Archives for category: Survival Horror

The Last Of Us is the most recent release by Naughty Dog, the developers who cut their teeth on the juvenile Jak and Daxter series before graduating to the big time with their adventure series, Uncharted.  Uncharted took everything that was exciting and fun about Raiders of the Lost Ark and introduced it to a generation that had just been burned by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, giving us a flawed but loveable rogue in its hero, Nathan Drake, as well as a deep supporting cast of men and women who aided and impeded his exploits around the globe in search of mystical relics.  It was fun, but it gave us a glimpse of the mechanics that would be used in The Last Of Us.

That said, The Last Of Us has almost nothing to do with Uncharted.

Cormac McCarthy is the author of novels such as Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, that Oprah Book Club approved romp about a man and his son trying to avoid being raped or cannibalized after an unnamed apocalypse wipes out most of humanity.  To the best of my knowledge, Cormac McCarthy has never given an interview or even a statement on the rhetorical debate about whether or not video games can be art, which makes it all the more intriguing that he’s very obviously inspired what may be the greatest claim to date that they are.  The Last Of Us features a man taking a child across the country, trying at every turn not to be robbed, mutilated, raped, infected with disease, or killed.  There’s not a lot of humor involved (although there is some), it doesn’t make you feel good about what you’re doing (although it gives you very little choice but to do what you have to), and it’s not so difficult that you feel like you’ve accomplished something extraordinary (though there were times where I wanted to throw my controller across the room).

In short, The Last Of Us doesn’t really feel like a game, which makes writing about it somewhat tricky.  It’s not a movie, but it plays in my head like one, but this in itself is nothing new.  Lots of games have felt cinematic before.

What sets The Last Of Us apart is that it plays like a good movie.  A really good one, in fact.  One of the best.

In John Ford’s 1956 classic western The Searchers, a young girl is in danger and a man is sent to find her.  This man, Ethan Edwards, is not a good man.  He’s made his living and his reputation on killing, and there’s nothing particularly charming about him as he goes murdering his way through the American west to rescue a girl that he’ll kill if her honor isn’t intact.  Ethan Edwards is played by John Wayne, however, and many casual viewers of the film mistake him for a hero because of the baggage that Wayne brings to the role.  After all, if you can’t trust John Wayne, who can you trust?  For a certain generation of men in this country, John Wayne was basically our father.

Joel (no last name given, or at the very least no last name needed) is not a hero in The Last Of Us.  He’s a dead man, a man who stopped living twenty years ago when tragedy took his family away from him, as the world screamed in unsympathetic agony.  He’s a ghost, who now makes his living making other ghosts.  When he and his partner Tess find the payment for their smuggling gone missing, he is forced to protect a young girl named Ellie to get his payment back.  Ellie is not Joel’s daughter, she’s his paycheck.

Of course, because we are playing a “video game,” and because we see almost everything from Joel’s point of view, it is very easy for us to believe that his actions are always justified, that he’s a good man deep down who is dealing as best he can with an impossible situation.  This is how we lie to ourselves when we need heroes in our lives.

As they make their way from Boston to Utah, Joel and Ellie forge a bond in the blood of countless other men.  These other men would probably try to murder them if given the chance, but that chance is rarely given.  The affection Joel and Ellie feel for each other becomes very real, and very powerful, but ultimately it damns everyone it touches.

Stop reading if you haven’t finished the game.

I will not warn you again.

Ellie carries the cure to the plague that has devastated mankind, and Joel has been trying to get her safely into the care of those who could use her to bring hope to a hopeless world.  When he finds that Ellie’s immunity can only be utilized post-mortem, that he has essentially delivered her to her own doom, Joel reacts the only way we’ve seen him react to anything.

He reacts with violence.

