The Last of Us
Developer - Naughty Dog
Artists - Erick Pangilinan & Nate Wells
Writer - Neil Druckmann
Publisher - Sony Computer Entertainment
Designer - Jacob Minkoff
Programmers - Travis Mcintosh & Jason Gregory
Platforms - Playstation 3 & Playstation 4
Release Date - June 14, 2013 (Left Behind - February 14, 2014)
The Last of Us was a game that had been coveted ever since its announcement in 2012. Even before the game was released, it was winning “Best of Show” awards for Naughty Dog, which led many people to question if this game was everything it was made out to be, or another overhyped flop in the vein of Duke Nukem Forever or Beyond: Two Souls. Set in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere with a cordyceps strain that affected the human brain in a zombie-like fashion, you play as Joel, an aging smuggler in the Boston area that is hired to smuggle a girl out of the city. The tale spans a large portion of the broken-down United States, having the character experience what the world is like twenty years after the initial spread.
Level of Artwork and Craft
The Havok physics engine lends well to the overarching story, adding a believable realism to tone and movement in an aging post-apocalyptic setting. There were many times that I found myself browsing already-foraged room just to look at the small details, like notes on poster boards or graffiti sending messages to loved ones. The artists also built a sense of hope and hopelessness in their use of colors: many times in the narrative is Ellie the only source of color that isn’t muddled by age or fading, usually represented by the color red. It’s interesting to note that there are only two instances where the player sees the color red: on Ellie’s sweater, and any time blood is encountered. The subtlety works extremely well, and subconsciously we are drawn to pay attention in a much more meaningful way.
The detail in movement is surprisingly accurate, especially in times of combat. Joel isn’t a trained fighter, and has had to learn how to throw punches and kicks in a way that’s sloppy yet effective. Because of this, his hips position in a way that focuses on power instead of technique, hoping to knock a guy out with his first punch while not really being ready for the next hit. These touches must have driven these artists crazy to get right, but the fruits of their labor do not go unnoticed, and actually add to the overarching combat system.
Story Pacing, Movement, and Cohesion
I’ve heard once that there are two marks that a person has to hit to tell a story that resonates. The first is the reader has to always have questions about the world that is being built, while the other is that the reader has to wonder what’s happening before, after, and during the story at hand. That sense of wonder and “filling in the blanks” is what keeps a story resonating with a new audience, while never allowing the storyteller to corner themselves into a story that they don’t want to tell. In essence, what is being said and done is just as important as what is not being said and done.
I think what was not being said and done was what kept me most engaged with the game. First, the “breaks” in the story represented by the season changes was a small touch, but something that I was constantly wondering about. Did Joel and Ellie run into other people or infected? Did they talk about anything important that I missed? Were there any sort of bonding moments that I wished that I would have seen? All of these questions came about because the screen said the current season; this is how storytellers know they’re building fans that are invested.
Ellie was a character that I wanted to be believable, but in the end she was a constant source of taking me out of the immersion of the story. I understand that Ellie is supposed to represent the tough exterior of children after the apocalypse, but the sheer fearlessness in her words and actions built a headstrong character that was hard to fathom. She was foul-mouthed, opinionated, and well-trained; I do understand that two-thirds of this description can refer to every player on X-Box Live, but it’s the idea of attitude appropriately matching circumstance and setting.
This never swayed me from deeply caring about her well-being though, and this was definitely because of the characterization of Joel. A man suffering from an immense loss two decades ago, Joel went from a smuggler with a dirty past to a character seeking redemption in a way that compelled me to follow his story. This gradual regression from base survival back to fatherhood was artfully done, but at all times is the player thankful for Joel’s dark past and the skills that he learned from them. The duality in personality quirks worked for Joel in this instance, his gruff exterior combined with his Texan charm and (rare) hospitality. As players, we are in stark favor of the brutality he uses in every situation, and even in the ending sequence, we are steered to support his choice in how to take care of Ellie.
Depth of Theme and Thematic Reach
Redemption and hope in a world devoid of human decency is going to be the most recognizable theme in the story, and its depth and breadth reaches through every action the player takes. Ellie is Joel’s chance to live a life that his daughter would have wanted him to live, and the more he realizes this, the more brutal and protective he is of her. There is a marked shift in the combat system after the player meets Henry and Sam: more bullets and shivs will be used, and while there are more ways to sneak around infected, there are much less ways to sneak around humans. Ellie is Joel’s only human interaction throughout most of the game, while his interaction with virtually every other human in the game is met with contention and violence. This building of human decency for one person while slowly losing that ability for others will play out extremely well if Naughty Dog ever decides to make a sequel.
Utilization of the Video Game Medium
Viewing the story inactively, as if it were a film or a television show, would have definitely not had the same emotional impact that playing through a game has. The idea of scarcity had a lot to do with this; I rejoiced whenever I found more than two bullets, and there were many times that an encounter would have gone a lot smoother if I had a quarter of a scrap of paper. But at first, I thought “I need more items to protect myself,” while I searched drawers for alcohol bottles or anything sharp. Once I started building an emotional attachment with Ellie, while utilizing my personal brand of brutality, that thinking became “I need more item to protect us”. This shift would have never been experienced if I was watching two people act this out on screen, but by being immersed in the situation as the character, it led me to care more deeply about their plight.
This game made me emotionally involved, manipulating my feelings in a way that many forms of storytelling have not. I didn’t just want to finish it, but I felt like it was a duty to finish, to see these characters through until the end for better or for worse. With a cohesive narrative built around a sadly beautiful backdrop, I can definitely see Naughty Dog producing anniversary editions, supplements, and sequels of this game in the years to come. I would be surprised if this didn’t build the following that a game like Halo or The Legend of Zelda has, and it is hands-down one of my favorite games that I have ever played.
Naughty Dog has some great titles to build off of, and were well-rewarded to take a risk on another zombie-esque product while the gaming industry is saturated with them. It sold 1.3 million copies in just its first week, and that number was up to almost three-and-a-half million after three weeks. A sequel is “in talks” right now, as long as there is an “interesting story” to tell, but I can’t fathom Naughty Dog never revisiting the The Last of Us universe ever again.