blatant nostalgia #6: ten years an editor

Ten years ago to the minute, I created my account on AnimeMusicVideos.org. It is not an exaggeration to say that this was a completely life-changing event, although I had no idea at the time what I was getting myself into, or how it would profoundly affect the course I now find myself on.

Although I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to block out a lot of things that happened in college, I remember joining the .org very clearly. It was my first week of college, still getting used to living on my own in my dorm room. I was (and still am) an introverted person, and while everyone else on my floor was spending their time mingling and making friends with each other, I was in my room, glued to my computer. I often wonder what it would have been like if things had gone differently that first week — if I had actually been intentionally social and outgoing. I probably would have turned into a very different person, for a multitude of reasons I won’t bore you with here. But surely my college experience would have been more immediately fulfilling. I don’t know if I’d want to trade it though.

Anyway. All that week I had been having major issues connecting to our campus’s Internet. I forget specifically what the issues had been, but it just wasn’t working, no matter what I tried. This was many years before I ever had a smartphone (in fact I had only just gotten my first cell phone a few months earlier), so all my Googling for solutions had to be done on campus computers, and then tried on my own, and if it didn’t work oh well, go back and look up more possible solutions. It was a major pain, and I had just about given up.

It was late at night, I had class the next day but I was journaling with my computer on, when I decided to try the Internet one last time…and lo and behold, it worked! What’s more, this was the first time I had personal access to Internet that wasn’t dial-up, as when I had lived at home that was really all we could afford (infuriatingly, the month after I left for college my parents sprung for cable Internet…still salty about that one).

To this day, I don’t know what it was that drove me to the .org that night, but that was one of the first places I went. I had been introduced to AMVs a couple years before by a friend who had found some random ones online and showed them to me when I was hanging out with him once, and although I went home all psyched up on them and even made a few (really bad) ones over the next week or so, it never progressed beyond that — having no way to share these videos with others and no real source material to speak of besides my PC copy of Final Fantasy VII and my hardsubbed copy of FLCL, I quickly got bored of the idea and more or less forgot about them.

Whatever it was, I discovered the .org that night, signed up, and dove in. I made my first video the next day and uploaded it, downloaded a bunch of videos with no real pattern to what I was looking for, and got involved in the community pretty much right away. This part I don’t have very much recollection of — going from someone who had no real history of watching AMVs or even anime to speak of to being deeply involved in the forums and IRC is still something of a miracle. Weirdly, the thought of doing that all over again fills me with a vague sense of anxiety; I don’t know if I have the social fortitude to insert myself in an established online community again, no matter what the context. But somehow, back then, I did.

I made friends, I made videos, I absolutely absorbed every inch and facet of ErMaC and AbsoluteDestiny’s technical guide, I posted, I downloaded videos…much of my first year of college is a complete blur to me as I spent most of my time obsessing over AMVs and the community. I couldn’t tell you what classes I took, or the professors who taught them, or what I learned at all, but I could rattle off all the videos that made a monumental and lasting impression on me in those first months. I could tell you the names of editors I met and made friends with who have been long gone from the hobby, and I could tell you that I spent more time talking in IRC than I probably ever spent socializing with people IRL.

I also remember I once made this really bad RahXephon video that Koopiskeva really liked (for some dumb reason), and a day or two after I released it I logged into IRC and the first thing he said when I logged in was, “Oh hey it’s the guy that made that RahXephon video” (or something similar). I remember practically dying of shock, because this was when I was still very new to the scene (only a couple months in) and my video was being recognized by one of the greatest and most popular AMV editors ever. After that he and I got to talking and I realized eventually that he’s just some guy that makes videos, but to me this was one of the most profound things that ever happened to me in my development as an editor. It didn’t really have an effect on my actual editing style or behavior, but from a social perspective I began to realize that most of the people in the quote-unquote higher echelons of the AMV world were perfectly approachable. I made many more friends after that day, most of whom are those that I became pretty close with, and continue to be to this day. (If you had told my 18 year-old self that Jay would one day be my best man, I’d have thought you were absolutely insane — but it’s funny how these things work.)

I went to ACen in 2007 and finally got to meet in person many of the people I had been talking with and who had been encouraging me and beta testing for me and just generally being awesome — and it was an eye-opener. All these people were so cool, they were friendly, and they were genuinely happy to meet me. I hadn’t made anything great — and looking at it now I had basically made nothing but crap — but that didn’t matter to them, they were just a bunch of people who got together because they all loved AMVs, and were happy to have another person join them.

