The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a videogame developed by famed studio Naughty Dog, which also developed the Crash Bandicoot series as well as the various Uncharted games. The Last of Us was released in 2013 to extremely positive reviews and is often placed into conversation as one of the best videogames of all time. I didn’t own a PlayStation 3 so I didn’t get a chance to play this game until recently. Despite it coming out 5 years ago, I think it’s still worth writing about because it was just that good.

My favorite high school English teacher used to tell us that what made great authors and artists was their ability to build transformational art. By that he meant great artists could simultaneously do the well known and expected approach extremely well while also building on that and incorporating the new and avant-garde to seamlessly bring the audience towards new ideas. He would always use the Beatles as an example, pointing to their earlier generic pop sound which gave way to their more experimental later albums, but it’s a nice approach to use for almost any analysis of art.

For example, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite superhero movies aren’t really superhero movies at all; The Dark Knight is a detective movie disguised as a superhero movie, The Winter Soldier is a spy thriller disguised as a superhero movie, and Logan is a western disguised as a superhero movie. These movies are interesting because they pushed the boundaries of what was possible with their genre. The Last of Us pushes the boundaries of what counts as a videogame.

Taken solely on its merits as a game, The Last of Us is excellent. It takes aspects of games that are quite familiar to anyone designing a shooter in the early 2010s and does them really well: it’s a survival shooter that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with zombies. Zombies are a somewhat common trope in horror films but they are heavily represented in videogame media. The zombies in The Last of Us are properly horrifying, varied, and challenging to deal with.  It also has you teaming up, or at least working with, a rebel group in this post apocalyptic society against the government’s military rule. There are specific gameplay mechanics that are familiar, such as sneaking around to remain unseen from enemies, various guns that are upgradeable over time, and physical puzzles or obstacles that must be overcome. The “survival” aspect of the game is particularly well done though.

Many videogames have good stories. Half-Life 2 and both Portal games are some of my favorites, but they still have a pretty strict boundary between gameplay and story. It’s fun to check out the story elements and much of it is told through cutscenes, but The Last of Us brings the story in close to the gameplay. You are constantly aware of the post-apocalyptic world around you, and not just through the beautiful level designs of real American cities in ruins, but also because you are constantly running out of materials. You find a shotgun, blast some zombies triumphantly, and then quickly realize you are out of ammo and have to switch to a low power handgun. Maybe you have time to duck behind some cover and swap out the hunting rifle so you can use those last three bullets before you’re forced to start bashing heads in with metal pipes or scraps of wood you find, which also eventually break. It’s almost always a good idea to stealthily dispatch as many enemies as possible, both to reduce the number of enemies and to conserve ammunition. Even other items like shivs and health packs are all constructed from collected materials, and making more of one might preclude you from making more of others. The feeling of scarcity is omnipresent, and improvisation is vital to complete most levels.

The gameplay is also well varied. The story of The Last of Us revolves around Joel, a deadly smuggler, transporting Ellie, a girl who is immune to the zombie disease, to the underground resistance. Throughout this journey, there are different types of enemies which require different strategies, but also different types of encounters. There are areas where you are alone, areas where you have a support, and areas with other characters who you must protect while they are somewhat unhelpful to you. These are well incorporated into the story, as early on, Ellie is unknown and not given any weapons. Her presence on levels is not very helpful, and the gameplay helps to contribute to the player’s slight resentment. Eventually she gets a rifle and starts helping you, which makes the player appreciate her more. Other interesting levels include the first level, where you play as Joel’s daughter on the night the outbreak gets out of control. This is also the first big twist (spoilers ahead), as she is unceremoniously killed once you finish the level, taking a page out of Game of Thrones‘ script. This makes you pretty sympathetic with Joel’s character as you feel his helplessness, after all, you were just controlling his daughter and there was nothing you could do to save her.

Other interesting levels include one where you have to avoid a sniper, sneak around with very limited cover, dispatch men as they charge your position, all while advancing on the sniper as you slowly run out of ammo and materials. Then you take the sniper position and cover the advance of your friends as more enemies swarm them. There’s also a situation where you accidentally trigger a trap meant for zombies and have to protect Ellie while hanging upside down from your ankles.

