Tearaway Embraces the Physical Side of Games

Tearaway Embraces the Physical Side of Games

Tearaway is still a great game on the PlayStation 4. I wasn’t really expecting this to be the case, given how completely Media Molecule’s original release was tailored to the Vita’s hardware. In the initial 2013 version, Tearaway was a game that asked the player to pretend that the portable console was a gateway to a strange little paper craft world. Pressing the Vita’s back touch pad sent the player’s fingers flying up through the world; scenes where the main character looked up to the heavens used the system’s camera to show the player’s actual face beaming down on the game world. Media Molecule’s clever integration of hardware features into Tearaway’s story and digital setting made it a striking experience.

Moving a title so deeply tied to the system for which it was developed to a different console doesn’t seem like a good idea. Before playing it, I assumed Tearaway Unfolded would be a lesser version of the original for this reason. But, even as the game shifts from portable console to TV screen, it finds ways to maintain its original spirit. Despite losing the tactile nature of the Vita’s control scheme, Tearaway’s PS4 version continues to remind players that the game they play is governed by their manipulation of physical objects.
Tearaway_Unfolded-PS4-screenshot-15The original Vita release was all about blurring the line between digital and analogue interaction. Poking the actual physical console or taking a photo of the player’s real-world environment would alter the game in significant ways. In the PS4 version’s case, this same effect is accomplished by cleverly embracing the unique design of the controller and making reference to the TV screen its characters “live” inside. Tearaway’s little envelope protagonist—named either Iota or Atoi—still reacts to the player’s gestures and movements. Platforms move about the world as the controller’s accelerometer picks up movement. A gust of wind can be summoned by swiping the touch pad. Bright light guides Iota/Atoi through dark areas when the player shines their controller’s sensor bar to create an illuminated path.

Because Media Molecule and co-developer Tarsier Studios have essentially re-built Tearaway for the PlayStation 4 (rather than simply shoehorn its old systems into a different console’s feature set) the game remains engaging as a physical experience, unlike many that have come before. The effect is reminiscent of the very best motion games from the previous console generation. But it’s distinguished by the surprising restraint shown by the developers. Rather than shoehorn unnecessary touch or motion controls into every aspect of its design, Tearaway uses these systems as flourishes meant only to remind the player of their influence over the game world.

A few years on from the novelty of the Wii’s motion controllers and the Kinect’s body sensors, it’s easier to take a step back and reconsider how well a developer can integrate our real world into their digital one. Tearaway, though it very much follows in the tradition of exploration-heavy platformers like Mario 64, is indebted to the early days of these motion sensors. In blurring the line between the physical and virtual, it shows that a tasteful, properly considered use of these features is capable of subtly enriching an experience. And in doing so, what Tearaway demonstrates is that there is still mileage left in designing games based around the player’s physical input.

Though motion controls have largely been forgotten (or turned into ancillary parts of other technology, like the new virtual reality headsets), that doesn’t mean their potential has been exhausted. The runaway success of Nintendo’s Wii had the unfortunate effect of attracting sloppily-made titles that swamped the system’s best games. Though a handful of games (largely created by Nintendo itself) made great use of motion controls, the Wii’s legacy was tarnished by the sheer volume of less worthwhile experiences. Mainstream videogames have largely abandoned the potential of physical play because of the negative impression this caused.
Tearaway_Unfolded-PS4-screenshot-09Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to see that the nearly complete dismissal of motion controls was a bit premature. Games like Tearaway and Tearaway Unfolded show that a developer willing to properly consider how these features can be used, not as a gimmick but as a cornerstone of a game’s design, can create something fairly remarkable.

Watch our Let’s Play of Tearaway Unfolded.