As time went by I slowly improved as an editor, although it took years. I enjoyed myself every step of the way but being now on the other side of the last 10 years, I realize just how few videos in those first couple years were really worth anything at all. Perhaps more importantly though, I built relationships. I made friends that I could go without talking to for months (in some cases years), and when I would see or talk to them again it was like no time had passed. I began to really love AMVs not only as an artistic medium, but as a subculture — something with its own history, its own rules, its own style and language. This fascination was slow to developl but it has come to hugely inform my approach to the medium at all, and ultimately gave birth to both the Genome Project and this blog, the two creations of mine of which I am probably most proud. I also fell in love with someone in the community, although that (luckily) didn’t pan out. But it still happened, and the effects were far-reaching.

I could go on and on about the ways AMVs have had both subtle and blatant effects on my life, my relationships, my time, and my money. I could spend paragraphs explaining how, more than any other single thing, AMVs have shaped my taste in music in ways that nothing else could have. But I won’t bore you, and I feel that this short retrospective is probably enough IRL for one day. Suffice to say, there is probably no interest or hobby of mine that has changed me as much as AMV editing and viewing has. It’s to the point where it’s one of the main ways I identify myself — first as a Christian, second as a husband, third as an AMV editor.

I’ve seen lots of people come and go in the community — people whose interests changed, or who have moved to places that don’t allow them to be around us anymore, and too many who have, sadly, passed away. But I’m so grateful, at this moment in time, to be lucky enough to still be around, still engaged, and still contributing to the greatest community I’ve ever been a part of. It’s changed over the years, often in ways that I don’t like. But the fact that it’s still around, still alive and kicking, even if not on the .org like it once was, fills me with such joy. It excites me to see where it will go next, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.

===

Looking back and recounting my journey up to this point is only half of this post, however; you should know by now that any major landmark I celebrate or recognize also invariably comes with some sort of list attached, and this is no exception. Over the last ten years I have released, at the time of this writing, some 43 individual videos, and been involved in six MEPs. That’s a hefty amount of output for a single person, although nowhere near some people. Still, especially given that for three and a half years (from early 2010-late 2013) I didn’t release a single AMV, it’s pretty good, and if you remove that three and a half year section it translates to about seven videos being released per year that I was active — which, in my mind anyway, makes it seem like I’ve been a lot more prolific than I feel like I have been.

In any case, it’s a lot of AMVs to look through, but I decided that, to celebrate my 10 years of editing, I would do just that, and watch through all of my videos (minus the MEPs) from first to last, as a way to see how I’ve grown and as a reminder of where I’ve come from.

…I would recommend that you don’t do this for my videos, as the majority of the first half of them are pure, cringey crap that I’d rather forget exist. I will most likely not watch any of these videos ever again. Actually, most of these I hadn’t actually watched myself in probably a good 6+ years anyway, and after firing them up for the first time in a while it became crystal clear why.

Now, if you’re a regular reader of my blog you may have noticed that I pretty much never talk about my own AMVs, except in the occasional tangential reference here or there. There are a couple reasons for this, the first being that the point of this blog, insofar as sharing AMVs goes, is not to put attention on my own work, but rather to shine the light on others who, I feel, are more deserving and (usually) less visible. Second, and more practically, I don’t talk about my own work because, outside of my video descriptions (which, like most of my writing, can be quite verbose), I just don’t like to. I’d rather let it speak for itself and, more personally, I tend to suffer from low self-esteem when it comes to my AMVs; even if I end up liking them a bunch, I tend to convince myself that no one else does.

It’s stupid and wrong in a lot of cases, but it’s how it is and as a result I tend to avoid mentioning my own work here whenever possible. I’ve toyed with the idea of sharing my videos here before and I always come to the conclusion that it’s best avoided, as I utilize other channels for sharing my work that tend to be perfectly viable and effective while minimizing the compulsion for me to inject my own thoughts.

Not so today. I feel that a 10-year anniversary is as good an excuse as any to do a little personal evaluation, and although the very thought of posting this does make me slightly uncomfortable, maybe down the road I can look back on this and find it amusing or insightful or useful somehow. Or, barring that, maybe someone will watch some of these videos and like them, and that’s a good enough reason for me I guess.

In any case, I’ll be posting some of my videos from the past ten years. I played with the idea of doing a “Top 5” or “Top 10” and ranking them, and until the very moment that I typed these words I was going to do that, however I think the spirit of this post would be better served by doing a chronologically ordered list, of not necessarily just my favorite videos of mine, but those that were important for whatever reason in my development as an editor. Apologies, but the first year or so of my work will not be represented here just because of how bad I feel it is. I can’t stop you from looking it up on your own but I refuse to advertise any of those videos here.

