a review of The Last of Us
a videogame developed by Naughty Dog
and published by Sony Computer Entertainment
for the playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
~~~if your eyes be too tired to read, let me read this to you here~~~
In rollercoaster action-adventure electronic interactive animated three-dimensional picture contest Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, a work of the great entertainment developer Naughty Dog, impeccably wrinkled long-sleeve-T-shirt-and-fantastic-jeans-wearing protagonist Nathan Drake possesses the upper-body strength to scale sheer cliffs, and the level design often requires him to, in the space of two minutes, do more fingertip pull-ups from free hanging positions than an Olympic gold-medalist gymnast could do in six hours; often, after pulling himself up from yet another cliff, he will take aim and pistol-shoot a non-white brown-skinned non-American gun-for-hire mercenary-person directly in the face; quite often, Drake’s charming snarl squeaks out a catchphrase, and ever so sometimes that catchphrase is a gee-golly oh-boy of a “Shave and a haircut!”
I can begin to review Naughty Dog’s 2013 effort, The Last of Us, by saying it is the direct inverse of the abovementioned scenario. I can continue to say that it is a landmark achievement of interactive entertainment.
The hero Joel cannot do pull-ups all day: he spends large collections of minutes (hours, if you’re slow) looking for ladders or planks of wood lying in tall grass. It’ll start to feel like work, looking for ladders. The camera jolts with such horrific velocity when he falls from even ten feet that you’d swear this guy weighs 800 pounds (later, you’ll conclude that it’s just that Nathan Drake weighs 25 pounds). His hands shake when he aims his gun. His jeans are still fantastic, and the day after completing the game I went to the MUJI store in San Francisco and bought a beige backpack. However, the game’s hero is no fashion role model by purpose: The Last of Us merely showed me a world so real in imagining its own logistics that I got to nightmaring about post-apocalyptic on-foot journeys from Oakland to Denver, for example, carrying only my soccer bag. I’d wreck my posture and suffer a sore neck most of my waking hours. Eventually, my aches would puncture my psyche to a point wherein a monster would eat me and I would not notice. Joel has a backpack, however, and he makes good use of it, and if you make good use of the controller, every time a thing jumps out at him or a dangerous human lurks ahead oblivious in the dark, Joel’s psychology will prevail, and he will take aim, and he will be victorious.
In The Last of Us, the more grotesque, sudden, or violent your execution of the moment’s oppressor, the sharper, harder, and faster the vocal emission of kill confirmation. In The Last of Us, all that suffices for a “catch phrase” is your hardened, soft-spoken, middle-aged protagonist’s unmistakably fourteen-year-old (a feat, given that the actress was 26) little lady companion: an always breathless, sometimes scream of the F-word.
In The Last of Us, you press the triangle button to elbow-lock an unaware bad person, if that person be close enough for the maneuver. Then the game asks you to press the square button, to choke the person to death. I performed two-dozen such kills before I realized I don’t have to hammer the square button over and over: I just press it once, and the kicking, gurgling struggle of the soon-dead enemy begins, middles, and ends all by itself. No thump of “heck yeah!”, no fist-pump, no trebly neck-snap accompanies the eventual death: the enemy sighs, gives up, and falls limp into death.
If the Uncharted series is the “‘Indiana Jones’ plus Michael Bay’s ‘Pearl Harbor’ of videogames”, The Last of Us is the “‘Breaking Bad’ minus ‘Seinfeld’ of videogames”.
I believe the best guns of metaphor, in this world, be wet with glue: you must stick to them, or you must die with them stuck to you. The Last of Us sticks to many guns over the course of its dozen-some-hour play-time, and it sticks to no conviction with more fury than it sticks to darkness. Few entertainment experiences stick to any element with the attention with which The Last of Us sticks to darkness. This is a story of desperate people in a terrifying world full of scary monsters and humans on or over the brink of shared psychotic episodes because of their fear of those monsters.
