***Spoilers for The Last of Us ahead***
Something I look for when trying to work out if a game is simply good or truly great is what I call “The Hyrule Moment”. It all stems from a 13 year old me playing Ocarina of Time for the first time and reaching a point after an hour or so that cemented Ocarina in my mind as not just a magnificent videogame but that made me understand that videogames themselves could be magnificent. A videogame could be art in the same way that film or music can. It all starts off very JRPG of course; get shield, get sword, learn simple mechanics through simple puzzles and defeat Parasitic Armoured Arachnid in the basement of a tree. Traditional JRPG right? Then you leave Kokiri Village and step into the biggest expanse you have ever seen in a game and this is when “the Hyrule Moment” kicks in. Hyrule Field is huge but it’s not just the scale and beauty of what you’re looking at, it’s the realisation that what your character, Link (take note), is experiencing is exactly what you are experiencing as the player. The strings in the soundtrack rise but you don’t know where to go, it’s all a bit overwhelming and exciting but you’re going to save the goddamn world anyway. That link (told you) to the world and your control of it is intoxicating and is just one of the myriad reasons that make Nintendo arguably the greatest game developer of all time. In Resident Evil 4, seeing the crazed villagers charge at you with pitchforks and torches for the first time was a terrifying and brilliant experience in a similar way. All of a sudden you are engulfed in the world your character inhabits; you feel the emotions and the tension that your onscreen character is supposed to be feeling. Only last week, after beating Bloodborne’s second boss, Father Gascoigne, in a nail-biting ‘I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried this’ fight, I put down the controller, hands still shaking, exhaled deeply and just grinned at how incredible the combat in the game felt. Instead of falling into the role-play element of gaming, it was a sense of total achievement off-screen, a two-fingered salute to the fiendish, sadistic creators of such a challenge.
This brings me to Naughty Dog. The Uncharted series and The Last of Us (TLoU) have been heralded as modern masterpieces. TLoU specifically was proclaimed to be the zenith, the defining landmark, of the last generation of consoles. Critical acclaim, cross-cultural appeal and jealously from those who owned Microsoft’s box of tricks as opposed to Sony’s. I, as an unabashed Sony & Nintendo man through the years, should delight in this. For me though, Naughty Dog has never hit the heights that Nintendo, From Software, Konami, Valve et al ever have. “Blasphemy”, says you. I’m going to stick to TLoU here but before you all gather your pitchforks and torches like Resi 4’s Los Ganados, here’s my explanation for why most of you consider me a heretic…
A few hours into TLoU, our protagonist Joel gets caught in a rope-trap or sorts and is suspended arse over elbow. Zombies (I’m sticking to that word for ease here) rush towards you as Ellie tries to fix the situation somehow and you have to pick them-off as they stumble, trip and claw at your face, its disorienting and a fine piece of game design. “Cool”, I thought, “haven’t seen that before.” And then…nothing more. The rest of the game plodded along as before. Run, cover, shoot, repeat. Yes, you can do the sneaky thing too, but nothing innovative there. The crafting system works well. Good job. Sure, there’s collectibles and secrets too, but nothing in terms of deep lore to further characterisation or the world around you. I understand that not every game can be Bioshock but this aspect felt tacked on to me or sometimes, just not considered. Instead of letting the player fill in the gaps in the universe there are no gaps to begin with. It presents its story well but can you say there was anything original about it? If you’ve read or watched any of The Walking Dead you probably have a fair idea of what to expect in TLoU. The Road, a beautifully bleak and emotionally draining novel by Cormac McCarthy, is about a father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic world, sound familiar? To be honest even if you just know what a zombie is you will likely have come across all the tropes present in TLoU. That’s not to say they can’t improve on them but when the human condition is so ever-present in a genre there’s very little you can do to tug on already tugged heart-strings. Ex-Machina, Alex Garland’s recent directorial debut suffered from this too, just how much can you do with already exhausted sci-fi or horror ideas without re-inventing the wheel? The story can only ever be good, never great. The apocalypse is so overdone now that it ironically doesn’t feel like the end of the world. To be fair, unoriginal story telling in a videogame is nothing new but I wouldn’t mind so much if the game-play held my attention. A series mentioned above perfected the tension of having little to no ammo years ago and a game of this generation that I would hold on a par with TLoU, Tomb Raider, had similar but better combat in my eyes. Bland corridors and courtyards offered little in terms of exploration and I found myself becoming apathetic, almost bitter, towards the end of the game.
Never wanting to leave a game unfinished, I ploughed on however. A succession of one-dimensional support characters and multiple ‘run, cover, shoot, repeat’ set-pieces later and the game was done. What I was left with was disappointment. The story would have been excellent with better gameplay. The gameplay would have been better had I cared about the story. Catch 22. The upside-down bit really grabbed me but there was no kick-on, no follow-up. I never found that moment that made me feel like 13 year old me playing Ocarina of Time again.
Interestingly, a criticism I have read of the game was with regards to in-game choice. At the end of the game, Joel makes the decision to shoot and kill Marlene and he lies to Ellie about the possibility of saving the world through her condition or lack-there-of. The player has no choice in whether this happens or not. You follow the story to its natural conclusion as you would a film, comic or book. I don’t consider this to be a flaw for that very reason; however, making you actually perform the actions yourself does suggest a sense of control which is relinquished when you have no option besides pulling the trigger. Due to the lack of a “big bad” I can see why it annoyed people. A normal end-boss is something you go and kill regardless of whether you agree with it or not. Japanese developers for years have played with the idea that the evil you are tasked to kill might not actually be evil at all, or hasn’t chosen to be at least, but this is to do with Japanese mythology and culture. In America, the traditional baddie deserves no sympathy and the hero is, well, heroic. TLoU providing a sense of ambiguity within its major characters jars slightly with the removal of choice in how the story reaches its conclusion but, again, the idea of moral ambiguity in modern horror or post-apocalyptic literature or media is nothing new. The control afforded to you as a player of a videogame is something that has to balance with your characters on-screen actions and how you would act in “real-life”, it’s a tough circus trick to get right in a video-game when you’re going for emotional depth but I think its admirable Naughty Dog didn’t hold back. Videogames, as an industry, will work this one out eventually.
These thoughts are about just one of Naughty Dogs games but I have similar thoughts about Uncharted’s gameplay and TLoU was the one that really burned me. I don’t by any means think they are bad games, just not great, but whenever Uncharted 4 actually does get released I will hopefully be happily playing No Man’s Sky or Persona 5 or whatever the next big innovative title is searching for my next “Hyrule Moment” instead. For now though, it’s back to screaming obscenities at Miyazaki-san and the team that created Yharnam.
By C’nG Opinion & Feature writer and all round Caker Eoin Monaghan