Note: spoilers for the two games being discussed are all over this article.
As Part One [here] of this article explained in more depth, this is a showdown between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us, two of my most anticipated and most satisfying games of seventh generation of gaming. My comparison is based not on replay value or how the games have aged, but on how influentially they’ve stuck with me a year after my initial playthrough of each.
I’m putting these together because character design is great but without good acting it could be easily spoiled. This category goes to The Last of Us. On the one hand, acting shouldn’t be a huge factor in that the player characters of each game, Booker Dewitt and Joel, are both voiced by the superb Troy Baker. The other actors in each, notably Courtnee Draper in Bioshock Infinite and Ashley Johnson in The Last of Us, are also excellent. And even counting all the minor NPCs, I can’t think of a performance in either game that stuck out as subpar.
Still, The Last of Us gets the nod because I think it gives the actors more to work with, which gives rise to more compelling characters. The character design of Bioshock Infinite is very interesting, working as it does with parallels to the original Bioshock and to the various iterations of Booker (as Comstock, etc.), but these are to a significant degree of intellectual rather than emotional interest. Bioshock’s Lutece twins are really cool characters, too, but Rosalind Lutece is hardly on the same level as FemShep for Jennifer Hale as far as great roles go. All in all, the characters of Bioshock Infinite feel to me like an indispensible part of a larger, fascinating thought experiment, rather than like the central focus in their own right. The characters of The Last of Us, while raising interesting intellectual and moral questions, but do so in the context of a much more emotionally compelling story that makes me care about them as people in a way I don’t as much in Bioshock Infinite. Highly subjective, of course, but that’s how I feel a year out.
Tie. I cannot, will not give this nod to one game over the other. They’re doing such different things, and they each do their thing amazingly well. Bioshock Infinite is a game that blows your mind with its questions about the game universe, raises interesting questions about the ability of people to change and the justifiability of preemptive action, and delves deeply into a breathtakingly detailed world of meaningful historical context and troubling social problems. Like Bioshock before it, it’s a great game, a richly designed world steeped in history, and a fascinating thought experiment. The Last of Us focuses on a much more intimate story about the relationship between Joel and Ellie but makes that story inextricable from the wider stories of their relationships (especially Joel’s) with the secondary characters and the relationship of this central relationship to the wider world and its fate. The climax’s exploration of the two-way impact of personal and social relationships, responsibilities, and loyalties is, for me, unforgettable. Both games are at the forefront of what videogame storytelling can be. I Will Not Choose.
OVERALL IMPACT FEW Years Later
Both of these were games that I knew, unquestionably, would compel me to finish a playthrough as quickly as possible—no chance of losing interest or even getting too busy to stick with them until I saw them through to the end. Both also passed my personal litmus test for a really good story: when I woke up the morning after finishing them, did I spend my whole morning routine—shower, breakfast, getting ready to work—continuing to think through their implications? With The Last of Us, this effect was so intense that I spend half the next day (a weekend, happily) writing a pair of blog posts about my reactions to the game because I had a hard time concentrating on anything else until I’d thought through it all in my head.
Which is why I’m returning to these games now to think through the question, between these two great games, which has stayed in my head past those first few days and weeks to remain with me more powerfully a year later?
My answer is The Last of Us. The story of Bioshock Infinite is great and raises interesting questions and social issues. It’s also creative and entertainingly and thought-provokingly tied to its predecessor, Bioshock, in rewarding ways that I never expected. As an exploration of the rich possibilities of storytelling in videogames, it’s terrific. But with the focus on multiple universes and timelines and the long-term repercussions of key moments in our lives, it’s quite abstract in a way that is stimulating but harder to latch onto than The Last of Us. The terrible crises and consequences explored in The Last of Us work on an interpersonal emotional level that I don’t find as fully developed in Bioshock Infinite. It’s the contrast between the games on this level that finally gives The Last of Us the edge and has made it the game I’ve thought about more often over the last year.
When I think about Bioshock Infinite, I remember it as being good for my brain. It’s beautiful, masterfully designed, richly detailed, full of thoughtful social commentary, mind-bending, and centrally concerned with a few key meaningful questions about the consequences of how we choose to live our lives. Its gameplay I remember as being an update of Bioshock—Sky-Hooks and whatnot. I remember the moments of epiphany when twists were revealed and my mind raced through the implications of a new perspective on events. And I remember a couple hard moments when the story took a turn toward the unsettling or tragic.
But when I think about The Last of Us, I feel conflicted. I continue to work through the terrible choices characters were forced to make, and ask myself what I would do in a similar situation. I think about it in terms of people I love and my own ideas of social responsibility. In my mind, The Last of Us occupies a place uncomfortable close to the real world and real (if smaller-scale) choices about relationships and conflicting loyalties to individuals—to family—and to the wider world. Key moments brought to heartbreaking life by superb animators, actors, and directors remain vivid in my mind. I remember the gameplay as an indispensible part of the overall tension of the experience, and look forward to definitely completing another playthrough within a year or two, to revisit both the story and the gameplay.
What do you think of my conclusions? Are any of my verdicts off the mark? Have I ignored a third game that obviously needs to be in this conversation? Am I overlooking any key categories (multiplayer, level design, etc.)? In what ways, and how powerfully, have these games stuck with you a year down the line?