Tearaway Unfolded (PS4) Review

Tearaway Unfolded (PS4) Review

If someone were to ask me to come up with a nickname for the current console generation aside from  “Gen 8”, I’d probably have to go with “The Second Chance Generation”, largely due to the steady streams of HD Remasters, up-rezzed Definitive Editions and Collections that have been making their way unabated to the Xbox One and PS4 as of late. While more than a few recent remasters (that shall remain unnamed) have clearly been cash grabs aimed at capitalizing on Gen 8’s noticeable lack of new, original IP, quality current-gen re-releases such as 2014’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition have shown that games that were sorely overlooked during last generation due to multiple factors can still bounce back and become a commercial and critical success if customers are given enough new incentives to check them out. Clearly, this thinking was one of the influences behind developer Media Molecule (Mm)’s bold decision to bring its beloved PS Vita platformer Tearaway to PlayStation 4; a game that was universally praised for its originality and inventiveness but until now has been limited to the doomed handheld’s dwindling install base. Tearaway: Unfolded is no mere remaster or port, however. Half of the original Tearaway’s charm was its meaningful implementation of every key PS Vita hardware feature (such as the handheld’s touch surfaces, built-in cameras and gyro-sensors), so Mm has wisely re-imagined the game for PS4, adapting its fundamental gameplay hooks to the tools readily available—namely the versatile DualShock 4 controller. But before we dive into how well Mm has achieved this however, let’s cover the similarities.
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The components that make up the other half of Tearaway’s charm, those being the whimsical journey that messenger Iota/Atoi takes in order to deliver an important, top-secret message to “You” (a.k.a. the Player), the fourth-wall-breaking gameplay mechanics that create the bond between the player and the messenger, and the original game’s well-balanced blend of platforming, puzzle-solving and (at times) challenging combat with the game’s mischievous “scrap” creatures have all made it over intact. The early part of the game feels like a slower burn as a lean-back, couch experience as opposed to the handheld version, and I embarrassingly found myself losing Iota’s stamp (i.e. dying) repeatedly as the game’s mesmerizing soundtrack and beckoning environments often lulled me into sleepwalking off a cliff, but I ultimately chalked this issue up to Unfolded’s “bedtime story” nature rather than a fault with the game’s pacing. That said, the excitement picks up considerably once Iota gains more abilities and combat becomes more frequent. The PS4’s beefier hardware has also allowed Mm to retain the playful, papercraft look and spirit of the original game but offer much more of it at a smoother 60 frames-per-second, creating a more vibrant and tactile-looking world to get lost in and interact with.

This of course brings us back to how Mm has almost flawlessly redesigned Tearaway for use with the DualShock 4. Cleverly taking notes from the PS4’s pack-in launch game The Playroom, Mm has taken practically every gimmick in the DS4’s arsenal and has applied each one to serve fun yet fully-realized emergent gameplay (much like the original Tearaway fulfilled the gameplay promises long made by the PS Vita launch title Little Deviants). For example, the DS4’s Sixaxis motion controls and lightbar together serve as the You’s “Guiding Light”, allowing the player to shine light into the darker areas of the game world to reveal secrets and affect changes in the environment by nourishing the local flora with its warmth (e.g. shine light on a sprout and it instantly grows into an adult tree, its branches forming a bridge between two ledges for Iota to cross). While the lightbar itself does not actually communicate with the console or PS4 camera (if connected), its symbolically familiar, transparent outline represented on the screen when the Guiding Light power is in use informs the player of the controller/light’s position, knowledge of which is essential for other key game mechanics. For instance, the Guiding Light can be used to hypnotize, distract, and even corral evil scraps away from Iota (and towards pitfalls), and when creating paper works for use in the game, it is used for selecting colour palettes, picking up and moving created shapes and in concert with other buttons is used to rotate, resize, and alter the appearance of those shapes.