I’ll try to keep my descriptions brief to keep this from becoming too self-serving, which is exactly what I don’t want to happen. If you made it this far, thanks for indulging me. At least now you get to watch some videos, right?

d!gital me
Released 9/2007

Although I can barely stand watching this video now (STOCK EFFECTS EVERYWHERE YO), it stands as possibly the most experimental thing I’ve ever done, and remains an achievement I’m still pretty proud of. It netted me two awards in 2007’s AWA Pro contest — the first Pro contest I’d ever entered — and marks one of the few times I feel I was actually really conceptually innovative with one of my videos. Although live action being integrated with AMVs was nothing new, there were hardly any videos that used original, self-shot live action at the time, and consequently this is one of the only videos I’ve made that I feel actually contributed something new to the AMV scene at the time of its release.

Interestingly, Koopiskeva was working on Twilight at the same time I was working on this, and I didn’t find out that his video would be using OLA as well until well after I’d already started my video. His was way more popular (and, well, way better), but mine came first and I’ll always have that :P

Safe and Sound
Released 11/2007

This remains one of my favorite videos of mine, although I don’t have much to say about it. It’s highly imperfect, and every time I watch it I notice several things that I would definitely change if I made this today, but I love the mood and there are lots of scenes that I think I chose perfectly. It was not a very loved or well-remembered video by those who kept up with my stuff years ago, and it’s not something anyone would ever seek out these days, but in a way I think that just makes it better.

Whatever Makes You Beautiful
Released 12/2007

Another one of my favorite videos that never got an overly great reception, this video was a watershed moment for me. This is probably the first video I released where I was starting to actually define my own editing style. It is very prototypical of the type of thing I’d make nowadays, and I can’t watch this one without noticing a bunch of things that I still do, although these days in a more refined way (hopefully). I still love this one, and although it was completely, totally unoriginal (and purposely so), it’s the first video in my catalog that I can point to as definitively “mine” in a stylistic sense.

From China to Amsterdam People Are Locking Their Arms And Playing An Unusually Large Game Of Red Rover
Released 3/2008

I don’t know of a single person who actually admitted to liking this video, but to this day I still thoroughly enjoy it, and when it gets to the section where Haruko keeps opening the window I laugh every. Fricking. Time. Nobody else finds this video funny but me, I don’t think, and in every sense it’s a throwaway video that I made to pass a few hours, but I love it. I still regret not sending it to that year’s AWA Expo contest because I’m fairly certain they would have played it at some point and I would have loved to have seen that.

Learning To…
Released 5/2008

This was a deeply personal video when I made it, and honestly I wasn’t expecting to include it here when I started writing this list, however watching it now I find that it still resonates with me in the same way it did when I originally released it. It uses all the scenes you’ve seen in every other multi-anime video released 8-10 years ago, but I still really like it, and am glad I made it. The feels, man, they are real.

Hold On
Released 9/2008

This was the first video I made that became kinda “big”, and for a long time was the video by which most people recognized my work. I don’t really like it nowadays — there are just so many stutters and graphical mistakes that I notice and cringe at — but I’d by remiss to not include on a list like this. Beyond that, as far as I know there are no other AMVs out there that do this — one continuous shot for the whole video. In that way I think this is probably the only other video besides d!gital me where I contributed something unique to the scene, although in this case, as far as I know, it hasn’t been replicated. I think that’s kinda cool!

Phobia
Released 10/2008

This was the end of what, looking back, was a surprisingly solid run of videos that lasted about a year. This particular video was an extension of the editing style I’d started to develop in Whatever Makes You Beautiful — zoom-heavy with lots of blurs and camera shake. It was a rip-off, style-wise, of a lot of stuff that was coming out around that time, all of which traced back to Nostromo’s videos. All the same, I still really like this one, as I feel it’s more focused with a lot more storytelling than was present in other videos at the time of its release. It ended up becoming pretty popular, and that in spite of the fact that I never sent it off to a single con (that I can recall, anyway). Following this one…it was downhill for a little while.

Dollhouse
Edited summer 2010

This is a video I always forget about because it’s not an AMV — it was my first and only real foray into using non-anime source material, setting the stop-motion movie Coraline to Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls”. I edited this in 2010 for that year’s AWA Pro contest, and this was the last time I really touched an editing program for several years. It ended up winning Best Horror in Pro (an award that, sadly, I never physically received), and then I neglected to officially release it for three more years. As such, it was forgotten about by everyone who saw it originally, and might as well be still, as it’s been taken down from my YouTube account due to copyright claims on the music track.

I always randomly stumble across it once every six months or so in my videos folder, and it’s wonderful when I do because I love this one. I wish I could share it with more people but I’m also perfectly content making it a video that people will have to randomly come across on their own, and hopefully enjoy and stow away.

