#iwouldntrecommendit: the last of us

Everyone tells you the sky turns green before a tornado, but until I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t comprehend it. That day, as we huddled in the basement of Sharon Baptist Church in Wichita, people prayed in hushed voices, and I thought about how the sky really did turn green.

I think I was 10.

I don’t know if I heard the tornado. I remember the sirens, but I grew up with a tornado siren — for most of my life, a Federal Signal 2T22 they tested every Tuesday— in my back yard, so that was nothing special. There was this roar outside, but it might have been the wind and the rain. The volume rose, then it fell, and at some point, with the torrential downpour, my whole family, mom, dad, and the six of us kids, piled into our van and drove home.

It was quiet. Eerily quiet. I remember that. Don’t get me wrong, the storm was still raging outside, and we’d stayed in the basement of the church so long that the night was dark, one of the darkest nights I’d ever seen. We didn’t follow the usual route home — across Pawnee, over to I-135, and up north. I can’t remember why. We drove through neighborhoods, and I couldn’t see anything but fallen branches and the occasional headlights of other cars. The world just felt… I don’t know, dead. Haunted.

Later, Mom made us pack up a bunch of our toys, said we were delivering it to kids who lost everything in the tornado. Dad showed me a map of the tornado’s path, pointed out how it diverted just before it hit us, and said God had saved us. Then he drove us down to Haysville.

We dropped off some food and said goodbye to our toys — hey, I was ten and I didn’t really get it — and then Dad had the bright idea to go ahead and show us what the Tornado had done.

Have you ever driven through the aftermath of an F4?

There’s something eerily beautiful about the destruction caused by tornadoes from the air; one of my earliest memories is of the aftermath of the Andover tornado in 1991, a monstrous F5 that tore through my pastor’s neighborhood, leaving so many people with nothing.

It was gorgeous.

It was terrifying.

On the ground, we drove through what felt like a warzone, houses blown apart, roofs gone, cars flipped over, furniture and things, when intact, having that sense of wrongness that comes with an entire neighborhood in disarray. Some men stopped us as we were driving down the street; gas leak, they said. We had to turn back, they didn’t want to risk any more fires. They’d already seen a couple.

Haysville’s tornado wasn’t the last. The Greensburg tornado in 2007 leveled the entire town — 95% of it, including the cozy little museum for the World’s Largest Hand Dug Well that looked like it’d been around since the 50s, if not older.

That little museum was one of our scout troop’s pit stops on the way to Colorado, and just like that, it was completely gone. I couldn’t find many pictures of the original building online, and none of the interior, but it was this tiny little kitschy gift shop with a big sign pointing downwards. Just one of those weird little roadside attractions you find sometimes. Gone. Just like that.

But here’s what I learned: Every time disaster takes something from us, human nature sets in and we band together to do whatever we can to survive. We’re social creatures at heart, and when we’re afraid or hungry or scared, we band together. When people around us lose their homes, we band together to fix it. When disaster strikes, we are there for each other.

The church I grew up in loved to wallow in the whole “the world is against us” ideology, which resulted in a millennial panic as Y2K approached and many of the adults in my life talked about all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios (I’m convinced that constantly hearing about suitcase nukes that would ruin our lives when I was growing up is part of the reason I developed anxiety), and how we’d have to withstand the apocalypse coming our way.

Truth is, “every man for himself” is a great way to add dramatic tension to a scene in a movie, sure, but that isn’t borne out in human nature. When horrific incidents like the Donner Party happen — that was an incident of cannibalism from 1847 — everyone loves to go “wow humans are so fucked.”

I saw someone say on Twitter the other day that posting doom and gloom does numbers but it does so at the expense of the truth, and I’m inclined to agree.

Hell, there’s actually a subset of people I’ve met online who seem to in finding the most egregious violations of social norms, pointing these out, and going “look at this! look at how horrible this is! I don’t want to live on this planet anymore!” There’s a bizarre kind of performance to it, an intentional seeking out of the outliers, a desire to get mad about how bad things and people are so you can proclaim, loudly, on tumblr, that you are miserable (Not to get ahead of myself, but I don’t think Naughty Dog is doing this; it’s just something I’ve watched a lot online, and it fascinates me).

…but that’s just it. These things shock us because they’re not the norm. It’s not who we, as a human race are. We’re shocked by abnormality, not by normality.

The human race is better now than it’s ever been. There are still so many things wrong with it, and it’s easy to look at the news and think “you know, this is the worst era in human history,” but we keep getting better and we keep learning from our ancestors and being better than them.

Humans are beautiful.

You need to understand this before I tell you why I think The Last of Us is one of the worst video games ever made.

look ima be real with you i got like NO screenshots of this game

So Let’s Talk About Punching

I hate writing negative things. There’s a reason the vast bulk of my work over the years was things like “why VIDEO GAME is a brilliant example of THING,” or “how VIDEO GAME managed to DO AMAZING STUFF.” I tended to start these pieces with a problem (is it fun to play a shooter where you’re told what to do?), then explain how the game I was covering solved that problem.

That’s not how I got to each essay, of course. Usually, I’d play a game, find that I liked it, and ask myself like… okay, why I like it? Or I’d play a game, hate the experience, and go “hmm, okay, what is this doing that makes me dislike it?” Curiosity always led the process. Once I examined each game and figured out what it did well, I’d contrast that with things that did so poorly; it came as a surprise when someone told me that they’d always done the opposite. They came up with a thesis and then tried to find a game to fit it; this led them to feel frustrated with their output. Me? I just look at what’s in front of me and try my best to explain it.

When I wrote about Destiny 2 and how it had fallen short, I tried to break the game down in a way that would help Bungie understand their shortcomings and allow the studio to correct them.

People work hard on these things. In some studios, they crunch. I’ve crunched. When you pour your heart and creative soul into a game in the hopes that someone, somewhere will like it… it really sucks to hear someone show up and go “yeah, here’s why it didn’t work.”

I hate making people feel bad; that’s never the goal.

