Video games are no longer simply games anymore—delightful diversions of skill and luck, intended to entertain—but have grown into full-on artistic expressions that explore complex concepts and themes. Whether it’s the Portal series’ thought-provoking presence of an artificial intelligence that is more human than machine, or the disturbing choices the player is forced to make in BioShock, today’s video games frequently offer an emotional hook, a way to relate to characters and ideas that goes beyond interacting with a virtual environment in order to reach a prescribed goal.
The latest such game to blur the line between skill-based challenge and artful presentation is The Last of Us (TLOU), developer Naughty Dog’s follow-up to its critically acclaimed “Uncharted” series. While Uncharted was a love letter to action-adventure movies, TLOU is a gripping, emotional ride through a postapocalyptic vision of America that is as beautiful and familiar as it is dirty and terrifying.
Fans of horror movies will be familiar with the plot: a terrible pandemic has struck the United States, sending people into a horrible rage upon infection. The resulting environment is one of chaos and death; the government falls, then rebuilds itself through harsh martial law. A terrorist group called the Fireflies emerges to reclaim democracy, and all the while lingering victims of the pandemic pose a continued threat of further infection.
Caught up in the middle of it all are Joel and Tess, a man and a woman who work together as smugglers, barely squeaking by in the primitive postpandemic economy by trading favors for ration tickets. To settle an old debt, they agree to smuggle an unusual cargo—a 14-year-old girl—to a Fireflies base.
It would be easy for Naughty Dog to turn this into an all-out action thrill ride, but it resists temptation and goes instead for a more subtle and exploratory execution. Weapons and ammunition are hard to come by, and the heroes (who are often not heroic at all) are usually vastly outnumbered. Enemies may be highly trained military personnel, violent thieves and murderers who roam the wasteland, or the infected themselves. Regardless of the opposition, death comes easily (the most powerful infected can kill the player simply by making contact, in a throwback to video games of old where a single brush with an enemy cost you a life), and stealth is often favored over direct confrontation.
There are many interesting mechanics in place: player-characters can throw bricks or bottles to distract enemies long enough to make a quick escape, scraps collected from the environment can be crafted into makeshift weapons or first aid kits, and player-characters can map out locations of enemies by focusing their hearing.
Room for improvement
For all of its intricate execution and intelligent design, TLOU does have several problems. Naughty Dog has indulged in many action-game tropes—for one, the character can carry far more items and weapons than should be physically possible. Combat controls feel sloppy, with melee combat a mind-numbing affair of jamming one or two buttons until the enemy dies. Frustration is often a stand-in for genuine challenge, with waves of enemies coming out of nowhere with little or no warning, and the game being either too generous or too stingy with power-ups. Puzzles are laughably easy, but more often than not players are left confused about where to go next—until they notice the miniscule icon they’ve been overlooking for the past ten minutes because they weren’t standing in the exact spot the developer wants them to stand in.
All of that, however, does not detract from the game’s main draw: its narrative and aesthetic presentation. TLOU pulls no punches when presenting the hostility and isolation inherent in this world and in examining the way such a catastrophic event changes people. An excellent voice cast give emotional weight to the on-screen characters’ dialog, punctuated by a top-notch engine that conveys emotion with eerie honesty.
The environmental design here takes the already high bar set by the developer’s previous games and raises it several notches. Not a single detail has been overlooked in rendering a world that has been left to revert to a more natural state. Rich greenery reclaims industrial structures and ponds form in the middle of streets. The infected are truly grotesque and disturbing, making the game’s unnamed disease something players will truly fear and want to avoid contracting.
The Last of Us is a solid yet flawed game that suffers from harsh linearity and inconsistent execution, but when wrapped up in the narrative experience it delivers, it becomes a work of art worthy of the best films and books. Fans of The Walking Dead and the films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later will naturally be drawn to it, as will fans of video games that favor plausibility and precision over fantastical wish fulfillment. It’s a heart-wrenching experience that may leave some pure gamers wanting more for all the wrong reasons, but it’s one they will not easily forget.
Until next month, keep telling yourself: just one more level!