Friday, August 16, 2013

Notes on Gone Home

1. As the credits rolled on Gone Home I felt happy, sad, and old.

2. Gone Home is a game you don't want to read about before you play. All you want to know about it first is that it is lovely, that is is beautiful, that it will take maybe 2-3 hours to play, and that you should wait until you can give it your undivided and uninterrupted attention so that you can let it all sink in in one playthrough. That is all you want to know before you play it. So stop reading now if you haven't played it yet.

3. I think Cameron Kunzelman has already sad everything I will say about the game here far more succinctly.

4. Gone Home is a scary game. The things that scare you are the things that scare you as a teenager. Childish fears that you are old enough to know are silly but not old enough to completely disbelieve. Ghosts, dark rooms, absent parents, eery answering phone messages. When you're a teenager, the world is so dramatic. Everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Playing through Gone Home, I was certain from the start that everything was going wrong (but surely it wouldn't). There would be ghosts (but surely not, right?). Something would move in a dark room (but it wouldn't, surely (but I should leave all the lights on just in case)). My entirely family was going to be dead (well probably not, but surely). Lots of things made me nostalgic and melancholy in Gone Home, but its defining sensation was one of dread amplified by a hyperbolic, adolescent imagination.

5. Which, now that I write that, makes me think back to when I talked to Walt Williams at GDC and we discussed how videogames aren't a 'young' medium but an adolescent medium in the way they think they are being all dark and serious in really immature ways. Gone Home plays to the strengths of an adolescent medium, feeding on my juvenile fears that something terrible is surely going to happen eventually because this is a videogame.

6. I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn't turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn't. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad's friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It's a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it's going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.

7. But then it all makes sense. My parents are away at a counselling retreat (for reasons I understand based on the objects scattered around the house). My sister hasn't killed herself like some TV-trope depressed gay teenager. She has run off with the love of her life. Of course the house is a mess, then. Of course! it makes sense now. Like the shadow of a terrifying monster turning into a coatrack, everything makes sense in hindsight. How silly was I! Everything that was scary wasn't actually scary. It was just my imagination, moulded like clay by this masterful game and its genius creators. This is why you want to play the game not knowing anything about it. To feel that trepidation. To not be sure if there are ghosts or not but surely there aren't but maybe there are. To bring in your expectations from other media that the gay teenager surely killed herself and have that expectation shattered.

8. Gone Home is yet another indie game that proves that videogames do not need to be packed with action and violence to maintain the player's attention. A space to move through and things to look at. Those elements alone will carry a game far. Gone Home, Dear Esther, Proteus, Journey. I hope the creators of AAA games start to realise this. I want more big blockbuster games that are not afraid of downtime or a slow pace. Last Of Us was a step in the right direction, to be sure, but you can carry a game so much further with so much less action and I hope we finally begin to see more of this in the AAA space. Maybe.

9. I love Gone Home's characters. I love that Katie is a real person, fleshed out by her own postcards and her voice on the answering machine. I love how she is situated for the player: someone who has been away for a year while her family moved homes. It's the perfect setup for the character being disorientated in this big, bizarre house, feeling as out-of-place as the player even as all the objects that fill up this space are familiar to her. Familiar memories in an alien environment. Like some kind of dissonant memory palace.

10. BUT! I love that this game isn't about Katie. Kind of like the way Metal Gear Solid 2 isn't about Raiden. The main character in this story is not the playable character. Katie is unearthing the story of Sam, her sister, about which Gone Home's story is based. We follow in Sam's footsteps unearthing her story and her feelings and her memories (almost like Raiden follows in Snake's footsteps but let's not do a Gone Home/Metal Gear Solid 2 comparative essay just now). We make predictions (mostly negative) about how her life has played out and why she isn't here now. We feel jubilant when the game ends and we realise her ending was a happy one (if not bittersweet). I smiled and wanted to cry for a character that I had never seen or directly engaged with throughout the game.

11. Perhaps Gone Home feels so melancholy even at the end because I never got to hug my younger sister.

12. I miss the 90s. Like, I really miss the 90s. To be certain, the 90s I miss is probably not the same 90s as those just a bit older than me miss. I was born in 1986. I was not old enough for half the 90s to really appreciate it at the time, but I built up a storage of memories of things that I saw and heard and, in more recent years, have made sense of those memories. Now I feel this strange, aching loss for the decade that I lived out for most of my childhood (if not my adolescence).

