Monday, July 14, 2014

On The Last of Us

So, I'll be honest with you, this is one of those games that I never actually played. My roommate sold his PS3 shortly after and I never had the opportunity. That said, I watched both my roommates play this game. I watched walkthroughs. I downloaded the soundtrack. I even watched my roommates play the multiplayer. For me, that's unheard of, especially considering the basis for the game, zombies (more-or-less). This game blindsided me like no other modern game has. I saw the E3 footage like everyone else, but the promise of intuitive AI didn't thrill me the way it did my peers, which isn't to say there's anything wrong with that, but I already suck at games, so making the baddies more likely to outsmart me isn't my idea of a good time. 

So what was it about this game that captured me so? Let's take a look. This is The Last of Us.

Most Idiotic Review

" ... perhaps [Naughty Dog] feel they have to make whatever the video game equivalent of Oscar bait is. So it wants to be this big serious exercise in character development, but it’s also very very safe." — Yahtzee Croshaw (Zero Punctuation)

This one hurt me. I love Zero Punctuation and have tuned in weekly for years now. Hell, when I first started out blogging, I really did look up to him (and Nostalgia Critic) for inspiration in how to be a douche-spewing ass-monkey... but in a lovable way. 

It's rare though that I feel so alienated by Yahtzee's opinion. He goes on later in his review to refer to The Last of Us, "I guess the story is the selling point," which I want to point out, in Triple A gaming is not a safe choice. In this day and age it's practically unheard of to even attempt 'this big serious exercise in character development.' He goes on about the story, saying, "while it is well-presented, it’s also fairly predictable, and, depending on how your mind works, the ending may completely lose you ‘coz it did me. Naughty Dog games have a bad habit of dehumanizing every character except the leads for no particular reasons besides 'fuck you, got mine.'"

This too bothered me. To work backwards, I never felt like the every character except the leads were dehumanized. I found the cast to be varied and quite interesting, and the ultimate 'antagonists' of the story, pretty sympathetic. The predictable part, I can kind of see, although I don't see that as a bad thing. Tom Stoppard once reportedly said, (and I'm paraphrasing) "I'm not interested in good vs evil, I'm interested in differing definitions of what's good." I feel like that's what Naughty Dog pulled off with their ending. It's not clear who we're supposed to root for in the scenario present, but we see how each character came to the conclusion they did. That, in my opinion, makes it a damn good character study. 

A necessary aspect of any character study
Most Accurate Review

" ... because the game spent so much time convincing me to care about these characters, its emotional high notes were even more effective, and its many sad scenes even more devastating." — Kollar (Polygon)
This really is what nabbed me. I'll talk more indepth later on, but this specifically nailed me to the wall like a low-rent jesus. Holy crap did I fall in love with these characters. I was even moved by the raw footage of the actors on the motion capture stage that I was obsessed enough to go find. The closest I've seen in modern (and even most classics I tout so highly) games is possibly BioShock: Infinite, but we don't really know Booker's backstory (for most of it), and we only see them over the course of, what ... a few days? We see Joel and Ellie over a long gradual timespan, so we see their relationship solidify. So when it's threatened, it means all the more to us, them, and the story. 

What I Say

Story — The story to this game ... is possibly the weakest part. Honestly, it's something we've seen many times before, in all different shapes and sizes, but that doesn't keep it from being original. Bare with me. Another example of a story we'd all seen before was the original Star Wars. It was based primarily on myths and legends, followed Shakespeare's Five Act structure and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, and was populated by classical archetypes.

So to say the story isn't new, doesn't mean much here. It's all about how the writers can put a spin on a classic tale, and boy does Naughty Dog deliver. I personally fell in love with the characters and thusly, their investment in the story became my investment in the story. The backstory to the infected was pretty cool too, showing (like 28 Days Later) one possible origin of a zombie-like plague. 

Character — This is really where the game shines. Joel and Ellie are beautifully crafted characters, lifelike, relatable, and easy to empathize with. The game does well that, even as it delves deeper into dark storylines that the characters still relate to the player. Part of this is accomplished by damned clever writing, honest performances by voice actors Troy Baker (god I love him. He's perfect) and Ashley Johnson, and lastly the usage of in-game interactions. 

Without spoiling too much, there is a scene later on that isn't particularly commented upon, involving an activity that has (at this point in the game) become rather rote to the player. In the scene, though, the detached character reacts with detachment. It sounds overly simple and I am trying to be purposefully vague, but having the emotional interaction develop from a player controlled action really helped cement the connection to the player. 

Besides the two main characters, we have a colorful cast of misfit survivors of the zombie apocalypse (how could we not) and each of them was ... as I said colorful. They were quirky and interesting enough that they spring easily to mind when I consider the game. A lot of stories I can't say the same about, which is a shame really. I'd like to think that Naughty Dog approached each side character as if they could star in their own spinoff game. 

Music — I want to take a moment here and point out the fantastic (if minimalist) score for this game by Gustavo Santaolalla. I don't know a lot about music since I quit playing violin nearly a decade ago, but man if this soundtrack wasn't evocative. For me, it ranks up there with other contemporary game soundtracks like Red Dead Redemption and the BioShock series. Seriously, if you haven't, check it out.

The End of Days has never seemed more tranquil.
Spectacle — The last thing I'll talk about is the spectacle of the game, which is hard for me, since I want to stop at, "iz good," but that won't fly. The world is oddly beautiful considering how gone-to-sh*t everything is. The designers really took time and effort to show off the natural dilapidation of the environments. The monsters in the game are grisly to say the least, with an uncomfortably, almost dare I say, pretty design. It's like how the Splicers in BioShock all look disconcertingly classy considering how f***ed up they are. The gameplay did seem to suffer judging from watching my friends play, but considering how long my friends played, they didn't seem to mind. No 'game-breakers' like what my roommate described in Elder Scrolls Online.

So what else can I say about The Last of Us? Check it out. Unless Zero Punctuation scared you away entirely, it's still, in my opinion, one of the best told stories using the video game medium on the market. And Troy Baker may in fact be jesus (Joss Whedon is undeniably god and Stephen Moffat is definitely Lucifer ... smug bastard).


  1. This game is a fantastic roller coaster of feels. Even the multiplayer brought something to the table that kept the gameplay going long after I had beat the campaign three times. I definitely recommend it!

    1. Love the comment, Jared. I wish I had spent some time actually playing the game, especially the multiplayer, but since I hadn't, I decided I'd pass on talking about it.