Feature Article

The Test of Time: Looking Back at The Last of Us

Maybe not quite the last.

It's been a little over a year now since The Last of Us was released. Part of the last hurrah of AAA releases before the dawn of a new console generation, the game had tremendous expectations to live up to. Now that the dust has had some time to settle, and with the game's PlayStation 4 release just a few weeks off, join us as we take a look back at what The Last of Us represented at the time of its release, and as we look forward to what it might contribute to gaming's future.

Pre-release: Venturing Away from Uncharted

It was December of 2011. Uncharted 3 had come out the previous month, and though the reviews were glowing and the game was a huge hit, the level of excitement around it didn't reach the spectacular heights that accompanied the release of Uncharted 2. As successful as the exploits of Nathan Drake had been for Naughty Dog, there was a risk that the studio would be seen as falling into a rut if the next announcement from them revealed yet another swashbuckling adventure for the treasure hunter and his friends. It was time for something different.

The Last of Us looked different.

Revealed at the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards, the announcement of The Last of Us was accompanied by a trailer that introduced us to Joel and Ellie's struggle for survival in a world where society has collapsed and horrifying infected humans threaten those who survive. Another Uncharted game, this was not.

It would be 18 months before the game was released, but over that time, Naughty Dog kept interest in the game high with an intense E3 stage demo in 2012, and by slowly doling out information in the months that followed about things like the cause of society's collapse and the nature of the relationship between Joel and Ellie, who many initially assumed were father and daughter. Given Naughty Dog's pedigree with the Uncharted games and Sony's smartly understated handling of PR, by the time The Last of Us was finally released in June of 2013, it had become one of the most anticipated console releases of the year.

Release: The Reception

The Last of Us was met with near-universal critical acclaim. It has a 95 rating on Metacritic, and earned the highest possible review score from a huge number of outlets, with critics particularly praising the game's narrative and atmosphere. Some critics felt that the game was so excellent that it breathed new life into the sometimes-predictable action adventure genre. Awarding the game a 10 out of 10, Oli Welsh of Eurogamer wrote, "At a time when blockbuster action games are sinking into a mire of desperate overproduction, shallow gameplay and broken narrative logic, The Last of Us is a deeply impressive demonstration of how it can and should be done. It starts out safe but ends brave; it has heart and grit, and it hangs together beautifully. And it's a real video game, too. An elegy for a dying world, The Last of Us is also a beacon of hope for its genre." Edge Magazine similarly felt that the game had more soul than you typically find in a big-budget mainstream release, saying in their review, " At times it’s easy to feel like big-budget development has too much on the line to allow stubbornly artful ideas to flourish, but then a game like The Last Of Us emerges through the crumbled blacktop like a climbing vine, green as a burnished emerald."

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Other critics, however, felt that the game reflected the limits of its genre. In his ongoing video series Errant Signal, critic Chris Franklin said that the game is "very driven by the traditional complete-a-gameplay-section-and-be-rewarded-with-story-chunks mentality that games have been trying to move away from for years" and that it "pushes the... formula to its breaking point, taking it perhaps as far as you possibly can, but in the process showing its fundamental limitations." Polygon's Philip Kollar also felt that the game was compromised by its adherence to genre conventions, saying that it "achieves incredible emotional high points about as often as it bumps up against tired scenario design that doesn't fit its world."

The combat at the heart of The Last of Us owes a debt to the gunplay of the Uncharted games, but while those games went for a freewheeling, summer action movie vibe, the action in The Last of Us was meant to put you on edge, encouraging you to be sneaky and make the most of your limited resources to survive. Many critics felt the combat was intense and harrowing. In his review for IGN, Colin Moriarty wrote, "The beauty of stealth in The Last of Us is the incredible, uncomfortable realism you’re forced to witness each and every time you execute a silent kill. Watching a survivor fruitlessly swat at Joel’s arms as he strangles him to death is disturbing, as is quickly shiving a man in his neck and listening to him gurgle some parting breaths as he collapses to the ground. The Last of Us does a phenomenal job of making each and every enemy feel human. Every life taken has weight and each target feels unique and alive."

