This is a long one. Although I highly recommend reading the whole review to understand the how and whys of my argument, I understand this is blog blasphemy so here’s a (short) tl;dr version for those who simply want a verdict.
Be forewarned: You should probably not play The Last of Us. Not because of its brutal violence, depressing narrative, or stressful gameplay. You should stay away from The Last of Us because it will ruin every AAA gaming experience you have afterwards. This post-apocalyptic thriller leaves the action shooter on shaky ground, showing the genre’s old age and that there’s possibly a ceiling for storytelling through this form of violent interactivity. Still Naughty Dog has implemented everything that AAA game development has taught them in order to create not only one of the best zombie survival tales in any medium, but also take the genre of story driven third-person action games and inject every level of its game design from killing to crafting with an unprecedented level of narrative meaning.
The Last of Us wouldn’t have accrued the great critical and commercial response without the great direction and scriptwriting of creative director Neil Druckmann. Druckmann’s story reimagines post-apocalyptic tales like McCarthy’s The Road and Children of Men, while throwing a zombie virus into the mix. Much like The Road the focus isn’t on the mystery of the apocalypse, in fact The Last of Us is quite forthcoming with that information, but about the way human identity and relationships are complicated and destroyed under the extreme pressure to survive. The story and in turn the gameplay are all anchored by this thematic concern. Even Naughty Dog’s infected are brought to life from the real world cordycep fungus that utilizes a type of zombification to control a vast number of different species. Although it would have been easy to bog down the story and gameplay with zombies, they are used sparingly and thoughtfully. In fact, human beings throughout the course of the game become slightly more horrifying than the undead. Naughty Dog smartly places the narrative focus on Joel and Ellie. Over the 17 hours or so of this survival (mis)adventure, the player is involved in the evolving familial bond between these two characters, as they traverse the obstacles that post-apocalyptic America provides its denizens. Joel is a middle-age white man attempting to cope with the dangers of this new world and the trauma of his past. You find yourself growing quite fond of Joel, but there are subtle cues in Druckmann’s rendering of this character that lead the player to reconsider those feelings towards this desperate hero. In the end, Ellie steals all your affections with her tough attitude, realism, and good natured character.
Not to just agree with Neil Druckmann’s claim, but Bioshock Infinite’s Troy Baker and voice actress Ashley Johnson both easily give the best performances ever in a game. This is possible through Druckmann’s dialogue, which is terse and economical, and of course the gorgeous animation. Characters rarely speak more than a few lines at a time, which is not to be confused with shallow writing, as there’s plenty of subtext and nuance in this script. The dialogue and thematic expressions never come off heavy-handed. Unlike Infinite, there are no cringe worthy moments of melodrama in The Last of Us, moments where the illusion of reality is broken. There’s a discrepancy between the writing of the game proper and the supplementary story obtained through notes and audio logs. The notes in particular seem a bit unnatural. You’ll find notes that seem out of character, such as a young child’s diary using all too perfect spelling and grammar. This won’t bother anyone besides writers and students of literature. It’s a minor gripe, but one that stands out when considering how natural the storytelling is otherwise.
Ultimately, the beats this story hits are at times predictable and traveled, but it’s the slight alterations added to these instances that will surprise the player. Even in its moments of predictability, the story remains emotionally affective. The character arcs and the accompanying gameplay that Naughty Dog takes us on are brilliantly executed, allowing the player to experience subtle changes in the characters over a long period of time. The ending exemplifies this sophistication in its evasion of spectacle and contrived attempts at inducing awe in favor of a surprisingly subdued yet psychologically complex and narratively resonant conclusion.
Of course, what separates this survival narrative from those in other mediums is a type of interactivity, or more specifically performativity. The player is asked to perform the roles of this narrative in a way that fosters a powerful emotional engagement. If you allow yourself, you will most likely cry during this game. The caveat, here, is that if you do cry it will probably be during a cinematic, undermining what makes this clever take on the zombie survival tale unique. Everyone knows how to cry to a film, but to cry during gameplay should be the favorable goal of this story driven game developer. For some, that moment may exist in The Last of Us. This potential to access a wider range of human emotions that go beyond the usual sense of victory, frustration, and regret is definitely there, but not fully realized.
As most games with this high level of production value, the primary means of interaction comes in the form of combat. However, there are supplementary survival systems along with traversal puzzles scattered throughout these encounters that facilitate pacing. There’s also a robust crafting and looting system that encourage and at times force exploration of each beautifully constructed locale. You’ll find yourself scrounging around for bandages and alcohol to make health packs, sometimes in the middle of combat. Crafting occurs in real time, adding a sense of urgency and tension when creating the varied assortment of combat aids. It’s interesting to consider that Naughty Dog could have added another layer to survival management in the form of food and water, but chose not to. Maybe it was too cumbersome or took away from the narrative flow, but this potential feature in a game so preoccupied with survival is noticeably absent and probably for the best. Similarly, most of the tension from scavenging is removed as the game makes it quite clear when an area is safe. You’ll never run into an infected or violent survivor while you’re looting a cleared area. That seems like common sense, but the decision to forgo such cheap scares highlights Naughty Dog’s emphasis on pacing. This downtime actually works quite well, as it gives the player a moment to breathe in a game where you will find yourself holding your breath from anxiety. Most importantly, these systems are tied into the narrative’s exploration of survival and desperation, forcing the player to enact the challenges of post-apocalyptic survival.
