With the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog pulled off every design trick they could to simulate an action blockbuster in video game form. The Last of Us used the same formula to create a more solemn experience. While not shedding the genre label by shifting from Indiana Jones-styled adventure to a post-apocalyptic ‘zombie’ narrative, The Last of Us goes the Walking Dead route by acting as an observation on human morality under the pressure of a decaying world.
At the heart of all this is the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Many of the games I have discussed follow the same guardian and ward structure, but this relationship stands above the others due to the grey morality which corrupts their relationship. The game begins with a prologue where Joel fails to save his daughter during the initial outbreak. Joel’s sometimes vicious need to protect Ellie comes off more as a desperate and entirely self-serving attempt at redemption.
What makes The Last of Us so riveting is the way it rejects player influence. In many ways, the narrative progression feels like the dark side option in a more subtle BioWare game – but the fun of doing the bad route in games which give choices is predicated on the fact that you could have always taken the positive path. Meanwhile, other linear narratives with questionable protagonists tend to be more straightforward. When Kratos slaughters an entire pantheon of gods, his actions end up being extreme enough that it’s easy to consume his story from a distance.
Joel operates in a different capacity because he straddles the line between good and evil. His more shocking actions fall a mere inch outside of acceptable behavior. The grand majority of the time, Joel will be a largely relatable protagonist. But those few moments where he goes too far create a sense of dissonance between player and characters that most games try to avoid. This is a dire follow-up to the question of control posed by Portal and BioShock. Most games make up for this lack by creating the illusion of choice or at least letting the audience play the hero. Here, you’re stuck playing an ordinary and broken man.
The Last of Us manages to pull off its unpleasant narrative because Joel’s actions so perfectly match his character. It’s not that he’s pulling these decisions out of nowhere. Everything fits firmly in the realm of a disturbed man trying to survive while treating a young girl as a symbol of his own past failures. The final moment hits so hard because *spoilers* we realize Joel has not only negated our rather meaningless ability to influence the narrative, but has also robbed Ellie of her own agency while denying she ever had a choice. *end spoilers*
The actual gameplay of The Last of Us is very much in the set piece mindset of Uncharted but at the opposite end. Where Uncharted is all about big things falling apart while Nathan Drake is trapped inside, The Last of Us operates more as a stealth game. The gameplay does a serviceable job and a sequence where you play as Ellie is truly outstanding, but this is not the main draw. Much like Psychonauts, this is an adventure with interactivity. Traversing these terrains is less about shooting bad guys than it is about experiencing the dire atmosphere first-hand.
A rather controversial tweet about the sequel declared it as not being ‘fun’ – and this was meant as praise. Some people took offense at the mere concept, as if The Last of Us Part II was at fault for this person’s poor choice of words. ‘Fun’ is a subset of what people are really after when they engage with media – tragedies and dramas wouldn’t exist if art only existed to be ‘fun.’ What we are really after, even if our vocabulary is apparently limited, is engagement.
So, while not being ‘fun,’ the original Last of Us is absolutely enthralling. This was video game storytelling on a whole new level. Despite its obvious favoring of narrative over mechanics, it was hard to put the controller down after getting started. Every moment had me hooked, from that heartbreaking opening sequence to its many complex characters to that jaw-dropping finale. While the Naughty Dog formula could easily be criticized as a cheap imitation of movies, no other medium could capture the specific sense of dissonance created by playing as Joel.