In the wake of The Last of Us, the real question seemed to be whether or not the conventions of its genre, which had developed over much of the previous console generation, represented an approach to game design that could stay relevant as we moved into the next generation.

For some, however, the game's attempts to foster a sense of dread were undercut by its unwillingness to make death meaningful. In his review for GameSpot, Tom Mc Shea wrote, "The Last of Us refuses to punish failure in a manner befitting the harshness of its world. Become overwhelmed and you quickly perish, but with checkpoints only a few seconds apart, the danger of expiring never dissuades you from recklessness."

In the end, however, while some admired the skill with which The Last of Us employed common elements of its genre and some felt that the game was limited by its adherence to those elements, most agreed that there had rarely been a more well-crafted, more narratively engaging example of the traditional action-adventure game. And the game was adored by players as well. It currently has an average score of 9.1 from Metacritic users, and an average rating of 9 from GameSpot readers. In the wake of The Last of Us, the real question seemed to be whether or not the conventions of its genre, which had developed over much of the previous console generation, represented an approach to game design that could stay relevant as we moved into the next generation.

The Impact of Left Behind

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If The Last of Us was hemmed in by genre conventions, then its add-on chapter, Left Behind, found a way to push up against those conventions, both narratively and mechanically. While some, like Chris Suellentrop in the New York Times and Keith Stuart in The Guardian, had lamented that The Last of Us, for all of its narrative ambitions, was yet another game that was somewhat predictable in the ways that it was about men and violence, Left Behind focuses on Ellie, and uses its gameplay mechanics and its narrative to foster a real sense of connection between her and her friend Riley.

In his feature Coming of Age in The Last of Us: Left Behind, GameSpot's Tom Mc Shea wrote admiringly about the way that Left Behind lets us feel like a participant in many of the moments that bond Ellie and Riley together. "Though some of her personality building stems from the quiet cinematics where I was just an interested observer," he writes, "Left Behind doesn't end her development there. What really caught my attention was how the core of her change occurs while we're in control of her. It's the combat, exploration, and bonding activities she shares with her friend Riley that establish who she is, and who she'll ultimately become."

And in her piece for Wired entitled The Videogame That Finally Made Me Feel Like a Human Being, Laura Hudson praised Left Behind's characterization of Ellie, writing that she "got to be both vulnerable and dangerous, scared and brave, weak and strong. She got to be human."

Where The Last of Us Belongs

From a gameplay perspective, The Last of Us took a kitchen sink approach, cramming in zombie-like enemies, stealth action, cover shooting, quick-time events, simple environmental puzzles, and numerous other elements that had previously surfaced in any number of similar games. It truly was, as Chris Franklin astutely observed, "a greatest hits tour through the last decade of AAA action adventure game design by major studios." But as familiar as these numerous elements are and as many times as we've experienced them before, the care with which the story and the characters of The Last of Us were crafted elevated the game, making it something that, for many players, transcended the typical action-adventure game experience. The Last of Us took its place as the pinnacle of the genre. For all its excellence, though, it felt like the end of an arc, the crowning achievement in trends that had been building up for a long time, and not something that spoke to where games might go in the future.

With Left Behind, though, the legacy of The Last of Us has shifted somewhat. It is now a game that speaks to how the action adventure genre can evolve, how it can tell different kinds of stories from the kind the genre has typically told, and how, rather than treating story and gameplay as two alternating components, it can effectively fuse narrative and gameplay to strengthen our sense of connection to the characters. Because of this, it's immensely fitting that The Last of Us will be not just a late PlayStation 3 release, but also, come July 29th, an early PlayStation 4 release. It's a game that borrows shamelessly from so many games that came before, but it may also have much to offer the games that are yet to come.

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