In which I review THE LAST OF US 2 without ever playing it

I loved The Last Of Us— I bought a PS3 basically just so that I could play it, and I called it the best game of 2013 after I beat it. If you’re not familiar with that review– and why would you be, since I wrote it seven years ago– you might want to give it a quick read before you read this. Also, I intend to spoil the hell out of the sequel, so if you’re going to read this you should probably have either already beaten the game or not plan to play it. Lemme throw a separator in here to help you out:


If you didn’t read the previous review, here’s the important parts: I really connected with this game as a dad, and that resulted in 1) paternal feelings toward Ellie that made the part where you play as her, and thus get killed over and over and over again, really emotionally difficult, and 2) totally understanding why the game ended by forcing you to gun down the scientists who were trying to find a cure for the Cordyceps fungus– because it would have killed Ellie, and there’s just no universe where Joel would have ever allowed that to happen.

I got all kinds of whispers and rumors about this game before it came out that made me feel like playing it– especially right now, with all the other shit going on in the world and in my life– was not going to be an emotionally sound decision. Kotaku called the damn game a “misery simulator.” I don’t need that. But … damn, it was the sequel to what is still one of the best games I’ve ever played! Made by the same people! How do I just ignore this?

I decided to watch a Let’s Play on YouTube instead, which would provide me with the game’s story– in this case, most of what I cared about– and allow me the ability to either 1) buy the game if I decided that’s what I wanted or 2) nope out at any time. And so for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a couple of half-hour episodes a day as they’ve been being released, and up until last night I was more or less still secure in my decision but also thinking eeeh, I probably could have bought this, but never really coming close to the point where I needed to. Plus, it’s violent as hell, to the point where I don’t want my son exposed to it yet, so I’d only have been able to play after he went to bed. This decision worked for me, is what I’m saying.

Well, the guy I’m watching isn’t as into the story as I am, and after having to watch him complain through one of the quieter parts in the denouement at the end of the game, I decided fuck it and went ahead and Googled the spoilers for the rest of the game. And this is where I’m exercising my nope the fuck out option and not even watching the rest, because despite having watched probably 90-95% of it the game has somehow saved a good 2/3 of its assholery for the final minutes.

Huh. I haven’t actually spoiled anything yet.

Here’s the thing: The Last of Us 2’s central thesis is that every decision you can possibly make is going to lead to loss and heartache. That there are no good people, that there is no forgiveness in the world, that where forgiveness does exist it is a fatal mistake, and there is no way, ever, to do the right thing. That the right thing is in fact an illusory concept from the beginning. It’s going to come back and bite you in the ass eventually no matter what you do. Literally every decision any character in this story makes leads to pain. Every single one. There are two moderately sympathetic characters, neither of which are playable, and both of them are put through utter hell. The two protagonists, Ellie and Abby, are both repeatedly shown to be awful people, and I think Ellie absolutely gets the shorter stick in that regard, so if you, like me, came into this game predisposed to like her as a character because you viewed her as a daughter … well, be prepared for the game to hurt you for that as well.

Every decision every character makes in this game leads to the death of their friends and family members. Every single one. And in case you’ve picked up elsewhere– because I haven’t talked about it yet– that revenge is a major theme of the game, be aware that the game shits on its characters both for seeking revenge and for not seeking revenge. Both are terrible mistakes. You cannot escape them.

I, uh, don’t need this in my escapist fiction right now. There’s a place for depressing entertainment out there, but I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that your average Holocaust movie is told with a lot more hope for humanity than The Last of Us 2. There is nothing but nihilism here, nothing at all, and I don’t need it.

The gameplay looks to be about exactly the same as the first one, by the by. That’s a recommendation; if a semi-stealth shooter with absolutely gorgeous graphics is what you’re looking for and you’re capable of ignoring the story you probably will have a good time with this. I can’t; or at least I can’t with this particular series. I’m not even watching the last couple of episodes now that I know how it ends. I’m fucked up enough from reading about them; I don’t need it in my head. I’ve got enough real emotional stress right now without letting fictional misery in.

In which kids ruin everything

TheLastofUsMankindParenthood changes you; everybody says that.  Prolly ‘cuz it’s true, and pretty self-evidently so at that.  What isn’t always obvious is the ways in which parenting messes with what was probably a perfectly good personality and lifestyle prior to having kids.  I was expecting having a kid to cut into my video game time, right?  I wasn’t expecting having a kid to change the way I related to playing video games, and that’s kinda fascinating to me.

Maybe not to you; I dunno.  Hey: my blog.  Shuddup.

You might remember I got myself a PS3 and The Last of Us around Thanksgiving.  I’ve owned an Xbox 360 (several, actually) since launch; it took until the launch of the PS3’s successor for a game to come out that finally flipped the switch and made me pull the trigger and mix some metaphors up and buy one.

