The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a videogame developed by famed studio Naughty Dog, which also developed the Crash Bandicoot series as well as the various Uncharted games. The Last of Us was released in 2013 to extremely positive reviews and is often placed into conversation as one of the best videogames of all time. I didn’t own a PlayStation 3 so I didn’t get a chance to play this game until recently. Despite it coming out 5 years ago, I think it’s still worth writing about because it was just that good.

My favorite high school English teacher used to tell us that what made great authors and artists was their ability to build transformational art. By that he meant great artists could simultaneously do the well known and expected approach extremely well while also building on that and incorporating the new and avant-garde to seamlessly bring the audience towards new ideas. He would always use the Beatles as an example, pointing to their earlier generic pop sound which gave way to their more experimental later albums, but it’s a nice approach to use for almost any analysis of art.

For example, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite superhero movies aren’t really superhero movies at all; The Dark Knight is a detective movie disguised as a superhero movie, The Winter Soldier is a spy thriller disguised as a superhero movie, and Logan is a western disguised as a superhero movie. These movies are interesting because they pushed the boundaries of what was possible with their genre. The Last of Us pushes the boundaries of what counts as a videogame.

Taken solely on its merits as a game, The Last of Us is excellent. It takes aspects of games that are quite familiar to anyone designing a shooter in the early 2010s and does them really well: it’s a survival shooter that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with zombies. Zombies are a somewhat common trope in horror films but they are heavily represented in videogame media. The zombies in The Last of Us are properly horrifying, varied, and challenging to deal with.  It also has you teaming up, or at least working with, a rebel group in this post apocalyptic society against the government’s military rule. There are specific gameplay mechanics that are familiar, such as sneaking around to remain unseen from enemies, various guns that are upgradeable over time, and physical puzzles or obstacles that must be overcome. The “survival” aspect of the game is particularly well done though.

Many videogames have good stories. Half-Life 2 and both Portal games are some of my favorites, but they still have a pretty strict boundary between gameplay and story. It’s fun to check out the story elements and much of it is told through cutscenes, but The Last of Us brings the story in close to the gameplay. You are constantly aware of the post-apocalyptic world around you, and not just through the beautiful level designs of real American cities in ruins, but also because you are constantly running out of materials. You find a shotgun, blast some zombies triumphantly, and then quickly realize you are out of ammo and have to switch to a low power handgun. Maybe you have time to duck behind some cover and swap out the hunting rifle so you can use those last three bullets before you’re forced to start bashing heads in with metal pipes or scraps of wood you find, which also eventually break. It’s almost always a good idea to stealthily dispatch as many enemies as possible, both to reduce the number of enemies and to conserve ammunition. Even other items like shivs and health packs are all constructed from collected materials, and making more of one might preclude you from making more of others. The feeling of scarcity is omnipresent, and improvisation is vital to complete most levels.

The gameplay is also well varied. The story of The Last of Us revolves around Joel, a deadly smuggler, transporting Ellie, a girl who is immune to the zombie disease, to the underground resistance. Throughout this journey, there are different types of enemies which require different strategies, but also different types of encounters. There are areas where you are alone, areas where you have a support, and areas with other characters who you must protect while they are somewhat unhelpful to you. These are well incorporated into the story, as early on, Ellie is unknown and not given any weapons. Her presence on levels is not very helpful, and the gameplay helps to contribute to the player’s slight resentment. Eventually she gets a rifle and starts helping you, which makes the player appreciate her more. Other interesting levels include the first level, where you play as Joel’s daughter on the night the outbreak gets out of control. This is also the first big twist (spoilers ahead), as she is unceremoniously killed once you finish the level, taking a page out of Game of Thrones‘ script. This makes you pretty sympathetic with Joel’s character as you feel his helplessness, after all, you were just controlling his daughter and there was nothing you could do to save her.