The darkness comes from what I can only imagine was a fist-tight, unified convention between game designers, level designers and story-writers. The goal of their exhausting cooperation was to keep the game “real”. From its opening moments, The Last of Us is a game that its like-minded, passionate makers undoubtedly decided would be true to and with itself. It presents us worn and jagged narrative tropes and tried and tested game mechanics, yet through its intense exercise of sticking to an imagined reality — and, through this, never releasing its darkness — the elements stay real, and true, and clean.
This is a story of reanimated human corpses, and the problems such a plague would cause. We’ve seen stories like this before; maybe even too many of them — lately, zombies or superheroes are about the only two choices you have when selecting a filmed or interactive entertainment — though we’ve never seen one exactly like The Last of Us. The closest story, thematically, to The Last of Us would be The Walking Dead, whose most excited fans will recommend to zombie-hating friends as, “More of a story about people, really”. Like the recent Walking Dead games, The Last of Us is a story of a middle-aged man and a young girl evading freaked-out, infected, infectious human-shaped death sponges. Like The Walking Dead, The Last of Us is a story of these two unlikely friends growing closer. That’s about where it ends.
The degree to which The Last of Us’s craftspeople have imagined the reality of its world is a bit of a boggler: as you walk, sprint, climb, and shoot through its set-pieces, consider the psychological exhaustion of its designers as they struggled to keep every molecule grounded in real-world physics and chemistry. You might find yourself standing in a bedroom in a house in a suburb at some point during the game’s middle chapters, looking at a calendar on a young girl’s bedroom’s wall, knowing that this calendar has been hanging here for twenty years. You might think, “Wouldn’t the paper have worn a little bit more?” And then you’ll remember the magazines in a box on the desk of your parents’ house in Indiana, where they’ve lived for twenty years now, and think, “Oh”. Early in the game, you walk past a pool table in a blown-out building, and you can’t help noticing grass growing on its should-be-green felt surface: nature is reclaiming this world — even the pool tables.
All the wear and tear on the corners of the world you see in The Last of Us feels true enough. The petty politics of the marauding psychopaths who loot travelers on country highways also makes sense, if you squint at it enough, as does the brutal strictness of the martial law that governs the lifestyle in the “quarantine zone” where the game begins. Here’s a zombie story whose realizers have read books and been to the DMV without an appointment. Compared to the life experience palpable from most triple-A game experiences, The Last of Us drags with it a Pacific Ocean of wisdom.
This darkness drips into the combat mechanics, and funnels into the level designs in a seamless fashion. I’m not saying the ensuing game is perfect — I’m only saying its parts remain true to themselves in a manner with only tenuous precedent in modern games.
I’ve read criticisms of the combat mechanics; I’ve heard the pre-criticisms of friends and acquaintances, who say they hear the game has “stealth” in it. I disagree with this label. After finishing The Last of Us, I started a new game on the hardest difficulty, and spent two slow, fascinating hours sliding without speed through the entire first major set piece in the game — without firing a single shot. It never felt like stealth: it was Strategic Silence.
I don’t want to spoil any of the story elements, because most of them come as surprises, and in a game where the characters’ conversations are so alive to hear, I don’t want to deprive a player of any surprises. So I’ll say that, sometimes, you have friends during a fight. Your friends have subtle personalities. They’ll have ways they’d prefer to handle things, and they’ll follow you in ways you can usually believe. It was during a mid-game segment, in which I had two friends in addition to Ellie — now able to fight with a hunting rifle — where it dawned on me that The Last of Us, whether it’s a stealth action game or not, is most certainly never a “shooter”.
More than most shooters, The Last of Us is an exercise in mastering geometry. After reading enough reviews and post-mortems on the subject of the game’s combat, I learned that one of the enemy types, the “Clicker”, originally could attack the player more than once before killing the player. This blew my mind. It’s impossible to imagine the “Clicker” as anything other than a one-hit-kill enemy.
Clickers are blind — the grotesque fungus has overgrown their entire face, covering their eyes — and can only hear via a series of high-pitched clicking sounds they make. The idea is that you have to barely move at all when a Clicker is nearby, and move slowly when a Clicker is farther away. That’s it. When one hears you, if you’re close enough, it will bite your neck and you will die like a domestic dog let loose in Siberia.
