/effort put into fleshing them out, into revealing their interior life, for my liking. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly what I mean by this, but if you play the game I really think you’ll see what I’m getting at. Let me put it like this. By the time you finish TLOU1 you feel like you’ve been expansively shown the evolution of both Joel and Ellie — even despite them being taciturn and so emotionally guarded — and you really understand who they are as people and why. I simply didn’t feel quite like that when the credits rolled this time. I felt like the writers only got maybe two-thirds of the way there. It’s just not nearly as richly conveyed this time. And there’s a differential at work in how it negatively effects my connection to each character, because with Ellie it’s a lot easier to overlook because I’ve gotten to know her at length beforehand but with Abby it’s a more serious shortcoming because she’s new and starts off as a glaring unknown.
The conspicuousness of this issue is made even worse because the side-characters sometimes steal the scene and seem more compelling or entertaining than either Ellie or Abby. If only because they have bigger, louder, more colourful personalities. For instance, Jesse has this charismatic, magnetically enigmatic quality to him which really shines. Manny is lighthearted and quippy and offers some much needed comic relief. Owen is a flaky, flighty, untrustworthy asshole who soaks up all your disdain. Mel is meek and predisposed to conciliation but is finally pushed over the edge into bitterly confronting Abby. They all provide fun interpersonal dynamics to play around with. And as for Yara and Lev? Well, I think they’re by far the most fascinating and well-drawn side-characters, and almost overshadow the protagonists a little bit because of it. Despite the fact that I found the Seraphites to be an egregiously generic and bland post-apocalyptic cult, their storyline was a real standout for me. It’s impressive how the writers manage to give them their own full arc in a relatively compressed amount of time. (By the by, I think the tasteful way they handle Lev being trans was neat. It adds an interesting wrinkle to the situation, but it makes perfect sense to not make a big deal out of it in a mawkish, condescending way, especially in a fictional universe where there’s a million other more pressing things to worry about first, like stopping that shambler from excreting acid all over your face. God I came to hate those fucking shamblers…)
There are two notable exceptions to this trend though. Dina is obviously very charming and likeable, but she’s a bit too one-dimensional given her importance to the story. And Tommy is held back in that same way too. He’s also bafflingly underutilised in this game. Given he’s Joel’s brother, he offers the perfect opportunity — and, really, the only opportunity — for Ellie to bond with someone over Joel’s life and also the shared sorrow at his death, to really open up about him to someone, to share stories and to posthumously gain a better understanding of who Joel was (especially before the outbreak, when he was seemingly and tantalisingly a different man to some extent.)
Still, across the board, it really must be said that the quality of the voice-acting and motion-capture performances is probably the very best in the industry right now. It’s really something to behold.
Which, alas, brings me to my next point. I really feel strongly that the characters (especially the protagonists) should have been speaking more during the course of gameplay. In fact, this directly ties into what I said earlier was my biggest complaint about the game, because it’s a large part of what enables the missed opportunity itself. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but back in TLOU1, I remember there being quite a lot of dialogue between Joel and Ellie as you’re just exploring and solving puzzles and the like. I mean, it’s one of the reasons why you end up getting so invested in them and their fate: you get to learn about the deepest parts of them, what they’re really thinking and feeling, through these conversations. But in TLOU2, I found the frequency of this kind of important, subtly revelatory dialogue to be drastically cut. I suspect that getting to read Ellie’s journal entries is kind of being offered up as a half-hearted substitute, but I’ve gotta say I think it’s a fairly paltry replacement.
Now, I suppose it goes without saying that this game is aiming to be very understated in some ways. (Its predecessor had certainly already ventured some distance in that direction itself — and to much rightly deserved acclaim — but, even so, I believe they meant to try to one-up it in that regard.) It’s also striving for an extremely sombre tone. Both considerations may be said to necessitate and/or justify the reduced dialogue. And… sure, that’s a fair point. I do think it’s creditable and impressive that they often take the more difficult path of trying to convey things visually/non-verbally. And, yes, obviously Ellie’s not going to be a manic chatterbox when she’s on a mission to avenge her brutally murdered surrogate-dad. Furthermore, I actually do really like the times when the game very purposefully plays around with the use of prolonged silence, and to great effect. (That scene where you’re slowly, wordlessly walking all the way to Joel’s house after his demise is terrific, for example.)
I just believe that in a game like this which is principally character-driven — even more so than plot-driven, I’d say, because when you think about it the plot’s actually very simple/basic and more of a railroad track than a train unto itself — you’ve really gotta have your priorities straight and know what to service above all else. After all, it’s a long game, there’s plenty of time to show the player different aspects of what you’re trying to achieve, instead of allowing secondary creative goals to crowd out the primacy of characterisation via dialogue. Remember your core competencies. Remember what got you to the dance in the first place. You can add the new without having to subtract the old.
