E3 2017 Analysis: Not Very Surprising, Except For The Insane Surprises

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I emerge, eyes red and tear-stained, from my E3 bunker. I have watched every presser. I watched every reveal. I even saw that panda dab. I gazed into the Great Abyss and drew the attention of Gods New and Old, and with my very sanity stretched thin by knowledge most Eldritch, I have peered into the future. The future of video games.

So yeah, E3 this year is weird. I feel like last year and the year prior were real strong for the show, with lots of great announcements. Last year we got Death StrandingResident Evil 7God of WarPrey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Quake Champions. The year prior was even bigger, with Fallout 4Dishonored 2The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy 7 remaster, Shenmue 3Nier: Automata….it was really almost a cacophany of announcements.

And this year was…well, it was mostly a bunch of trailers for games we already knew about, wasn’t it? To be fair, some of that was due to significant leaks (notably for Assassin’s Creed Origins and Mario + Rabbids), but another major part of that is developers’ increasing nonreliance on E3 to make announcements. Following a path that I think was lead by Nintendo, many studios are just announcing things on their own terms, instead of trying to compete in the Major League Headline playoffs of mid-June. Like I said, it was kind of a cacophany. Now, especially if you’re not announcing some-AAA game that already has a massive following, it’s probably best just to announce it on, like, some Tuesday in March and not even worry about competing headlines.

So, with no real rhyme or reason to the ordering, here are my thoughts on the more interesting things I saw from E3 2017.

Bioware Presents Destiny

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Anthem was the only thing out of EA’s otherwise usually boring presser that I found remotely interesting, and even then I have reservations.

On one hand, I do really like Bioware, even still, and knowing that this is, presumably, the Bioware A-team working on it (since we know that core Bioware wasn’t working on Mass Effect Andromeda) gives me hope. I’m also a sucker for games with really good traversal mechanics, and being able to fly around in a sick robot suit could be really fun, especially if you get to use that in combat as well as simply for traversal. Customizing those suits sounds really cool too, like having Tony Stark’s collection of Iron Man suits. If those suits feel distinct (which, certainly, that big tanky one felt distinct in the trailer), having that playstyle variety could be fun.

But, on the flip side, this trailer was a little light on story and seemed to pretty heavily infer a Destiny-esqe, MMO-inspired sort of minimalist story structure. While it’s kind of ridiculous to infer a whole game’s structure from an E3 stage demo, there was a lot of talk of “finding your own adventures” and “making stories with your friends”, and not a lot of mention of characters, which are kind of what I go to Bioware games for. That’s not to mention the prominent display of loot, mic chatter reminiscent of raiding, and what appeared to be a raid, giving me sort of a sour feeling about the structure of this game.

After A Year, We Finally Have An Assassin’s Creed Game That’s Totally The Same

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I miss being excited for Assassin’s Creed. The first game had a really cool premise and unique gameplay mechanics for stealth and parkour. The second gave you a really full open world full of stuff to do, added mission variety and stronger characters, and refined the combat. Brotherhood stitched the world together into a more cohesive whole and even added some surprisingly good multiplayer. The third, which a lot of people poop on but I like, added even greater variety to the missions, naval combat, a wilderness, ranged combat, and the most fluid combat in the series.

And then after Assassin’s Creed 3, my interest in the series waned severely. Black Flag just doubled down on the naval combat without adding anything significantly new, and Unity was a buggy mess. I’ve heard Syndicate is actually pretty good, although the introduction of a heavy focus on gear and XP by this point in the series, I felt, was a band-aid on a severed leg. The Assassin’s Creed gameplay needs an injection of creative life, something new, a step equal in scope to the difference between the first and Assassin’s Creed 2, or 2 and 3.

Origins does not look like that leap. Instead, it looks like, well, some more Assassin’s Creed. You jump off of buildings and stab dudes, you hide in bushes, you strafe around dudes and parry them. There are cool additions, like being able to control arrows mid-flight (???) and the eagle, which allows you spot enemies and cool stuff in advance, but nothing revolutionary. In fact, the most different thing I noticed was the fact that you have to manually aim the bow instead of locking on.

