The Last of Us was technically the top PS3 game of the year on the Top Ten PS3 games list – but it is also my game of the generation, as such it deserves some special love. Keep in mind this is not a “best of the year” designation, but literally what I consider to be the best video game of the seventh console generation.
Spoilers ahead and a VERY long read to boot (just under 4,000 words). Due to the unusually long length of this post I’ve also made it available for download as a PDF if you’d prefer to read it outside of your browser.
At this point, everyone knows how The Last of Us begins: a brilliant sequence filled with surprise, tension, terror and the most emotional gut-punch of the seventh generation. You’re presented with the world, given the main character – and then, you see that main character change right before your eyes. Through one act of unthinkable violence, Joel transforms into the man you’ll be controlling for the majority of the game.
Naughty Dog goes all-out in the prologue, before the game proper even begins; they brilliantly allow the player to control it all, from the mundane moments through to the bombastic, and then they force us to experience the loss of control as we watch the terribleness of the situation unfold. We’re just as helpless as Joel when Sarah gets gunned down – of course we want to protect her, but no matter what, we fail. With this, Naughty Dog immediately begins subverting our expectations in regards to the narrative because we naturally imagine this whole game will be about one man’s (our) revenge against a corrupt and crumbling world – but no, if anything, it is about his revenge against himself, his own attrition for the failure to keep his daughter safe and alive. We next find Joel already broken, having given in to his demons. Living within the world that we saw the birth of; our world, spiraled downward into the gutter and filled with monsters both human and non. We witnessed the act which created Joel, so we must suppose that this world is indeed filled with similarly dangerous people who are unable to work through their pain in any sort of healthy way – we should immediately be scared to death of the other characters which fill this world.
Joel is a man who had his conception of ‘self’ violently destroyed, and who has in the interim, poisoned his new self with regret and anger. He now lives smothered by a darkness, lashing out with that same undiscriminating violence which created him in an effort to destroy everyone else’s world just as his own was destroyed. He uses the auspice of survival to justify this misanthropic attitude, but the player knows that he had the one person he cared most for in the world taken from him, we know he’s no misanthrope, he’s simply a living ghost who had his heart ripped out, who is now forced to trudge through a haunted and ghastly landscape. He now operates out of revenge, spite, trauma… call it what you will, Joel is simply a man who lost his soul, or rather, had it taken from him. Later on in the game, when he convinces himself that he may be able to reclaim it, he commits the ultimate act of selfishness and cowardice that stands as the culmination of the traits we were presented with at the start of his current story. He had given up on anything but the most brutal and lowest common denominator inherent with survival, but suddenly he realizes his life can hold meaning again beyond himself. Like a solipsist being woken from a dream world, he discovers he can transcend his own self-imposed hell. The real internal struggle is trying to figure out if he is too damaged to ever go back and believe such a thing is possible within himself, he must discover whether “Joel” still exists at all, or if it is only the dark and brutal monster which endures – the monstrous aberration which acts purely out of personal fear and survival; the façade which simply emulates humanity, but no longer truly understand its basic precepts. As it turns out, at the brilliant conclusion of the game – no – “Joel” does not exist. He is indeed only a monster, unable to actually act humanely. This is the main crux of the narrative after all; humanity’s descent into barbarism and the individual’s inability to maintain any sort of personal morality in the face of the necessities inherent in survival.
Joel’s final decision in the game, to save Ellie for himself instead of sacrificing her to the greater good (for the possible salvation of all humanity), is Shakespearean in its tragedy. Here is a man so angry at the world for destroying his life that he will damn that same world to eternal suffering so he may trick himself into believing that, in some self-delusional bit of revisionist memory, his “daughter” never died. This conceit is doubly tragic because we know, form our experiences playing through the game, that it’s all a trivial lie anyway, temporary at best. Joel’s manufactured happiness will only last so long – eventually the brutal world will bear down upon them both with its overwhelming odds and destroy any semblance of normalcy they think they have created.
In turn, Ellie’s character becomes the true victim of the story as she is coldly manipulated, and worse yet, her ethics are subverted without her consent by Joel, purely for his own selfish reasons. Ellie had committed herself and her life to the cause of finding a cure – even if it was a long shot she still felt it was a noble sacrifice to commit herself to. Yet Joel takes this ability to choose and define her own destiny away from her; she becomes his tool, his emotional pawn. By attempting to reignite his own humanity he unwittingly drags Ellie’s down to his own level, he destroys her altruism and so the prize he thinks he is winning no longer actually exists. The innocence of familial relations he desires so badly is the one thing he must destroy in order to ‘keep’ her as his own. He not only damns the world which has wronged him, but he also taints the one pure thing he thinks he has reclaimed. Ellie, in all her confused emotional duress, concedes to this role in the most passive and willfully ignorant way she possibly can. She is a child without hope after all, born to the damned generation as it were.
