Unusually (for me, anyhow), I recently picked up two AAA games for my PS4 at pretty much the same time: The Last Of Us Part 2, and Ghost of Tsushima.
Let me say straight off that they’re both magnificent pieces of work. Clearly, some very talented people have put a lot of time into both games. They both look and sound incredible, control is tight and presentation has been polished until it shines.
Thing is, only one of them is actually enjoyable.
The trouble with The Last of Us is that – while it is magnificently written, wonderfully plotted, deeply atmospheric and at times heartbreaking – it isn’t fun. Not one bit. It’s relentlessly, relentlessly grim and dark and just plain horrible. Gratuitously so, at times. And while I can totally see what Naughty Dog were going for and why, the combination of the grim setting and the gameplay style they have gone for means that the end result is a game that feels like work. It invites you to care about its protagonist – and it does it very, very well. And then it throws you into these difficult, tense combat situations, and despite scarce ammo and some really unfair checkpointing you manage to get through it, and then your reward is a cut scene in which yet another absolutely horrible thing happens. It’s just … relentless.
Naughty Dog clearly realised this, hence the rather jarring “light relief” moments shoehorned in from time to time as flashbacks. It isn’t however enough to lift it out of being one of those games that you feel like you ought to play, rather than a game that you actually want to play. In many ways it’s sort of the video game equivalent of The Passion Of The Christ: I sat through it, and it certainly is powerful, but do I want to watch it again? Dear God, no.
Compare and contrast the sheer joy of Ghost of Tsushima, a game which absolutely nails escapist power fantasy in a way that nothing has since The Witcher 3. It’s beautiful, and fascinating, and above all the actual core gameplay mechanics are genuinely fun. It has its share of brutality – it is, after all, a game about the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, a conflict not exactly known for its observance of modern notions of human rights. The difference, though, is that whereas The Last Of Us subjects you to its brutality, in Ghost Of Tsushima you can do something about it. You have agency, in a way that The Last Of Us just doesn’t let you have.
The Last Of Us Part 2 is an important work and I’m sure it will be cited frequently in the ongoing videogames-as-art debate (I thought that was settled by What Remains Of Edith Finch, but what do I know). But Ghost Of Tsushima is the better game.