To get into the nitty-gritty about the story itself, my two main gripes are actually total mirror-images of each other. It comes down to why didn’t/wouldn’t Abby kill Ellie when she had the chance? And vice versa.
Let’s take Abby first. I totally get why she stays her hand at the last minute when it comes to cutting Dina’s throat: even though it would have abided by some depraved eye-for-an-eye moral logic, ultimately killing Dina would make Abby just as ‘bad’ as Ellie. (And, moreover, to be so barbaric in front of Lev would damage his opinion of her and perhaps destroy their emerging partnership or whatever you wanna call it.) Yet there’s simply no reason whatsoever for her to spare Ellie. No matter what angle you look at it from, it just doesn’t make any fucking sense. Not even a little. Ellie savagely murdered most of her friends, including her lover, and was planning to track Abby down and X her out too. Now Abby has beaten her to the punch, killed — as far as she knows, anyway; Tommy’s mysteriously adamantium skull notwithstanding — two of Ellie’s cohort, and beat Ellie half to death. She has every reason in the world to finish the job, and no justification is presented for why she doesn’t. I suppose… at a stretch… you could maybe say that because Abby managed to so easily eliminate Ellie’s revenge-buddies and then, when it came down to hand-to-hand combat, absolutely brutalize Ellie herself, she could have decided that Ellie wasn’t really a threat to someone like her and thus the opportunity to haughtily spare Ellie’s life arises. But that’s just me doing some work for the game. And I certainly don’t buy it anyhow.
It really just ends up feeling like Ellie has been granted rather absurd plot-armour, to be frank. So that she can live another day and the story can continue. In a game like this, which otherwise laudably has the courage to make the world and characters seem very real and grounded, such that the inexorable arithmetic of awful choices entailing awful consequence is very much alive and well, this lapse and/or self-indulgence is all the more disappointing.
(While we’re on the topic, I have to add that having Ellie drop her comically plainly-annotated map after killing Owen & Mel in order to fast-track Abby tracking down her homebase and attacking her was a bit… eye-roll inducing, shall we say. I know sometimes necessity compels the odd narrative convenience when you’ve gotta converge several far-away characters lickety-split, but come on, there’s gotta be a better shortcut you can think up than that weak-sauce. Like, you might as well have had Ellie just leave an attached note that said “I am here. Come kill me. XOXO.” Although, actually, now that I think about it, that would have been kinda bad-ass. So scratch that…)
And then pretty much everything I said about Abby’s sudden and inexplicable taste for mercy applies equally to Ellie. I had a sneaking suspicion as I was playing through the game that they were going to try and find some way to let Abby live. And I was not terribly pleased, to put it mildly, when this turned out to be the case.
Ellie has no compunction whatsoever about killing. She is, in point of fact, completely numb and resigned to it. She has killed hundreds of infected as well as hundreds of nameless, faceless still-human enemies. Often in especially callous and hideous ways too, such as burning or bludgeoning them to death. (I know we’re butting up against the somewhat unavoidable wall of ludonarrative dissonance here, but even still.) More specifically, she was fine wiping out the WLF accomplices to Joel’s slaying — mere enablers of the act itself — so why would she scruple against killing the one person she has the MOST reason in all the world to be justified killing? The murderer herself? It just doesn’t compute.
I actually really loved the final climatic showdown of the game, and thought it was exceptionally well-done. It was such a great choice to have you catch up with Abby at her absolute lowest possible moment: abruptly captured by Rattlers just after at long last receiving a ray of hope concerning the reemergence of the Fireflies, worked to the bone in their enslavement camp and no doubt subjected to much ill-treatment besides, and then punished for an escape attempt by being tied to a post and left to slowly die. There’s no question that you encounter Abby in an incredibly pitiful state. She is a tortured, defeated husk. And if Ellie had taken one look at her and decided “she’s clearly already suffered enough, that’s sufficient karmic payback” or even just “it’s impossible for me to get the true satisfaction of revenge now” and turned her back and walked away, I could ultimately have accepted that. (Though I do think that almost any scenario where Ellie ends up having a chance to kill Abby and then doesn’t take it is inherently questionable, given everything that has come before.)
But the problem is that Ellie doesn’t do that. She recalls the image of Joel’s caved-in head and forces Abby to engage in a horrific one-on-one fight, ostensibly ‘to the death’, with her.