Look, I want to like Assassin’s Creed Origins. Real bad, actually. But I need something significant, something new. I know fanboys have been banging this drum for, what, like 7 years now, but maybe if you refocused on the actual assassinations, on gathering intel and scoping out settings, or maybe if you fleshed out the guild leadership elements, maybe I’ll be back in on this series? But for now, I can’t help shaking the feeling that I played this game back in 2012.

However, side note, I’m super genuinely happy for Ashraf Ismail. Dude seems super stoked to be heading this project, and I’m genuinely happy to see people get the reins on a series that they love, and I hope I’m totally wrong and this game is awesome. Also, having an Arabic creative director for a game set in Ancient Egypt is a good thing.

Historically Accurate Russia Simulator 2017

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I…should probably play the Metro games. This looks really cool, although I’m curious to see how it differentiates itself from other open-world survival-themed first-person shooters. Although, since I haven’t played the Metro games, maybe that’s a stupid question. I definitely like the theme and aesthetic, though.

Bethesda’s First Bad Press Conference

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This is Bethesda’s third E3 press conference, and, well, they’re 2 for 3, I guess?

Bethesda came out super strong their first year. A massive Fallout 4 reveal, combined with the Dishonored 2 announcement and the first big public appearance of DOOM generated a lot of hype, and all three of those games ended up extremely strong.

Last year’s presser, while not quite so star-studded, still had a solid line-up. The “surprising new reveals” slots were taken up by Arkane’s excellent Prey reboot and the somewhat controversial Quake: Champions, with a solid back line of Fallout 4 VR and Skyrim: Special Edition announcements. Even if it wasn’t as surprising, they were still showing some games people loved, as well as new stuff.

And this year, we got…Fallout 4 VR again? Which is definitely still happening, I guess, but it’s not all that exciting now. We’ve got another Skyrim rerelease on the way, which is great, I guess. There’s a Dishonored 2 DLC pack expanding on a character I really like from the base game, but it got so little airtime that I had to Google what it actually was. The only real exciting announcements were sequels to The Evil Within and WolfensteinThe New Order, which while interesting, weren’t able to generate the same excitement as older reveals. The New Colossus looks cool, but in the end, it also looks like another MachineGames Wolfenstein game.

So, I guess I’m just sad this presser didn’t have more surprises, more things that left me begging for more details. It was just a lot of stuff that looked like stuff we’ve seen before.

“I Will Never Be Excited For A Fucking Mario/Rabbids Crossover” – Me, Incorrectly, A Week Ago

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Ok, I’m sorry, what? The biggest franchise in video games teams up with Ubisoft’s weird proto-Minions, who haven’t had a game on this console generation other than a basically unnoticed TV show tie in, and they all get guns, which is weird enough. I think all of us saw these leaks a week ago and went “This is totally unnecessary, who cares?”

Then the gameplay comes up on the screen and this thing is a goddamn turn-based strategy game a la XCOM and I literally got on my phone to see if Switches were in stock on Amazon. What? Fucking what? It’s a squad-based tactics game??!?

Sold. Deal. Ignoring the fact that the encapsulated turn-based fights of an XCOM sort of game could be great for taking on the go on the Switch, just the idea of incorporating platformer elements, of incorporating Mario gameplay into one of these sorts of games is super interesting to me. I hope they go super weird with it, and I hope they manage to keep that Mario feel through the genre shift.

The most amazing thing about this game is that it was only the second weirdest Mario reveal this E3.

Far Cry 5 Is Definitely A Far Cry Game

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I’m very interested in the characters, world, and new gameplay mechanics of Far Cry 5, which were completely ignored in its E3 outing in favor of showing some tried and true Far Cry: tagging enemies, stealth, cars, guns. Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb postulated that this trailer was way more focused on the dumb parts of the game to draw attention away from the political controversy this game inspired, which might be the case, but it’s a shame, because that controversial stuff, about the perversion of middle America, is what I was interested in.

This trailer does hint at something reminiscent of the buddy system from Far Cry 2, and if that’s the case, I’ll definitely be paying attention to this game. I’d love an evolution of that system, but I’ll have to wait and see.

