“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
Well, here we are. Surprised? It’s a very recent game – it only came out a little over a week ago – but it very quickly proved its worth. This game is a tour de force that puts you through all kinds of hell. It’s intense, it’s touching, it’s haunting, it’s visceral, it’s brutal, it’s taxing, it’s beautiful. It’s everything a game should be, and it represents the absolute highest point that gaming has yet achieved. This is the future of gaming, and I am absolutely thrilled to see where the medium goes after a game like this.
Zombies are old hat. It’s been about ten years now since the zombie craze began in earnest, and in that time there has been no dearth of zombie films, books, and movies. There are clear winners – World War Z, Max Brooks’ oral history of a zombie war; Shaun of the Dead, an outstanding romantic comedy with a zombie apocalypse as the backdrop; Left 4 Dead, the manic video game series that captured the zombie B-movie aesthetic with insane and gleeful violence – and clear losers. But overall the concept has just become very, very tired.
Let it not be said, however, that I will immediately dismiss zombie media on the sheer premise alone. Old premises can be used to great effect if interpreted in a new way, presented in a novel fashion (see: World War Z), or used as a way to convey a compelling emotional narrative. Works of art, even if made from familiar components, can still be great. The Last of Us is living proof of that: despite the game’s familiar zombie trappings, its Half-Life 2 and Children of Men inspired mise-en-scene, and the well-trod territory of a surrogate father-daughter relationship, the game manages to exceed all expectations and deliver a powerful, moving experience unlike anything I’ve seen before.
The game actively defies genre conventions. It features a heavy story focus, with some tremendously cinematic segments not at all unlike those found in the Uncharted series (given that developer Naughty Dog is responsible for both that series and this game, that’s not surprising). It’s also got a healthy dose of stealth gameplay, with secrecy not just recommended but expressly required for survival throughout the game. It has the typical survival horror conventions as well, with limited ammunition and the need to scavenge for every small cache of supplies in every nook and cranny of the game world. It’s just as scary as Amnesia: The Dark Descent at times. It could be rightfully called an action game, a survival horror game, a stealth game, or even the more broad description “drama” (a term mostly reserved for games like Heavy Rain).
These varied aspects of the series gameplay are not disparate, however: the entire game feels decidedly cohesive. Because the game never pauses when performing tasks – crafting and using medkits all occurs in real time, as Joel puts his backpack on the ground and goes to work, completely vulnerable to infected and other hostiles who happen to be nearby – the game avoids the segmented feel of similar titles. Crafting before an encounter and crafting an emergency medkit in the middle of one are fundamentally the same experience. The urgency varies, but it doesn’t feel like a different task. In fact, most of the game feels like a singular task, rather than a series of alternating phases. Sure, when you enter a new region, you go into the scavenging mentality, and search every corner of the map for supplies. Then you move on, likely into an encounter with infected or other hostiles. But what keeps the game from feeling like a set of alternating phases is the immediacy with which these “phases” shift. You can be scavenging a house, listening to Joel and Ellie make light conversation, when suddenly gunshots are fired or a clicker begins its horrifying clicking, and immediately you tense up and go into the combat mentality. Similarly, while in the combat mentality, as you inch forward stealthily, the scavenging mentality never really dissipates, as you pick things up along the way. They can be supplies necessary for crafting or simply bricks and bottles to toss at your enemies to stun them momentarily. The bottom line is, as you are sneaking around to eliminate your enemies, you’re still scavenging. As you’re scavenging, you’re still tense, on guard for sudden combat.
That tension marks most of the game. No matter how calm things might seem, there’s always a sense of palpable dread hovering over the proceedings. The mood whiplash within the game is terrifyingly well pitched. After just a couple encounters, the simple sound of clickers will send chills down your spine, and the game knows this. It wisely begins to use clickers as vanguards, so to speak, heralding the beginning of a new infected encounter. But it’s always sudden. You’re walking forward into an otherwise unmarked and ostensibly untouched section of the map, when suddenly that clicking comes through your speakers. Your muscles tense, and your grip on the controller tightens. Focus narrows, and the mood of the game – no matter how lightened by the at times jovial and at times endearingly sweet conversation Joel and Ellie engage in – is suddenly dire and grim. It’s an impressive switch of mood, and the game manages to pull it off with aplomb time and time again.
