Versus Steam #20: The Last of Us (PS3)
Developed by: Naughty Dog
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
I am now and forever going to link this game with a particularly special person in my life, whose encouragement and zest for it caused me to actually finish it after putting it down months and months ago. I had originally hoped to stretch my zombie theme on Versus Steam to this point simply so The Last of Us could act as a capstone to the whole endeavor. However, my dissatisfaction with my options towards the end broke this streak getting me to this point. Still, I want to talk about this game anyway, as my heart and my brain are in two different places regarding it. Anyone who has played the Last of Us knows that it almost immediately goes for the gut of the player, forcing them into the utter futility and hopelessness of the post-apocalyptic wastes in which the game takes place. I guess I have to use the SPOILER tag for this, even if it is the beginning of the game, as the player takes control of Sarah, a young girl embroiled in a sudden emergency with her father Joel and his brother Tommy. As the world is upheaved around them and the military turns on the possibility of an infected populace, leaving Sarah dead and Joel to carry on in a world without his daughter. There is an immense cleverness to how this whole opening sequence is designed, as the initial reaction of sympathy towards characters and bleakness of the world is strengthened by the ghastly idea of a child dying. But what makes this sequence stand out from a normal act of emotional manipulation is the fact that it takes place from the viewpoint of Sarah rather than Joel, the game’s protagonist. The utilization of perspective here allows the player a feeling of helplessness they do not usually see in a game nor in the rest of the game proper. While invested with agency in the role of Sarah, able to move around and take in the views, the player is helpless to environments around them, allowing for a heightened sense of confusion, bringing us in closer to identifying with her. The more we see the world through the eyes of a character, the more we are likely to develop an emotional connection to them and while Sarah’s part is fleeting, we see the kindness and love invested into her by her father, making it doubly tragic that she dies and more easy to understand Joel’s nihilistic viewpoint for the rest of the game. This acts as a setup for the obvious parallel case of Joel and Ellie, the young girl who comes under his protection that might hold the cure for the infection. Naughty Dog does a remarkable job of not only pacing the growing connection between the pair, always making their care of one another organic by making Ellie more than a simple object to protect. This hits its zenith when the player takes control of Ellie, resulting in her protection of Joel and allowing her to feel like a more fully fleshed part of the relationship. The game itself depends on an emotional resonance with the characters, understanding the still moments between them and how simple duty gradually becomes more as their shared time and mutual protection allows the pair to come together. This makes for an interesting use of the old zombie thematic chestnut of humanity being the real monster in situations of crisis, as Joel and Ellie gradually become more empathetic to the world around them as the people they meet become more and more deranged. While the infected themselves are terrifying, we more often than not see how their constant presence has driven other humans to the edge resulting in the loss of their moral compass and general disregard for lives outside their own. Joel and Ellie act as the opposite of this, yet the game seems reluctant to commit them to the status of Templars of good, instead focusing upon the insular nature of close relationships as strength, slowly bringing it into a parallel alignment with the mad survivalist acts committed by others. They forge their acts with love and we care for them as characters certainly, but what they’re doing is never meant to be seen as the ultimate right within the world of the game.
But as I said, my brain interferes quite a bit for my love of complex characters that I have empathy for in their complicated moral world, and part of this comes from the inherent disconnection of the way the story is told. While Naughty Dog does a remarkable job hitting the moments where our investment is most needed to see how Joel and Ellie are growing closer, the episodic nature of the storytelling allows for some remarkably formulaic moments of storytelling that left me dumbfounded at their execution. The most notable of these comes when Joel and Ellie team up with brother pair, Henry and Sam. It’s almost immediately apparent that these two are supposed to be acting as doubles of Ellie and Joel, right down to the age disparity and relationship they share. The problem with setting something like this is up is how limited its inevitable conclusion can be, as a crisis must happen with doubles in order to forewarn the characters of the precarious nature of their own lives. SPOILER ALERT, of course it ends in tragedy, as Sam is infected and Henry must not only watch his brother die but also chooses suicide having lost his will to live in the world without the one thing he cared about. This all ended up ringing very hollow for me because of how obvious a storytelling tool it was supposed to be. While I like the intellectual idea here of Joel and Ellie being able to avoid this because Ellie can’t be infected and therefore, they feel some complicity in Sam’s death, it’s not a moment for me that felt like it had any real emotional resonance. I never felt the sinking feeling that either Ellie or Joel might suffer this same fate, which seems to be what the story wants me to think and while it foreshadows the later game somewhat, it does little to establish anything more about either as characters, making it feel more like a grab for sympathy rather than the organic build they had been utilizing. The other point of contention I have with thematic storytelling here comes from the ending, which is obviously SPOILER territory. Many people have told me they cried at the ending, when Joel manages to get Ellie to her ultimate destination, only to find out that it will be necessary to kill Ellie in order to procure the cure, resulting in his blind attack on the Fireflies and rescue of Ellie. Joel ultimately lies to Ellie, telling her that she wasn’t the cure and that they are now free to live their lives, sacrificing the hopes of humanity for his own selfish love. I have no major dislike of linear storytelling, but the ending bothers me for the lack of agency Ellie and the player ultimately have in it. I get their desire to want to tell their story, but what should be the ultimate act of tragedy ends up sticking for me because the player is not asked to give anything for it. Firstly, the lack of Ellie being informed as to what is happening to her makes an ultimately interesting question regarding how she would have chosen to act, whether knowing she would have died she would have given herself up to save others or if she would have wished to be alive. This kind of implicated Joel as treating her like an object, keeping her alive for his own selfish desires, something the game has done such a good job to show that Ellie was not throughout. And by denying the player the choice of whether to save her, we’re ultimately not the ones making the sacrifice. Video games are a unique medium in that they require player input in order for things to unfold, but the Last of Us denies this, never giving us a chance to give up our humanity to save humans or give up humans to save our humanity. It makes the story less of a tragedy and more confused at the ending as to how we’re going to feel about Joel. We’re never given the chance to look inside ourselves and see ourselves in Joel’s shoes in how we play, which seems like a failing of the game.
