“THEY DIDN’T SUFFER”. Fuck you, The Last of Us. Fuck you rather a lot.
You know those movies that you watch and think “wow, that was an excellent film – I never want to see it again”? Se7en was one for me – a work of art that I will never voluntarily re-watch. So was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, strangely enough – after seeing that with friends, we all decided on “harrowing” as the best word to describe the experience of watching it. And now a video game has had the same effect on me. Yeah, I probably will play The Last of Us again – collectibles need collectin’ – but I’ll have to psych myself up for it first, if only to survive the opening sequence.
…toting a lead pipe with scissor blades taped to it…
You start the game in control of the main character Joel’s young daughter. That had me worried straight away – none of the promotional material or reviews for the game had even mentioned the existence of a daughter, which suggested she wasn’t going to be sticking around for long. She did not. That opening chapter, which perfectly puts you in the middle of the rising chaos of a zombie outbreak, actually manages to top Uncharted 2‘s.
That fact that the opening ends on a particularly bleak note colours the rest of the game; even though the plot starts fairly formulaically – post-zombie-apocalypse, you’re given the task of ferrying a young girl, Ellie, who appears to be immune to the infection into the care of a group who are looking for a cure – it’s established that bad things can happen to anyone, so you never quite know how things are going to turn out. Much like when watching Se7en, I genuinely had no idea which way it was going to go at the end – I was hoping for a happy ending, but there was plenty of indications it could go the other way. In the end, though, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the better comparison, as the emotionality of the game and the ambiguity of its ending (it even – tiny spoiler – has the same last line as ESSM) was genuinely draining.
No video game has made me cry. I came close at the end of Final Fantasy VIII and again at the end of Final Fantasy X. I came even closer in Shadow of the Colossus when your horse, the only companion you have throughout the game, falls into a chasm while saving you from a similar fate*. I didn’t cry at The Last of Us either, because frankly, if I was going to I don’t think I’d have stopped. Even when I was creeping through a ruined city, dodging vicious echolocating mushroom zombies, toting a lead pipe with scissor blades taped to it, the game still managed to stop me in my tracks with random acts of pathos, such as coming across a locked room in a previously overrun compound and finding small bodies covered by a sheet, with the three words at the start of this column painted on the floor.
The game really makes you care about the characters, partly due to the fact that not all of the incidental characters die (just most of them). It could have gone the Walking Dead route of “here are some more new characters… aaaand now they’re dead”, but instead they leave just enough hope that these ones might make it out alive.
The characters themselves are all nicely ambiguous. They’re not heroes (some of the stuff Joel does fully justifies the game’s R18 rating), but not villains either; just selfish – partly due to being products of the dog-eat-dog world they live in, and partly out of a need to remedy the losses they’ve already suffered. By the end of the game it’s clear that Joel and Ellie need each other, for a mixture of reasons both benevolent and selfish.
As a game, the best word to describe The Last of Us is “complete” – nothing’s left out, the developers took no shortcuts and didn’t skimp on anything. The environments are massive and fully detailed – not quite “open world”, but big enough to thwart the usual gamer instinct to explore everywhere for goodies. In some cases, such as when creeping through a hotel that’s swimming with bandits, it was “I haven’t been everywhere, but there’s the exit – fuck it, I’m getting out of here while I still can.”
The characters are similarly detailed, in appearance (the truly expressive facial animations are amazing), personality and dialogue. The game is peppered with incidental conversations and observations, and with the exception of a few often-repeated tasks, I don’t think I heard the same line of dialogue twice. Enemy AI is better than average – your opponents, both human and infected, are still pretty dumb and easy to sneak up on at times, but they act in groups and react cleverly to things like being fired on or hearing you run out of ammo, and humans will even surrender if they’re overwhelmed.
This game’s received the complaints I’ve come to expect when an action-oriented game gets called “survival horror”. As with Dead Space, the test applies: does the game encourage/require you to fight rather than run for your life? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no – there’s a fair bit of sneaking around and avoiding enemies, but plenty of full-on gun battles as well. (One complaint I have is that it wasn’t always clear when you’re supposed to run and when you had to stand and fight.) The “Normal” difficulty setting was a bit easy – materials were plentiful, and my ammo was only scarce because I’m a rubbish shot – but harder settings should give a better “survival horror” experience.
Another complaint is that it falls into the Uncharted trap a bit, where it starts to get preposterous just how many enemies you manage to kill. The Uncharted games have Nate Drake mowing down whole armies – The Last of Us isn’t that bad, but you and your teenage sidekick end up taking down whole militia groups and buildings full of bandits. At least in this case it’s well established that we’re now living in a kill-or-be-killed world where life is cheap and death comes quick.
At the end of the day, any complaints are minor niggles compared to the powerful experience that this game delivers**. Despite actively trying not to give a shit about what happens to my fictional avatars, I still found myself thinking “please don’t kill them, please” at crucial points and although I put my controller down at the start of the week I’m still thinking about everything that happened. This game is good, is what I’m saying.
*I never gave the slightest fuck when Aeris got killed in FFVII, though – I don’t know why people always talk about that as the most traumatic experience of their gaming lives.
**I believe a lot of people aren’t happy with the ending – maybe the developers will go the Mass Effect route and release a more fan-friendly ending as DLC. Or maybe they’ll mail all of the players a Shiny Red Fucking Bow to tie the story up with.