Most of people think The Last of Us is a much, MUCH better game than I do. Usually, I’d be happy to leave it at that – to each their own, agree to disagree, all that flowery crap.
But it’s frequented heralded as the defining of an entire generation. It’s often lauded as a real watershed moment for the medium. It’s consistently praised as the very future of videogames as an art form. And baby, that talk is dangerous.
So in an effort to slow our collective roll, I’m openly attacking The Last of Us.
And for maximum effect, I intend on making fair and reasoned arguments. It’ll be a subjective essay, no doubt. But as much as possible, I’ll keep my personal bias where it belongs – buried deep down, slowly causing me a stomach ulcer.
I think it’s very fair to say that the majority of critics enjoyed TLOU because it was ‘just like a movie’. Ask around. Have a read. Gameplay analysis is minimal (arguably because it’s uber-violence is at odds with the overarching theme.) Narrative i.e. Cut-scene scrutiny is at the fore of almost every opinion. The Last of Us is more frequently compared to TV and Film than videogame contemporaries.
‘It’s, like, every bit as good as a film!’
Yeah? Well so was Asura’s Wrath.
Joel does have a nice shirt though. So there is that. Enlarge
I’m no bigot, though. TLOU occasionally sang! The game looks amazing, its presentation rightly acclaimed. Likewise potent performances, notably Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, and facial animations set our HDTVs alight. But then, Naughty Dog is, well, Naughty Dog.
But are we really back to this again?
Are we still THAT insecure?
Are games valuable only when blatantly aping that other ‘more respected’ popular art form?!
Is this really the zenith of 30+ years of creative growth – an interactive film?
A string of cut-scenes in which we’re occasionally called upon to look at something or pull the trigger?...
No. Of course not. Nobody thinks that.
We, gamers, are furiously passionate about games’ inimitable traits, their unique characteristics, the immersion, the interaction, the challenge, the choice. If there is one thing (and there probably is only the one thing, we do like to bicker) that gamers can agree on, it’s that GAMES are so flippin’ wonderful not because they are interactive movies but because they are GAMES!
And what I find particularly galling is that The Last of Us could not be any more obviously Oscar Bait. And everyone is lapping it up!!! It’s so desperately worthy: Lots of frowning, minimal humour, everything meticulously engineered to inspire buzzwords like ‘Dark’ and ‘Gritty’, terms somehow mistakenly synonymous with ‘Good.’
What does The Last of Us actually offer that hasn’t been experienced a dozen times before?
The visuals are admittedly super-human but this is Naughty Dog – You have SEENUncharted 3?! Crafting nail bombs, smoke bombs and Molotov cockails complimented dull cover hopping nicely. But Batman, Adam Jensen and Solid Snake could offer a richer gameplay experiences while comatosed. And Ellie was always great for stirring up some latent emotion. But Elika, Alyx Vance, Elizabeth and Liara T’Soni managed same with the added benefit of actually being useful gameplay additions!
Feel free to get stuck in any time, Ellie Enlarge
The fact is The Last of Us is a deeply predictable experience.
Combat centric gameplay at odds with survivalist motif - check
Zombie Post-Apocalypse –check
Linear environments and limited play styles - check
Survivors turning on one another -check
Wounded protagonist initially standoffish – check.
Slowly warms to his companion via shared hardships – check.
Sheltered companion views the world through fresh eyes, acting very much as a cypher for players –check.
Obligatory scene where upset companion runs away because EMOTIONS HAPPEN –check.
Violent coming of age set-piece wherein innocence finally gives way to necessity – check.
Horrendously savage rampage when (now loved) companion is threatened – check.
The Last of Us is a derivative tale then. This is no great sin, especially when the quality of its telling is so high. Neat sound design (Clickers!) and visual cues (Gasmasks!) marry with some clunky if brutal melee/gunplay to decent effect… At least before it eventually descends into repetitive killboxes and *shudder* ladder puzzles.
But the guts of this yarn is spun by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson via A-C-T-I-N-G – Something of a pervasive insecurity among gamers…
But for all their alleged depth, did Joel or Ellie surprise you at any stage? Even the once?
For all this (ludicrous) talk of Joel being more rounded than Drake, he’s a singularly uncomplicated man – Trauma happened. He disliked it. He hardened. It aint exactly Shakespeare! Consequentially, he spends time with a genuinely nice girl and gradually softens as a result. The man’s a father, a killer and terrified of pain at the beginning, middle and end.
