The much derided medium of the video game has often lived down to its critics’ unfavorable judgments. Yet, as well with great consistency, game creators deliver to us stories and experiences that transcend the mundane run of the mill military, wizard and elf or space adventure tropes. Games and series like Knights of the Old Republic, Oddworld, Bioshock, and Uncharted, call those who experience them into engagement with characters, locations, and situations that stay with us with the same force that many great books or films do. Amidst the scores of commercial products that are delivered to us every year in video game form (and none the worse for being commercial, one remembers that Shakespeare’s plays were commercial ventures to fund his poetic aspirations), there are those that rise above and engage us on these higher levels. Naughty Dog’s fourth and last game on the PlayStation 4, The Last of Us, is undeniably one of these great engaging works.
An unabashedly post-apocalyptic tale in a time when it seems like every third game is spinning a yarn about the denouement of humanity, The Last of Us offers players a diverse, personal, and gripping experience that transcends the vast majority of its peers across all forms of media. Naughty Dog tells the story of Joel (Troy Baker who delivered an excellent performance earlier this year as Booker Dewitt in Bioshock Infinite and will soon be appearing as the Joker in Batman Arkham Origins), a middle aged man who has lost everything important to him, and Ellie (Ashley Johnson who has up to this point done a few cartoon based video game voices), a fourteen year old girl who Naughty Dog PR described as someone who is trying to get back home. Their struggle to travel across a decimated America involves the player in repeatedly difficult and often horrific situations.
Marketing appeared to presented The Last of Us as a sandbox stealth combat game. Supplies are limited in the post-destruction world, and when it’s just two people against three or seven armed men, they need to be resourceful. Bricks and bottles can be thrown to distract people. Knives can be made to stealthily dispatch almost any enemy. And while the game delivers on this kind of combat, I found myself tired of it about halfway through the game. But strangely enough, that changed an hour or so later. The game offers a light crafting system, with six different items you can make from eight components you can find in the world. There is a nice trade-off as each component can be used to make either of two pieces of equipment, and you are limited to carrying only three of each component. Thus you have to decide if you’re going to make shivs or strap some blades onto your lead pipe for a one hit kill.
It was by mixing up my combat and stealth with these items that I once more became interested in the combat puzzles. The ability to deal with a whole crowd of the infected enemies from a distance with bombs, Molotov cocktails, and arrows was incredibly gratifying. Being patient enough when sneaking near a group of guards allowed me to take them all out with a single cocktail for a very satisfying end to a prolonged sneaking sequence.
But the game is also more than just combat puzzles. There are a number of sequences where the player is asked to do something different; at times unique. These experiences should be engaged as they come in Naughty Dog’s story, not spoiled by a review. But they are surprising and immersive, helping to bring this game to another level.
A word should be said here as well with regard to the multiplayer, which is a tight, team based combat experience. It has furnished, in my experience, some of the most gratifying encounters I have had with multiplayer in a long time, and without a doubt the best multiplayer experience I have had on the PlayStation 3. Pitting two teams of four players against each other, the multiplayer creates a tense, and often brutal situation in which team play is absolutely essential for survival. Well balanced, and rewarding for players who are willing to play support by healing teammates, the game presents a meta-narrative in which each player is trying to earn food for their camp of survivors. Doing well in matches, even if you lose, rewards the player with supplies to keep survivors well fed, healthy, and alive. Failure to achieve these goals will render survivors first hungry, then sick, and then finally expired. The balance of working with teammates, and making sure that supplies are earned, brings a welcome wrinkle to the standard leveling and skill based systems that have come to gaming since Call of Duty 4.
The world that the game presents to the player is incredibly well realized. The post-apocalypse hasn’t looked so lush in a video game since Enslaved. There are genuine moments of wonder at beauty mixed in with the horrific confrontations with men who want to end your life. The ruins of the world twenty years later are littered with the notes of people trying to make their way at different points in the history of the end of society. They are also strewn with comic books, which are one of the two collectables in the game. The desire to explore is often gratified by the discovery of a cache of supplies and perhaps some dog-tags or a new issue for Ellie to read.
I will not here go into the story of The Last of Us in detail, but I do want to consider its themes. The game is shot through with the idea that when resources are truly scarce, humanity reverts back to a king of barbarism that is reflective of many of the small military dictatorships we have seen arise in parts of our modern world. When society falls apart, guns become the controlling factor in a world of scarcity. Self preservation is elevated to the highest goal. There is very little sense that loss and hardship bind people together in mutual concern. Joel is, in general, a very selfish man. Even when it comes to Ellie, there is a sense that he is doing what he is doing, not genuinely out of concern for her as a person, but for his own inability to go through terrible loss.
Some voice has been given on the internet to the dissatisfaction of players in their experience of playing someone as brutal and perhaps amoral as Joel. Yet, it is interesting to observe that Naughty Dog seems to have presented us with a specifically murky reality that contains neither a moral right nor a moral wrong. Joel does not act because things are right, but because they are efficient, and because they serve to stave off the one great evil that Joel sees: being alone. In the course of this game, Joel both kills in combat and murders outright a number of people, all that he will not be alone. The irony, of course, is that each of those acts divorces him from the people around him, so that he is not able to even be genuine with the people he cares about.
This principle is not, admittedly, worked out in great detail. But the real life ramifications are easily drawn. A man who spends his days in wholesale slaughter, and who, if not forces, at least ushers a 14 year old girl into the same kind of life, is not a man who is able to form the kind of relationships that genuinely keep us from being alone. The hostility that lies under every relationship Joel has, with Tess, Billy, and Tommy, are all evidence of this.
The Last of Us then serves in some way as a character study of a man trying desperately to not be alone, but in his flailings, finds himself both pushing away every trace of humanity and every chance for real connection. The game does not end with a promise that the relationships of the people involved will now go back to normal and be all right. In fact, it promises that the estrangement that is inherent to such a life, will now not only continue, but function as foundation for those relationships in the future.
Naughty Dog has delivered four substantial games for us during the PlayStation 3’s lifetime, the three Uncharted Games, and now The Last of Us. Uncharted was an excellent adventure with a few rough edges. Uncharted 2 was a masterpiece of video game art. Uncharted 3 however was, as my Cross and Controller review stated, a grand disappointment. Now, as we come to the end of the system’s lifecycle, this studio has brought us one of the best gaming experiences of the entire generation across all contemporary platforms. They have said that they set out to show that they could do something other than just Uncharted, and man, were they right.
Title: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Time Played: 16 Hours (Single Player)
We did not receive a review copy of this game.