Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Last of This

The philosophies of the new industry against the old.

Normally I do not reference current happenings here for the simple reason that it dates the post as soon as it comes out. I prefer to talk about broader topics. However, in this case, considering the event in question it is quite relevant to our interests.

Over the last few years there has been an onslaught of art glorifying subversion and modern identity politics as the ultimate form of storytelling. I don't need to mention the examples here, since you can pretty much fill a whole book about the tired topic, but for some reason every single writer employed at a western corporation believes this to be the key to success.

This despite the fact that it leads to the death of every IP and franchise. No one wants this in their entertainment. It's a plague, and audiences absolutely detest it.

The most recent piece to succumb to this trend is multi-million dollar video game franchise The Last of Us. The sequel has been highly anticipated in some corners. Recently, a leak has unveiled the game as a bait and switch of the highest order. Now, a PR disaster is currently reeking havoc at Sony and Naughty Dog.

First, some backstory.

The original The Last of Us is a zombie survival game starring a man named Joel trying to rescue a young girl named Ellie from death. She s immune to the problem, and Joel believes he can save her. The gameplay is nothing special, just being a basic third person shooter with linear level design in order to focus on story with pre-scripted animations for most everything you do. The entire game is rather nihilistic and hopeless, though it ends with Joel rescuing Ellie, giving off the idea that maybe they might make it out alive. A sequel story is pretty obvious from this point.

The game was a success, so naturally fans of the game were hopeful for what came next. After the release of the PlayStation 4, Sony announced one. For the last four + years Naughty Dog has been developing it, and anticipation was high in AAA fandom. It looked like an easy home-run. After all, it's basically just a movie. How do you screw that up?

Well . . .

A few years after its announcement there were many leaks coming out that there was trouble in paradise. Naughty Dog was stumbling, no longer the developer it once was. Now it was just another AAA grinder like every other modern studio.

Naughty Dog is a name with clout in the video game industry, one that earned it with a string of hits starting back in the 1990s. Their Crash Bandicoot games helped Sony's original PlayStation take off, and their Jak & Daxter games allowed a mix of 3D platforming, third person action, and open world design, to come together in a unique fashion. All of these were high sellers back at a time when gameplay was king in the industry. They were unstoppable.

However, during the development of the second Jak game studio founders Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin left the studio and many studio members soon followed over the next few years. Today there is no one left from the days when Naughty Dog made their name. The name essentially means nothing at all anymore.

Starting on the PlayStation 3, Naughty Dog got into making linear third person action games based purely on narrative. The Uncharted games were very successful, and allowed Sony some cred at a time where they weren't doing so great. While this wasn't the Naughty Dog everyone knew and loved, they were still creating bestsellers. The first entry in The Last of Us series came during this period and this melodramatic piece earned them a lot of praise and high sales at a time when these novelty games were something new.

The darker side of this is that ever since HD development became standard it has negatively affected just about every part of the industry. As costs skyrocketed and studios ballooned, crunch became standard for AAA and millions need to be spent just to make a single game that takes far longer to create than classics used to. Working at one of these studios means endless work for games that require several million just to break even, which is happening less and less these days. This for games that sell about the same as an average hit did during the 16-bit days. There isn't much in the way of growth. It's unsustainable, and we are starting to see the affects of it.

The horror stories behind the crunch for The Last of Us 2, and Naughty Dog's working conditions are horrifying to those looking in from the outside. Inside stories show underpayment, long hours, and grueling busywork, for a game that is essentially a gritty 3D animated movie with a few button prompts. The effort put in is not worth the product that comes out.

If that sounds harsh then maybe it would please you to know that many people at Naughty Dog don't want to be making this game, or anything like it. creating a AAA game is a lot of work for returns that aren't really worth it, and in this case it might spell the death of the modern industry. It's a sign of things to come.

Despite the horrendous working conditions, the game was delayed many times over the years, rumor being that they wanted to push it back to launch simultaneously on the upcoming PlayStation 5. Since games take far too long to make now they need something to launch this year. However, they did not expect the Corona Virus to put a dent in their future plans. Fans would have to wait for clear skies before they could play their end of the world zombie game. Though the PS5 is still scheduled to come out in 2020 (I cannot stress how bad of an idea this is), the game was delayed. All that work at Naughty Dog, and no one can profit off of it.

The game was delayed indefinitely, and it apparently caused someone internally at Naughty Dog to finally snap. The game was leaked, and footage exists all of the internet of the story fans have waited so eagerly for. Be wary, if you are interested in it. The entire game was spoiled.