As I’ve stated, the story benefits well from the integration with the gameplay. But the storytelling itself is one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve seen. It changed how I imagined a videogame could tell a story. The voice acting creates emotional and broken characters who you want to see triumph. And while the gameplay helps to emphasize the desperation and difficulty the characters face, the story is brutally dark in its outlook, constantly putting the characters in harsh situations or even killing them off. Joel’s difficulty in making himself emotionally attached to anyone after the death of his daughter is explored really well. Additionally, the sound design and music is also excellent.

But of course, the most interesting part of this game was the ending. Joel and Ellie go through a lot in their adventure. They lose a lot of friends, and they are hunted by people of all sorts. Nonetheless, if you take the gritty realism of the game seriously, you murder dozens of people over the course of the game. These others are often pretty gross people. In Pittsburgh, they are set on by “hunters” who try to ambush them. You then proceed through several levels and likely kill about 30 people. Is this proportionate? Is this ok because it’s a videogame? It’s not like you have much choice, even if you sneak by people, you’ll still have to take out a lot of others, all of whom will kill you on sight. But towards the end of the game, Joel is injured, and you have to play as Ellie to try and save him. Again, Ellie is trapped and has to fight her way out. She’s faced with being captured, possibly raped or eaten by cannibals, so anyone she kills is probably justified, but it’s pretty dark.

Finally Joel and Ellie make it to Salt Lake City and find the Fireflies (the resistance). Of course, the Fireflies believe they can create a vaccine for the zombie infection…which they would need to kill Ellie to obtain. Upon hearing this, Joel cannot bear to lose the one person he has finally allowed himself to care about, and fights his way back to Ellie. It’s possible to do this level while only killing a couple Fireflies (but you always kill their leader at the end). I was not great at stealth, so I ended up killing about 20. Mostly with the flame thrower. Joel takes Ellie back to his brother’s compound, and lies to her about the Fireflies when she wakes up, saying they didn’t need her help and they couldn’t find a cure.

Joel isn’t a hero. Yet his actions are at least understandable to the player and we’re left wondering what we would have done in a similar situation. And while it’s uncertain whether the Fireflies could have found a cure, they were not interested in Ellie’s consent or buy in; Marlene (the leader of the Fireflies) was Ellie’s friend and ordered her killed for the greater good. Of course, Joel didn’t ask Ellie what she wanted to do either, he just lied to her. And having already killed Marlene perhaps he felt he couldn’t go back even if Ellie was willing to sacrifice herself. Ellie is also only 14, so should she have the ability to make this decision? It would be questionably ethical to let a teenager make such a decision today, but who knows what rules to apply in the apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. This ending is remarkable and differs from the videogame tropes we are used to seeing. It is truly ambiguous, and emphasizes there are no heroes and villains, there are just people trying to survive.

In the sci-fi novel Ready Player One, there’s a proposed technology that would allow you to play a film as a first person character in virtual reality. The hero plays through both Wargames as Matthew Broderick’s character and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as King Arthur. While amusing for the audience, this would seem to a highly limited and uncreative use of such VR technology. After all, art made for a certain medium is probably best in that medium; a first person VR cinematic experience would probably be much better if the scripting and events were made specifically for a VR platform.  The Last of Us is a real life example of this science fiction concept: a story-driven experience with many aspects of a film, yet tailor made for the videogame medium. It isn’t the first “movie as a videogame” but it is the most impressive exercise in expanding how interactive stories are told. It is transformational and is changing the way we consume media; there’s no longer a stark difference between a long YouTube video, a TV series, and a feature film. Netflix hosts all kinds of shows from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 15 minutes an episode), to Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which is 10 episodes ranging from 82 to 114 minutes each. The future will include the telling of stories in many genres and media, and I’m excited to see how videogames continue to contribute to that storytelling.