Hold Me Up
Released 6/2014

This is easily one of my favorite videos of mine, as it marked the beginning of two years of what I think is probably my best period of output. Besides that though, I’m still really drawn to the anachronism of this video — the low-quality encode, the ’90s anime, the ’90s music…all edited very simply and released 15 years after it had any right to be. It exists as a kind of window to the past, and to me it reminds me of the type of stuff I used to download and couldn’t get enough of when I was first getting into AMVs — all the classics, when they were still new to me. If I published a Top 5 for my own videos, this would certainly be near the top.

My Town
Released 9/2014

This is possibly the only video I’ve made where, looking at it now, I probably wouldn’t change a single frame. It’s not my absolute favorite of my videos, but I have trouble finding any ways I could improve it without sacrificing some other element in the process. This was also the first (and thus far, only) time one of my videos has won in its category at NDK, which was a totally surreal experience.

Victims of the Night
Released 1/2015

By far my favorite of all my videos, Victims of the Night is one I can watch again…and again…and again, and never get tired of. It has some of my best editing, but I think more than that what gets me is just the perfect synthesis of anime and music — this song was made for this anime, and vice versa. This video took the “old-school” thing I had started with Hold Me Up and Nothing’s Gonna Happen and made it a bit more accessible to a modern audience, and ended up being, imo, a really ideal blend of the two eras. I’m still looking to make something I like more than this; to date, it hasn’t happened.

I Was Happy
Released 2/2015

When I released this video, I was not expecting a particularly great reception, and in fact I was not expecting much feedback at all. I was right on both counts. This is a video that few people watched, and those that did weren’t all that crazy about it, but that’s okay. It remains probably the hardest video I’ve edited from an emotional perspective; the source material hit way too close to home for me, and the song did as well. It ended up being a very personal video, and the fact that few others seem to really enjoy it actually makes it a bit more special to me.

My Favorite Days
Released 3/2015

The final video I’ll list here is this one, definitely another one of my favorites. I’m actually finding myself with very little to say about it. I spammed this video to a bunch of different contests last year, and it was amusing to see its reception, because it was not consistent. It won Best Romance & Sentimental at Anime Expo, one of the largest cons in the country, but didn’t even make it into the Overload section (i.e. videos that are still good but not good enough to be in the actual contest) at NDK the same year. It was always weirdly hit-or-miss with how it would be received at any given contest. I will admit though, winning something at AX was a total surprise, and an awesome honor.

Welp, there you have it, probably way more about my videos than you ever cared to know. I promise I won’t do anything like this again for another 10 years at least. Hopefully this wasn’t too, uhh, self-indulgent or anything, but even if it was, this is as bad as it will get on this blog. Hopefully. Anyway, thanks for reading, and watching (if you did). Here’s to another fantastic 10 years of AMV fandom!

Posted in .org, amv, blatant nostalgia | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

flying low #11: miyazaki at night

There are no shortage of Ghibli tribute AMVs on the web, and it’s been this way for over a decade — Vlad’s Memories Dance stands as one of the most notable and lasting, released as it was at the height of the .org’s popularity, and using that song that just sounds so Miyazaki-ish. For the younger generation, siny’s Creating Something Beautiful is a bit more updated and modern, and also quite good. This isn’t to mention the hundreds — probably thousands — of other, in many ways similar, multi-source Ghibli AMVs that have been made in the intervening years and beyond.

Weirdly, despite the countless videos of this ilk that I’ve watched in my years as an AMV viewer, I never seem to get tired of them. Equally strange is the fact that it’s not nostalgia that ties me to these videos, as unlike many (most) AMV fans of my generation, I did not grow up on Studio Ghibli films, and it wasn’t really until the last two years or less that I even appreciated a Miyazaki film — I did see Princess Mononoke when it was originally released, although I didn’t remember any of it and it had no great affect on my life, and I also watched Grave of the Fireflies almost ten years ago when I was in college and didn’t get what the big deal was.

So I’m not entirely sure why I’m always drawn to this played-out concept, and continue to enjoy these tribute AMVs that are, by and large, indistinguishable from one another, but I am. I think a big part of it is that even if I never really appreciated the influence of Miyazaki’s work on a personal level, I certainly understood it, and so I could get behind these works as genuine, heartfelt love letters to an artist whose work impacted so many people in extremely personal ways. I love seeing that kind of stuff, even if I don’t directly relate.

I think on another, more universal level, I just always found Ghibli films to be beautiful from a visual standpoint, as I think most people do. There’s a richness to Miyazaki’s films that is simply not present in most other anime, and it’s possible to look at his work the same way I would a great painting. Heck, the backgrounds in almost any given shot of a Ghibli film could be framed and no one would know the difference. As a visual person, then, this stuff appeals to me.

