On the street where you live, there's a house built out of zombie clichés. The porch looks like an abandoned quarantine zone, and the walls are covered with hastily scrawled graffiti. The roof is crafted from the finest wrecked national monuments, and the floors appear to be made of actual zombies.
And yet: Two people live in that house. They moved right on in and built a life, and everyone in the neighborhood got to know them and came to care about them a great deal. They had a hard time of it, in that zombie-house. We watched them suffer great loss and abandon hope, then lean on each other and persevere. We became greatly invested in their fortunes. Against the odds, their story moved us.
Naughty Dog’s new cinematic action game The Last of Us is that house, built on the skeleton of so many post-apocalyptic stories before it. At every turn, it embraces the tropes of zombie fiction—the fall of government, the refugee-camp cities, the scrawled goodbye notes, the roving bandits and the desperate survivors and the great sacrifices and on, and on. We've been down this road before, dozens of times. And as the game kicks off with one of the most shopworn narrative tropes of all, you'd be forgiven for asking, "Do I really need to do this again?"
Yet despite the foundation of overfamiliar zombie junk, the answer to that question is, “Yes, absolutely!” The Last of Us is a rousingly well-made, emotionally grueling work of pop entertainment, and a noteworthy synthesis of game design and character-driven storytelling. It is even, in the end, genuinely surprising.
The Last of Us is a third-person action game that consists mainly of sneaking, exploring and shooting. It takes place in North America around the year 2033, twenty years after a freak fungal outbreak infected and killed most of the world's population. And by "infected," I mean "turned into zombies." And by "killed," I mean "killed by the zombies."
So, yes, in this zombie game, the zombies are fungus-people. Does that sound horrifying to you? Because they are horrifying. You remember the time io9 wrote about the Cordyceps fungus that overtook and ate that tarantula? And they posted this nightmare-infecting photo?
Picture that, but it's alive, and human-shaped, and it wants to kill you.
Yeah, pretty much.
The two main characters are a world-weary middle-aged smuggler named Joel (Troy Baker) and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson). Against his better judgement, Joel accepts a job to smuggle Ellie out of the relatively safe but frightfully militarized Boston quarantine zone. Things don't go according to plan (cf. zombie clichés number 25, 26 and 27) and in short order the two of them, strangers to one another, set off on an epic adventure across the country.
The game's tone is grim yet not quite dour, and refreshingly forthright. Every moment, be it of extreme duress or unexpected grace, is presented in a straightforward manner. It's a lengthy game, yet developer Naughty Dog has managed to keep the tone consistent throughout. This apocalypse is viewed from ground-level.
In a world defined by death, what will our children inherit but more death?
The Last of Us finds two close literary cousins in P.D. James' The Children of Men (specifically Alfonso Cuarón's heart-stopping cinematic adaptation) and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. McCarthy's intimate horror masterpiece has come into vogue lately among video game developers, and his influence is felt particularly sharply here. The Last of Us displays a distinctly McCarthy-ish naturalism, set as it is in a nightmare world brutally reclaimed by nature. And like The Road, The Last of Us addresses the ways in which our human desire to forge connections with others comes into conflict with our animal will to survive. A partner, we're reminded time and again, will probably just wind up getting us killed. But what good is a life that's lived alone? And in a world defined by death, what will our children inherit but more death?
In other words, as with so many post-apocalyptic stories before it—Hello, zombie clichés!—The Last of Us's fungal pandemic is really just table-setting for a much more intimate, human story. Like last year's The Walking Dead game, this isn't actually a tale of zombies and bandits and the end of the world. It's a tale of loss and hope and friendship and family that just happens to feature zombies and bandits and the end of the world. And it’s a fine, worthy tale, at that.
