Bricks and bottles and chest-high walls

(Minor midgame spoilers for The Last of Us.)

There’s an infamous scene in The Last of Us where Joel and Ellie arrive at a compound in Wyoming in pursuit of Joel’s brother, Tommy. The fortress dresses a hydroelectric dam providing power and comforts of the old life, pre-zombie apocalypse. For Joel and Ellie it’s a safezone; for Joel in particular, it’s the juncture in their trip when he will foist Ellie off on Tommy for the next leg of her mission, leaving him free and unencumbered. On arriving you’re given a peaceful tour of the compound, glimpsing the routines and friendly folk this settled life might afford those who chase the dream. But littered around the buildings are bricks and bottles and chest-high walls, signifiers of TLOU‘s combat mechanics whose presence always indicate an impending shooting sequence.

You can see it for yourself here after the 12 minute mark and on through to the next video. A lot of players, myself included, felt their experience frayed by this, usually with the self-diagnosis that it broke immersion by distracting from the cool chitchat of Tommy and his crew. Many other players went through it just fine, which is grand for them, but in the interest of figuring out the ins and outs of videogames and our experiences with them I’d like to focus on the response of the first group, because for them this is a part of a game that didn’t work and it’s still kind of unclear to me why. As with most of my design analyses, I like to take what I felt as a starting point and deconstruct an explanation for it, so here’s my question: why did this scene jar me so?

The first obstacle is the shorthand of immersion and its breaking, which is great for giving a general idea but woeful when it comes to specificity of the cause. Things get tricky when you try to look into why exactly your immersion broke, since a player’s interaction with a game is typically a jumbled and complicated affair for which the on/off state of ‘immersed’ and ‘not immersed’ doesn’t really apply. Whereas it should bridge us to further examine that messy phantom that is our relationship with a game, for TLOU it’s largely been considered an open-and-shut case by one of two explanations:

A) You were in a safezone so you should have been feeling safe, but knowing combat was around the corner you knew not to settle in and get comfortable.
B) As Joel, you were supposed to be following Tommy around the compound and chatting to him about his settled life and its routines, but knowledge of impending combat precluded your honest emotional involvement in this interaction.

Either way you look at it, the player is interacting with the game in such a way that objects are perceived as hints and messages to be used for interpreting meaning within the gameworld. It’s not dissimilar to the ‘dun dun’ tune in Jaws that tells you the shark is en route, even though you haven’t yet seen it. In the case of TLOU, these aren’t just bricks and chest-high walls, they’re motifs of the game’s dramatic composure. I stress this because I’m not sure either of the above explanations rings true if you follow through on the meanings of this scene’s composition.

Since leaving Boston, this fortified settlement is the first area you encounter that could be considered a properly established safezone, complete with dreams of a fresh start, a return to civilization of old. In his time in bandit-occupied country, Joel is a wolf in his element, existing moment-to-moment from one harsh skirmish to another, enjoying the sunlight and downtime as they occur but always mindful of the dangers that living in the world affords him. He’s reproachful to Ellie for her presented naivety to the rigours of his reality, keeping her at arm’s length as a way to distance himself from the memory of his late daughter Sarah, for fear of inviting compassion and courting emotional vulnerability. We’re directly reminded of this when Joel refuses Tommy’s offer of a photo of Sarah and immediately acts towards his goal of ditching Ellie on his brother.

It’s not subtle that Joel is pessimistic and combative, that his strengths lie in killing and surviving and that settled life might not be for him. We know he views the world in terms of imminent and inevitable danger. The presence of signifiers forbearing a shooting segment tells me of the fragility of the fortress even before the flood of raiders break through the camp’s defences. Tommy’s reassuring words ring false because the game’s cosmology–the nature of the world as told by its structures and composition, be they ludic, dramatic, or whatever–places me in a frame to view the world as Joel does. I stroll from building to building knowing I’ll be shooting my way back out, inconsiderate of its apparent security as anything more than fleeting, similar to how I expect Joel would view it, and he with as much certainty as myself.

