The Last of Us: Playing In the Darkness and Finding the Light

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The moment where The Last of Us finally grabbed me. Credit:  thelastofus.wikia.com

*Quick note about this article: I played the ‘Remastered’ edition of The Last of Us so some issues I talk about may not apply or apply to the same same degree as they do to the original PS3 edition.*

With it being nearly three years since The Last of Us was first released, writing a review-come-narrative close up of the game is not a particularly original or timely idea. There is already a lot of material written and created about the game, pretty much all of which lavish praise over the game’s story, gameplay, atmosphere, and acting; many calling it amongst the best games ever created. This article will – spoiler alert – echo a lot of that, but less than a week ago I wouldn’t have written that; in fact, up until last week, I was considering doing something I don’t believe I have ever done – give up on the game, leave it uncompleted, and trade it in. In a vain attempt to promote this article on twitter, I posted that “I’ve never quite had a relationship with a game like I have with #TheLastofUs I’ll explain more in my inevitable upcoming review.”

I think that was taken by my followers as awed preamble to another fawning review of the game, but I was actually referring to my own complex connection with and enjoyment of the game. I got The Last of Us for Christmas (2015, for posterity’s sake) after hearing plaudits from critics and more importantly from friends who enjoyed it. I played it for the first time at the start of January and was, frankly, disappointed. I hadn’t given up on it, but I didn’t pick it up again for another month when I played it for a second time after which I liked it fractionally more but was still disappointed, despite, at that point, being around a quarter of the way through the game – specifically, just after escaping the Boston capitol building and adjoining subway tunnel with Ellie but without Tess. Something about my personality makes it very difficult to leave things unfinished, but I was indeed very close to giving up on the game despite it’s reputation. However, just last weekend, I finally picked it up again, in the hope that I could push through it and write about it anyway, hoping to keep writing about video games anyway. As Joel and Ellie escaped Boston for Pittsburgh though, the game finally hooked me, and for the first time I was keen to play the next day, and the next day, and so on until I finally finished the game yesterday night, becoming more and more invested with each turn. This article will partly try to explain that journey, how this game – eventually – provides the best narrative experience I’ve ever had with a game, and one of the best from any media platform, and I’ll also, amongst all of that, provide review technical aspects of the game.

When making a narrative driven game, developers have certain choices to make about their structure, each of which has strengths and weaknesses: linear or multiple possible paths and endings; controlled levels or open world. In recent years, linearity appears to be out-of-favour and almost treated as a laughable choice, with multiple possible endings being seen as something which provides more of a unique experience and higher replayability for the player but by the time you’ve played through a few different endings, the game’s narrative muddies in to something less memorable while a linear game with a single ending allows for the game developers to concentrate and work fully on one story. Of course that comes with it’s own pressures – if the single narrative fails, the whole game fails. While there is no reason it has to follow this way, linear stories favour carefully designed levels to play through to control the experience the player has, stories with multiple endings, such as Fallout games, for instance) favour the open world, allowing the player to create and naturally direct their own experience. The Last of Us favours a linear story told through a series of controlled, carefully designed levels, and through that risk, the story ends up delivering through excellent, natural dialogue writing, some stunning settings and scenarios, natural tensions, carefully considered metaphorical subplots, and all capped off with the best voice acting and emotional facial capture I have ever seen in video games – and again, amongst the best in any entertainment form.

But I nearly didn’t experience most of that, and that is significant.

While I don’t want to dwell on the weaknesses of the game, rather than just repeating all the plaudits, I am interested in exploring the strange journey I had with the game and why it took me so long to get invested in to a game that eventually got me more invested than the vast majority of games I’ve ever played. To help with this, I watched though a YouTube ‘movie’ of the game, in part, to remember what that first quarter was like, and I do think I came up with some answers.

