“A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don’t want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there.”
– Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
I finished playing Naughty Dog’s 2013 release The Last Of Us at around 8 PM Wednesday night. It was raining when I finished, much like it had been raining for the majority of the game’s 18 hour run time. Summertime in Georgia, and all. Rain is a factor. Upon completing the game, I powered down my PS3, turned off the television, set the controller on the TV stand, and sat with my chin on my hand for about half an hour watching the storm outside. I realized that I wanted to write about The Last Of Us, not so much in a quick review form as much a longer journal entry, or a Meditation, or maybe just an honest thank you note to the creators over at Naughty Dog in the event that someone from their team stumbles across these words. Whatever this piece ends up being, I present it to you here.
I will do my best to treat The Last Of Us as its own entity, but the fact of the matter is simple – The Last Of Us is the culmination of the last ten years of storytelling, and I just can’t talk about it intelligently without addressing other stories scattered throughout various mediums that came before it. Therefore, in the words of Captain Renault from my favorite film of all time, “Round up the usual suspects.” This article will be lengthy. Forgive me. I reckon I’ve just got a lot to say.
1 – Reflections
It wasn’t too terribly long ago that I finished up another equally anticipated game called Bioshock Infinite, and though it’s wildly unfair to compare the two in any regard, comparisons are unavoidable. Yes, Bioshock Infinite was my shoe in for Game of the Year. No, it’s not anymore. Yes, The Last Of Us won the sort of unspoken bout between the two games. No, I don’t love Bioshock Infinite any less. It was a great game. The Last Of Us, however, is not a game. The Last Of Us is a revelation.
Gamers have been crying for years about the growing levels of maturity and artistic merit to be found in video games, demanding that the medium of “game” be treated with the same level of respect as film, television, or the written word. I for one have cautiously agreed with them, though our argument has often been hindered by large titles such as Saints Row, Call of Duty, and even the deceptively clever Grand Theft Auto series. Those are the names that the non-gaming community thinks of, and it’s a shame that the quiet, beautiful games never cross the public psyche. Guns, sex, violence – that’s what gaming means to everyone who has never played, say, Flower.
Every gamer, however, can think of a slew of titles that pushed the respectability of gaming as a medium to new heights, simply because we know that the games touched us on deeply emotional levels in ways that are usually reserved for the “serious” arts. Some of mine, for instance, include the Mass Effect trilogy, the Bioshock canon (Ken Levine’s babies only, go away, thou ill-advised sequel), Shadow of the Colossus, some of the earlier Final Fantasy games, Fire Emblem, Max Payne 3, Heavy Rain, Journey and a truly unforgettable Western called Red Dead Redemption.
Here, however, at last we arrive at The Last Of Us, a mysterious title that arrived on Father’s Day at the eve of next-gen of gaming’s grand entrance. Even before I played it, I knew we were in for something special. The trailers, while scarce, were intense. The reviews for it were exultant. Too exultant, perhaps. Some no doubt go into this game and are disappointed by it, simply because they expect the sky to break open and rubies to tumble out like hail. I don’t know. I went into this game expecting a 10/10. What I got was a seventeen hour interactive experience with a story as good as most books. I’m not sure what to call an experience like that. I’m really not.
Echoes of Children of Men, The Road, 28 Days Later and No Country For Old Men can all be found wandering the forlorn hallways and abandoned city streets of The Last Of Us. I mention The Road referring specifically to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy because I felt on more than one occasion while playing that The Last Of Us was the tribute that The Road deserved. It’s a pity there’s a lackluster film adaptation that got all the credit for it, but lackluster things often garner the credit for masterpieces. The good news, though, is that The Last Of Us is a far better homage to the post-apocalyptic genre that The Road more or less pioneered than any other story I’ve yet seen – and that all comes down to the story it tells.