The narrative presented in The Last of Us is one of a kind in the video game medium – it presents the player with a subtle and textured look at the fragility of the human spirit’s ability to triumph, and humanity’s need to manufacture happiness where none exists (even at the cost of our own logical cognition). There are no clear motives or answers here – we simply know that Joel needs an emotional connection with someone and that Ellie, in her own way, needs the same thing. But this is overreaching – the same can be said for every individual on this planet. That basic concept is not what makes the narrative unique, what does make it unique is how these emotions and complex psychological desires are telegraphed and presented to us. Naughty Dog pays the audience the highest complement art can pay to its viewers; it treats them intelligently. They present us a complex tale about real emotional issues in a way that never becomes heavy-handed, gaudy, or blatant; it never becomes melodramatic or cliché – it always remains elegant and realistic. This is the first game that actually tells its story in a literary way; it bucks the trends of traditional video game medium and allows the subtle actions and dialog to tell more details of the story. The Last of Us “shows” more than it “tells” – and that is incredibly rare in the video game world. For a medium so reliant on visual representation, it’s absurd that it has taken this long for a game to truly tell a story with the subtlety of a great film. Most games present their stories in large info dumps – vomiting up chunks of exposition in between the interactive moments which could be used so effectively to tell that story instead – this is where The Last of Us differentiates itself so brilliantly from the crowd. The game assumes we are smart enough to pay attention and pick up on the details the characters express while we move them through their circumstances.
The story is presented with a well-deserved confidence rarely seen in the medium; Naughty Dog makes great use of the smash to black and time-jumps for instance. Seeing the white letters of “WINTER” – or any other season, punctuate the blackened void of the screen is always affective and again, Naughty Dog doesn’t hold us by the hand. There are leaps in time and character here, but all is inferred and all is fleshed out by the actor’s performances – not through exposition dumps. The confidence shows in what they do not show us, their restraint and their belief in the intelligence of the audience. Meanwhile, while all this narrative trickery is being presented to the players, a minimalistic and haunting score by Gustavo Santaolla punctuates the proceedings marvelously, always adding to the whole, never stealing or subtracting from it.
“Endure and Survive”
Aside from all the interesting things The Last of Us is doing from narrative standpoint, I think that more often than not, people downplay the actual mechanics of the game. From my anecdotal experience, most people who think the game is overrated always hang on the fact that the practical game play is stale and boring. I disagree; I think the game play is excellent, perhaps not revolutionary in any sense, but certainly a polished and precise component of the game. The controls work perfectly and all the requisite components of a third person game are pulled off faultlessly. However, that’s not to say this is a “perfect” game – there are shortcomings in the design, most notably in the AI.
To put it bluntly – friendly AI is achingly stupid. Many times throughout the game when you are trying to stealth through a section, your AI compatriots will stomp around like elephants and run right in front of enemies, while said enemies do not respond in the least bit… this immediately breaks the tension and the immersion of a sequence. It is of course a necessary trade-off to have the enemies not recognize our friendly AI characters, because if they did, the game would border on the frustratingly unplayable; probably half of all the stealth sequences attempted in the game would be unsuccessful through no fault of the players. This is an unfortunate trade-off, but one which is necessitated by the limitations of the PS3 hardware, so it is a concession I’m willing to accept – if only because the rest of the game is so damn good.
The difficulty curve is almost non-existent in TLOU, which also makes it stand out as unique in the genre. You are allowed to upgrade some of Joel’s stats; extending his maximum health, diminishing weapon sway, etc. But these are all upgraded by finding optional collectibles throughout the game – there is no inherent leveling system associated with standardized combat experience. You use shivs at the start of the game and you use them at the end of the game – there is a fantastic balance among all the tools and weapons provided you. It is just as hard/easy to choke out an enemy at the end of the game as it is at the start of the game, so really, the number of enemies, your amount of supplies and the environmental layout are the only things which really up the difficulty in the game. The fact that in most cases you’re free to roam through a level and sneak up behind enemies however you see fit, makes this balance all the more apparent. The difficulty level is constant and in this way the survival aspects of the game play always seem real – you can die in the intro sequence for godsakes. You never become powerful enough throughout the game to feel as though you can breeze through a group of enemies. Everything scales wonderfully and any one-on-one fight could end your game.