Book Review: Snow Crash

Snow Crash has been on my list for a long time. It’s the third Neal Stephenson novel I’ve read after The Diamond Age and Seveneves and is considered his breakout novel. Published in 1992, it’s actually somewhat unbelievable how forward looking this book is. I actually found myself a little bored when Stephenson was describing the technology for the virtual world, the “Metaverse”, of Snow Crash since I just read Ready Player One a few months ago, and many of the concepts that ended up in that novel’s conception of virtual reality, published in 2011, were already present in Snow Crash, 19 years prior.

Besides virtual reality, which Snow Crash explores extensively, the novel also entertains the idea of anarcho-capitalism or post-national capitalism, where nation states have regressed, and the world is made up of a autonomous corporate states, seemingly inspired by David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom or Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. Interestingly, The Machinery of Freedom saw its second edition published in 1989, right before Snow Crash came out. Several of Stephenson’s novels explore this idea of decentralized post-state economic systems, including his other 90s books The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Concepts covered include the decentralized implementation of a legal system, private roads, quasi-state citizenship and security, and the ineffectiveness of government. The Federal government does still exist in this bizarre Los Angeles, but it seems to do nothing useful except spend lots of resources ensuring the loyalty of its own employees. There is a memo about toilet paper usage in the federal offices that goes on for pages.

I don’t know what an anarcho-hyper-capitalist world would really look like, but Snow Crash‘s world feels vibrant and real. From a political perspective, I think its obvious Stephenson is intrigued by these ideas, as he’s written about them several times. It’s also undeniable that technologies like the decentralized anonymity, networked virtual realities simulations, and especially cryptography, although it wasn’t in the book, automatically contribute to a world where power is subverted by individuals who can hide from authority. The “hacker” mindset is that today’s technology can be used to coordinate against power, while keeping people anonymous. The technology itself is inherently punk-rock.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash isn’t necessarily a world you want to live in. Libertarian utopia, maybe, but we are following interesting characters who can navigate this world. In the background, millions of desperate people are part of the story too, and they are not doing too well. It’s a bad idea to reason from a work of fiction, but at least from the author’s political views, I thought this was a fair representation of interesting wonders and harsh horrors of a possible libertarian wonderland.

The story itself was actually fairly unexpected for me. I knew this was a cyberpunk novel going in, and so I expected the vast discussion of the hacker world and the gray legality the characters occupy. Because this novel was so early, some of the technology I expected, especially cryptography, didn’t play a big role, even though a rewrite of the story today would most certainly include the importance of encryption to anonymity and privacy in this decentralized virtual world. However, there was a significant reliance on Sumerian mythology which I had no idea about, and despite the incongruity, it was actually a really compelling part of the novel. The skills it takes to interweave 8000 year old myths the reader has never heard of into a modern sci-fi cyberpunk story should not be understated. It wasn’t all perfect of course; I had to suspend disbelief anytime the novel discussed the particular way in which it stated “hacker” minds were wired to make them susceptible to the Snow Crash virus, because that was pretty absurd. Nonetheless, it’s a minor issue in an otherwise highly creative work.

The characters were solid too. The reader ends up meeting the heads of several of the quasi-state corporations in the book, and their nature and juxtaposition creates a particularly American cyberpunk setting. I won’t go into more details to avoid spoiling large parts of the book. The best character is probably one of the villains, and every scene with him is properly terrifying. Y.T., the main character’s associate is also fun to follow. However, I’m still not sure I understand why the main character, Hiro, chose his last name to be “Protagonist” to make the absurdly ridiculous name Hiro Protagonist.  Despite being the character you follow the most, he’s not particularly dynamic. At the beginning he’s a smart hacker who helped build the Metaverse although things haven’t gone great for him and he’s not leveraged his important role to fame and fortune. But he uses his skills to uncover the main plot that drives the novel and works with others to end the threat. He’s centrally important to the story, so he’s the main character by definition, but his personality feels a bit like a video game protagonist (I guess that’s the reason for the name) as he’s more of a vessel for the audience to see the world through. Even his relationship with Juanita doesn’t really change that much over the course of the book.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash is an easy read and amazing sci-fi premise. I really enjoyed the book, although I think Stephenson has continued to improve as a writer, especially of compelling characters. The unique ideas in this book make it a classic of the cyberpunk genre and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Book Review: Ready Player One

I was pretty skeptical about this book.

