Saturday, 6 March 2021

2020 was a crap year.

Welp, it's March already and I'm sitting here thinking about the last year. Because around this time in 2020, my wife and I went into lockdown and have been working from home (we're lucky and we know it) ever since. 

 That's why New Year's didn't really resonate that much - it was just another day to us.  But now that we've come full circle, I started thinking that maybe writing a little something would be nice. So, here we are, another year gone by.  Some good news - Trump got kicked out of the White House. I'm not American, but it's been so nice seeing him banned from social media. He can't dominate headlines anymore - it's almost as if no one cares what he thinks anymore. And considering how awful that orange idiot was, I'd say that's an immense improvement.

 Covid vaccines are rolling out. I know most of us would prefer being able to get them immediately, or if our own country could do its own manufacturing (thereby improving our access to them), but decades of healthcare cuts and ignoring looming problems because they'd be 'the next government's issue' has left us sorely lacking in that department.  Still, there's light on the horizon as Pfizer pumps out millions more doses for us over the next month or so.  Personally I'd prefer getting the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines - anything with more than 90% efficacy really, but I'll take whatever I can get at this point.  Which, given where I work and my risk group, will probably mean sometime in the summer.

That's okay though - I'm relatively safe and secure right now. Lockdown chafes, I'm sure everyone at this point is sick of it, but doing my part to prevent the spread of the disease and its attendant weight on the healthcare system is the least I can do. Literally the least, because all it requires is that I stay home and/or only go out when necessary and/or keep a safe distance between myself and others. Oh, and wear a mask.  I'm so used to it now I hardly notice anymore.

What else?  

I've been dealing with some health problems for the past year. Nothing to worry about, but inconvenient to say the least. I'm waiting for things to improve re: Covid before going through more testing. Hopefully I'll be able to figure out what it is and deal with it in the relatively near future.

Otherwise I'm still trying to sell my first book.  Slow going on that front. But I've recently started writing in earnest again, which I take as a triumph.  I'm not losing as much time to video games anymore, although I've played through quite a few. So new stories and new books in progress.  Which is lovely. I never realized how valuable writing was to my personal well-being.  It makes me feel alive - gives me something to look forward to. 

I think that's the most important thing. Finding things to look forward to. Otherwise we get bogged down in the present, and that gets depressing pretty fast.  So that's my one lesson from 2020. Don't obsess. Try to take time to find comfort and safety, give yourself space to struggle, but make sure you periodically purge your emotions.  I read stories and watch videos that make me laugh and cry and it's wonderful. 

Anyhow, that's enough from me for now.  Take care and all the best.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Last of Us Part II and why it's actually a good game (SPOILERS GALORE)

So I'm going to be discussing a lot about what makes this game great, story elements, twists and the ending, so if you haven't played it yet, read on at your own risk.

I'm writing this post with mixed emotions. The Last of Us Part II is a magnificent game. It has a really, really important narrative, it's incredibly artistic, the gameplay is tight and the world itself just feels real and hard and sad. If I had to sum it all up, I'd say this game feels something like a Greek Tragedy - characters driven by their natures and unable to change their fates where knowing the outcome in advance isn't enough to change their trajectory. And this game encompasses that feeling quite a bit, the pain and suffering of people in terrible situations, how fleeting joy can be and how fast it can be taken away. The ending pulls away from full blown catastrophe, but leaves a sort of emptiness in its wake - it's hard to experience and not want something a little different.

Still, this is a game every PS4 owner should play and everyone else should watch. It's not perfect (more on that in a bit), but it has all of the components in place of a genre defining and transforming game - Naughty Dog did things here that just haven't been done before. And they did a really good job.