The conservation of ammo is more acutely felt in TLOU than in any game I can recall, actually making this feel like a game based on survival. As such, the majority of my three separate play-throughs consisted of trying to avoid gunplay whenever possible. Dispatching enemies with stealth hand-to-hand kills is both extremely satisfying and advantageous to the player in the way that it builds up your armory for the sections where you’ll really need some firepower to help you through. Some of the biggest thrills in the game came from this style of play; the situations of being in a room with numerous enemies, when you suddenly slip up and everyone becomes aware of your presence are extremely tense. You’ll suddenly panic as you’re swarmed and as you frantically pull your gun and attempt to fend off the murderous enemies. This is where the enemy AI shines, due to a system that Naughty Dog calls “the balanced of power”. In practical terms this amounts to the enemies “paying attention” to not only your location – then sneaking up behind you, flanking you, etc. but also causes them to pay attention to how many shots you’ve fired. If they hear the dry fire of an empty gun, or if they hear you reloading, they’ll charge you, they’ll emerge from cover and reposition; they’ll become aggressive because they’ll know you’re currently vulnerable. It’s really a fascinating thing to experience and creates some truly stand-out combat moments during higher difficulty settings.
The Last of Us is the first game that I’ve played in a long time where I immediately replayed it upon completion – then replayed it again. Experiencing it on the Survivor difficulty levels was truly a transcendent experience that I highly recommend every player experience. The Survivor difficulty level provided, without a doubt, the most visceral and intense combat situations I’ve ever experienced while playing a game. I see folks use the term “heart-pounding” quite a lot in games reviews, but I actually experienced it – over and over again – through my many times playing The Last of Us.
Some of the most brutally graphic depictions of simulated violence I’ve ever witnessed are found in this game, and what’s truly unique is that they are not pre-canned animations that you’ll see every X amount of times you shoot someone. Everything is dynamic and every time I’ve played through the game I’ve seen new, unique deaths that have shocked me in equal measure. The guns and melee weapons all have a very convincing weight and impact when used which lends a very substantive and satisfying feel to the combat, helping to further cement the realism. During my time spent playing the game and witnessing the inelegant and vicious combat I was constantly reminded of something Alfred Hitchcock once said about the way he depicts murder in his films: “In films murders are always very clean. I show how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man.” Just like Hitchcock Naught Dog has presented us with a unique and ugly representation of murder that few other games have the patience for. To strangle someone, to bludgeon them to death, to stick a shiv into their necks is always a messy, prolonged and fierce act – it never becomes quick, clean and rote. Each and every time you beat someone to death it feels impactful because they don’t allow a standardized animation to briefly play out before the body unceremoniously drops to the floor and disappears – the developers make us watch this horror show – they make us complicit and don’t do us the disservice of making mass murder disposable, neat and convenient.
The audacity with which Naught Dog shows its representations of our main character’s mass murder also exists as a rarity in the game world. Let us take ND’s biggest franchise for instance – in the Uncharted games we play as the likable scamp of a protagonist, Nathan Drake. He’s handsome, funny and cool – we as gamers are supposed to utilize this confident, action star with movie-god looks as out direct avatar in the game world. He’s everything most people would want to be if they were in the fictional situations we play through, yet at the same time he spends the entire game shooting hundreds of people in the head, then minutes later, during the next cutscene, he cracks some jokes and remains aloof to the atrocities he endlessly commits with no regard. He is literally a mass murderer when he’s holding a gun, yet when the camera comes in for the close up he’s suddenly the Indiana Jones-esque good guy; a fun-loving scamp. It’s a huge leap and creates a real jarring bit of narrative dissonance if you actually stop to think about it. If you’re playing as Batman in a video game you’re not endlessly killing people – you’re incapacitating them at best. The reason that is the case is because Batman is not a mass-murderer. He has a moral compass and his character does not violate the internal logic of the story. I don’t mean to single the Uncharted games out either – this is a huge problem in 99.9% of videogames which involve the main protagonist holding a gun. The Last of Us, however, manages to make this commonly ignored trope glaringly obvious as soon as you pick up another game. Joel is a horrible person, we’re never told otherwise. He was once a normal, moral human being but has spiraled down into the hellish gutter lock-step with the rest of humanity. Therefore there is never a bit of narrative dissonance when he mercilessly shoots a horde of men in the face because we know he is a mass murdering piece of shit. He knows it too though – and therein lies the true transcendent revelation of the trope. The game designers have created the first truly terrible protagonist that we still feel compelled to play as. We pardon him his constant, horrific transgressions because we’ve been shown those are the logical actions of a survivalist in the fictionalized world we’re playing through. It makes sense – it doesn’t necessarily mean we like it, but that’s the genius of this game; we’re never sure if we like any of the actions we’re forced to commit… we’re simply tasked with doing them in order to survive so we may see the next bit of the narrative puzzle fall into place – continually hoping that we will find some sort of redemption within the character, some sort of morality. Naughty Dog strings us along in these futile hopes for the entire duration of the game – and it proves how well the story is told because it succeeded in making me jump from one foot to the next all the way up until that final, memorable smash to black.