Surprisingly, the real workhorse is the DS4 touch pad, which sees far more use in Unfolded than it ever has in any other game. Several key “You” powers are bound to the touchpad, such as the power to create gusts of wind by swiping on the pad in a desired direction (essential for creating temporary bridges, moving large obstacles, and granting Iota the power of flight in certain situations), or the ability to activate large drums in the environment by tapping or holding and releasing the touchpad, enabling Iota to bounce to otherwise inaccessible areas, solve environmental puzzles and dispatch specific types of enemies. Finally, all three aforementioned features of the controller come together in the “Throw Forth” ability, where the player can have Iota toss him or her an object via the screen, agitate it by shaking the controller and then launch it back at a target using both the Sixaxis+lightbar to aim and the touchpad to fire the missile via a gust of wind. This indispensable power serves multiple purposes throughout the game. To get the most out of the Unfolded experience however, players will want to have the optional PS4 camera connected while playing, as it best replicates the original Tearaway experience where players themselves can visually participate in the game as a character, lend their voice to optional interactive scenes and take photos of real-world objects, patterns, and even themselves for use in the game world.
Tearaway_Unfolded-PS4-screenshot-07One of the most common complaints about the original Tearaway was its short length, but I myself did not find this to be an issue with Unfolded, as the interactivity and size of its worlds have been expanded thanks to its many PS4 enhancements. Instead, the main drawback I found was the game’s image creator, which while functional, feels crude and far less intuitive than it should, as original shapes are created by drawing with one’s finger on the diminutive touchpad, which is far less natural and visually immediate than drawing directly 1:1 on a much larger Vita touchscreen. It’s annoying, but by no means is it a deal breaker.

Like the original Tearaway was for the PS Vita, Tearaway: Unfolded is the pack-in launch game that the PS4 should have gotten. It leverages every unique feature of the console towards meaningful gameplay, without resorting to gimmicks or filler (although if you’re looking for more content to occupy your time with, there’s an impressive companion app for asymmetric co-op play, and “game-to-real-world” papercraft distractions are included as well). Most importantly, all these features serve as the backbone of a quaint, adorable story that you’re unlikely to experience anywhere else on PS4. Mm has somehow managed to make Tearaway even more worthy of your attention than it was on PS Vita, so do yourself a favor and give this game the love that it deserves.

Sony’s E3 2014 Conference Recap

Sony's E3 2014 Conference Recap

So the last of Monday’s E3 conferences has finally come to a close. How did Sony do this year? Here’s our recap of everything they announced.

Destiny got a new story trailer, and will have a PS4 exclusive beta on July 17th. PS4 users will be able to play the alpha demo this week.

-A  Destiny bundle will come out on Destiny‘s launch date. The PS4 will be white and have 500GBs as well as thirty days of PS+

-A new gameplay demo of The Order 1886 was shown and finally gave players a glimpse into the supernatural side of the game. The player was chased through hallways by a werewolf like creature.

inFamous is getting a standalone story titled First Light. It tells the story of Amanda, the neon powered conduit. It comes out this August.

-A live demo of a new ip called Entwined was shown. Players will use both sticks to control two souls in love but who can’t be together.

LittleBigPlanet 3 was shown in a live demo. This time players can play as three new characters; Oddsock can wall jump, Toggle can weigh down platforms and can turn into a tiny ball, and Swoop can fly. Also revealed was the ability to play every user created content level from every other LittleBigPlanet game at launch. The game will launch this holiday season on PlayStation 4.

-From Software’s Project Beast has an official title: Bloodborne, coming in 2015.

FarCry 4 had another gameplay demo that showed off new takedowns from vehicles, and the on the fly co-op. It was also announced that on PlayStation4 you don’t need a copy of the game to play co-op with a friend. There were also elephants wrecking things and that’s just awesome.

-Deep Silver released the first trailer for Dead Island 2, which apparently takes place in California.

-The PlayStation 4 version of Diablo 3 will feature enemies from The Last of Us.

Disney Infinity 2 will launch first on PlayStation and will have a collector’s edition.

Magika 2 had a live action and gameplay trailer will be released on PlayStation4.

-In an unexpected announcement, the legendary adventure game Grim Fandango will be remastered and released for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.

-Devolver Digital is literally bringing everything ever to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita including Broforce, Titan Souls, Not a hero, and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.