2 – Story
I’ve read in a few forums a few naysayers who negatively compare the story in The Last Of Us to the story in Walking Dead, saying that the latter has a better story. The only thing I can really say to that is that I politely – and if you push me, perhaps not so politely – disagree. Walking Dead is a clever cartoon series that we can interact with, awkwardly at best, with characters who each neatly fit into pigeonholed zombie stereotypes. The Last Of Us, on the other hand, never quite falls back on clichés of the genre while fulfilling all expectations of that genre in its own capacity. What genre that is, specifically, I will address in a moment.
Blistering. Harrowing. Horrifying. Unforgettable. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Heartwarming. Hopeless. Resilient. Courageous. Cowardly. Despicable. Heroic. Anti-heroic. Ambiguous. Loving. Cold. Gentle. Brutal. Terrifying. Tense. Here are the words I scribbled down on a notepad while I played, wondering how I could possibly string together a series of coherent thoughts in a manner which would well represent the experience that had warranted them. I realized, in the end, that simply putting the list out there for readers to see was probably the best representation of the experience as a whole I could offer.
Without spoiling anything directly, I ought to warn interested players who are setting out into the world of The Last Of Us for the first time that this is not a game for children, and frankly, may be a hard one to swallow for some adults. Some folks might balk when I say it’s not for children, or that it’s a rough ride, since most games these days seem to fit that pedigree. What I’m saying, though, is if you have children, you may want to make sure they’re not in the room when you do play, as the story never shies away from extremely visceral violence and extremely unsettling subject matter – and I’m not talking about the zombie-monster-murder, which holds its own as being surprisingly frightening. In short, do yourself a favor and don’t play this game with children in the room. An empty room will add to the atmosphere and the experience, and come mid-game, the story will move into territory that I very highly doubt you’ll want your little ones privy to.
I’ve spoken with others who have played this game, and in general it’s a rule that you can’t play through the game without crying or at least choking up. It depends on your life experiences, I suppose, but I can guarantee you that you will be upset playing through. (If you’re not upset…well, I guess I don’t want to know you.) It’s not a “fun” game, not in any sense of the word – combat can be exhilarating, sure, but it’s the fact that I came to care about the characters that gave me the will to actually finish playing. I had to turn it off at one point and spend a night collecting myself before I could finish it up. The subject matter The Last Of Us addresses will no doubt upset – possibly even offend – some players, regardless of age. There isn’t an option to “turn off mature content” because Naughty Dog seems to understand that the entire experience is mature content. Don’t play this game if you’d turn off mature content in a game. It’s just not the experience for you.
The story follows a middle aged man named Joel and a fourteen year old girl named Ellie as they travel through a post-apocalyptic America and meet various characters along the way, all in pursuit of a group of freedom fighters known as the Fireflies. If that’s all you know, then let’s go ahead and keep it that way. Sure, there are elements of the tale that you’ll find familiar (loved ones turning infected, to kill or not to kill, et cetera) but you will undoubtedly be surprised by the bits that you aren’t expecting. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that, not here, but suffice it to say that there’s never been a more mature story in any game, anywhere, and certainly not one quite so well realized and brought to the screen.
The biggest misrepresentation of this game would be to label it as a zombie game. It’s very much not a zombie game, and is instead a post-apocalyptic story, in the same vein as The Road or I Am Legend. (I’m talking about the novel and novella here, respectively.) The story isn’t about the monsters – in fact, they often form the backdrop to this world. It’s a nasty backdrop, sure, and the monsters are sufficiently disgusting and horrifying (you’ll learn to hate the appearance of spores, for instance. Hate, with a capital H) but the fact remains that the interesting bit isn’t the monsters so much as it is the world the monsters resulted in.
Veterans of The Road, I Am Legend or even The Walking Dead will find the story a little less shocking than those who have not yet explored the post-apocalyptic genre. I maintain, however, that The Last Of Us will surprise even the most hardened of post-apocalyptic readers/watchers, if only because we’ve come to expect games to adhere to certain rules. The Last Of Us doesn’t approach the genre like a game. It approaches it like a film, and it really, really shows.