(That’s another thing which doesn’t quite sit right. After Abby conclusively demonstrated that she could best Ellie in a physical fight, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Ellie would opt not to just shoot her dead right then and there. Wham, bam, farewell ma’am! I get that it’s more honourable to give Abby a fair chance to defend herself, or maybe there’s an element of wanting to prolong the retribution instead of settling for the quickness of a bullet. But I’m just not sold on the idea that Ellie would abandon all pragmatic self-preservation reasoning and undertake an unnecessary mortal struggle with someone when she’s already sustained a serious injury to her side. Ellie can be reckless and impulsive, sure, but not that reckless and impulsive.)
So by going ahead with the fight she’s clearly decided that all other considerations fail to move her, and Abby still has to die regardless. The seriousness of this conviction is amply demonstrated by her slashing and stabbing Abby with a knife, by her attempting to drown Abby. These are the actions of someone who is very fucking intent that their nemesis not see another sunrise.
But… then… Ellie has another momentary flashback to Joel — this one has him looking kindly upon her in better times — and suddenly decides that she shouldn’t go through with it after all. I know I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record here, but this just doesn’t make a lick of sense. I mean, what is it that remembering Joel causes her to newly realize? Because if Ellie had been killed, and Joel had been the one on a quest to avenge her, it’s beyond even a shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t hesitate to put the guilty party in the ground post haste. AND, to return to the real timeline, even if the ghost of Joel was hovering over her as she was holding Abby’s head underwater, there’s also no question that he would tell her to finish the job, to definitively remove the danger of Abby hunting her down in return later on.
What makes this sudden change of heart particularly unexplainable is how incredibly committed to killing Abby Ellie had already proven herself to be. It’s no exaggeration to say that it had become the number one priority in her life, something she absolutely had to do no matter what. She had somehow gotten out of Seattle alive, despite all the blunders and unforeseeable bad luck which should have gotten her killed at various points. That’s a minor miracle, really. She had then forged a happy domestic life for herself and Dina and their painfully adorable baby on their farm. (I’m sorry to have to keep inserting sub-quibbles as I’m explicating the main ones, but I can’t have been the only one that was a little perturbed that they decided to raise their child all alone in a remote farmstead, far from the protection and utilities of Jackson. Doesn’t seem hugely wise. They’re an enticingly-vulnerable sitting duck for any band of roaming bandits or the like.) In that sense, having achieved the storybook ‘ending’ she had longed for, she had every incentive to let the Abby thing drop if there was any way that she possibly could. But… she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
And it cost her everything. She blew up her life and her relationship with the woman she loves (which in turn jeopardizes her ability to see her own child); she made a long, arduous journey across the country all by herself; she infiltrated the Rattler camp even though she was injured and their numbers made the prospect near enough suicidal. I mean, when you consider what she was willing to give to achieve this objective, I really don’t think it’s going too far to say it had fully become her raison d’être. Her life had, in effect, become an arrow speeding towards a single bullseye.
If you ask me — and, really, when you click on any of my blog posts, I consider it a malleable, undefined, blank-check question straight from your lips to my ear — you can’t go about strenuously and extensively laying this groundwork and then make Ellie act like a completely different person at the eleventh hour (or, rather, at one second to midnight) because… well, why? Because they want a redemptive moment for Ellie, which shows she still has some goodness and compassion in her? If that’s the case, you probably should’ve shown her donating bone marrow to a ward full of sick kittens or something grandiosely saintly like that then, because I’m just not sure that letting Abby hobble away after thoroughly mauling her is enough to make up for… I mean, just off the top of my head… knifing a pregnant woman to death or spilling helpless Nora’s brain matter into her lap with the help of a lead pipe. Or is it because they think that having learned about Abby’s tragic backstory over the course of the game and even having spent some time in her shoes will humanize her in the player’s eyes and we’ll no longer feel the same rage towards her now that we finally understand her better? Well, that didn’t quite work on me, I must admit. I liked Joel’s character a lot, and I don’t forgive and I don’t forget, and so I still wanted to punch her ticket pretty badly. But, anyhow, the player and Ellie are separate entities. Ellie didn’t get to play the flashback sequences. Ellie is barely privy to even a small fraction of what the person holding the dualshock has learned about Abby. So all that ought to be moot. Or is it because they want to make some rather facile moralistic point about revenge not being the ‘answer’? God, I hope not, that would be depressing. They’re so much better than that, than trying to slip in some kind of ‘Saturday Morning Special’ sententiousness. It would require a serious disconnect from reality to think that people go to video games about shooting zombies for lessons about the ethics of retribution. Or is it because — and I do fear the motivation might be this simple — they just want to retain Abby so she can feature as deuteragonist again in Part III?