And of course, I’ve spent so much time talking about the story that I’ve left myself little time to talk about the actual game aspect of this. Unequivocally, the Last of Us is a beautifully designed game. The environments are detailed and properly reflect their real world equivalent and add enough expansiveness to really enhance the feel of the journey the player is on. The music, or lack thereof, is stirring, as ambient sound dominates the game. As music is such a fundamentally human thing to hear, it really adds to the desolation of the landscape around you and become disquieting at times if the player lingers too long among the rubble. However, the main meat of the game comes from its combat, as the player controlling Joel battles both the infected and other survivors. I must admit that this was the reason why I put the game down to begin with, as while the combat is well designed and perfectly tense, it’s not what I would describe as fun. Dependent largely on stealth, as like a real human Joel can be easily killed by bullets, the player must approach each step cautiously in order to take down those in their environment. This can lead so easily to over caution, making encounters drag at a snail’s pace as the player tries to find ways to take down each sentry without alerting the others, made all the more difficult by the fickle AI which lacks definitive patterns. While a more complex AI is an interesting idea, they seem hyperaware at times, managing to turn at the exact moment I get the drop on them, resulting in the alarm being raised and my need to retreat and wait for their warning to drop. The shooting itself can be frustrating as its often difficult to aim or gauge how much ammo you’ll need against enemies, making moments where I put six bullets into a person still walking all the more nerve wracking. Still, the lack of ammo and the hyperawareness of your surroundings play perfectly to the theme of the game, made all the more apparent in sections with the infected. Clickers, a particular kind of enemy that can kill in one hit but can only hear, are a wonderful experience to try and navigate, making large sections of the game exercises in controlling whether you’d like to leave them or actually kill them to move forward. This makes the stealth feel especially appropriate and rewards the player for doing proper scouting of a game plan before diving into the actual execution. I should also mention the inclusion of Ellie in the game, as her and occasionally others, presence on the battlefield is slightly odd. Enemies don’t seem to notice them no matter what they actually do, resulting in a slight breakage in the immersion of the game, as the tiniest mistake by yourself is life or death. But ultimately, this was the right way to go, as the alternative was to make this an extended escort mission, one of the more frustrating styles of play and actually allows Ellie to be of value to you in situations where she attacks guards and demonstrates her own competence. It’s not the best working model for this in gameplay, but it works well enough.
Your love of the Last of Us is ultimately going to depend on how emotionally invested you’re able to become in the story. While I had definite moments of breakage from the themes being delivered by the game and it’s gameplay, on the whole I can embrace the game as it’s set forth. It does make you want to empathize and does make you raise questions of yourself in the same situations. The game’s world is so fully designed and immersive that it’s a shame that The Last of Us didn’t give us a bigger world to move in, but ultimately it is the insular world it concerns itself with and it makes that work well.
The Moment: When the player takes control of Ellie, she’s on a hunt for deer but soon crosses paths with a pair of strangers, David and James. James ultimately leaves to get medicine to trade with Ellie, when the pair is overrun by Infected and must fight them off together. Soon after, Ellie ends up captured by David who seems intent on taming her, resulting in the pair fighting to the death. I can’t really do this justice with a description because so much happens in so little time, as Ellie and David’s first encounter sews the bonds of friendship through hardship, but this subsequently becomes warped, as it becomes more and more apparent that David is unhinged and that his connection to humanity is severed, resulting in implications of rape and cannibalism. Though he seems to want to keep Ellie alive its not clear to why and when she transgresses on him, he ultimately decides to punish her. I coined the term in my review of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons “deliberate input,” which we see here during the fight between David and Ellie, as Ellie is forced to crawl towards a machete that David was wielding, making the player control a rather select set of button pushes to execute it. I love moments like these because it invests the player in the weight of the actions being undertaken, making us feel the pain and hardship Ellie is going through. And that this pays off in a moment where Joel cannot save Ellie from the pain of her own humanity makes it all the sweeter.
Games It Might Remind You Of: The Walking Dead comes immediately to mind, for obvious reasons. But I hate being obvious so… Portal. Now, I’m not saying they are very similar mechanically, but Portal does something very similar to the Last of Us in the way it has us care for the Weighted Companion Cube. In a game featuring only one voice throughout, the player can easily feel emotionally distant from the play they’re engaging in, resulting in the constant presence and actual use of the WCC in puzzle solving become especially involving, as even its little heart makes it seem more human than anything else we experience in the game. We are ultimately tasked to destroy the cube, given no choice but to do so to progress, resulting in an immense feeling of loss in losing something that was close to us. I’d say this is an example of how good storytelling can be done, the case in both games, where our attachment to something can feel so real despite it being obviously fictional. The Last of Us simply ramps this up to the highest degree.
An Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10