Naturally, Sony when into panic mode. They rushed a June release date out and began copyright claiming and censoring all leaks they could find. But this isn't going to plug the fractured dam. This disaster is going to cost them big, and the game is destined to be looked at as a joke for years to come. It might be the final nail in the AAA grinder.

I'm not going to talk about the leaks themselves for several reasons, the main being that this series has never interested me. On the other hand, even if you liked the story of the first game you will be angry about what happens here. No spoilers, but it is quite awful from a writing perspective. Naughty Dog dropped the ball, in a big way.

One of the few AAA games worth your time.

The bigger question is why this leak matters in the wider context of modern gaming itself. There are several reasons for this. This entire project is a whiff, and I'd like to highlight why.

For one, cut-scene leaks should not ruin a video game. Keep in mind that no gameplay leaked here, it is only the story. Yet the backlash is so huge that many are canceling their preorders. Why should that matter if the gameplay was interesting enough? Because fans of the game don't actually care about the gameplay. There isn't much to care about. People only cared about this series for the hacky nihilistic story, not the stale third person gameplay.

A story leak would not have hurt DOOM Eternal. A story leak would not have hurt Super Mario Odyssey. A story leak would not have ruined Ion Fury. A story leak would not harm Streets of Rage 4. The reason for this is because people come to these games for the gameplay, story is secondary. You can't spoil gameplay with visual leaks.

In fact, there was a story leak for Deus Ex: Human Revolution back when it first came out and it actually helped gain the game buzz. The story being good might have helped, but it was mainly because people were concerned over a new developer taking over the franchise. The project turned out for the better because of what was learned. Gamers got hyped up for the return of one of gaming's biggest franchises, and they got what they wanted.

The fact is that, as dumb as the story in any game might be, the gameplay always could have saved it. But the gameplay in The Last of Us 2 is not enough to carry the story. The fact of the matter is that hyper-linear cinematic games need a good story to lift it out of mediocrity, and that didn't happen here. There is just nothing much here beyond the flash. And considering that so many people crunched for this mediocre project? That just hurts it more.

What this whole mess shows us is that AAA gaming has officially gone off the rails. One employee leaked a few videos and sabotaged the whole project and threw millions down the toilet. Nothing is stopping this from happening again in the future, and it probably should. If people are busting their tails for mediocre product that isn't worth the time put into it then something needs to change in the industry. It's been over a decade of this sort of movie game and the tank has run dry.

Adding to this is the quality of the story itself. This is where we get into how bad it is.

The problem with story gamers as opposed to normal gamers, is that they hoist up stories that would be considered mediocre on the Syfy channel or lesser paperbacks on the old spinner racks. Because they don't read they would rather have their hackneyed stories instead of more involved gameplay. This is more a problem with the state of literature and cinema than it is with the customers, but it still ends up negatively impacting gaming. Now they want their narratives from gaming instead of mediums better suited for them.

Essentially, the only people who accept this sort of terrible storytelling are people who have not read wider works, because they simply don't read. They don't even watch TV anymore because, hey, no one does. Those industries already imploded long ago. This allows hacks like the writer of this game to think they are telling something profound while their publisher burns millions in developing the product.

As someone who has seen the leaks to The Last of Us 2, let me tell you: there is absolutely nothing profound about this story. This is terrible storytelling. It is another hack subversive story where the original game's plot is trampled on to "make the player think" instead of actually fulfilling any of the promises the end of the first game made to the audience. It essentially makes everything in the original game pointless which is the last thing any writer should ever do. As a story it is an abject failure; as a video game you might as well not even pick up the controller because the end result is the same ether way. Nothing you do matters.

This is the opposite of what video games are supposed to be. The whole point is that you, the gamer, pick up the controller and control the destiny of everyone on the other end of the screen through the choices you make. You traverse challenges to improve at the game before you. In these hyper-linear movie games you don't make any choices, and most of the time challenge involves little more than taking more damage from hits. You cannot effect the outcome in this game. No matter what you do the journey always plays out the same way with the same results, which is a plot that tells you as such every second you play it.

This isn't to say you can't do linearity right. Point & Click games allowed players to use their heads to get beyond obstacles and use shortcuts and tricks. Platformers and FPS games allow you multiple ways to tackle a challenge with the gameplay offered. Every time you play these games something wildly different can happen depending on how the player reacts. Your reward? A more difficult challenge. It ramps up in this fashion until the conclusion.

In a movie game your reward is another cutscene that always plays out and progresses the same no matter what the player does during the gameplay. Your input in the gameplay doesn't change anything meaningful, whether during highly scripted set-piece gameplay that equates to Simon Says and hiding behind a small handful of chest high walls, to headshotting the same thug four hundred times before moving down a hallway to do the same thing. There isn't even a score system to reward you getting better. There is nothing aside from the multi-million dollar candy-coated shell. The bait of the next cutscene is the only reason to keep playing.