You might object that Joel mustn’t actually perceive Tommy’s dam in this pessimistic mindset because he himself chose to cart Ellie here to secure her for her mission, or that Joel believes full-heartedly in the dream of the encampment, complete with the life of peace it whispers. That’s a fair reading to have of Joel, and I doubt I have any proof that could turn your mind. For my own reading, I’d speculate that despite always motioning to deliver Ellie on towards Tommy’s protection, Joel’s disbelief in a sense of safety of any kind was never far from his conscious mind. His porcelain machismo forbids it.

So I’m not sure if the answer is that the bricks and chest-high walls create narrative dissonance, because it doesn’t strike me that the doublespeak here is narratively inappropriate. This is also why I don’t think the model of diverging player/character frames, where dissonance occurs because the player’s and the protagonist’s minds are on two different tracks, accounts for my experience. Yet the fact still stands that my mind was tossed out for one reason or another, so the question remains: what could have caused it?

In Critical Distance’s end of the year podcast one of the participants, Cameron Kunzelman, shoots down the conversation by saying it’s unfair to punish a game for being a game. Although this was done as an attempt to obfuscate and rebuke the experiences of others, there might be an element of truth there hinting towards what about the scene diminishes it. The Last of Us doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be an emotional narrative experience or a flighty cathartic shooter. It takes the form of a videogame because Naughty Dog make videogames and this was made by Naughty Dog, but not every videogame needs to be a game. Not every videogame benefits from being a game. There is a magnificently strong current in game design and critical theory dictating otherwise, using definition rhetoric to decide what is and isn’t worthy of the medium and hence our time. It’s a nasty attitude that has long polluted the confidences of games studios the world over. I’ve written before on how Naughty Dog is a slave to this apprehension.

By this mindset The Last of Us is characterised as a stab at a deep and meaningful narrative while toeing the ludic line. It aspires to be a game because of the belief that being a game is central to being a videogame, and by “game” in this case it references a specific set of interactions and systems: gunplay and puzzles–conventional structures of play safely satisfying the expectations of ‘everyone’, meaning a mass market of players who primarily want games to pander to their escapist desires, with anything beyond that a bonus. It’s a game by way of apology for the story they want to tell, which is the message I got time and time again from its pointless, banal environmental puzzles and over-indulgence in shooting sections.

As I arrived at Tommy’s dam, my problem with the bricks and chest-high walls wasn’t that it was saying to me a shooting section was coming up, it wasn’t that there was too tangible a conflict between what was being said by characters onscreen and what I could figure out from the game’s dramatic structure. If that sort of dissonance were all it would take, it would have been hanging over my head long before this scene, since I was reasonably certain the game wasn’t going to end with Joel dropping off Ellie and leaving, with her story arc still unfinished. What jarred me was how the bottles and bricks and chest-high walls felt deliberately placed to inform me that the quiet ‘story’ sections were to soon end, that I only need to tolerate them a short while longer before I could play the shooting game again. Remember it had been since the end of the previous level that the player had last enjoyed combat, a good thirty minutes ago. Thirty minutes is a long time for many players to be playing a game without ‘doing anything’, by which they mean only certain actions count towards their enjoyment and time spent elsewise is time wasted. It’s been ages since you shot someone. You just picked up a new gun, a new toy, that you want to try out. You’ve done your scavenging and topped up your inventory, come onnn let me blow something up.

To be faced with this stupid half-grin, half-shrug apology for its narrative was like a patronizing pat on the head. What had jarred me was the game’s condescension, it’s deeply low expectations of me simultaneous with a lack of esteem for its own story. It was suddenly clear how dishonest it was about its own nature, governed by cynical ideas of what makes a videogame and what people look for in a videogame, how it didn’t believe I enjoyed walking through the canyon or had been touched by Sam and Henry’s deaths, but these were things it needed to include to please The Academy. To meet expectations it toes the line without ever being quite sure how to achieve balance; it could never afford itself the silliness that Metal Gear Solid uses to juncture these two demographics, so it ends up feeling disjointed and irreconciled. It’s a game talking out both sides of its mouth, earnest neither as a shooter nor as a story. Never was this more clear than at Tommy’s dam.