I'm going to start with gameplay. Largely it's the same as the original game, although there are a few new additions, like the ability to jump and go prone. Otherwise the weapons feel familiar, the infected are largely unchanged, although new variants are introduced, and the human AI is quite a bit smarter than it used to be. Everything feels just a little harder to kill. Aiming is a little touchier, enemies seem to move a bit faster and follow a wider set of paths and behaviors. Ellie and Abby control well (moving/shooting/sneaking/etc.). Ellie is a little nimbler and Abby a little heavier. Actually, Abby feels more like Joel did in the original game. There are upgrade paths both characters - for their skills, gear and weapons, and you're going to want to invest time looking for hidden areas where you can find them. Because you have to find them to exploit them, and having an extra hoslter to switch weapons faster, better aim, tighter weapon handling really makes a difference in how you play. Upgrades are paid for by finding spare parts and pills. Weapons can be upgraded only at workbenches, while your skills can be upgraded anywhere. Crafting supplies, bombs and melee weapon upgrades is basically unchanged from the original game, although Ellie and Abby have different variations (Molotov vs Pipebomb for example).

The gameplay itself is satisfying. There's enough environmental variation, platforming and combat scenarios to keep you busy and entertained, although sometimes some of the battles can be a little frustrating. Lighting can be a bit of an issue, especially when dealing with some of the harder infected enemies. I found myself getting cornered and hammered on more than one occasion because I couldn't what was going on - I don't know if that's a function of the lighting or HDR, but it was noticeable in a few places. Mostly in the hospital battle in the sealed off parts, both as Ellie and Abby, as it turns out. It took me at least 25 hours to beat this game, and not because of the challenge. I like to explore levels, find every nook and cranny, kill every enemy - that kind of thing. And in The Last of Us Part II there are plenty of hard to reach/hard to see/easy to miss hiding spots and puzzle elements can be a little challenging, but as long as you look carefully for clues in the vicinity you'll be able to solve them without wasting too much time.

Sound, music, voice acting are all superb. There was no point in this game where the sound and music didn't work, or the voice acting felt forced, insincere or out of place. Every character is excellently voiced and every conversation feels right. Even the ones you overhear. Sound and environmental effects are rich and deep; the music is often haunting and tense - there's just so much thought that went into the atmosphere. The graphics are superb - there's no other way to describe the vistas you see and the post-apocalyptic areas you explore. But this is what we expect from Naughty Dog.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the story and the characters. I'm going to get this out of the way at the beginning. Yes, there are gay and trans characters in this game and if you have a problem with that, I still say you should play the game. Come at it with an open mind before you start screaming into the void about how this isn't 'the way gaming is supposed to be.' Or that 'no one wants these characters in games.' Because frankly actually you're wrong on both counts. You might not want these characters in your games and some of your friends might not want these characters in their games, but there are a lot of people who don't mind, don't care or are extremely excited to see broader representation in the cast. Meaningful representation - not just some tacked on stereotype, but fully developed, sympathetic characters who happen to be gay or trans. If you're arguing against this - you're making the same arguments that every exclusionary system has made before the 'other' was allowed in.  Which means you're on the wrong side of this issue.

And that's one of the reasons why this game is so important - it has the potential to be transformative. If you play this game and are still concerned about the sexuality of the cast by the end of it, despite what happens to everyone in the story, you're missing the point. In my opinion you're actively ignoring the point to protect your prejudice. And what is my point?  Love is love, pain is pain and identity is identity, no matter who you are. 

But that's enough about that, because I don't think this is really what's pissing people off about TLOU II.

So let's talk about the story - the most polarizing thing among gamers. The story starts with a gut punch. That's the only way to describe how this game opens and how it sets  the rest of the narrative in motion. It's not one I wanted or expected.  I had to turn it off at that point just to process what I'd seen.  I was sad and angry at the same time, and I think most of us shared that initial reaction.

Again, heavy spoiler alert here - I am going to spoil the ending, as well as the major plot points and twists that happen along the way. And I am so happy I played this game without reading any spoilers or walk-throughs ahead of time. I thought about it - about reading the leaks and watching the videos that came out pretty much as soon as the game launched, and I fought my instincts. And that made the journey so much more impactful.

