The Last of Us - Featured

E3: The Last of Us and Sequelitis

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Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is one of the few marquee non-sequel games at this year's E3.

E3 wrapped up this past week and my Twitter feed was predictably flooded with the requisite curmudgeonly comments decrying the excessively violent and redundant state of the games industry. I’m not unsympathetic to those concerns.

This week’s press conferences featured an endless parade of military shooters and sequels, all of which spilled enough blood to drown an Olympic swimming pool full of puppies. Many of the games on display are games I like, but it’s tough to defend the artistic integrity of the medium when the industry offers nothing but simulations of dudes getting punched, stabbed, and shot in the face.

That’s why I’m going to talk about Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, another game where you kill survivors while hiding behind chest-high walls.

Okay, that’s a bit reductionist of me. I’ve actually been quite impressed with everything I’ve seen from The Last of Us. I’m thrilled to see a young female protagonist get top billing in a major AAA title and I’m even more excited to see a game built on the relationship between two characters who weren’t in the same military platoon. The latest gameplay video shows a feisty Ellie assisting during combat and taking player-character Joel to task for some of the more extreme acts of violence, giving me some hope that the game will be more than an escort quest with intermittent bursts of unquestioned gore.

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It’s therefore unsurprising that the more I saw, the more vociferously one thought passed through my head: Please don’t make a sequel.

Now, I’ll admit that that’s an odd thing to think before I’ve had a chance to play the game. Naughty Dog is yet to give us any real semblance of plot beyond the title, so it’s entirely possible that the game has ‘sequel’ written all over every line of code.

From what I’ve seen, however, that’s not the case, primarily because I’m more interested in the relationship between the two main characters than I am in any one mechanic. Watching the trailer, I don’t want to know how many guns there are in The Last of Us or how many guns there might be in part two. Instead, I’d rather know how the world fell apart and how these two people came together.

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We're not sure what to expect from Beyond: Two Souls (starring Canada's Ellen Page), but that might not be a bad thing.

In other words, The Last of Us appears to be the rare game where the mechanics are subservient to the story. Survival horror elements like the limited inventory system and – gasp – health bar act as tools designed to amplify the tension, and the lack of bullets is only meaningful insofar as it details the harshness of Joel and Ellie’s situation. I’m sure the gameplay is fine, but I don’t see why I’d want to spend any more time in this wasteland once the characters’ journey is resolved.

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For me, that’s also what makes games like The Last of Us and Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls so compelling. These days, no new IP gets the green light unless it has the potential to become a franchise. Ubisoft garnered a lot of attention with the announcement of Watch Dogs, and the hack-everything premise certainly shows incredible promise. Even so, it’s not much of a stretch to see how they could plan to port similar mechanics to a different city with a different protagonist in the vein of Grand Theft Auto.

The result is this year’s arms race, where every game is pushing extreme violence and every game can be roughly summarized as “shoot the thing.” Character becomes incidental because it’s not nearly as important as the thing getting shot, and there’s no reason to stay away from sequels because developers are selling mechanics instead of stories.

Of course, gaming is an interactive medium so it’s necessary to advertise the interactive components. I have no issue with that. I’d just like to see more diversity, particularly when so many developers are currently trying to find new ways to sell the same mechanics as their competitors. A strong story is one of the few things that can set a game apart, but publishers are still unwilling to emphasize plot because that might preclude the possibility of a sequel.

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Will The Last of Us end on a cliffhanger, or with an actual satisfying conclusion?

Video games – like comic books – unfortunately seem to be antithetical to the mere notion of narrative completion. Every series that can be extended will be extended, to the point that even a trilogy seldom means the completion of a given arc. Sure, I’ll play God of War: Ascension and I’ll probably enjoy it, but after the perfectly satisfactory God of War III there’s a part of me that wishes that Sony would stop making these games so I can put Kratos behind me and move on to something new.

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I’d go so far as to suggest that the redundancy is even starting to hinder gaming as a medium. The great works of literature and film are great precisely because they stand as completed works. The audience is able to enrich the culture with criticism and analysis and that, in turn, allows us to view various creative products in interesting new ways.

Meanwhile, the stark refusal of the AAA industry to provide any sense of resolution with their core products undercuts the artistic legitimacy of gaming. Why should I bother trying to interpret a game’s character development and plot when it’s literally impossible to gather all of the information I’ll need to understand the significance of these events? Even if I hit the major console releases, I still have to play three more games across multiple platforms in order to get the ‘complete experience,’ and it’s all a bit overwhelming when I’m unable to try out new franchises because it takes to much time to catch up on the old ones.

Which brings me back to The Last of Us, a game that, on the surface, seems like it could be the exception to the growing pandemic of E3 sequelitis. Knowing how these things work, Sony will find some way to draw the story out or produce a spinoff. Personally, though, I’m hoping for neither. I’d be more excited for a game that reaches a logical conclusion. I want to be able to enjoy the satisfaction of a story well told, and that’s a thrill that’s all too rare in gaming.

So Naughty Dog, I hope The Last of Us is amazing…  but please, please don’t make a sequel.

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