In a feat I can only describe as unexpected, a game came out last year that not only awed me with its technical and storytelling achievements, but also moved me to tears at several points throughout the powerful and dark adventure. If the title didn’t clue you in, this game was The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s latest effort after rolling off the success of their excellent Unchartedseries. Right from the beginning, this game brought me to the verge of tears, and yet also filled me with this nausea-like sensation in my gut that things couldn’t possibly get any worse.
As I soon learned, this game revealed its dark, sadistic, and downright depressing atmosphere in my face, with my body consistently weakening and my eyes filled with dread over things to come. Yet, in the most unexpected places, I found slivers of light that didn’t force me to throw a Molotov at myself. It’s in these moments, along with the connection I felt and shared with Joel and Ellie, the stars of the show, that proved to me that The Last of Us was more than a mere survival-horror action game. It was proof that even humans can exist in games, and that they can be to us as family.
The basic story premise is nothing special, or even new. A fungal infection spreads to humanity, creating a zombie apocalypse. Though usually a virus, this synopsis can be found in many films, comics, and TV shows, such as The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, etc. Zombies have been a part of our culture for a long time, and that’s not likely to change. It made sense for Naughty Dog to want to capitalize on this trope, but here they tried something slightly different. Instead of focusing on the collapse of civilization as we know it, as other media are prone to do, they instead focus on two characters: Joel, a hardened smuggler, and Ellie, a girl who grew up during the apocalypse and has no real connection to anything from how it was before. Again, nothing new, as Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road shows a father and son’s journey through an apocalyptic wasteland while focusing on their relationship. However, where The Last of Us shines is not in how it emulates its obvious influences, but rather expands upon them in possibly the most casual and restrained manner possible.
The evidence is in the sharp and natural dialogue that comes out of these characters. Rather than simply talking about how hopeless everything is or how they’re to go about their daily lives trying to survive, most of the exchanges between characters revolve around the mundane, such as explaining what an ice cream truck is to a young kid, roleplaying what it’s like to check in at a barren and desolate hotel, and being mildly irritated/amused by a book filled with some of the worst puns and jokes you’ll ever hear. And these moments come almost immediately after shooting a guy in the face while his pal soon gets his head smashed into concrete. Hey, I’d want to lighten the mood too if I were them.
All of this is presented in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever seen. Images of lush plant life swallowing entire buildings whole while tearing apart streets and sidewalks have been shown before, but never have you really had the chance to walk through and admire the haunting beauty of this scenario. Forests are abundant in wildlife, as are the mostly barren cities that have become less a jungle of steel and concrete and more an ancient, overgrown ruin, a grim reminder for the people in the game of a life that was, but is no more. Take that in for a second. You only see this in a few abandoned buildings here or there nowadays, but it’d be hard to fathom a place like Boston succumbing to the same fate. Well, once you see it, it leaves a lump in your throat as your eyes quiver with unease. At least, that’s what I felt as I gazed upon the landscape, made even more impressive by the quality of Naughty Dog’s game engine that allows the PS3 to utilize its full graphical potential and give us a downright gorgeous scene.
Yet I haven’t touched on the story much, have I? With all this talk of writing and setting, I’m surprised I didn’t spoil anything yet. Well, I won’t be doing that, but I will tell you that, even with its seemingly uninspired setup, it’s how the sum of all its parts come together that really matters. And as a new addition into the ever-increasing tome of zombie lore, it’s a damn fine entry. The typical themes are all there—the collapse of civilization, survival, keeping your humanity—yet are not in-your-face about it. It only leaves clues like newspapers and old notes to help you understand what happened during the twenty year span that the fungus nearly destroyed everything. The development of a rebel group known as the Fireflies to fight an increase in military power also adds a new dimension, as we see what the U.S. has been reduced to over the timespan, and also try to find a cure for the infection plaguing humanity. Even Joel and Ellie’s relationship is an example of a few of these tropes (more on that soon).
All of this is told in a very mature manner, as opposed to the lighthearted nature of Naughty Dog’s previous efforts such as Crash Bandicoot, Jack & Daxter, and Uncharted. I admire any writer of any medium who can attempt to go out of their comfort zone and try something unique and unknown to them. I become even more impressed when they can pull it off, and Naughty Dog certainly surprised me with their level of maturity and skill, especially with my initial skepticism that they would revert to try and make the game more lighthearted as that’s what they know how to do best. In fact, the game almost tries to be like a theater play, rather than anything resembling a TV show or film, partly due to its structure and the way the performances are driven and how everything is set up and revealed.