The level designs integrate Clickers with such a seamlessness that I can’t imagine the game working if they were any weaker. The Clicker is the game asking the player to always be paying attention. When you don’t pay attention, you fail. It’s like the game is saying, “If you want to not pay attention to something, quit the game and open up Netflix.”
The Clicker turns its every appearance into a moment that is essentially a videogame. If this scene with the clicker weren’t interactive, what would we be looking at, here? It’d be another story about (fungus) zombies. So here’s the Clicker, a big threat among lesser threats, and you’re paying attention. If one hears you, it makes a big noise trying to get over to where you are so it can bite your neck. The other infected freaks in the area latch on to the zeitgeist, and they will come find you. You can fight off the weaker guys — the Runners — though you might waste bullets. You can try to engage them hand to hand, though you really don’t want to engage a Clicker hand to hand, because they are so infected that they can obliterate your attack and power right through you.
So, softly, the realization fell upon me that this isn’t a shooting game or even an action game: it’s a real-time Shining Force or Fire Emblem. It’s about position and movement. It’s about being out of attack range of your opponent, and moving your unit close enough to a point where the enemy unit will still be out of range even if it uses the full extent of its movement on its next turn. Like a great shooter such as Gears of War, this game is asking you to master territory or get dead.
Once this dawns on you, the rest of the system makes sense. In The Last of Us, your rewards for pillaging dresser drawers and desktops and dustbins are simple ingredients: blades, binding, rags, and alcohol. These ingredients, in different quantities, can make a wide-enough variety of items. You can use binding and a blade to sharpen your melee weapons — yes, this means you duct-tape broken scissors to a baseball bat — or use alcohol and a rag to make a molotov cocktail. You’ll be making this items in the middle of combat, sometimes, meaning you’ll want position and cover. Some of the tensest moments of the game, for me, involved duct-taping a pair of scissors to a lead pipe as a Clicker shambled down a hall toward me: regular melee attacks won’t work on him, so I need a weapon, and a regular weapon takes more hits than a sharp weapon, and so there I was, scheming.
Like many modern zombie tales, this one, too, is “more about the people”, and of course it wants to hammer you with the notion that maybe humans are the real monsters. The humans in The Last of Us certainly are enemies as plentiful as the zombies. They have guns, though that doesn’t necessarily make them smarter or stronger.
The zombies in this game were so hard-baked with their frustrated monster logic; I could believe them when they walked in perfect rectangular patrol routes in the middle of a room. They’re so ugly — and weirdly ugly! — that their idiosyncrasies made sense, and so I respected their ferocity when I made a bad play of the geography. The zombies made me more appreciative of killing humans. The zombies turned me from a normal person into a psychopath; thanks to the zombies, my techniques in hiding and killing like an animal honed themselves, and I became unstoppable.
The weirdest repeat criticism I see ladled upon The Last of Us is that the “difficulty” “peaks” “about three hours in”.
The “difficulty” of a good television show peaks about three hours in: after three or four episodes, you know all the characters, and you have learned how to care about them as individuals; as the story develops a plot, you develop expectations of what the characters want and what you want for the characters. The Last of Us pulls off a magic trick in that it teaches us to equip a complex strategic mindframe while simultaneously motivating us to ilke its characters. I’m not saying that games need to be more like television shows; I’m saying that some television shows are amazing and coherent in way few games are, and that The Last of Us, while by no means perfect, is coherent in the way a good television series sometimes is.
I didn’t want The Last of Us to get harder, because by the time its difficulty “peaked”, I cared so much about the characters that I wanted to know what would happen to them, and I didn’t want to have to learn new things in order to learn what happened to them: I could just keep doing the things I already knew how to do. I wonder, if I’d just watched all the game’s cut-scenes in order on YouTube, would I have found the game dull?