The opening of the game was very well scripted (both in terms of dialogue and scripted game moments) and certainly emotional as we watched Sarah die in Joel’s arms. The game’s writers managed to draw a very likable character in Sarah in just 15 minutes or so of the game’s opening, helped hugely by playing as her and getting immersed in her experience, and set the game up wonderfully. What happens next is incredibly jarring, and though there is good reasoning for this, it failed with me. We jump forward 20 years and are thrown in to an unfamiliar quest with Joel and a new character in Tess which doesn’t cash in on that opening and gave me little reason to care about what they were doing. The jolt was intentional, and served a purpose – we see Joel, reduced to a form of survival mode that relies on showing no weakness and taking what you want to keep yourself safe. He is irritable and lacks an emotional response to anything. This of course paints a picture of the ‘new normal’ setting, helped of course by glimpses of oppressive force and intimidating threats, both human and infected, but the problem is that this scene setting gives us little to invest in. If Joel doesn’t care about his journey himself beyond a sense of personal duty, we don’t know exactly what threat Robert poses and why, and the setting is well drawn but not much of a stand out from similar survival settings, then why would I get invested as a player. That was where my first play session ended. My second ended after meeting Ellie, deciding to undertake the ‘job’, and Tess dying, and while those big events are certainly significant, they hadn’t hooked me yet either; and while Tess on her own is a great character – a strong-willed, strong-minded character, I think she may have been the reason.

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Tess is a great character, but perhaps waters down the interactions between and connection to each character in the early sections of the game credit: screencap from  a Video Games Source video on Youtube.

At this stage we haven’t spent much time with Ellie, and while glimpses of her memorable personality are there, they are dulled by her own mistrust, and hidden somewhat by the adults taking charge of the situation. At this stage, though we know Ellie is significant, and even know why, the fact that this duo are consistently discussing the merits of helping her make her still feel like an item in a fetch-quest. When you get in to trouble as Joel, Tess is there to help rather than Ellie. Joel and Ellie have some time alone, but not much, so their interaction is limited otherwise. After Tess dies and Joel decides to go on, he does so more through his love for Tess and the unfortunate fact that he has nothing to go back to. Our journey has the feeling of more of an impetus, but after quite a sizable amount of game time where I found it hard to comprehend and care about what I was actually doing, I was really wondering why I should bother. It was here that my second play finished and I was considering giving up on the game. I knew Ellie’s importance in the story as the potential ‘saviour of humanity’ but she still felt more like a host than a character, and the world I had seen wasn’t really unique or interesting enough to care about saving. For me, it was after the Boston acts that the game patched these gaps for me and started reeling me in. It was there that Ellie really showed herself as a character worth saving in her own right, and not just for a cure, and that she really became part of a cohesive on-screen relationship with Joel that would only continue shifting and blossoming from there as they were plunged in to more life-changing events that they shared, and survived, together. It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate some of the subtleties and qualities of this opening quarter or so, and while it is great that they exist and they have an effect on emotional reactions to the rest of the game, it is and unfortunate failing in some otherwise near perfect storytelling that they exist and that this section of the game is so dry because of them, at least on a first play-through.

I want to stress again that I don’t have an issue with Tess as a character – she is an excellent character in fact, but to reiterate, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was at my play session after she died – in which we met Bill, escaped Boston and moved through Pittsburgh – that I was finally hooked by the game. In fact it was that Pittsburgh section of the game that was crucial to my connection with the game. What is interesting about that is that Pittsburgh is the only place Joel and Ellie visit that doesn’t serve a particular purpose. They start in Boston of course, they travel to Wyoming to find Tommy, they go to the University of Eastern Colorado in pursuit of the Fireflies and end up in the un-named settlement nearby out of need once Joel is injured and later because Ellie is held there by David’s crew, and finally they head to Salt Lake City because that’s where they are directed  to go to find the Firefly doctors they are looking for. Other than Pittsburgh being broadly on the way to Wyoming from Boston, Joel and Ellie never really say why they go there. Perhaps they are looking for supplies, and the fact that the game isn’t full of immersion-killing exposition is one of it’s strengths, but looking back, there wasn’t even a need to go to Pittsburgh. Despite that, it is the part that grabbed me and led me to complete the game with joy. We have seen a lot of spirit and genuinely funny humour (a rarity in gaming) quips from Ellie at this point, especially with Bill, so we are growing to like her and be used to her presence without Tess to share the limelight with, and it is the point of the game where Joel is given a reason to value, respect, and if not start liking, start tolerating Ellie more.