Of course, the mood is never one of much levity. There are simply moments where the tension is not as great. The story of the game ensures that happiness and hope is not something the player has any capacity for by the end of the game. It is a series of brutal, visceral moments strung together by threads of hope that are dashed at the last possible moment, right before something good actually manages to happen. During the pre-release, post-review embargo phase of the game’s life cycle, I heard the comment that the story was oppressively dark a number of times. While playing the game, there would come moments where I would feel as if that was unnecessarily strong, and that the story had a number of bright spots. But then the game would turn around and crush my hopes, as if it had something to prove. I won’t say the game is “oppressively” dark, but it is almost entirely devoid of hope, and has a knack for turning happy developments into soul-crushing ones.
In this, the content matches the form. As dark as the game is, the gameplay at times is equally brutal. Joel is a hyperviolent individual, driven by an intense survival instinct. We can’t exactly fault him, but as he shoves heads into walls with tremendous force (causing the infected heads to pop like a bloated water balloon in a gory display of viscera), steps on faces, shoves axes into shoulders, and excessively shivs human and infected alike, we can’t help but be uncomfortable. But as the game’s story loves to remind us, survival is not comforting, nor comfortable. It’s a grisly and exhausting existence – not a task, not a temporary assignment, but a way of existing – that is unendingly fraught with peril and toil. It’s rare that a game’s gameplay will reinforce the tenets of its story, but The Last of Us does this excellently. Survival is harsh.
This concept of survival is central to The Last of Us, and as the game barrels forth through its long odyssey of a narrative, it becomes clearer and clearer what precisely is on Naughty Dog’s mind. This is a game as much about the relationship between two people – Joel and Ellie – as it is about a single member of that relationship: Joel. For most of the game, you play as Joel, and he is your primary conduit. Most of what you experience, you do so through his eyes (metaphorically, since it’s third person). From the introductory stage of the game, which takes place at the moment of the fungal outbreak that creates the post-apocalyptic world the rest of the game takes in, to the conclusion of the journey that Joel takes twenty years later, we are given a glimpse into how and why this man survives. We’re never explicitly told this, but are instead given hints as we travel throughout the game. Near the end of the game, in an attempt to console Ellie and inspire her, Joel tells her that you have to find something worth surviving for, and if that something dies or gets infected – and there’s a grim portent to his words that implies an inevitability to that eventuality – then you find something new worth surviving for. Coupled with an earlier comment he made, in response to Ellie’s implication that, in the post-infection world, suicide was “the easy way out,” that suicide wasn’t easy, there’s a dark history unspoken between the introductory stage and the main journey which begins twenty years later, and his words carry a disturbing glimpse into his survival. For him, survival is an active struggle, one that appears just as difficult as he claims suicide is, and watching the ramifications of his attempts to survive is brutal. But for all this exploration into the survivor mentality, it isn’t until the very last scene of the game that the full scope of it becomes evident. I’m not going to spoil the events that transpire there, but I can say with absolute certainty that, with the clarity and understanding afforded by that final scene, the entire events of the game have taken on a new aspect in recollection, and I am now rather unnerved and frightened by some of the things that I, in playing as Joel, did in my quest to survive. It’s chilling.
It’s a testament to how powerful the storytelling is in The Last of Us that despite offering the player little in the way of choice – the story is entirely linear, and while you can freely explore the given level, there is no open world to traverse at your leisure – I never felt forced to do something I didn’t want to do. In other games, there are usually a few moments where the game wants my character to do something that I don’t. In BioShock Infinite, for instance, I did not want to accept the baptism at the start of the game. But the game wanted Booker to accept that baptism, so I did it, and then moved on. At no point in The Last of Us did I experience a similar dissonance. I was fully on board with every action Joel makes throughout the game, understanding the reasoning and agreeing with it in almost every case. It offers the player little agency in the narrative, but affords them the illusion of agency, which makes them complicit. Everything Joel did, and all the consequences thereof, I was accountable for. I did them gladly, with no hesitation. When looking back on the game with the new perspective that the ending of the game gives me, this complicity concerns me greatly, and I actually experienced a moral crisis at one point. It’s powerful, powerful stuff, forcing you to examine your own morals and what you would do in the situation. There are no easy answers: only uncomfortable ones.
The quote at the top of this article is one of my favorites, from one of my favorite film directors. Art isn’t meant to be comfortable or thoughtful. It’s supposed to be raw emotion, and if a work of art fails to take you someplace new, to make you momentarily uncomfortable in new emotional regions, then it hasn’t reached its fullest potential. The Last of Us will harrow your soul, and make you tremendously uncomfortable throughout its considerable duration.
This game is a masterpiece. It will haunt me for a long time, but I am more than excited to go back and relive it. The experience is one I would trade for nothing; it’s a must play game, and a harrowing experience the likes of which we are unlikely to see any day soon.