-A new Suda51 game was announced called Let It Die and will be a PlayStation 4 exclusive. It looks just as insane as his older stuff.

-Former Journey devs are making a new game called Abzu which takes place deep underwater.

-A new gameplay trailer for No Man’s Sky was shown. It features more planet exploration and dogfights in space. Players will be able to seamlessly fly between planets and space in real time. It will have online multiplayer where everyone starts off an a different planet.

-Youtube will finally be coming to PlayStation 4 and will allow users to upload from their console directly to their accounts.

-Twitch streamers can have their watchers interact with them more during streams.

-25 Free-to-Play games coming to PlayStation consoles such as Planetside 2.

-PlayStation TV will finally be coming to North America. It allows PlayStation 4 users to play their games on another tv in their house, and will be PlayStation Now compatible. It will retail for $99, but will have a $139 bundle that includes a DualShock 3 controller, a HDMI cable, and an 8GB memory card.

-The first Mortal Kombat X gameplay was shown. It features intractable environments from Injustice: Gods Among Us. it also showed two new characters; a woman who is part wasp, and a big burly guy who has a smaller person on his shoulders. It alsogave a few glimpses of some of the new fatalities.

-A tv adaptation of the comic series Powers will be coming to PlayStation. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, Powers follows a cop who was once a superhero but lost his powers. He investigates superhero related crimes.

Ratchet and Clank: the Movie is a thing that is happening in 2015. On the same day, a remastered version of the original Ratchet and Clank will be available on PlayStation 4.

The Last of Us on PlayStation 4 will launch on July 29th. The trailer features some pretty big spoilers from the game, so watch at your own risk.

-The already leaked Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain trailer was shown.

Grand Theft Auto 5 will be coming to next generation consoles and the PC this fall. Owners of save files from last gen consoles can transfer their save data to the newer version.

-The first gameplay for Batman:Arkham Knight was shown. Batman glided throughout Gotham before jumping into the Batmobile, and then seamlessly jumping out and into stealth gameplay. Just before questioning the Penguin, the presentation was “hacked” by Scarecrow, the main villain for the game. He addressed Batman and the audience, questioned them and their sense of justice.

-The press conference ended with a trailer for the new Uncharted game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The trailer and the title heavily hint towards the death of Sully or Nathan Drake himself.

Project Beast and the Future of the Souls Series

Project Beast and the Future of the Souls Series

There aren’t very many videogames that can incite torrents of excited internet chatter from a handful of blurry screenshots, but From Software’s Souls series has always been pretty special. Since 2009’s Demon’s Souls gained recognition on the strength of its complex world and unforgiving gameplay, players have obsessed over the minutiae of each entry to the franchise. At no other time has this been clearer than last weekend. Nine muddy photos heralded the arrival of Project Beast, a game speculated by just about everybody to be a PlayStation 4 exclusive Souls title. The pictures don’t show much—there are a few gnarly-looking dogs, a shadowy player character holding what looks to be a blunderbuss, and a shot of one the series’ iconic fog doors—but that hardly seems to matter. People are already buzzing about what’s next for From’s acclaimed franchise.

I’ve had a rocky relationship with the Souls games. I played (and adored) Demon’s Souls around its release, entering into the experience without knowing much about it. Despite very much liking the refinements and design innovations introduced by its spiritual successor Dark Souls, I eventually had to swear it off after finding myself becoming frustratingly preoccupied by one of its hardest boss fights. Yet, just in time for Project Beast to surface, I picked up Dark Souls II and have found it a great mixture of the two previous games. The combination of older systems and a handful of new mechanics seemingly geared toward accessibility make the game not only a lot of fun to play, but also a distillation of the studio’s past work. I like Dark Souls II an awful lot, but it also very much feels like the terminal point for the concepts that have formed the series’ identity to date. By embracing design decisions that worked in Demon’s Souls (like a central “hub” area that breaks up exploration) and Dark Souls (bonfires as checkpoints), Dark Souls II exists as a happy medium between the two previous games. This combination and refinement of older gameplay systems works well, but also begs the question of what direction the series will take in the future.