But… feelings aren’t invalid, right? If you play a game and it makes you mad, you were mad for a reason. It’s not wrong for you to be upset; but it can be wrong to take it out on the people making the game. Like… I can get mad at a physics bug, but that doesn’t mean yelling at Shigeru Miyamoto is gonna make him or me feel better, much less solve the problem, right?

So, I have this policy where, if a game makes me mad, I try to illustrate the problem, let all that fury out on the problem, but obfuscate the game itself where possible. I try to turn my frustrations into a learning opportunity; when I play a game and the physics keep fucking it up, instead of naming and shaming, I try to write out how the game loses all of its dramatic tension when the protagonist dies because of a broken jump and you have to start the scene all the way over.

As you may have noticed, there’s an exception to this rule: sacred cows.

At some point, a game becomes Immune To Criticism — no matter what we say, we cannot change the world. I recall, many years ago, when someone told me how great Half-Life 2’s story was, and I went “is it? it’s just a game where you wake up, get told to go see a guy who will tell you why you’re there, then he gets kidnapped, so you rescue him, then he gets kidnapped again, and everyone takes this as a sign to rebel, and then the game ends. What makes it good?”

He cut me out of his life completely. Blocked me on MSN messenger, removed me on Steam, signed out on IRC, just… completely gone, all because I said I didn’t like Half-Life 2’s story that much.

And I remember thinking, like… wow, hey, this is ridiculous. This is a guy who I’ve known for years, who I had all these great, in-depth discussions with every single night about all these amazing things we loved, and now he’s just… like, on every single communication channel, he’s got me blocked.

So now I’m very clear and very vocal about the fact that I don’t like Half-Life 2, and in doing that, I can avoid having a friendship end like that. I can’t really hurt Valve, I can’t hurt the game’s reputation. I’m just one guy doing my best to honestly and constructively tell you about a thing. I am okay with naming the thing if the thing happens to be extremely popular to the point of people sending me loads of hate mail when I say I don’t enjoy it. Cory Barlog isn’t going to have his day ruined if I write a blog post saying that God of War bored me so much I quit and beat Company of Heroes instead, because he won a bajillion game of the year awards and I’m just some dude online.

It’s the difference between punching up and punching down.

Everything I write is in good faith, and it’s meant, in some way, to be constructive. Is it fun to get snarky about an experience you had that was really bad? Yeah, definitely. But… is that useful? Is it meaningful? Nah. Breaking things down to understand why they don’t work is fun and constructive. That’s all we should be doing. If we’re criticizing a game solely because it’s popular, or if we’re punching down on a game that was clearly made with a tiny-ass budget and the reason it isn’t perfect is because they had no money… we aren’t saying anything useful.

And criticism should be useful.

That’s what it is, after all. An opinion piece is, like, whatever. It’s just a thing you wrote to get across your feelings. Criticism is more than that; it’s educational. It’s enlightening. If you claim to write criticism but your criticism does not benefit your audience, you have failed as a critic.

I am writing criticism of The Last of Us because my car is a broken piece of shit and I need to get it fixed and I think I can say something interesting and useful about it. I don’t mind being a little acerbic here; The Last of Us is only significant in how much money went to its creation, and there are a million other creative voices who could have used that money to say something more meaningful.

As always, curiosity brought me here: how does this game, which I streamed last summer, a game so desperate to receive the acclaim of the media it borrows from, a game so fucking predictable in everything that it does, a game so emblematic of the biggest problems of the last generation of video games get hailed as one of the best?

Why is The Last of Us so fuckin popular when it’s obviously bad in just about every way that matters?

“Stop Trying To Compare Movies To Games” Is A Stupid Defense Of Games And Here’s Why

Okay, so, let’s break it down.

The Last of Us is a video game (I mean, duh, this is what I criticize here on my blog) released in 2013 for the Playstation 3, and rereleased immediately after for the Playstation 4, which is where I played it. The game is framed from an over the shoulder, third person perspective, meaning that you see the character you are playing as during the act of playing the game, as opposed to inhabiting their body (like Doom) or being a disembodied entity somewhere above the game world, directing its flow (like Anno 1800).

Of course, that doesn’t really tell us anything at all the game except for one key fact: it is as close to movies as games usually get in terms of .

Here’s a YouTube critic talking about my game; he frequently points out that the game works , and I think this is important because, well… you saw what this section was called, right?

Look, a lot of people like to defend bad game stories with “stop comparing it to film! games aren’t films! they’re trying to do different things!” and this is true, but as someone with multiple degrees in storytelling, award winning games under my belt, and who has actually helped a lot of people tell stories in both film games…

They’re not actually all that different.

Here’s a story for you: I worked in a theatre department while going to film school, and I asked the department head at the time what made theatre unique. Novels have prose, comics are a series of sequential art on the page, games have interactivity, and movies have time. What was something that theatre had that no other medium possessed?

“Mise en scene,” she told me. “It’s about staging, right?” “Yes!” “Yeah, it’s one of the first terms we learned in film school. Maybe it’s something else?” She furrowed her brow. We talked about it further; apparently, she was unaware that film also has mise en scene.

Eventually, we settled on ‘presence,’ the idea that actors are physically present in the same space as the audience. Theatre is live; a novel is not live, a comic is not live, a movie is not live, but theatre is live. It is performance that happens, in real time, in physical proximity to you. That is theatre.

Every medium through which a story is conveyed must do so in different ways. There is no way any other medium can convey its story the way that Frank Quitely draws this spread in We3, for instance:

My point is, while there are in the way stories are told depending on the medium, and certain stories are for some mediums and not others (how would you even begin to produce a We3 stage play? would the rock opera be noticeably different? yes it would), at its core… everything gets back to drama.