While most Ghibli tribute videos tend to overload on sentiment (in a good way, usually), chibidani‘s Miyazaki At Night mostly forgoes emotion in favor of showing off the beauty of Ghibli’s worlds at (surprise surprise) nighttime. This is nothing overly complicated in terms of scene selection, and there’s no story — it’s just one night shot after another from various Ghibli films, and a more calming, serene video possibly does not exist. The song chosen is absolutely perfect — a downtempo, ambient house track that changes very little in its four-minute run, but manages to lend a poignant accent to the visual beauty that’s onscreen. Nothing but hard cuts, Miyazaki At Night is one of the easiest videos to watch and simply enjoy from an aesthetic standpoint. You could fall asleep to this, but not out of boredom, more just because that seems the natural reaction to a video this blissfully slow and with this subject matter (if you could call it that).

I don’t know if I can necessarily call this my favorite Ghibli AMV — there are a lot jockying for that position, and in terms of tribute videos, it’s really tough to top Memories Dance. But it’s by far the most unique and pleasantly surprising of all the Ghibli AMVs I’ve seen. I love multi-anime videos like this that take a simple concept — in this case, showcasing night scenes — and completely run with it to the exclusion of everything else. No, there’s no story, and no, this isn’t a video that plays on your nostalgia, but it’s perfectly upfront with you about what you’re going to get, and it delivers in spades. It’s one of my favorite Ghibli videos if nothing else, and one that was criminally unrecognized on its release. Don’t miss it this time around.

Posted in amv, flying low | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

flying low #10: speedache

There once was a time many years ago where one could barely move around the .org without nearly impaling oneself on an Advent Children video; it was a daily thing, or nearly so, that a new AC video would be released and immediately forgotten about, if anyone watched it at all. In my early days of AMV viewing, Advent Children was probably one of the first sources I recall getting really, really sick of, and I’ve found that that feeling really hasn’t changed going on 10 years later.

That may explain this video’s lasting charisma to me, as it’s not a very Advent Children-y Advent Children video, on top of the fact that I was never much a fan of the source material. Where most videos which use this source are incredibly fast-paced, action-oriented videos (and make no mistake, there are several examples which do that right), Speedache is not one of them, opting instead for a more introspective mood with a more protracted narrative. It’s saturated in feelings of regret, melancholy, and wistfulness, things that are all but completely absent in 99% of the other AC videos out there. To be fair to others, the movie was never really about those things — it wasn’t about much other than stupidly over-the-top fight scenes and CG madness, which thankfully this video tends to eschew — and so in making this video Imrallion did have to take some creative liberties and forge his own path, but it worked in his favor, especially considering that he had quite a backdrop of AC videos against which his could be contrasted.

But it’s not really fair (or fun) to just consider this video’s place within the pantheon of other AC videos, and if that were the only reason to call this video a success I’d hardly spend time posting about it twice (as I’ve already extolled this video’s virtues once, many years ago, on a now-defunct recommendations blog I used to maintain). I do feel that this video can hold its own in the greater context of AMVs as a whole. It’s a low-key video, for sure, but it’s one that rewards repeated viewings, and focused ones — it has a certain je ne sais quoi that prevents it from ever getting stale, and seems to have more going on beneath the surface than is immediately apparent. And while no, this isn’t a quick-fix drama/action/fun/whatever video that will sate you immediately, if you give it time it will creep into your brain and make itself at home in the corners of your subconscious, like all the good videos do.

Posted in amv, flying low | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

the last of us

last_of_us_header
I’m not much of a gamer. That is to say, I have a ton of games — enough to last me years of constant playing without ever having to buy a new one — but hardly enough time to get through them all. Like most of my other interests, I’ll typically game in 1-2 month stretches before I find myself wanting to dedicate my time to other pursuits, and then go long periods of time without touching a game console or firing up anything on my PC.

As much, then, as gaming has defined certain formative periods of my life and as much time as I’ve sunk into gaming over the years, labeling myself as anything other than a casual fan would probably be tantamount to blatant misrepresentation. That said, I do keep up, even if somewhat obliquely, with gaming culture enough to have surface-level conversation with more hardcore fans, and occasionally certain upcoming games do capture my attention — the FFVII remake, for example, will probably put me in light debt when it’s released, as I have no other reason to buy a PS4 but you can bet I will for that.

Few games, though, in my history of gaming, had ever caused me to experience as much anticipation and pure want as The Last Of Us. Even before the game was released and the 10/10 reviews and gamer-approved praise were heaped on Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, I was enraptured with the idea of the game — I remember it being a cover story on Game Informer back in February 2012, when I still subscribed to the magazine, and my excitement on reading that article was palpable. Like most of the rest of the world around that time, I was enamored of post-apocalyptic stuff, and zombies provided a satisfyingly gruesome interpretation of How The World Will End; there was no shortage of fiction to latch onto to provide this fix, and the prospect of a modern, gritty, emotionally charged survival horror game with zombies that wasn’t Left 4 Dead was more than I could handle at the time.

