I don’t have the time anymore to sink into playing million-dollar blockbuster videogames, but occasionally I’ll watch other people play, as recorded on YouTube. It’s fascinating to see and hear people reacting to things happening onscreen. The closest thing that we had to this before the Internet were DVD-commentary-tracks, and while those have an appealing sense of authority and finality in a director-driven industry, player-commentary Youtube videos are actually perfect for games. What better way to represent games as systems, where all kinds of things can happen depending on what players do, than having hundreds of videos by players taking hundreds of different paths?
This morning I watched James Howell’s multi-part commentary on The Last of Us:
The Last of Us is by Naughty Dog, known for crafting expensive, well-written games that are as fun to watch as they are to play. (Their previous games include a trilogy of treasure-hunting adventures that feel like extended Indiana-Jones movies.) Unlike their earlier work, though, The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalpytic world with zombies, and notably focuses on cooperating with characters the player gets stuck with. This means moving through levels and solving puzzles together, boosting each other up to high ledges, and carrying around planks of wood to span wide gaps.
It’s not particularly ground-breaking or challenging as gameplay, but James argues that these basic actions are used over and over again as a vocabulary for talking about trust. Over the course of the game, the main character Joel has to work with a cast of characters, who he (dis)trusts on varying levels – and it’s expressed in gameplay as he lets some help him and tells others to just stay put.
There’s a whole set of variations, though – it foreshadows betrayal when someone accidentally drops Joel while pulling him up to a ledge, it shows distance and tension when characters forget to boost each other up, and when an initially distrustful pair begins to show cohesion and teamwork as they open gates together and fend off zombie attacks off one another, it’s a glorious feeling.
Characterization by systems! Storytelling in interactivity! There’s so much space to explore here.
Having a vocabulary to explore this in all its subtleties is amazing for another reason, too – I point to Tim’s post about journalism dynamics as Batman vs the Justice League – because many of us don’t know how to talk about freelancing on our own, or being part of a loose collective or even an institution. What does dysfunction feel like? How can you recognize it? It’s hard to spot the warning signs unless you’ve gone through it (and have the battle scars to match). But in these systems of interactivity, between the zombies and the shooting, are safe zones from which to look at and play with this stuff.