If you’ve been hiding under a rock you may have missed that The Last Of Us Part II has been released. If you weren’t aware of that then you may not also be aware of the entire games industry tripping over itself to praise it, to declare it as art. From comparisons to Schindler’s List to rumours of Naughty Dog staff being made to watch executions (staff are saying this is incorrect), The Last Of Us Part II has been subject to an insane amount of hyperbole. A lot of opinions I keep seeing are comparing it to some kind of high art, that this video game has made people feel things they never have before and I want to call that into question. I am a very staunch defender of “games as art” but that doesn’t mean that games need to be compared to films or stories they have nothing to do with. It also means that we can’t ignore the mechanics of the game when it comes to praise.
Gaming is an interactive medium. For decades now we’ve had people criticise the structure of narrative heavy games, for relying on cutscenes to tell the story. In films there’s a phrase: show, don’t tell, the idea that it’s better for the scene to show you what’s going on rather than the characters or text to tell you. In gaming I feel like there should be another rule: do, don't show, the idea that the story should be told through mechanics if possible, instead of in cutscenes.
This relates to The Last Of Us Part II because there’s one point in particular where Ellie kills a dog. The game tells you later on that this is sad because you see the dog in a flashback and you can play fetch with it. Would this series of events; the main character killing a dog and then us seeing the dog playing fetch, actually work in cinema? I don’t think it would but the most important question here is, does it work in gaming? I’d answer no. The mechanics of the game don’t matter in this situation, you’re forced to kill a dog and then the game tells you to feel sad. This isn’t how narrative in gaming works.
There’s a better example I’ve seen to show how The Last Of Us Part II proves my point. There are dogs accompanying people when you’re sneaking around. If you shoot the dog first, the human notices and will shoot you. However, if you shoot the human first, the dog will notice and go to the human, in distress it tries to paw at the body. This is a moment where you have autonomy and your actions change what happens. The mechanics of the game are responding to your actions, instead of telling you to be sad via flashback. The game is showing an actual emotional response. This works.
The reason why this is important is because we’re engaging in the games as art conversation in all the wrong ways. It doesn’t work to tell people that The Last Of Us Part II is the Schindler’s List of gaming, not that this isn’t an incredibly silly comparison but it also fails to understand what makes art emotionally engaging. What’s engaging about The Last Of Us isn’t that Neil Druckmann comes to your house and tells you a dog dying is sad, it’s that you’re engaging in a world where there’s no hope and the mechanics need to reflect this.
Another example of this narrative divorce of mechanics and story that always got me annoyed was in the Tomb Raider reboot. At the start of that game we’re told Lara is new, she’s never done this before and this is the story of how she became the Lara that we all knew. At the start of that game we get a lot of emphasis on Lara not being able to handle herself and the actions the game is forcing us into. Just like The Last of Us Part II, Tomb Raider makes the player do things the player may not necessarily want to do and then undermines them by not reinforcing the consequences with mechanics.
Early on in Tomb Raider, Lara kills a deer. She is visually shaken and is physically sick. This is the first time Lara has killed anything. Only a few minutes after this Lara is attacked by a group of men on the island trying to hunt her. She’s seen by one of them and there’s a scene where she’s wrestling with the man, trying to gain the upper hand and disarm him. Eventually Lara does prize the gun out of his hand and kills him, again, obviously distraught. Only a few hours later, Lara is Rambo, gunning down hundreds if not thousands of men with barely a single thought of the consequences. Tomb Raider had to be fun.
A discussion was had with the writer of Tomb Raider, Rhianna Pratchett, that I took notice to. She stated that writing stories for videogames was difficult solely because for the most part, the entire game is already made before the story is even thought about. In the example of Tomb Raider, the story wasn’t as important as making the game fun and so all the effort that was made to make Lara an interesting protagonist with an emotionally affecting story was undermined by the idea that we needed to enjoy killing. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, most games struggle with creating meaningful narrative via mechanics but it needs to be something we look into as our art form tries to evolve.
An interesting example of this done right is Metal Gear Solid. A series ironically almost obsessed with cinema and being cinematic and yet, throughout the series the games have managed to tie mechanics into its narrative decades before it became a talking point. What drew me to this initially was a tweet I saw. This tweet compared the killing in The Last Of Us Part II with the killing in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots.
In The Last Of Us, the game tells you to feel sad when you kill a person because they have a name that someone shouts when they find the body. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots, if you kill enough people, Snake will be physically sick as you play and his stamina will decrease. This isn’t the only example of Metal Gear Solid reacting to your actions as a player and having bizarre mechanics added solely for the purpose of flavour. This stuff has been happening as far back as Metal Gear Solid 2, where the game will actively chastise you for killing seagulls. I’ve been told these kinds of reactions are also in Kojima’s latest game Death Stranding.
There are a few other examples that people keep bringing up like Spec Ops: The Line; a game that is particularly unfun to play and forces the player to commit actual war crimes and deal with the consequences, or the NieR games; which manage to gamify their themes without you even being aware. These kinds of things are what we need games to be doing and is where we should be looking to show our medium is more than people think.
The Last Of Us Part II, as well as many other fantastic titles worthy of praise, are not ahead of the pack when it comes to proving games are art and we as an industry are far behind other mediums. When I see game developers claiming that the medium can’t respectfully depict war it makes me sad because it shows we’re happy where we are. We’re happy with our only depictions of war being the gaming equivalent of Inglourious Basterds and we don’t want to try any harder to make it something more. We’re so busy screaming “games are art” that we don’t want to actually prove it, instead just have it accepted for what it is.
There’s nothing at all wrong with comparing games to movies or any other art form, we should. We as an industry should be striving to make games better, to make games in unusual genres and prove that we can do more than Call of Duty. People are comparing Pokémon to Requiem For A Dream when we should be demanding that games deliver our own March Of The Penguins. We need games to prove they’re more, because right now macaroni art is being compared to that of the Mona Lisa and it’s embarrassing.