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The Least of Us

One of the most frustrating things about video games is that people often think of them in the same category of movies in ways both big and small. One of […]

One of the most frustrating things about video games is that people often think of them in the same category of movies in ways both big and small. One of the smaller ways in which this comparison shows up is in the idea that a game has to be completed in order to be appreciated or evaluated. Quitting a game midway when it could redeem itself at the end is said to be a fallacy that immediately invalidates any review on the game.

This is an argument that I’ve had multiple times. Convincing friends and readers alike that the reasons why I decided to not play a game any longer speak to the problems of the game and that those problems are substantial was an uphill climb that was often met with boulders of how not playing a substantial part of the game invalidated anything I had to say. This is an argument so recurrent my life that I even almost considered the possibility that I might be almost yet not quite not on the ball.

Of course, then I realized I was on the ball and y’all are wrong. And it was because of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s attempt at turning Uncharted into Resident Evil 4. If that doesn’t explain how ill-conceived this game is, then I can’t think of any way of explaining it.

My first time trying to play the Last of Us had me quitting in the middle of the prologue because it did a few things that always bother me in video games. The unnecessary prologue meant to install sympathy on the main character through the murder of a younger character. Putting you in the position of protector with a charge that was unobstructive (because it’s harder to sympathize with people who are genuinely helpless in video games) and most importantly, putting you in a position where the skills that the game would demand later (or, in other words, why you bought the game) are genuinely irrelevant.

My second time was for this burgeoning project of mine, where I finally play through all the games I’ve acquired in a lark because they were as cheap as a McDonald’s’ meal. I got a bit farther this time, but as soon as I started to realize exactly what kind of game I was playing I realized that I was less and less invested on what it wanted to be and say. Children of Men is a fine movie but kind of a bad idea for a video game, except for the few people who genuinely fantasize of the breakdown of society as an excuse to live a life with meaning.

The few moments of brilliance in the game by the time you’ve reached fall in Jackson County are related to this. Joel being skeptical of Ellie’s immunity to zombie-itis and his eventual acceptance of the task are mostly related to the fact that he had become one of those roaming warriors that every single player who engages with this kind of fantasy dreams of becoming, where conflicts are as simple as “fight or flight”. What’s so frustrating about this game then is that those conflicts seem to play out in very predetermined ways. You always survive and the more survivalist elements in your life also do while the less cynical people don’t. The second Tess realizes that Ellie is her ticket to some sort of higher purpose she’s done for. Henry and Sam are done-so the moment they really bond with Ellie and Joel. It’s misery after misery and it has almost nothing to say about people.

I don’t really expect games like this, with such a large budget to have some grand thesis. But its mournful Santaolalla soundtrack and its art direction are clearly indicative of a game that wants to have solemn concerns. And yet it all feels so manipulative. The comedy feels mournful and the drama feels melancholic. It’s all staged in a way that leads to characters like Ellie and Sam, another young kid, to talk about the state of the world in lofty terms. They even ponder the afterlife and they don’t have the vocabulary for it. It certainly captures their voices but then stifles them in a plot that clearly has bigger concerns, like how to heap misery on misery.

The tone wouldn’t be so worrisome if the gameplay was good. You don’t have to go far to see that. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is a playable Indiana Jones movie and has a hero that feels distinct enough from Harrison Ford’s take in its action set pieces to feel exciting. Granted, Nathan Drake kills hundreds of people and his ability to keep some sort of cheerfulness through this is frankly disquieting. But Uncharted knows the material it is imitating and knows how to emulate it. And let’s be honest, that material also seemed deeply sociopathic once you consider the easiness with which Indiana Jones and other 80s adventurers dispatched henchmen and quipped about their deaths.

And yet the gameplay in The Last of Us is so bare. And this would be a compliment in any other instance except that it also requires a weird degree of complexity. It’s a game that asks you to upgrade weapons and scavenge resources to craft weapons and then it just makes most of it rather redundant. In the end, there’s no situation in the normal difficulty that can’t be resolved by using firepower and punching and there’s no situation that can’t be resolved in hard without using distractions and sneaking to get past the guards/zombies. It feels like adding sugar to an omelette in that it’ll only create one reaction: why?