3 – Gameplay
The gameplay in The Last Of Us is pretty remarkable. Some have (in a desperate attempt to find flaw) talked down the quality of gameplay, saying it brings nothing new to the table. I guess I just have to disagree again, though if there’s any place The Last Of Us doesn’t punt expectation out the window it might be found in the actual game-part of the game. I don’t want to misrepresent my feelings by this admission, however, so let me be clear – the gameplay is fantastic.
Killing is never fun in this gray and gritty world, but there’s something furiously satisfying about watching Joel strangle people you have serious beef with. A guns blazing approach, while always a fun fallback plan in other gaming experiences, is here a complete waste of time and to be avoided at all costs. To say that The Last Of Us’ greatest quality is its realism sounds off-putting, but there you have it. When I say realism, I mean that a set of four Infected always manages to be more intimidating than an entire game of Call of Duty. Not once throughout the game did I think it was easy, though once you start learning the ins and outs of sneaking around your chances of not dying quite so much go up exponentially. This never makes the game feel rote or boring, though. It just makes you think that the character you’re piloting is a total hardass.
Some have a big issue with the steep learning curve early on in the game, but I appreciated it. It reminded me of Demon’s Souls, the PS3 cult-classic which revived the notion of games that didn’t hold your hand. The closest you get to a tutorial in The Last Of Us is a level that deftly gets the story moving and introduces you to Joel, the anti-hero you’ll be piloting for most of the game’s duration. Your first real fight with Infected is terrifying, in large part because you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s frustrating, too, because you’ll probably die a multitude of times. It took me a good thirty minutes to defeat my first batch of Infected. Some folks take issue with that. I absolutely loved it.
My reasoning is simple. Infected wouldn’t wait for you to learn. They wouldn’t take it easy on you. These Infected don’t take it easy on you, either. They’re the same Infected you’ll be fighting in the last chapters of the game, just as vicious, just as relentless and you will be punished just as harshly when you screw up. My best advice? Treat Joel like he’s a fifty something year old man who has to fight six monsters. Pretend you’re in his shoes. Realize the odds are stacked against you. Pretend the game isn’t a game, it’s a hopeless world and everyone (and everything) is out to kill you. Now, give it a whirl.
The crafting system and weapon system are some of my favorite things I’ve ever encountered with a game. Ammo is scarce, weapons of opportunity (planks of wood, steel pipes, maybe a hatchet if you’re lucky) are preferable, stealth is best. Always strangle your opponents, or stab them in the neck. Good luck aiming a revolver at someone who’s charging you full speed and you’re trying to walk sideways. Good luck hitting a damn thing when you’re out of breath and your heartbeat’s pounding and Infected are screaming down the halls. Good luck taking out a room of Infected or armored soldiers with a revolver that holds six rounds and takes a realistically long time to reload. I appreciated the inaccuracy of the weapons, and I appreciated that fist fight brawls were just that – fist fight brawls. They were nasty, brutal, dirty, and you will feel every single hit.
I also greatly appreciated the lack of QuickTime events. They were here, sure – it is a PS3 exclusive, after all – but they were few and far between, and they rarely took me out of the game for more than a moment. The game seems to have a very firm belief that when you’re in control – you’re in control, and when it’s in control – it’s in control. Traditional QuickTime events are few, and frankly, all of them except one or two feel very memorable. The most upsetting scene in the game, in fact, is a QuickTime sequence. I hardly noticed that I was mashing the triangle button. I was too busy sobbing.
4 – Presentation
The opening sequence of this game will tell you everything you need to know about it. If you arrive at the title and you are unimpressed, or unmoved, or indifferent, please do me a favor and put down the controller. Go play Borderlands 2, Black Ops 2 or Battlefield 3. The Last Of Us is, at the end of the day, an emotional knockout that derives all of its power from the story it tells and the manner in which it tells it. It is in no way shallow or hokey, and every issue examined feels raw and nervy.