A warning, the only warning you get:  hella spoilers.  If there is any chance at all that you’re ever going to play this thing, first, go do it now— it’s easily worth the price of the system all by itself– and second, don’t read this post until you’ve beaten the game.  I’ll see you in a month or so, if you’ve got my schedule.  Go forth.

A short plot synopsis:  The game starts in present day.  You’re a single dad with a fourteen-ish-year-old daughter.  The zombie apocalypse starts, except these are fungus zombies, which are neater and more frighteningly real than the regular kind.

Within fifteen minutes of the start of the game, your daughter is gunned down in your arms.

It’s… difficult.  As scenes go.  It really fucking sucks.  Badly.

Jump forward twenty years.  Joel (“you”) is still alive; society, not so much.  For various reasons you get tasked with escorting a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, across the country.  Ellie, as it turns out, is immune.  Your job is to get her to some sciency folks alive.  

And we’re off to the races.

Folks, The Last of Us is probably the best game I’ve played in years; certainly the best game of 2013.  There’s no real doubt about that.  But what’s most amazing about it is the way it creates this relationship between Joel and Ellie, and pulls you along with it.  You’re tasked with protecting her for much of the game, although (thank God, because otherwise a game-long escort mission would have gone badly wrong) she does a good job of staying out of trouble and eventually is able to actually pitch in and fight alongside you.  But I really don’t think you can properly put yourself inside Joel’s head unless you’re a parent– and lemme tell you something, if you’ve got kids The Last of Us is gonna fuck you up.

There’s a point fairly late in the game where Joel abruptly gets quite badly injured.  The game throws a curveball at you by making you take over as Ellie for a while, trying to pull together enough food and medicine to get Joel through a Colorado winter alive.  There is, of course, one major zombie attack during this sequence, and to me at least it was one of the hardest points in the game– not just because it was, legitimately, a difficult gaming challenge to get through successfully, but because watching Ellie, this little kid who has been depending on you for, by this time, ten to twelve hours of gaming or so, get repeatedly killed was fucking gut-wrenching.  I had to turn the game off, not out of a frustration ragequit (although that was part of it, I’ll admit) but because I literally couldn’t watch Ellie get killed again.

(What did I do then?  Like an idiot, I tried to start the first chapter of the new Walking Dead game– which provided me with a refreshing tonal shift by making me play as 10-year-old Clementine from the first series.  That didn’t work very well either; I still haven’t finished the first section, for much the same reasons.  Plus there’s a thing with a dog and goddammit enough emotional bullshit from games tonight thank you.)

Anyway.  As I said, the main plot point driving the entire game is that Ellie was bitten by one of these things (off-camera, before you ever meet her) and she never succumbed.  She’s immune, and you’re trying to get her to this organization that Joel thinks can help to figure out why she’s so special and possibly find a cure for the Cordyceps fungus.  And then you get there.  And you’re separated from Ellie for a while.  And then you discover that the doctors do think that they can figure out what’s wrong with her– but that the fungus has invaded her brain structure and that it’s going to require risky brain surgery to be able to do anything about it.

It’s worth pointing out that at no point do they say “the surgery is going to kill her.”  They say “we have to do brain surgery” and Joel puts everything else together from there.

And Joel.  Goes.  Nuts.  Previously in the game you’ve either been fighting bandits (generally poorly armed and rarely protected by anything) or zombies (dangerous as hell, but generally lacking distance weapons.)  The last sequence throws you up against dozens of trained commandos with fucking body armor and machine guns.  Now, it’s become painfully apparent by this point in the game that Joel is a bit of a monster– the game isn’t really interested in letting you forget the fact that you’re killing people for part of it, even if those people can be broadly classed as Bad People a fair amount of the time.  It’s visceral.  It gets to you, after a while– and this was clearly a deliberate design decision on the part of the designers.  Joel gets more and more frantic about reaching Ellie before anything can happen to her– and, fascinatingly, so did I– I’m generally a hoarder in games like this, keeping everything in reserve In Case I Need It.  By the time you get to the last bit of the game where you know there’s not much more than a hallway between you and Ellie, I was playing with no quarter given for anyone— you’re behind a corner?  I’m not waiting for you to come out.  Molotov cocktail.  I shot at you once and missed?  Throwing a bomb.  Four of you back there?  Smoke grenade, followed by a Molotov, then breaking the neck of the guy who I missed.  Brutal shit.

And then you burst into the surgical suite.  Ellie’s on the table, unconscious.  There are three doctors in the room, unarmed.  They see the crazy man with the flamethrower (yup) and the machine gun burst into the room… and they cower.

