The Ladder of Us

Naughty Dog is terrified of its audience. It is a studio that produces, not just AAA games, but the most idiomatic AAA games of the form, and so exhibits the quintessential traits always bred into the mindset. Shouldering huge risk, AAA studios are petrified of stepping out of line – a single brave decision could cost them millions. That AAA games tend to be the most politically and culturally backwards demonstrates this. They’re safe, they play to the market they’re familiar with, even if it’s an antiquated idea of the market that actually exists or could exist. That Naughty Dog needed to fight to have a girl on the cover, that this was a courageous battle for them to have chosen, does not exonerate them, it implicates them. For such a tiny step, such a sensible thing to be blown out of proportion contextualises the business they do as pitch perfect within the AAA song and dance.

I say this while enjoying many AAA games*. I love Metal Gear Solid, BioShock 2, Zone of the Enders 2, Final Fantasy – for all the faults in each title I’m still madly into them. So when I say this about AAA games in general, I’m not saying it out of spite against them, as a way to tout an outsider indie scene. As a critic, it’s my role to take things and break them apart and look at them, to interpret them for a message, to contextualize them within a plane of existence broader than bytes and code.

It’s very easy to see where The Last of Us came from when considering it as a product within Naughty Dog’s narrative. Their most lucrative and popular franchise, Uncharted, stains TLOU throughout. They’re very proud of this, they wear it on the front cover as a badge of honour. Were it framed as “From the creators of Jak and Daxter“, they might have had delivered something of a mixed message in tonal inheritance. I imagine it would have flown over the heads of their target audience, too, so here we are – The Last of Us, proudly descended from Uncharted.

There is so much in common between these two games, it astonishes me that TLOU is considered as anything other than an alternative universe Nathan Drake adventure. Let’s put this in context: TLOU, according to the vast majority of user and professional reviews, is considered a leap forward in terms of storytelling for the medium. Were they so gauche, I’m sure it might have been described at some point as videogames’ Citizen Kane – it was certainly called videogames’ The Road. It was thought a departure from what a AAA game traditionally signifies – a blockbuster action romp, perhaps grim, dark, crass. A game that plays like popcorn tastes. In my mind, Uncharted is the AAA posterboy. It’s a roller-coaster ride of thrills and spills and Hollywood blockbusters bleeding from its ears. But not TLOU, oh no, we’re told. TLOU is serious. Mature. It has Themes. Characters you can pronounce. It has Writing, Writing that will advance the medium. Uncharted is adolescent, TLOU is adult, say they.

In truth, TLOU is naught but a grown up Uncharted. Through and through, it is an Uncharted rewritten, drafted to age by ten years. Scratch the surface and you see the teenager staring back at you, grinning widely as it prepares a fart joke. It carries many of the staples of the Uncharted series: senseless setpieces, dreadful boss fights, banter, walk-and-talk scenes**, superfluous action sequences. Uncharted practised so hard to be a summer blockbuster movie, so it needed the cheesy witicisms, the trains exploding, the National Treasure-quality plot. And generally it hit the mark, in a dreadful way that can sometimes be appealing if you’re in the right mood.

TLOU, aiming for maturity, couldn’t carry itself by with bonkers setpieces (it has to use relatively down-to-earth setpieces, like pushing a car while fending off attackers, or hanging from a snare trap while fending off etc.) or cheesy witicisms (it uses endearing witicisms, spoken from a jokebook). Striving to be videogames’ The Road, it can’t have Incan treasure, it must instead have pensive strolls through the wasteland, downtime resembling the vacuum of this curt, broken society. Whereas Uncharted punctuated its combat with platforming and outlandish environmental puzzles, TLOU needs to rely on more earthly activities.

But here Naughty Dog encounters a problem. They want their game to be about survival in a desolate wasteland. Part of surviving the collapse of society involves fighting off bandits and zombies (the “infected”, by Cordyceps, because grounded in reality, but it’s much of a muchness), which neatly falls into their design comfort zone. They’ve made however many hit games about shooting baddies, that bit’s in the bag. The other part is recreating that feeling of desolation, of emptiness, which is not something that generally fits into the AAA repertoire. You want to excite players, you don’t want to bore them. But asking them to trudge through an empty city, simulating that emptiness by giving them nothing to do barring moving forward, risks just that.

I should say, by the way, that this sentiment is not without justification – look at many of the reactions to Gone Home, ostensibly a game where you move about a house listening to audiologs, basking in the atmosphere and the narrative but not explicitly doing things, as counter to everything these folk believe games stand for. An action game, a game made by the makers of Uncharted, mightn’t go down well with this lot.

So what to do, to retain this sense of desolation without outliving the player’s attention span? Tossed into TLOU‘s downtime areas are environmental puzzles, not like Uncharted‘s with jumping and zany exotic magical architecture, but with conventional modern objects and obstacles. Ladders, skips, and pallets.

For the entire span of the game, the puzzles are simple and basic. They require no lateral thinking, little pattern recognition or reinterpretation by the player. They’re sham puzzles. Had they length I’d accuse them of padding. Instead, they seem merely for the benefit of breaking long empty walking bits into several smaller empty walking bits, to punctuate the desolation of society with a little productive activity. The sheer shallowness of these segments leads me to suspect they were added rather late into development after focus testers complained of boredom. As a singular activity, moving a ladder from A to B and then from B to C does offer deviation from walking and looking, so I suppose it succeeds as punctuation. And if we’re being generous, we could interpret its vapidity as inclusive of the themes of emptiness and banality. But something’s missing.

