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Bob’s The Last Guy Rant; Or: They’re Coming to Get You, FEMA

One of the most recent additions to the PSN library, Sony’s “The Last Guy” is the latest in a long line of video games about zombies.

Sort of.

No story about zombies ever is, actually, about zombies. Stories about zombies, especially ever since Romero’s filmic output from the 60′s on, tend to have pretty strong social consciences, and represent attempts to understand social changes, from outright panic and rampant militarism to apathetic consumerism and class-based warfare. It’s not that surprising, coming from a genre which is rooted in man’s primal fears of death and one another– anyone can become a zombie, and once a zombie, everyone is a threat to mankind.

Romero’s influence can be seen in the dominant survival-horror games of the past fifteen-odd years. However, with rare exceptions, zombie games don’t tend to have the same kind of social consciences that zombie films, books or even comics do. Instead, all too often zombies become mere instruments in interactive shooting galleries, serving largely as disposable, walking bull’s eyes with a certain amount of time to kill before walking up and chewing the player’s face off. At their best, the “Resident Evil” games managed to weave a few good military-industrial conspiracies here and there, but Mikami’s lackadaisical plotting tends to make Kojima’s obsessive-compulsive storytelling look more and more attractive, and while “Dead Rising” grins with obvious, leering anti-consumerist satire, it would all be a little easier to take seriously if its “surviving-zombies-while-trapped-in-a-shopping-mall” story weren’t lifted wholesale from “Dawn of the Dead”.

“The Last Guy”, on the other hand, is different, because unlike those other zombie games, it isn’t about killing zombies. Instead, it’s about rescuing survivors from said zombies, and from cities around the world.

But what is it really about? Pick a natural disaster from the last several years, anywhere in the world. Katrina, the Typhoon, any number of earthquakes or other emergencies from this new decade that didn’t see fast enough rescue responses, especially from our own shores. That’s what “The Last Guy” is about– the catharsis of rescuing countless strangers, and the pain of leaving countless more behind.

Remember that scene from “The Third Man”, where Orson Welles rides the ferris wheel with Joseph Cotton, and muses how morally easy it is to condemn a man to death from up on high, when all you can see is a little dot? “The Last Guy” is about what it means to save those dots, rather than doom them to the fate war profiteers would offer any man to make a buck. I’d like to think of it as a game that would put Harry Lime to shame.

Seriously, though, the way that the design puts rescue into gameplay is one of the most solid new experiences I’ve had in the past year. Taking the role of a lone rescuer in cities around the world besieged by an epidemic of increasingly unorthodox zombies (more on that in a bit), the player must wander from building to building collecting survivors, who follow behind in a line that grows longer and longer the more people are rescued. This, in turn, leaves the survivors more vulnerable to a zombie attack, so that navigating through the cities– which everybody by now probably recognize from the press surrounding the Google Earth-style satellite imagery– becomes increasingly challenging.

This is the heart of the game– run through Google Earth cities, rescue survivors and avoid zombies. From that description, you’ve basically got a much more sophisticated version of “Pac Man”, with a bit of “Katamari Damacy” thrown in, where the dots become just as much of a liability as resource, and there’s no longer any way to beat the ghosts, even temporarily.

And perhaps that’s what it is, at its most basic level, which might explain why I’ve found it so instantly addictive at an immediate, visceral arcade-style level. If you were willing to sacrifice the satellite-imagery, “The Last Guy” could’ve pretty easily been made back in the glory days of arcades, and I imagine that lines might’ve formed behind its cabinet just in the way that lines form behind its protagonist in the middle of the game.

However, losing those Google Earth-style maps would’ve robbed the game of one of its most prized assets, of which besides the aforementioned main gameplay are two-fold– aesthetic, and mechanic. Obviously, the the whole satellite-imagery gimmick doesn’t really affect the gameplay that much, but it’s one of those things that adds a great deal to the verisimilitude of the title, a feat that’s pretty impressive for a 2-D top-down game. Roaming about on picture-perfect recreations of cities from around the world, and being able to recognize them as such, adds a good deal of weight to the game as the player scurries around locations like Trafalgar Square, Dupont Circle and the Sydney Opera House– yes, to a certain degree it can look like you’re just playing a massive game of Follow-the-Leader on top of aerial photographs of London, Washinton D.C. or Sydney, Australia, but for this game’s purposes, it is precisely the level of realism you need to be sucked in.

Furthermore, since the subject is that of a zombie invasion, I can’t help but be reminded of how other horror-pioneers have often used similar tricks, baiting the audience’s curiosity with non-fiction elements of presentations in order to suck them into a more elaborate fiction.

Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” stands not only as a landmark horror novel, but also as a landmark epistolary book, structured as a series of letters and journal entries. Orson Welles famously spooked the country with his infamous “War of the Worlds” faux-news report broadcast. George Romero shot the original “Night of the Living Dead” in high-contrast, hand-held black and white, lending it a verite-quality not unlike newsreel footage from the nightly news in an age of social upheaval and assassinations. Max Brooks’ zombie literature mimics survival guides and oral histories to both humorous and haunting effects. Even more recent films like “The Blair Witch Project,” “28 Days Later” and “Cloverfield” were shot on consumer-grade camcorders, adding a level of home-video familiarity to the scares.