I’ve written before that part of what I like about videogame design as a dramatic instrument is their ability to put us a hundred percent into the moments editors would leave out of a film. Gears of War builds a citadel of game mechanics around the scene in which a soldier crouches behind a wall and listens for bullets to stop firing; Shadow of the Colossus contains no crescendos finer than those painful moments when you’re clinging to the hair of a monster’s back, waiting for it to change its angle by a degree in a favorable direction. The Last of Us contains characters with personalities and tragic stories, and it makes us experience their silent terror in dark buildings, crouched under tables, listening to the footsteps of monsters, for what winds up being the vast majority of the game’s twelve-hour experience. It helps that the music is amazing, with layers that ebb and flow in and out depending on the positions of enemies and whether they can see us or not, and it blows my mind how good the sound design is: you can tell where enemies are using just your ears, if you’re listening in surround sound. Feeling this downright biologically connected to the game goes a long way toward marrying you psychologically with its protagonists.
When the story beats hit, they hit with ferocity. The story lands as punctuation every so often between great lakes of slow, quiet geographical progress which zombies or psychos see fit to interrupt with frequency. This is a story about — no spoilers — a middle-aged man and a young girl walking across the United States of America, on foot. By the end of the game, they’re just barely talking to one another about topics more diverse than “Oh my god”. Yet as it takes place between long periods of silence and horror, this minimal character development at last comes across as wise, sad, and sublime.
Every element of this game that I’d like to criticize has a sub-element so well done that I don’t want to criticize it anymore. For example, sometimes you’ll know that you’re going to come back through an area, and that you’ll have to fight enemies on the way back through that area, because of the way the hand of a level designer has arranged a series of desks and brick piles. I can’t criticize that in good faith, however, because the level geometry, more often than not it beautiful in the way it defies at-a-glance comprehension in the best possible way.
Likewise, I can’t criticize the largest plot hole because the game spends so much time on its main characters that I am emotionally invested in them, and prepared to consider them good people, if needs be. In the same way, I am prepared to consider the worst of the game’s enemies purely insanity-driven weirdos who are doing what they are doing because they are insane, and they are insane because the world has made them insane.
I once said that my favorite videogame moment of the first decade of the 21st century was the end of director Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 3, in which the hero, Naked Snake, is pointing a gun at the head of an opponent who is kneeling and ready to die. The camera helicopters upward, showing Snake and his enemy in a field. This enemy is someone Snake loved like family, and now must kill, because of that love. So the silence of Snake pointing the gun at this person’s head can represent Snake’s philosophical state. Then we realize that the game wants us to pull the trigger. To do so, we press the button we always press to fire a gun. We press it, and the gun reports immediately. The game is done.
With Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came post-Kojima game moments — most notably the part where your protagonist’s helicopter falls to earth during a nuclear explosion, and you then control the hero as he crawls along the ground, dying. Once dead, the character is removed from the story, and the story shifts focus to its other character.
The Last of Us is post-post-Kojima. Its brilliant opening scene asks the player to escape a freakish zombie outbreak on foot, helpless. Then comes the “Twenty Years Later” intertitle. Fifteen minutes later, we’re underground, where a man is trapped beneath rubble with a broken gasmask, no doubt infected by the terrible fungus spores in the air. He begs for death. You point your gun at his face and pull the trigger . . . if you know how. If you don’t, the game tells you how to aim and fire your gun. How quickly do you respond? The answer says something about you. You don’t have to kill him. It was late enough at night, and I had my big headphones on, and my living room was pitch dark: I shot the guy before my boss, Tess, could ask me what I was going to do. I was into the character; the game had forced into me a belief of how this man felt after twenty years living with this madness. Yet my inability to hesitate broke the game for a moment: the gunshot rang out just as Tess said, “What are you going to do?”
Much, much later, such collisions of mechanics and story elements trickle into the game. One review cited one such moment as “ruining” the game, and knocking it from a “10” to an “8” (whatever those numbers are supposed to mean). The issue was that the game presents a dramatic situation, and the game expects the player to do a certain thing. If you don’t do the thing, the game waits — only it’s not a heavy-handed sort of Metal Gear Solid 3 cinematic waiting. It’s an awkward wait, in which you, the player, control the camera the same way you have throughout the game.
