Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Last of Us and Max Payne 3

The main characters of the last two video games I finished playing, as opposed to those I continue to play (Minecraft, Skyrim, Torchlight II), are grizzled, worn men over the age of 50. Perhaps it is something I need to connect with as I approach that age (but already have the worn, grizzled down pat) and cannot do the Mary Sue characters in their 20s anymore. Are there actually any main characters, other than in J-RPGs, in their 20s these days? Nathan Drake is in his 30s, Master Chief is ageless, the men of GTA are over 30, sometimes reaching 40. The soldiers of the numerous military FPS games are probably the closest, often being your late 20s enlisted man. Either way, its nice to feel something in common with the less than spectacular leading men, however that may come across.

The Last of Us is, at heart (or more, in gut), a zombie game. The cordyceps fungus, which we know from internet articles about it (i originally typed them; how personified) invading ant brains and driving the bug to attach itself to a plant, in a spot for optimal spore production. It was also featured in the giant fungus brain episode of season 4 Fringe. In the game, the fungus jumps to human brains creating raving violent monsters, and eventually worse.

But really at heart, the game is a moving piece of interactive fiction about motivation, devotion, love, and how far we will go to protect those dear to us.

The game begins, through mostly cinematics, with a contemporary zombie outbreak story. In the chaos there is tragedy, moving tragedy that actually had me shed a tear. Then, suddenly, it is twenty years later in the post-apocalyptic quarantine zone of Boston. Our main character Joel, with his partner Tess, are ruthless smugglers. They have survived by doing whatever it takes. They are forced to take on the delivery of 14 year old Ellie, to a group of anti-government terrorists known as The Fireflies. Joel is not happy. But they have a job to do and we have a game to play. They lose Tess. Now Joel must deliver the girl on his own. He feels beholden to Tess's last wish.

Your average video game "hero" kills hundreds, if not thousands, of mooks in a game. This game attempts to deal with the toll this takes on Joel and eventually Ellie. He lives in a world where he has learned to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to accomplish his goal. Is everyone he kills a true, out'n'out Bad Guy? Probably not. Some are hungry, some are scared and some are doing whatever it takes for them to survive. But we are on the side of Joel and Ellie and we accept what is being done. Tentatively.

In parallel to the humans Joel kills, are the infected, the zombies. The fungus infected begin as a common fast-zombie, not dead but hosting the spores, maddened and mindless. As the spore grows, months and years, the infected change. For example, the blind Clicker "sees" through sonar-like clicks. The fungus has eaten most of the brain, bursting out of the forehead, looking like some sort of horrible starfish. They are tough, very tough, and you have to learn to ignore the gut wrenching feeling you get from the sound of their clicks, and figure out how to kill them. Joel doesn't feel sorry for killing the infected, even less than the humans in his way.  But Ellie, ever the conscience of the duo, wonders if there are people still inside the monsters.

In the quiet times between combat scenes, we get snippets of conversation between Ellie and Joel, learning more about the two, Joel coming out of his sullen shell and allowing himself to care for Ellie. We also get beautiful shots of the post-apocalyptic world they travel.  This is a world bereft of mankind for twenty years, overgrown and greener. Of course, it is mostly falling apart, but it carries a strange beauty with it, as any urban explorer wandering ruins knows. I really appreciate a game that takes art direction into account.

But the game truly wins because it took story and character to the forefront.  This is about these two characters, how they develop a relationship (father, daughter, you perv) and survive in an incredibly harsh world. We get to care for the two, seeing them grow to care for each other. The story direction is all about the choices they make, why they make them and the impact they have on each other. The bigger picture, the survival of the human race, is overshadowed by a deep caring between two people. It at times heartbreaking, at other times chilling. It was a game, like a really good book always is, that made me sad to end the story.

In a mirror darkly, I then played Max Payne 3. The Max Payne series came out right around the days of the Matrix movies. This gives the game's first gimmick,  "bullet time" to the gameplay. The second was an affection for graphic novels, with painted panels serving as cut-scenes. Over everything was a noir cop story about a down-and-out DEA agent addicted to booze and painkillers, completely controlled by the grief of losing his wife & daughter. It is a revenge story.

Two games later, Max is in his 50s, still a drunk, but washed out of any law enforcement, forced to take up body-guarding to make ends meet. The family he is protecting is a wealthy Brazilian powerhouse of politics and old money. Max is out of his element around these rich, pompous coked-out types so, of course, things have to go bad.

Again, this is noir. They have dispensed with the graphic novel elements and the bullet time is there, but less stylistic and more just a Hong Kong action movie choreography choice, than anything. But the story is all Max Payne, everything dark and convoluted, mixed up and extremely (!!!) violent.

This is not a deep game. But it does have some introspection, I appreciated. Max is very aware that he is a puppet, a killing machine working for an agenda he doesn't understand. There is some nudge nudge wink wink about the guy holding the controller, but more it is about Max being the effective killing machine. He isn't protecting anyone, he isn't seeking vengeance for a loved one, he is just doing dirty work for someone else. But what else can he do but follow the script presented to him? Life (and death) can sometime just drag you along with it, your input counting for very little.

The gameplay, which I suspect was a development test for GTA V, is straight forward and methodical. Some areas are incredibly challenging forcing us to take chances we probably shouldn't, but most is ... well, relentless, as Max sees his life. It was fun in a mindless way, as many games are.

Sometimes you desperately want a well thought out game, with story and character and lovely art direction. Other times you just want to shoot things. There is something to be said about that, but I am not sure what it is. I will leave that up to my (imaginary) therapist.