Monday, August 19, 2013
Thoughts on The Last of Us
This afternoon, I finished watching the Two Best Friends playthrough of The Last of Us, one of the most talked-about games of the summer, and what looks like one of the last big hurrahs for the Playstation 3. This article is relatively free-form, and will not follow the same formula typical of my full game reviews. There is, after all, a difference between playing a game and watching someone else play it. I simply want to go over my own thoughts on The Last of Us – its high points and its low points. Fair warning: this article treads deep into spoiler territory, so if you have any intention of playing the game to completion, I suggest you close out of the browser window.
Allow me to begin by saying that the game does a phenomenal job at immersing you in a world where humanity has few choices as a means for survival – stay in a quarantined zone that is kept under martial law and deal with the problems that can arise with soldiers who abuse their power or rebels who seek to violently overturn the system in place, scavenge for supplies and live off the land in either a colony far-removed from the big cities or as a nomadic group and run a significantly greater risk of being infected by the fungal Clickers, Bloaters, etc. The graphics, though clearly outshined by those on Nintendo’s new Wii U and the trailers teased for all of the PS4 and Xbox One up-and-comers, still look really good due to a notably high degree of detail that draws everything it can from the hardware. Naughty Dog does a masterful job designing environments that bear unique assets, allowing abandoned record stores, snow-covered lodges, and off-kilter skyscrapers to plant a distinct image in your mind, as these are places you will only come across once in your travels.
Guns are intelligently prevented from becoming too powerful by limiting the upgrade options to the kickback, reload speed, firing rate, and clip capacity. There is no option to boost the firepower of your gun (save for perhaps one), because it would be too easy an option. There’s also a limited number of parts Joel can discover, forcing you to be very picky with regards to which upgrades you select. The ability upgrades behave in a similar fashion, as Joel will only locate a set number of pills over the course of the game to increase the effectiveness of his health kits, allow him to pull out a shiv on a Clicker in the event that he gets caught in a bad situation, and so on. While the makeshift tin can bombs and molotov cocktails do their jobs just fine, I fail to see the point of the smoke bombs. Why bother distracting your enemy with those when you can simply toss a bottle or a brick and conserve your resources?
Sticking fourteen year-old Ellie with Joel to play with his trust issues and sadness over the death of his daughter seems, frankly, an obvious decision. But what really makes this pair so entertaining and engaging is the fact that they have such different personalities. Joel is a father who lost his whole world, his whole reason to be, when his daughter died, and has simply been surviving for the twenty-odd years since. He’s a shell of his former self, and is seemingly just going through the motions up until he is paired with Ellie. She is a child born after the fallout, with no firsthand experience of how everyday life played out before cityscapes were overgrown with vegetation and the threat of infection was real. She has an obsession with comic books, is unable to swim, and constantly wants to prove herself as highly capable to Joel in order to gain his trust and friendship. In a lot of ways, both her hobbies and her demeanor remind me of Yorick, lead protagonist from Y: The Last Man. Yorick and Ellie both try to find the positive angle of the worst situations, but very much recognize the real danger they are constantly in. They have geeky hobbies that they are highly devoted to, and they are both strangers in strange company – Yorick being the last human with a Y chromosome walking the Earth, and Ellie being something of a miracle child who was infected but never turned into one of the rabid fungal beasts.
Around the halfway point, I really began to question what the point of throwing the infected into the mix really was. I understand that it frames the story’s introduction as chaotic, terrifying, and tragic, as things quickly escalate and we see firsthand how the world went into a state of decay. It’s clear that everyone (tough and gruff Joel included) fears the infected, and the prospect of death at the hands of these mushroom zombies drives some groups or individuals to behave in drastic, sometimes crazy ways. Beyond that, however, there’s not a whole lot of justification for them being in the game. Combat sequences between infected and humans play out almost identically, save for certain weapons being more effective against one foe and vice-versa. The infected and the problem they present never evolves or plays as large a role as I expected it would, and it certainly isn't rectified by game's end. This wouldn’t be so upsetting if it seemed like Naughty Dog was really trying to push the idea of ‘man is the most terrifying of beasts’ routine more than they actually do. When it boils down to it, the only two characters who we see portrayed as animalistic or beastly are David, with his cannibalistic culture, and Joel’s last moment run-and-gun, kill-everyone-of-those-Firefly-sons-of-bitches rage. They could have made it a scenario wherein animals become infected instead of humans and it would have left the same basic impact.