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Even though I (and everyone else) know too little about Project Beast to make any grounded predictions regarding what kind of game it will be, there’s little doubt that it’s the next entry to the Souls series. And this makes me wonder what direction From Software can take after releasing a game that has already served as the ultimate iteration of its previous work. But what would that even look like?

Hidetaka Miyazaki directed both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the two entries that brought serious change to the series, and his absence from the latter game’s sequel has been duly noted by fans. Miyakazi is likely heading up development on Project Beast, though, and this means that if the Souls games are set to branch out from convention in a significant way, it will probably be with its next release. Dark Souls was similar to Demon’s Souls in many fundamental ways, but it also introduced a host of new ideas that served as clear distinctions between the two titles. If Miyakazi is directing Project Beast, then we can anticipate another shake-up that re-thinks what has come before.

This is, I think, the best-case scenario. If Project Beast is nothing more than a prettier version of past Souls games it will still be a big deal. Seeing the imaginative environments and gruesome monsters that From is so gifted at creating rendered in higher detail should be enticing enough to attract attention. All the same, I’m hoping that a new Souls title will offer a bit more than another helping of an already great thing. I want a game that recaptures the sense of bewilderment and awe that first playing Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls offered. I want the future of the series to offer something that From Software has shown itself capable of delivering in the past: a game that is too weird and wonderful to have been made by anyone else.

Infamous Needs to be Reinvented

Infamous Needs to be Reinvented

Infamous: Second Son is a pretty good game. Though I didn’t care much for the plot, I still enjoyed my time grabbing new superpowers, traipsing around virtual Seattle, and fighting the dastardly Department of Unified Protection (DUP). That said, the biggest impression I’m left with after completing the “good” path of the storyline and running around finishing some post-game objectives is that Infamous is a series in need of some substantial re-thinking.

Second Son initially looked like it was going to provide a breath of fresh air for Sucker Punch Productions’ superhero franchise. The introduction of new protagonist Delsin Rowe was the first sign that the latest game was meant to be a departure. Moving the setting to the west coast and re-thinking how powers work—Delsin collects several skill set during the game whereas previous Infamous games were all about upgrading electricity-based moves—was another. Yet, even though Sucker Punch didn’t call the game Infamous 3, it sure does feel more like a direct continuation of the developer’s past work than the first step in a new direction. Navigating Seattle as Delsin feels much the same as it did when controlling previous main character Cole. Players will instantly recognize the control scheme as they climb buildings, feather a shoulder button to glide from rooftop to rooftop, and away at enemies with power shots. The mission structure is also remarkably similar to past Infamous games. After being introduced to the story, characters, and setting, Delsin is plopped down in a large urban environment and players are given the choice to complete side objectives, advance the story, or just explore the environment. Aside from the new main character and the minor changes afforded by the different power sets, Second Son feels like little more than a straightforward update to games that already exist.

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The Infamous formula isn’t broken, but it isn’t perfect, either. Because Second Son adheres so strongly to the series’ mechanical and structural heritage, it’s just as much fun to play as its predecessors. Unfortunately, aside from its greatly improved visuals, it isn’t much better than the previous games. The same issues that held Sucker Punch’s first entries to the superhero genre from being truly great abound in Second Son. The combat still bounces back and forth between being either far too easy or too difficult depending on which power upgrades the player has unlocked; the story still feels like it was written during the last days of development, embracing comic book clichés without adding interesting new ideas to the genre; the endearing cast of characters is still never explored as fully as they could be; the good/bad karma system is still too cleanly outlined. Minor problems like these have held Infamous back since the debut game, but they still haven’t been solved. Instead, Second Son piles on more features—new powers, prettier visuals—without addressing the basic issues at the series’ core. As fun as the Infamous games are, they’ve never felt like they’ve been able to live up to the potential that Sucker Punch, an enormously talented developer, so obviously has. If another entry to the series is being planned it needs to be designed with serious consideration paid to every design tent pole established so far. A ruthless appraisal of what does and does not work would provide a good starting point. In the grand tradition of superhero comic books, Infamous could wipe the slate of its series clean, starting over with none of the baggage.