If you’ve read my thoughts on Death Stranding (and I would be grateful if you did), you know I keep banging the drum on and on about . The short version is, every story that exists is fundamentally dramatic: the protagonist wants something, but something else is in the way of them getting that. The friction between their desire and the thing in the way is what makes the story interesting. Whether that’s the gingham dog and the calico cat littering the air with gingham and calico for an hour or so, Gilgamesh trying to process the death of his friend, Joan saving France, or Kramer just trying to be a good father to his child, drama is the foundation of just about all narrative.

Quoth the legendary playwright Mamet:

This is why any video game narrative can be judged, even compared to other narratives. Yes, the tools are different, but the tools being different doesn’t mean we can’t discuss a game’s dramatic shortcomings.

Besides, agreat deal of people will mistake The Last of Us as “being cinematic,” especially when the game has literally 90 minutes of cutscenes. Here, I grabbed a video at a random moment in the game.

See?

“like a movie.”

But there’s a lot more to being a movie than the camera angles. Heck, there are plenty of movies that conventional in their construction, like the first person movie Hardcore Henry:

Movies are so much more than just the apparent ‘cinematic’ qualities; it’s not about camera angles and staging and lighting, it’s about control over .

I think a lot about this story relayed by Zach Wilson on the development of Homefront:

When I shot a one-take in film school, I proposed the idea because I had not been to the set in question. I just thought it would be an interesting exercise; once we got on location, it was like, oh, well, hey, this is going to suck. This isn’t going to look visually interesting, we can’t light this, and so on and so forth. So we tried to cut it… but our director wouldn’t let us. He was so enamored with the idea that he kept it in. Our film took ‘last place’ in the school film festival because he locked our editor out of the editing bay to ensure the shot stayed in.

In my first game, I wanted to use cuts as a way of creating emotional resonance; I know some of the critics who’ve played it have commented on the cuts, often comparing it to Thirty Flights of Loving, and others have pointed out how the plot is out of order, but not a lot of people seem to have realized . When they talk about how the game burrows into their brain, how it sticks with them, why it stays, they seem to think it’s because of and not the way the game controls time.

I realize this sounds a bit uh… how to put this. Maybe condescending? I don’t want to be, but also I’m observing a phenomenon that I have a unique perspective on, due to the fact that A) I created the damn thing, and B) I went to film school so I learned a lot about controlling time.

In film school, we talk about movie time and run time. Run time is how long the movie is (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are something like 700 minutes in total), and movie time is the duration of the story (the destruction of the One Ring takes about 11 months of time from Bag End until Frodo goes to Elf heaven). Do we need to film Sam sitting around twiddling his thumb as Frodo pisses behind a tree? Do we need to film every single step a character makes forward? No! We’re creating effect through .

With my game, the goal was to structure the scenes in a way that creates emotional impact; you drive along the highway, road noise getting louder and louder and louder until… silence. Buzzing. You’re standing in a gas station. This is how we can achieve an effect of road hypnosis. If the game was in chronological order, one of the game’s two climactic moments would happen early on and have no real buildup or impact. Heck, I think chronologically, the first scene in the game is the one where you pull the camera out of your camera case to wander off in the woods to take pictures of birds.

this is the only screenshot i had left sorry

What I’m saying is, when we tell stories, we are designing . We put scenes in stories in a specific order to generate feelings. Think about how heist movies have the “haha you we were caught, but this was actually part of the plan” by strategically leaving out information until the audience experiences the emotional “oh no, we were caught!” moment.

We have control over time in movies and games. Don’t get me wrong, there things that movies can do that games can’t. Here’s an example, from Alfred Hitchcock:

In a game, we could simply walk away from the bomb if we knew it was there. If we couldn’t walk away — if the game prevented us from doing a normal game verb, we would get frustrated with the experience, while in a Hitchcock film, our inability to interact with the characters is what makes them so suspenseful.

If you are someone who says “you can’t compare games and movies,” as someone who has worked in both mediums, and won some awards in the process, let me tell you: you absolutely fuckin can, even if there are differences in the stories are told. I cannot think of a character who is bad in film and good in games or vice versa; such a thing just does not exist.

I’ve met a lot of people who don’t know anything about art who make two arguments, often in parallel. The first argument is that no one can know what good art is. That’s hogwash — people have been learning about what makes good art for literally millennia. It is a field you can develop expertise in; thanks to the internet, a lot of people want to think their letterboxd and their opinion of the latest Marvel movie makes them an expert, but in the same breath, they’ll take any opinion they disagree with and say that no one can know what makes for good fiction; it’s all , man.

The second argument is that something must not be bad if it matters to a large number of people. It sold well, therefore, it must be great. Oh, sure, you can tell me that Twilight was a best-selling series of novels, but I’ll point out that it was also a flash in the pan; a hundred years from now, it’s unlikely that Stephenie Meyer will be considered among the greats just because her books sold well.

from here on out the screencaps are just random shots i took from a video I’d recorded of a playthrough so like, *shrug*

There’s a phenomenon in art where things can be explosively popular without being good; maybe it’s for social reasons (it’s popular!) or because it provides the soul with empty calories. Thing is, these works rarely . The greatest works, the ones that last, are always deeply, truly human. They speak to us in ways that still .

This means that popularity . Immediate apparent impact . Blade Runner mattered but most people didn’t realize it for decades! Mervyn Peake died before people realized the power of Gormenghast!

In reality, you can develop expertise in your field. You can learn a great deal about what works and doesn’t. You can then apply that expertise to your understanding of fiction, and you can, in fact, with a great degree of accuracy, predict whether something is good or bad or will resonate based on this expertise. On the internet, everyone wants to pretend their opinion is as good as an expert’s, because everyone wants to feel good about themselves, but… fuck, how do I put this…

You have to be curious.

Okay?

That’s all there is to it. You have to be curious. You have to want more. If you’re going to sit there and go “well I liked this thing so it’s good” and then tell an expert in the field “everything is subjective,” you have the same moral high ground as an anti-vaxxer, which is to say . There’s here. If you’re curious, if you’re invested, if you to know why things work, you can seek it out and learn. To stare at millennia of artistic understanding and go “i like it so who’s to say what’s real” is ignorance of the highest order.

