Taste and Criticism: Appreciation for The Last of Us, Part 2

This essay contains The Last of Us, Part 2 spoilers. If you haven’t played it already I think you should.

A popular gaming YouTuber called Mr Blueberry begins his “Why Last of Us Part 2 Sucks.” video by saying “It can be hard to find an unbiased review”. He doesn’t say whether he thinks that includes his own but then goes on to give his rather (in my opinion) biased opinion on the game. That’s because “our feelings about a story make our perceptions about the quality of writing biased” to quote “Some Quality Biases”, an essay I wrote after my last playthrough in 2022.

But nearly four years after its release, Reddit users still post thousands of comments decrying the game’s “poor storytelling”, “poor execution”, “woke politics” and “lazy writing” to its subreddits /TheLastOfUs2 and /thelastofus. It’s actually quite hard to find anyone on there with anything positive to say, not even that Reddit is the only place where the discussion is taking place, only where the strength of feeling seems to be so great so long after the game’s initial release. There doesn’t seem to be a place for anyone who did like the game to talk about it, though. Holding the opinion that I do (that part 2 was a good game) and reading some of these threads (or dare I say it, commenting) feels like walking into a room on fire: there’s so much hate that the only likely outcome is to leave feeling burned.

First I want to talk about some of the behaviours that seem prevalent in (online) discussions of taste, then I’ll look at why I still think part 2 was well written.

One of the most cynical of these behaviours I encounter online is typically expressed through the question, “How could you [not] like X?”. It’s suggested that the arguee is either: (a) some sort of raving lunatic or (b) not clever enough to understand. The latter’s more common but that’s in a way part of the egotism I’m about to describe: there’s no debate if the person you’re arguing with is mad but besting them intellectually is far more satisfying. Ironically though it’s the quality of the arguments and its justifications that gives us an idea of whether we regard them as good not (or whether we think they’re intelligent [1]) [2], though I think we can all agree slighting another person’s intellect is probably not a great way to bring them round to our point of view.

It’s now so common that it’s become a bit cliche of modern criticism to call something a “masterpiece”. Usually when I see this in reviews it suggests the possibility that the critic has decided to elevate it to a level higher than any comprehension of its masterfulness. Admittedly though, that’s how I felt after experiencing the game for the first time: a body-shaking orgasm of emotion that I felt no need to articulate. As Pirsig wrote in Zen, “Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions”, or in other words it would be hard for me to describe what I liked about playing the game as I played it, but perhaps not if I were to analyse it afterwards. Thinking about creative expression in critical terms and explanations tends to take away some of my enjoyment. Isn’t it good enough to simply say, “I enjoyed it” without anything further? [3] This notion doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me: some writings are very clearly “better” than others and some works of art are widely regarded as masterpieces.

A friend once described me as “contrarian” for not having enjoyed the most recent Spiderman film. It was a critical and commercial success and I was definitely in the minority. I can recall the exact moment I realised I wasn’t enjoying it, when Peter says, “Hey, Strange! You know what’s cooler than magic? Math!” I’d imagined he might have said something so direly predictable as the scene was unfolding.

While my own sense of “good” writing is probably made up of lots of conscious and unconscious thoughts and biases, the following are some of the things I like:

  • I like it when details are shared implicitly. An English teacher once told me “Show, don’t tell”; this is especially true of visual arts, but yesterday I was listening to the audiobook of “An Artist of the Floating World” in which a character mentions his “pupils”, implying he’s a teacher. It would have seemed obstructive to the flow of the story for him to have talked about being a teacher, but it’s expanded upon later.
  • I like it when characters speak in a normal kind of way. Contrary to popular opinion, a lot of dialogue doesn’t read or sound like real-life conversation: you miss out on all the awkward bumps and pauses. Dialogue tends to have been edited but real conversations flows. Dialogue is also a great way to tell a story implicitly.
  • There’s great power in what’s not said, which is especially true of the ending to The Last of Us in which I found myself urging Joel to say what I wanted him to, but then he didn’t quite. Characters don’t have to do or say exactly what we want them to for us to find them compelling, but nearing the end of the game at times I found myself setting the controller down, not wanting to feel responsible for what Ellie wanted to do.
  • We have too many “triumph of good over evil” stories; what’s so compelling about The Last of Us is its moral ambiguity that left me feeling so conflicted. This was the game’s greatest strength.

Having read so many hateful comments online about part 2, it’s hard to write about something you enjoy so enormously without imagining its detractors and what they might say. Fortunately my blog doesn’t have a comments system because I write mostly for myself, but writing this post (and thinking about some of the different viewpoints on taste and criticism) was a real pleasure. Of course holding The Last of Us franchise in as high regard as I do, I’m guilty of huge bias which I’m sure comes across in places. Though as I look to take a break from gaming for the next few months I still can’t think of another title that even remotely holds a light to it. I’d love for the game’s creators to know how much playing the game warmed my soul.

[1] What most affects our perception of someone’s intelligence? Is it that they use long, multisyllabic words? I try to write my essays in the most concise way, though I’ve been told by non-native-English speakers I use “fancy words” (unncecessarily). Personally I think of the “fancier” words as being more concise i.e. you can use one word instead of many.

[2] I sometimes laugh when I read a horribly written comment that criticises the “poor writing”.

[2] When I first wrote about the game in 2020 I said “We seem to live in an age where everything requires some sort of justification but I’m not going to try to convince you why you need to play this game. It was meaningful to me and you’re reading my blog.”