Another thing they do exceptionally well is character development. In both Jak & Daxter and Uncharted, the devs at Naughty Dog made wonderful and memorable characters that have come to be known as gaming icons over the years. I laughed at the antics of Daxter, I felt Jak’s anger over the abuse he suffered, and I sympathized with Nathan Drake on his daring and often suicidal hunt for hidden history. Not that any of these characters are perfect—Nathan Drake is a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to violence—but they did leave their mark. Admittedly, I had a hard time sympathizing with Joel in this game. He suffered heavy losses, yes, but he became a selfish bastard afterwards. Throughout the game, however, I understood why he became like that, and eventually felt pity. I cheered for him during the end sequence as well, which might confuse you if you’ve seen what happens, but that’s because I came to know his plight. I saw the pain in his eyes, and it made me feel the same kind of pain. His will to survive—heightened by survivor’s guilt—is only matched by the love he’s capable of showing, made evident by the excellent intro sequence. He’s a stereotypical badass done right.
Ellie, on the other hand, was the immediate star of the show in my eyes. Born within the apocalypse, all she grew up knowing is how to stay alive. She has no concept of what a girl her age should’ve been doing had the world not fallen apart. She should worry about boys and what she wants to be and which shirt goes with which skirt, not living with a throbbing fear that her life could be ended by a zombie the next day. However, unlike Clementine from Telltale’s The Walking Dead, she is more than able to take care of herself, even if she needs a bit of a push to do so. She always carries a knife, and is more than capable with a gun. She’s also one of the most foul-mouthed fourteen year olds you’ll ever encounter, likely a product of the harsh militaristic environment she was forced to grow up in. Yet in her eyes there’s this innocence, a longing to understand the world as it once was, and an optimism that it can all be that way someday. She and Joel develop a bond throughout the game—as can be expected—yet the circumstances surrounding their meeting don’t exactly foreshadow that. Or if it does, it’s likely from the jaded feeling of “oh that’s been done before.” Yet I’ve never seen a relationship develop this well or this slowly. What starts off as convenience eventually becomes necessity, and that’s where their characters really come into their own. For Ellie, this journey is her coming-of-age moment, and it’s where the narrative truly shines.
They meet a cast of varied and colorful people along the way, whom I won’t spoil as that would give many plot reveals that I’m desperately trying to avoid. I’ve liked more people than I’ve hated, even some people I would normally consider scum for their actions. I could say that they represent one or more aspects of the fall of civilization and humanity, but then I’d be boring you. So instead, I’ll just say that with each character, I can pretty much quote them by this point, and I even chuckle at some of their idiosyncrasies. I love their respective roles in the story, and their own interactions with Joel and Ellie.
The part that struck me the most, however, was the gameplay. Again, not much here is being done that hasn’t been done before...if you look at each individual system separately. It combines the elements of a third-person shooter with survival horror and adventure parts built in. You collect and scavenge items to craft for weapons and health kits. You take cover when in a fight, though it isn’t at all sticky so it feels more natural. There’s the famous over-the-shoulder perspective that Resident Evil 4 popularized and has since been beaten to death by several games. Lots of things you would find in horror games is here. Lots of things you would find in shooters is here. Lots of things you’d find in survival horror games is here.
Now, I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to combine game genres and gameplay tropes, you better have a reason for it apart from “I like these two styles, so I’m going to put them together.” No! It needs purpose. Thankfully, The Last of Us gives a reason for these things, which I’ve heard people complain against. If you see a rag on top of some sheets, you can’t take all those sheets with you. That’s counterproductive, and ripping them takes time you don’t have before your skull is caved in. If your enemies drop only one or two rounds of ammo, that’s likely all they had left while they were trying to feed the rest into your body. You find supplies in the most likely places you would find them in real life, and in these scenarios, you’re in areas that have likely been picked mostly clean by whoever happened to be there first. If there are any left for your use, it was either human error or lack of space.
Either way, it’s there to aid you in the various fights you find yourself in with the humans in the game. Being able to outmaneuver a group of armed scavengers in large asymmetrical arenas in as many different ways you can—guns blazing, stealthily, avoiding them altogether—is a gameplay experience I haven’t had since I played Dishonored, a game that also had many different play styles. However, unlike Dishonored, the game doesn’t subtly force you to play a certain way in order to obtain the best possible result. Whether you want to maim and tear your assailants apart with guns and shivs or quietly give their necks a gentle wringing from behind like a dirty used towel, that’s entirely up to you. It tries to adapt to most peoples’ play styles, while still making sure that you follow the rules the game sets out for you.
