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”.
  3. 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

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).

I hope I'm right (to be care-free) about AI

While out drinking with my programmer friends at the weekend, naturally the subject of ChatGPT arose. We laughed about it, comparing the way you can ask it to generate random pictures to Celery Man. While I laugh, there’s a slightly eerie feeling at the back of my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be. That at some point in time it might not seem so funny.

Often as someone “in the know” I feel differently on hot-button technology subjects to how my non-technical friends and family feel. Take WhatsApp being asked to create backdoors to make it easier for government agencies to hunt down terrorists and child abusers; I can totally see why you’d be concerned by those things, but knowing what I do about the benefits of encryption I’m aware of the other risks. I’m not very knowledgeable about AI or what it’s capable of, other than that I know its current limitation is that it requires human input, so we’re still some way away from something that “thinks” for itself.

One of my programmer friends thinks there is nothing to stop the proliferation of AI. “It’s unstoppable. It’s inevitable that some people will lose their jobs”, he says. He also works in tech and makes good money. The people working on the cutting edge of AI (and with vested interests in it) are hugely wealthy and have likely spent most of their lives in the belief that their work will push humanity forward. I wonder how much sympathy they have for the working classes, sympathy for the Customer Service Representative with no university education. Attempts to automate entry-level jobs (that our economy thrives on) like these with bots might seem silly now, but I’d hazard a guess they soon won’t be. Those of us who work in tech are all incredibly lucky; I think about this every day.

I don’t think I have any reason to be worried about my job. The application I work on is highly complex and configurable. By the time you’d explained what it does to a machine in English, you’d have built the entire thing from scratch anyway. English might not even be the ideal way to explain it but at least it’s how us humans think (and dream) about applications now. Perhaps I could describe a service and some endpoints to ChatGPT and it could probably produce an Echo server with working code, but the limit to how accurate it’s going to be is how much detail I’m willing to go into.

There’s a subculture that seems to have appeared on some parts of Reddit and Hacker News recently: choosing the prompts that your AI art is created from. I find it totally absurd that anyone would think this could be considered a “skill” but people already do, as though choosing 10 words requires anything like the level of skill required to draw or paint well. Thankfully we do consider skill when we think about the quality of art, which is why a Rembrandt knockoff doesn’t cost you anywhere near as much as the real thing.

I imagine the future (at least for programmers) will be some augmentation of what we currently do: auto generated code snippets. I can’t imagine a self-checking, self-moderating machine that turns Jira tickets into an application you never touch or see. There will still be code, edited and validated by humans.

But I don’t see people losing their jobs in the face of this technology as an “inevitability” either. It certainly doesn’t have to be, unless those in charge let it be. We’ve developed a much better understanding of how to live with technology than ~170 years ago. I only hope that we don’t give in to the lazy, big tech optimism that got us into so much trouble in the past. Let’s stop pretending the big-tech CEOs and SV investors of this world care about the interests of the common person like they say they do; they don’t.


I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last few years thinking about why some things are better than others, particularly art. There’s a common view that if the purpose of art is to appeal to humans, the “best” art is that which appeals to the greatest number. I hold the view that popularity is not necessarily a measure of quality, but a bias.

When my girlfriend and I recently visited Arundel we came across Kim’s Books, with tens of thousands of titles on its shelves. I found myself gravitating only towards the authors I’d heard of and there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to discover something new (not that either of us had come with any particular titles in mind). The impression the experience gave me was that not all works are timeless; likely most will be forgotten about in time. For how long will people continue to read novels?

I feel a couple of ideas coming together. Long have I been preoccupied with quality but there are many books, movies and songs that I like that aren’t considerd critically-speaking “good”. Not by critics, not by anyone. I like them because they resonate with me, on an emotional or intellectual level. I don’t mean to say that “all art is subjective” which the majority seem to believe these days, because I don’t think the subjective/objective model is the be all and end all; there are “better” forms of art than others and the right answer is probably a bit more nuanced; I’ve skirted around what I think this is in various blog posts here. I’m starting to feel that to create something that resonates with at least one other person (someone you know even) is just as much the mark of “success” as anything that resonates with many people, but I do fully-well appreciate that “great” works are usually popular.

I’ve been writing poems for the last three or so months. I always thought poetry was for hacks, but I’ve never really had the patience for long fiction and I find writing fun little verses accessible (at least on the surface). In this sense, writing poems feels like what photography is to painting: both involve the study of light but the former is at least in this day and age easier to get started with. But I say “only on the surface” because like many of the arts, to create something truly resonant takes time and patience.

Sometimes I find writing poems difficult when I’ve been listening to a lot of music by a single artist, as I often do (I almost never skip around). It influences me so greatly I find it impossible to write anything not in the style of, or to the beat of the music I’ve been listening to. In fact the other day I wrote an entire poem only to realise it had the exact same rhythmn as John Prine’s “One Red Rose” (though I prefer the Iris DeMent version).

Pirsig wrote about something similar. After the publication of “Zen…” he said:

”…there’s an adage to remember, ‘Reading is the enemy of writing.’ I remember telling that to Kay Sexton at B. Dalton who threw up her hands and said, ‘Don’t say that! You’ll put us out of business!’ But it’s true. Any time I did read a book during the years of writing ZMM and Lila it would stop the writing for as much as a week while memories of what I just read or heard gradually faded. That was also true of movies, TV, and parties.”

What is inspiration if not emotional resonance? Artists are inspired by other artists, probably more indirectly than we think, since to read Seneca is not to understand Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. The latter is inspired by the ideas of the former but after all when the dust settles, they are separate works by separate authors.