Predictably, my interests changed with the wind and although I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalypticism, the zombie thing kinda calmed down and went out of vogue (in favor of dystopias like The Hunger Games, which I was also a fan of). I never forgot about The Last Of Us though. It was always sitting in the back of my mind as a “must-play” game that I was unable to justify the purchase of a PS3 to play. So when I finally got a PS3 for my birthday last month, and my friend happened to have an unopened copy of The Last Of Us that he had no use for and so gave it to me for free, you can bet that all that anticipation and excitement came rushing back in no time flat.

The Last Of Us takes the usual setting for fiction of this type — a grim, bleak, desolate post-human world lying somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Half-Life 2‘s City 17. 20 years after the initial outbreak, humans are still alive, but only barely and under a constant state of martial law. The majority of the population has been infected with a mutant strain of plant spore that turn everyone unlucky enough to encounter it into cannibalistic zombies, or “Infected”. You take control of a hardened survivor-type by the name of Joel, who lives in the Boston Quarantine Zone, one of the few places left that is still relatively safe, although life within is by no means pleasant. Joel’s a smuggler, and early on in the game he’s convinced by the head of a resistance group called the Fireflies to escort a 14-year-old girl named Ellie to her Firefly companions outside of the quarantine zone. The reason for this odd assignment quickly becomes clear: Ellie is, apparently, immune to infection. With her rests the hope of mankind…or something like that.

The story evolves from there, and I’m going to return to this aspect of the game a bit later because I have a lot more to say about it. But suffice to say that, at least up to this point, there’s nothing too crazily unique about this, at least not within the context of the timeframe it was released. I don’t want to call the story “cliche”, but it borderline is — at first.

last_of_us_1
But I want to turn now to the gameplay, because — and I really can’t hold back anymore — this is the single part of the game that left me wanting, and I’d rather get my disappointments aired now so I can spend the rest of this review doing what every other publication, gamer, and critic has spent their time doing whenever they talk about The Last Of Us: Giving it the unadulterated and completely breathless praise it rightly deserves.

So, the gameplay. The Last Of Us is a third-person stealth/shooter game, not unlike many, many other popular games of the PS3/XBox 360 generation. It has all sorts of elements familiar to this type of game — ducking behind cover, world-fleshing extras (i.e. notes, recordings, etc.) to collect along the way, melee and ranged weapons of various types, the ability to craft items and upgrades using found materials, etc. Really, this is the one part of the game that left me completely underwhelmed — I really felt like I’d done all this before. Granted, maybe not all in one game, but the combat felt a lot like Resident Evil 4‘s, for example. The item-collecting (specifically finding the dog tags left by fallen Firefly members) felt a lot like Gears of War. Somehow almost nothing about the gameplay really felt unique or new, or innovative, and while such a thing is hardly necessary, I have to admit I was expecting a bit more.

This isn’t to say that the gameplay was actually bad, please understand. It took things that have worked in countless games in the past and stitched them together into a cohesive whole. I certainly can’t fault the developers for this — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and all that. And it did have one unique gameplay element that I haven’t encountered in past games, namely the ability to “focus” Joel’s listening to pinpoint enemies who are offscreen or around the corner. This was a super useful and surprisingly not-game-breaking advantage given to you, the player, which aided in strategizing and working my way through difficult sections.

And, let’s talk about the difficulty, because I was surprised at how challenging this game could get. I like a good challenge so I played through on Hard mode, and it certainly wasn’t easy — I died countless times, often due to my own impatience or negligence, but also, I felt, occasionally from AI inconsistency. There was one point where I was navigating through an underground portion completely filled with Infected. Being the type who likes to conserve ammo, my goal was to get through by doing as many silent takedowns as I could, which meant sneaking up behind Infected as they walked along their pre-programmed patrol routes. I could not do this. Every time I would get close, no matter how slowly and silently I was walking, the Infected would shriek and turn around and my cover would be blown.

After trying this probably 15+ times, I just decided to screw it and blast my way through. Lo and behold, nearly every zombie I killed dropped ammo, an otherwise scant resource in the world of The Last Of Us. I realized at that point that that’s what I was supposed to do all along — kill them all head-on without using stealth at all.

And it was fine, and figuring this out relieved a lot of frustration, but I didn’t like that this particular portion of the game was basically created so that you have to beat it a specific way. Other reviews will rave about the game’s propensity for strategizing, for figuring out the best way through each situation based on your health, your ammo situation, etc. And there are plenty of instances where you can, in fact, do this. But every so often I’d come across one of these portions where it’s nearly impossible to get through without going full-on-stealth-mode, where you have to avoid everybody, or full-on-attack-mode, where you have to announce your presence to the world and just gun them all down, and every time this happened it broke the immersion juuuuust a little bit. Having to restart and do a portion over and over until you figure out the prescribed method of completing the task just doesn’t make for a really consistently immersive experience.