A good story is one that lasts. We can get a good sense of whether or not it will last because when we look at the effectiveness of a story — how it takes its components and assembles them in a way to create emotional impact — we can talk about what it’s doing and how, and we can use lessons applicable to any medium. Who wants what? What happens if her don’t get it? Why now?

You can make a game about Death of a Salesman, a movie, a comic, whatever; the story is just as effective in every medium, but it would be told differently. At the core, the drama is still thereIt always works because it’s . Whatever form it takes, that core, human truth is always there. When a story captures the precious truth of human existence, it succeeds. When it doesn’t, it fails.

Why Should The Last of Us Exist?

Much ado has been made about The Last of Us. It won a billion awards for all the things. People said it was the game of the generation, the metacritic score is unbelievably high, it sold like ten trillion copies — if you had never played it, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a tremendous artistic achievement.

When the sequel came out, people were even hyped up about it. Some guy finished it and claimed it was . Naughty Dog employees went on and on about how they couldn’t believe people loved their game, how humbled they were to blah blah blah.

When someone pointed out the absurdity of the Schindler’s List comparison, Druckmann directed his fans at the guy by suggesting that people needed to moderate their criticism — not the breathless praise, mind you, but criticism he was getting. As I read his various responses to the game, I got the impression that Druckmann felt the game all the accolades it got. It was far worse, it seemed, for someone to say “maybe this game isn’t as good as Schindler’s list,” than “you should fire this guy for giving the game less than the score Uncharted 2 received.”

To my knowledge, Neil Druckmann has never told his fans to stand down, just his critics. That, to me, says he thinks he deserves the absolutely insane volume of praise his game gets, and that he must think it’s okay for critics of his games to get death threats.

And here’s the thing: The Last of Us 2 isn’t very good, but more on that in a separate article. The same has been true of every major Naughty Dog game; they’re inadequate video games that, made by anyone else, would have been critically reviled. According to former employees, the studio’s success is due more to a gigantic budget that allows them to brute force success more than anything else.

I don’t like talking about game history, but at the same time, I learned an awful lot about how much history had to be relearned — how much time was wasted — after silver nitrate film stock went up in flames and we lost hundreds of silent movies. How’s that saying go? Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it?

Well, with Naughty Dog, people have been saying every one of their games is an Oscar-worthy masterpiece since at least Uncharted 2.

As an actual video game, The Last of Us is unremarkable. No, really. Go play it.

Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, Schizopolis, Logan Lucky) once did an experiment with Raiders of the Lost Ark where he gave the movie a new soundtrack and changed it to black and white. Why?

So, go back and play The Last of Us, but mute the game and skip every cutscene. Turn off the subtitles. Just… play the game, think through every single encounter. Look at how they’re constructed and what’s happening in terms of level and encounter design. Ask yourself about the verbs — what do you find yourself doing?

This is how I often go back and reevaluate games; it’s a process I discovered on accident after playing Half-Life 2 with the sound off and realizing I used the pistol a lot more once I couldn’t hear how bad it sounded.

I think what you’ll find when you play The Last of Us is that, well… if anything, it’s emblematic of all the worst bits of last-gen game design. If you weren’t there, you may not recall this, but much ado was made about the oversimplification of video games from that era; the levels were boring and everything was signposted, useless systems like crafting, and, well, this was a common meme:

If this was purely a mechanics-driven post then I don’t have a lot to say. The Last of Us has boring encounter design. It’s got annoying one-hit-kill stealth enemies, it’s got uninspired humans, and a lot of the levels have very obvious last-gen cover. One of the most memorable moments is ripped directly from one of the best video games of the generation:

(I love Dead Space 2 so much)

The Last of Us has a crafting system but the level design doesn’t really make scavenging interesting; it breaks up the dramatic flow of the game without ever asking the player to make meaningful decisions regarding gathering supplies (contrast that with, say, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, a game I played this morning on a whim for a little while, where I had to think about whether taking on enemy ships would give me more supplies than it cost to escape them). The stealth system is bad — it has audio cues but, to my knowledge, no visual indicators, which as a person with auditory processing issues, is pretty frustrating.

The AI itself is pretty boring; it basically either rushes you, braindead, because it’s zombies, or it takes cover and tries to draw attention while other AI flanks you, when it’s humans. That’s… about it. It has neither the variety of Gears 3 or Dead Space 2, nor does it have the intelligence of something like FEAR, STALKER, or Halo.

If you just play the game as the game is constructed, you will find a barely-adequate third person game that has waaaay too many “move this crate so ellie can climb it, move this pallet so ellie can cross this body of water, move this plank or ladder so ellie can climb/cross a gap” puzzles breaking up routine combat arenas.

There is nothing this game does as a linear video game.

But that’s not really an uncommon trend; we saw this with Red Dead Redemption, a game that requires you to mash A to run (not disability friendly) and has awful aiming. We saw this with Mass Efffect 2, a game that, like The Last of Us, somehow magically doesn’t get called out for the dull cover-based shooter combat and spongey enemies of every other game of the generation. We see this with , a game that’s praised as being one of the best games of , despite having some pretty dull enemies.

You should watch this great video on Half-Life 2’s AI.

Cool. That’s it. We’re done.

…right?

What, you want me to go in-depth on examples? Normally, that’s what I do, but today, I don’t feel like it. I think we’re good here.

Alright, alright, fine. My regular readers know me all too well — I don’t just post a bunch of unrelated shit about tornadoes and control over time and art needing to be if I don’t have a point, right?

Besides, why do people like this game so dang much if it’s bad? What lets them look past the piss-poor mechanics — or, heck, what how piss-poor they are — and call it a work of genius?

The Last Of Us Has The Opposite of Artistic Value

Here’s Neil Druckmann, the director of The Last of Us, talking about the game being adapted by the writer of Scary Movie 3 to television: “…with TV you have to figure out how it communicates ideas or tells stories. In removing the interactivity of the story, how do you make it unique for this other medium?”

