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Sometimes the apocalypse is a pretty place.

There are two silly, redundant debates circling around The Last of Us and it seems like I have to comment on them before I can really begin to write about this game and why it’s special. Prodigious, reckless spoilers are going to be in this review. So let me wrap a love-glove over it for you before you continue. If you want to skip right to where I get into the game and thereby avoid the background discussion I attempt to have about its context, ignore the next section here. LastOfUs2

Sometimes the apocalypse is full of plague-ridden cannibals.

The first is this business about whether or not games are art. This seems ridiculous. If narratives are art, video games can be art. Not all games are narrative. Not all films or books are either. But video games which are narrative are attempting to achieve the same goals as fictive novels or films. Ultimately, narrative art is like any other art in that it attempts to have an interactive relationship with an audience. The pathways of that interaction are different in each of the three major narrative mediums consumed in our culture, but all three are certainly trying to achieve their respective version. Often, all three have potentially uncomfortable intersection between commercial enterprise and artistic endeavor. The exploration of a coherent theme often takes second place behind design-as-marketing decisions which are meant to avoid muddying the waters between product and profit. A good example unique to video games is the recycling of “tried and true” mechanics (even The Last of Us feels like an example, but I’ll discuss that in more detail later). But if you think about it, it isn’t so unique. Films and novels also recycle techniques that seem more profitable, they also pander to audiences that are in lucrative demographics, and so on.

But that’s just one of the arguments used to “prove” that games aren’t or can’t be art. It’s easily overturned and contains enough to overturn a second argument: that the interactivity courted by the very nature of video games means they can’t be art. An obvious element of any workable definition of art is that it must be interactive in some way. Narrative art is a subclassification I’m using to describe the specifics that separate video games, novels, and films from, say, a sculpture or painting. These static bodies are also interactive, but they are generally not narrative. That is, they don’t explore a theme or subject (or web thereof) via narrative. They do it in a different, more esoteric way. This is why it’s also obvious, when you think about it, that the three narrative media I’m discussing are the most widely consumed and considered most accessible.

Since I can go on and on about this, I’m going to stop here and move on to the second silly debate. This would be whether or not The Last of Us is “finally” the “Citizen Kane moment” in video games. On its face, we can sort of see what this is supposed to mean and we can react to the question accordingly. I would argue, though, that it’s a silly question. Games aren’t universally narrative and they don’t actually need a Citizen Kane. In fact, a lot of game designers would argue that chasing after the same narrative and artistic goals as films do is folly. I disagree with that as an encompassing position because I think it’s awesome that games can actually accommodate a huge variety of creative philosophies. Pundits and “game journalists” tend to simplify to an extent that is actually pretty embarrassing for and to gamers, and this is just part of that. Whether or not we apply the Citizen Kane standard just to narrative games, it still reduces what is possible in terms of transcendent artistic and historic success to an old movie I doubt most people considering this question have even seen. It’s a shallow standard, in other words, and I don’t say this to somehow sidestep a quality issue with The Last of Us. I say it because it needs to be said. Because gamers owe themselves a bit better, and the people who don’t play games anyway should really just shut the fuck up.

So is The Last of Us the Citizen Kane of video games? Sure, you could say that. But it doesn’t matter and it isn’t a very interesting label. It’s also misleading. Fuck that, let’s do better.

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Phew. Over 500 words written and now I can finally talk about the actual goddamn game.

More than being the best in class for the type of game it is, The Last of Us is also the best argument for the relevance of narrative games that piggyback on cinematic storytelling conventions and techniques (a dedicated script, reliance on cut-scenes and procedural dialogue, performances by digital “actors”, etc). Its type is “survival horror” which has evolved on several distinct lines since the genre term was first coined during the early Resident Evil days. Plugged into the Naughty Dog school of third-person movement and action (Uncharted series) which has been hugely influential in third-person games these past few years (see: Tomb Raider and the spiritually similar I Am Alive) are the expected gameplay mechanics of scavenging for supplies, inventory maintenance, and crafting. These are all enjoyable elements in and of themselves, but not because they are tweaked to perfection or yards ahead of other games that do similar things. The effectiveness of these familiar mechanics comes from a very different place and, I’d argue, it’s this relationship that underlines the specialness of the game.

See, every single one of these mechanics serves the story and setting. Many games have begun to pad out their play times by adding collectibles players can search for, or side content they can access in specific conditions. Most games do an inoffensive job of implementing these elements with in-game justifications. Some games do a very poor job (Far Cry 3, for example) of it. The Last of Us completely commits to its post-apocalyptic scenario such that familiar and potentially tedious activities, like collecting rags to make bandages, are infused with a sense of authenticity and desperate need that is unmatched even by other games that do it well (Tomb Raider with its nods to archaeology).