Add all this metaconceptual and violent combat tension together and then sprinkle in the item management and crafting system which is all done in real-time and you’ve managed to notch all the intensity up even further. The developers integrated a fantastic risk vs. reward structure into the combat mechanics with this real-time system. In a generation full of regenerative health and instant re-spawns the purity and weight of the combat in The Last of Us was a breath of fresh, albeit spore-tainted, air.
Also worth noting – There are no superfluous tools or mechanics – as I previously mentioned, you create shivs early on and will use them all the way up to the end. Every single item you have in your inventory is useful and necessary. I can’t recall another game where I actually used every single gun I had access to, or every single secondary item. It is a testament to the precision of Naughty Dog’s vision that they were able to craft such a deft and inter-dependant system of item use and management.
“Can’t deny that view”
The graphics engine Naughty Dog has built the game on goes a long way to legitimize all the above; complex, nuanced facial animations and body language are all conveyed in an amazingly lifelike and naturalistic fashion. Simply watching Joel’s eyes during a cut-scene can reveal the subtext, Ellie’s exasperation becomes obvious without stiff exposition. Again, like a film, The Last if Us uses its’ actors to tell the story – Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie deliver wonderfully nuanced performances, recreated in striking relief by Naughty Dog’s jaw-dropping graphics engine which is far and away a better representation of actual human movement than I’ve ever seen in another console game..
Almost everyone can agree, despite their opinion of the game itself, that the whole thing just looks gorgeous. There is so much detail packed into every single location in the game that it is inspiring from a pure aesthetic design perspective. You can tell some very talented and very dedicated programmers spent a lot of time just making piles of trash, rusty metal and other pieces of inconsequential and non-interactive refuse – which, in any other game, would be deemed a waste of time. Here though, all these seemingly inconsequential details come together to create a density of atmosphere and sense of location – the end of civilization has never been so convincing in a game world.
Every now and then the frame rate dips and the PS3 sighs under the stress that the engine creates – but overall the style of the game fits the performance levels quite well. Everything already feels heavy and plodding – the weariness and weight of Joel works well at 30 fps and the impact of all that weight is convincing. This game is being released not only at the end of the PS3’s lifecycle, but after having already been deemed “obsolete” from a technological standpoint for over five years now. It is absolutely astounding in every way that The Last of Us looks as good as it does.
That quite moment of reflection as you watch a herd of giraffe, then sneak close enough to pet one of them – you just want that to last forever. And they’ll let you; a few different times throughout the course of the game you’re presented with a vista or a situation where, if you so desire it, you can simply stand around and… stare – you can just think. They won’t rush you onwards, no, Naught Dog allows you to have some time to feel some things. It’s rare to feel anything while playing a video game besides frustration or accomplishment, actually drawing some compelling, genuine emotion out of the player is an art and in this sense, The Last of Us is the pinnacle of the medium at this point in time. It manages to be both a great game and an artistic expression of character, narrative and aesthetics. The Last of Us is interactive experience like no other. It makes good on the promises of all the possible greatness which the medium is capable of if only we start allowing artists to have complete creative control over their creations. Indie games have stepped up in huge ways this last generation to provide gamers with experiences which transcend the banal normalcy of traditional video games and The Last of Us proves that the same expressions of artistic honesty can be achieved at the AAA level with startling results.
The Last of Us is the best game of the seventh generation*. I swear.
*Followed by Super Mario Galaxy!