I don’t regret playing Second Son. I had a good enough time working through the storyline, upgrading Delsin’s powers, and admiring the beautifully detailed version of Seattle created by Sucker Punch. That said, I’m completely uninterested in another entry to the Infamous series that continues down the exact same path. There’s a lot to love in these games, but a lot that requires some serious reinvention, too. Rather than stick to the overly familiar gameplay and narrative conventions established in the existing games, Sucker Punch would do well to shake up the Infamous franchise with a completely new type of superhero game.

Soul Sacrifice and Vita’s Wasted Potential

Soul Sacrifice and Vita's Wasted Potential

I like handheld games quite a bit. The idea of being able to play something without being tied to a television screen or computer monitor is, to me, extremely appealing. Because of this, I bought a PlayStation Vita when it was released. At first it seemed like a really good idea. The hardware itself was (and, actually, still is) lovely and, in the halcyon days of February, 2012 it looked like developers would flock to Sony’s portable due to the Nintendo 3DS’ floundering sales.

Now, the situation is quite a bit different. The 3DS continues to amass a library of interesting games while the Vita is suffering from an extremely shallow pool of worthwhile exclusive titles. The launch of the PlayStation 4 doesn’t look like it’s going to help reverse this trend, either, Sony appearing intent on repositioning the handheld as a PS4 second-screen rather than the “portable console” it originally pitched to buyers. This, as exemplified by Marvelous AQL/SCE Japan Studio’s deeply flawed yet fascinating Soul Sacrifice, seems like a bit of a shame.

Soul Sacrifice was supposed to be the game that saved the Vita, which is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but not in how its design neatly lines up with Sony’s attempt to make its portable into a handheld console. Games like the excellent Tearaway, Gravity Rush, and Persona 4: The Golden have all made fairly strong arguments in favour of the Vita’s hardware, but, don’t quite deliver on the system’s original mission statement. Soul Sacrifice, on the other hand, does. It is console-sized in ambition yet designed with the limitations of portable play in mind.

The game revolves around a player character working through the chapters of a book. This book tells the story of an evil sorcerer currently holding the protagonist hostage. “Reading” a chapter involves playing a quick mission, gaining some abilities, and advancing the (relatively interesting) storyline. All of this forms a pretty good hook for any videogame, and makes a portable title easy to digest without being overly simplistic. The missions can be completed quickly, but they also advance the player’s character enough to make even five minutes feel like a worthwhile time investment. Yet, for all its compartmentalization, Soul Sacrifice‘s mechanical depth and impressive world building makes it feel grand in scope. It is, in short, a game that makes good on the Vita’s promise to provide players with the same kind of experience they would have on a console without having to be sitting on a couch.

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Soul Sacrifice suffers from extreme repetition that makes its initially interesting enemies, combat system, and level design become more of a grind than necessary. But it isn’t where the game falls apart that warrants attention; it’s where it succeeds as a template for Vita games. Soul Sacrifice is, more than anything else, an excellent proof of concept for the machine. It takes lessons from massively popular handheld games like Monster Hunter and expands on them with prettier visuals and a more engaging narrative. The Vita’s hardware allows console features like dual analog stick camera movement and weapon aiming to feel natural. Soul Sacrifice makes Sony’s original vision of “big” games being shrunk down for accessible, portable play to seem like a very good one.

It’s too bad, then, that the Vita isn’t likely to play host to games that build on Soul Sacrifice‘s foundation. Refining the ideas presented by the title could lead to some of the best handheld experiences to date. Unfortunately, even Sony itself seems content with letting the Vita turn into a PlayStation 4 accessory rather than a worthwhile platform in its own right. As evidenced by its barren upcoming release schedule, the system seems destined to become nothing more than a neat little curiosity — a pretty cool thing to use in tandem with a PlayStation console instead of a device with excellent games designed for exclusive use. Soul Sacrifice offers a template for how these type of games could have been made. Though not a great title in its own right, Marvelous AQL/SCE Japan Studio have given everyone a look at the kind of potential the Vita offers. It’s just unfortunate that we’re not likely to ever see the system’s promise realized.