For me, I tried to conserve supplies as often as possible, which meant that I picked the stealthy route. However, if I ever got spotted, I would do my best to pick enemies off one by one as accurately as possible without consuming important things like ammo and health kits. The humans here don’t give you a break either. They will hunt you down, try to flank you, and basically play cat and mouse with you while you attempt the same. Your AI companion helps you out whenever you’re in a rough spot by either throwing bricks, shooting them, or telling you their general location if you can’t see them. These moments were cerebral and satisfying, even if afterwards I got the sense that I did a bad thing. I don’t know if it was the gurgling and struggling of everyone I choked out, or that last man standing begging for his life as I point my shotgun at his face.
You even have to fight with the infected, which is not much easier to do. With runners barreling towards you like that one fish in Spongebob with a chocolate addiction, clickers that kill you in one hit if they so much as touch you, and other variants the reveal themselves much later, your strategies for each encounter are different depending on the environment you’re in, how many of certain types there are, and whether or not you have enough supplies to take them all down quickly. Outsmarting them is usually the best tactic, as their sight is compromised, but their hearing is enhanced. Creeping past them is usually the best idea, as getting into a fistfight with a large group of runners and clickers is likely going to leave your neck a bloody mess of strings and meat. Guns help to, but some like the clickers have so many layers of fungus growing on their bodies that they take bullets like a boat full of sailors take cheap gin. Sneaking past them or going behind them to jam a knife down their spore-filled throats is usually your preferred method of taking them down, even if their buddies are trying to sniff around for your urine-soaked pants along the way.
In every fight, I never felt as though anything was getting monotonous, even with the more predictable infected encounters. I enjoyed every tense moment. Crafting happened in real time, so if I had to make something, I had to hide, soaked in my own sweat and blood, and create my next item before they found me. It doesn’t have the same exact level of tension that traditional horror games do, however, since your AI partner is basically invisible to every man, woman, zombie, cat, and brick except for very few instances where I had to save them from an enemy grapple. I would’ve been annoyed at this had I not been so disdainful of most escort missions in games (looking at you, Ashley from Resident Evil 4). While it is true that the AI is suspect to the occasional lapse in judgment and higher-order thinking, they quickly recover from this and go back to the hunting.
These elements appear in the game’s multiplayer mode, which is practically an extension of the universe. It has a basic deathmatch mode, but with limited respawns and a more tense atmosphere and limited sprinting and listening mode. It also has a survivor mode, which is a last man standing mode where respawns are laughed at until the next match—in other words, you die and stay dead until the next match. The gameplay is the same—including the real-time crafting—and keeps that same level of tension as in the game. However, this mode feels more dangerous, as you’re fighting actual human players who behave very much like a pack and will take every opportunity to ruin your supposed fun. You hunt for supplies, but not just for crafting. These supplies are meant for your survivor group outside of the matches. This part is what helps you level up, get more upgrades and weapons, etc. The more people in your group, the faster you level up, but the higher the demand for supplies is as well. I felt protective of my group during every match. The fact that they all had names helped out as well. It’s a great multiplayer experience that I always keep coming back to.
Blah, blah, blah, tell us what you really thought of the game, why don’t you. In short, I can summarize my experience with The Last of Us in three words: surprised, depressed, and enlightened. Surprised by how damn well every component of the game—story, gameplay, art style—blended together into an unforgettable experience. Depressed at the darkness and hopelessness the atmosphere felt throughout, even as I rooted for the characters more and more. Enlightened at the hidden moments of pleasure and human decency that I found within the game. I’m not the only one who thinks this about the game, but the dissenters would disagree.
Look, I realize that this game isn’t for everyone, and I know that some can’t overlook the fact that the gameplay mechanics aren’t refined in the traditional sense. I know some people found the realism jarring and too dark. For me, that’s just what games should accomplish. I’m not saying get rid of fun and entertaining games like Call of Duty or Super Mario. I’m also not saying that you’re wrong to have these opinions—not every game is for everybody. But this is the game that showed me how much games overall need to grow up. Point me to games in the past that accomplished what The Last of Us did, including its level of restraint and maturity. I can show you exactly where the fourth wall is broken for humor, where the jokes come in because the game needs to be “fun”, and I can show you the silliness of the overall plot. Even in some of the best horror games that are meant to frighten have moments that you laugh at because of how silly it all is. Games don’t need to just be “fun” anymore. We need to get past that. I didn’t exactly have fun playing this game, and I felt that it was for the best. I needed this experience to show me that games can have the same level of sophistication that cinema and literature has without having to resort to “fun” to keep people entertained.
And that is why I love The Last of Us.