There’s a balancing act that is probably very hard to maintain between distracting the player with goo-gaws to hunt down vs. keeping them invested in and engaged with the story. The Last of Us makes this stuff work not only by doing a bang-up job of respecting this balance but by making sure that the quality of writing in even the little notes you find scribbled out by long-gone fellow survivors is high enough to keep you invested and make you feel like they are artifacts Joel and Ellie would actually care about. Perhaps unique to this game is that a lot of the character-based side content stems directly from the discovery of these items. If you don’t pick up that paper in that house, you might miss out on some insight into a character. But this isn’t about trying to get all the content possible from the product. Rather, the quality of writing is so high on this project that it’s as simple as actually wanting to know more about these people. It seems that the characterization philosophy Naughty Dog went with here is “always leave them wanting more”.

And oh but you do.

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Neil Druckmann, who wrote this game, is a fucking hero.

This is a zombie apocalypse game, essentially. The zombies, this time around, are really a breed of infected mutants that are hyper aggressive and cannibalistic. They are infected with “cordyceps”, a fungal virus that is based on a real-world neuro-parasitic fungus that reprograms insect behavior. Joel (Troy Baker), our protagonist, is a Texan single father who tries to escape his quarantined town alongside his daughter, Sarah, and kid brother Tommy. Sarah is shot and killed in a horrific and emotional climax to their escape. Because I’m a father with a little girl, this hit me especially hard and immediately cemented identification with Joel.

The present of the game is 20 years later, after the world has largely moved on from the chaos and destruction that immediately followed the cordyceps outbreak. People live in walled zones, protected by military juntas, and struggling to survive on limited resources. Banditry is common outside of the military quarantines, and even Joel later admits to having done his share of preying on others in the name of survival. When we meet him, Joel is a smuggler who works with Tess (Annie Wersching), a hard-as-nails woman who may be his lover (the game is ambiguous about this). He and Tess are about to go settle a score with a lowlife who fucked them over.

In Boston and other similar cities all over the States, the loosely organized military regime is resisted by the “Fireflies”, an idealistic insurgency trying to restore a semblance of normalcy and civilization to what’s left of society. Their vendetta puts them in the path of Marlene (Merle Dandridge), a Firefly leader who’s hand is being forced by an untimely defeat. Wounded, Marlene hires Joel and Tess to smuggle a young girl out of Boston and into Firefly hands. Ellie (Ashley Johnson) is a tough-talking fourteen year old girl with a strong resemblance to Ellen Page or a character she would play. She’s also immune to cordyceps, which the Fireflies want to translate into a cure.

 

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Ellie and Joel are as realized as video game characters come. They have dimension, pathos, and vulnerability that are grounded by performances that would be just as incredible in a film or television show.

Joel and Tess are reluctant to help, especially Joel, but they do anyway and this begins a 10-month (or thereabout) odyssey into the west which makes up the “road story” tone of the game. Joel’s arc is familiar to fans of Children of Men or players of The Walking Dead. Both stories also feature an older male protagonist who is matched with a younger female character who needs their help and protection. Joel is reluctant but the cards are laid out on the table. It’s because caring about people hurts, and he’s spent 20 years trying to forget his daughter. He won’t even bear her name mentioned in his presence. But he wouldn’t be a good character if he didn’t soften over time, coming to love and support Ellie almost in spite of himself (and she earns it). Ellie is similarly damaged, more by being born into this world, but represents the hope for something better. Not only for Joel, but for the world. Her potential savior’s role weighs on her but also drives her, supported by natural pluck and grit. She’s the quintessential young tough girl. Shades of True Grit with the crusty, emotionally withdrawn mentor/protector.

Games writing is something of a backwater even in an era where games make more money than films. Good writing is sort of rare in commercial films also, but even that stuff makes most commercial games writing look like Faulkner. Here, Neil Drucknerr and the others who no doubt helped write this script do something I’ve almost never seen in a video game. They almost never compromise character for plot, subtlety for accessibility. This makes the storytelling in The Last of Us remarkably mature. Games are still a medium where “mature” tends to translate to gore, swearing, fucking, and strong violence. Mature really means not watering down complexity to talk down to the audience. Mature really means to respect them and that they’ll be able to handle a story with gray where there’s usually black and white, with silence where there’s usually exposition, etc. Piecing together who these people are and what motivates them is part of the point of the game, making its narrative more than just an excuse to string action scenes together.