The Last of Us is not unique.

I am not talking about how Druckmann wanted to gender swap Y: The Last Man, nor am I talking about how the studio ripped off Ellen Page’s likeness and had to change it not to be copyright infringing. I am not talking about how the story uses the tired old inspired-by-Cracked-dot-com post about the cordyceps fungus somehow being a ‘realistic’ way zombification could actually happen.

I have no problem with a lack of originality in games; heck, I wrote an entire essay about just that. If you don’t think I’m compelling enough, then here’s an essay on that I wrote where I pointed out that T.S. Eliot said basically the same thing.

I would personally say that the storytellers at Naughty Dog are Eliot’s ‘immature poets,’ because there’s no theft, only imitation and defacement. Like, here is a (spoiler-free! kinda!) scene from The Last of Us 2:

You will notice that this video title “Negan kills Glenn and Abraham the walking dead.” That is because this video is from The Walking Dead. It’s just that this scene is more or less shot-for-shot duplicated in The Last of Us 2.

I’ve established that I don’t think the gameplay is very good, but an article about “what makes for the rules of good encounter design” will almost definitely be a sequel to my Doom piece, which is the actualwhy I am not really going in-depth on the mechanics. I believe that if you follow the exercise laid out above, you’ll find it undeniable that games like Resident Evil 4, Dead Space 2, and most obviously of all, Gears 3, absolutely tower above the rest. Even Binary Domain passes this test with flying colors. These games have brilliant game design. This game? This game does not.

People love this game not because of the mechanics — which are honestly just not interesting enough to write home about or build an article on — and they don’t love it because it’s original.

They love it because it looks nice and it emotes good.

It can’t be that simple, can it?

It can.

Ever watched a mother of a spoiled child watch her child cry and feel so strongly for that child that she does whatever she can to comfort them? Like, the kid wants a candy bar at the checkout and starts crying and since she can’t to see the child cry, she gives them a candy bar immediately?

This is empathy in its worst form; you understand another person’s feelings, but you’re not concerned about the validity of those feelings so much as their existence. You get swept away in the and you forget to go “well, the kid shouldn’t have this much sugar,” or “developing impulse control is important because people without it tend to be assholes.”

In storytelling, we can tap into this. We can create expressive, emotive characters, and players who about it will get suckered into the vibes of the without considering whether or not those feelings are valid.

If you don’t know anything about Joel Miller, the protagonist of The Last of Us and a deuteragonist of The Last of Us 2, I might sound like I’m being kind of a dick, but I think I can prove my point.

Look at how many people Joel. Look at how many people think he’s a “good dad.” There’s fanart of the guy. He’s passionate, he’s protective, blah blah blah. You’ve heard it all. I googled “Joel Miller fanart” and a bunch of drawings are all about making him look hot and saying things like “you’re doing great, kiddo” to Ellie.

In fact, when Joel is killed in The Last of Us 2, there was a fan outcry about it. People claimed Naughty Dog ‘ruined the character’ by killing him off, and they projected a lot of their hatred onto the character that killed him, Abby.

This is all perfectly understandable (although it’s unreasonable) if Joel is a great, sympathetic character, but he isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the brief rundown of the game: Joel is a guy from Texas who lost his wife at an unspecified time; at the time of the zombie outbreak, his daughter is killed by the government, believing that she was injured. Twenty years later, Joel hasn’t gotten over his daughter’s death, and now he’s a violent smuggler. Naughty Dog really does its best to make the violence as edgy as possible — remember that gameplay footage in 2012?

Joel doesn’t just kill people, he makes them suffer.

Anyways, he ends up being asked to smuggle a girl, Ellie, across country because she’s immune, and over the course of the journey, he starts using her as a surrogate daughter to replace the one he lost. So, so, so many people he meets die along the journey. His smuggling partner? Dead. So, of course, when it turns out that she has to die in order for the last doctors on Earth to find a cure, Joel kills them all, ridding humanity of both a cure and its doctors, and kidnaps Ellie, lies and tells her that there is no cure, and tries to move on with his life.

Joel being a horrible person why The Last of Us is bad. I love ugliness in fiction; Inspector Javert from Les Miserables is a character, but he’s a horrible person, you know? All he wants to do is ruin a man’s entire life because he cares more about punishing others than making the world better, and he dedicates of his life to punishment.

But it does, I think, prove how many people didn’t what was happening. For so many people, Joel’s inhumanity is swept under the rug; I’ve heard people say “well, I’d do that for my daughter.” People see that he bonds with Ellie, so they decide he’s a , even though he’s literally a psychopathic murderer. When Joel emotes sad, they assume he is sad for a .

In truth, the game’s just, y’know, expensive.

I’m making a game right now called Adios. Someone looked at it and asked me if one of only two characters in the game would have more facial expressions. Bloomberg says that The Last of Us 2’s budget was in the range of $100 million dollars. Based on that figure, the budget for Adios cost what it took to keep Naughty Dog open for a matter of days, if not hours.

When you make a character who can perform pain, who can grimace and groan and express, you can create a powerful sense of empathy. When we see a person look sad, we feel sad for them, if we spend time with them, like the audience does with Joel. If we don’t about the game, if we just go along with the , then The Last of Us is a touching story about a sad man trying to reconnect with his humanity after a tragic loss, elevated by performances not often seen in games.

I mean, that same generation, just five years prior, we got this:

When games come across as cartoonish and silly, and suddenly we have a game that’s aping a lot of prestige tv, with contemplative shots and moments where characters just… take time to breathe and express things, it’s easy to get carried away by what’s happening, and I think the fact that the vast majority of people who played the game legitimately think Joel is a is proof that people will get carried away by that surface level stuff.