This game is light on down time, even when not surrounded by enemies, it is rare that you feel safe, but eventhough we don’t see much of it, the car journey from Boston to Pittsburgh allows Joel to wind down a bit and talk loosely about music before his time, and falling for Ellie’s gags about the porn magazine. Immediately upon arriving in the city though, it all goes to pieces. They barely survive an ambush during which Joel’s tone seems more genuinely concerned for Ellie than before and from there on, Ellie both saves Joel’s life and then covers for him against a group of hunters. Joel’s initial irritation at Ellie for not following his direction quickly turns to his own brand of quiet respect when he hands her the rifle to cover him. Until now, he has not allowed her to have a gun, but this marks the point where he sees her as more of a partner in the effort and generally values her more. I think it may be no mistake that that is (by process of elimination) the part of the game where the cover art in which she is carrying the rifle comes from – that is how crucial the section of the game is. After meeting Henry and Sam, another clear moment of bonding happens both for the characters and for the player with the characters – when Henry and Sam cut and run from Joel when his escape route from the hunters fails, Ellie jumps down and stays with him, showing faith in Joel and a recognition of the fact that their fates are now linked. After escaping the sewer section comes the only true bit of downtime in the actual gameplay which comes in the small residential street they come across after the sewers. Joel again is noticeably more tolerant and even friendly to Ellie during the many situational conversations and almost glimpses of normality in the homes. It is also helped by the mirroring of Henry and Sam – you’re not beaten around the head with it, but there are of course parallels in their relationships; it’s most clear when Joel is angry at Henry for bailing on them and Henry – plausibly – reasons that Joel would have done the same for Ellie. This helps soften Joel to Henry which in-turn shows that Joel cares for Ellie. I went through the same journey. I was furious at Henry for making Sam abandon us but totally softened after he helped save Joel and Ellie. It never seemed contrived and made the prospect of failing in the journey or losing Ellie something I cared about and quite a lot within the relatively short amount of time of it all happening. Seeing the tragic end of Henry and Sam only served to highlight, again for both characters and player, the stakes involved in the journey and by proxy, the bond Joel and Ellie had formed, mirrored in Henry and Sam.

I’m not going to go through every event of the rest of the game, but I do want to discuss what made the narrative of this game so strong from here on out. In Wyoming, the main narrative crux of the section is Joel trying to pass on the task of transporting Ellie to the Fireflies on to his brother Tommy. Though it is clear that Ellie can handle herself at a pinch, it is still hard to know she’s on her own, and so when she bolts on a horse, not only do feel guilty for upsetting her, but you want to find her as soon as you can to make sure she’s safe. Apart from the way she almost flippantly announces herself when called in the house despite supposedly being mad and upset which was a little jarring, the conversation between her and Joel when he catches up with her was the first time I teared up. It is such an emotional, difficult conversation in which Ellie explains that she is now so invested in Joel that without him, she’d be scared and that if he leaves, it will be another trauma for her, but rather than him apologising or anything, he doubles down, sternly telling her that she is not his daughter, he is not her father, and they are splitting up. It is clear though, to me at least, that this is him aware of his genuine emotional connection he had grown with Ellie scaring him given his history with his daughter, and trying to protect himself from it either because he wants to forget and not sully his past with Sarah, or because he thinks it will make him more vulnerable. You want to make tell Ellie it’s fine and you’ll protect her but can’t control this broken man in Joel, so when he, in his own obtuse way, changes his mind and decides to go on with Ellie while being able to see her visible relief, it is such a relief. Though it’s been increasingly obvious, it is here that Joel matches outwardly the solidarity that Ellie showed by jumping down in to danger to be by his side in Pittsburgh. In the time between this Wyoming section and arriving at the University of East Colorado, it is clear that the bond is more open, and the quiet time during which we explore the university before engaging enemies there, with the extra relaxation of trotting along on the horse that their bond is now clear and mutual.