Which brings me to the issue of the game’s last hours. Everything’s going swell (for the player, at least) when Ellie and Joel take on David’s gang from separate fronts. It’s arguably the darkest territory the game visits, and also the most important, as Joel’s coming in to stop Ellie from further mutilating David’s face with the machete is the first time we see their care for one another physically manifest. It’s the moment where we know for certain that Joel truly care for this kid he’s been escorting for months, as he halts her actions, as he doesn’t believe the whole ordeal is something she ought to see nor be involved in. The whole scene of Joel and Ellie storming David’s camp town is a very carefully executed segment that places emphasis on stealth, though combat is an option for the more brave and well-stocked.
The hospital segment where Joel goes apeshit on the Fireflies is not unexpected – I was fully prepared for the Fireflies to have questionable intentions practically from the start of the game. But it does feel choppy and rushed - a couple short segments of Joel wrecking the Fireflies and busting Ellie out of the hospital to save her life, and then we suddenly jump forward to the finale. Sure, we get a flashback to understand how Joel got his hands on the truck and how no one followed them outside of Salt Lake City, but it’s presented in snippets that bounce back and forth in a rhythm that is incredibly fast when compared to the rest of the narrative.
And then, of course, there is the final scene where Ellie asks Joel for the truth about what happened in the hospital while she was unconscious. Joel flat out lies to her to retain her trust and not worry her, which is fine in the context of the story, because it is indicative that he has sort of adopted her – or rather, that they have adopted each other as partners. Joel was never looking for someone to replace his daughter, and Ellie never set out to become a daughter figure. I would never say the finale is bad. Thankfully, it doesn’t pull a Bioshock Infinite and deliver some stupid line of dialogue that conflicts with everything that preceded it. But The Last of Us feels underwhelming during its last few minutes. There’s this whole expectation that something is going to go wrong or that there might be some bittersweet conclusion – the scene of sunlight shining down on a hilltop covered in wildflowers as Joel and Ellie head toward what appears to be Uncle Tommy’s compound is so unexpected for a story like the Last of Us, that it doesn’t feel quite right. I think having them voluntarily part ways would have been stupid and incredibly out of character for either of them, but the ending we get is almost too perfect when compared to everything that preceded it.
I think the ending is what caught me off guard the most about The Last of Us – it’s surprisingly short compared to what I expected. Or maybe the pacing is just odd during the last few hours. I fully expected another hour or two of gameplay before the jump to the Fireflies headquarters. Joel and Ellie went through a lot of significant trials during their encounters with David’s gang, and I fail to see why Naughty Dog didn’t include a segment or two designed with the primary focus of having Ellie and Joel cement the dynamic of their now fully-developed or full-evolved relationship post-Winter. It seems like a huge missed opportunity, and I find it hard to believe that Ellie would still be holding on to the emotions she experienced when she was held captive by David’s men two or three months after the fact. Any normal person having gone through that traumatic an experience would have opened up to their friends or family and let them in emotionally at least a little bit (and Ellie only has one person to turn to). They were both there, they saw the same things (albeit from different approaches) – the whole jump to kick the ending out the door in time really dragged down the immersion for me, something that the game had otherwise done a consistently high-quality job at.
Though The Last of Us incorporates plenty of stealth and action elements with a little bit of survival-horror, the narrative is arguably the most memorable portion of its makeup. I consider The Last of Us as much of an interactive story as a video game belonging to any one of the aforementioned genres, and a hell of a lot more compelling one than, say, Heavy Rain, because The Last of Us never tries to push the ‘interactive story’ shtick. It just does its own thing and manages to pull a lot of winning punches in the process. It’s an interesting combination of gameplay elements familiar to other big-name releases, and I would consider the sum to be more original than its parts. It’s just highly unfortunate that it ended on a note of such lesser quality than I had hoped for or expected.