So, gut punch time. Joel dies early on. And he doesn't die in a good way - he's murdered by a group of ex-Fireflies who've come looking for him. Why? Revenge. Revenge for what he did at the end of the first game when he killed everyone in St. Mary's Hospital to save Ellie from being sacrificed for a vaccine. That's the setup - Joel murdered his way through an entire hospital of people - people who had friends and families - and his death is their closure for what he did. Joel himself said it near the beginning of the first game. "We're not good people." So when he dies, its as payment for what he's already done. Doesn't matter what he's done since then - his existence represents a huge festering wound for anyone who survived the aftermath of his violence.

In his mind, he was completely justified in what he did. He would do it again. And you know, I agree with him - you don't sacrifice a kid at the altar of a vaccine. Especially if you know anything about how vaccines are developed - they don't always work. This is something the games avoid intentionally, but if you do any research on vaccinations at all, you will find out that the vast majority of vaccine candidates never get past the testing phase because they're ineffective. Only the really good ones ever make it to us - and after spending 20+ hours in the first game getting to know and care about Joel and Ellie, I found that last battle easy to wage - I didn't hesitate to cut my way through all those Fireflies if it meant saving a young girl who was going to die for the hope of a vaccine.

That's the context I used to understand and appreciate why the second game progresses the way it does, why it makes sense that the story is told the way it is, and why it really is a complete narrative.

Some of you are going to hate me for saying this, but the older and more mature you get, the more you experience; the more failures and successes, heartache and loss you go though, the more you understand that right and wrong aren't just a binary relationship. No one set of moral principles applies to every situation. That's why there still isn't a cohesive theory of everything in philosophy - one truth doesn't exist when it comes to human behavior. Morality is a moving target. And I think that is where people are having a hard time with the story in this game.

Because you don't just play as Ellie going after the people who took Joel from her - you play as Abby as well - the woman who killed him. And they both have story arcs that hit you hard. Ellie's journey is essentially the same as Abby's was before the game begins - she wants to hurt the people who hurt her, and as a player I did that. I was more violent in my encounters with the Wolves than I otherwise would have been. I took time to circle back and make sure I cleared out everyone before continuing. There was no slipping through areas undetected - every zone and fight was to the last man. That was right up until the midpoint of the game when my perspective got flipped 180 degrees and my eyes were opened.

Abby's journey is similar to Joel's in the first game. She does what she needs to do to survive. And with her revenge complete, she's back in WLF (the Wolves) as a soldier fighting against the Scars - a group portrayed as religious fanatics who, ultimately, aren't much different than her own faction. The Wolves and the Scars (or Seraphites) are fighting over resources and territory and ideology. Just like the Fireflies and the remnants of the government were in the first game. And, surprise, surprise, they're both willing to commit horrible acts of violence against each other. And they both keep escalating that conflict. That's the war she's fighting, even though deep down, Abby just wants to survive and help her friends.

So while it's difficult to empathize with her at first given what she did to Joel and Ellie, as you spend more time with her you start to understand why she did it. Why killing Joel to avenge her father was so important to her. And then she really starts to mirror Joel when she comes across Yara and Lev, two runaway Scar children who save her life.  Even though she's supposed to be their enemies, she  accompanies them to a safe place and then takes them under her wing. She wants to make sure they're okay - and she explains why - they are her penance for what she's done.

So there it is, Abby and Ellie - two people on the opposite sides of a conflict who both have valid reasons for what they've done. Once that hit me I started playing the game differently. I started avoiding conflict when I could - sneaking instead of laying traps and attacking. That's a pretty powerful thing - to change my play-style halfway through the game because of the plot. The further I got, the more I started to think they both deserved to live.Even though I knew there would be an eventual showdown.

The game really gets 'hard' to play when you see the pain Ellie's inflicted from Abby's point of view. When you have to go after Ellie and her friends because she's killed everyone who was important to Abby. That flip between protagonist and antagonist is what throws everyone off - seeing Ellie as a victim first and a monster second.  Seeing Abby not as just a monster, but also a victim.  And there's no way to reconcile the two.  I even had trouble - I experimented with dying to see what would happen - to see whether there was an Easter Egg in letting Ellie kill Abby in the theater showdown. Unfortunately it was just game over.  So tere's no way around it - you have to fight through.