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12 comments on “Bricks and bottles and chest-high walls

  1. Sam says:

    I think the problem you have is that The Last of Us is a video game and that, as a game, it is designed so that people can play it. Would you rather the game have no cover at all? This would make it near impossible to play. Cover-based shooting is at the core of the gameplay. If you can’t accept the minor elements of abstraction, then what your are really saying is that you wish The Last of Us was not a game, that the gameplay got in the way of your personal immersion. I don’t wish to offend you, but I can’t stand this line of thought. The value of The Last of Us (as a game) comes from its gameplay. If that gets in the way of it becoming “art” or whatever, then I hope we never see the day where games are accepted as such.

    • To be honest, that’s the complete reverse of my problem. I don’t think it’s astute to forgive it its narrative because its a game. For one thing, that assumes ‘narrative’ and ‘game’ qualities ought to be parcelled out separately, which goes against my most fundamental experiences with the medium.

      Yes, I would have preferred if there were a hell of a lot less shooting in TLOU–I don’t think it did the game any favours. This particular section had a shooting sequence that was entirely superfluous in the context of the plot: the only thing it changed was to have an immediate point of reference for Tommy’s wife when she says “I don’t want to become one of those widows.” And it’s then followed by another entirely superfluous shooting section after your horse bucks you. Very, very quickly into the game the shooting sections became boring routine and that never improved for the rest of its length. I feel the game would have been vastly improved if at least half of them were removed entirely and focus placed on other aspects of the narrative. It wouldn’t suddenly be not-a-game if it didn’t have all these pointless shooting sections, there are plenty of games that have no shooting at all. My point is that it’s regressive and limiting to correlate the medium of videogames with the characteristic of having shooty bits, and that designers who think otherwise more often than not self-destruct their games.

      Not to be mean or anything but I don’t think it’s fair for you to try to adopt a position of dictatorship over how I enjoy games, in the same way it would be unfair of me to say “if you want to just play shooting bits all day why not stick to the multiplayer”. Both miss the fundamental point of why either of us went for TLOU’s story mode in the first place.

  2. Sam says:

    Thanks for the response

    1) “For one thing, that assumes ‘narrative’ and ‘game’ qualities ought to be parcelled out separately, which goes against my most fundamental experiences with the medium”

    This gets to the point I made about abstraction. Video games tend feature relatable ideas and concepts (such as physics or weapons) to help players understand the core design. However, these ideas can only ever be abstractions. So for The Last of Us, common everyday objects such as bookshelves, tables, and cement roadblocks are used to convey cover in a game where dangerous projectiles (bullets) can overcome distance in no time at all (hit-scan: just one form of abstraction). That is, cover-based shooting is the core of the gameplay. It is what The Last of Us is as a game (not as art or interactive storytelling). Since The Last of Us is a game first (as it features far more gunplay than story beats and cutscenes), the shooting, and by extension the chest-high cover that is integral to the interplay, will be prominently featured. That means that yes, at some points, the gameplay will feature a level of abstraction that may conflict with your personal suspension of disbelief in the world. But this abstraction (often referred to as “gamey-ness” by the non-designer) is inherent to all games and gameplay. There will always be a disconnect between narrative and gameplay because of this abstraction. Games that do away with abstraction for the sake of immersion, such as horror games like Amnesia: Dark Descent, feature gameplay that is shallow, has few complexities, little feedback, and operate entirely on trial-and-error methods.

    2) “Yes, I would have preferred if there were a hell of a lot less shooting in TLOU–I don’t think it did the game any favours. This particular section had a shooting sequence that was entirely superfluous in the context of the plot.”

    But that is the problem. You value non-gameplay elements over gameplay. Your issue with The Last of Us stems with the fact that it is a game is designed to be played as such. This is okay in a sense. Not all interactive experiences need gameplay to be compelling, but you just don’t seem to like The Last of Us for what it is (a video game) and critique it for not being a non-gameplay interactive story.

    3) “It wouldn’t suddenly be not-a-game if it didn’t have all these pointless shooting sections, there are plenty of games that have no shooting at all.”