It may not come as a surprise that Naughty Dog would successfully blend broad-strokes genre hackery with human-scale storytelling—their Uncharted games swam through oceans of Indiana Jones cliché, buoyed by charisma and wit such that when they were at their best, it was hard to complain about how rote it all was. But the Uncharted games weren't particularly deep or all that consistent in tone, despite some uneven attempts to inject drama into the series' third entry. In comparison, The Last of Us is focused and resolutely humane, a clear evolution of the studio's brand of scripted, linear storytelling.
The majority of The Last of Us’s most affecting drama takes place during non-interactive cutscenes. But the game itself—the part you actually control and play—is also well-done. I'd describe the gameplay as "Stealth/Survival," in that you'll spend most of the game crouched around a corner, waiting for a deadly enemy to walk by before pouncing.
Sometimes you'll go up against fungus-blind zombies that use echolocation to track you; other times you'll take on human bandits who use their regular ol' eyesight. Depending on your play-style, you might get into frequent firefights, which feel appropriately sloppy and chaotic. You also might sneak past a good amount of the enemies. Ammunition is scarce, as are precious health-restoring medical supplies, so retreat is often the best option. Fortunately, thanks to the cautious and intelligent enemies, it's almost always possible to retreat and regroup, shaking your pursuers and re-engaging from a new angle.
Each scenario in the game feels distinct and carefully assembled, and the skirmishes evolve with fluidity. For the most part Naughty Dog avoids the repetitive, copy-paste gunfights that plague so many other big-budget action games, including their own Uncharted series. The open-ended levels allow for a good amount of improvisation, and the limited resources will have players scraping the far ends of their toolkit to survive each encounter. Oh, the panic I felt as I blindly fought my way through my first extended face-off with the infected! I punched and pummeled, smashed bricks into faces and vaulted through empty conference rooms, then I sprinted, climbed, and waited, two bullets remaining in my revolver. The final fungal horror shrieked and dashed at me, deadly as ever. Two shots… one shot… please let this hit.
The Last of Us is emphatically not a "fun" game
While the default difficulty setting is no walk in the park, The Last of Us really sings on its harder two difficulty settings. That's not just because the enemies are tougher to kill, but because supplies and weapon-crafting materials become so very scarce. When forced to rely on every possible trick and advantage I could muster, I came to appreciate just how much work had gone into making The Last of Us balanced and consistently challenging.
Well-made and satisfying though it may be, The Last of Us is emphatically not a "fun" game. It is, in fact, a fine example of just how useless that descriptor has become. The Last of Us is a brutally violent, often horrifying, emotionally exhausting piece of work. It may not have the over-the-top gore of other more cartoonish video games, but its violence has a core of savagery that can be deeply chilling.
Joel rushes at a man, crushes his trachea with an elbow, and smashes his jaw into a countertop; Ellie leaps onto another man's shoulders and, screaming and grunting, stabs him over and over with her knife until he crumples to the floor. Over the course of the story, the two protagonists happen upon some exceptionally grim scenarios, and sometimes will commit atrocities of their own.
Yet the violence doesn't feel gratuitous. It feels heavy, consequential and necessary. With a few exceptions, the fight sequences are humble in scale: There are 5 men coming for you. They're going to kill you both and take your things. Hide from them, fight them, but whatever you do, survive.
Crucially, the characters never act as though violence isn't happening all around them. Unlike many other games of this type, the action sequences and the non-interactive cutscenes don't seem to exist in separate universes. Even in the heat of the moment, Ellie will regularly remark on Joel's brutality, and as the story progresses, both characters come to carry deep physical and emotional scars.
That said, The Last of Us does require a degree of suspension of disbelief, and occasionally it doesn’t earn it. Your partner's artificial intelligence will cause some odd things to happen from time to time, and zombies are entirely unable to see Ellie, despite her graceless galumphing around. There's a fair amount of stealth-game wackiness, as enemy AI can behave believably at some times and strangely at others. No man, not even one as fearsome as Joel, could realistically take down as many dozens of armed hunters as he does, and there are some points toward the end of the game where the fight-explore-fight rhythm starts to finally feel predictable. But by and large, The Last of Us trades on being believable rather than being realistic. In that, it succeeds.