That break between scenes and game sections like that are another narrative strength the game has. Especially between Fall and Winter, there appears to be a lot left to the imagination which in some ways, may seem like a kop out. In this case though, it makes wise choices with these gaps, allowing us to fill in gaps that would be less satisfying than if we saw them. They also allow time to pass in our mind which adds to a palpable sense of bonding between the characters, even if we never have to see how it occurs. We see enough of it in the game’s situational conversations and shared experiences that we can imagine countless other ways they will bond without having to necessarily see them. The game is very economical and only shows us what we need to see, letting us fill in some of the gaps ourselves.

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One of the most memorable scenes of the game where we are asked to hunt a deer while Joel’s status is unclear. Credit: thelastofus.wikia.com

The Last of Us is always playing with you, either by keeping you on your toes or freaking you out with red herrings, but also with larger narrative twists. At the end of the Fall chapter, Joel is blue, seriously injured, seemingly not breathing and falls off a horse. I was convinced that he was dead, and so cutting to playing as Ellie, with Joel nowhere to be seen, it’s only natural to assume he is dead. The Winter chapter doesn’t hold any events really crucial to the narrative arc, but the shocking events therein and the circumstances of them achieve some very important things. The scenery is so beautiful and the quiet stalking of the deer requires such focus that is juxtaposes the shock and trauma of what you’ve just seen so well that it forces you to reflect on what has happened and the implications of it. Fighting with Ellie is fascinating as she is strong, capable, but still more vulnerable. She is wily and deadly, but needs a more desperate attack to knife people and takes damage more easily. Her physical vulnerabilities are obvious, but it is clear that she is strong and able to look after herself. This section is another one that is sold narratively like the end of the game – it being winter, church bells ringing, fires burning around you, and switching between Ellie and Joel to a crescendo all rings of finale. When we leave Joel with the building Ellie is in in sight, we know he is coming and assume he will save us, but what is brilliant is that Ellie saves herself and kills David before Joel arrives. The whole scene is fantastic, but what it does is put in to sharp focus that Ellie doesn’t need Joel to survive. That isn’t to say his role in her life is undermined – he makes her feel safe, he hasn’t abandoned her, and is precious to her, but when it comes to the ending of the game, the fact that she can look after herself takes away a lot of ambiguity in the choice Joel has to make.

Then the ending finally comes, and it’s confusing, devestating, and perfect. We have the remarkable cut from Ellie bludgeoning David and seeing her bloodied face as Joel consoles her, to her standing solemnly looking at the image of the deer which is both calming but also reminiscent of that memorable Winter section. Ellie is preoccupied, not able to focus on Joel and the final push of the journey; to me, I felt she was weighing up her future and what her role in humanity’s future might be, just as Joel clearly was later when he suggested going back to Tommy’s. The environmental conversations throughout the game provide a lot of depth to the characters and universe, showing Ellie’s disappointment in the world she lives but hope for the future, marked against Joel’s gritty acceptance of it as a place in which to survive. But one here is very foreboding in retrospect, and I think reflects Ellie’s mindset. After seeing a picture of an airplane on the side of a bus, she recounts a dream in which she is on a crashing plane; she makes her way to the cockpit, wanting to save them but can’t because she can’t control the plane. I’m no analyst of dreams, but it seems a fair metaphor for her role in humanity. The lives of many depend on her, and she wants to save them – unfortunately, the control is about to be taken away from her, allowing the plane to crash, or humanity to fail. Ellie is this distant like this until one of the game’s most famous scenes. The game plays with it’s own mechanics brilliantly when you go through the animation to give Ellie a boost and she doesn’t appear, so deep in her own thoughts. This is a brilliant way to show you that something very weighty is going on with Ellie and it is followed up by what I am in the minority in thinking is one of the game’s weakest moments – the Jurassic Park style discovery of the giraffe. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, appreciate, and was moved by the meaning of the scene – that the event shows Ellie the beauty of the world and that whatever she wants, the journey must come to it’s conclusion, it must achieve something. The power, for me, comes – again – from Ashley Johnson’s remarkable performance of the scene, not the actual sight of the giraffe which I thought was a bit laughable. I can believe, of course, that giraffes could still exist, but how did a whole herd wind up in the middle of Salt Lake City? For a video game that shows incredible fidelity to it’s universe, it was a very heavy-handed metaphor which stuck in my craw a little. The meaning was clear though, especially given the way Ellie becomes more comfortable again after the sight and a serenity comes over the play – Ellie is ready to do what she has to do to save the world for humanity, and despite not knowing what that entails, she is not conflicted anymore. While it’s clear she wants to share all of that with Joel, it is also clear that doing her part is her first priority.

