Script below the cut.
The Last of Us represents something of a capstone for the current generation of game hardware. Not just because it’s among the last major original titles that will be released for this set of consoles, but also because it sort of seems informed by almost every AAA blockbuster that has preceded it. The Last of Us is, in a lot of ways, a Greatest Hits tour through the last decade of AAA action adventure game design by major studios. You can see this even at a really high level: it’s a zombie game set after the apocalypse featuring chest-high wall cover shooting and a mix of action and stealth. If that doesn’t scream “recent trends in games” I don’t know what does. It’s got the latest detective vision gimmicks, it’s got escort missions that seem to draw influence from every one of those from Ico to Bioshock Infinite. It has industry standard obnoxious button mashing quick time events, and the minimally impactful carrot-on-a-stick doesn’t-really-matter-if-you-get-them-or-not weapon upgrades. Resident Evil 4’s influence is felt throughout the singleplayer game, and it’s got a multiplayer component with all of the persistent always-on grinding you’d expect in a post-Call of Duty world. It really does seem acutely aware of modern trends and wears those influences almost as a badge of honor.
But for all of its modern influences, The Last of Us is (at a higher, structural level) an oddly retro game – and not just because it’s got Move The Block And Avoid The Water puzzles that wouldn’t feel out of place in Soul Reaver. It’s 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, you know, maybe that’s appropriate. I mean, an uncomfortable juxtaposition of narrative and gameplay has been arguably the defining trait of AAA games for the past 10 years, so if you’re gonna do a best-of tour I guess it’s important to get that right too. Where smaller titles are comfortable combining mechanics and metaphor to produce a cohesive whole, or even focusing on wholly emergent stories generated by the game itself, AAA studios have typically treated the two like oil and water. “Story” in a AAA video game doesn’t mean a framing mechanism to give mechanics meaning, or an emergent series of events that happen because of gameplay – it means a Hollywood style movie baked right into videogame. The Last of Us not only continues this grand tradition, it ultimately pushes this oil and water formula to its breaking point, taking it perhaps as far as you possibly can but in the process showing its fundamental limitations. And as a result it serves to be both the game’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness.
The title of The Last of Us sort of begs a question, but you don’t really recognize it immediately thanks to the assumptions Zombie games generally bring up. Specifically, the game wants us to task who the “Us” is in the Last of Us. How do we define “us;” how do we sculpt and cultivate social groups and loyalties? Do you mean you and yours or do you mean your greater community or do you mean humanity as a whole? And whatever your answer, how much are you willing to lose, to hurt, to sacrifice, and to harm others for that “us?” It’s a title that frames the “us” as under threat, and how you define “us” and how you react to that threat is the core idea the game toys with throughout.
The game is broken out into a series of vignettes, each of which involve looking at different characters’ interpretations of those social borders and the threats those borders face. The first vignette starts by forcing us to watch Joel’s young family be ripped apart with the loss of Sarah. Immediately – even before seeing any of the fully mutated clickers – we’re presented with a world where lines are being drawn about who we should include in groups we want to protect and who we try to exclude and push out and other. Tommy is willing to kill a soldier to save his family, and the soldier is willing to kill a family for the greater good of society. In the first ten minutes the game has begun asking us which social orders and groups are worth protecting over others. And from there we follow Joel as he bounces between various characters who have their own take on who their version of “us” is and just who it is that needs saving.
Twenty years after Sarah’s death we find Joel clearly cares about only one person besides himself – Tess. The two are smugglers, and it quickly becomes apparent that they’re not all that interested in saving any lives other than their own. This, as far as Joel’s concerned, is his us, the two of them against the world. Both Tess and Joel are willing to kill in cold blood and are quick to dismiss Marlene’s requests for help, having turned their back on humanity itself a long time ago. But when Tess confesses to getting bit, she reveals she cared more about humanity than she let on – that she wants this last trip outside the city before she dies to be more than a cheap score for the two of them. Joel still doesn’t give a shit about other people at large, but he cares a great deal about those close to him. When Tess asks him to take Ellie he does so not for out of the goodness of his heart- he isn’t doing this to save humanity. But for Tess, for his “us”, he makes her a promise and starts his journey across the country with Ellie.