The World of Beyond Good and Evil 2 Is Dope

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Ubisoft talked so little about what the actual gameplay of Beyond Good and Evil 2 is, that I don’t really wanna talk about it for long. However, I did want to call out that the art direction for this game, especially the above scene, is fantastic, and I really hope the gameplay is as creative as that cinematic trailer implied. I would love to be a Cockney monkey Bionic Commando.

Please Stop Making Me Uninterested In Marvel vs Capcom Infinite

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The trailer for Marvel vs Capcom Infinite shown at E3, unfortunately, seems to continue to validate the disappointing roster which was supposedly leaked earlier this year, with the inclusion of the predicted Gamora, Thanos, Doctor Strange, and Arthur. Also consistent with the leak is the lack of any X-Men, probably due to the licensing feud between Fox and Marvel’s cinematic division. Although, I will note that the story trailer does include Zero, who is not listed among the leaked characters (albeit the leak does note that a single Capcom character is yet unidentified), and Black Panther, although neither is shown in actual gameplay.

Look, I love this franchise a lot, and I want it to be good, but if the roster is as slim as the leak insinuates, and consists of so many returning characters, I’m going to be much less interested. On top of this, the characters that make me love Marvel vs Capcom are those obscure characters, the weird ones like Phoenix Wright, MODOK, Frank West, and Doctor Strange. Having Infinite serve singularly as an advertising vehicle for the MCU means less of those fun, obscure heroes, and that seriously bums me out.

Nintendo Makes Me Want To Buy A Switch In Five Minutes

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This year, the theme for Nintendo’s Spotlight event was “Announcing Things You Love At Bewildering Speed”. Disappointed that we didn’t announce a mainline Pokemon for the Switch at our Treehouse last week? Well, we’re doing that! Want more details? Well, fuck you, because we’re already talking about how we’re making a new Metroid game, a Metroid Prime game no less, after you all thought Metroid was dead and gone! That announcement’s going to be twenty seconds long, though, because we need to make room for all of this charming and adorable Kirby and Yoshi footage!

Literally, Nintendo went from having 2 core franchise releases for the Switch to, what, six? Especially considering that Breath of the Wild was such a blockbusting release, this speaks really well to the line-up for the Switch. Oh, and speaking of which…

SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY IS A FUCKING BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE

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Mario’s hat is possessed by a magic hat ghost that allows him to possess, via hat, things that he encounters on his journey on his world-hopping airship on his quest to rescue Peach from Bowser and his team of evil wedding planners. On this journey, Mario will journey on worlds ranging from a regular metropolitan city to an icy wonderland to a Latin-inspired desert, and be able to assume the forms of such allies as: a taxi cab, a T-Rex, electricity, and a fucking normally proportioned human, in a magic ritual which bestows upon its target a Mario hat and mustache.  There’s also some sort of fashion mechanic to the game and, just to reiterate, the New York-style metropolis is still called New Donk City.

NONE OF THE WORDS I TYPED ARE JOKES.

….I have to buy a Switch, don’t I?

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A York By Any Other Name

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This isn’t going to be a full post, so much as a callout for something I really like in SWERY 65’s cult classic, Deadly Premonition. I’m playing through the game right now, and on top of the fantastic story, bizarre characters, and truly interesting focus on the pedestrian, one of the things I like the most about this game is the way it hyperfocuses on perhaps one of the most mundane parts of human conversation: introductions.

In Deadly Premonition, players assume the role of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, who insists upon meeting almost every character in the game to “call me York. Please, everyone calls me that”. York is a real weird dude, constantly referring directly to the player as an imaginary friend named Zach, going on for far too long about classic movies, and discussing grisly murder with an unsettling lack of tact, and yet this introduction thing is maybe one of the weirdest things about him. It might be how persistent he is about it, or just how perfectly rehearsed it is every time, like he’s really done this for every person he’s ever met in his adult life.

Backing up for a minute, Deadly Premonition has a fairly wide supporting cast, and since the game is a murder mystery, they’re all relatively important, since literally all of them are potential suspects (the game goes so far as to just label characters you haven’t met “Suspect”). So, giving these characters distinct and memorable personalities is fairly important, and the game has a fantastic shorthand way to remind you of every character’s relationship to York: what name they give him.

