The past seven years have seen a rather stark evolution in videogames, and how they are used to tell a story. For the first time, developers have had the technology available to them to bring game characters, and the worlds they inhabit to life. More than technology, however, are the stories developers have chosen to tell.
For the most part, videogames still rely on the same tired tropes of ‘save the girl’, or ‘save the world’, or ‘escape this facility’ or ‘stop this badguy’. They still largely reside in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, and they almost uniformly employ violence as the sole form of conflict and player interaction.
The Last of Us (developed by Naughty Dog) falls into many of these categories. On the surface, it is a third person, action adventure game with stealth elements set in a post apocalyptic world overrun by roaming bands of vicious survivors and hordes of zombie-like creatures. This description, or elements of it, could be applied to any number of games: Fallout, Resident Evil, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Splinter Cell, etc. And with these things come certain tropes of the genre. A prologue that shows society as we know it crumbling around the main character; a friendly character who gets bit, and must be dealt with; said character’s loved one, who reluctantly takes care of problem himself; the idea of ‘who’s worse…us or them’ (the title, ‘Last of Us’, could even be read this way…describing not just the last of humanity in terms of population, but the last of humanity within the individual.)
So why is something so familiar, so seemingly full of cliches, getting rave reviews for setting the new standard for story telling in games, and why am I about to add my voice to that number? It’s because of the way these things are portrayed, and handled, with a level of confidence and maturity that escapes most attempts that games (or any medium, be it books, movies, TV) often lacks. It also does something most violent video games don’t: justifies its violence by virtue of the story and setting.
Unlike many modern games (notably Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series) that try to overwhelm the player with wave after mind-numbing wave of faceless enemies laying down a seemingly unceasing field of fire (no doubt to counteract the trend of having regenerating health), or stealth games like Splinter Cell: Conviction where hand to hand take downs take place in the shadows at the hands of a highly trained, overpowered protagonist that never really feels in danger, the violence in the Last of Us is up close, brutal, and unpleasant.
It’s also a bit difficult, in the best possible way. Gun play is dissuaded as an initial course of action: weapons sway wildly (by design: they may be clumsy, but they are functional and effective once the learning curve is overcome), ammo is severely limited, and enemies react to open combat immediately by fanning out and taking cover. Some of the enemies, such as the horrific Clickers, can en-act an instant death upon the player if they aren’t careful. Most encounters occur organically, or have repercussions on the plot later down the road. There are a couple of what I suppose could be considered “boss fights”, one of which is handled better than the other, but not by much, and a few encounters feel like padding. These sections can break immersion and start to feel like typical video game fare, but they are few and far between and outweighed by the experience Naughty Dog have crafted.
Technically speaking, the game is one of the most solid I’ve seen on the PS3, and though some bugs have been reported, I did not encounter any in my play through. Naughty Dog know their way around the PS3’s awkwardly structured hardware, and are experts at squeezing every bit of processing power out of the seven year old system. Upon booting up the game, the player will encounter a long (sometimes around five minutes) loading screen, but these loads allow the game to stream seamlessly from section to section, and the player to immediately get back into the action should they die (which they will).
The presentation values are top notch, the cast delivering nuanced performances both vocally and with the aid of motion capture. This is the first game I think I’ve played where what ISN”T said is just as important as what is, and works on a level even other ambitious story driven games such as L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain have failed to achieve. This is also the second knock-out performance by actor Troy Baker, who played the protagonist in the similarly themed and much lauded Bioshock Infinite earlier this year (he’ll also be in Infamous: Second Son and Batman: Arkham Origins..as the Joker, no less). Indeed, it is this performance, along with Ashley Johnson’s and coupled with a beautiful soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla, that help sell the story of Joel and Ellie as they travel across a dead country. The Last of Us has set a new standard for this kind of production in games, and it’s hard to imagine that it will be topped any time soon.