I’ve been in a bit of a slump over the last few days after finishing The Last of Us, and I’m starting to think I need to process the experience of that game. Get what’s been rattling around my head down on paper.
BIG HONKING SPOILER WARNING: This will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the game yet, please read no further. Go finish the game! Then come back. Also, this may meander somewhat messily. After all, this is what this post initially looked like in my head:
So, first of all, WOW. This was the most moving video game experience I’ve had. It’s done something seminal, something unique in the way that Doom, Half Life, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did for me. The thing I keep coming back to again and again, is the tone. The game feels consistent and grounded throughout, and everything supports the delivery of that consistent tone. The writing, the voice acting, the audio, the environment design – all of these elements work together to support a consistent note. Gustavo Santaoalla’s score is incredible, and I’ve got it on high rotation at the moment.
And the note that The Last of Us hits is such a brilliant note. It’s a desperate, mean world, but no one smolders with generic rage. Joel is a dependable and capable character, but he’s clearly a man who has done and continues to do questionable things. He’s a man of the world he lives in, and that makes him hard to trust, but we saw where he came from, and that makes him hard to judge. Both the portrayal of violence in-game and Ellie’s reactions to some of the extremely grisly things you do keep reminding you that violence is Not A Good Thing. There’s a great quote from Walt Williams, the lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line:
“Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands”
And The Last of Us really delivers on that concept. The Joel and Ellie I see in cut scenes are my Joel and Ellie, still feeling the same way and being reacted to consistently with my actions in-game. I’ve seen comparisons made between The Last Of Us and The Road and Children of Men, and both of them feel valid. Particularly that moment of violent collision in Children of Men that the pace never really slows down from again. A violent indicator of a moment of no return. For me, The Last of Us sits somewhere between the world of Uncharted, and an authentic Cormac McCarthy experience.
But where The Road is firmly set in a world that is barren and dying, The Last of Us is a fecund, overgrown world quickly forgetting the mistakes of humanity. More Tyler Durden’s wrist-thick kudzu vines on the Sears Tower than the popcorn chorus of dead trees collapsing under their own weight. The environment design is fantastic. Gorgeous, otherworldly, but never veering too far into outright spectacle. And it feels real, and lived in. If you look for them, you can see the mechanical elements like waist-high cover. And there are some admittedly arbitrary aspects to the level design – open this door, not that door. But for me all of that is forgivable because the experience of moving through those environments feels right.
The heart of what I want to talk about though, is two people. Two people I’ve lived with for nearly thirty hours, and now miss. There were a few incidents of outlets erasing Ellie from the cover of the game when promoting it, which boggles the mind. Anyone who did that clearly didn’t understand the game. The Last of Us is a story about two people who go through incredible arcs and build a bond with not just each other, but the player as well. (I’m getting chills down my spine thinking about key moments as I write. Fall. The limping exit from the University… Ellie’s line about needing antibiotics)
The acting from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson is consistently amazing, and so nuanced. And that’s not to take anything away from the rest of the cast, either. The performances throughout are incredible, and it was a real treat to hear W. Earl Brown as Bill, one of the most colourful characters in the game. (and I totally didn’t pick Nolan North as David until I looked at the cast list while writing this! Damn!)
And they’re given great material to work with. So much character and backstory is revealed through their constant in-game chatter that it bridges the experience between the in-game and cut-scene worlds. The arcs. THE ARCS. Joel’s gradual shift from begrudgingly fulfilling a dying promise, to doing the right thing, to throwing Saving The World out the window for one girl. And Ellie’s constant pushing against Joel’s boundaries, and progression toward more extreme violence herself. The shifts felt gradual and organic, and I loved that they were done in a partnership where there was no clear victim or sidekick. The Last of Us takes DeWitt and Elizabeth’s relationship in Bioshock Infinite to the next level, with the benefit of a much earthier tone.
I played the last stretch of the game in a sleep-deprived haze. Around 4AM, I realised I was on the home stretch, and wanted to finish it before I went to bed, rather than breaking the momentum of the climax. It was a real temptation to take the game off Hard mode, because for me, that last stretch in the hospital was a giant pain in the ass. But for realistic reasons. And I wanted to earn that moment where I finally found Ellie. Thanks to the sleep-deprived haze though, I’m still not quite sure on some details of the ending.
From what I recall, there was one – ONE voice recording that completely changed the context of my actions. That indicated that Ellie’s immunity wasn’t unique, and that her operation wasn’t automatically going to change humanity. I love that so much of the context of the ending hinged on that discovery. That without that information, you’d still follow the same course, but without the same understanding. At that point, I’m not really sure the voice recording mattered to Joel at all. Just to me, as the player. Joel was ready to lay waste. Biblically.
Speaking of the last stretch, let’s talk about game mechanics. I found combat mostly messy, urgent and awkward, which felt right to me. I rarely enjoyed combat during the experience. If ever, I only really enjoyed it after the fact, looking at the scope of the challenge I’d overcome. Mechanics are are probably The Last of Us’ weaker point, but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is a concession to standard gaming systems. I did enjoy the crafting system, even if you do eventually wonder at the amount of scissors and duct tape you run into. I’d absolutely play a game with that kind of narrative experience where you have little if any shooting involved, but I never found the amount of gunplay to be jarring.
The only criticism I’ve heard regarding gunplay that I do agree with is the amount of ammunition your enemies use. They don’t feel as constrained as you, but I wonder how much of that is a result of balancing issues? Other than that, the only thing that annoyed me was the game’s tendency to play itself during cut scenes.
For me, Last of Us was a formative gaming experience that showed what could be done with master-crafted narrative. Joel and Ellie feel like real people to me, and there’s this absence now in the space they occupied for a brief time. Their story is told, and Naughty Dog put a perfect cap on it. I can’t thank those involved enough. If you have gotten all the way to the end of this post and you haven’t played The Last of Us, FOR SHAME. If you’re in Melbourne, have a PS3, and are curious but not convinced enough yet to buy, hit me up and I’d be happy to loan it once the girl has finished. After all, Sony endorse that kind of behaviour:
I look forward to the day when I manage to move someone as much as I’ve been moved with Last of Us through my voice acting. And on that note, I’m off to acting class!