AI partners, stealth problems, subpar shooting, and ludonarrative interference in The Last of Us / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

The Last of Us

Why is it that, in The Last of Us, enemies can walk through Ellie’s crouching character model without noticing her or Joel? Because video games.

When I complained at length a couple months back about the painfully stupid line, “You can stealth your way through this, but I know that’s not your style,” I intentionally neglected to mention one of the biggest reasons it bothered me: because for someone whose MO is apparently “shoot first, ask questions later,” Joel is a pretty terrible shot. My complaints were focused on the narrative and character reasons why it made no sense, but now it’s time to talk about the gameplay.

Here’s something about me: I am very easily frustrated by dying in games, especially when I feel like something was not my fault. I wrote about this a bit a while back with regards to checkpoints, because I think checkpoints are pretty much the best thing since sliced bread except in specific instances. Instances like The Last of Us. (But even here I’m conflicted.)

The problem with checkpoints in The Last of Us is that they remove basically all tension from encounters and turn them into exercises in tedium and frustration. When you die, you’re never more than a few minutes from where you were the last time, which is good because like hell I would redo those scenes, but bad because why should I really try to use tactics to get through it? And even when I do use tactics, this happens more than a few times: Oh is that a Clicker eating my neck? Awesome. Seconds later: Oh hey look. It’s that same Clicker. Eating my neck. Love it. Seconds later: So I killed that Clicker. But then the thing next to it grabbed me until I pressed square about fifteen times and then another thing came up and killed me. Why do people like this game again? Seconds later: Killed the Clicker, and the thing next to it didn’t notice me this time. Gotta love consistent AI.

Etc.

The checkpoints remove the fear of death. In what is ostensibly a survival horror game, that’s a serious problem. I never really feared for my survival so much as my lost time. Long stretches in between the checkpoints would be maddening to the point of me breaking the disc in half and feeding it to a pack of wild dogs, but they would have fit with the tone of the game much better.

Let’s talk about stealth: When I played Metal Gear Solid 3, my fight against The Sorrow lasted basically forever. I don’t remember at what point I realized what that scene was doing, but by then it was too late. I’d killed so many enemies that it was a painfully long process. Those who hadn’t killed anybody other than the bosses (totally possible) would have experienced something much shorter. That’s a fascinating comment on player interaction and player choice. It’s punishment for taking the easy way out.

The funny thing is that shooting in The Last of Us is not always the easy way out, because the shooting mechanics are… not good. I play a lot of third person shooters, and I’m pretty good at them. Basically none of them are as awkward to control as The Last of Us. I missed more shots than I hit because the reticle just wouldn’t be where I wanted it to be, and by the time it was, I had a Clicker on my neck.

And this would be interesting if it was making a comment about the character. If the poor shooting controls were saying, “Joel is not a good shot” and were intended as a deterrent, I would be willing to accept it even if I didn’t like it. But that can’t be what the game is saying, because we are told right from the start of the game that Joel likes to shoot things. Also, when the final few sequences really pull apart the true Joel (in a way that I really liked and will probably praise at some point to counteract all this negativity), it becomes clear that he’s good with a gun and revels in its use.

So maybe that line at the beginning is a seed, planted to get people in the mindset of what this character truly is… but then why is stealth even an option?

And it’s not always an option. There are certain sequences where you just have to take out your gun (or your Molotov or tin can with scissors and nails jutting out; love the fact that I have a few of those just lying around in the backpack that is supposed to be a semi-realistic representation of my arsenal) and kill some things, human or not. In some of these, you can do some methodical stealth takedowns and slowly whittle away their numbers as opposed to going out with a bombastic bullet fest, but in my case attempts at the former generally led to the latter.

Let’s talk about the Clickers and Bloaters: These days, one hit kills in games are basically nonexistent. And there’s a reason for that: they’re usually unfair. And that’s every bit as true in The Last of Us… sometimes. And here we circle back to the deaths that aren’t my fault.

I could probably count on two hands the number of times I was killed by Runners or Stalkers. They are dangerous, but I was good enough at the game that they were rarely lethal. Whether it was bullets, fists, or stealth evasion, I just didn’t have much trouble with them. On the other hand, I have no idea how many times I was one-hit-killed by Clickers (probably about ten by Bloaters).