It's something I've been struggling with for maybe a year now, this strange kind of late-20s crisis of being old enough to contextualise my existence within a much broader history of humanity to realise just how small and fleeting I am. I remember my dad listen to 70s music in the 90s, music from a decade back in some pre-history of humankind. The 70s were as far back in time then as the 90s are now. I was born in the 80s. The 80s are as far away from now as the 50s were from the 80s. The Pub Trivia I go to plays 'old' songs by The Cranberries and Garbage and Hole. I know adults who remember September 11 about as poorly as I remember the Berlin War falling down.

This is not to say I am old. Everyone older than me would scoff at such a statement. I am saying that I am old enough for time to feel like it is moving pretty fucking fast and my childhood is something that doesn't exist anymore. It's a memory that's trapped back in the 90s, locked up with Sega Megadrives and Riot Grrls and Marilyn Manson and purple Hang Ten t-shirts. I'm pretty happy with my present life, but that realisation that the past is, well, past, hits pretty hard.

So Gone Home was nostalgic for me in the most literal possible sense. Nostalgia is derived from the Greek nostos ("homecoming") + algos ("pain, grief, distress") (thanks, Google). Gone Home was a painful homecoming. For Katie, to be sure, but also for me. And also for a lot of people my age and a bit older, I imagine. Not because it says "Hey, remember Super Nintendo?" which is the extent of most game's use of nostalgia. But because it teleported me back to a time and decade in my life that I am just now coming to terms with being over. Gone Home isn't a memory palace; it's a memory museum.

To be sure, I wasn't a riot grrrl struggling with having to come out to my parents. But I was a kid in the 90s, and all the minutiae things around this house created a painful homecoming for me. Or maybe this was more like leaving home. Of having to accept that the 90s were the 90s and that's where they have to stay. I dunno. It's an emotion that I still don't really have the words for. All I know is that this is the first contemporary creative work (with one vague exception) that helped me come to terms with my already-here-but-not-quite-accepted adulthood in a weird way that I don't quite have the words for, and it was an incredibly powerful experience.

13. Courtney Stanton mentioned on Twitter that Gone Home has replaced Portal for her game-to-show-people-who-don't-like-games-what-videogames-are-capable-of (I'm paraphrasing). I could not agree more.

14. Ben Abraham wrote a really interesting piece on how the game plays off tropes to create a ludonarrative harmony (oh no he didn't (oh yes he did)).

15. Merritt Kopas's personal thoughts on the game and her own childhood are really moving.

16. Some thoughts by Mattie Brice about her relationship with the 90s and indie games and nostalgia and Gone Home.

17. Anna Anthropy's thoughts on the game.

18. Kim Delicious's thoughts on the game.

19. At the risk of sounding like some privileged cisdude exoticising queer experiences, I'm really fascinated and moved by the various reactions queer writers are having to Gone Home. Some are melancholically remembering when they were queer teenage girls in the 90s; others are lamenting that they weren't teenage girls in the 90s (be it because of age or of gender). There are so many different emotional responses to Gone Home, so many different people being reminded of something they either never had or have since lost by the game. I think there's something really special about that.

20. Naomi Clarke wrote a really in-depth analysis of a single piece of paper in the game world and what the player's limited interactions with it say about the game.

21. Cameron Kunzelman is putting together a post of writings about Gone Home, so I will stop updating this notes post now with my favourite posts about it since they are all already there.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Notes on The Last Of Us

1. The Last Of Us is a game of impossible tensions. A game of having cake and eating it too. A game that wants to walk a tightrope that so many games before it have fallen from. It wants its tightly-authored narrative and it wants the player to feel like their actions from one moment to the next are actually consequential. The Last Of Us is a remarkable game because, more often than not it finds this impossible balance. The Last Of Us is an infuriating game because the few times it does stumble, it plummets.