Do I hate that Joel was killed off? Yes I do. But within this story - in pushing the genre forward and avoiding a cookie cutter sequel - Naughty Dog was digging into the idea of empathy and revenge, and Post Traumatic Stress and the awful toll violence has on people's lives. In all of those ares I think they succeeded. The game succeeded.

Abby and Ellie are essentially two sides of the same coin - the parallels between the them are stark. The loss of Abby's father mirrors Ellie's father figure. Jesse and Manny die exactly the same way - almost too fast to process. Dina and Mel are both pregnant, participate in and become victims of the violence their friends have wrought. Abby becomes a protector once Lev's sister Yara dies, the same way Joel becomes Ellie's protector in the first game.

Even when Abby shows mercy - when she breaks the cycle and doesn't kill Dina in revenge for Mel's death - Ellie is the one who can't give it up. Even with a seemingly happy ending - living in a farmhouse with Dina and baby JJ. She gives all that up because of the trauma she's experienced and the PTSD she suffers - all of it just to go after Abby one more time. Because she's stuck on the idea that killing her as payback for Joel and Jesse is necessary. As if that will make everything right.

So off she goes, following Abby across the country to California, where she's been trying to rejoin the Fireflies.  Only Abby has been taken captive by a gang called the Rattlers - human traffickers with a stronghold in Santa Barbara.

When Ellie arrives, she finds out Abby has been a prisoner for months and storms the Rattler's stronghold. And I gotta say, fighting human traffickers decked out in police gear is an interesting gameplay situation given what's going on right now.  They could have been cops or the kids of cops - or they could just be a gang who got their hands on military equipment. Doesn't really matter - it's still impactful - maybe that's why they don't just feel like a throwaway obstacle.

But when it comes down to the crucial moment, when Ellie finally finds Abby - strung up on a pillar on the beach because she tried to escape - she still has to fight her.  Both of them are weak and hurt and practically dead. Ellie forces Abby to fight so she can have closure. Again, this mirrors their last showdown, where you play Abby and fight Ellie right up to that same edge.  And in the end, thankfully, this fight ends the same way.  Ellie comes close to drowning Abby, but stops just before it's too late. She lets her go, sit down and starts crying, totally broken. It's a haunting picture. 

That could have been the ending right there, but I might have thrown my controller at the television.  Instead, we get a vignette. Ellie goes back to the farmhouse and contemplates what she's lost along the way (friends, family, a woman to love and child to raise). She tries to play the guitar one last time before leaving it and all the rest behind, walking way into the forest.

And that's the hardest part for me to deal with.  The halfway goodbye where we don't get to see what happens to either of the main characters.  That is really the only thing that left me unsatisfied when the credits rolled.  It feels like a cliffhanger.  Even if it isn't meant to be one - I still would have preferred something a little happier for both characters.  Because after wading through 25+ hours of a very painful story, I needed that as a player. Nothing trite or forced - just closure.  Knowing that Abby makes it to the Fireflies.  Knowing the Ellie is able to make peace with Dina and rejoin her family.   Something like that would have helped, especially if this is the final game Naughty Dog plans to make with this IP.

But, as a grownup, a mature gamer if you will, I get it.  Life doesn't always hand you a pretty picture. And even though games are supposed to be entertaining, Naughty Dog doesn't just tow the line in that regard.  They push boundaries on purpose. That's what makes their games so emotionally compelling.

Anyway, that's my breakdown of the game and its story. For the score it deserves, I'd say it's a very solid 9.5/10.  The 0.5 deducted is because of a few camera/lighting issues in some of the darker areas/fights and the ending that was a bit too dreary for me.

In other words: buy the game, play the game, watch the game - it's worth it.  Absolutely.