I know this is all probably coming off as more forceful than I really feel. To be candid, I fear I’m the type of dude who could spend a few thousand words scathingly ranting about how the delicious ice-cream I just had at a creamery didn’t have enough sprinkles on it. There is a certain level of congenital discontent just woven into my DNA, alas. In the grand scheme of things, these issues I’m highlighting are fairly small problems and didn’t really dampen my enjoyment of the game or the story. Nor do I think that they significantly sully it. They’re just things that didn’t sit right with me because the game was so good that I expected it to ace absolutely everything it did. My point is merely that by searching for expedient corners to cut in order to make a character act in a way you’d like them to act, but haven’t actually laid any foundation of reasoning for them doing so, I think you’re doing a disservice to the characters themselves, who you’ve spent so much time creating and artfully bringing to life. It just feels like a bit of a shame, really.
I personally have this idea of ‘narrative determinism’, wherein once you establish (even just in your own mind) a comprehensive notion of who a set of characters are — and I mean truly are: their past, their personality, how they think, what they fear and hate and value, etc — your hands are actually tied from then on. They can follow only one path, because there’s only one path which can materialise from their inevitable reactions to the events you intend to impose upon them. In other words, they are constrained to doing what they were always going to do, because they are who they are and that guarantees they will act a certain way. These constants are the static prism through which the external variables are fed and refracted. (Naturally, this is all assuming that the universe the story is set in is a realistic one, where characters perforce have to be chained to the same conveyor belt of causality that we, poor sublunary mortals, are in real life. If you remove or alter this precondition, for instance when dreaming up some fantastical world unlike our own, then… of course, go nuts, you can do whatever the hell you want.)
I know that this sounds like an incredibly simple and perhaps even uncontroversial precept, but I think you’ll find that neither is quite true. It’s harder to adhere to than it may seem at first glance because being true to the characters you create requires a surprisingly onerous form of unswerving discipline. It’s very common to, halfway through penning some tale, get tempted to try and shoehorn in some exciting new scene that’s just occurred to you by simply ignoring something already established about your characters which would preclude it from happening. And this is such an insidious temptation precisely because you’re not actually going so far as to explicitly retcon something, you’re just briefly employing a little strategic creative-amnesia in an attempt to have it both ways. The other thing I should point out is that there’s a certain type of fiction writer who has a more wholesale opposition to what I propose. The reason it’s anathema to them is because they consider the particular storyline they’ve come up with so important as to override and subsume everything else, and therefore whatever characters they throw into the mix are just flexible props utilised however necessary to bring about the next desired plot point.
(And then of course there are those who like and/or content themselves with going into a story having preemptively figured out nothing about it, so that everything they write is ‘discovered’ on-the-fly, as if by the roll of a dice, and coloured by the whim of that particular moment. They tend not to anticipate how offputtingly apparent this is in the finished product. I tell you all this from the vantage of a… reformed sinner, let’s say. I had a weakness for this storytelling-by-feel approach myself, during the jejune experimentation of my youth. And not out of any esoteric reverence for the “power of creative spontaneity” or anything like that. I was just lazy and too impatient to commit to pre-planning.)
As I say, I think that this gets the matter exactly wrong. I think the course of the story must emerge from the fixed reality of the characters, must be slavishly dictated by it. A side-benefit of this approach is that, in my opinion, it results in better, deeper, more enthralling fiction — the audience can just instinctively tell when a story has its own unfailingly-honoured internal truth, and this distinction gives it an incandescence and a euphony of insight which is what allows the best stories to rivet us and stay with us forever.
It also encourages you to become invested in the characters themselves to a greater degree. Part of me just starts to mentally check out when I encounter characters who seem like schizophrenic magic 8-balls which, when vigorously shook by any event and its corresponding decision-point, react randomly because that unpredictable caprice is deemed to be more ‘exciting’ or ‘entertaining’. When a character’s actions do not arise from the fundamental nature of who they are (which has been forged by their personal history) but instead from meta-considerations such as the author wanting to make a u-turn in the plot in order to pad out some extra pages, it’s inherently immersion-breaking because you find yourself thinking about the vagaries of the authorial process rather than simply living inside its creation. That’s why my advice is: if you wanted the plot to go in a certain direction, you should have started by writing characters whose comprehensibly justified actions take the plot in that direction. The beginning of the story precisely entails its end, if you see what I mean. This is not only a finer way to write fiction, but an easier one too. It streamlines the whole thing. It saves a lot of time which would otherwise be wasted on trying to devise what could be a ‘good’ or ‘interesting’ thing to happen next, because you can just depict what the right thing is. Untethered guesswork is taxing; mere calculation is a breeze.
