The Last Night was one of E3’s most dazzling games — and also its most frustrating

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It’s rare that a game becomes one of the biggest wins and the biggest losses of E3 at the same time, but The Last Night — a cyberpunk side-scroller made by indie studio Odd Tales — may have done it. The Last Night’s stylish, neon-drenched trailer was a highlight of Microsoft’s annual press conference, overshadowing much bigger games from much larger teams. But not long after the show, a series of controversial tweets surfaced from co-creator Tim Soret, suggesting that the game would reflect the worldview of the anti-feminist Gamergate movement. Within a few hours, The Last Night went from universally appealing to bitterly divisive.

Based on what I’ve now seen of The Last Night, the final game won’t be either of those things. This game is one of the most beautiful things at E3, and also one of the most nebulous. The Last Night is a cinematic platformer that may have almost no platforming, with a cyberpunk plot and setting that the developers insist is not cyberpunk, based on a view of the world that seems less reactionary than naive. It’s a game whose creators appear determined to make socially relevant, but in a way that may ultimately hurt The Last Night as a piece of art.

The Last Night wasn’t playable at E3, but Odd Tales appeared at the show with a series of animated environments: a bustling neon-lit street, a subway station, a harbor at night. Each one is composed of flat pixel art layered in a three-dimensional space, which is then lit like an ordinary 3D scene. The world is magnetic, with a warmth and depth that brings its buildings and inhabitants to life.

It’s less clear what form that life will take. The game is set in a future of ubiquitous computing, where labor has been rendered obsolete by artificial intelligence. It’s about a man who is medically unable to get the implanted computing devices that other people in the world depend on, drifting around the edges of society until he’s drawn into a life-or-death plot.

Odd Tales calls The Last Night a cinematic platformer in the vein of Another World, whose developer Soret cites as an inspiration. But he describes gameplay that sounds more like a complex interactive drama based on talking to people and exploring the environment, with a cast of characters whose reactions will change based on what you say and do. Despite the platformer label, the game supposedly won’t include a jump mechanic — Soret jokes that you don’t see people leaping around the streets in real-world cities.

These kinds of branching narratives are hard to pull off, and we don’t know how good Odd Tales is at writing them, since we haven’t seen the game in action. And Odd Tales seems to be grappling with what kind of future it wants to make — which is exactly what got it into trouble at E3. In 2014, Soret wrote that The Last Night “takes place in a cyberpunk world where modern feminism won instead of egalitarianism,” appending the Gamergate hashtag. Around the same time, he claimed the game would show “the dangers of extreme progressivism,” and inquired about the possibility of using Gamergate mascot Vivian James in the game.

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Soret has disavowed the tweets and the sentiment, and when I met with him, he reiterated that they were mistakes that don’t reflect his current worldview or plans for The Last Night. He cast some of his earlier statements in a more neutral light: where his old tweets seemed to condemn artificial wombs as a kind of “extreme” feminism meant to let women smoke and drink during pregnancy, he now describes them simply as something that could change women’s role in his future, possibly for the better. “It’s neither utopian nor dystopian,” he says.

Soret still seems dubious of modern feminism and social justice, but expresses it in vague terms of seeing the movement as divisive, and there’s no sign this will translate into the game itself. Nothing about The Last Night’s world sounds preachy — if anything, its social commentary sounds remarkably mild, covering ubiquitous future-shock anxieties like gamification, automation, and consumerism. The danger is that nothing seems particularly well-considered, either. Would a post-work future really look so much like Blade Runner or Neuromancer, both of which were full of hustlers looking for their next score? Will the developers engage with feminism enough to address its future with any depth, the way that recent games like VA-11 HALL-A have done?

Odd Tales expresses a confusingly bellicose conviction that it’s turning the science fiction world on its head, without offering much justification for why. The Last Night began as an entry in the 2014 Cyberpunk Game Jam, but Odd Tales later rejected the label in an online manifesto, declaring that “the cyberpunk vision established by Blade Runner and William Gibson is just too normal” and deriding every cyberpunk-adjacent game of the past decade as “trope comfort food.”

Every time Odd Tales tries to explain why The Last Night isn’t cyberpunk, though, it ends up describing something that could come straight out of Blade Runner — when I asked Soret whether The Last Night took the genre’s aesthetic in a new direction, he mentioned drawing influence from a trip to Hong Kong. (Even William Gibson himself retweeted a joke about the game’s straightforward visual homage.) There’s a common thread here with the Gamergate controversy, which is that there’s very little sense of context or self-awareness around The Last Night. It’s seemingly post-cyberpunk the way that people who don’t know much about feminism identify as “post-feminist,” advancing past an unrecognizable strawman of the genre.

And ironically, insisting that The Last Night is unprecedented makes it a lot less likable. It suggests that the studio doesn’t understand why people enjoyed its trailer so much: not because it offered something totally new, but because it handled a familiar formula with fantastic competence. The project is in such an early state that I can’t say whether Odd Tales will be able to deliver a finished game by 2018, the current release date. But if it does, The Last Night could be the best cyberpunk comfort food of the year. I dearly hope that’s where it goes.

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