2. I once wrote in an article for Hyper (that I keep meaning to make available online) that the reason I loved DayZ was that it is the closest videogames have even gotten to evoking the feelings and themes of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. The loneliness coupled with a terror that someone could be anywhere. The savage wasteland stripped bare of resources. Spending hours in a single town, risking your life in the hope you might find a single can of beans, maybe even some bullets. Sitting on a hill and looking at a barn for a full five minutes to see if anyone exits it before you enter. The knowledge that if you worked with the other players on the map you could be invincible coupled with your finger tense over the mouse's left button, ready to fire in case you do actually see another player.

DayZ isn't a narrative equivalent to The Road, but it is a thematic equivalent. Because there is no story designed by the developers that must be seen through, it can focus purely on the non-story that is the entire mind and body consumed in the simple acts of managing resources and not trusting your fellow human. The simple act of not dying.

3. The Last Of Us wants to be The Road both thematically and narratively. It wants DayZ's sense of brutal survivalism, but it also wants to tell an pre-authored story about a man and a child walking across the United States that will play out a certain way. I have no qualms with "a veneer of survivalism" to reappropriate Dan Golding's critique of Bioshock: Infinite. I like how Tomb Raider and Max Payne 3 and Spec Ops: The Line communicate the desperate, gritty survival of their characters without necessarily ever making me feel like that maybe, just maybe, I might actually die. Even Metal Gear Solid 3, with its non-realistic focus on hunger and injuries, gave a good veneer of survivalism, an ambience, without me as the player ever feeling like that my character might die from hunger or my wounds. Resources were always plentiful enough, but it was something to pester my mind constantly. Little concerns that don't go away.

The Last Of Us wants both, and this is the key tension that had me tipping back and forward from being in awe at the game and wanting to rage quit and never come back. It wanted to limit my supplies to such an extreme extent that I might feel like I would actually die. Like I might forget that there is a narrative in this game that is going to play out in a certain way and that the game has an obligation to make sure it is impossible for me, the player, to screw up to such an extent that I can't get through it.

And, truly, it is so incredibly remarkable that for the vast majority of the time, it pulls this off. I would spend half an hour or more steering Joel around, clutching a revolver with a single bullet in the chamber. The number "1" in the lower-right screen glaring at me, not letting me forget. Like McCarthy constantly reminding The Road's reader exactly how many bullets are left in the gun. I might find two shotgun shells. I haven't used my shotgun for two hours, but I know it has no ammo. I stop, pull my shotgun out of my backpack, load the two shells into the five-shell chamber, and put it back in my backpack. I stand back up with my single revolver bullet and carry on. That these little moments are able to exist in a tightly authored game is remarkable.

4. But then it doesn't work. You are trapped in a room and you have to fight zombies for five minutes. Or you are hanging upside down from the ceiling protecting Ellie with an unlimited supply of revolver bullets. It's not that these segments aren't explained within the game (Ellie finds more bullets, magically, and throws them to Joel), but they completely jar with the gravity that the rest of the game has built up around firing a gun. It devalues bullets by making you use more of them in a single scene than you have previously used in the entire game. No single scene in The Last Of Us is bad in itself, but many of them jarred with the experience of desperate frugalness. Most particular the upside-down-with-unlimited-ammo segment (a segment I would be utterly delighted to play in, say, an Uncharted game). But this is that impossible tension. I usually have no qualms with doing what the designer wants me to do when I am playing an authored game. But The Last Of Us does such a great job of making me feel like I might run out of ammo and die that the times I had to do a lot of shooting, I really struggled.

5. Another (related) tension: The Last Of Us is an expensive blockbuster game that is, simultaneously, trying not to be a blockbuster game, and not wanting to stray too far from the conventions of blockbuster games. It doesn't want to be the same as every other game, but it doesn't want to stray too far from the path, either. It's a tension that underpins this entire interview on Edge with the game's creators. For every actually-creative choice they discuss, there is an anxiety that people won't get it (indeed, their focus testers apparently didn't). The idea that a game doesn't need multiple endings or choices or anything to be engaging. The idea that you can play a teenage girl in a dark and gritty game.

6. But the 'gamey-ness' is still there in The Last Of Us. It hasn't fully gone away. Every now and then it can't help but remind you that you are playing a AAA videogame. This is most apparent at the start. After an incredible opening, after a nicely-paced, slow tutorial out of the city and back in again, you have the most amazing sense of place. The military forces, life Outside The Walls, what these zombies have done to society, the toughness of life inside the walls. It's all there. Walking through the marketplace stitched together with tarps between old buses, where vendors sell barbecued rats, you get this place.

