Walking around the world of The Last of Us you will occasionally happen on a phrase that feels like it could be any contrived video game marketing idiom. That phrase, “Survive and endure” is full of inbred promise of struggle and hardship, inevitably overcome by a scrappy protagonist who defiantly chooses to exist. On its face, its the kind of thing rarely realized; for all that video games promise struggle, it is often superficial. We don’t want to survive, really. We just want to sit on our couches and feel like we’re overcoming something. Naughty Dog was smart enough to never use this phrase in its marketing for its latest game, The Last of Us, since its one that works only in the context of its narrative. That is to say that you are never the one surviving.
Instead it is Joel and Ellie. Their story is a linear one. There is no prospect of player choice, no expectation of multiple endings. The apocalypse happened and now, 20 years later, they are living with it. The Last of Us is a story wrapped in a videogame. And though the story is mostly a derivative one, it is one full of an elegant, somber style. “All style, no substance” would be criticism to levy at Naughty Dog, and it wouldn’t be wholly wrong, but what’s wrong with playing to your strengths?
And The Last of Us’s largest strength is its gameplay, which strikes a perfect middle balance between difficult, resource-scarce survivalism and more conventional third-person shooting mechanics. At its root, the game isn’t much different than other major third-person releases, in that the combat consists of shooting enemies and taking cover, but what is truly brilliant about Naughty Dog’s design is the way that they’ve slowed combat down by depriving you of resources, restricting your access to your own inventory, and making enemies act like, well, real people.
Firstly, combat resources aren’t scarce so much as they’re just slightly less common–yes, you never have many bullets, but I found that I generally had enough to get through a fight so long as I fought intelligently. Moreover, even if bullets for a specific weapon are limited, your total number of bullets among all your weapons will almost assuredly get you by. By the end of the game you have nearly a dozen weapons. The thing about that is, though, that your weapons can only be accessed immediately if they’re in one of your holsters, otherwise you’re stuck with the unwieldy prospect of stopping to rummage through your backpack for another gun. Do this, and you will almost certainly be stuck in a compromised position, since enemies flank often, forcing you to keep moving. I found myself just running away more than I have in any other shooter. And it was often my best strategy.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of The Last of Us’s combat is its human enemies, who are smart, engaging, and tough. Playing The Last of Us, you realize how stagnant enemy AI is in all other shooters. When Joel pulls his gun on an enemy, they will just as often run away as they will shoot back. They will react differently if you’re using only melee than they would if you announced your presence with a gunshot or a bomb. The enemy behind cover is waiting for you to pop out so that he can shoot you, too. The intelligent enemies make The Last of Us a joy to play. While it’s true that Naughty Dog has made a grossly impressive world for Joel and Ellie to live in, it is this that makes The Last of Us something innovative rather than just something pretty. It wasn’t always smart in the context of things
Yet, on the other hand we have non-human combat, which is unrewarding and often more frustrating than tense. The infected are tough zombie-like creatures that will run straight at you when alerted (as zombies are wont to do). The base enemy, called a Runner is a fairly normal zombie-type, and they come standard. But worse are the Clickers. These mutated infected only see through a “clicking” sonar mechanism–meaning noise will alert them, but sight won’t. This makes for somewhat interesting stealth gameplay, in which you move at snail’s place, but with a flashlight blaring away. Even so, you will inevitably alert them at least a couple times in your game, on top of a couple of forced instances of fighting that occur in the script. Unfortunately, Clickers can’t be melee-attacked without a weapon and worst of all are a one-hit kill if they get too close to you. (A fact made particularly annoying because Joel survives a very close encounter with a Clicker when the enemy type is introduced–an encounter you can’t survive in gameplay.) You can upgrade your shivs to defend yourself, but it’s still the only thing in the game that feels cheap and unfair. In a lot of ways, being killed by a clicker undermines the feeling of tension that makes The Last of Us so great, since the tension arises out of barely surviving and, when attacked by a clicker, there is no chance for survival. They’re the only enemy in the game that does this.
The only other let-down is the game’s plot, which for the majority of the game is as generic as they come. It contains a bingo-board of zombie/apocalypse genre tropes. I won’t give away too many, but the reveal of who Ellie is a painful scene that you have almost assuredly seen before. Children of Men this is not. While I’d like to forgive Naughty Dog the generic nature of the plot–the studio has always been about style, not substance–it undermines much of what gives The Last of Us its heart. Characters are core to The Last of Us and they are astoundingly well realized. It’s a story of where humanity lies in the broken remnants of the world. But when the characters act exactly how any movie character would act in a particular scene, it makes them feel less like a person–a human–and more like a character, undoing a lot of the smaller, simpler things that gave them so much life. The story’s saving grace is its ending, which is willing to step away from convention and infuse the plot with a little novelty. Before this, the characterizations of Joel, Ellie, and crew were succeeding largely in spite of the plot–a credit to the skillfully gruff-voiced cast and the animators.
Joel and Ellie’s best moments are in brief little conversations that happen in the gameplay, when she’s interacting with the beautifully well-realized world. She’ll often ask Joel about this or that now-destroyed thing. Or she’ll just act like a kid, as when she acted out a whole scene of checking into a hotel whose lobby has become flooded. These small moments lend more to the characters than all the cut-scenes combined, and its unfortunate that they are often so easy to miss. And even if you never talk to her, Ellie will search and rummage through the world, never remaining idle. Her constant animation must have been quite the task, but its well-rewarded in how realized Ellie is in an era of blank-faced sidekicks. It’s hard to criticize them when making people in a videogame feel real is about the hardest thing you can do, but Naughty Dog has gotten farther than anyone else in that respect. This is a young medium and The Last of Us is a major step forward.
In a word, The Last of Us is a behemoth. The amount of work that went into this game is barefacedly incomprehensible for anyone outside of game development and it shows. The game’s rich detail and scope of presentation is unprecedented in videogames and I suspect it shall be quite a long time before any other studio is able to even muster the resources for a comparable creation. The Last of Us has flaws, but they’re easy to forget and when you just stop a moment to look around. Survive, yes. But endure.