Other interesting levels include one where you have to avoid a sniper, sneak around with very limited cover, dispatch men as they charge your position, all while advancing on the sniper as you slowly run out of ammo and materials. Then you take the sniper position and cover the advance of your friends as more enemies swarm them. There’s also a situation where you accidentally trigger a trap meant for zombies and have to protect Ellie while hanging upside down from your ankles.

As I’ve stated, the story benefits well from the integration with the gameplay. But the storytelling itself is one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve seen. It changed how I imagined a videogame could tell a story. The voice acting creates emotional and broken characters who you want to see triumph. And while the gameplay helps to emphasize the desperation and difficulty the characters face, the story is brutally dark in its outlook, constantly putting the characters in harsh situations or even killing them off. Joel’s difficulty in making himself emotionally attached to anyone after the death of his daughter is explored really well. Additionally, the sound design and music is also excellent.

But of course, the most interesting part of this game was the ending. Joel and Ellie go through a lot in their adventure. They lose a lot of friends, and they are hunted by people of all sorts. Nonetheless, if you take the gritty realism of the game seriously, you murder dozens of people over the course of the game. These others are often pretty gross people. In Pittsburgh, they are set on by “hunters” who try to ambush them. You then proceed through several levels and likely kill about 30 people. Is this proportionate? Is this ok because it’s a videogame? It’s not like you have much choice, even if you sneak by people, you’ll still have to take out a lot of others, all of whom will kill you on sight. But towards the end of the game, Joel is injured, and you have to play as Ellie to try and save him. Again, Ellie is trapped and has to fight her way out. She’s faced with being captured, possibly raped or eaten by cannibals, so anyone she kills is probably justified, but it’s pretty dark.

Finally Joel and Ellie make it to Salt Lake City and find the Fireflies (the resistance). Of course, the Fireflies believe they can create a vaccine for the zombie infection…which they would need to kill Ellie to obtain. Upon hearing this, Joel cannot bear to lose the one person he has finally allowed himself to care about, and fights his way back to Ellie. It’s possible to do this level while only killing a couple Fireflies (but you always kill their leader at the end). I was not great at stealth, so I ended up killing about 20. Mostly with the flame thrower. Joel takes Ellie back to his brother’s compound, and lies to her about the Fireflies when she wakes up, saying they didn’t need her help and they couldn’t find a cure.

Joel isn’t a hero. Yet his actions are at least understandable to the player and we’re left wondering what we would have done in a similar situation. And while it’s uncertain whether the Fireflies could have found a cure, they were not interested in Ellie’s consent or buy in; Marlene (the leader of the Fireflies) was Ellie’s friend and ordered her killed for the greater good. Of course, Joel didn’t ask Ellie what she wanted to do either, he just lied to her. And having already killed Marlene perhaps he felt he couldn’t go back even if Ellie was willing to sacrifice herself. Ellie is also only 14, so should she have the ability to make this decision? It would be questionably ethical to let a teenager make such a decision today, but who knows what rules to apply in the apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. This ending is remarkable and differs from the videogame tropes we are used to seeing. It is truly ambiguous, and emphasizes there are no heroes and villains, there are just people trying to survive.

In the sci-fi novel Ready Player One, there’s a proposed technology that would allow you to play a film as a first person character in virtual reality. The hero plays through both Wargames as Matthew Broderick’s character and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as King Arthur. While amusing for the audience, this would seem to a highly limited and uncreative use of such VR technology. After all, art made for a certain medium is probably best in that medium; a first person VR cinematic experience would probably be much better if the scripting and events were made specifically for a VR platform.  The Last of Us is a real life example of this science fiction concept: a story-driven experience with many aspects of a film, yet tailor made for the videogame medium. It isn’t the first “movie as a videogame” but it is the most impressive exercise in expanding how interactive stories are told. It is transformational and is changing the way we consume media; there’s no longer a stark difference between a long YouTube video, a TV series, and a feature film. Netflix hosts all kinds of shows from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 15 minutes an episode), to Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which is 10 episodes ranging from 82 to 114 minutes each. The future will include the telling of stories in many genres and media, and I’m excited to see how videogames continue to contribute to that storytelling.

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