Monday, 29 August 2016

The Last of Us

I want you to imagine a world where morality, brutality, necessity and mercy combine. It's a world where humanity has been reduced to a shadow of its former self thanks to a disease which turns those it infects into mindless zombies. Society and civilisation have broken down. Martial law dominates the last bastions of human society. In the hinterlands, lawlessness is king, with bands of hunters having their territory, killing anyone who enters it. It is into this world that a girl finds herself becoming infected but, in a remarkable twist, finds herself to be immune to the infection. As people in one southern USA stronghold realise, this could change everything.

This is The Last of Us. It's a survival horror game originally for the PS3 which was remastered for the PS4, and it is completely and utterly brilliant.

A description of the plot doesn't do justice to the real centrepiece of the game's storytelling, the growing relationship between Joel, a borderline mercenary charged with smuggling the girl across America to the Fireflies, a freedom fighting group who will be able to engineer a vaccine from the wounds, and Ellie, the girl. It's a father-daughter relationship which grows steadily. Joel is initially cold to Ellie, as she brings up memories of his own daughter, Sarah, who died in the first outbreak.

Both characters are superb, filling their roles magnificently. Ellie is young and vulnerable, but possessed of enough ingenuity to help and the innocence to throw Joel's often brutal actions into sharp relief. For his part, Joel plays the father figure - a man prepared to do anything for his daughter - to perfection, despite the occasionally rocky relationship the two have. Along the way, the duo meet and are assisted (or hintered) by other equally balanced characters. One of the great triumphs of The Last of Us is undoubtedly its excellent writing, which takes the game beyond the bog-standard survival horrors and makes it into a character drama as compelling as any TV series or film. None of the characters annoy or frustrate, at least from a writing standpoint, and it actually feels like a privilege to watch the bond grow between Joel and Ellie.

It's important to be able to contrast the two characters because they are so different. Joel has blood on his hands, and gets more on them throughout the course of what is at times a completely brutal game. By the end of my playthrough, the kill count - mostly of humans, not infected - stood at around 400. His almost relaxed attitude to killing is contrasted with Ellie, who isn't immune to the horrors of death like Joel, although she hardens significantly as the journey progresses. Unlike Joel, however, she gets upset at times when she is forced to take action. When the violence is from Joel, some of it feels like putting the infected out of their misery while every human death is simply a necessity; Ellie, on the other hand, is hard to kill with, somehow, as though she is losing her innocence there and then.

One of the things that most of The Last of Us's detractors have jumped on is the violence. And it's true that it's a violent game. Often the violence is graphic and visceral. Yet it never feels like violence for the sake of violence. There's a necessity to it as well as an inevitability - this is life on the edge of civilisation. As humanity trembles on the precipice of the abyss, the worst of humanity has come out. Whether Joel is a part of that is a question best left to the individual player.

Before I move on to talking about the gameplay, I should say a word about the atmosphere the game builds: it's grim. The sense of bleakness meant that I never played the 15-hour game for longer than an hour or so at a time, as much as anything to stop the bleakness of the world getting on top of me as anything. There's a palpable despair in the characters, a lack of hope for the future that is probably the scariest thing about the game: forget the dozens of tense stealth sections where a single noise will alert a clicker - an infected so far gone that they're basically a walking human fungus without eyesight and which will deliver a one-hit kill - and the pulse-pounding action sequences where a single slip spells death, it's the despair which creates the real horror, not least horror for and of what humanity is capable of.

That isn't to say that hope isn't present. Ellie provides the brightest of the bright sparks, not just as hope for humanity, but as hope for Joel. Watching as she becomes more like him (or does she? It's a question that has to be asked) is another of the game's horrors. Yet she never loses her sense of wonder and hope, despite the brutality. One wonderful scene sees her marvel as a herd of escaped giraffes makes its way through an abandoned, ruined city. For all she's seen and done, she's a child and she's the future.

She's also a useful partner when it comes to the gameplay. Often games which have a character being escorted from one place to the other end with that NPC being a hindrance rather than a help. Or they end like Resident Evil 5, where the NPC is far too helpful, force-feeding you healing herbs when you don't want to us them. Ellie is a real help for the majority of the game, and I have to say the NPC AI in general is excellent. Also excellent is the enemy AI. One wrong step will see them onto you. Make a noise in the wrong place and you can expect a horde of clickers to descend, or for a pack of human hunters to start a relentless search.