The next several chapters are arguably a little filler-y, but each tries to explore the overall concept in its own way. Bill and Frank’s failed relationship looks at what happens when social groups fall apart; the consequences of deciding that there is no “us” any more. Frank ends up dead and Bill ends up heartbroken and alone in a city of the dead. Tommy juggles his commitments as a brother to Joel with his commitment to his new wife and the community he’s building at the dam, torn between the “us” that was his family and the “us” that is his growing village. Henry and Sam form a tenuous bond with Joel and Ellie in a chapter that plays each group’s empathy for one another off of their inherent distrust of strangers. The David chapter examines what happens when you are the other; when you are not the one deciding whether inclusion can or should happen but when you are rejected by an already extant group. They all explore this idea of how social groups define themselves, how they include or exclude people and how they respond to outside stresses. Every chapter feels like it reframes the title – the last of our family after the apocalypse, the last good people in a city gone mad with raiders, the last of a cult hungering for revenge.
In the final vignette, Joel is forced to choose between the two forces we saw at play in the opening of the game; he’s forced to decide whether to protect humanity and help the Fireflies get their cure or protect a loved one despite the dangers that might pose to the greater population. And in the end he kills for Ellie and he lies to Ellie. Not to protect her, but to protect himself. He’s a selfish bastard who has experienced tremendous loss and never wants to do so again. And by making him the one responsible for keeping humanity endangered the game critiques traditional hero tropes, suggesting that a save-the-damsel-you-love narrative is a horrifically selfish construct in the face of genuine systemic change; that when you definition of us is too narrow you become more monster than hero. It frames strong, intimate bonds as selfish if it means removing a sense of empathy for all.
But I get why people don’t like the ending. Joel never takes responsibility for his actions nor pays any price for damning humanity, so the whole sense that the game is critiquing his actions feels a bit undercut. There’s no debate about whether humanity or Ellie deserves to be saved, and if anything it makes a bigger deal about lying to Ellie than killing Marlene. Worse, the final chapters reveal that Joel’s real arc as a character took place in the moments between Sarah’s death and “20 years later” – he’s a selfish bastard afraid of being hurt when the game opens and he stays a selfish bastard as the game closes. The zombies are there when the game opens, and they’re still there when the game ends. The only thing that changes is that a lot of people are dead. There’s a sense of nihilism and hopelessness about the ending, and while it fits the setting and the themes it’s hard to walk away from this game feeling satisfied. You mostly walk away from it feeling empty and sad.
Still, when the game’s in story mode and presenting you with cutscenes or exposition you’re actually getting something with substantive subtext, and whether it succeeds or not that’s more than you can say for most games. It’s also done with an eye for restraint and subtlety not often seen in major titles, and I have to applaud that. This is a game that knows its most powerful moments aren’t explosions or gunshots but quiet moments where a camera lingers too long or a painful truth is begrudgingly confronted.
Unfortunately those powerful moments only really exist in the cutscenes. Mechanically the game is just perfunctory. The majority of it is spent getting from A to B using a combination of stealth and combat mechanics. Both modes of play are viable and functional, but neither really stand out as something worth playing on their own. The gunplay is a stock third cover-based schtick that feels more or less lifted directly from Uncharted. Perhaps the most interesting bit of that system is the real time inventory management, which has to be invoked even to switch out what pistol or rifle you have out. This can force a quick melee kill or mad scramble away into hiding, but hardly elevates the combat into something more transcendent than a slightly more tense version of Uncharted by way of ZombiU.
More can be said about the stealth play, if only because it’s not so much boring as notably shallow. In most stealth games you’re supposed to either manipulate your environment to sneak around, like Thief or Mark of the Ninja, or you’re supposed to use movement to your advantage like in Dishonored or Mark of the Ninja. Either way there’s usually a fairly complex series of systems that let you avoid detection – and when you finally are detected, a variety of ways to escape from the situation. The Last of Us doesn’t really do this – it’s basically that scene in Jurassic Park where Lex and Tim hid from the raptors made into a AAA zombie game. Hide behind a shelf, throw a thing to make some noise elsewhere, move to another shelf, rinse and repeat until you’ve reached the next cutscene trigger or you get spotted. Getting spotted means a forced transition into action mode as most of the bad guys around you will hear the commotion. So play oscillates between the resource restricted combat that wants you to make your bullets count and fearful sneaking in shadow in hopes of avoiding combat and saving ammo and health packs for the forced combat bits.
Ultimately the gameplay is more about giving the universe texture and tone than it is about, well, how it plays. Resources are scarce, punishments are swift and harsh, you feel a little underpowered, and the gun sway and clunky animation driven nature of melee combat all intentionally convey a sense of tension and of desperation. It’s actually a really cool use of mechanics to build texture in the narrative, but unfortunately that’s really all they do for the narrative.