Then you walk into a square area full of waist-high boxes, and you know exactly what is going to happen.

The same happens at the water station. As I walk through it from one side of the other, with Joel's brother telling me his hopeful stories for the future, all I can see is the Videogame Cover everywhere, yelling at me that there will soon be a gunfight (and, indeed, it is a gunfight that exists for a gunfight's sake, adding nothing to the game).

I still go back and forward on whether or not this is a fair criticism. Should a videogame try to not be a videogame? I often speak highly of Hideo Kojima's games for not shying away from their own videogame-ness, but for embracing it. I think it bugged me in The Last Of Us, though, because it was inconsistent. For long stretches of time it was interested only in evoking its sensation of darkness, of getting me wrapped up and lost inside the story of these characters that I was controlling. But then, in pockets, it just wanted to be a videogame with 'videogame bits', because a videogame should have 'videogame bits'. I think those bits just felt like an inability to commit to a vision. But, they only stand out here because The Last Of Us, by and large, is committed to its vision like almost no other recent blockbuster.

7. And while I could complain that there is still too much shooting in this game (and I truly believe there is), there is no denying that those skirmishes feel unlike any other game. There is a weight to the guns, to the bullets. Every time you pull the trigger is a Big Deal (this is greatly helped by the fact you don't have access to an assault rifle for the vast majority of the game). And, wonderfully, you often get the sense that the same is true for your opponents, that they don't want to waste their ammo, either. The way these core mechanics that differ little from Uncharted have been converted into an entirely different genre and given an entirely different feel is an excellent achievement. I just wish I was doing it less often.

8. Others have, quite keenly, noted a trend of 'dadification' in videogames like The Last Of Us. As the young, twenty-something, mostly-male creators of blockbuster videogames start to get older and have their own families, we are seeing more videogames with themes of fathers protecting children/families. The Last Of Us is undeniably part of this trend. But I think The Last Of Us is also more interesting in that it isn't just using the relationship between a father and a child to frame a story; it is a story about fatherhood (and, more broadly, parenthood). That is far more interesting. There is the relationship between Joel and Sarah. Between Joel and Ellie. Between Sam and Henry. Between Ellie and David. Between Ellie and Marlene. What I find fascinating is that, apart from Joel and Sarah at the start of the game, none of these relationships are about the relationship between a kid and their birth parent, instead it is always a surrogate. Someone else who has stepped into the role of parent for one reason or another. The Last Of Us is a dadified game of dadified characters.

9. When The Last Of Us starts, you are playing as a teenage girl. After the intro is over, your partner (and boss, more or less), is a woman. The next major plot character you meet, who follows you for a time, is a black woman. Then Ellie, another teenage girl, joins you. A while later, the first male to ever join your party who is not Joel is, it is implied but never explicitly stated, gay. The next two people that join up with you are a black man and boy.

Make no mistake: all of these characters are in support roles. The Last Of Us is, at its core, another videogame about a straight, white, grizzly man with facial hair. But, I was incredibly pleased to see this diverse range of characters in the game. They never felt like lip service. They never felt like a quota that was trying to be filled. They never felt stereotypical (to me, at least). It just felt like a believably diverse representation of the kinds of people in this world. I really appreciated the effort. Though, it would've been nice to actually encounter some female bandits or guards or soldiers, apart from one in a single cut-scene.

10. But then there are the cannibals. Cannibalism is used to great effect in The Road and many other post-apocalypse narratives to convey the hardness of life, the desperation of the people. In these post-apocalypses, the Earth has been stripped bare of resources. In The Road, next to nothing lives. It makes sense that humans would, as a last resort, eat each other. In The Last Of Us, the world is more rich of life and plants than ever before. This isn't an apocalypse for Earth, just for mankind. Without humans dominating the world, wildlife has returned to the world in force. In such a world, I'm unconvinced that people would become cannibals.

Which is not to nitpick the realism of a zombie apocalypse. Yes, maybe the winter months push them over the edge. Yes, maybe they have created some weird, whacky ritual out of cannibalism. But that is exactly my problem: The Last Of Us wants to be one of those post-apocalypses where there aren't 'good' and 'bad' guys, but just humanity tearing itself apart as everyone tries to fend for themselves. In that world, 'cannibalism' feels like a lazily deployed shorthand for 'crazy post-apocalypse evil people'. You may as well replace them with demonic Nazis. They weren't interesting cannibals. They were Bad Guys and nothing more.