The story’s impact relies greatly on the weight of the game's difficulty. After finishing, I replayed the first quarter of the game on the "new game plus" setting, which allowed me to carry over my souped-up weaponry and improved stats from the end of the game in a new playthrough. I found that, with the difficulty significantly lowered (you can't play new game plus on a higher difficulty than you finished the game), the story itself lost a lot of its kick. The Last of Us is most cathartic and believable at its most difficult, which nicely illustrates the primary way its gameplay and story intersect.
The violence also loses some impact in the game's included multiplayer modes, which I had a chance to sample for a few hours during a Sony-organized session last week. It's a sparse setup, with only two match types—one is a traditional team-based deathmatch, the other "Survivor"-type deathmatch with no respawns. (I greatly preferred the latter mode.)
Both multiplayer modes are wrapped in a clever metagame that has you pick one of two factions at the start and earn supplies for your team by winning matches. It's a cool idea in theory, but for the brief amount of time I've spent playing it, I found it to be too abstract. You'll see how many people in your camp are hungry, or sick, or healthy, but I never really got a sense of who they were or what was actually happening.
The multiplayer isn't something I'd cite while recommending the game, but it's enjoyable and it certainly doesn't detract
Furthermore, with no downtime, the constant human-on-human multiplayer violence becomes overwhelming and loses a lot of its punch. With each grisly finishing move (say, flipping an injured enemy over and putting a bullet into his face as he stares at you, wide-eyed), I became further disconnected from the action until after about a half-hour, I was just playing another third-person shooter. That's not really a slam on the quality of the multiplayer; it's well-made and a good deal of fun on its own. It also rewards smart and stealthy play, which is nice for players like me who don't excel at fast-reflex multiplayer shooters.
With only a couple of hours under my belt, I can't yet see the metagame's big picture, and therefore can't make too much of a judgment one way or the other. At the moment, the multiplayer isn't something I'd cite while recommending the game, but it's enjoyable and it certainly doesn't detract.
In the singleplayer game, the characters are pushing themselves so hard to survive despite such extreme circumstances that their story is directly informed by the desperate violence they must undertake. That's a noteworthy accomplishment, and an about-face from the dissonance that plagued the Uncharted series. In Uncharted, heroic Nathan Drake was a charming rogue who sometimes happened to kill hundreds of people. In The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie's arc is shaped (and deformed) by the terrible things that you, the player, must help them do to survive. The game represents a deliberate, cohesive attempt to fuse violent gameplay with a character-driven story, and it often succeeds.
It bears mention that none of this would have been possible without two outstanding lead performances from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. The actors have an uncommon chemistry and fearlessly tackle their roles; time and again they're faced with difficult, emotionally raw material, and time and again they deliver.
While the script has no shortage of stomach-dropping histrionics, it's often remarkably subtle. At one point early in the game, a bit of vocal inflection and a quick look between two characters communicates years of backstory. That's thanks in part to a superb script by creative director Neil Druckmann, and in part to the no-doubt Heaven-and-Earth efforts of Naughty Dog's technical staff. Their motion capture engineers, directors, and animators have mastered the art of rendering human performance into polygons, all while skirting the uncanny valley. Their work is, at times, jaw-dropping.
Over the past couple of years, Baker has revealed himself to be a fine voice-actor, and The Last of Us must now surely be at the top of his resume. If I hadn't known this was the same guy who voiced Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite and Two-Face in Batman: Arkham City, I never would have heard him in Joel's weary drawl.
As the story drew to a close, I was reminded of a talk given at this year's Game Developers Conference by Walt Williams, lead writer of last year’s military morality play Spec Ops: The Line. "Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands," Williams told a room full of game developers. In other words, if the game requires the main character to mercilessly kill people, it cannot also expect the player to think of that character as a hero.