You see, having such a wordy name as “FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan”, in conjunction with the insistence that York be called, well, York, means that characters can actually demonstrate a lot through the way they refer to York. For example, Sheriff George Woodman, the head of the police department in this small town, is very hostile towards York’s commandeering of this investigation, but is still helpful to York’s efforts. This is encapsulated by the way he refers to York as “Agent Morgan”. By referring to the title of “Agent”, George is acknowledging York’s seniority and his command of this investigation, but by calling York “Morgan”, instead of the more friendly and preferred “York”, George reminds York, and the player, that he doesn’t like York much at all.

Harry Stewart, meanwhile, is the town’s resident eccentric millionaire, who wears a horrifying mask and communicates solely via manservant. Whenever Harry appears to give York cryptic advice and clues in regards to the murder investigations, he precedes every thought with “Mr. Francis York Morgan”. A few character traits are communicated here. First, Harry is weird, weird enough to use this extremely wordy way of addressing York multiple times in a conversation. Secondly, Harry doesn’t have much regard for the authority of the police or even the FBI, ignoring the title of “Agent” entirely in this name. Third, Harry is not friendly with York, despite the fact that he’s generally an aid to him, as he is not using the friendly moniker of simply “York”. Lastly, you know that despite all of this, Harry treats York with some regard, as this name is extremely formal and respectful, especially when you consider Harry doesn’t even acknowledge other authority figures like George in the scenes they share.

So, I guess, the takeaway from this is that writers and designers shouldn’t ignore the powerful communicative potential of mundane human interactions, as even those have the potential to do some heavy lifting for complicated plots.

Classifying RPGs Mechanically With The Tabletop RPG Triangle

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Categorizing tabletop RPGs can be kind of difficult. There is such a variety of them, and they play in such different ways, that coming up with meaningful methods of comparison is…difficult.

I’m not talking about genre or setting here, either. It’s, in fact, relatively easy to categorize RPGs into fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, or what have you. What is quite a bit harder, in my experience, is to categorize them by mechanics.

This is something those in the video game space take for granted, as that field began as solely mechanics, and had the stories come in over time. Thus, at the start of the medium, the only way there was to categorize games meaningfully was mechanics. That’s how we got “platformers”, “adventure games”, and later, things like “RPGs”, “strategy games”, and “first-person shooters”. All of these genres, while admittedly pretty vague and muddled, offer an idea for how a game plays.

The setting-based labels we provide for tabletop RPGs are less useful in that regards. Fantasy is a genre which includes Dungeons and DragonsDungeon World, and Burning Wheel, but those games play nothing alike. The same could be said of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, Eclipse Phase, and Numenera, despite the fact that they are all “science fiction”.

In fact, the only meaningful gameplay-based distinctions I can think of in my mind are “OSR”, which describes a minimalist, rulings-over-rules mentality usually accompanied with punishing combat, an emphasis on logical problem solving, and random tables, and “story game”, which tends to describe games with minimized rules which are focused on telling a very specific type of story. These two categories cover only a subset of tabletop RPGs, however, leaving us with a massive third category of “The Rest”, which is basically useless.

With that in mind, I’ve started to think about the way I end up describing role-playing games to my friends, and tried to make that congeal into an actual system with which one can try and describe, broadly, the actual mechanics of the way a game works. This system, then, is tentatively called the Tabletop RPG Triangle.

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The idea is relatively simple: the mechanics of tabletop RPGs can be described as some mixture of the three above attributes: Comprehensive, Universal, and Simple.

Simple means that the written rules are computation light and fairly intuitive. There aren’t a lot of modifiers to be accounted for, not a lot of dice rolls required for single actions, and multiple types of action are resolved using the same game mechanics.

Universal means that the written rules are not bound to any given setting, and instead set out to just provide a general framework for any sort of character doing any sort of thing. The rules don’t emphasize the creation of characters towards any particular archetype.

Comprehensive is perhaps the most unintuitive of the three descriptors, and describes having rules which aim to cover every situation which characters could expect to find themselves in (even if those rules end up similar to other situations). Basically, the book sets out to describe what should happen in any likely gameplay scenario.