And I have to imagine that I wasn’t the only one — not by a long shot — who finished the game and thought that Ellie killing Abby at the end was ineluctably the right conclusion story-wise, given everything that had already been established. Some people may even have been infuriated by this creative misstep, I don’t know. Personally, I was just a bit nonplussed and a tad disappointed. I pay the writers a certain compliment in reacting that way, as it’s because I think they’re such deft and talented storytellers that I’m so sure it’s well within their grasp to do better.
Some various other thoughts about the game itself.
I adored the rainy Seattle setting. This is just purely a matter of personal preference of course, but, oh man, I really dug it. It also helps create a pleasing contrast when you end up in sunny, arid California towards the end of the game. Though, all that being said, I think I’d be happy with wherever the fuck Naughty Dog wanted to take me. They could set the next game in the industrial zoning area of Bumfuck, Idaho and I’d still be hella down. (A mountaintop sage once said: you never know whether you’re the type of person who can get away with saying ‘hella’ until you try. I’ll let you be the judge. Just know that I’m wearing a bandanna, a chain-wallet, and cargo shorts as I type this, and I’m even about to crack open a slightly above room-temperature can of supermarket-brand cola, in case it influences your decision. By the way, my next mid-sentence experiment will be with the word ‘dope’. It’s gonna be great. Watch this space.) I’m so confident about this because — as is almost comically needless to say — their ‘environment design’ work is so goddamn top-notch and, again, among the best in the business. They sure know how to craft spaces which you really wanna get lost in and explore every part of. There’s such a remarkable level of polish present here.
Be that as it may, to consider things on just a simplistic technical level, some of the superlatives… alas… must be dropped. I suppose I can’t really explain why this was, but for whatever reason I went into TLOU2 really expecting it to blow me away graphically. Maybe because there was such an insane level of hype behind it. Maybe because it’s kind of like the PS4’s last major hurrah (first-party wise, I mean) before the next-gen hullabaloo fully descends. But, anyhow, although it’s definitely adequately pretty throughout, and even has a few standout moments that are particularly beautiful, I have to say I was a tad underwhelmed by its graphical prowess. There really wasn’t the massive leap I was expecting there to be even between the remastered version of TLOU1 and this.
I also strongly suspect that having played —and it’s real easy to single out one game as the culprit — ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ just set the bar for being graphically wowed thereafter way too high. That game manages to be almost unbelievably, jaw-droppingly stunning whilst also presenting one of the largest and most detailed and most impressively realized open-worlds I’ve ever played. (Most studios have to pick between one of these ambitions, at the expense of the other. But not here.) That achievement, because of its ultra-rare combinatory nature, was always going to be almost impossible to compete against. I really have no idea how the hell Rockstar pulled it off, how they managed to squeeze so much from the current-gen hardware. And I’m sure a lot of developers in rival studios are similarly throwing their hands up in flummoxed despair. It has to be some sort of supernatural wizardry, I’m pretty sure. Specifically, some newfangled form of unholy pixelmancy. It’s a hell of a thing, that. It requires siphoning power from the platonic ideal of beauty which hovers thickly and abstractly in the aether. Devious bastards.
I love how long the game is. I believe by the time I finished it, my save files were informing me that I’d racked up about 40-50 hours. Now, granted, I have a very slow paced, unhurriedly-take-it-all-in playstyle — especially in a game like this, my god; I check and then double-check every single drawer for parts or letters — but even still. For a linear, cinematic game like this, and of such high quality too, to stretch that long is extremely praiseworthy.
Actually, I’ve noticed that it’s a bit of a signature tactic for Naughty Dog titles that you get to a point where the game seems to be drawing to a close and you’ve definitely already played enough content that you could happily live with that, but then they rip away that fake-out ending and give you a whole other big chunk of gameplay. I really enjoy that, I have to say. It’s like a nice little bonus when you’re not even expecting it, like when you’re a smidgen dejected at having opened all your presents on christmas morning and then your parents whip out one last gift-wrapped surprise from behind the couch with a grin. I think this is an awesome move. Just when you’d be sorry to have to leave this world they’ve created, when you can feel yourself already getting ready to miss it, they let you live in it a little bit longer and you spend that final goodbye-period all the more appreciative of it.
Although the combat versus the infected enemies is very solid, I did find myself getting a bit tired of it as the game went on. It just doesn’t have a lot of variety to it, you know? Almost every infected-only encounter tends to play out in the same way, so you always know what to expect. You sneak around and stealthily take out as many as you can, and then once you (in my case, because of my impatient gung-ho disposition whenever I’m even slightly ammo-rich, inevitably) fuck up and get noticed you pretty much have only one recourse: backpedal while speedily emptying your magazines. Of course, introducing new types of infected, who employ different tactics and abilities, into this game was a good decision. When they happen to be present, it does add a small extra degree of complexity to the encounters. But it doesn’t really change the fundamental dynamic itself.
