Developer: Naughty Dog || Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Director: Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann || Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4
Truth be told, I don’t play too many videogames. I’ve only completed a handful since high school, and yet most every one I played felt worthwhile and made me feel grateful for having chose it. I’m not a videogame fan in the way I am a cinephile, but at the same time, I feel that I can read which way the wind blows and pick some pretty good ones from time to time.
The Last of Us is one of those good games. While the previous game I played, Spec Ops: The Line (2012), challenged the meaning of videogames by critiquing their very design and function, The Last of Us represents a true embracement of narrative and character development over gameplay. This isn’t too far removed from The Line’s modus operandi save for the fact that TLU’s game mechanics are outstanding and the game is itself is a blast to play. It’s about as dark The Line, or about as dark as any narrative could be for that matter, and yet like cinematic greats such as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or 28 Days Later (2002), TLU doesn’t let its cynicism and darkness overshadow its capacity for hope and a compassionate, beating human heart.
TLU could be described as a sort of videogame version of Danny Boyle’s zombie-epic, or perhaps the interactive narrative-equivalent of what The Walking Dead (2010-present) so desperately wants to be. It’s a psuedo post-apocalyptic yarn that admits the terrible human suffering a pandemic would entail, but it also embraces the calming natural beauty of a world where humanity’s arrogance and narcissism are checked at the door, where the planet earth endures. It’s a hauntingly beautiful story that doesn’t forget the “beautiful”-part.
The genius of TLU is how seamlessly it melds cinematic fiction with superb videogame mechanics. Not even Mass Effect (2007, 2010, 2012) or Heavy Rain (2012) came this close to “interactive storytelling.” From the beginning, Naughty Dog (developer of the acclaimed Uncharted Series [2007, 2009, 2011]), chose the relationship between its player-character and non-player character as the central focus of the game. All other subsequent aspects of the game were built around it, much akin to how a screenplay is developed. Those characters are Joel and Ellie, voiced and performed via motion-capture by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, respectively.
The basic premise of the game is that you, the player in control of Joel, must navigate the post-pandemic United States while protecting the child-NPC Ellie. Your enemies include zombies infected with a mutant Cordyceps fungi, as well as numerous nomadic human tribes, predatory gangs, scattered military forces, and mysterious revolutionary militia groups.
Contrary to historical videogame precedents, Ellie’s NPC is neither a helpless gameplay crutch whom you must protect nor an unnecessary narrative add-on. She is one of the game’s greatest highlights, and her connection to Joel’s player-character is the core of the interactive experience. She avoids enemy detection like a stealth master, aides you in combat, and offers frequent unforgettable commentary and dialogue with Joel. She is the drive of the story, and thus the drive for the player. She feels real, Joel feels real, and the world around them feels ever so real because of them.
The game world itself is a masterclass in linear level design. Each act is distinct and memorable, and no level within each act is forgettable or without a unique style. The story feels paced to perfection due to the combination of this near-perfect level design, great storytelling, and character development. Not only do the characters’ growth respond to the game world, but the world itself remains so engaging because its linearity is so tightly masked.
Everything about The Last of Us feels like a revolutionary breakthrough in videogaming. Its NPC is one of the game’s main selling points, its linearity aides both its storytelling and gameplay, and even traditional pitfalls like switching character controls (you play as Ellie in one act) and cliches like last-stands (fighting endless waves of enemies in one location) or frequent cutscenes are glorious. The game feels like a movie you craft and unfold yourself — yet far more so than an extended quick-time feature that was Heavy Rain or a torturous self-evaluation like the sadomasochistic Spec Ops.
I’m not sure how else I can praise TLU. Even now I struggle to think of faults in this near-flawless experience. I suppose its graphics aren’t cutting edge, and yet it looks great, its not as long as I would have liked, and yet it’s perfectly paced and ends at the right moment. I’m not sure what else I could have asked from a videogame.
If there ever was an argument for interactive software as art, this is as good as any. Its story and characters are enormous, core strengths of the game, and yet the primary joy is playing through the story rather than simply watching it unfold. I suppose others have said it better, so I’ll just reiterate the critical acclaim this game has achieved: The Last of Us may well be the pinnacle of the medium.
Standout Features: This game represents the ultimate synergy of storytelling and interactive gameplay. It boasts a heartfelt character relationship between you and an A.I. that builds over a coldly beautiful diegesis, a well crafted narrative, and terrific game mechanics.
Noticeable Weaknesses: It’s graphics aren’t photorealistic or flawlessly immersive, but who gives a shit?
—> The Last of Us receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION. I couldn’t recommend a project higher if I tried.
? Everyone I have cared for has either died or left me. Everyone… except for you! So don’t tell me I would be safer with somebody else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.