On The Successes of The Last of Us, and The Failures of Bioshock Infinite

A critical comparison of two AAA blockbuster games with overt Serious Art ambitions |

“I just finished The Last of Us, and have enough exciting developed thoughts on it to want to write them down. Once the semester starts again I probably won’t have time for these sorts of things, but I will keep indulging myself while I can. Maybe I’ll get on a proper blogging site eventually, if only to hyperlink.” -Facebook Note, January 3 2014

The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite, two AAA games aka games with astounding production values and traditional game design that have you play an antihero that shoots and kills hundreds of people and sort-of-people. Also, both games explicitly and noticeably aspiring to be Serious Art. Mainstream reviewers gave both games reviews full of put-it-on-the-box quotes followed by numbers that averaged up to Great-Metacritic-averages, and both will no doubt got their own special Game of the Year Edition. But these days there lurk critics, in the corners of the internet, that write blog posts with no numbers attached and, for instance, point out that it is very hard to make anything resembling a serious story when the main character killing hundreds of people is a requirement (This one is great, you should read it, and even moreso this one.). These critics have written a large volume of analysis, with much of it quite nonplussed by the traditional slaughter-based gameplay loops of these games; it can roughly be summarized as “:/”, with Bioshock Infinite getting an especially large amount of negative criticism and The Last of Us getting its own respectable share. Besides the fact that such writing even exists and has an audience, I want to tell you why I mostly agree with the criticism of Bioshock Infinite and mostly disagree with the criticism of The Last of Us.

Both games are accused of having rote gameplay that is disconnected from their Serious Art narrative. And indeed, Bioshock Infinite is a sad simplified shadow of the gameplay of Bioshock that has faceless meaningless soldiers instead of the fantastically personified splicers, half-hearted materialize-this-or-that options instead of a rich group of interacting systems, and a boringly linear course made artificially more exciting with ridiculous skylines instead of rich and rewarding exploration. Worse yet, with few exception the mechanics feel utterly disconnected from the narrative with not even an attempt to connect them, and the rehashed scattered recordings trick does more to hurt the storytelling than to improve it. The few choices that are there feel thrown in and meaningless, and aside from some enemy variety the fighting is largely monotonous.

Though the gameplay of The Last of Us can similarly be lampooned as nothing more than the stealth/shooting mechanics from Uncharted 2 with some crafting on the side, it deserves more credit than that. There are many reasons for this, but most of all because it does something unique among games involving the murder of hundreds of people - it is designed not to to create the typical power trip pleasure, but rather an almost opposite feeling to that. In any of the numerous times you are faced with too many enemies to kill with too few bullets, and in any of the numerous times you are suddenly spotted and all hell breaks loose and you have to run back to find some cover before you are dead, the best word for the feeling of the combat is “desperate.” The crafting mechanics here are perhaps the best use of the idea I have seen, in that they are crucial - getting by without the things you craft would be a nightmare, and diligent and thorough scavenging is encouraged not by some artificial scoring system by the sheer need for the items you can make. The weapon upgrades here, unlike in Bioshock, make a significant difference, a crucial difference. Even the melee is a success of simple but effective design that involves the player just enough in each brutal execution by making a badly timed blow badly fail. All of this, for a game clearly inspired by The Road and about survival at its most extreme, is fantastic.

And so one game trots out a watered-down mix of old tropes having nothing to do with the games artistic intentions and the other game thrives on a smartly tuned and subtly different combat mechanics totally appropriate for its narrative. This difference in coherence and confidence is also reflected in the narrative of both games. Bioshock Infinite has been rightfully called out in most serious writing about the game for bringing up the issues of racism and jingoism in America’s past only to say nothing meaningful about those issues and instead forget about them in favor of weird half-coherent science fiction towards the game’s ending. Although I think it’s possible to interpret the game in a way that ties all the game’s subplot coherently, this does not excuse the game from being horrible about presenting such an interpretation elegantly and rather seeming confused about what, if anything, it wants to say about the ideologies and out-there science fiction that make up its story. That there are now many writers that do not ignore all these flaws is a great thing for the medium even if it is a bad thing for Bioshock Infinite as Serious Art.

Not so with The Last of Us. Although it should be recognized as still having more in common with 28 Days Later than The Road, I was struck with how many things worth praising are subtly in the game. The story and characters themselves, which are surprisingly understated and rich. In fact, it is influenced by and successfully learns from the narrative achievements of the original Bioshock - much moreso than Infinite. Though there is a larger story, it is told with more self contained episodes with very distinct settings and arcs that all add up to a bigger understanding of this world. This place-as-story design is made all the better by having the characters actually interact and comment on their sorroundings, which all the more grounds the reality of the game’s world. And there are so many small interactions between the characters, such as quick exchanges as simple as “be careful” or the other character enabling you to progress, that serve to make their relationship real (again, another thing Bioshock Infinite has but does not do nearly as well). All of this, within the gameplay and not the masterfully crafted cutscenes. And because of that, I disagree with the seemingly many that think the gameplay is just as divorced from the narrative as it is in Bioshock or other AAA games. Traditional though it is, the gameplay here does reinforce the narrative, and moreso than the vast majority of big-budget games. Disregarding all of this, the game is worth playing only for its ending - goddamn, that ending.

Don’t get me wrong, both games are great and worth playing. However, Bioshock Infinite seriously fails in its naked ambition to be taken seriously, and The Last of Us does not. The latter still has major flaws, most notably that it has large portions of gameplay that do not move the narrative at all. Still, I was surprised to find myself having a very novel experience with its completely unoriginal mechanics and think it succeeds as a game striving to have a serious narrative. You should play it.