    Not all games feature shooting. In fact, most games don’t. However, all games feature some form of contextualized challenges and conflict, even puzzle games. Interactivity does not cut it. Challenges and measurable outcomes are the core of the experience. So again, you wish that The Last of Us was a “non-game” like Gone Home that featured no challenges of skill. You fail to appreciate the gameplay and all of the meaning that comes with it. If you think gameplay is “self-destructive,” why play games at all?

    4) “Not to be mean or anything but I don’t think it’s fair for you to try to adopt a position of dictatorship over how I enjoy games.”

    People enjoy games for a variety of reasons. Often, these reasons have nothing to do with gameplay (story, graphics, social interaction, music, etc…). I am not trying to dictate anything. I was just pointing out that you are discussing something you already seem to dislike and have little knowledge about to begin with. When we don’t understand something (gameplay) and then wish for its absence, we are doing a disservice to that thing.

    • “There will always be a disconnect between narrative and gameplay because of this abstraction.”

      I absolutely could not disagree more with this statement. What this demonstrates to me is that you adamantly believe narrative and gameplay are at opposite poles — if that’s something you don’t actually agree with please correct me on this.

      For me, narrative doesn’t just refer to the dialogue a character says or the story a title will lead you through. It’s also the meaning of gameplay. It’s the sensation of performing an action, the impact of moving about and relating to other people within a gameworld, the relationship between the player and their performance, the floating feeling when you jump, the rising dread when you grip a trigger. It is no more sensible to say gameplay and narrative are forever disconnected than to say sight and seeing are unrelated. I have to stress this because the gameplay/narrative dichotomy does not describe what videogames are. It’s the discernment of an alien trying to understand human artefacts, unable to contextualize a thing’s shape with its function.

      But this piece isn’t even really commenting on the state of TLOU’s gameplay, but more on the state of its dramatic composition. If you accept that TLOU is a videogame that absolutely must be a game first and foremost, I can see why you wouldn’t care what that composition says. But I don’t. It doesn’t make any sense to me to say “it has more shooting bits than non-shooting bits, so let’s ignore and devalue the non-shooting bits and only value the game for the former”.

      It’s like we’re coming from two different world here, and it’s causing you to make all sorts of assumptions about my stance — that I strive for games to be art, that I don’t like shooters, that I don’t like games with shooting mechanics in general, that I value non-game bits above game bits, that I don’t understand abstraction, that I don’t understand or care about gameplay, that i want everything to be Gone Home. Downright condescending and stupefying assumptions. You need to toss these ideas out the window because they’re not doing you any favours.

      “but you just don’t seem to like The Last of Us for what it is (a video game) and critique it for not being a non-gameplay interactive story.”

      Lastly, again, ‘videogame’ does not equal ‘game.’ They are two different things that many people have arbitrarily decided are one and the same, to the detriment of the medium. I have no problems with videogames. I have no problem with The Last of Us being a videogame. I have a huge problem with The Last of Us saying “videogames must be games.”

  3. Sam says:

    1) “What this demonstrates to me is that you adamantly believe narrative and gameplay are at opposite poles.”

    They are neither opposite poles nor mutually exclusive. My point was that the abstractions of game design are going to work against certain elements of immersion and fictional world building for the sake of creating an environment where player actions are emphasized.

    2) “It’s also the meaning of gameplay. It’s the sensation of performing an action, the impact of moving about and relating to other people within a gameworld, the relationship between the player and their performance, the floating feeling when you jump, the rising dread when you grip a trigger”

    These can all be valuable experiences. Sometimes they are a part of the gameplay, and other times they are not. It seems you like the feeling of being a certain thing/person in a specific place. That’s great. I like those things to. But occasionally these experiences are not contextualized by gameplay challenges which stress cognitive thinking in a way that plain interaction can and will never be able to do (again, not saying we can’t have narrative, or non-gameplay interactivity, but that gameplay is not the same thing as those things). To put it into perspective, playing a video game with measurable outcomes and challenges that stress skills is more akin to driving a car than it is to interacting with the environments in Gone Home.