This is the height of their bond, and after Ellie has come to terms with her fate of going to the Fireflies, Joel is much more giving of himself, open to talking about his past, and as a player, this change made me more invested in their relationship. It is in this final section where two specific things happen which will always stay with me. The first is when Ellie passes on the picture of Sarah to Joel. Joel rejected this early on but now that he has accepted Ellie as a surrogate daughter (for lack of a better term) it is clear he is starting to heal emotionally. He is ready to get this task out of the way and go on to life a better life with his brother, daughter, and in a place with a new hope. Shortly after, Ellie says a line which for me, for some reason, is most devastating in the context of the whole story, she says something along the lines of ‘after all this is over, how about you teach me how to swim’. Ellie not being able to swim is a fantastic conceit for a few reasons, but one is that it allows this to happen. Both of these moments are very foreboding but also implanted within me as the player some understanding for why Joel would do what he does. Not only would Ellie dying after she has helped him heal emotionally totally destroy him, but he knows that she had hopes for the future too and wasn’t necessarily expecting to die. So when it becomes clear that her fate is to die, moments like that come to mind and make it even more painful.

After getting through the most infested area in the game, and barely surviving an accident in the water in which Ellie is rendered helpless, we go through the rollercoaster of finding out we’ve made it to the very much alive Fireflies and that Ellie is safe before quickly discovering what that means for Ellie’s life. If you’ve connected to the characters as I did, you experience something close to what Joel does – you think of this girl you’ve given you’re life over to, you think about the swimming lessons, and you think about not being able to save another child. You don’t have a choice here, it being a linear game, but it is a role-playing game in which the role-playing is understandable, even if you don’t agree with it, and so you go on your final run to stop Ellie from being operated on.

Game advertisements often spray around platitudes about examining choice and morality, about exploring ‘shades of grey’ but often only achieve this by giving players choices. Despite the fact that it seems near self-evident that choice would explore these dilemmas more effectively, that actually isn’t my experience. In the Fallout series, for example, there are very difficult choices to make at times, but I usually find that the replayability allows me to do multiple playthroughs role-playing as what I deem a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ and to me, the ability to play through each style kinda waters down the gravity of these choices – everything is fluid and temporary because you don’t have to stick with that choice if you’ve saved and don’t want to. In a well-written linear story like this, where both points of view are understandable and the reaction of the character you are playing with makes total sense. This is a strength of the writing throughout the game – even when someone does something shocking, it makes total sense in the context, and it was crucial that Joel’s attempts to stop the surgery made sense for the ending to make sense. It seems to be the experience of many players that when they reached the operating room, they wanted to somehow back down. It is telling of the incredible writing and characterisation of Ellie that a character who becomes so beloved is one who you essentially want to die because it is now clear to you that this is right, and what she would want.