I mean, think of how many people said that Twilight, a story that includes a werewolf deciding he wants to fuck a newborn half-vampire child named something weird like Renesmee (don’t worry, according to the mormon writer it’ll happen when she’s physically mature enough, and wouldn’t you know, she’ll come ‘of age’ at around seven years old, at which point she will look seventeen, and according to Meyer, that’s when it will be okay for the werewolf to fuck her) was… uh… a “great” romantic series. I remember when people said not liking it made you a misogynist because it “empowered women” (pedophilia is not empowering! it’s gross! it’s literally abuse! it will never in any context be acceptable!).

People have a tendency to overlook troubling fucking shit if the characters emote powerfully enough for them to ascribe whatever the fuck motives they want. So an audience member sees the giraffe scene in The Last of Us (a scene with really bad setup where Ellie just randomly has a bit of a tiff with Joel and then when they see the giraffes, they reconnect), and they go “aww, this makes me feel fuzzy, therefore, this thing is good.”

Character moments in games are rare — games have a tendency to bring in stories way, way, way after they oughtta (a story should be finished in pre-production), so you get a lot of disjointed, weird shit by people who have no business writing stories at all. I’ve literally seen people leading AAA projects who envision themselves as storytellers but literally just giving marching orders to actual writers that are “I saw this in a movie, and we’re doing it like that.”

(I have also been told that this is how senior people Naughty Dog get scenes, and I mean, given how many of these scenes we’ve seen elsewhere, it fuckin shows).

So! To recap: basically, if a story makes you good in the moment, it can shut off the critical parts of your brain. There are people who see Kristen Stewart and the guy from The Lighthouse making lovey dovey eyes at each other, and they suddenly decide to excuse werewolf pedophilia. There are people who see Joel literally condemn humanity to extinction and decide he’s a good father and a good man.

In both cases, people decide this makes for good storytelling, even though they don’t even the stories.

And that’s a problem, not just because it means people will literally ignore heinous shit as long as characters emote strongly, or even praise characters for doing it, but because it distorts the purpose of art.

Preparing Us For Death

There’s this motherfucker named Robert McKee. He wrote a book called “story,” which laid out a framework for how stories ought to be told. Hollywood fell in love with it, people who can’t write (read this as: executives and those people who tell you they’re novelists but have never sold a manuscript), because everyone loves hearing that writing is just a formula you apply to words until a fully formed story comes out. It makes storytelling .

You know the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind? Well, the guy who wrote it, Charlie Kaufman, fucking hates McKee apparently, because he made fun of McKee in Adaptation.

Actual storytellers — people who have actually, you know, sold stories, will give you a very different outlook on storytelling. Things like formula go out the window. My last game wouldn’t fit within McKee’s Story, and my next game won’t either, but someone just played it and he told me it made him cry because of how beautiful it was, so I feel like I’m doing some good here.

“But, Doc, Neil Druckmann likes Story, and The Last of Us made a billion dollars so there must be something to it.” Right, and Stephenie Meyer wrote a very popular series based on a dream she had that included werewolf pedophilia. Popularity doesn’t make something good.

When I criticized The Last of Us last year in the earlier-linked piece on prestige games, someone from Naughty Dog messaged me to suggest I shouldn’t criticize the studio because they all sent their writers to an ‘intensive’ three-day long Robert McKee ‘story’ course. I tweeted about this a few months later, and a bunch of writers from a studio for great storytelling started liking it, and one of them DM’d me to ask who at their studio had talked to me about how awful that process was.

I went “???”

“Yeah, that was about us, right?”

“No?”

“Oh. Well, the execs here really try to get people to go do it, and the writers all fucking hate it.” Yeah. People who don’t know how to write love McKee because he takes all the art out of it and slaps on a formula.

But, look, McKee never won an Oscar. The guy who taught me how to write did. McKee apparently only trains these people for three days. The beat poet writer who taught me how to write did so for two years. The Oscar winner did it for three. Does this make me more than McKee’s students? By any objective metric, I’ve had a lot more training by a writer who’s far more successful.

If you look at what actual artists have to say about stories, they say things like this:

Whenever I read bad critics, I think about Tarkovsky, who said this in his incredible must-read book “Sculpting in Time.” So many of them are invested in the idea that art must communicate some kind of idea, which is something they share in common with people like McKee, who think you need to be able to get at your game’s theme in a single sentence.

When you talk to actual artists, you hear something completely different, which I wrote about here. The gist of it is that art impacts you on more than a conceptual level — it conveys things to you . You aren’t just telling someone a thesis; this isn’t your first year college writing 101 argumentative essay. When David Lynch refuses to explain his work, he isn’t, as someone who idolized him once told me, ‘confusing because art is confusing,’ it’s because, according to him, the story is the telling. Trying to explain Mulholland Drive is a bad habit the internet picked up when it tried to decode Lost, and even J.J. Abrams didn’t know what Lost was.

After all, Abrams is the guy who told Chris Pine on the set of Star Trek that you don’t to know what you’re saying, you just have to be because people care more about the emotions of the thing than the idea behind it (see how we got back to that point about the mass audience not really caring about the behind The Last of Us just because it made them feel good? J.J.’s version is just a cynical understanding of that point).

I’m not saying you decode things, I’m just saying we put a lot more stock in doing it because of shitty YouTube videos saying “the ending of Lost EXPLAINED” and college courses making us decode The Yellow Wallpaper than listening to the actual people doing the actual work explaining their process.

Tarkovsky:

Le Guin:

Bad writers, or writing gurus, will tell you that your fiction needs to have some kind of thesis or message. Bad critics will write asking what the message of the work is.

I am going to write a second part to the “should art say things?” piece which is “does art say things?” but haven’t got to it yet. The short version, though? Yes. Yes it absolutely does. Just… not in the way you think. It’s not always Aesop’s Fables.

When I wrote the horror game, I was writing powerlessness. I explored it through a multitude of angles, whether it was in putting scenes together in a way to create tension, or characters insisting upon your being professional while also admitting they broke into your house and are forcing you to work for them to pay off someone else’s debts, or the way in which the game’s world represented a sense of post-2008 economic ruin, rooted in my watching Wichita’s air industry fall apart in front of me. It was about so many kinds of powerlessness, whether that was poverty or watching the justice system fail. I can tell you the game was powerlessness thematically, but I can also tell you the game had no thesis statement. It was an examination, a portrait. You were meant to it, to understand what it was like to be me, a disabled writer from Kansas with no job prospects.