I arrived at this point deep into another night, again bone-tired from a day of work — and a crazed four-hour session to complete this game. I stepped immediately into the role of my character and I did the thing I was meant to do.
I can only imagine what it is like for the player who doesn’t want to do what the character wants to do. It opens the door to a fascinating discussion of player agency and narrative structure in videogames with plots.
I look back on the experience of The Last of Us — the mental marathon of its level designs and the quiet thoughtfulness of its story sequences — and I see the story of a character who evolved into the person who would want to do this difficult thing. I see all the signs pointing to those choices. I consider the arc of each of the game’s nearly self-contained episodes, and I applaud it for being a new-ish way to tell an interactive story. It’s not a “comment” on the nature of “choice” in videogames so much as it is a subtle reminder that we want to make choices even in fiction, and that we want the best for our precious characters and our precious fictional worlds. The Last of Us doesn’t break the fourth wall the way Metal Gear Solid 2 does, and it doesn’t caress the fourth wall the way Metal Gear Solid 3 does, though it gives you a fourth wall and it’s your choice to break it. It’s your choice as an audience member to walk up onto the stage. To criticize The Last of Us for eventually arriving at a moment where we can break the fourth wall by not believing in the character is almost the same thing as criticizing the game for letting us stand still in any one of its outdoor environments for twenty-four consecutive hours, and see the sun in that environment neither rise nor set, and see our character not sit down or fall asleep.
I’ve read and admired the film reviews of Roger Ebert for most of my life, and I’ve always appreciated his way of grading films for the type of film they are, for giving an action film four stars if it’s a good action film, and an indie darling two stars if it’s a half-hearted indie darling. I arrive at the end of my thought-locomotive regarding The Last of Us genuinely convinced it is a fairly stupid game with a ridiculous premise about killing gross monsters. Then I remember how Roger Ebert celebrated “Star Wars” as being a film in which the director, George Lucas, is always sure to “fill the frame” generously. Consider an enormous screen back in the days before stadium seating in all cinema auditoriums: viewers had to move their heads a lot more than they do at the movies today. That turned the movies into something of an “interactive” experience, and films Roger Ebert lauded for “filling the frame” understood that layer of the experience.
The Last of Us is a game which is always careful to “fill the frame”. Each environment is home to just enough strewn objects to keep any functional camera angle interesting, and just enough off-hand images which stick with you for the rest of the experience if you choose to look at them (I still remember the grass reclaiming a pool table). It fills the metaphorical frame, too: each character in each of its nearly self-contained episodes is a painting in its proper position on a wall of a fiercely curated art gallery. Each plot happening deepens the game’s expression of a particular theme. The game’s set-pieces — whether they be drama or action — are positioned with the chessmaster precision of great fiction, whether they add up to great fiction or not.
What I’m saying is, give me three games of similar quality every year, and I will gladly tell strangers who inquire about my hobbies that “I like videogames”. What I’m saying is, I’m glad this game is real, and no longer only something for me to hypothetically adress in conversations about games.
So while I cannot say whether this is the “Citizen Kane” of games or not, I can at least say it is a heck of a lot better than Bioshock Infinite.
I can also say that it is one of the year’s best games. I can say this without a doubt because it features landmark-based travel with no mini-map, and I didn’t even notice there wasn’t a mini-map until literally halfway through the game. The Last of Us is one of the year’s best games because it is a successful test of the videogame-buying public: we like stories, we’ll buy a game with a fourteen-year-old girl character on the front of the box, and we don’t mind that half the game doesn’t even involve any killing. This, clearly, means that we’re less than two years away from Western developers making something as interesting as Raw Danger, and this premonition alone is worth a four-out-of-four-stars rating.
Also, if I can be a jerk for a few seconds: I’ve seen too many mainstream reviews of this game that boil down to “it was too serious” or “it was too dark”, written with the poise of someone who studied literature on the back of a box of Lucky Charms. This is, ultimately, why I must award the game four out of four stars.