But you’re Joel. Joel says at the end and other characters echo it at different points, that everyone finds something to fight for. Joel has lost Tess, he’s left Boston, and all he has is Ellie. Ellie has given him a genuine reason to live, filled a 20 year void in his life, and helped him to start healing. For Joel, and for the player, the shock of the revelation that she has to die, the aggression of the Fireflies, the fact that Ellie never said she wanted to lay down her life necessarily, and the knowledge that this relationship which you have cultivated must come to an end justifies cutting through the Fireflies perhaps, but when left with the scenario right in front of you of stopping the surgery, and after having time to consider it all when getting there, it is something hard to go ahead with. Whether with vigour or with hesitation, you are forced to go ahead and do something it is hard to agree with, and it is the feelings involved with that that really confront you with moral ambiguity. You run down the corridor with Ellie in your arms in a clear, circular mirror of the opening scene with Sarah. Joel couldn’t save Sarah that time, but this time, regardless of any context, Joel will ‘save’ Ellie. He has to. It’s a relief, in a way, because you’re so attached to Ellie, but you also realise what that means in a larger context – that without her consent, Joel has selfishly robbed Ellie of her destiny, of what she has found to fight for. We understand, but in case any question remained about Joel’s betrayal, it is cleared up in the game’s final moments.

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The memorable, almost heart-breaking ending which we see from Ellie’s perspective during gameplay. Credit: screencap from a SchwartzJesuz video on YouTube

 

In a game filled with memorable, emotional moments both big and small, the game succeeds in making it’s very final moment it’s most powerful. It would be easy to bodge a happy ending from this, but the bravery of the developers to go for an ending that was honest to the setting, the characters, and allowed the player the opportunity to be confused, infuriated, and moved forever. The direction of the scene does something simple but perfect. You play as Ellie. Generally in the game, you play as the person who is guiding the action and (to an extent) looking out for the other character. When you play as Ellie in Winter, she is either protecting Joel or herself, and when you are her again at the end, while there is no combat or challenge, it is important because it makes it clear that Ellie is now the stronger of the two and that Joel is reliant on her. You walk through the woods as Joel gleefully talks about how like his daughter Ellie is and how excited he is to spend the future with her and you see it through the eyes of Ellie, knowing what he has done to her to achieve this. I believe personally, also, that it hints further at Ellie knowing full well that what Joel said happened wasn’t the truth, so to see him speaking like this from her perspective makes us react just as she is reacting, with anger and a tinge of almost pity for this almost childlike character Joel has become.

Then Joel lies to Ellie’s face, and it’s a gut punch. A gut punch followed by another as Ellie responds ‘ok’. The ‘ok’ response deliberately gives the player enough ambiguity to come up with their own meaning of it – whether or not Ellie believes him or not and what it means. To me, I am convinced that Ellie knows Joel is lying but that, despite that, after thinking about it, Ellie realises that she loves Joel now as a father figure, the only person she has left, and that, imperfect as it is, she can live with that. Joel mentions that you need to find something to fight for. His actions preserved his reason to live, but robbed Ellie of hers, and that is the greatest betrayal. Her survival guilt isn’t just because she feels guilty that her friends died and she didn’t, it’s because her friends died, she didn’t, and her survival meant nothing. We see her struggle with that, but accept it, and then we’re left to live with it. It’s perfect.

Video games have an advantage over other storytelling mediums in that they make you the driver in the story, the person controlling the characters, even if their future is pre-determined, and so you are inherently immersed in the game more than a movie, TV show or even book can – that is why they have such promise as a medium. The Last of Us is one of only really a few games which show video games starting to live up to that promise. It’s a shame that the pacing at the start was difficult for me to get through, and it is a weak spot of the game for sure, but especially once you get past that, the dialogue, direction, attention to small details, and set pieces are near-perfect and it creates a story that is among the most memorable and powerful in recent memory, without the asterisk of it being a video game or not.It takes a tired, over-used setting of essentially a pandemic apocalypse, uses many of their well-worn tropes, but delivers them in a way that is so powerful that it feels fresh and memorable.

