The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of The Last of Us
WARNING: THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I came into The Last of Us knowing it has been universally lauded for its story and characters. And while having sky high expectations for anything usually leads to a certain level of disappointment, I can safely say that the praise was extremely well-deserved. Although the story of a post-apocalyptic zombie outbreak isn’t anything ground breaking, the relationship between Joel and Ellie is what really lies at the heart of The Last of Us, and what makes it so special.
I was making my way through the game, I was just waiting for that one tragic moment. That heart breaking death of Ellie, as Joel clutches her in his arms, crying as he loses yet another loved one. In any sort of story involving an infected creature, you expect these kinds of dreadful events to happen. But it turns out the tragedy was really the survival of a character, not the loss.
Although it’s easy to criticize Joel for his selfishness from the perspective of an outsider looking in, I took a step back and wondered: would I have done the same thing? Does the potential for a vaccine to mitigate this deadly virus outweigh the personal relationship that has been nurtured and developed into something much deeper between Joel and Ellie? To put it bluntly, I don’t know what I would’ve done. And I love that. At first glance, it seemed as though Joel was making a hugely selfish decision, putting the life of one single individual over the possibility of saving millions of others. But when you consider the totality of Joel’s life, the unthinkable tragedy of losing a daughter in such a horrible way… it made me wonder what I would’ve done if I was put into Joel’s shoes.
- Stealth Sequences
Stealth is typically regarded as an annoyance in a video game, where one tiny trip up will lead to a swarm of pissed off guard ready to kill. But in The Last of Us, I vastly preferred sneaking around and taking out enemies silently rather than raising a ruckus and shooting guns out in the open. One of the main reasons I enjoyed the stealth so much was due to the level of improvisation that was possible in each encounter. See a bunch of clickers in an open area? Throw a bottle to attract them to the noise, and chuck a molotov to burn them all with ease. Learned the movement pattern of a patrolling guard? Set up a nail bomb in the pathway and watch as sharp fragments explode every which way. If you do managed to get spotted, it’s relatively simple to sprint away from the vision of your foes and regain your stealth.
But the apex of the stealth gameplay was the showdown between Ellie and David in the burning restaurant. This was by far my favorite encounter in the entire game, as you’re not just fighting a large, bullet sponge type of enemy that absorbed obscene amounts of damage. There was a slow, methodical pace to the whole section that added a layer of tension and suspense you don’t usually experience in games. The broken plates made you carefully consider where you were treading, and the inability to always spot David through use of the heightened hearing forced you to go outside your comfort zone and do a little risk taking.
- Ludonarrative Dissonance
The term ludonarrative dissonance refers to the dichotomy of how video game characters act in cutscenes, and how that differs from what they do in the actual gameplay. One of poster childs of this concept is Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series. Nathan Drake is portrayed as a wise-cracking, likable fellow that jokes with his buddies and woos the ladies. At least, in cutscenes he is. During gameplay however, he appears to be a ruthless murderer that guns down hundreds of people throughout the course of a game. The Last of Us tones down the severity of this ludonarrative dissonance by depicting Joel as an immoral person living in a hellish, kill or be killed world. This isn’t a jaunty exposition seeking for the next valuable piece of treasure; this is a world where if you aren’t ready to kill at the drop of a hat, you probably won’t last very long.
But that’s not to say that any sort of ludonarrative dissonance is completely absent from The Last of Us. This idea is inherent to the fundamental nature of a video game. I believe that as long as the basic structure of a video game stays the same, trying to perfectly match the story and gameplay is almost an impossible task. But The Last of Us definitely takes great strides in trying to lessen this wide gap. The survivalist perspective makes it easier to justify Joel’s harsh and borderline psychotic actions. He’s a hardened, tough as nails guy that will stop at nothing to not only ensure his own survival, but the survival of the ones he loves.
- Third Person Shooting
I thought the the third person shooting at times felt stiff and awkward. Having runners make a mad dash towards you as you’re fumbling with the aiming and the sway of the crosshairs was oftentimes frustrating. On the other hand, some may say that this is part and parcel with the story, as Joel is a middle aged man who isn’t a expert marksman. But does that give the game a pass for having cumbersome third person shooting? Can games be considered “not fun” in order to make the gameplay service the story? I’m on the boat that games still need to have even just a smidgen of engaging and entertaining gameplay, regardless of the narrative it is trying to convey. But there may come a time in the future when developers are able to redraw that line between gameplay and story to rethink how games are viewed as a medium.
- Immersion Breaking Moments
One of the greatest strengths of The Last of Us is how the game sucks the player into its world. Everything from the voice acting to the sound design, the game does such a superb job of completely engrossing the player. As a result, every time a minor immersion breaking moment would happen, it would stick out that much more.
There were multiple times when a companion would clearly run out into the vision of a patrolling guard, but the guard wouldn’t be alerted to the player and would continue his merry way. I understand why this happens. In fact, I’m glad this is the way it is. Being taken out of stealth due to spotty AI would undoubtedly frustrate any player, as it is a factor that is completely outside of player control. But because the game is so excellent in totally captivating the player into its fiction, a seemingly trivial bug like that becomes much more apparent.
Am I condemning the game because its story and world are almost too good? Not necessarily. But there must come a time when we don’t excuse an immersion breaking moment like this by saying, “Oh video games.” Although reaching that sort of level may take years, I believe it is something that the industry can, and will, eventually attain.
Nothing. The game looks absolutely stunning from top to bottom. Probably the best looking PS3 game to date.
Actually, the cordyceps are kind of ugly. And stomping on people’s faces usually made me cringe.