The reason this leak is so annoying to fans is that they realize with the story being such a pile there is nothing left to enjoy in the game. It's paying $60 to be hand-held through a 6 hour movie interspersed with small shooting galleries that don't effect the story because nothing the player does can change what happens next. If the story is bad then there is nothing left to look forward to in this product. There isn't anything else here.

So while these leak will cost Sony in the short-term, it is doubtful this game still won't sell well out the gate. Not enough people will have seen the leaks yet, even with two more months left to go before its cobbled together release date. It'll be the game after this that will suffer. It's always the entry after the terrible sequel that suffers the most in sales (See: Devil May Cry 3, Metal Gear Solid 3, or Sonic Unleashed) and where we will see just how badly things have been affected. Goodwill is very easy to lose, especially when the writer has no respect for his audience.

But we're about due for a change. AAA has been treading water for much too long, and it's time to finally dump it for something better. This might be the opportunity the industry has been waiting for to clean house.

Though, since not one of these corporations is considering delaying their 2020 consoles into a year without a pandemic affecting finances, perhaps not. They might just be too far gone to help, at this point. So be it.

Then we'll just have to go indie. A revolution is bound to start soon. We've definitely had enough of the rotting carcass of AAA gaming stagnating an entire industry. Hopefully we've seen the last of this sort of thing.

Now if you will excuse me I think Streets of Rage 4 is out.


  1. I had to go look up the story leaks out of sheer curiosity after reading this. If I were a fan, I would be livid. But there's this slide in AAA games toward the nhilistic death cult thinking. Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You, right?

    1. That advice is perfect, especially as far as this game goes.

    2. JD

      Do you think the modern video game industry will fragment into very small companies? Those coming up will return to their roots? Little to no stories, fun game play and much more modest visuals/programming?


    3. The indie and middle market scene is already heading in that direction with games like Streets of Rage 4, Dusk, Ion Fury, and Shovel Knight.

      If AAA wants to survive it's going to have to do the same. But it probably won't.

      The future is in the smaller markets.

    4. JD

      Thanks for the explanation

      .will games also localize? I.e. games will be available in Canada only, etc or is there still a global market?


    5. In the age of the internet I don't foresee anything changing on that front. Digital gaming is going to be standard soon enough, unfortunately.

  2. Great article, as usual. I like the explanation that because of the bad story, people have nothing to look forward in TLoU2 because the gameplay is bland and uninspired.

    Whoever linked the game is a genius: if they had organized and gone through the proper channels to address the crunch culture at Naughty Dog, the news would be forgotten in less than two days. But going rogue and doing this, however? Everyone will be talking about it for a long time. Now it's permanently etched into the history of TLoUII's development that its plot was leaked by an employee that Naughty Dog fucked over and will never be able to identify because the pool of suspects is too large to narrow down. It also brought into attention other scummy things ND has done. Glorious. They also saved people a lot of money.

    1. Yes, the leak is going to be a better thing in the long run for the employees and the industry at large. Current trends are simply unsustainable.

  3. This is playing out like the latest Star Wars trilogy. The first episode was a huge hit, even if in hindsight it was a really weak movie that set up the whole story for failure. But people were thirsty for new content and there was a lot of goodwill. Cue The Last Jedi and suddenly the first installment was being undone. People were angry and the damage was done. The horrendous final episode couldn't save the mess no matter what.

    Moral of the story: everything dies. Time to move on.

    1. This crop of creators appear to believe flipping their stories on their head and making them pointless is quality writing that will keep customers coming back, and yet every time it has ended in disaster.

      No matter how successful this game will be the third will see a massive downturn. Naughty Dog have shot their own foots putting this hack in charge, and it's going to cost them.

  4. One AAA game I have found to be brilliant is Alien: Isolation. There are modern gimmicks in it but it's nevertheless a great gameplaying experience. It utilizes sound in a way no game has done since the first two Thief-games - at least not in my limited experience. Behind the scenes -stuff is interesting since it tells how that game was a labour of love. Too bad the journalists werent' too keen on it: the game sold well but not well enough. So, no sequel in the making.

    1. That's a game that would have done better with a lower budget in a middlemarket setting. But because that didn't really exist in the modern industry it had little chance at success. Either be a megahit or be a flop. Those are the only options.

      This is why we need a middlemarket.

  5. 6 hour movie? A 60 dollar game with only six hours of gameplay? No wonder triple A is going down. I have thousands of hours in my grand strategy games and even the shortest of my rpg's is 20 hours. If you replay it for multiple endings it's easily 60 plus hours.