    3) “It doesn’t make any sense to me to say “it has more shooting bits than non-shooting bits, so let’s ignore and devalue the non-shooting bits and only value the game for the former.”

    That’s not exactly what I was trying to say. I was saying that the gameplay in The Last of Us is a huge part the experience and can be evaluated outside of the story and other interactive elements. Therefore it should not be swept aside because of its inherent abstractions.

    4) “It’s like we’re coming from two different world here, and it’s causing you to make all sorts of assumptions about my stance — that I strive for games to be art, that I don’t like shooters, that I don’t like games with shooting mechanics in general, that I value non-game bits above game bits, that I don’t understand abstraction, that I don’t understand or care about gameplay, that i want everything to be Gone Home.”

    Some of those things I never assumed (don’t like shooters, want everything to be like Gone Home). But you definitely implied a distaste for the gameplay in The Last of Us with comments such as…

    – “Yes, I would have preferred if there were a hell of a lot less shooting in TLOU–I don’t think it did the game any favors.”

    – “pointless shooting sections”

    – “I feel the game would have been vastly improved if at least half of [firefights] were removed entirely.”

    – “by “game” in this case it references a specific set of interactions and systems: gunplay and puzzles–conventional structures of play safely satisfying the expectations of ‘everyone’, meaning a mass market of players who primarily want games to pander to their escapist desires.”

    – “I got time and time again from its pointless, banal environmental puzzles and over-indulgence in shooting sections.”

    These comments do not sound like they are coming from someone who appreciates gameplay, or do you refute all of it?

    4) “Lastly, again, ‘videogame’ does not equal ‘game.’ They are two different things that many people have arbitrarily decided are one and the same, to the detriment of the medium.

    I agree with all of this, I just think there is an issue with the language being used. The whole “videogames does not equal games” comment is very confusing because, as you said, not all of the experiences we are discussing are games. We need either a broader term with different subsets, or a different name for so called “non-games” entirely so that we do not conflate these concepts.

    5) “I have a huge problem with The Last of Us saying “videogames must be games.”

    I am not sure how The Last of Us is saying this in any way. It’s just a game that takes some stabs at narrative profundity and was widely acclaimed for doing so. It’s not proclaiming itself to be the end all be all (I sure hope not. The gameplay is not even well designed).

  4. “These comments do not sound like they are coming from someone who appreciates gameplay, or do you refute all of it?”

    That’s neither true nor relevant. This post isn’t about whether the gameplay of TLOU is good or whether I wanted more shooting or less shooting, it’s about the ideologies, structures and narratives of a game holistically, as a text and an artefact.

  5. Sam says:

    “it’s about the ideologies, structures and narratives of a game holistically, as a text and an artifact.”

    But even this perspective is not really “holistic”. For example, never once did you mention the multiplayer modes. Are they not a significant part of The Last of Us regardless of quality? Are they completely irrelevant to its structure and status as an artifact?

  6. Sam says:

    “One needn’t mention every atom of a game for it to be a holistic perspective.”

    I hope you do not mean to say that the multiplayer in The Last of Us is merely an “atom” of the game. It may not be very good, but it is still a valuable part of the experience. Again here, I am not focusing on you specifically so much as the critical community at large. There are a lot of articles about The Last of Us linked to Gamasutra and Critical Distance (which are often considered the hub of more serious games writing). Not a single one of these articles contains even two sentences about the multiplayer aspects of the game. This has lead me to believe that the community has, without realizing it, collectively decided that competitive multiplayer (or even just pure gameplay) is not as important to the present and future of games as other elements.
    It’s fine if you are not particularly interested in these elements, but when they are ignored by the whole community, as they have been, then we have a big problem.

  7. […] A big part of the combat is also crouching behind things. Conveniently, everything in the world is just the right height to hide behind. Even in sections where you aren’t fighting, the presence of these waist-high obstacles makes […]

  8. […] its insecurity, so feels the need to temper itself. I’m looking at you, The Last of Us, with your bloody action setpieces and your bloody ladders. Sorry playerbase, you’re all as thick as […]

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