Playing As the Last of Us
I’m no expert in things like A.I. or user interface or combat, so you’ll have to forgive me for a lack of technical knowledge, but as a gamer, I can comment on what I enjoyed and didn’t, and what I think worked.

I spoke early on about how I struggled to connect with the game early on, and perhaps the teeth skin that kept me interested enough to come back that crucial third time was enjoying the basic combat, and most specifically, the way you have to manage your combat throughout to survive. In most games things maybe start of scarce but as it goes on, you become overpowered both in strengths and also the amount of guns and ammo available. Here, there are maybe half a dozen guns and a few extra weapons, and at any one time, you’ll have a few available to you, and even then the ability to use them is limited. From there, very naturally, you approach combat much more tactically, which is my preference in gameplay. You switch from stealth to some form of first person combat very fluidly, and between the excellent, raw, sound design, the brutal, raw animations, and the imperfect but satisfying gunplay, the combat feels desperate and visceral. It is something you want to avoid if you can, but can be fun, satisfying, and rewarding once you end up in the middle of a battle. Tactical thinking expands to the different sorts of enemies. Again, with enemies in this game, less is more – there are human attackers, infected runners, clickers, and bloaters, and each one has different strengths and weaknesses. Humans are smarter and will flank you, but are less visceral, furious fighters; runners are the smartest of the infected, and can see, but don’t have the intelligence of humans and aren’t as dangerous as the other infected; clickers are the most infamous enemies, and are much more dangerous in that if they get you, they kill you instantly and early on, your guns basically wont work on them and you can only really kill them with shivs which require a much more up-close attack, but they are attracted to fire, so a molotov cocktail can take multiple down even without a lot of accuracy and they can be distracted much easier; bloaters are the toughest enemy, eventhough you only come across a few, they take a lot more damage and have the same instant kill threat, but they are slower, so you can strafe and sprint away to set up enough attacks to eventually bring them down. Dynamic enemies mixed with dynamic, satisfying attacks makes the combat very satisfying for the most part, while the whole aspect of managing your resources throughout places it well in the apocalyptic setting.

A quick issue with the clickers. They are certainly memorable enemies, but I do have an issue with their whole explanation. It is explained that they see by using sonar, but this doesn’t match up with my experience of them. If they saw with sonar, they should have been able to see me in any room they shared with me while clicking, and not be able to see me if I was in a different room. In my experience, clickers seemed to be able to chase me between rooms at times eventhough I should have become invisible once in a new room, and at other times they seemed oblivious, eventhough I should have been visible to them regardless of noise being made. What it played more like was that their hearing was made super acute in lieu of their vision. I adjusted to this, but especially early on, it affected my play-style, leading to some frustrating moments and deaths, and it is a rare lack of care from the developers.

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The crafting interface is a simple, flowing interface which really adds to the urgency of the game. Credit: neogaf.com

A quick note about the interface and crafting as they’ve been said by pretty much everyone who has played it, but the simple interface for your inventory and crafting is wonderful and realistic. Not only do you only have a few kinds of weapons to use, but you can only use two guns at a time – because you only have two hands. Few games put that sort of effort in to their realism, and it only adds to the visceral combat sections. If you run out of ammo with the guns you’re holding or you feel you need to change your weapon, you can, but you need to go in to your backpack and take the time, defenseless to make the switch. It’s a decision, and one you have to get right. Similarly, it would be strange in this setting to not scavenge for materials , and not try to craft things to help you. There isn’t much about to scavenge, and when you do, you have to make yet more choices. The most common example is the best – do you make a health pack or a molotov cocktail? It depends on your style and gambling on what you think might be round the corner. Not only that, but crafting and using these materials, like with changing guns, takes time. Especially using health kits. If you want to use a health kit, you can, but you need to do it from a safe place because it seems, again realistically, to take a fair amount of time to do so, during which you’re defenseless. The way the interface barely interferes with the flow of the gameplay and only adds to the combat experience is to be applauded as a huge strength.