I was expecting, at this point, to be presented with some sort of choice.  No.  Why not?  Because the game has gone to great pains to set up Joel’s character by this point, and isn’t terribly concerned with what you want to happen.  And there is no way in sweet shrieking Hell that Joel is letting anyone stick a knife in Ellie’s brain.  None.  Period.

Your only option is to gun down the (unarmed, hiding) doctors and pick up Ellie and run– which brings you right back to the beginning of the game, where you’ve got a defenseless kid in your arms, and because you’re carrying her you can’t get to your guns and shoot back, and your only option is to run like hell or you’re both going to die.  Because as it turns out the guards do not suddenly get less pissed at you once you’ve killed the doctors and taken Ellie back.

And you know how the game handled this the first time it happened, too.  She died.  And Joel didn’t.

And just to make sure this is clear: I had an Atari, people.  I’ve been a gamer for a very long time; I’m part of the first generation of people who can say honestly that they’ve been gamers for their entire lives.  And I have never once played a game where the main character was given the chance to save the world and chose not to.  Because if the choices are save the world, or save your kid?  Fuck the world.

Like I said:  if you’re a parent, this shit’s gonna fuck with your head.  Because, as contrived as it sounds, that’s not a choice that I could make and expect to keep my sanity.

Amazing, amazing stuff; everyone involved with the game should be proud of themselves.  And you should have played it by now.  Go forth and game.

In which I like things

You knew this already: I bought a Pebble smartwatch, intending to let it and the Fitbit Force battle it out for wrist supremacy and then to decide to keep one of them. The battle was swift and decisive; the Pebble won.

Here is what a Pebble does: 1) It is a watch, which displays the date. It has a variety of watch faces that you can choose from or switch on the fly by pushing a button. This last feature is pointless but kind of fun. 2) It has a backlight activated by an accelerometer; I flick my wrist and the backlight comes on. The time is displayed constantly, like a regular watch, unlike on the Fitbit, where you have to push a button to get the time to display. 3) It does silent vibrating alarms; in this it is more or less exactly like the Fitbit. Implementation for this is better (you can do it from the watch instead of having to use a separate app) but it’s still kinda gimped; unlike the Fitbit, however, the Pebble people are aware that their alarm is gimped and are vocally and repeatedly promising to fix it up soon. 4) When I get a notification on my phone, I get a vibration on my wrist and the notification displayed. In the case of text messages, it generally displays the whole thing; everything else is truncated a bit.

I cannot really express how much I enjoy these latter two features, folks. I don’t like alarms in general; I don’t like being woken up by loud noise and my phone beeping constantly gets on my nerves. Now, I’m fully aware that I could just keep my phone on silent and check it periodically (or, God forbid, ignore it) but I’m a bit too tied into my little digital world for that. Silent wrist alarms are perfect– my phone hasn’t made a sound since I put this thing on, because I put it on silent and am relying instead on all my alerts getting piped to my wrist. It’s subtle and me “checking my phone” is no longer as disruptive to things going on around me as pulling my phone out might be. I love it. The only way it could be better is if it had a microphone built in so that I could do voice texts as responses.

Two more things, actually: it also has 5) apps (supposedly; I haven’t actually checked this feature out) and 6) it can remote-control all the music apps on my phone– which sounded useless at first but comes in surprisingly handy when I’m driving; I can check my wrist to see what song is playing (much less disruptive than looking at the phone) and I can pause when I want to, which is actually easier than fiddling with the volume button on my dashboard.

Drawbacks: it’s clearly first-gen tech in a couple of ways; the display isn’t great (but the battery life is) and it’s dropped connection with my phone once in the couple of weeks I’ve had it, for no clear reason. They make a big deal about watch apps; they don’t seem terribly useful or I’d have downloaded it by now. And I had thought it was capable of duplicating the functionality of the Fitbit– counting steps and sleep tracking– and it doesn’t, at least not without one of those apps I haven’t downloaded yet.

That said? Once I figured out that I walk a good 8000-9000 steps a day during the week (about 3.5-4 miles, if I remember right) and substantially less than that on the weekends, the Force kinda stopped being useful. If I want to walk more, I need to… walk more. I’ve got a baseline, which is useful, but beyond that it’s not good for much. Sleep tracking, too, is neat at first until you realize that you already know how much sleep you get or don’t get and quantifying that isn’t terribly helpful.

Winner: Pebble. No damn contest.

Also: I hooked up the PS3 yesterday, and The Last of Us, or at least the first couple of hours of it, is fucking amazing; if it keeps up this level of excellence it will be easily worth the cost of the system. Since I also got a code for a free month of PlayStation Plus, and can therefore get Shadows of the Colossus for free (I’ve never played it; something I’ve been wanting to fix for years) I think I can safely feel good about this purchase even before getting to the Batman game, which I won’t like as much as many others have but will be well worth the initial cost of free.

See, I’m not negative all the time!