Meta-Commentary

The Last of Us & the State of Games Criticism

Editorial - Commentaries

[The following article contains spoilers regarding The Last of Us involving a conversation between the two main characters. It is unrelated to the main plot but may be considered a crucial moment of character building.]

In a crucial moment in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, after Ellie has narrowly escaped being raped by another survivor, a cutscene between Joel and Ellie takes place. During this cutscene, there is a moment in which the dialogue cuts out, and the player is no longer privy to the conversation. The music picks up, and we cannot hear what Joel says to Ellie, after Ellie exclaims, “He tried to…”

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for in videogames, for so many reasons. This subtle withdrawal of the dialogue is a tasteful moment of maturation for the format. Films such as Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt feature similar moments and, while not suggesting that games need emulate film, the inclusion of this moment in The Last of Us effectively raises the bar for storytelling techniques in game production. (And we’re all waiting for that landmark game to come about. Where is our Citizen Kane?

This is a moment in which the developers assert their authority, as they remove the much-fretted about “agency” of the player, and even withhold potentially vital dialogue. This is not your story to make. This is theirs to tell.

Formulas

Such a simple formula, one from which games have seemingly strayed in the last five years or so. With the rise of MMOs (World of Warcraft, League of Legends) and open-world sandbox games (Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls), the norm in videogames lately seems to be non-linear gameplay. Due to the nature of the gameplay, the main quest (the “story”) is often fairly loose and dynamic, allowing for change hinging on player agency and choices throughout the game. These are exciting games, to be sure, but The Last of Us flies in the face of these sorts of experiences, presenting a tightly controlled linear game, with player agency during crucial moments essentially non-existent.

Now let’s bring this all back to game criticism. Why should a game like The Last of Us matter to games studies as an academic discipline? Because the field itself has gotten stale, just as the industry itself has leveled off and most big-budget studios never stray far from proven formulas and franchises that will sell. And, dare I say, is it not somewhat possible that game studies and the academic (and journalistic) attention to games has never fully questioned the state of game production to the point where game scholars seem to purport and propagate these same formulas that are incessantly churned out? Or, if I am to be more kind to game studies, perhaps we only write about these games because that’s all there is for us to write about.

Let’s mosey on over to Steve Wilcox’s article on feed-forward scholarship for a moment. If we take a look at the word cloud he generated for his piece, we see the predominance of World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and MMORPG in articles published on GameStudies.org. It is difficult to definitely say whether these things have been written about because those were the games produced, or because game scholarship is ultimately a value-laden form of criticism in which a canon of games is being created, and this canon purports and upholds certain elements of game design (for a more in-depth look at games and canon formation, see Michael Hancock’s article here). Leaving the value-judgments aside, it is my contention that game studies need not be concerned with only maintaining the status quo of game design. Of course there is a room for every type of game and genre for the field, but we as scholars must be careful that we do not contribute to the stagnation of what should be an exciting and innovative field.

And that’s why The Last of Us is an important game. As I’ve observed, characteristics such as linearity and narrative have been derided in game studies, in a sense, in favour of open-world games which allow freedom of choice, thereby taking player agency and impact to another level. The Last of Us eschews that commonplace dynamicism in favour of telling us a story, one in which we cannot alter, cannot change the course of the narrative, and ultimately, cannot save humankind. We are privileged enough to be a fly on the wall of Joel and Ellie’s story, and it is not up to us to alter or manipulate their journey. This is an issue that has been at the heart of digital media storytelling since the boom (and apex) of hypertext fiction in the late 80s and early 90s. Much of early hypertext fiction utopianistically lauded the emergence of dynamic storytelling, celebrating the medium’s ability to link chunks of text (lexias) together, thereby allowing the reader to choose her own path through the narrative. Of note here are Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story (1987) and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995), published by Eastgate Systems. The field of electronic literature quickly progressed past this form of storytelling, as graphical and computational power improved and allowed for more multimodal creations. It is difficult to say whether the increase in power contributed to hypertext fiction’s rather rapid decline, or if there is something more inherently problematic in the marriage of narrative and player/reader agency. My own anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that users grow tired of the choice, weary of the cognitive processing required to traverse a non-linear text. But again, this is only anecdotal, slightly hypothesized evidence.

Looking Back

When I was a young lad in the year 1998, I played a game on Christmas Day that I had been patiently awaiting for a year or so. I read every article in Playstation Magazine, and was even lucky enough to play a demo of the game on one of that publication’s demo discs (those were the days). That Christmas, I played Metal Gear Solid for about four hours, whenever I could get away from family. I may not have been mature enough to understand the story entirely, but even at that moment in time, I knew this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or played. I’ve pursued game studies in my academic career as a side-project, ultimately because Metal Gear Solid showed me that games could mean more to myself than an excellent film or even an important musical album.

My goal as editor of the Commentaries section on First Person Scholar is to explicate the importance of games as cultural artifacts, existing in a complicated, crowded media environment. Games are implicated and imbricated within a media ecology consisting of books, television, film, music, and web content. The political, social, and economic weight of games is of great importance to me, and I believe that FPS provides a solid venue in which we can explore games alongside other media. First Person Scholar aims to provide articles which challenge the status quo of game production and scholarship, as well as the entire journalism industry built around games. We hope to provide a context for each game we discuss – a context that we editors find lacking in mainstream press coverage and reviews. I began with a discussion of The Last of Us because Naughty Dog was not afraid to deliver a linear narrative in a time of open-world games, and we as scholars need to follow suit and continually push the envelope of game criticism in exciting new directions.

  • Spoilers in the first sentence = not cool! Especially when it came up in my RSS feed summary and I couldn’t avoid seeing it.

    • Steve Wilcox

      Sorry Alan. I’ve added a disclaimer to the article and notified people on Twitter. When I reviewed the article (having played Last of Us) it didn’t cross my mind because I don’t recall the scene and had to rewatch it :S For what it’s worth, while it’s a poignant scene, it doesn’t impact the larger narrative. I’ll be more diligent in the future though.

  • Gerald Voorhees

    Great observation re the emphasis on open-world in game studies but it shares the problems of most quantitative assessments – its difficult to attribute meaning to this phenomena. I wonder where most of the criticism lies in the spectrum of administrative critical. Is game studies slavishly writing about what the industry is making, and in this way helping legitimate of this ideology of freedom? Or is game studies exposing the “open-world” game for the ideological trick that it is? Either way, thanks for opening the conversation with a piece on such a great game.