This isn’t to say that The Last of Us is light on gore, violence, and swearing. Since it’s an American game, there’s no fucking, but the game isn’t shy about referring to sex or sexuality (Bill is gay!). The thing is, these elements aren’t gratuitous but again are consistent with the story. Uncharted is not a game series that needs a fourteen year old with a potty mouth stabbing mushroom-zombies with a switchblade or going toe-to-toe with a pedophile cannibal. That Ellie is so capable on her own, and the bulk of the first half of the game deals with her proving that, also offsets any sort of paternalist agenda (incidental or otherwise) evoked by making her the protectee. In The Last of Us this feels appropriate and uncompromising. This is a dark, fucked up world, made even worse by the collapse of civilization. The Last of Us almost always beats its audience to the punch in accounting for authenticity as we would understand it for such a world.

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But there are moments of beauty.

Some critics have talked about how The Last of Us “feels” as a game. Like the filmgoers who only want abject “entertainment” and dismiss or are confused by films that challenge them to think past knee-jerk gratification, these guys are overly concerned with how “fun” this game is. Some of this is due to the setting and story. I say nuts to that. More sticky is the design of the mechanics and controls and how they reflect both the desperate and serious tone of the game and defy some of the precision and accessibility usually sought by game designers.

The debate is really whether the mechanics of the game go too far in terms of authenticity with a net cost of fun. Having to move a ladder around three times to get over an obstacle may not be “fun” in the conventional sense, but it is part of the realism and atmosphere of the game. It also doesn’t come up often and always feels like the kind of thing survivors would really have to do, and probably wouldn’t love having to do. And though Ellie and Joel kill a lot of people and infected throughout the game, the actual mechanics are such that you rarely feel anything short of desperate. Ammo is usually scarce. Enemy AI is smart and will almost always use flanking and charging to get the drop on you. Joel also has limited ability to keep track of unseen enemies. In what is a great example of this game’s feature elegance, the familiar mechanic of pausing to go into a secondary vision mode to check out your environment is conceptualized here as simply “listening”. Where games like Tomb Raider or Assassin’s Creed have the same basic mechanic but it’s either just there or explained away by some setting function, The Last of Us simplifies it to the point of elegance. It’s a huge “well duh” moment because you think, why do other games not just explain it the same way? Does a great job of mitigating one of The Last of Us‘s more gamey elements and maintaining the delicate balance between game logic and authenticity that it does so very well.

 

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This game is also psychologically stressful.

So I think I’ve established the character and relevance of this game’s challenges both in narrative and mechanics, but you may be wondering what the point is. The point is to drive a high degree of stress in the player. The characterization is so strong that you genuinely feel worried about Joel and Ellie (especially as the game isn’t afraid to kill the various secondary characters you meet along the way). The scarce resources and overwhelming combat enhance that concern because you’re not consistently sure that you are up to keeping them alive. Some of the stealth/combat scenarios in the game go a bit wide of the mark in terms of balancing challenge with the tedium of instant-death-respawn rinse/repeat but I think this was mitigated (for me at least) by the fact that the game is incredibly free-form about letting the player decide how they’re going to deal with the scenario. Sometimes you’re forced to sneak or gunfight or whatever, but this is rarely the case. More often you can clear areas by being a ninja, avoiding violence altogether, or blasting your way through either with a frontal (suicidal) assault or clever use of traps and distractions. The only penalty for tactical errors is the same as in real life: wasting resources and increasing risk of death.

The pacing of the game is such that the first half is spent predominantly running from danger to danger, whether it’s hostile humans or the infected, or environmental dangers like spores or decaying infrastructure. The respites don’t come often, but they are there. Later in the game, as Joel and Ellie cross into Colorado and beyond, the moments of quiet beauty come along more frequently. I realized while playing that this was a reflection of Joel and Ellie’s changing relationship. Eventually, Ellie becomes the daughter he’s lost and Joel’s cold heart gets to beating again. The crux of which comes when Joel finally has a chance to pass responsibility for her on to someone else but doesn’t. Their kinship is full of quiet, reserved emotionality that comes across beautifully due to the stellar performances and writing. I’ve been telling people that they’d watch this game if it were a show or movie, a double-edged comment about how seriously drama is taken in games. Is The Last of Us the most realized drama in the history of games? Probably.

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The emotional narrative carves through the particularities of plot and the demands of commercial accessibility and makes such concerns feel gaudy and cheap.

Not only does The Last of Us easily surpass the great games already released in 2013 (Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider in particular) but it will probably go down as one of the finest games ever made. It’s such a powerhouse of interactive narrative that it may single-handedly rejuvenate an industry that is starting to show some signs of exhaustion with all the demands that have evolved in the making of AAA games. Seriously, when I look at the lists of animators, performance capture techs, and performance artists required to make games these days I have to wonder why these people aren’t making animated films free and clear. In the case of The Last of Us, the performances are so well captured and animated that it might as well be an animated film in terms of attention to detail and quality. Little things like body language and facial tics come across fully in every performance. After L.A. Noire, this type of thing is getting more common but it is perhaps worth noting that The Last of Us uses the more classic approach of creating a character and using a performer that looks nothing like them rather than simply recording a performance and digitally rotoscoping it (for lack of a better term) into a game. The effect is more impressive than I can really put into words, and you may not even notice it right away. You forget you’re playing a video game.