The Last of Us is a game I wish I could understand. I have dedicated at least 8 hours to it and I still can’t seem to derive any significant enjoyment from it. One that games have been trying to replicate since Resident Evil 4 without understanding that the reason why that works and why Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us don’t work is precisely because they go the inverse route. In RE4 you have to be Ashley Graham’s guardian and she can be intrusive and make you reconsider your next step, making you reconsider every strategy. In BI and TLOU, Elizabeth and Ellie are pretty much invisible, removing the stakes that their existence in that situation imply.

It all even can be traced to one of the most simple, brilliant things about RE4. You can’t move and shoot. So evasion and offense become different games and strategies. Choosing which to use when is thrilling and it involves a degree of strategic thinking that can make the action more about creativity and finding the right position than just the skill to aim at the right place. In the Last of Us, positioning and creativity are not really involved. The stealth path is laid out for you. If you screw it up, it’s a matter of timing, of not figuring out when to do the thing that the patrol pattern wanted you to do. You can’t solve for variables in the same way that you can in FIFA with an interception or a sleep dart in MGS.

It might be because I’ve been playing FIFA alongside all of this (and some thoughts will come along with that) but I do admire the sports’ like design of RE4, which rewards fast action and foresight in equal measure, in the same way FIFA does.

The Last of Us, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to reward. Is it a fast paced game that rewards quick reflexes? Or is it a game that rewards patience and calculation. It clearly wants to be both but both approaches are just unrewarding. Being unseen in an area just feels uncalled for. Shooting through thugs just feels like picking the low risk-low reward route.

TLOU’s last sin is probably the fact that it has no significant investment on stealth. In TLOU patience and planning is never rewarded. Observing patterns, figuring out blind spots and the like is almost impossible. It is just a preamble to the inevitable moment when you’re caught. I have never been able to complete a sequence without being found or, failing that, being found more than three times. And I’m the sort of person who spends 20 minutes on MGS tagging guards, observing their patterns and figuring out the best route. Maybe other players can go sight unseen but I feel that at one point or another, stealth has to involve improvisation. You have to have resources when seen.

Overall, I feel bad. I wish I could like this game. TLOU is a game that is beloved for its storytelling but I was immediately skeptical of it. And I kept being proven correct in that skepticism. The few moments where The Last of Us shines are in its short interpersonal interactions between Ellie and Joel and yet those moments just serve to underline how the rest of it is so unequivocally hard to enjoy. A game that is supposed to be challenging and yet is very accommodating in its game design, consistently favoring a lack of patience and planning in favor of sheer brutality and its mentality, which fits with how most gamers perceive a zombie apocalypse to be.

The Last of Us is a conventional game dressed as a subversive game. It’s a game that pretends to break the rules while simply accommodating them in a slightly topsy turvy game. In part it is also a game that wishes it could be more but it can’t be more because the things that it absorbs as direct inspirations are movies that have done what it does better than what it tries to do. The Last of Us exemplifies why it’s so easy to convince nerds that videogames are art and why it is so hard to convince skeptics of the artistic value of games. It is a game that is only good when it is a movie, rather than when it is a game.

 

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The Get Down is on a Frustrating Yet Rewarding Musical Mission:

Hip Hop is one of the weirdest cultural movements once you sit down to think about it. An eclectic mix of funk, spoken word, comic books, political rebellion and martial […]

Hip Hop is one of the weirdest cultural movements once you sit down to think about it. An eclectic mix of funk, spoken word, comic books, political rebellion and martial arts imagery that just downright embodies African American culture. It feels almost impossible and once you know how much of it was fueled by sheer happenstance and randomness (hip hop wouldn’t be what it is today without the ’77 blackout, let’s be honest) it really makes sense why it stands apart from other musical movements.

Hip Hop in its current form is not really like that, of course. As every art form, it has evolved into a different beast entirely, one that is quite hard to pinpoint these days. This isn’t a dig, of course, but simply an observation: current hip hop doesn’t feel as driven by a community so much as individual artists and their vision. You have Kanye trying to create gospel rap and Desiigner taking trap in a more gangsta, flow-heavy form. The Get Down definitely believes in the understanding of Hip Hop being exclusively a product of Harlem and the Bronx as a community that was being oppressed by real estate moguls and the City’s neglect. And it makes a very convincing case for that understanding and that vision in the first six hours and a half of its first season.