The idea is that you can specialize in one of these descriptors, have a strong emphasis in two of them, or be a kind of muddled mixture of all three, but you can’t go whole hog into all three. If a game is simple and comprehensive, it probably isn’t universal: a game that aims to be easy to understand and cover a lot of ground within it’s theme probably has a very narrow theme, lest it overwhelm the reader with options and lose its simple status (I might think of something like Fiasco, which pretty exclusively deals with Coen Brother-esqe comedic tragedies). Meanwhile, a game that is universal and comprehensive is probably going to be a massive mound of rules (gestures towards the D20 system).

For an example, here are a few of the systems I run and play in, plotted on the Triangle, according to my experience with the systems and thoughts on them:

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Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons aims for a pretty solid mix of comprehensiveness and simplicity, mostly as a reaction to 3.5 Edition’s rules gluttony. The skill check comprises most every situation in the game, with a relatively minor number of modifiers, and while the game does try to set out rules for all manner of adventuring situations, it doesn’t really like you playing outside of the bounds of D&D style, big damn heroes adventuring, especially when it comes to pidgeonholing you into class roles, so it’s pretty far from universal.

3.5 and Pathfinder, however, are basically a mirror image, focusing on universality and comprehensiveness. Wanna play a pirate with guns in space? Yeah, sure, there’s a supplement for that. How about some dark fantasy with Cthulhu monsters, except everyone’s a ninja. Yeah, sure! Wanna fight Shrek at the bottom of the ocean? Sure, whatever, I think he’s in Bestiary 5. Just, you know, get ready to cross-reference feat descriptions, combat modifiers, and the contents of about four different supplemental books.

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rules, however, are maybe one of the closest-to-the-middle rulesets I play with regularly. It’s certainly not universal (you’re gonna be playing Star Wars no matter what), but it lets you play a lot of different kinds of stories within that universe. The rules aren’t necessarily super easy, but the complexity is mostly front-loaded when you learn the system. Finally, the game sets out to try and provide mechanics for basically anything ever done in a Star Wars movie, from dogfighting to the Force to building lightsabers to hacking droids, making it kind of a blend of all three.

The third edition of Shadowrun, however, is closest to a point of the triangle compared to any other game I play with. The game is not very universal at all: you’re going to be playing criminals doing crime in a fantasy cyberpunk world, or at least someone interacting regularly with the criminal underworld. The rules are not simple in the least (gestures angrily to two damn pages of rules for throwing explosives), but no matter what you want to to in the world of Shadowrun‘s criminals-for-hire, there are rules for doing it, and for really digging into the nitty-gritty of it. I mean, there are rules for racism, for god’s sake.

Finally, Cypher System is literally the definition of simple and universal. It is, by definition, settingless, trying to provide a framework to let anyone do anything, and literally all the rules boil down into basically the same single die roll. However, even when you begin to introduce slightly unusual situations into the game, it just sorta shrugs and goes “Fuck it, man, house rule it”.

This system is by no means perfect, and even as I write this I find myself taking umbrage with it and thinking of counterexamples, but the fact of the matter is that we as tabletop RPG players, and as liasons for the hobby, need a better way to describe the way these games play, at least in shorthand.

When new players get in to the hobby, especially after they play their first game (which, let’s be honest here, is going to be Dungeons and Dragons), we need a way to help them navigate these games and jump off to other games they might enjoy, and using setting as that navigational aid isn’t going to work. These are games, and ultimately the mechanics define a player’s experience with the game much more than the setting, so we need some sort of language with which to communicate those differences. The Triangle is not meant to be the solution, but it is meant to at least inspire someone to come up with their own ideas.

 

It’s Really Kill or Be Killed In The Last of Us

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“Whoa, Michael, a The Last of Us piece? What is this, 2013?”

//This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us

In my quest to play a bunch of good video games I missed over my college career, I finally played Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, The Last of Us. Now, this is definitely some well-weathered ground for in-depth analysis, so I want to talk about something that I remember being mentioned, but really struck me as I played the game: the lethality.