On paper, picking up a ladder that’s conveniently lying exactly beside where you need it and placing it upright constitutes progression through a devastated, altered landscape, and so ticks a box on The Road’s thematic checklist. In practise, the shallowness works against it – you see very quickly that there’s never going to be any more to these areas, so you begin going through them emotionally by rote. The struggle of surviving the desolate wasteland wafts into a routine, snapping that tension. Something else is needed to prolong attention spans during downtime, to involve the player in the walky bits through activity. Something to connect walky bits with shooty bits through ludonarrative flow.

So Naughty Dog introduce crafting and scavenging. Now things populate the world, offering the player the chance to do with them. Like toppled ladders, these scraps and shards are things of past life, they don’t enliven the world with their existence. They are akin to text journals of inhabitants dead or disappeared. Except, the objects for scavenging don’t convey any narrative bonus – they’re purely busywork to entertain the player between combat. They’re optional, achievable ludic goals cotemporal with the despair and futility emanated by Joel. It’s an odd dissonance between the player as a busy worker bee and Joel as an enduring pessimist. But again, the simplicity and accessibility of the crafting system works against it: having been streamlined to accommodate the target audience’s impatience (this notion that Uncharted fans won’t want to browse menus and ponder resources) crafting is practically automated, all you need do is scavenge. With overly deterministic workshopping, the relevance of these items shrinks alongside a shrinking cosmology of player involvement. Gathering isn’t enjoyable, crafting isn’t enjoyable. It’s all towards the purpose of progressing through combat. And if, like mine, your inventory is packed with unused toys and scavenged resources, the routine is impertinent.

To top it off, your short-term ludic goals are supplemented with long-term activities in levelling up Joel and his weapons. And true to form, their thinness fail to conceal their purpose at distracting you from the game’s insecurities.

As systems indicating post-apocalyptic survival, their neatness characterizes them as shadow activities. Silhouettes of scavenging, survival, transit, shapes without substance. They’re ghosts of emotions of the things you know you should be doing and feeling in this scenario, but the effort that would justify their inclusion would transform it into a different sort of game, one decidedly not AAA enough, so its preserved for cinematics. Which brings me to wonder on the linchpin of TLOU acclaim: its writing. What is meant by that? Certainly not the plot, whose depth and originality leave much to be desired. It’s the characters, meaning the dialogue, the interpersonal relationships formed through it, the subtlety of an expression and a sigh combined in a single gesture. A huge chunk of that comes from the animations and voice acting, which are both incredible but sadly forgotten in lieu of that catch-all, “writing”. The virtue of TLOU‘s characterisations is as a departure from the exaggeration expected of the AAA idiom.

A pity, then, but not unexpected, that Naughty Dog here again succumbs to their fears of the audience. Consider the manner by which desolation and tedium are systematically avoided, then bracketed by the blank space between chapters that explains, “Months pass without incident”. The writers of Naughty Dog still live within cutscenes – this is where the bulk of the plot occurs, where the characters most vividly interact. TLOU, like Uncharted, divorces narrative from gameplay, as mandated by the idiom: here is a shooting segment, here is a puzzle segment, here is a walking segment, here is a cutscene. The developers’ expectation of what the audience expects rigidifies the game’s structure and pacing. Hence shooting segments (what Naughty Dog think we singularly qualify as gameplay) are inserted ad nauseum, punctuating cutscenes, walking bits, walk-and-talks, puzzle bits – i.e. “non-game” bits – just as ladders punctuate peacefulness. The bones of TLOU that critics so love can condense into a three-hour movie.

As much as I play and sometimes enjoy AAA games, I often tire of them from the idiosyncrasies they cynically inherit. Just as there are very few surprises in TLOU, so too is this true of Uncharted, Dead Space, BioShock Infinite, Remember Me, Grand Theft Auto V, etc. The most amazing thing about TLOU, the sweetest breath of fresh air it can manage, is to have the player be a girl for the first two minutes. After the intro–not even that long, in fact: during the intro, control shifts to the grisled white male that composes 90% of AAA protagonists. Returning to some of the negative response to Gone Home, I wonder if this isn’t the learned response from decades of limited design philosophy. Appropriate now that as veteran developers have outgrown their Duke Nukem phases, they should be shackled to yesterday’s expectations.

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*I know many folk take umbrage with “AAA games” as common usage. Ostensibly it means games of a sufficiently chunky budget. Vague as the term is, it’s infinitely useful for referencing a mentality of games, rather than prescriptively.

**Those areas where the characters walk very slowly while exchanging small talk or bookending a cutscene, staged entirely to treat you to some characterization without it actually being a cutscene. Cutscenes are scary for game designers, so this solution is basically an integrated cutscene. You can move your character forward, and even though you can’t do anything but listen to their natter, or out of fear of interrupting it, it’s believed you won’t mind because, hey, it’s not a cutscene.

8 thoughts on “The Ladder of Us

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