Now, if I may, I want to talk about the end of The Last of Us which is already its most controversial element. Endings are very hard, as any writer knows. In games, endings often feel perfunctory because they are sequel-baiting. So ends another naked grab at a franchise to endlessly milk money out of. The Last of Us is remarkable not only because its ending is abrupt, ambiguous, and thematically resonant, but because Naughty Dog quickly went on record saying that the story of Joel and Ellie is definitively over. This cleverly leaves them room to expand the world The Last of Us takes place in, if they choose, but also gives players closure. Closure is something that games rarely do well. This is partially what keeps video game narratives from achieving the levels of appreciation usually afforded to novels and films. Like the sagas of comic book superheroes, most games and franchises in gaming can only ever aspire to closure of a particular episode. This leaves players outside the rank and file “fans” a bit disenfranchised, if I can use that word. People want stories to end so that we can decide what they have meant.

An ending like that of The Last of Us is confusing for crops of players raised on games that end ambiguously because there’s going to be a sequel. Parsing the note that this game closes on against the idea that the story is really over may be more difficult and problematic for that type of player. That’s too bad, really, and sort of a sad commentary on the general quality and closure offered by most video game endings outside of RPGs which usually feature a higher-than-average focus on narrative consistency.

The Last of Us ends with a lie. But the lie says everything, as does the choice that the lie represents. By this point, Joel is ready to say “fuck you” to the human race (for which, in a general sense, we see that he is given ample reason) to keep Ellie alive. Ellie might choose herself to die for humanity, but there are no guarantees that the Firefly doctors will be able to do anything with her immunity and there’s a sense to which the choice Joel makes for her sake is reprehensible and understandable at the same time. You get it but you wish there was a third option. That’s a pretty good description of how complex behavior works in drama, and The Last of Us is full of examples if none so resonant and amazing as its ending.

Some will say that for all this talk of closure, there’s precious little of it in an ending like this. They are mistaken about what closure is. Anybody can put a plotline to rest. That isn’t why endings are hard. Endings are hard because they require a payoff to the thematic and emotional work of the story. The characters have to have changed in a way that isn’t non sequitor to all the shit they’ve been through along the way. Since the game is largely about Joel and Ellie bonding and becoming family to each other, the ending is great closure to this part of the story. The plot, that Ellie needs to get to the Fireflies because she’s immune, is also essentially over but I can’t blame people for thinking more could yet happen with that. It doesn’t matter though, because what matters is Joel’s choice and Ellie’s trust. Her words and her look in the final shot of the game speak volumes of closure.

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It’s incredibly clever to have a journey fraught with these two saving each others’ lives go to a place so pointless and bleak, forcing a choice that utterly reflects the weight of all their adventures.

It’s interesting for me to ponder the effect of this ending on the moral absolutists that make up a large enough percentage of the people who are going to play The Last of Us. These will mostly be poorly adjusted adult gamers or youngsters who haven’t yet had enough run-ins with reality to ditch their certitudes. I expect a lot of them will be troubled by Joel’s choice, because it is not the arithmetic of morality they have been conditioned to approve of. Joel makes a selfish choice, in some ways, choosing one person’s life (and his own happiness/redemption incidentally) over the potential to save many. It’s the opposite of the moral calculus that we’re supposed to consider in larger than life scenarios, wherein one life is certainly worth many. The complexity of emotional and moral maturity means a disconcerting lack of certitudes, which is the kind of experience and state of mind a person would be better served having in order to appreciate The Last of Us the way it deserves. I think that getting there requires engagement with fiction that asks it of us, almost as much as it requires real life experience of hardship, loss, compromise, and moral decisions. That means that The Last of Us is as likely to usher in a higher order of critical thinking as it is to put off people who think Stannis Baratheon is the true hero of Westeros.

Honestly, I was very close to just gushing my way through this review. I tried my best to do justice to the complexity and achievement that The Last of Us aimed for and hit (with flying colors). Everybody is going to have favorite moments in a game like this, and I bet a lot of them will be quieter moments or those parts where the game (rarely and so effectively) really lets its hair down and allows for some visceral justice/revenge-meting. I also think that The Last of Us is a game liable to stay with people. It may be one of the very few games that people replay simply because they’re not sure how they feel the first time through.

By the time the game was over, Joel and Ellie felt to me like dear friends and people you genuinely want to see whole, together, and safe. Leaving them behind is hard, but I think they’ll make a life in Jackson, at least for a while, with Tommy and Maria and the only beacon of a “good” society that we see in The Last of Us.

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