Much in the way I talked about how Prey really hammers home its concept of curiosity and exploration, it feels like the mechanics of The Last of Us are all laser-focused towards this theme of being forced to confront death. The story echoes this theme through every act, and our characters are defined by it. Joel spends the game dealing with his daughter’s death, and Ellie spends it dealing with the fact that everyone around her seems to die.

This theme is carried into the mechanics with gusto. While I was playing, I was surprised how many ways the player gets to instantly kill things. Between driving a shiv into someone’s neck, nailing them with a headshot, throwing molotovs and nail grenades at enemies, or just running up to them and strangling them, there are plenty of ways to just wipe an enemy right out.

It’s really the melee executions that hammer this point home, though. For comparison, look at this video of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate gameplay. This is a game so about murdering people that it’s literally the first word in the title, but look at the way characters die. Once they enter the assassination animation, they just sort of lie there and die. They don’t really resist, and a single attack results in immediate, mostly clean death.

Now look at this compilation of Joel’s melee kills in The Last of Us. Not only do these hits feel really weighty, but the camera actually adjusts itself to force you to look at whoever you’re killing who, more often then not, is frozen in a look of horror as they’re trying desperately not to be killed. The stealth choke animation is the worst offender, as the character blindly grabs around, trying desperately to stop choking to death but eventually falling limp.

These melee kills are fundamentally sort of unsettling. They take long enough, and angle the camera just so that the player is forced to confront the fact that Joel is really violently murdering this person (and, despite the fact that the game prominently features non-human enemies, more often than not you’re fighting perfectly healthy humans), and this person is really trying to not die. That goes doubly so in the sections where you play as Ellie, as her executions are much sloppier and thus, much more excruciating to watch.

This is one thing, but the combat in the game is designed to funnel you towards these melee executions, to force you into watching them. Ammo is scarce, so if you’ve run out of ammo you’re forced to perform these, and if you haven’t you’ll want to anyways to conserve ammo. Furthermore, while the game emphasizes stealth, this isn’t some Dishonored-style game where you can sneak past everyone without harming a fly. No, the stealth in this game serves only to allow you to kill more advantageously, taking on enemies one at a time and on your own terms rather than in big mobs. Ultimately, if you’re going to try and handle fights in the most advantageous way, staying alive and minimizing resource loss, you’re going to be strangling a lot of dudes to death, which means you’re going to be watching a lot of people struggle as they choke to death.

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This learned behavior, in which the player is incentivised to kill people in the most violently personal way possible, ties back to the game as a whole in a couple of ways. For starters, it casts a certain light on the way Joel and, later, Ellie handle living surviving in this world, especially when the game presents examples of people who manage to survive without violently murdering everyone they meet. This, in turn, ends up serving as characterization in action: Joel’s personality and priorities are revealed as you see for what reasons he’s willing to commit violent acts, and Ellie’s process of growing up and becoming used to this world are visualized as she changes from naive teenager to gun-toting murderer (not that she’s unjustified when she really starts to spill blood).

The game also makes sure to never let these kills go unremembered. Characters frequently, and justifiably, attempt to kill Joel and Ellie after the two of them slaughter entire parties of the character’s friends and comrades, only to die themselves, leading to this sort of ouroboros of murder in which situations get decidedly worse because of how ruthlessly Joel and Ellie killed the last group of foes. An entire act of the story basically consists of a group attempting to get payback on Joel and Ellie for killing an entire hunting party of their friends and family, and while that group ends up being pretty thoroughly in the wrong themselves, it’s hard to say that their initial motives are unjustified. When a character refers to Joel as “a crazy man”, you end up agreeing with him on a certain level. By the time the end credits roll, Joel definitely seems like someone who needs to work some stuff out.

Because that is, in the end, what the entire game, especially the violence, is in service of: Joel. The entire game is a character study of Joel as he goes through this journey, and ultimately every part of his being is defined by that violence: his experience in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, his desire to protect those he cares about, his determination to finish his mission, his disdain for the military government, and his own inability to let go, are all shown to the player in every violent murder. By creating mechanical incentive for players to play the game in this ultraviolent way, the game forces players to both understand why Joel is this way, but also, to be sort of repulsed by his actions, a union of empathy and disgust that few other games can create.