My next game is about melancholy, about being unable to fix everything you wish you could fix. It’s a game about creating a sense of I cannot tell you what it’s like to be me and watch someone burn a book or hear of a historic airplane crashing or a museum burning, but I can make a game that tries to convey that I feel.

All of this is a very lengthy way of saying:

We make art, and the art conveys things to people. Not everyone’s going to get it, especially right away. Early on, when it’s new, so many people will respond to emotional earnestness, regardless of what’s actually lurking behind the work, regardless of what it’s actually about. People won’t appreciate Moby Dick right away, and they might pretend that Twilight is great even when it’s literally advocating for some weird, toxic sex shit that is absolutely not okay.

The good shit lasts because the good shit is human.

The bad shit might be popular immediately, but it isn’t human. It has nothing valuable to say about people — in fact, it might actually help people start to take for granted some real bad shit about humanity.

Why It’s Bad

There are two kinds of bad fiction; there’s fiction that’s incompetently executed, and there’s fiction that lies about us. In the case of a certain right-wing author who wrote about people committing suicide because they were ‘tainted’ by non-white blood, sometimes it’s both poorly executed racist.

Good fiction is a way of helping us understand ourselves, of helping us get through the real shit. I made a game about powerlessness that was supposed to lead to several more episodes about finding power in a world where that seems impossible, but I ultimately elected to move on with my artistic career. I’m making a game about an impossible kind of sadness and loss because it’s a feeling I’m grappling with. My hope is that other people will experience these things, and maybe it will help them as it helped me. If I succeed, if I make work that resonates with people in that way, then I have made good art.

When I survived tornadoes, I learned that humans are, in some way, good. Yeah, sure, we’re susceptible to demagogues, and our news cycle knows that it can exploit our morbid curiosity, but in a disaster, people will band together to survive, because we’re ultimately a social species; society would not exist if we weren’t.

The Last of Us is derivative. It’s derivative because it is unthinking. It tells the story it tells because it wants to be baby’s zombie fiction 101. When streaming it last year, I said “oh no, this guy’s going to be a cannibal.”

The guy was a cannibal.

He was a cannibal like so many characters in post-apocalyptic zombie fiction are because that’s just, like, that happens in zombie fiction. George Romero codified our conception of zombies with Night of the Living Dead (pre-Romero zombies are very different), and he cemented it with Dawn of the Dead. I don’t even know how many zombie stories have the tired old zombie bullshit, but I do know it was a lot.

Throughout The Last of Us, we keep stumbling into these moments; you meet someone, they end up being bad. The twist is always that everyone along the way relentlessly sucks somehow, or something will come along to force them forward. The game is insistent that sure, our protagonists are bad, but so is everyone else, in some way.

Later, when I streamed The Last of Us 2, my buddy Phil, who was co-hosting, went “oh god,” and I went “what” and he goes “slavers.” I went “no way, we just did the whole ‘religious cult that eschews technology as it believes zombies are god’s judgement on all mankind and zombies are demons, there’s no way they would do two major stupid cliches like that.” Phil insisted.

A few minutes later?

Slavers.

The Last of Us does what it does because other stories do it, and it does so without really them. Druckmann has professed a love for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and it’s obvious how much he derives from it, Y: The Last Man, and Children of Men to arrive at The Last of Us, like the cannibalism.

The difference, I think, is that The Last of Us doesn’t have its characters take actions because of with the exception of Joel. Ellie, for instance, gets sour at Joel part way through the plot, but that only happens so that the story can achieve a narrative turn as explained by Robert McKee, the scene with the giraffes. Her actual distancing from Joel is poorly established; it only happens because it has to happen for a later scene to happen.

This problem is more pronounced in The Last of Us 2, but more on that in a separate piece.

When things happen in Naughty Dog’s games, especially post-Hennig (she is a brilliant writer whose work is character driven, and I’m sad we’ve had nothing from her in eleven years), they either happen because Story has decreed it or because another genre work has done it. Scenes are lifted wholesale from The Walking Dead or The Road, moments happen because they happened elsewhere.

I’d hesitate to call Naughty Dog games genre-savvy so much as genre imitators; they treat the genre like a rather than as a framework to better understand other people, or help people understand themselves, which is the entire fuckin’ point of art.

Think back on what Druckmann said: “In removing the interactivity of the story, how do you make it unique for this other medium?”

He also said “Can we make you feel hate, guilt, shame? Which are interesting feelings that are totally unique to videogames” in the same interview, which is fuckin hilarious, because A) a bunch of people tried that, and B) all of them failed because it’s impossible to make a player feel guilty for doing something that they have no choice in; guilt only works if you possess agency, and in a linear game where your only choices are what gun to shoot someone in the head with, you cannot experience or feel guilt, especially in a third person game where you are divorced from the character. We’ll have to talk more on shameplay another time. Also it’s fucking weird to suggest that a movie can’t make you feel hate when Nurse Ratched exists. How ignorant can one be to say what he said there? Games not only suck at generating these emotions with shameplay, but if you actually engaged critically with any other medium, you’d know they do it too. Why would you people to feel that anyways?

His game is unique because he had enough money to make it, and nothing more. As I pointed out, Dead Space 2 did the “hanging upside down while shooting zombies” two years before The Last of Us did. The combat systems are derivative, the narrative beats, even racist shit like “killing off the black guy” happens. It’s all so… uncritical to the point where it does absolutely inhumane shit for no reason other than someone else already did it.

After finishing The Last of Us 2, I said on Twitter that we should impose a moratorium on post-apocalyptic games with sinister biker gangs, religious cults that blame the end of the world on sin and eschew technology, and cannibals. My point was, it’s not really rooted in any actual human behavior, it’s just genre regurgitation, and once we remove our narrative crutches, we’ll have to be more creative; we’ll see there’s a massive world of possibility out there.