11. At various points in the game, I did not know how I was meant to be approaching a scene. In a game authored like this, I expect the game to find a way to tell me if it expects me to go in guns blazing, stealthily, or if I have the choice. Because I was playing on hard and because supplies felt so intensely sparse, I always tried stealth. But sometimes this wasn't always possible. Maybe a cut-scene would demand that the zombies are chasing me, and all the ones I've managed to sneak past suddenly are alerted to me after I step over an invisible tripwire. Maybe I restart a scene ten times because I want to stealth it successfully—only to get to the far side and realise I can't advance until I go back through the place and kill everyone.

If, maybe, Joel had more regularly muttered to himself or Ellie, "There's no way around these guys" or something, I would've got the hint of what was expected of me. Instead, I'd waste time frustrated that a certain approach wasn't working, unaware that I was just playing it the wrong way. For this reason, I think The Last Of Us is a game I will thoroughly enjoy a second time.

12. Just like the Uncharted games, The Last Of Us is a game of finely crafted moments. Two kids playing darts. Walking through the woods. Standing on a roof looking down on some grazing giraffes. My god, the giraffes. I think it is, perhaps, my single favourite design decision in the game, to have Joel and Ellie just lean on that rail and watch the giraffes for as long as the player will let them. They just stand there until the player presses a button and nudges them forward. It took me a long time to press a button. I wanted my characters to have this serenity forever. I didn't want them to go back into the darkness.

13. The Last Of Us is a game of jump cuts, not a game of fade-ins and fade-outs. Most videogames fade, but The Last Of Us cuts. Time skips forward. Scenes end abruptly. The whole game ends abruptly (and magnificently). Time cuts forward with each scene. It gives the game a very distinct ambience. Something... minimal. Something essentially. All the frayed ends have been shaved clean. This game won't waste your time with drawn out fade-ins or unnecessary plot. When it's done telling you something, it's done.

This is a style so consistent that you encounter it before you even get to the main menu. 'Sony Computer Entertainment presents' and 'Naughty Dog' appear suddenly on a black screen in silence, one right after the other, each cutting in then cutting out. Before I was even at the menu, I knew something about what this game was going for.

14. That consistency of tone is so important and so incredibly well achieved. Tim Rogers's review details this much better than I could.

15. The boss battle against the bloater-or-whatever-they-are-called was terrible (and despite what the developers say, it was a boss battle). The boss battle against David was pretty great.

16. I have always liked how Naughty Dog deals with companions. I love that they can look after themselves and, occasionally, might even look after you. I like that I never have to worry about them. It didn't bother me the few times Ellie would stand right out in front of a guard while I am stealthing around, totally invisible to the guy walking past her. I can live with that. What did bother me, though, was when my companions would shout loudly around clickers or humans. Designing them to whisper when whispering is appropriate could've been a nice touch.

17. The Last Of Us has one of the best openings of any videogame. And one of the best endings.

18. Clickers were great. I am glad they killed in one hit. Unlike the other kinds of zombies, I could actually read them and understand how to act around them.

19. Naughty Dog are masters of environment design. The way they can take a building, age it twenty years and turn it on its side and have an environment that is both convincingly detailed and still fully navigable is a testament to their ability. Each and every place in The Last Of Us was a pleasure to just move through. So much so that the game, not to harp on, could have supported my engagement with fewer skirmishes. 

20. While I was playing The Last Of Us and complaining about all the individual segments that really frustrated me, I predicted that those segments would not bother me in hindsight. I was right about this. Once I had finished the game, I was left with only admiration for this game. For the plot, for the characters, for the moment-to-moment things I had done throughout the game. It is still a game of tensions, of things that are incredible and things that are incredibly frustrating. But I don't think it could be one of these without the other. Here is a blockbuster game that is trying to do something interesting, pushing against the mould if not entirely breaking out of it. The final result, then, is a warped mould rather than something entirely unique. Frustrating because it doesn't always act the way you expect it to. Incredible because it doesn't seem particularly concerned about your expectations.