also, i'm gonna talk about a video game

When I was in high school, every year, the upperclassmen would put on a pageant. I forget why; I think it was a fundraiser? Anyway, my class suffered from a lack of charismatic boys, and so somehow I ended up competing in Mr. Highland Park. There was a talent portion, and I had no idea what my talent was going to be. At that point in time, in 2008 or 2009, my only talents were shitposting online and playing Xbox. Though these qualify as skills in 2020, the world at large was simply not ready to consider these “talents” more than a decade ago.

So I had to come up with another talent. Some guys were going to do a dance, or maybe a funny monologue or something. I was lazy and I knew I would not win, so the day of, I decided my talent was going to be math. For some reason, my classmates thought it was cool that I could multiply any two numbers (up to 100) in my head with ease. I have no idea why this excited them, but they loved it. I did that on stage for a little, and then (as we’d planned) a couple of friends ambushed me on stage and we pretended to karate kick each other before solving one last equation.

I guess this is a long way of saying I’m pretty good at mental math, and so I cannot be an impartial judge of the following post:


Okay… let’s dive into the replies

I honestly have nothing to add here. It certainly seems like, in the last 24 hours, nearly three-quarters of a million people have learned that 17 is a factor of 51. Alright!

The debate over the fireworks going off all around NYC every night has been beaten to death, and I refuse to participate. The one thing I will say is that earlier this week I was in my backyard at 11 a.m. on a crystal-clear sunny day and someone set off a couple. At least wait until it’s dark?

The Last of Us, Part II

I know that this is an email newsletter supposedly about the internet, but I run the show and I’ve written 18 of these emails so far and I think I’ve earned the right to talk briefly about the new video game The Last Of Us Part II now. If you haven’t finished it yet, skip this.

The thing about TLOU2 is that it is not that interesting to me as a story about revenge and the apocalypse and stuff (it’s not nearly as violent as I think critics would like to tell themselves) but it is interesting to me as a sort of metawork. It’s developer Naughty Dog’s lofty stab at solving the conundrum of “ludonarrative dissonance,” an overused but still useful term in game criticism and theory.

The term was coined by Clint Hocking in 2007, and the dissonance it refers to the one between what you are doing narratively and what you are doing in the gameplay. The most ridiculed example of this is Nathan Drake, the star of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. He’s fashioned as an Indiana Jones-ish everyman with no military experience — and yet throughout the games he stars in, he guns down thousands of enemies with remarkable ease and little remorse.

Ludonarrative dissonance is easy to overlook when you are playing a game. If a guy shoots at you, you should probably shoot back. That’s usually the only thing the game allows you to do. It’s easy to pick off faceless, nameless grunts because they are faceless and nameless. They are fodder, not people.

TLOU2, bearing the weight of a decade of criticism regarding this concept, is centered around one big trick. Midway through the game, you switch characters to play as the daughter of one of the faceless guys you mowed down at the end of the first Last of Us. This is not a brief, neat flashback. You keep playing as her for hours. You play fetch with dogs that the character you start the game as, Ellie, will later kill.

What if, the game asks, every enemy that you kill is someone like this, a fully-realized person with their own arc? This idea is hammered home in other ways too: Enemies who find their dead comrades’ bodies will sometimes call them by a specific name. At one point, a character talks about a kid who joined a local militia, saying he’d like to meet them. “Maybe you already have,” your character responds. You can picture the game’s writers smirking to themselves at how they implicate you in the violence.

Grunts are people, is the message. The game makes this point over and over again, over a poorly paced 20 hours, mainly through a single character animation. Much of TLOU2’s gameplay involves sneaking around and silently snapping the necks of or stabbing enemies. When you do this, the camera zooms in really close to your character and the anguished face of the enemy being held in a chokehold. Look at your victim, the game demands. You’ll see this animation play out hundreds of time of the course of the game. The problem is that for a game trying to convince you that every grunt has their own story, you eventually see identical character models — the same face combined with the same clothing — often enough that it cheapens the effect.

Viewed through this lens, that TLOU2 is a towering effort to give every minor character their own story, it feels almost like a troll move. Oh, you thought reconciling ludonarrative dissonance was annoying? Here’s an alternative: a gargantuan, sprawling narrative where you have to ponder the humanity of literally everyone you meet, even the human fodder. Is this any better?


Thank you for reading BNet. If you make any personal simple mathematical discoveries, maybe keep them to yourself?