The real surprises here are the cut scenes – the first big one being the lead up to the titular screen – which feel like they came straight out of a film. I’ve never seen a game that so seamlessly integrates gameplay and cut scenes – loading screens are cleverly hidden from view, and the story rarely blinks. Every second that matters is accounted for, and when you skip a gap of time it’s for a reason. Scenes never feel like video game cut scenes, they feel like snippets from Band of Brothers, No Country for Old Men or 28 Days Later. Some part of that can be attributed to the motion capture, but to be brutally honest, the motion capture wasn’t what wowed me. What wowed me was the game’s willingness to linger.
For all its gruesome violence and loud moments, The Last Of Us really shines when it’s quiet. Fortunately for us, a surprising amount of the game is very quiet. The vast majority of the game is spent wandering through empty spaces, scavenging around for much needed supplies and listening to fascinating conversations between Joel and Ellie. We learn the most about them, who they are, and how they perceive each other through these interactions. The option to speak with Ellie presents itself at various moments while exploring abandoned cities. Always take advantage of these options. You won’t regret it when the game reaches it’s highly ambiguous and controversial denouement.
A word here about the soundtrack. The soundtrack is, quite simply put, the best soundtrack I’ve heard in a game. Unlike Jeremy Soule’s spectacular soundtrack for Skyrim that successfully stood on its own, Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack for The Last Of Us focuses on the emotional core of the story to truly astonishing effect. Those familiar with Santaolalla will recognize his work from films such as Babel, Brokeback Mountain and The Motorcycle Diaries. Listening to the soundtrack from The Last Of Us without the game to accompany it is an ambient experience, but it’s nothing when compared to seeing how the music works in the context of the game itself. Santaolalla has won two Oscars for his music, (Babel and Brokeback Mountain) and were The Last Of Us a possible candidate for an Academy Award, I would be surprised if his work here didn’t make the cut.
The cinematography seems to subscribe to the same doctrine as Santaolalla’s music. The cut scenes generally focus on conversations in lieu of focusing on the action, which startled me. It’s a risky move for a game to spend its narrative moments focusing on subject matter that could easily feel boring or forced, especially since cut scenes are inherently taxing on a player’s patience. When it comes to The Last Of Us, however, the cut scenes are film quality. They never feel intrusive, and are in fact something I came to look forward to as the game progressed. I grew to be very excited whenever the game slipped into an automated sequence, because I knew that a plot point was coming, or a twist, or a beautifully filmed moment, and perhaps most importantly, I knew it was going to look, sound and feel incredible.
This leads me to the acting jobs by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. It was interesting watching Troy Baker in The Last Of Us, since I wondered if I’d be able to shake Booker DeWitt from my mind as I tried to fit the voice into the role of Joel. Amazingly, Baker knocks it out of the park as Joel, showing genuine acting chops (not just voice acting, as he altered between being absolutely heartbreaking to absolutely terrifying in his motion capture sequences) and helped create a character as resonant and haunting in my personal canon as Ahab himself. Ashley Johnson was spot on as Ellie, slipping into a fourteen year old persona with a knack that was as startling as it was refreshing, and handled the more edgy subject matter with a gravitas both heartbreaking and inspiring. Ellie comprises the heart of this tale, and you’ll find at game’s end that it’s her story more than his. I loved these characters for their flaws – I loved them because they were just so damn human. This brings me to the last segment of my discussion – the idea of being human.
5 – Denoument, Controversy and Impact
Without going into too many spoilers, I feel the need to mention the growing controversy surrounding this game. It’s not a bad controversy, more of a moral argument that’s gathering champions to both its sides. I’d discuss the argument, the controversy, and the philosophical rabbit hole it leads us down at greater length, but I don’t know that this is the place to do it. (There are a couple really well written articles discussing two very different viewpoints on the issue you can read over at Forbes, as well as a highly interesting discussion/debate over at IGN, though be warned there be spoilers everywhere in both locations, links can be found at the end of the article). Suffice it to say that I found myself distinctly undecided at game’s end about how I perceived Joel and the decisions he made, not to mention whether the game was optimistic or pessimistic about the human condition.
