Sunday 23 April 2023

Oh, and then the spell was cast

I’ve just finished watching The Last of Us on television. Being a PC gamer I hadn’t played the game but the series got rave reviews, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo were particularly effusive on their Take podcast, so I was expecting great things. It was very strong, carried incredibly well by Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal, with some real standout episodes. I don’t know that it completely lived up to the hype, but that’s almost certainly an expectation management issue as much as anything.

With the game finally making it to PC in its recent remake, I wondered if it was worth a go – assuming a patch or seven can sort out the technical issues flagged by initial reviews. I was intrigued by how closely the series stuck to the game. Some parts of the show seemed very game-like such as driving to escape unfolding events in the first episode, and Joel picking off targets with a sniper rifle later; much of it was more dialogue or mood based, which I assumed to come from cut scenes or to have been added for the series.

I found a play-through video and zapped through to some of the key parts, and sure enough there are elements of the two that overlap shot-for-shot both visually and in the dialogue. The game features more sneaking around, fighting, and crafting weapons as you’d expect; it also uses more common game techniques like overheard conversations, audio recordings, and notes and journals to avoid over-reliance on cutscenes. Not having played I wasn’t sure if there were choices to be made in conversations but the story is linear (though you may miss some background in notes and recordings).

Coincidentally PC Gamer posted a link to an old article about the explosion of Full Motion Video and “interactive movies” back in the 1990s, which got me thinking – have games like The Last of Us actually cracked it? (Welcome to “Revelations From About 15 Years Ago”). Stories and characters can move between film, television, books, games, comics, each taking their own approach, sticking very closely to each other or diverging wildly as is most appropriate. Musicals and opera have songs, ballet has dance, games have plenty of chest-high cover and mobs to mow down (there are interesting articles with the creators of The Last of Us talking about the amount of combat in the two versions and the different requirements of the mediums). Obviously there’s no guarantee of quality, any version of anything can be great or terrible in its own right, but with the Super Mario Bros film riding high in the charts game adaptations are hitting both commercial and critical highs.

With the game and series of The Last of Us sticking so closely to each other I’m not sure I’ll worry too much about playing it (though never say never, if it’s patched up to a good standard and turns up on sale in the future). It’s a ridiculous comparison in a lot of ways but with a linear story you could look at it like Dragon’s Lair, only with compelling gameplay in a beautifully realised world instead of pushing a button to see the next clip from a laserdisc. One way that games can really stand out is through choice; not all of them, for all of their openness the story elements of e.g. the Grand Theft Auto series are pretty much pass or fail and The Last of Us was never touted as an RPG, but it would be really interesting to see that version, the different relationships between the central figures that could evolve with different choices.

The amount of effort would be mind-boggling, considering the impact of branching choices, and it would be quite the challenge for actors to convey the gamut of resulting emotion. It’s not hard to see a Dragon Age type approach most of the way through – some flexibility in where to visit and who to ally with or betray, but perhaps that would have made it decent rather than exceptional RPG, as opposed to the precision of the story that gave it its impact.

For the moment, on the games front I’ll keep going with State of Decay 2. It still has its irritations (particularly the inventory) but there’s enough to outweigh them, particularly mowing through hordes of zombies. In its own way it also manages to tell neat little stories here and there, though the majority of missions don’t have the strongest of dramatic arcs. It would need a hell of a dance sequence to elevate “Give us a rucksack full of stuff!” “OK!” into awards contention…

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