Joel murders everyone that stands between him and Ellie, sacrificing the future of humanity for a girl he agreed to protect for money.  The money’s long gone, and the bond Joel has with Ellie is as real as any bond that any father has with their daughter, but it’s made clear that this is not what Ellie would have wanted.  Ellie chooses to believe Joel’s lies about what really happened in the hospital, but it’s clear that this fragile peace will not last.  Ellie wants to believe that Joel is a hero, and so do we.  Eventually, Ellie will realize the truth, but by then will there be any of her humanity left to care?  Joel has damned not only all of mankind, but his own soul, and possibly Ellie’s as well.  He’s not a good man, and he never was.

We believe our fathers are heroes, whether they’re our fathers by the blood in our veins or the blood on their hands.  But having a child put into those bloody hands does not instantly make you a good man.

It only gives you a reason to become one.

“What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more.”

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When I was younger, I loved nothing more in the world than a bacon double cheeseburger from Burger King.  It had to be plain, just bacon and meat and cheese.  I ate that burger at least four or five times a week from when I was seven years old to when I was still in high school, and then one day… I never wanted to eat one again.  And I haven’t.

That’s how I feel about shooting zombies right now.

Zombies, more than any other enemy in the history of video games, seem perfect for the medium.  They want nothing but to kill you, they present different challenges depending on their numbers, and they can be a metaphor for pretty much anything.  I’ve seen zombies used to decry everything from mindless consumerism to fascist ideology to the difficulties of sustaining an aesthetically pleasing garden.  Zombies can be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned or burnt.  They can be mowed down by anything from an M1 Abrams to a…well, lawnmower.  The best thing about zombies, however, is that they’re already dead, so you don’t feel bad when you kill them.

The problem is that after a while, you don’t feel anything.

The first Dead Island was a breath of fresh air in a genre that was already beginning to feel stale when it came onto the scene in 2011.  It announced that it would be something different by a Memento style trailer that detailed the last grisly hours of a family on vacation, and the movie rights were scooped up on the strength of that trailer alone.  When the game came out, none of the emotional nuance of those three minutes made it into the game, but it still had something up its sleeve that made Dead Island stand out from the horde of other undead titles already on the market: the Royal Palms resorts on the island of Banoi.

The Royal Palms Resort was the real reason for the success of the first Dead Island.  A picturesque island resort overrun by the undead is a good idea on its own, but what really made the opening of Dead Island stand apart was how real the resort felt. Bars and swimming pools and palm trees were all laid out as you’d expect, but so were parking lots, lifeguard stations and bathrooms. I wandered around that opening level for hours not because I was hunting for a rotting skull to bury my machete in, but because it was such a nice place to explore. It was like having the run of the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, with no velvet ropes and no time share meeting you couldn’t get out of attending. Most importantly, the first Dead Island offered me a twist on survival horror by giving me a new place to be horrified (and in beautiful weather, no less).

I tried playing Dead Island: Riptide this week, hoping that it would recapture the thrill of one of my favorite zombie games from the current console generation, and immediately I felt disappointed. The gameplay was essentially unchanged, the main characters were all back, but the spark was gone. I shot some zombies, I stabbed some zombies, I ran some over with my car…and I felt nothing. What I think was missing was a sense of connection to where I was, which was an anonymous fishing village populated by people who clearly wanted to survive, but didn’t want to do any of the work themselves that would ensure that survival.  To make things worse, the zombies you had just killed would respawn in the same place the minute you turned your back on them, giving the entire game a feeling of Sisyphean emptiness.  Where the first game was a tasty Big Kahuna Burger, cooked to perfection with all the right toppings, this new offering was something you sunk your teeth into joylessly, because you’ve been conditioned to do so by what’s come before.

When a zombie game is working, the visceral feel of it is transporting. You’re not who you really are, you’re who you just know you would be if circumstances ever pushed you far enough.  That’s not the feeling I get from Dead Island: Riptide.  Instead, I feel myself sitting on the couch, numbingly mashing buttons, accomplishing nothing, feeling nothing. It makes me feel like a zombie.

So there’s this game, and it’s not out yet, but it’s received some notoriety online because it’s a game you can help fund through kickstarter, and the protagonist is a toddler, and the toddler apparently can die in the game.