Clickers are interesting, sometimes. Conceptually, I like them. An enemy that is blind and exceedingly dangerous seems perfect for a stealth game. But you can hide in plain sight, so long as you’re quiet. I like that. In fact, one of my favorite sequences in the entire game involved a room of nothing but Clickers. I threw bricks and bottles and they walked out of my way…

And right into Tess.

Seriously?

There were a few things that constantly broke my immersion in the game, and this is one of the biggest. If you think about it, it’s almost a punishment for trying to stealth through the game. If you go at it guns a-blazing, you’ll never see this ridiculous quirk and you could pretend like the world doesn’t literally revolve around your character for a little while, but when an enemy says, “Where is the motherfucker” for the 962nd time and is standing on top of my partner? I shouldn’t even need to finish that thought.

And it was obviously an awkward thing for Naughty Dog, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least one version of the game where AI did react to your NPC compatriots hiding in the dark, but that was shot down because your NPC compatriots have no idea how to hide. They can shoot and kill enemies (which I appreciated; let’s be clear), but they put themselves in crazy positions that would be impossible not to see. And since the NPCs being there is kind of the point, a decision had to be made: fairness vs. realism. Fairness won out, and rightly so. I’ve complained about fairness before, and I don’t think a game with dumb-as-nails AI that ruined actual play (as opposed to just situational narrative) would have won quite so many Game of the Year awards.

(Slight digression: one thought that stuck out to me at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013 was film critic David Thompson saying that one of the worst films of the year was Looper. I completely disagreed, but his logic was fascinating: “The worst have to come from those that thought they could be the best.” And even though I don’t use it as a mantra, I love the concept. So while I would not go so far as to say that The Last of Us is the worst game of 2013 (though I expect some people in the gaming intelligentsia would unfairly regard Bioshock Infinite that way), I will say the title would not be undeserved.)

I think it’s fascinating that The Last of Us doesn’t really have a cover system. You conveniently crouch to the level of basically every single obstruction in the world, but you don’t stick to things like you do in most shooters these days. It’s not inherently a problem, but cover systems are useful in stealth games, and when you can’t really shoot without really exposing yourself, that’s a problem. You can’t even aim without exposing yourself (which is the bigger problem). Once you’ve decided that you’re done with the stealth nonsense and want to start using guns, you have to let everybody in the world see you first.

(Weird counterexample: near the end of the game, there’s a big annoying shootout with a bunch of soldiers. I took cover behind a wall, but because of the way the camera was positioned, I could still fire at these soldiers despite being completely obstructed by a wall. So that made no sense, but it made even less sense that they could hit me back. But they could. I guess there’s collision detection for the reticle? Whatever.)

What is smart is the way you can switch which shoulder the camera goes over, and it goes a long way towards making up for the lack of stickiness. You may not be able to lean out from cover to see organically, but if you switch placement, it has the same basic effect. I didn’t find it to be particularly useful until the second half of the game, but once I got it, I liked it.

If only the actual act of firing a gun was enjoyable. The Last of Us is a survival horror game, a stealth game, or whatever, but it’s a highbrow shooter with subpar shooting. The only weapon I liked wielding was the flamethrower (which is a completely ridiculous weapon to have in a highbrow shooter, by the way), and even that had its own in-game problems because it frequently set things on fire before actually emitting flames. Everything else was either too weak (never been a fan of bullet sponge enemies) or too janky (see earlier complaints) for my taste. The hunting rifle was probably the closest I ever came to a logical weapon I enjoyed using (especially during the Ellie portion), but the generally low ammo count (except in the Ellie portion) meant I didn’t use it much (I’m not complaining about ammo scarcity; ammo scarcity is totally fine).

So back to my point: The Last of Us is terrible.

Well, not really terrible so much as fascinatingly not good. Every single flaw in the game has taught me something about game design, and every single accolade the game receives teaches me something about the state of this industry that we all love so very, very much. This is a master-class in Icarus replication. Naughty Dog flew so close to the sun and so it has much farther to fall. Other games don’t get this kind of analysis because they don’t try to earn it. But this is video games as serious business. And “Because video games” just doesn't cut it.