Sunday, 7 July 2013

Emotional Games

Mostly recovered from surgery now, however the recovery time included a nice few days of video-game bliss.  I managed to polish off Naughty Dog's 'The Last Of Us' in a couple of days, and then spent the potted hours during the rest of the week ploughing through That Game Company's 'Flow' and 'Journey'.

The Last Of Us

For those that missed it, The Last Of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic america (yay zombies), where veteran survivor and smuggler Joel ends up having to escort a fourteen year old girl, Ellie,  to a group of freedom fighters called the Fireflies.  The game really is about the relationship between Joel and Ellie that develops across this journey, mixed in with stealth, action and adventure and tied up with a crafting and experience system based bow.

Well 'game' is probably a bit strong, as that conjures up connotations of it being fun, which it really isn't.  Compelling story, yes.  At times rewarding game-play, sure.  Stupidly frustrating at times?  Yup.  Fun? Never quite gets there.  It's probably more enjoyable to watch someone else play the game than it is to play it.  At least then the movie-like story and action don't get interfered with by your inability to not get your neck chewed on by blind mute cauliflower headed dead people.

However don't let this put you off, it really, really is compelling.  The game has a way of drawing you in and switching things up.  (Minor spoilers ahead)... About three quarters of the way through the game, major emotional stuff had gone down, we had a horse and were armed with a flame-thrower.  It felt close to the end, I thought the final goal was in sight, and, like my characters, I just wanted to get there.  I wanted the adventure to reach its resolution.  And so, for five minutes, I stopped being diligent, fully searching every corner of every building for desperately needed supplies and ploughed forward, aching to reach the door that was obviously round the next corner, with final cut-scene, and credits.

Except the door didn't come, and instead a load of stupidly difficult hunters did.  And I was out of resources, stuck with a now painfully tense fight, and (silently) cursing myself for daring to dream that end was near.  Luckily I had several more hours of game-play to not make that mistake again!

The interesting thing about TLOU is that while the game-play made you feel tense, or excited (or when you repeatedly become dinner, really really frustrated), the major driving force (the bond between Joel & Ellie), and the emotional heartstrings it tried to pull, were almost exclusively developed by the story, told through cut-scenes and action sequences.  Engagement and empathy being two sides of a coin that were never quite allowed to meet in the game.


That Game Company's Journey on the other hand was a short (about three hours for a play-though) marvel. Everything about the game is designed to engage you the player with your avatar, and make you really feel their world.  You start a lonely figure lost in a desert of graves, with a mountain in the distance.  As you progress to the mountain you get lost in a sea of sand-dunes, slide into a forgotten city, and eventually claw your way back up to the peak.  An interesting quirk is that as you explore you meet others, silent avatars controlled by other players, your companions, who may help (but can't really hinder), but that make your adventure less lonely.

There are language-neutral murals that tell the story of the game, which are really telling the story of your journey - what has been, and what is to come.  And the foreshadowing towards the end is poignant.  (Minor spoiler ahoy) I cannot overstate how much it hit me when I found myself on the mountainside, three foot in snow.  My companion had been lost to a beast, and I suddenly realised how utterly alone I was. Slowing down, being broken by the blizzard, my avatar finally crumpled into the cold white blanket, and I genuinely gave up hope.

I guess the difference is that the Last Of Us offered an adventure, Journey offered an experience.