2013’s Best Zombie Is A Blind, Cannibalistic Fungus

2013’s Best Zombie Is A Blind, Cannibalistic Fungus

I love October. I love the autumn weather, the colours on the trees, and, most of all, Hallowe’en. To celebrate this most spooky of holidays I’ll be discussing topics related to horror each week of the month in a series of editorials called . . . OCTERROR!

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I’d like a 10-year break from zombies. I’d like every developer currently planning their new zombie videogame to go through their design documents and carefully consider whether that particular monster couldn’t be replaced with something a bit more inspired. I’d like, at least, for the typical zombie to give way to weirder variations on the concept. It would be great if artists and animators didn’t just add more detail to the shambling corpses advancing toward players, but instead changed the very nature of these creatures in a memorable way.

I am, at heart, a great fan of zombies. George Romero’s first three . . . of the Dead movies are some of my favourite horror films ever made and a younger version of me was appropriately spooked out by the undead enemies in the early Resident Evil games. What has happened for me (and I’m sure many others) in recent years, though, is a general malaise regarding how predictable the zombie has become. There just hasn’t been much change in how the monster is depicted since 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead gave us “runners” that changed the nature of the threat in a substantial way. Since then each media representation of zombies has drawn from an increasingly dry well of overly familiar genre tropes. Even Telltale Games’ excellent The Walking Dead does this. It only manages to get away with having traditional zombies as enemies because, given the larger focus on the tension between groups of survivors, the monsters rarely get used as more than a catalyst for the more exciting human drama that characterizes its stories.

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Does this mean that zombies can never be a threat in their own right again?

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us seems to disagree. From the outset the “infected” that cause the game’s world to slide into apocalypse mode look an awful lot like the kind of zombies we’re all used to. They run around making creepy, barely human noises, are most dangerous in hordes, and can spread their condition to others by coming in close contact with them. But a little bit of creativity sets them apart from their Romero-inspired brethren.

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The fungal infection that is responsible for The Last of Us‘ outbreak is used as more than a forgettable excuse for the game’s epidemic: it also informs the creature design. The game establishes a set of stages that each infected person passes through, each transition making them more and more inhuman. Aside from the spin on traditional zombie aesthetics that makes The Last of Us‘ undead look less like animated corpses than bizarre plant monsters, the game’s monsters also behave differently. Sure, there are familiar types (like the running variety and grotesque, Left 4 Dead inspired bloated types), but there is also the Clicker. The Clicker’s face is obscured by fungal growth, making it impossible for them to see their environment. While their appearance is unnerving enough, it’s the act of actually trying to avoid or fight a Clicker that makes them so memorably scary. The player must carefully move around the Clicker while it makes the otherworldly, dolphin-like clicking sound that gives it its name. Make too much noise and the Clicker screeches, rushing at protagonists Joel and Ellie and instantly killing them if it manages to get close enough to them. The Clicker’s blindness and reliance on echolocation makes it a fantastically frightening enemy. Moving around the monster, trying to avoid making any sound at all while it shambles about uttering strangled, barely human noises is extremely tense. The quick death that comes from encountering one of the creatures makes every run-in with Clickers throughout the campaign blood-chilling.

The Clicker is a great bit of design that shows how a savvy developer can feature enemies that, while still serving much the same gameplay and narrative purpose as a traditional zombie, are set far enough apart from established tropes to be memorable. Over-familiarity inspires boredom and, perhaps worst of all, a lack of fear. The Last of Us‘ Clickers, with their unique appearance and behaviour, are a new sort of monster. They represent the kind of innovation that videogame zombies need if they’re ever going to be scary again.