It’s not that the mechanics are bad, but they’re functional and utterly disconnected from the journey Joel and Ellie take as characters. Through them we learn how Joel or Ellie move from Point A to Point B, but we don’t learn who Joel or Ellie are. In fact, when the narrative does eke its way into the gameplay it’s usually awkward. Conversations between Joel and Ellie in the cutscenes feel vital, filled with a spark and energy that comes not just from the voice acting but the mocap work and the facial animations and the cinematography. In-game, though, Joel often feels like he’s having a conversation with a disembodied voice. I mean, say what you will about Bioshock Infinite (and I have) but at least Elizabeth felt like she was there with you.
The relationship Joel has with Ellie is what drives the entire game. She is his “us;” with Tess gone all she’s all he has to cling to, and he’s a guy that clings tight to what few friends he makes. But we don’t engage with that relationship mechanically or through play. We never get to be Ellie trying to coax a smile out of Joel with a dirty joke or inquiring into his dark past or proving ourselves capable to him. And as Joel we never get to interact directly with Ellie, educating her or training her or protecting her – she’s more or less invulnerable, autonomous, and static. In fact, it’s worth noting that until the last 30 seconds of the game whenever we’re in control of Sarah or Ellie Joel isn’t even there to interact with. This is a game that trusts us with a shotgun and a molotov cocktail, but is horrified of letting us create those quiet heartfelt moments of our own volition.
And it’s not just the relationships that suffer in the player’s hands. The themes themselves dissipate the moment gameplay starts. It’s not like there aren’t games that have explored the topics discussed in the cutscenes with their mechanics, even in the past few months! State of Decay forces you to make interesting decisions about who to welcome into your group and who to exclude, framing the decision in a utilitarian ethics perspective. It asks you to define your “us”, your group, based on resource management, tactical advantages, and available space every time you meet new survivors. And Shel’s story in The Walking Dead’s 400 Days is very much about choosing who we want to protect and what the borders of our social groups are through branching story choices. You can do these things with game mechanics, and there are games out on the market right now that try. But the game stubbornly insists, like so many games before it, that story and gameplay are oil and water, that they’re two asset pipelines that have nothing to do with one another, that gunshots make for more interesting play than the characters it spends so much money trying to bring to life in cutscenes.
Ultimately the game feels like perhaps the best possible version of a fundamentally flawed design ideology; a perfect implementation of an imperfect idea. It takes the Half-Life content muncher mentality as far as you can possibly take it. But in doing so it yo-yos back and forth between two mediums; clearly more interested in the one it isn’t than the one it is. And I’m not sure a truly great work can come about that way. Can a well acted, well written game be good if its gameplay remains wholly disjoint from everything that makes it good? If a film is just boring, flatly lit talking heads in shot reverse shot but the dialog is deep and its characters believable can that be a good film? Is it okay for a song to have a boring, monotonous, noodly composition as long as its lyrics are poetic and true? If a card game played just like Magic the Gathering but had unbelievable art and flavor text that moved you, could it transcend being just a Magic ripoff? It becomes a sort of aesthetic values question, and that’s really subjective and impossible to answer meaningfully for anyone but myself.
Do I think story in The Last of Us is worthwhile; do I think it in some capacity edifying to experience and ponder? Yeah, warts and all, I do. Do I think that story is crammed into the loading sequences for a game that has a passable but otherwise boring set of mechanics? Yeah, I also think that’s the case. And I think maybe that’s the reason this sort of game style has survived as long as it has; because there’s enough people out there that legitimately don’t care whether their play is meaningful. And as long the story bits are entertaining story bits and as long as the gameplay bits are fun gameplay bits, the game is a “good game.”
But you can feel the need; the desire for change and cohesion underneath the skin of this game. You can feel that pull for something *more* than hitting dudes with clubs and shivs and bullets when you play as Sarah during the opening sequence and you’re as scared and confused as she is without having to kill or hide from anyone. You can feel it when the game’s cinematography lingers on an unsaid sentence and it wants *so hard* to actually be a game about that feeling before letting you go back to shooting dudes. You feel it in the game’s climax, which sucks all of the immediacy and tension out of the situation by doing the standard video game last level thing of escalating the difficulty to let you know: Hey, this is the *big boss fight.* And after 10 or 20 deaths and restarts your emotional investment in the moment is deadened, and that sense of familial concern for Ellie’s life and the future of humanity turns to frustration with the mechanics and level design. And you can feel it in the last moments of the game, where Joel needs to commit to his lie and Ellie needs to commit to trusting him about it once and for all. We sit by the side, helpless to do anything but watch as there are no monsters nearby to hurt. We are the game’s pistol; we are the game’s lead pipe; we are the game’s smoke bombs and its bow and arrows. But no matter how much it might want to pretend otherwise, we are not its characters. They exist immutably in their own movie universe, a universe without… well, a universe without us.