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Burning the Backlog: The Joy of Crime and the Failure of Punishment

Burning the Backlog was inspired by a very simple fact: I own a shitton of games. And the reason I do is because games are ridiculously easy to acquire but […]

Burning the Backlog was inspired by a very simple fact: I own a shitton of games. And the reason I do is because games are ridiculously easy to acquire but they aren’t easy to play through. So as my resolution for the year 2016 I decided to not buy any games until I finish all the games I had purchased previously that I hadn’t played before. So far I have mostly succeeded (I have only bought 7 games in 8 months which beats my average of four games in one month by a fucking lot) And hopefully this project will help me maintain my goal of not going over 10 games for the year 2016

Sherlock Holmes is technically my favorite fictional character of all time. I say technically because while my experience with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work is minimal, Sherlock Holmes is probably the most influential character on the works I love. Sure, I have lots of love for The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet but they don’t beat my love for Grant Morrison’s take on Batman or Doctor Who, two franchises clearly built on the dynamics that Doyle established with his detached, transcendent genius detective.

Frogwares has been developing a series of video games surrounding one of the most important fictional characters in our culture for 14 years. I won’t pretend I’m familiar with any of them before Crimes and Punishments outside of my attempt at playing The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, a game I remember so little about that I literally had to look at my Steam library to remember it existed in any other way than Hazy Memory To Be Dug Up For This Review.

The installment I got to play all the way through is the relatively modern Crimes and Punishment. I say “relatively”  because its principles of design are clearly point-and-click and reward consistent attention to detail and analysis of story, which are not things you usually find in modern big budget gaming which rewards reflexes and skill creativity. I say modern because my previous attempts at playing through Frogware’s work involved a degree of clunkiness that was rather unwelcoming during most of my play time.

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A Moon Shaped Pool convinced me that I was missing something. Or a lot of things.

Confession: Pool is my very first full-on Radiohead experience. I listened to Creep twice before (once, when an angsty ex sent it to me and another time because I decided […]

Confession: Pool is my very first full-on Radiohead experience. I listened to Creep twice before (once, when an angsty ex sent it to me and another time because I decided to go to karaoke and weirdly enough, it’s a bit of a staple) and I used to have Karma Police on my iPod because I saw that music video but that’s about it.

But A Moon Shaped Pool is the rare record that easily converts people into Radiohead fans as easily as Beyonce did for the Queen Bey herself. It’s emotionally resonant, powerfully composed and as experimental as Pink Floyd wished it was on their best days. It’s the rare album that makes the case for albums themselves as a form of art; to create and choose a series of tracks that, combined, convey so much more meaning than they can on their own.

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Off the Grid and Into the Cut: The Impossible Kid

Aesop Rock has probably been one of our best rappers working and churning music out today. And now with both Skelethon and The Impossible Kid, he has become one of […]

Aesop Rock has probably been one of our best rappers working and churning music out today. And now with both Skelethon and The Impossible Kid, he has become one of our best producers working today, introducing heavily industrial sound and outright math-rock-like time signatures to hip hop. Much has been made about his vocabulary, his heavily intricate lyricism and his amazing flow. But his musical compositions are just as delightfully driving and out of the world as his lyrics.

The Impossible Kid is that rare album that manages to break away from an artist’s general style while still being tangibly and uniquely his. Aes’ previous work was often outright cryptic at times. Not unlike Death Grips’ MC Ride, Aesop delighted in dropping hints about his life and articulating his own pain. There were occasions when he was willing to bare it out (One Of Four, which, should be pointed out, is a secret track) but once Skelethon arrived and Aesop was producing his own beats, something clicked and Aes decided to be outright open about his life as a depressed and reclusive rapper.