Plenty of video games have attempted to emulate and imitate reality with ever more realistic graphics, but “The Last Guy” represents one of the only times I’m aware of that a game has managed to incorporate photographic assets as opposed to entirely computer-generated landscapes or characters (at the top of my head, the only other instances I can recall are the live-action fighters from “Mortal Kombat” and the FMV nonsense of plenty of PC and Sega-CD titles, but those just ain’t the same thing). There have been endless mantras about how graphics, presentation, even narrative don’t matter as much in a game as pure, unrefined gamplay– and this may be true, though the more I listen to those arguments, the more they make gameplay sound less like a medium and more like cocaine. But in the case of a title like this, the graphics really do make all the difference– rescuing survivors from a series of generic CG maps, or even intricate handdrawn maps, just doesn’t have the same resonance as doing so from a series of satellite photographic maps.

If you want to know why, pick up the remote control, switch the channel to CNN, and wait how long it takes for them to switch to Google Earth maps of New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast in general. Satellite photography is a controversial thing in some circles, synonymous with Big-Brother style surveillance, but it’s also now become synonymous with mass-media news as a tool of geographical presentations, constantly in use during times of war and natural disasters.

This two-fold resonance of reportage and surveillance is an idea “The Last Guy” picks up on, as well, as large parts of the game are built around stealth gameplay, hiding and sneaking around zombies and monsters the same way you’d sneak around guards and robots in “Metal Gear”.

Kojima knew what he was doing, tying into the Big Brother-paranoia of the modern world, and while it’s something the creators of this game haven’t really emphasized themselves, I suspect they know what they’re doing too, since so much of the game is about seeing and not seeing. Panning the camera around and zooming in and out are much bigger parts of the game than even many 3D games are, as knowing where your enemies are is basically the only defensive measure you have against them. The first time you encounter these monsters, you’ll probably ask yourself how they can be considered zombies– yes, the story the game sets up in the beginning insists they’re all human beings transformed by a purple beam from space, but once a person transmogrifies into a giant centipede, shouldn’t a different word be used to describe them?

“Zombie” is a word that’s already been so perverted and misused over the years it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly what it’s being used to describe: the victim of a Haitian spell? A cannibalistic reanimated corpse, capable of transforming a living person into another? A song from an Irish band about the Troubles? Do they lumber slow, or run fast? Do they spread by mere death, or viral transmission? Perhaps the only thing that most definitions tend to agree upon is the idea of the “undead” status, an idea that “The Last Guy” actually manages to convey in a pretty clever way thanks to one of its primary concerns– seeing and not seeing.

See, throughout the game, you can click on thermal vision in order to see how many survivors are in any given building, which makes finding them and navigating through the maze-like cities much easier. However, whenever you turn on the thermal vision, you can no longer see the zombies. This is one of the big parts of what makes the game work so deadly beautiful– vital information is obscured from the player whether the thermal vision is on or not, so juggling it on and off becomes crucial to surviving any given level.

It also helps the game’s zombies earn their name, since their thermal invisibility is a nice gameplay expression of their undead status– not being alive, they don’t give off any body heat.

“The Last Guy” is saying something, I’m certain, but it’s doing so in a way that doesn’t announce itself as loud as most other “message” games. While playing, it’s hard for me not to think of disaster zones throughout the world and see famine, war and terrible acts of God instead of zombies, giant insects and other such assorted monsters. Perhaps it’s because of the simple stick-figure icons the game uses to represent human beings, how close they are to images in statistics, and how often the success and failure rate in the game boils down to the lies and damn lies that statistics are. Those stick-figure icons might be why I fell in love with the game’s aesthetic right from the start, too, as they’re very close in spirit to the Rudolf Modley pictographs I use in my own games.

It’s kind of obvious that I have a fondness for this game, and I’m surprised myself to be this enthusiastic about it. The way that I discovered the game itself is odd as well, as I’d originally heard about it as a rumored project from Fumito Ueda’s team. Since then, I’m still not sure who’s really responsible for it– the “Special Interview” video credits Sanj Dathu as the game’s director, but I’m not entirely sure whether to believe it (considering how fucking strange it is) or the rumors that it was the work of “WTF/Baito Heru Nisen” director Pierre Taki.

Still, I haven’t played to the end of the game, so I won’t really be sure until I see the credits roll across the screen, but in the end I can still safely say that this is the most unique game I’ve come across on the PSN, and certainly the most fun. With all the hullabaloo over Jonathan Blow’s “Braid”, a game I’ll have to wait for the PC release in order to play, I’m glad to see that quality downloadable content isn’t exclusive to XBox Live.

Shameless plug.

And so, that’s the end of that rant. Tune in next time, when I’ll either move on to starting my write-ups of “Killer 7″ (oh, dear sweet baby Jesus, don’t hold your breath for it, though), “Grand Theft Auto 4″ (or at least the boroughs I’ve been able to explore) my latest Designer’s Dilemma (click the image above for a sneak peak, if anybody cares) or a special surprise Dispatch in time for Halloween. Until then, pleasant dreamers, I’ll be looking for a job. Seriously.

One Comment

  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hey Bob, glad to have you back on the site.

    Your rant motivated me to download the game and give it a try myself. I really wish that it had come with a demo though, I think a few levels is about all I really needed.

    You did forget though to mention what I think is the most important thematic aspect of the game: that the main character wears a crown, a big orange cape, and carries what appears to be a trident!

    Wednesday, September 3, 2008 at 8:21 am | Permalink

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