I saw the trailer for the big blockbuster that’s coming out, and it sounded like it was trying too hard. It’s sci-fi, but it’s also 80s retro? Do we really need more 80s nostalgia? Shouldn’t we celebrate more originality? I think it also didn’t help that many people were very excited about it being turned into a movie, and evangelical fans informing you that they are sure you’ll love the book just makes it that much harder for you to judge the story honestly.

Nonetheless, I ended up really enjoying Ready Player One. I realize that it may have just played very well to my ingroup; the “culture” of the novel went beyond just 80s nostalgia, but into early computer programming, videogames, and geek culture.  For that reason, I’m unsure if I would automatically recommend Ernest Cline’s book to everyone. I’m going to go over some of the weaknesses of the book, and if you think you could overlook them to enjoy a fairly creative and fun sci-fi adventure story, I think it’s worth a read.

In the first couple of chapters, I was a bit disappointed. I realized this was a dystopian near future young adult novel, and that’s a fairly common trope. The world has fallen on some hard economic times, and many people have turned to a globe-spanning shared virtual reality called the OASIS.

The “bad guys” are also incredibly simple. The villain doesn’t have an interesting alternative viewpoint or reason why he feels compelled to be bad. In fact, the obsession with the scavenger hunt just seems uncharacteristic of a large corporation. The evil companies that the story is trying to evoke, ISPs like Comcast or data hoarders like maybe an evil (eviler?) version of Facebook, they are concerning and worrisome precisely because they are large organizations without discrete goals. They optimize for profit, but not in humane or useful ways. Comcast is evil because they will promise to send out a tech to fix your internet who never shows up, day after day, and there’s no one else you can turn to. The evil corporation in the novel, IOI, is evil because it wants to take over the world by winning a contest and getting money. Comcast is evil because it’s already taken over the world, yet it’s so disorganized that its apathetic to how it’s ruining your life. Beating IOI is straightforward, but difficult; you need to win the scavenger hunt before they do. Beating Comcast is both deceptively simple, but yet so complex as to be impossible; you can’t just pass a law saying Comcast has to be less lazy, you have to actually introduce additional competition to cable providers everywhere that Comcast exists. Yet competition can’t just be introduced, barriers to entry, both legal and economic make that difficult. Removing legal barriers requires legislative will and legal knowledge which is sparse and distributed…etc.

The one area where the bad guys actually seemed pretty sinister was during a sequence detailing how IOI presses debters into indentured servitude to pay off their debts. The servitude never pays much, and everyone is forced to buy things in a “company store” type model which means they are essentially stuck in corporate slavery forever. That seemed way more bureaucratically terrifying along the lines of how I’d imagine a giant megacorporation grinding people’s souls for money. So points to that plot device at least.

The general outline of the plot itself also wasn’t too unexpected for a young adult dystopian novel. The creator of the OASIS passed away and has left his fortune to whomever can solve a very difficult puzzle/scavenger hunt which is inside the virtual world.  The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, goes on an a classic adventure, re-imagined into the 80s nostalgia of the OASIS contest. He meets various friends who sometimes help him out, he gets occasional help from a couple older, wise characters, and he fights an army of bad guys.

But despite all these negatives, I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The general plot may have been fairly expected, but the specifics of the plot, including the challenges of the contest, and the intricacies of the world, both physical and digital, are quite creative and original. The rest of review is going to go into more plot details, so if you’d rather avoid that, you’ve been warned.

The world of the OASIS is an absolutely fascinating exploration of what the internet and virtual reality could be used for. The giant public school planet was a nice extension of what online learning classes could be. If you take Bryan Caplan-esque critiques of education as signaling seriously and then set aside the signaling aspect of education, there is little that couldn’t be taught on the internet almost as well as in a classroom.