Joel is no hero; he's a tired old killer who over the course of his life has done as much harm as good. The game doesn't shy away from that, instead regularly reminding us that Joel's morality is ambiguous at best.
Characters allude to Joel's past as a highwayman, how he conscripted those closest to him into the service of murdering the innocent. "We're shitty people, Joel," observes a woman in the story's early goings. "It's been that way for a long time." And yet, thanks largely to Baker's performance, Joel manages to be both relatable and maddeningly enigmatic, a fascinating character not in spite of his flaws but because of them. I sense that his actions over the course of the game will be the subject of much debate, defense, and condemnation. I'm looking forward to it.
As good as Baker is, it's Ashley Johnson's Ellie who steals the show. Despite being a 29-year-old actress voicing and performing motion-capture for a 14-year-old character, Johnson is completely convincing. Ellie herself is fierce and sharp, loyal and kind, scared but funny about it, and tougher than any kid her age should have to be. Yes, she's something of a video-game superteen, and sometimes can seem too good to be true. But Johnson plays her with such conviction that I found myself believing in Ellie anyway. I see now why Naughty Dog fought to keep her on the game's cover. The Last of Us is not Joel's game; it's Ellie's.
Wasteland cliché or no, the world of The Last of Us feels as consistently believable as the characters. The backdrops have been carefully crafted to tell specific, sometimes wrenching stories, and whatever architectural slight-of-hand was required to keep things moving along has been deftly executed. As Joel and Ellie venture from Boston through rural Massachusetts to Pittsburgh and beyond, every government building, suburban home, abandoned shop and woodland area has been rendered down to the last sewer grating. (And boy oh boy, if there's one message this game would like to impart, it's that Pittsburgh fucking sucks.)
You'll have a lot of time to drink in the scenery, since between battles and chase sequences you'll have to explore your surroundings and scavenge whatever parts you can find. Scavenging is necessary to prepare yourself for whatever ordeal will be next, but it also contributes to the game's strong sense of pacing. Often, you'll see something interesting—a movie poster, a photo backdrop—and upon approaching it, will find that Ellie wants to ask Joel about it. These sorts of casual conversations lead to some of the game's best character moments.
If there's one message this game would like to impart, it's that Pittsburgh fucking sucks
One particularly memorable bit sees Ellie, Joel and two other companions wandering through houses outside of Pittsburgh, slowly getting to know one another while scrounging for supplies. The game goes on for about fifteen minutes with nary a zombie or bandit in sight. What's remarkable isn't just that this segment exists, but that it's far from unique—in fact, that sort of thing happens regularly over the course of the game. That these sections almost feel like a waste—all those art assets and lovely levels, with no one to shoot!—says as much about Naughty Dog's restraint as it does about video gaming's general lack thereof.
Special mention must also be given to Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score. The Argentine guitarist, best known for his Academy Award-winning work on Brokeback Mountain, has imbued the quiet moments of The Last of Us with an eerie mournfulness, all guitar-swells, electric bass melodies and lingering cluster-chords. When enemies are about, dirge-like drones and muted tom-toms summon dread without getting in its way. Santaolalla's work is personal and distinct in a way that big-budget video game soundtracks rarely are.
The Last of Us often feels like a crystallization of the big-budget, Hollywood-style video game. It’s constrained by all the limitations of a rigidly linear, movie-like video game experience, even as it is a smashingly well-executed example of the form. For a variety of reasons, the video game industry does not appear ready to make a non-violent, character-driven big-budget game, and so game developers must find a way to embrace character amid the shooting and the zombies. That Naughty Dog has succeeded feels noteworthy, another step toward worthwhile, affecting video-game stories that aren't built entirely on worn-out genre tropes.
That being said, art isn't so much about the what as it is about the how. And The Last of Us, from its overfamiliar beginning to its shocking ending, reflects the courage of its makers' convictions. It is a terrific feat of storytelling, design, art direction and performance. As it turns out, good things still reside within the house of cliché.