If I write a post-apocalyptic story, I’ll probably write one about the last baseball game ever played. It’s still rooted firmly within the genre, but it’s doing so in a way I don’t think anyone’s ever done before. Hopefully it is an interesting insight into humanity; hopefully it helps people process and deal with emotion. Hopefully it provides some comfort.

Well, one guy — who I believe had “aspiring novelist” in his bio — took issue with that. “If you tell me what I can’t write, how can I write anything at all?” There’s a curious process by which people who are uncreative think “not being able to copy what I’ve already seen means I have to think for myself and this limits me somehow,” and I personally don’t understand it, but that was the root of this guy’s argument. If he couldn’t simply tell stories that had already been told, he felt he could not tell stories at all. I couldn’t understand why he’d want to; what’s the point? Someone already got there before you.

The Last of Us is a regurgitation of zombie fiction; it does nothing new and it has nothing to say. Oh, I’m sure it has a point — The Last of Us 2’s is literally nothing more than “violence begets violence” — but ultimately it’s a character portrait of, well… any other apocalyptic protagonist you’ve seen before, an ugly man doing ugly things.

Stories that introduced those beats initially did so because they were . The Last of Us does them because they’re . It robs the games of tension; if you’ve seen The Walking Dead, there’s nothing new for you in The Last of Us. At best, it’s just copying Kirkman’s already-derivative homework, or Romero’s, or McCarthy’s, or whoever else. You’ve seen it all before, and that fuckin kills the drama.

It’s just… well… maybe that’s really fuckin bad, not just because it reinforces shitty cliches like “the black guy dies in a horror story,” but, well…

Why It’s Bad, Part 2

So I’m reading this book, which says that Hitler, Mussolini, and just about every other world leader during World War II really loved this psychology textbook by a guy who decided people were frothing masses, and if something went wrong, everyone would turn on each other. This worried Churchill, who had also read it and believed the bombing of London would cause Londoners to turn on each other. This was Hitler bombed London — he thought he could demoralize them so effectively that they would join him.

What happened next surprised literally everyone: eyewitness accounts revealed that people actually banded together and treated each other with love and kindness.

I’m not sure if the book gets into this yet, but I suspect that Churchill, when faced with the obvious reality that Le Bon was wrong, decided that no, the British were and Le Bon was still as accurate as ever. We can see how the British Empire treated India, and we can see how Churchill attempted to position British people as somehow innately superior to the rest of the world in his actions and historic writing. We see this in Hitler as well.

There’s a mindset that says something like:

Once you start believing that your people are superior, but humans in general are bad, suddenly inhuman behavior like colonization and gas chambers doesn’t seem so bad. You’re practically doing the world a favor. Most people are animals, but the ones you’re close to aren’t; there’s something about your tribe.

Of course that’s not how reality works, that’s how works. You spend time with Joel Miller and he ends the human race but since he emoted a bunch, you with him, so what’s a little extinction between friends, huh? The faceless masses are animals and cannibals. Surely they don’t deserve the empathy that Joel does.

The book I’m reading, Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, a Hopeful History, goes into great detail about this. I’ve known it ever since I watched my fellow Kansans pick each other — not just themselves — back up off the ground after a tornado. I seek it out in fiction. I’ve read scientific studies on this; the definitive proof is in, and it says one thing conclusively: humans? They’re pretty good.

But “humans are animals” is an attractive sentiment to a great number of people— like I said, I see it on Twitter all the time. People love bragging about Doomscrolling, they love tweeting “this is not normal,” and talk about how they’re members of the resistance. There’s a guy on twitter who’s got like six figures’ worth of followers because his brand is finding people with stupid opinions and trying to spread those opinions as far as humanly possible because it makes him feel morally superior to them by dunking on them. If you can believe the faceless masses are animals, you get to feel a little bit better about yourself, just like the British colonizers, just like the Nazis. It’s a spectrum of behavior; I know people who lean left who’d never put people in gas chambers but still engage in that proto-fascist sentiment.

When someone seems to relish in just how we all are, it’s so often a sign that they look down on people, the same way Churchill thought British colonialism was a good thing. Your in-group is special, exceptional, beyond animals in some way. The out-group? Not so much. People with this attitude so often give themselves permission to treat others horribly, to intrude, to say they’re doing this for your own good.

As a disabled person, I can say many people have abused me under the guise of helping me, because they thought they were morally superior to me; after all, their lives were better than mine, so I must not be a hard worker. Everyone gets tired some times, ‘chronic fatigue’ must not really be that bad, right?

What I’m saying is, by being an unthinking thing, an uncritical regurgitation of the tropes of zombie fiction, a game that has nothing meaningful to say, a game that does emotions because it follows a guidebook that says it ought to, The Last of Us hurts us.

People believe humans are animals because popular fiction reinforces this belief. By continuing that trend — by not giving us art that really observes and tries to understand fellow human beings, but just vomiting back up all the tropes it has ingested, The Last of Us and its sequel — indeed, all of Naughty Dog’s creative output… it puts bad shit into the world. It gives us ‘proof’ that the world is as bad as we think it is, it lets us excuse someone’s bad behavior.

Games don’t make us go out and beat someone to death with a brick, but look at all the people who thought that covid would cause people to go around shooting each other up over toilet rolls; all the preppers have consumed apocalyptic fiction that told them there would come a time when they’d need guns to defend them from the savage masses that Le Bon warned about and Hitler believed in. It didn’t happen. Humans are better than that. Imperfect, sure, but better than that. While it’s true that games don’t make people more violent, fiction helps it sets up expectations about how work.

Good art is dramatic, and for something to be dramatic, it has to be . The Last of Us isn’t. The Last of Us, in its mechanics, is a very expensive, but mediocre thing.

As a work of art?

I think it does harm.

Because it’s thoughtless, it reinforces the idea that people are animals, and that holds no value.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.