One other thing that bothered me from the standpoint of remaining fully engrossed in the game’s world (which otherwise was never difficult) were the times when, as I would be crouched behind a barrier with an enemy completely unaware of my presence, Ellie would run across an enemy’s line of sight or even right into the enemy and nothing would happen — the enemy would ignore her completely. Only my visual presence mattered to the enemies — human or Infected — and while I was grateful that the imperfect friendly AI didn’t screw up my plotting, it was another point where I was sucked out of the game world and dropped squarely back on my couch, in my apartment, in front of my TV, clearly playing a game, and not actually there.

last_of_us_2
And this was disappointing, because the world in The Last Of Us is something that, as a gamer, one simply does not want to be sucked out of. It’s a beautiful world, and I mean that in the most genuine and complimentary way — even in the places which are physically ugly (and you spend a lot of times in places like that), it feels so carefully and deliberately made. This is a world built with purpose and the utmost care, with each of the many different places you travel to having its own charisma, its own dilapidated charm. Some places feel vaguely unsettling or threatening, but no threat ever materializes, which just adds to their mystique; others feel heavy with an unwritten history that never had a chance to completely play out. Some places even evoke true, breathless wonder, an anachronism in the game’s wider context, but never unwelcome. The variety of settings and emotions extruded is almost without equal.

All this would go to waste if the story were as paint-by-numbers as the opening hour or so of gameplay would make it seem (despite the emotional wrecking ball of the game’s introduction). Thankfully, the story’s momentum never loses steam to cliches, and while there are plenty, few games I’ve ever played (actually — scratch that, I’ll go the full nine years and say that no game I’ve ever played) has a cast of characters as absolutely real and convincing as those in The Last Of Us.

It becomes clear within a short span of time that this is a game driven wholly by its characters, and the relationships between them. Video game creators love to paint their characters in broad strokes; even if you as the gamer have complete control over a character’s moral path in a game, usually there’s little impetus to take the middle road — be evil or be good! But if you try to take some path between the two, you usually end up sacrificing the best powers/upgrades/whatever as a result.

As an entirely linear game, The Last Of Us has characters whose choices, personalities, and moral compasses are all predetermined, but the Naughty Dog team managed to capture the complexity of these very different people — there is nothing simple about who they each are, what is motivating each one, and how they interact with others. In short, they are very human, neither good nor bad but somewhere in between. At some point throughout this game, I found myself disliking almost every single character at at least one point — and I found myself caring about them all too. The morality of The Last Of Us becomes very muddled, and our heroes don’t always make what we might consider to be the “right” choices. But this is because they all carry tragic pasts with them, and the choices presented to them are rarely cut-and-dry.

Above all, the relationship between Ellie and Joel is fascinating and organic. He doesn’t like Ellie. He doesn’t want to escort her. And yet as the game progresses, and barriers start coming down, their relationship deepens and becomes utterly fascinating. It doesn’t exactly develop in the way one might expect, but it does develop, and it’s mesmerizing to watch.

The voice acting is probably the thing that helps this the most — we’re talking big-budget movie-script quality writing, with A-list voice actors, and it makes all the difference. It feels natural and fluid, never forced like in so many other games. Especially nice are the side conversations — many of them optional — that happen as you are walking around. On of my favorites was during a moment of peace as you and Ellie are walking through an abandoned suburb, and she comes across a broken-down ice cream truck. Having been born after the outbreak, she’s never lived what we would consider to be a “normal” life, and she’s in disbelief at the idea that a truck would just drive around playing music and handing out ice cream. These often-quirky conversations provide depth that can’t be achieved in any other way, adding richness and humanity to the game’s characters, and making the more dramatic moments exponentially more intense.

On top of it all are graphics that put any other game from this generation to utter shame; the cinematic sequences are brilliantly rendered, probably the absolute best I’ve ever seen. Character designs, facial expressions, everything — it’s hyper-realism in video game terms. Screenshots don’t do any of these scenes justice, it’s something you need to experience on a big HD screen with the lights off. The normal game world is, as I’ve already touched on, gorgeous to behold, with little graphical details (Joel’s pants and the bottom of his backpack getting wet and staying wet after walking through standing water, for example) making the experience all the better. The HUD and menu interfaces are all smooth and intuitive, and integrated well into the world — more importantly, the HUD goes away during the slower parts, so you can immerse yourself in the world even more.

last_of_us_3
Modern critics love to praise BioShock for its commentary on philosophical and social questions that concern us all; although primarily a critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, BioShock served as a resounding and lasting answer to the question, “Can video games be art?” It was a deafening “Yes”, and people still point to it as the penultimate example of a game being able to ask the Big Questions while still managing to create a moving and memorable video game, of all things.