BOOM! HEADSHOT! CHARACTER GROWTH FAIL!
Ellie’s certainly an improvement. She’s positive. She’s hopeful. She has a sense of humour and wonder and principle. She appreciates that the world is f*cked but she’s more than willing to move on from that. Ironically, she’s the antithesis of a teenager. But her role as cypher necessarily, frustratingly prompts countless dialogues which open with “Hey Joel, how about some lengthy exposition explaining what happened in this particular area?”
This aint our first Zombie Apocalypse, Sweetheart.
And there are more organic ways to build a world, Naughty Dog, beyond walk’n’talks and collectibles.
In a taught survival horror.
Real subversive stuff.
And this is to say nothing of curious missing details like how Joel NEVER sings to Ellie despite alluding to it on a number of occasions. Or how Ellie fails to react to a great big Savage Starlight film poster despite being an avid collector!
So the narrative is a tad predictable.
The gameplay breaks exactly zero boundaries.
And the characters aint nothing new.
Maybe there are even a couple of inconsistencies too.
SERIOUSLY, WHO CARES?!
The Last of Us is a powerhouse of emotional maturity! Who could possibly contest that? I cannot. Contrasted to the atypical Triple A nonsense it wields unprecedented emotional clout. Game Over.
More than the mere sum of its parts, The Last of Us is a maelstrom of passion and drama and insight. Well… Yes. TLOU is hella dramatic. I cannot in good conscious deny that. No-one can. And no-one has. Nor has anyone, ANYONE, brought up the fact it consistently FLINCHES!
The Last of Us flinches, it shies away, it averts its gaze, it chickens out when things get too raw.
Sarah gets gunned down – Smash Cut to Black
Henry blows his brains out - Smash Cut to Black
Ellie breaks down after hacking David to tiny pieces in a fiery inferno – Smash Cut to Black
After the latter, when she was ignoring Joel, I legitimately could not tell if Ellie had PTSD or hearing loss. That is not a joke. Naughty Dog cut away too soon. Perhaps being trapped in a burning building or getting kicked around by a grown man damaged her auditory functions. It's JUST as likely as PTSD.
And this isn’t even the only instance where we, the players, are encouraged to ignore TLOU’s drama. Joel insists Ellie never mention Sam and Henry again. When Tess bites the big one it’s shown offscreen. And even then Joel warns Ellie to ‘never talk about her again’. And you know what, we never do!
While structurally and tonally very similar, Telltale’s The Walking Dead drowns players in raw consequence until they’re reduced to sobbing wrecks.TLOU, in stark contrast, can’t seem to swim away fast enough.
But it would be unfair to say ALL the drama occurs via cut-scenes or ‘exposition expeditions’. Often enough, in the midst of gameplay, the narrative develops under your thumbs as opposed to before your eyes. And I’m not talking about painstakingly stalking a Clicker while Ellie flagrantly stamps about beside you. Nor do I mean when everything goes to hell because archaic sneaking and awkward controls blow your cover for the fifth time in a row.
Wandering around the house as Sarah, hunting deer as Ellie, carrying a wounded Joel through the university campus and of course, OF COURSE, the giraffe bit – These instances of emergent gameplay really colour The Last of Us as something more thoughtful, more considered, more human.
I don’t deny this. Few though they are, they are among TLOU’s most memorable sequences.
Ofcourse, they also amount to a pair of shooting galleries and a couple of segments so linear, so prescribed they’d struggle to be classified as GAMEPLAY at all. This isn’t a criticism, just observation. These instances are TLOU’s finest, but they are essentially on the rails.
And that’s fine. That's all fine. Indeed to a great many, that’s all awesome.
But does it morph this fledgling art into something more adult, more worthwhile, more respectable to the outside world?Give me a break!
I think The Last of Us is just fine. A subjective opinion, truthfully flavoured by my taste for ground-breaking or refined gameplay and an apathy for overly grave and sober plotting. The former it lacks. The latter, not so much. You might think The Last of Us is more than fine.
And I aint telling you you’re wrong.
But heralding The Last of Us as the defining of an entire medium, the pinnacle of interactive storytelling and the future of what videogames should aspire to be IS wrong. VERY wrong. MAXIMUM wrong.And heaping on the praise like we’re doing now (especially with all those GOTY lists on the horizon) it’s going to achieve but one thing – a backwards step for our chosen art form.