Other parts of the world of the OASIS were excellent because they were tailored to exactly what a hacker/geek ingroup paradise would be. The idea of the Tyrell Corporation Pyramid being a default structure that anyone could place on an OASIS planet tickled my heart.  Built-in crypto was also pretty cool, and it even reflected correct cryptographic practices. Everyone’s actual information was encrypted at rest and not readable by the company’s own employees. While this might be tough to implement perfectly, it was nice that a fantasy book of a geek virtual reality world would correctly implement cryptographic privacy. (Of course, it turns out Og had a built-in backdoor to private chatrooms, which kind of breaks the whole “correctly implemented crypto”…) Additionally, there’s a sequence where Wade votes for Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton which was pretty funny.

Anonymity and privacy is actually vital to several plot points. First is the general idea that IOI can’t track where Wade is logging into the OASIS from since user data is well encrypted and he’s not using them as an ISP. But Wade is also able to generate an income from his avatar’s fame as a successful “gunter” in the contest. The concept of being able to anonymously generate an income where he can be paid without anyone knowing his real name was probably just a useful plot device, but would be a massive revolution for individual freedom in the real world. They didn’t really mention how taxes work, so this probably wasn’t entirely thought out, but the implications for such technology would be just fascinating. In a world largely ruled by VR, it wouldn’t be surprising if lots of work was done in VR instead of the real world. A world where the default interaction is encrypted and anonymous means that payment would default to being anonymous as well. Wade makes money by endorsing products with his online (and famous) avatar, but also by selling advertising on his personal vidfeed, which actually is pretty close to what Twitch actually ended up being in the real world.

A quick aside: Wade programs his vidfeed to show old 80s TV shows, movies, and music videos. He also spends a fair amount of time watching old shows that he thinks may prove useful in the hunt. There’s no mention of copyright enforcement or difficulty in obtaining access to these things. I guess it’s just one of those things that’s assumed away for the story, but having free and open access to these old shows is vital to the knowledge building of the “gunters”. I think the book could have taken a more explicit anti-copyright stance to match the hacker-culture of the gunters.

Back to the commentary on individualism: in a virtual world, there’s the almost obvious point that space itself can be easily privatized. Wade purchases a private asteroid and builds his own extensive base inside it. He can grant access to only people he wants to let in, and he can create whatever he wants in it. Property rights are pretty useful for creating a flourishing market, and so super property rights and the ability to manipulate reality itself (in a virtual world) puts that ability-to-create on steroids. Even Aech’s private chatroom is a pretty cool hangout, but it’s more than that; it’s the absolute privacy of an encrypted document, made “physical” via the virtual world of the OASIS. Maybe an evil dictator would just block access to the OASIS, but otherwise, people could literally meet in private chatrooms and share their ideas and frustrations with an oppressive regime face-to-face, without fear of actually meeting face-to-face. This is a pretty cool idea.

Finally, I want to note that the hacker-culture of the book and the gunters was very personally appealing. I’m sure everyone likes the idea of a community of righteous freedom fighters gathering together to fight the bad guys, but there was something that specifically invoked big MMORPG gatherings when Cline describes the gunter clans banding together to fight the Sixers. Even silly things like Wade’s ship being Serenity from Firefly was just really fun for me to imagine. I don’t know exactly how much of this would transfer over to someone who is less familiar with the references in the book. Then again, I only knew some of the references, and I was totally clueless to the 70s anime shows.

Ready Player One ended up being really enjoyable and did a great job exploring the implications of a worldwide shared virtual reality. Even if the adventure genre made some of the plot predictable and the bad guys cartoonish, there is so much cool world building that I found it easy to overlook any flaws. The sci-fi aspects of the book were excellent, the hacker culture backdrop was a lot of fun, and the plot did still have some impressive twists that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure the upcoming film will be fine, but I doubt it will be able to capture all the small morsels of this really exciting world. I would definitely recommend this book if you have any science fiction interest, but remember it’s more like WarGames made into a hacker-culture tribute VR science fiction novel, not Foundation.