Still here?  Good.  A lot of people can’t even entertain the idea of a toddler dying in any way, much less in a game (a word that many can’t separate from the word “fun”), because why would you want to?  So I wouldn’t blame them from surfing on to the next picture of cats up to shenanigans, and I’ll be joining them as soon as we’re done having this conversation, but I’m glad you’re still here because if you care about this medium as much as I do, then it’s a conversation we need to have.

We want new things.  We want new ideas, we want new experiences, we want to say “I’ve never seen someone try that before.”  We want to reward the innovators, the pioneers, the first to sing “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.”  Every day, people try to satisfy us with the same things, over and over, and eventually when we hear “She loves you,” we think “Yeah yeah yeah…”

Every Tuesday I think, “Yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a space marine, yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a gangster, yeah yeah yeah.”   “Ooh, I’m one of the few survivors of a zombie apocalypse, everything’s been turned upside down and I’ve got to do whatever it takes to survive, yeah yeah yeah.

So why do we fall into the same old patterns over and over again?  Why do we accept the same predetermined roles that this medium gives us over and over again?  Don’t we want to be more than just a space marine?

We want power.  All of us, every single one of us, want power.  We say we want more money, but we really want the power to buy things.  We say we want more time, but we really want the power to do what we want with the time we already have.  We say we want to be strong, but what we really want is not to be weak.  Games have grown up over the past thirty years by giving us power, more and more of it, consistently and without hesitation.  What’s the first memory you have of a game really resonating with you?  For a lot of us, it’s probably standing alone under a clear blue sky, stomping on the first thing you see and killing it, and then eating something that made you twice your size.

So the guys over at Krillbite Studios decided to offer you something different, to let you be something less powerful than a space marine.  Less powerful than anything, really.  A toddler has no power at all.  A toddler has wants and needs like the rest of us, but not the ability to satisfy those wants and needs without help.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; a toddler does not believe that it can satisfy its wants and needs without help.  That’s why toddlers cling so tightly to their parents.  To a toddler, parents are the world.  They’re safety, they’re security, they’re survival.  That’s why it’s such an inspired choice as a protagonist for survival horror:  it’s a universal set of goals and fears that we’ve all experienced, one where the idea of failure (not finding your mommy) feels like the end of the world.

We grow out of this stage of helplessness, thankfully, but we never truly forget it.  That lizard brain in the back of your head, the one that seems to come alive in poorly lit neighborhoods late at night when you’re not sure what’s around the corner, that lizard brain never forgets what it’s like to be that young, to be that scared, to be that powerless.  And that’s why some people reject the ideas behind Among the Sleep outright, and say it’s too controversial, it’s in poor taste, that it shouldn’t be done.

Because people don’t like to feel powerless.

We’ve seen plenty of games where the idea was to evade combat rather than engage in it, but even in those games we usually play as a ninja, or an assassin, or Batman.  I can’t think of many occasions (or any) where we’ve played as someone with no combat experience whatsoever (unless you count Sherry Birkin’s level in Resident Evil 2, but that was more of a side note to an existing game, where everyone else was decked out with guns and knives).  We’ve played hundreds of games set in WWII, but never from the Jewish point of view, trying to avoid capture or detection.  We’ve played hundreds of games set in the middle east, but never from the point of view of a kid trying to make it home without being shot up or bombed in the street.

We’ve seen stories of the powerless told before, and told powerfully.  From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Diary of Anne Frank to pretty much everything I’ve ever read by John Steinbeck, powerless protagonists have provided us some of our richest glimpses into the universal pain and glory of being a human being.  Why can’t gaming do the same thing?  Why shouldn’t it try?  Why should we judge Among the Sleep by how it plays when we fail, and not by the exhilaration we’ll feel when we succeed?  What may seem like a baby crawling through the dark to its mommy, might be the first act of courage in a long heroic life, rarely glimpsed by us or even remembered by the hero, but no less important.

After all, do you think space marines just fall out of the sky?