If we were to get a Part III (which I’m saddened to relate would, at the current rate, arrive in… 2027), I would maybe recommend coming up with some ways to mix up the infected battles more substantially. Inject an element of freshness and greater unpredictability into them somehow. I just want there to be more methods to interact with the infected than always merely trying to inflict enough damage until they drop dead. For example, what if when you hit a shambler with a molotov it’s a dicey risk-vs-reward proposition because sometimes that backfires and the spore clouds it puffs out are now ignited, giving it a long-range flamethrower ability? Or what if you could sneak up on a stunned bloater and stab a smoke bomb into its head — which obviously would need to be a difficult feat — thereby drastically disorientating it and causing it to blindly aim its blitzkrieg sprints into other infected, who it would smash into and rip apart because it’s too befuddled to realize it’s not you? Or what if you could fool a clicker into walking off a ledge or walking into a sparking fusebox which would electrocute it, by shrewd use of thrown bottles/bricks which you would chain like audible breadcrumbs to direct it wherever you like?
(While I’m on the topic, I might as well throw this out there too. I know this is a nit-picky thing, but I really wasn’t psyched about the changes that seem to have been made to the clicker. It’s such an iconic staple of the TLOU’s universe, and yet in this game they made it noticeably less distinct from the run-of-the-mill ‘runner’ type of infected. It’s entirely possible I may be mistaken about this because I’m just going off memory, but it struck me that this time around the size and prominence of the fungal plates erupting from their faces was reduced, and their trademark clicking/echolocation sound was made quieter and less unmistakable. This is not just aesthetic bellyaching either: it also hampered me during gameplay because I was significantly less able to determine which infected were clickers on-the-fly, especially during the heat of battle. I think this is a step backwards in terms of their design, in particular its functional component, and they should be reverted back to the original look/sound going forward.)
Oppositely, the combat encounters against the human enemies are really nothing short of incredible. For me, they’re where this series really shines gameplay-wise. There’s something very special and unique about them: they do a fantastic job of simulating the hectic, chaotic, overwhelming feel that a real urban shoot-out would surely have. Maybe this depends on difficulty, I don’t know — I played on ‘Hard’ — but I appreciated that the enemy A.I. is nice and aggressive, and will not hesitate to try to flank you or force you out of cover with molotovs and attack dogs or the like. It forces you to be reactive and to think on your feet whilst under pressure. And given that’s combined with ammo scarcity (another distinguishing feature for this series which I really cherish) and the fact that if you nakedly charge at an enemy they’re granted deadly accuracy, you often can’t rely on simply shooting your way through a skirmish. You gotta use the other weapons at your disposal, you gotta pay attention to the opportunities presented by the urban terrain around you and reposition frequently to take advantage of them. In short, you really have to try to outmanoeuvre and outsmart the enemies however possible, which is just not the case with many games.
I also think the little touches which really humanize the combat are rad. For instance, when you shoot an enemy and one of their allies dynamically yells out in shock and anguish “Nooo! Jack’s down!” or something else personalised in the same way. It may seem like a trivial thing, but attaching names to them and showing some kind of bond between them does genuinely add an extra emotional dimension to it. You see the effect you’re having, you see that you’re killing someone who those around them actually know and care about.
Talking of which, I loooove that this game doesn’t shy away from the gruesome and appalling and horrifying nature of violence. It shows it in all its true awfulness. From the way that your bullets will sometimes de-limb — to coin a term — the enemies to the way that your explosive traps will result in bisected enemy corpses with their guts hanging out to the way that enemies realistically scream in agony as they’re dying. It’s exactly what was needed to make the world feel vivid and real, to make the stakes more impactful. Each time you make it through a gunfight alive, you’re left reeling a bit. As would be the case with Ellie, you don’t feel like some glorious hero, you feel like you just barely scraped through a horrible ordeal replete with repugnant deeds and sights and sounds.
But, above all else, what’s most commendable (not to mention affecting) is how the hand-to-hand combat that takes place in cutscenes is depicted. The best examples of this are the fights between Abby and Ellie. This shit isn’t like the rules in a blockbuster action-film, where we each take turns throwing haymakers and roundhouse kicks which land with muted effect and then we walk away with a few bruises and maybe an oddly aesthetic cut on the cheek or across the eyebrow. The violence here is gritty, raw, real, disturbing, utterly ghastly and sickening. It looks exactly like what you’d expect it to look like if two people were really fighting for their lives. It’s a desperate, brutal struggle that’s hard to watch — as, indeed, it should be.