Simply put, the ideas presented in The Last Of Us warrant serious discussion. They’re actually important ideas, and they’re actually pretty tricky. The answers aren’t forthcoming, and the game takes its place in my roster as sort of the dark and dismal retort to The Wrath of Khan and the perceptions of heroism and “rightness” that a Vulcan named Spock championed there. I’ve debated at length with at least one other person so far about the ideas the game asks at the end, and to me that’s absolutely astonishing. For a game to force you to think – really think – and immediately question your life, how you judge right and wrong, what you would do in a similar scenario and to do so through as a medium previously relegated to the entertainment bin by highbrow society…well, that’s just remarkable.
The Last Of Us is the finale to a great generation of gaming, and it’s a promise that what comes next is likely going to be the revelation we’ve all been waiting for. I grew up reading, watching films and going over to my neighbor’s house to play video games. Long John Silver, Matthias the Mouse, Artax the horse, and Link are all equally weighted gems in my childhood imagination. Later in life I met Atticus Finch and John Sheppard, and finally the Man and Joel. There’s always been a quiet sort of embarrassment when it comes to the Links, the Arthas’, the Icos and the Cortanas. It’s sad that this is the case, but it’s true.
I have been of the firm – albeit quiet – opinion that gaming can (and should, and now has) become a medium through which we can tell truly great stories, stories on the same level of sophistication and artistic merit as any book or film. I think it’s unfortunate that everyone knows Romeo and Juliet, but not everyone knows Tidus and Yune – that everyone knows The Man With No Name but not John Marston – that everyone knows Harry Potter but not Ash Ketchum. I for one have deep affection for all the names I just listed, and it saddens me that so many great stories and characters are hidden from the world purview simply because they are generally overshadowed by bigger, far more lackluster titles.
Is The Last Of Us comparable to Paradise Lost, Casablanca, Ulysses, The Godfather, Moby Dick or The Tempest? No. Of course not. But neither was The Road, and that won a Pulitzer Prize. The Last Of Us is comparable to The Road. Where is the Pulitzer or Oscar equivalent award for a game which hits just as hard, just as earnestly, and was in many ways harder to create? The fact is that when I finished The Last Of Us, my experience with the game was only just beginning. It made me wonder about what it meant to be human, what being human demanded, and perhaps most importantly, where the humanity ends and the monsters begin. The Last Of Us is a great meditation on the difference between surviving and living. Survival is a natural instinct, but at what cost? What will we have once we begin living again, and we look back at what we did in order to survive? Will we be able to live with ourselves? Is happiness even a possibility at this point? The Last Of Us offers bleakly little in the way of answers. The question, though, is remarkable.
Stephen King once wrote that every fantasy story written since Tolkien was in some way just another author trying desperately to bring Sam and Frodo back from the Shire. Perhaps he was right, perhaps he wasn’t. Along the same lines of thinking, maybe the reason why video games haven’t been treated as an earnest art form is that every single one since Pong has been trying to recreate the addictive exhilaration that came from successfully bouncing that white spot off the paddle. If that is indeed the case, the greatest achievement The Last Of Us can lay claim to is that it at last stepped away from a set of unspoken rules, and it did so bravely, efficiently and well. The Last Of Us indicates that it’s time for serious storytellers to explore a new medium, one now officially full of enormous promise and truly exciting possibilities. If this is a glimpse of the Next Generation, then it is a bright future indeed – and not just for “gamers,” but for us all.
The Bottom Line: Blistering, terrifying, courageous and unforgettable, The Last Of Us is the best game I have ever played, and infinitely more important, is one of the most profoundly moving experiences I have had while interacting with a story in any medium. A true masterpiece, in every sense of the word.
Overall Score: 10/10