Relatedly, another elephant in the game though is the A.I. The developers certainly had some choices to make with the A.I. because combat, and especially stealth, with a partner raises some issues that, in this game, required a compromise which can be jarring. The enemy A.I. will only engage in combat when they see you personally, so at times, Ellie and others can be running around right in front of enemies and they won’t respond or react, only to enter combat when they see you. The alternatives have their own negatives, but it really jars with the desperate atmosphere of the combat and the realism of the game more generally.

On the plus side, the NPC A.I.s have their strengths, too. I’ve already mentioned how the enemies have different strengths and weaknesses within their A.I., but Ellie especially as a companion has a very strong A.I. She warns you and assists you in battle in a way that makes total sense and actually helps you. Though it plays a smaller part of the relationship in this game, and her level of help is different, it reminds me of your relationship with Quiet in MGSV. When you’re without Quiet after she’s been helpful by your side so consistently, your bond with her becomes undeniable, and that is also the case with Ellie. It’s more subtle, but knowing she’s by your side, doing what she can, plays a part in building the bond between the characters.

The final thing I will mention about the gameplay is the puzzles that occur throughout it. Initially, these were a fun aspect of the gameplay, not super challenging, but always rewarding. At times, admittedly, this would feel repetitive and frustrating, especially at the points where I was struggling to get invested in the game, but they provided much needed quiet time in the game. Another problem I had with the game initially was that before I cared about the story, the constant feeling of fear or paranoia about what could happen made the experience exhausting and one part of the game where I could relax the most was when I was placing a plank or a bin or a ladder. Another reason why the swimming-based puzzles were so important were because they not only made Ellie feel somewhat vulnerable but also played in to the sort of life someone would have after this sort of outbreak, where it would be harder to learn to swim, and finally, because after so many instances of it, it made the powerful dialogue where Ellie talks about learning to swim  make contextual sense and give it more power.

Ok
I’ve discussed a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of The Last of Us that many reviewers and commenters have discussed, but still seem to have had what seems to have been a minority experience with it, playing it and not really enjoying it twice in two months,and then getting hooked, completing the game within days of my third playthrough, and getting so invested in the incredible story that I’ve written a huge article about it.

There’s no need to rehash what I’ve said before, but apart for the section between starting to play 20 years after the pandemic and Tess dying, the story works incredibly well. I’ve never seen voice acting and animation near the quality of that in this game. The gameplay is a lot of fun, but without the incredible narrative, acting, and direction, it would be a fun but pretty bog standard game. This is an example of how linear games can be the most powerful form of storytelling. Movies or TV shows or books don’t (or very rarely) do this, and we don’t expect it from them, so why I see the benefit of choice in games, the risk of creating a linear story can pay off hugely when done correctly. Only a linear story can create a story this powerful and memorable because that is the only arc the developers have focused on. They haven’t had to write multiple endings, trying to share different kinds of power and emotion. That final conversation is the sort of thing that will never leave me, and i’m glad I haven’t seen an alternative ending to bleed in to that.

I can imagine some cool future sequels, but i’m not sure I want them. I know enough of the characters to understand the potential issues they will come across in their future, but I don’t need to see that. I’m also not sure I need to play it again. If I do, it would just be to experiment with different difficulties and play styles, but I feel satisfied for now and for a long time. The game and it’s story is lodged in my mind forever. That’s amazing given I was so close to not even picking the game up again so far through, but I am so glad I did because as a game player, a movie watcher, and a storyteller myself, it is one of few experiences I’ve had in storytelling media that I’ve loved so much that I’ve just fallen in love, not been able to stop thinking about, and wanted to to write about and see emulated more and more.

 

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One thought on “The Last of Us: Playing In the Darkness and Finding the Light

  1. Pingback: A Round-table On WrestleMania 32 and It’s Divisive Build | The Neon Idols

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