Comparing Player Stats

Earlier this week I was curious if I could create a program that would help me make my Fantasy Premier League selections: a list of players with the highest scores for the anticipated gameweek (a set of fixtures). Initially I wanted it to consider form (a player’s average score over the last thirty days) and the difficulty of each fixture. I wrote a first version in a couple of hours [1].

Writing programs that consume APIs in Go usually requires creating a series of structs that mirror the structure of the API. You “unmarshal” JSON onto these. In my first iteration, when I wanted to add my own additional computed values I would just add these as new fields, omitting the json struct tags. When I came to add more features a few days later the code was hard to read so I prefixed my API structs with “api” and then created a series of new types designed on the structure of data I wanted to output. I then iterated over the API values, mapping the data onto the new types. The data was much easier to work with in that way.

My program works like this: Initially I create a selection of “likely winners”: teams whose expected difficulty is less than that of the teams they’re facing. I then take all the players from these teams and sort them by form, their ICT index (a metric created by the league), their average starts and the difficulty of the fixture.

But I encountered an interesting problem. The game requires you to play a certain number of players in each position. Between three and five defenders, two and five midfielders and one and three forwards. There’s always one goalkeeper. These bounds mean that (for example) one week the “ideal” team might consist of four defenders and five midfielders because the midfielders are higher scoring than the defenders and forwards. I attempted various different solutions including maintaining state across an ordered slice and a map of players by position. Even ChatGPT couldn’t produce viable code. Ultimately I ended up calculating the total scores for each combination of players (a formation) and picking the formation with the highest score; though I’m sure this isn’t the most efficient method - if you have a better idea please email me.

I still continue to enjoy writing code with Go. My language (pending name timlang) is still in development and I’ve been adding some new features to my blog. I can’t imagine having worked on this tool any other way, especially when the compiled run time is ~100ms.

Edit: 21st Aug

In studying the API data, today I also decided to include the likelihood of a player starting in a given round as part of their “score”, so as to downgrade injured players. I’m also now displaying the score in the results, an arbitrary number whose meaning is unclear to the uninitiated. Some players seem to rank higher on this score than others in much better form, which might not make sense at first. In some ways the “meaning” of the data, what I’m really trying to convey when I say the “perfect team”, has been distilled; Adding more variables to my ranking order is not as simple as just form on its own nor am I under any illusion that having more variables presents a “complete” picture. That picture may be complex but I suspect that most of my predictions will be wrong.

[1] Latest version: https://github.com/notoriousbfg/simple-fantasy

My internet pulse

My blog is my internet pulse. When I feel motivated I write articles or post updates. When I don’t, my pulse slows; the content dries up.

I own my blog. I own the words I write and the small corner of the internet I’ve carved out. My access to it can’t be revoked.

My blog stays with me. I add new functionality when I see opportunities to. It’s my longest surviving project (the earliest version dating back to 2015, and this current iteration just over a year ago). It having survived so long has allowed me to make incremental updates rather than big sprints; I’ve been able to offer an improved experience for my readers.

My blog is where my ideas establish themselves; some of which I hope others find useful.

What is so timeless?

In one of my favourite “Curb Your Enthusiam” scenes Larry’s assistant gets a tattoo but when he asks her what it means, she says “It’s very personal. I don’t share it with everybody”. He replies, “The whole world can see it but it’s personal.”

I’ve sometimes wondered what idea or symbol is so timeless that I’d want it permanently tattooed on my skin. Perhaps it would be the AFC Bournemouth crest or a pair of cherries, but then lately I’ve felt so disillusioned by the ethics of football: the extortionate sums of money spent on players; the Saudi State; rape allegations, homophobia, racism, drug abuse, CO2 emissions etc.

Football fans it seems, alternate between love and hate for their own players on an almost weekly basis. Overall it feels so transiently insignificant, so fickle.

Masters of our own destinies

I spent years grappling with a feeling of inferiority having not graduated from university. When I finished school at eighteen I studied TV Production in Gloucestershire, despite my only interest having really been film; my father wouldn’t support this in the belief that TV was where the jobs were. My main interest as a teenager had been photography but there was also no possibility my parents would support me in that. Upon reflection, I think photography was one of the only things I was ever truly good at. I left university after a year with ~twelve thousand pounds of debt and depression.

I have no regrets having spent a considerable part of my life programming. I think I’m fairly good at it as well.

At several stages in adulthood I’ve looked into the possibility of returning to university in some capacity. Firstly, I feel I missed out on the opportunity to study. It was only as an adult that I discovered how much I really enjoy learning new things; any kind of passion I’d had for learning at school was thoroughly drummed out of me during GCSE & A-Level study; I read hundreds of books in my early teenage years before having to answer inane essay questions about which “literary techniques Bronte employed in Jane Eyre”. Incidentally, novelists don’t consciously employ techniques as if ticking off items on a shopping list, they read.

Secondly, graduating from university has always felt like a club I wasn’t part of. My parents, my sister, most of friends. Most of them describe it as a total waste of time, but a walled garden I may never have access to nonetheless.

The barriers to attending university seem too great: I would have to study A-Levels relevant to the subjects I want to learn about, which might take years with a full-time job. And what would it lead to if not another job? Why would I forgo gainful employment for the possibility of something else? It’s not as though I hate what I do currently.

At the weekend I finished reading “Masters of Doom” which follows “The Two Johns” (Romero and Carmack) (founders of id Software) who would make games like Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake and bring about vast cultural change in the process. Neither of the Johns graduated from university. Carmack, who was largely self-taught, would conduct his own research so that he could solve difficult graphics problems. It was incredibly humbling to read about the two prodigious programmers, who later went on to become hugely successful (in every sense of that word).