(Warning: Spoilers included)
It received a lot 10 out of 10s from reviewers the world over, and deservedly so.
The Last of Us, a PlayStation exclusive from the impressive Naughty Dog outfit (Jak and Daxter and the Uncharted series), is an unparalleled achievement in gaming and the highlight of 2013 (though Two Souls looks like a potential dark horse).
The fact that it is amongst quite a few post-apocalyptic, zombie-themed titles only emphasizes the achievement because it still stands out – or rather, stands alone.
Set in a United States devastated by a deadly fungus that transforms humans into violent, mindless monsters, we follow the journey of Joel, a grizzled 40-something survivor, as he escorts the teenaged Ellie to a resistance group called the Fireflies. She may hold the key to curing the fungal outbreak – but Joel’s tragic past might have something to say about that.
Why Is It So Good?
a) The story
Firstly, and primarily, story. This is a tale very well told with uncompromising choices, made from the very beginning, that make it work in a most potent way. Neither pleasant nor easy to digest, the story and characters weren’t written with satisfying symmetry. It is a raw, jagged, painful experience that successfully immerses you in the harsh reality of the desperation and savagery that a destroyed world can produce. The fact that Joel’s daughter is killed in the first sequence of the game was a sign that this was going to be a difficult ride – but one worth taking.
While minor characters are also developed so you sympathize with them, the bulk of the emotions are tied to Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which is powerfully (and gradually) developed through realistic small talk and hard-fought trust.
The acting is impeccable, with a masterful performance by Troy Baker (Booker Dewitt, Bioshock 3), a veteran of gaming voice-overs, and Ashley Johnson, who is new to the gaming world. The environments are beautiful in their destruction and tragic detail, from photos and diaries that give you a peek into individual lives (and deaths) as well as contextual info delivered through graffiti, relics and movie posters.
The pair makes new friends and enemies, and they face off against the Infected throughout their journey. But it’s the growing bond between Joel and Ellie that really holds it all together. This relationship produces some special moments in gaming that have a powerful emotional impact like no other, like Ellie’s first time seeing fireflies or giraffes, or telling Joel knock-knock jokes and even hunting a deer. These moments breathe life into the experience and, if anything, raise the bar a notch or two for gaming in general.
b) The science
This is not a zombie game. The fungal outbreak is based on an existing fungus that infects ants and takes control of their nervous system, eventually growing out of their heads and spreading spores to the rest of the colony. The Infection works in the same way, making humans initially violent and then colonizing the cranium, making them blind and violent – and then dead. The strength is the plausibility: no living dead, just dying living.
c) The moral dilemma
All throughout, Joel is essentially protecting Ellie from becoming like him: a killer, perhaps a creature of pure instinct. When Joel’s brother, an altruistic foil of Joel himself, turns up, we basically learn that the altruists can exist because the savages do. Eventually, Ellie must take on the role of protector later in the story, and we see her becoming a bit more like Joel (maybe). But all along the way, there’s a part of you that justifies your actions until the very end, when Joel makes a pivotal decision. He essentially chooses between saving Ellie or potentially saving the world. The treatment of morality raises the game to an almost literary level. Again, it’s not an easy, black-and-white treatment – there are ample helpings of grey strategically placed everywhere, as well as the subtle addition of subjectivity – there’s a short distance between you being the good guy and the villain.
But What’s the Bug?
The buggy annoyance is the AI. Any accompanying character will generally be seen by enemies who completely ignore them. Annoying, but tolerable.
So Why Should We Care?
Between The Last of Us, the Walking Dead series and the upcoming Two Souls, gaming is taking a wholesale turn toward story-driven content. Yes, games have always had a story, but now the experience is far more important than achievements and pure gameplay.
It suggests that role-playing isn’t always necessary for a full experience; you can be immersed in a prescribed story without having a say and still be completely engaged. Books have been doing that for a long time, and gaming is finally making it happen effectively.
Naughty Dog has a tough act to follow, but if it lives up to its work thus far, we have something awesome to look forward to.
*Photos shared under Creative Commons license.