I just couldn’t help myself. I watched last week’s teaser for The Last Of Us Part 2 from Paris Games Week. I told myself I wouldn’t, that I should avoid any glimpses of the game and savour the moment when I can appreciate it in its entirety, free of any prior knowledge or bias… But I caved. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a video game trailer. As it turns out, I needn’t really have worried. This particular trailer doesn’t give away much about the game at all and doesn’t feature Ellie or Joel; in fact, the only time you can tell this is in the same universe as The Last Of Us is in the very last seconds of the video, when a horde of Clickers bursts out of the darkness before we cut to black. The biggest talking point to come out of the trailer isn’t about a big plot leak – it’s that the game isn’t shy about showing some pretty graphic acts of violence. People get fucked up in this thing: someone narrowly avoids getting hanged, another person has their arm broken with a hammer, and some unlucky soul gets a faceful of hatchet (by which I mean, someone staved in their temple with an axe). It’s not an easy watch.
I have some thoughts on the trailer – not many of them positive – but I’m choosing not to dwell on them at the moment. This is a tiny slice of the whole game, completely free of context; and while I hope that TLOU Part 2 isn’t just a post-apocalyptic murder-fest, it’s not like its predecessor was all sunshine and rainbows. Besides, this is Naughty Dog, and if anyone gets the benefit of the doubt here, it’s them. What I wanted to talk about was how this game is indicative of the direction that Sony is taking in their quest to create new and challenging art in an evolving medium (for better or worse), and how this differs from the principles of another industry super power – Nintendo.
With the release of Super Mario Odyssey, the contrast between Nintendo and Sony seems all the more stark. For a start, the characters couldn’t be more different: Super Mario stars a short, cartoonish, moustachioed plumber, gleefully bounding through a dense, vibrant open world and lobbing his hat around like it’s going out of fashion; The Last Of Us’ protagonists are grim, beaten down by a cruel, savage existence, struggling to retain the last shreds of their humanity. I don’t need to ask you which of those two you’d rather go for a drink with on a Friday night. Kidding aside, there is obviously a place for both kinds of video game hero, and both have their merits – I will go to my grave believing Ellie and Joel are two of the finest characters in any art form, let alone video games – but I fear that Sony is leaning too heavily on the dour, gritty anti-hero. Just look at the big games in their pipeline: God Of War, Days Gone, even the newly-announced Sucker Punch title Ghost of Tsushima; all featuring gruff, flawed men with varying levels of facial hair who get angry and beat the shit out of people. That might be fun for a while, and there’s a way to make a character like that interesting, but too much of it is just boring.
In comparison, Mario feels like an explosion of pure joy, a return to a simpler time when heroes didn’t have to have tragic backstories to make them interesting. Aside from the natural polishing that comes from graduating through the console generations, Nintendo’s mascot is pretty much the same jolly plumber he’s always been. Mario shows us the key difference between the types of games Nintendo and Sony are trying to make: while Sony is putting all its eggs in the “deep, emotional storytelling” basket, Nintendo is channelling its efforts into creating fun, innovative gameplay. This mantra is borne out by its two biggest releases this year: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, whose revolutionary climbing mechanic opens the world to the player in a way no other game has; and Super Mario Odyssey, which gives us yet another clever reinvention of the classic platforming formula. Both Mario and Zelda are prime examples of what Nintendo does best: creating vivid, charming, endlessly interactive worlds, and constantly experimenting to give us new ways to play games.
When thinking about the creative divergence between Sony and Nintendo, I keep going back to the idea of fun. I mean, video games are supposed to be fun, right? Of course, the concept of what’s “fun” can differ wildly from person to person: some people enjoy sitting down with a cup of tea and a bumper book of sudoku; others like to throw themselves out of aeroplanes and hope that their parachutes don’t fail. Nonetheless, I think that most people would agree that this:
…looks a bit more fun than this:
Ouch. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare two games that are so fundamentally dissimilar. I understand that games like The Last Of Us Part 2 are trying to tell raw, human stories, and I recognise that the medium is changing to allow more interesting ways for those stories to be told. I’m amazed and grateful that a game like The Last Of Us can even exist, and I’m excited to see how these interactive narratives continue to evolve. The problem comes when too many studios try to make the same kind of game. I’m sure that, in a vacuum, each of Sony’s upcoming titles has interesting characters, ideas and gameplay; but when it comes down to it, I find myself wondering if I really want to spend any more of my time on an overly serious, violent, gut-wrenching experience, when I could be happily jumping around as a fat little plumber instead.
I know it’s not really fair to crap on these games for not being like Super Mario, because a) no other game is like Super Mario, and b) Sony’s games are trying to deliver a completely different experience. It’d be like criticising Schindler’s List for not being light-hearted enough. One of the best things about being a gamer is having such incredible variety at your fingertips – one week you can immerse yourself in a gripping adventure, the next you can zoom around a city spraying your friends with ink. (I think that’s what Splatoon is about? I haven’t played it.) The difference between Sony and Nintendo is simply an example of that variety, and I’m thankful for it. For me, it really boils down to the fact that I’m burnt out on the dark, troubled heroes of this era of pop culture, and I just want to play something that feels more like a video game again. I missed out on Mario 64 as a kid, but Odyssey has come into my life at exactly the time when I need a bright, colourful platformer to get lost in. Now, if only I could afford to buy a Switch…
Are games getting too serious nowadays? Or should we be celebrating the fact that video games can tell such deep, moving stories? Are you looking forward to any of Sony’s upcoming titles, or are you too busy collecting moons and dressing Mario up as a chef? Let me know what you think in the comments.