Action takes place through an over the shoulder perspective on the player character. Occasionally this results in a restrictive view, but problems are few and far between. Gameplay in fact compensates for this with things like Joel's listen mode, which can help to pinpoint enemies, and having NPCs shout warnings.

Gameplay mixes between exploration, stealth and combat. Exploration is mostly down relatively linear paths (albeit paths which don't feel linear and which you do occasionally get lost down), through which you find most of your raw items for crafting and upgrades. There's a satisfying feel to the exploration, not least because the environments are varied and beautifully realised. You really feel like you're rooting through someone's old home and through dead towns - faded posters for old films hang on walls, stained bathtubs occupy bathrooms. People have left all sorts lying around - alcohol, rags, explosives, sugar, scissors, tape, pills, weapons, ammo, raw remodelling materials, tools... All of this can be used to craft a number of different things, including Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs. Each item can be used at different times; nothing is redundant, but most of it is scarce.

Stealth feels satisfying but is remarkably tricky to get right. I only mastered it at the end, when outwitting heavily armed guards by the dozen (the thought of sudden death at the hands of a platoon armed with automatic rifles didn't encourage gung-ho exploits). Otherwise, it's trial and error. Sometimes fear can paralyse you in one place, not least when you're protecting Ellie from a number of clickers and you want to time a dash properly.

Combat in some scenarios may seem preferable, but the lack of supplies means it's to be avoided where possible. When combat does happen, however, it is superb: fast-paced, brutal and uncompromising. Gun combat can be hit and miss with the auto-aim off and irritatingly imprecise when you need accuracy with it on, but there is something about the combat which means it's possible to be sucked into it completely. Its intensity is its biggest strength. When battling a small army of infected you have to live in the moment or risk being killed.

It's difficult to think of a game I've ever been more impressed by. The experience was one I won't be forgetting any time soon. It's as memorable a game as I've ever played, as well as being technically superb. It blends gameplay and story seamlessly. It makes you care for the characters whilst pulling no punches - emotionally or otherwise. Indeed, I think I might just have a new favourite game.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

If nothing else Becky Chambers' debut novel provides an inspiring story for the aspiring writer. Faced with the choice between keeping a roof over her head or finishing her book, she started a Kickstarter to fund her writing and was able to do both, going on to initially self-publish The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet in 2014 before it was picked up by Hodder in 2015. Since then, she's been able to work as a technical writer, meaning that the second book in the series is out in about two months. Triumph over adversity indeed.

Of course, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has a lot more to it than an interesting and inspiring backstory. There's a lot to recommend it. It's a space opera which focuses strongly on the varied personalities aboard the Wayfarer and their interactions on a long-term deep space trip. The Wayfarer is a tunnel ship, effectively drilling wormholes for swift travel throughout the galaxy. Rosemary Harper joins the crew, running from her own past, just as the ship is given a year-long mission into what could be hostile territory.

It isn't a novel of the unknown. If you like novels charting something new, where the science and exploration aspects dominate the plot, this isn't the book you're looking for. Emphasis is squarely on the crew of the Wayfarer, their pasts, their presents, their hopes and their dreams. The bond between the crew is thoroughly examined.

I've seen articles strongly criticising The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet for being nauseatingly liberal. Different species and races rub along quite nicely in a confined space, with respect for each other and each other's beliefs in a way they wouldn't in real life, according to these criticisms. These are criticisms I reject. What is science fiction if it feels it cannot show us a glimpse of society where everyone does have that respect? For decades Star Trek held the progressive torch of science fiction, promoting a future utopia of co-operation and showing that respect could take relations - both personal and diplomatic - a long way. It was idealistic, it's true, but that's not to say it couldn't happen. And sometimes in the world we need to be reminded that different cultures can and do co-operate. There's enough war and discord in the world to want to escape from it.

This is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet's great triumph. It is escapist, whilst presenting a vision of the world that uplifts and affirms positivity. It succeeds in pulling the emotional heartstrings whilst also providing hope. In many ways, it emulates Star Trek at its best.

That said, I could still point out problems with it. I found the lack of focus in the plot to be slightly disconcerting. Although the driving narrative is there, it's broken up into episodic chapters which break the flow slightly. At times the characters are a little too positive and forget to be living, breathing beings. But these are complaints which can be overlooked.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is well worth reading and is a rare treat. In a field which in recent years has had a negative outlook, it is a positive delight.