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My Hero Academia Reminds You Why You Love Superheroes

Japan and America both have a long history with the superhero genre but despite obvious similarities, the differences between the way the cultures have approached the genre make for some pretty […]

my-hero-academia-4

Japan and America both have a long history with the superhero genre but despite obvious similarities, the differences between the way the cultures have approached the genre make for some pretty different stories. One only needs to look at the Japanese Spider-man TV where our hero Tatsuya gets his power from an alien from the planet Spider, as well as a giant robot. Despite the massive differences between the way the two cultures treat the genre, there’s still an immediately recognizable core that makes a superhero. It’s something that makes My Hero Academia, the new anime adapted from the manga by Kohei Hiroshi and Hirofumi Nedi, a fascinating look at the evolution of the superhero genre as our fiction crosses borders at an unprecedented level. It doesn’t hurt that My Hero Academia also represents the best of what it means to be not just a superhero, but someone who loves them as well.

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Daredevil never dares and barely devils.

It’s amazing what a year can do to your opinions. Stories you love become, in hindsight, bloated and ridden with boring passages. Stories you dislike at first sight reveal their […]

It’s amazing what a year can do to your opinions. Stories you love become, in hindsight, bloated and ridden with boring passages. Stories you dislike at first sight reveal their charms. Stories you are indifferent about become filled with meaning as you reconsider what the story tried to do in the first place. In Daredevil’s case, a season that packed quite a punch for me on my original view, felt increasingly stale as I started to think about its treatment of its diverse cast and its anticlimactic ending. Of course, these individual flaws don’t necessarily eliminate my enjoyment of the show and the way it handled things like Matt Murdock’s origin by showcasing his relationships with Jack (his father), Foggy (his best friend/partner in law) and Karen Page (their legal assistant) was thrilling and Charlie Cox’s performance demonstrates exactly what makes Daredevil more than just “Spider-Man meets Batman”.

Of course, it should have been just a matter of emphasizing these elements and phasing out the more hyper-masculine nonsense as well as the pervasive sense that the Asians members of the cast were just there to make direct reference to the worst, most orientalist aspects of the comics. Daredevil’s supposed concerns during its first seasons were about how crime fighting affected life in a melting pot like New York as people from all walks of life were outright steamrolled by criminals masquerading as elite businessmen. There’s a lot of power to this idea and Daredevil was at its best when it explored it, alongside Matt’s relationship to his friends, family and God.

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Bloodborne Shows The Breadth of Cosmic Horror

Anybody who knows me will probably have surmised that Bloodborne is a game tailor-made for me. After all, I love the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I love games with strong […]
huntersdream

Welcome good hunter, you’ll be here awhile

Anybody who knows me will probably have surmised that Bloodborne is a game tailor-made for me. After all, I love the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I love games with strong atmosphere, I love subtle storytelling, and of course I also love to swear at screen and throw my controller in frustration a lot.

I’m kidding (a bit) because Bloodborne ended up being the most even handed game I may have ever played. It’s such a tightly constructed game that it began to affect my ability to enjoy other games. Witcher 3 is a sprawling epic RPG and a labor of love but now I find its clunky controls and repetitive combat jarring. Platinum Games’ Transformers: Devastation fares a bit better with its tighter controls but as a result I found myself instinctively going back to Bloodborne’s control scheme and wondering why I was dodging instead of attacking. Bloodborne is a game that infiltrates your headspace in such a way that you end up viewing other games through that lens.

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American Tragedy

  Most stories based in real life events often revel in finding the inner tragedy or comedy of real life and exposing it. They convert a real life event’s actors […]

 

Most stories based in real life events often revel in finding the inner tragedy or comedy of real life and exposing it. They convert a real life event’s actors into characters, with clear goals, convictions and personalities. Sometimes those are not very true to the people they’re reflecting. But often, they are true to the story and the lives they are reflecting. That’s the genius of American Crime Story; a show that is often willing to speculate on the personal lives of people whose lives were very well documented, but doesn’t use that speculation to demean or insult those people. Instead it tries to empathize and understand them.

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Kanye West: Millennial Hero

Kanye is probably the biggest musician of our time, for better and for worse, because he has truly become one with his art. His life, tweets and struggles are as […]

Kanye is probably the biggest musician of our time, for better and for worse, because he has truly become one with his art. His life, tweets and struggles are as important as the lyrics, the musical landscapes and the concerts to appreciate or depreciate the man. And the thing about him is that he never reduces himself to be a reliable or known property. A huge aspect of Kanye’s place in our culture is that we never really can tell how self-aware he is. But it doesn’t matter. What’s great about Kanye is that he’s so damn earnest.

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