There are moments which have been seared into my memory because they’re so shocking and emotionally harrowing: Abby punching Ellie in the face like ten times until it’s just a bloody mess and then repeatedly slamming Dina’s head against the ground until she’s out cold (1st encounter in the theatre), Ellie and Abby fighting over the knife as it gradually gets pushed into Abby’s chest at which point she lets out an unforgettably bone-chilling guttural screech (2nd encounter at the beach), to name just a few. I believe the game must be applauded for the boldness of this authentic approach. It’s easier to tone things down and make the violence light and inconsequential because so many people mindlessly bleat “games are just supposed to be FUN!”; it’s difficult to commit to crafting moments which are purely upsetting as fuck. But I think the nature of this game demands that they take the harder path, and I’m very glad they did. Kudos to them. It shows a real sense of artistic integrity.
A few last points to wrap this thing up.
I feel like I’ll never get sick of the overgrown-fungus aesthetic they’ve come up with for this universe. It’s so unsettling! It’s so gross! And, most remarkably of all, it’s so darkly beautiful in its own way. I also love the idea that wherever the infected go, they bring this blight with them and spread it there. It just works so well to make you feel like you’re waging a futile resistance against a foe who’s already conclusively won, because not only has it colonised so much territory already but even going forward it’s no less unstoppable, given that it can grow on any surface and forcibly recruit any living creature. (Although, wait, I guess we still haven’t been told whether it can infect animals? What’s up with that?) You feel like it’s lurking all around you at all times: it’s everywhere, even somehow places where it isn’t visible. The new ‘stalker’ enemies that pop out of the large, bulbous growths which coat the walls help reinforce this oppressive feeling. Knowing that they could jump out at any moment and catch you unaware makes it so you never quite relax.
The game does such a great job of hammering home the impression that this has now become the cordyceps’ planet, and even though the last remnants of humanity — now reduced to being mere squatters in their former home — kid themselves that they’re finding ways to co-exist with it long-term, they are actually on their way out, erratically singing one last swan song before extinction. And what’s unique about the game’s tone is that it manages to not make this seem hopeless and sorrowful — a maudlin approach which would perhaps have been the obvious thing to do — instead it kind of just makes you feel resigned to it, in a numb acceptance sort of way. Which is perfect because it mirrors how the more level-headed people in this universe (like Joel and Ellie, for instance) seem to have come to feel about it too. You are induced to see the world through their eyes, in other words. It’s pretty brilliant, honestly.
The reverse boss-fight where you’re playing as Abby and you have to defeat Ellie was cool, if stupendously predictable. I’m not trying to be funny here, but I just don’t get how anyone who’s been playing video games for a long time could have walked through — and you are forced to, several times — that backstage area in the theatre with all the prop items and furniture carefully arranged into a cramped maze pattern and not deduce that it was obviously going to be used later on for some kind of cat-and-mouse combat encounter. I mean, you can’t really telegraph what you’re planning any more than that. The first time I saw it, I literally said to my girlfriend “at some point, I’m gonna be back here, sneaking around in some lopsided fight where I have to use the element of surprise.” And I didn’t exactly feel super-smart when I was proved right.
Anyway, my only problem with this boss-fight was that I though it did a bit of a lame job with the whole “woah! so this is what it’s like for all those poor bastards when they’re fighting Ellie!” thing. Ellie’s actually very cautious and resourceful and intelligent when it comes to combat, but her A.I. in this boss-fight was… well, glaringly half-witted. She just creeps around setting traps in terrible spots, and even when she tries to pin you down she seems incapable of cleverly using the space to her advantage and backing you into a corner or forcing you to come to her. I don’t know, I just would have liked this boss-fight to be more challenging, and in so doing to pay more respect to Ellie’s capabilities.
I know it’s a small thing, but how fucking great is that cover of ‘Take On Me’ by Ellie/Ashley Johnson? Holy moley. Something about it really struck a chord with me. And, in terms of the game as a whole, I liked all the tender moments between her and Dina, I think they were pulled off superbly. The scene where Dina is washing the blood off of Ellie’s back is an example of one that stuck with me. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. I will say that I thought it was a perfect (though missed) opportunity to push the boundaries with non-sexual nudity though. Games are still a bit iffy about even showing nudity during actual sex scenes, but I suppose it’s fair to say that although there’s still MOUNTAINS of work to do with regards to refining how it’s executed (FYI, I thought it was done well with Abby in this game), that taboo has been broken now. However, we’ve still got to get over the hump with non-sexual nudity and Naughty Dog could really have took that leap here and shifted things forward for gaming as an artistic medium. I think if you’re gonna tiptoe all the way up to the line, you might as well take a deep breath and just step over it. I mean, Ellie’s already half-naked during that scene, and if this was a film, I’m pretty sure there would have been no qualms about (or objections to) showing her breasts. It wouldn’t at all be gratuitous. It would have just served to emphasise how broken and vulnerable and bare she felt, and amplified the emotional impact of that moment between them.