A point worth noting is that this game is not necessarily fun. Not in the traditional sense anyway, as should be the case for a game about the near extinction of humanity. It bears stating that this is no Uncharted. There are a few moments of levity, but the game from narrative to gameplay is persistently depressing, stressful, and unsettling. Even the killing in this game made me feel uncomfortable about my violent actions. Of course, it was never enough to stop playing, but enough to make me stop and think about what I was doing in this world: Killing hundreds of people (however “justified”).
The gunplay and the stealth mechanics do showcase The Last of Us’ emphasis on self-preservation and supply management. There’s a noticeable bloom and sway on the reticle that is refreshing and forces gunplay into a last resort position during the beginning of the game. Guns also make noise that will alert all enemies in the vicinity, an exposure that usually leads to an excessive expenditure of resources. There’s also a welcome blow back when shot, pushing Joel closer to human frailty and away from bullet sponge. These limitations make stealth the most viable first line of attack. Unlike Uncharted, the stealth in Last of Us is much more dynamic thanks to an open level design and the listen mode mechanic. Listen mode allows the player to see a visual representation of enemy movement’s à la Batman’s detective vision. This is seemingly cheap, but this feature enables a more tactical approach to stealth in that information on enemy location and line of sight is readily accessible. Notably, this feature can be turned off at any time. All of these systems work together seamlessly and add a satisfying amount of emergent strategy to the combat. The player can also upgrade weapons at tool benches and Joel’s skills through pills found in the environment. These upgrades come in a finite number, making the decision a difficult and permanent one. Ammo is scarce, which makes combat anxiety ridden as each bullet missed could mean your life or death. Not that dying matters, as plentiful autosaves cut down any possible frustration or feeling of risk. That isn’t to say that you forget to avoid danger. Interestingly, you find yourself doing everything possible to survive, whether out of a desire to continue the narrative flow or simply primal instinct. The game always manages to instill a sense of preservation not too different from the people of this world.
To facilitate this mixture of stealth and cover based shooting the inclusion of our tried and true friend returns: Chest high walls. This design functions well enough and thanks to the versatility of the combat, shootouts are never reduced to game of long range whack-a-mole. However, the chest high walls do the game a disservice by signaling to the player that a combat situation is forthcoming, not allowing for any level of surprise. This also forces the level design to take on slightly contrived layouts breaking the immersion the game strives so hard to achieve.
Along with this immersion breaking design choice is probably one of the most obvious criticisms of the game: Enemy AI do not take notice of your companions while you yourself are in stealth. Enemies will basically run into Ellie without a twinge of an alerted state. Naughty Dog has reportedly defended this decision as a means to avoid the drudgery of escort missions. While this is an effective solution, it’s disappointing and a bit surprising that such a technically proficient developer could not design AI that could deal with this problem. Sure, the immersion is broken in these moments, but in the end you’re too busy trying to survive for this blemish to pull you away from the experience for too long.
Regardless of its flaws, Naughty Dog has instilled all these gameplay elements with a narrative necessity that elevate their purpose above functionality and move it towards thematic significance. Considering that The Last of Us is already being lauded as game of the year, game of the decade even, it’s apt to ask why this is so. What did this game do for the medium? Obviously, it’s the elegant cohesion of narrative and gameplay, but before we as the gaming community start patting ourselves on the back for Naughty Dog’s masterful achievement, it would benefit us to realize what the pinnacle of the genre and medium has really brought us. When it comes down to it Naughty Dog’s interactivity does not amount to more than killing, traversing, looting, and activating dialogue. Mechanically, the game offers no new ways to play, to interact. It’s indeed a highly refined and at times profound version of the shooter, but it seems as if there’s not much more room to climb artistically in this genre. Sure, a better story can be written, the graphics can be made more realistic, etcetera, but in terms of the interactive experience the genre can provide, the summit seems to have been reached. Maybe we can think of The Last of Us as not only referring to humanity, but to the shooter itself. The Last of Us might be the call to cure a medium infected with derivative notions of interactivity.
Yes, The Last of Us is a highpoint for story driven AAA games. Yes, it has great graphics, sound, a highly realized world, and possibly the best voice acting of any generation. The narrative and its characters are written with tact and nuance, even if they tread familiar paths at times. The Last of Us is without a doubt an emotionally engaging and affective experience. The gameplay mixes together the best parts of action, stealth, and survival horror to serve up something more novel than any one game mechanic could do alone. It’s stressful, satisfying, and you may even find it unsettling. It’s not perfect as the immersion breaking behavior of the AI will show, but it’s a damn well-crafted game. Ultimately, the game may have you considering the shortcomings of AAA gaming and the shooter genre in particular. Just as the anthropomorphized platforming of the Crash Bandicoot era had to be left behind, the age of Nathan Drake, and the like, killing thousands of nameless enemies seems to be reaching the end of the line. Of course, the genre isn’t going anywhere. However, if the best gaming has to offer in terms of interactivity is a highly refined and albeit meaningful version of the shooter, then maybe we’ve set our sights too low.