I would argue that The Last Of Us does this even better. And while I’m not about to get into a BioShock vs. The Last Of Us discussion here (I’m sure they exist elsewhere), I have to say I never really thought that I’d find a game whose story was more intellectually challenging than BioShock‘s. Sure, at the end of the day, The Last Of Us is another zombie game; but along the way, it forces you as the gamer to consider hard moral choices that few other games really do. Even if it isn’t explicit, it inevitably holds a mirror up to the gamer and asks you, “What would you do in this situation?” The age old moral question of “Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?” is taken to violent, gruesome, and terrifying extremes in this game, but sometimes that’s the only way to get people to consider such questions.

I read an article a while back on why people are (or were) so fascinated with post-apocalyptic fiction; it posited that, deep down, people love the idea of living in a world with no real authority. We’re all anarchists at heart. We’ve tried communism as a means to dispose of authority, and that didn’t work. The utopias we imagine always fall apart, or have some sinister side. Through all the ideals we imagine and the revolution we as humans incite to achieve our perfect world, where we don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves, something always goes wrong. The only option left is to destroy humanity and start over. Through that lens, The Last Of Us feels like a social critique in the same vein as BioShock; taking a (twisted) version of what some people would consider an “ideal” world and showing why in actuality, it would suck.

Or, you know, you could always just look at it as a really top-of-the-line survival horror game. In either view, The Last Of Us is certainly among the best games of the last 15 years, and maybe ever. In my own estimation, it was one of the most emotionally engaging and intense gaming experiences of my life, story-wise — actually, story-wise, this game beats out about 85% of the other fiction I’ve watched, read, or played otherwise. But I’m hard-pressed to call this one of my all-time favorite games as a whole. It has too much of a generic feel from a gameplay perspective, and while it’s perfectly functional, the actual gameplay rarely excited me. Most of the time I felt like the gameplay portions were just filler for getting to the next plot point.

Regardless, this is absolutely a game that any modern gamer needs to experience, even if that means watching someone else play it. It will be a game that people look back on and remember as a high point in the medium, one of the highest from a time when lots of quality stuff was being released. That I finally got to play it is one of the milestones in my history of gaming. If you are, like me, consistently behind the curb in all things pop culture, put this on your short list of “things to do”. It’s a totally unforgettable experience.

Scores
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 10/10
Gameplay: 6/10
Story: 10/10
Personal value: 8/10
Overall: 84/100

Weights as follows:
Graphics: 15%
Sound: 10%
Gameplay: 25%
Story: 20%
Personal value: 30%

Posted in reviews, video games | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

flying low #9: above humanity

You thought I was done raving about Kaiba but you’re wrong, because as great as the anime is, this is as much a blog about AMVs as it is about anime, so I feel like not mentioning a good Kaiba AMV might be doing the anime something of a disservice from someone like me. To date, Above Humanity by Narshial is the only Kaiba AMV I’ve watched, and frankly I think that’s okay, because Narshial basically made the penultimate AMV using this source. Although I’ll probably end up making my own one of these days, it’ll probably feel redundant after this one. I don’t know. We’ll see.

To be fair to the integrity of this series of blog posts, Above Humanity did win Coordinator’s Choice at Anime Evolution in 2010, but other than that this video got no exposure that I’m aware of (and Anime Evo isn’t exactly a large con anyway). And I guess I can kind of see why; Kaiba is not a well-known source, and its animation is definitely polarizing. That said, Narshial takes Kaiba and twists and pushes the source material to its limit. This is a video of rapid, layered cuts, haphazard effects work, and lots of internal motion; in other words, a visual assault that is as breathless as all the best moments in Kaiba itself. For the uninitiated, doubtless this video appears a mess of dreary colors and confusing shapes. For those who have seen Kaiba though, it’s a straight-to-the-point pile-driver of lyric sync and compressed storytelling that manages to trace out every point in the large, wide-ranging emotional constellation that is Kaiba.

I wouldn’t necessarily expect someone who hasn’t seen Kaiba to see this as anything more than a random, action/horror video at most. But to me it’s as near-perfect a Kaiba video as I can picture in my mind, and a natural extension of what is contained within the anime. This video complements Kaiba in the same way that a fine wine complements an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant, or maybe more immediately, the way a a good proletariat revolution complements human suffering at the hands of the upper class. Beyond that, honestly, the video pretty much speaks for itself and while there may be other good Kaiba videos out there, I say, why risk ruining it by wading through the bad ones to get to them?

Posted in amv, flying low | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments