The Last of Us
Even ignoring its thinly veiled implementation of that scourge of modern media, the zombie (here the infection is fungal, the resulting creatures encrusted not hollow) this game’s set-up should by now seem like simple formula thanks to the fact that all of the recent amazing releases – The Walking Dead & Bioshock Infinite – have followed it identically: a gruff, older man, Joel, journeying through a hostile and inhospitable wasteland of a world with Ellie, a feisty, young female companion in his care. Thanks to the way that it is written though, the care with which these and other characters are created, the game never feels the same as them, nor as anything that you’ve ever played before.
Though they share a lot of traits – Creative stories, immersive worlds full of conflict and a simple RPG system behind the base of shooting among them- Last of Us differentiates itself from Bioshock and even from my own expectations of itself through a terrific and almost unparalleled meshing of its movie-like cinematics and actual gameplay. The line between the two is so blurred here, the play style so brutal and desperate; each escape occurring only by the skin of your teeth, if it occurs at all. You are not immune to infection, so a single bite kills you, you are also not immune to bullets and close quarters combat is often the flip of a coin; so when you aren’t running away – which the game doesnt discriminate against – the action is ceasesslessly chaotic. And yet because of the balancing these encounters all feel as if expertly choreographed, even though you have complete control.
When the creators do step in, such as in cut scenes and conversations, they do it in such a natural way that this stops being a story and starts seeming more like a life that you are looking in on and occasionally a life that you are living. It’s the little things that create this immersion: like the Backpack, you have to physically put things in and out of it as you need them, have to actually wrap yourself up with the bandages from the first aid kit, have to spend half your time looking around, looting, to even have those slow supplies. Nothing is easy and nothing is a mere abstract reflection of a concept, its all real.
Really though the action, as amazing as it can be here, is secondary; the quiet scenes and simple speeches were what got me ( along with the Bioshock-esque subtle, hidden stories, like that of Ishmael) and based on the ending – on which I will say no more – they were meant to be the primary point of the game. Through their talks we get to know these characters, grow to love them. Even the rote, repetitive acts like moving ladders and boosting Ellis up a ledge achieve a familial familiarity, they are the new everyday, the new ‘Yes, dad’. That they progress in this way is particularly striking; they’re not simply there to eventually allow for a scare.
I also appreciate how far that Naughty Dog were willing to take this game, breaking and subverting rules that I hadn’t realised were written: like swearing, Ellie swears like a sailor, As she would in this situation. They also address one thing I had noticed about games, the killing: Nathan Drake kills hundreds of people over the course of his games and it goes without comment, here Joel’s capability for murder eventually becomes the text of the game. Enemies begin to flee not move forward when they find out you are the one hunting them, you torture them as much as they do you, and by the end, even if you take the stealthier routes you will have rivers of blood upon both your hands. Once that sinks in you can never quite look at the events of the game in the same way. Spoilers: there are multiple times I thought the game was over, one ending showed Ellie growing up, becoming a new Joel after his passing. Though poignant in its own way it turns out too much to hope that this chapter, Winter, would have been the end. What actually occurs is far more subtle and shocking, psychologically brutal in a way that a simple death would not have been. Its challenging in a way that simple difficulty isn’t.
Infinite was an amazing idea with only ok execution, better on paper, whereas this is the ideal execution of a seemingly stale idea, special in the playing. Together they offer us the best that gaming can offer, the best that art can offer: the highs, the lows and the beautiful views.