Listen, I know it always appears at least slightly suspicious and/or skeezy when a guy — i.e. your humble servant — is calling for there to be more boobs in something. This is often a sound suspicion, I must admit. But isn’t it Naughty Dog themselves who are implying that breasts are only sexual if they freely show them in a scene where two people are fucking, but thoroughly go out of their way to avoid showing them in a tender, though utterly non-sexual, scene where someone is topless? Just a thought. I also know there might be some uneasiness about this from the developers because players originally got to know Ellie as a teenager or whatever, but I believe she’s like twenty years old(?) in this game, so at some point you’ve got to acknowledge and respect the adulthood of your own character. I think if you’re going to commit to the 18 (or R, for the yanks) rating anyway, you might as well take advantage of all the freedoms that offers you. Anyway, let me just clarify that this isn’t quite a complaint per se, it’s more like a suggestion. I’m really just spitballing here.
The decision to not ship with multiplayer is both curious and pretty disappointing. Back on the PS3, I enjoyed the fuck out of TLOU1’s multiplayer mode. I thought it was sadly underrated and underplayed (if that’s even a word.) I really couldn’t understand why it didn’t seem to be the massive success it deserved to be. It was bringing something new and fresh and exciting to the table. It was really trying to provide a very different type of online shooter — much slower, more cerebral, and intent upon forcefully encouraging teamwork — and I’d assert that it absolutely nailed that. I played a ton of it and came away with awesome memories of it. That’s why I was so bummed when they announced that its reappearance in the sequel had been cut.
And I have to say that I’m kind of baffled about what their intention is for it in the future. Their statements have just been so vague. There are still so many unanswered questions, which I find very weird and unnecessary. They seem to be saying that they’re going to finish working on the multiplayer and then they’ll release it. Okay. Great. But roughly when will that be? I mean, if they release it too soon after TLOU2 came out, there will be inevitable/warranted complaints that that just proves they could have completed it and included it in the game but chose not to. So are we talking a year afterwards? Two years? At which point, you can’t really say it’s meaningfully connected to TLOU2 anymore: it’s more like a new standalone title, at least that’s the way it’ll be registered in people’s minds. And furthermore, is it going to be a free download for people who have the game, or is it maybe going to be a free-to-play title available for everyone (which, in my opinion, never bodes well because of the icky monetisation strategies which are necessitated), or are you just straight-up going to charge for it? If so, how much? Because if you’re going to ask for, say, £30 it had better feel like a fully-fledged title unto itself and not just a mode that was snipped off some game and expanded slightly. I would hate to see Naughty Dog step away from their stellar reputation for putting out games that really go above and beyond to undeniably be worth every penny.
Leaving all these unknowns dangling out there just makes the whole thing seem kinda messy. I believe it would’ve been prudent for them to clearly answer at least the main questions when they revealed that the multiplayer was being divorced from the title that was getting shipped. Because I would bet that there’s a lot of people who bought the game, who don’t keep up with this stuff very closely (i.e. don’t follow the gaming press, let alone Naughty Dog’s twitter account), who were fully expecting the game to have multiplayer (And maybe even purchased the game partially due to that expectation.) Or, even if they did see the announcement, because everything wasn’t spelled out bluntly, they’re still just thinking to themselves that they’re going to be given the multiplayer mode for free when it’s finally done. They’ll just throw the disc in someday soon and there’ll be an extra-big patch to download and the main menu will then have a multiplayer option added to it. Because, hey, it was supposed to be part of the game anyway, right? Indeed, it presumably would have been if it had been finished in time? And so I think that’s a totally understandable impression to have. That’s why it would have behoved Naughty Dog to come right out with it and plainly communicate what the plan was. I know that studios are very much loath to commit to things ahead of time, because they want the leeway to change something right up until the last minute depending upon how other stuff shakes out, but I’d argue that this is a special case, where the onus is really on them to put their cards on the table. That way, they can prevent these mistaken assumptions and the resentment which will occur when they’re eventually revealed as such. I don’t know, it just seems like a no-brainer to me.