The Last of Us is the most emotionally resonant game you will ever play about plank, ladder, and pallet management. To be fair you’ll sometimes scooch dumpsters around. At one point, you scooch a piano.
After the jump, are there crates?
If you accept that the pedestrian stealth/shooter gameplay in The Last of Us is the least important part of the experience, despite the long hours struggling and restruggling with it, you might conclude that this is a remarkable game. But if you come to dread every encounter for dragging out the time it takes to get to the good parts, if you divvy up the time spent on the good parts and the time spent on the parts where you could have been playing a better game, what happens when you get a roughly ten to one ratio? Is a remarkable story buried under hours of non-remarkable game actually a good game? This conundrum sounds familiar. Where have I seen that lately?
Like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us is supported by a tremendous amount of creative insight, most of which is unconcerned with the craft of game design. After three Uncharted games, we know what Naughty Dog really wants to do is direct. This whole game design thing is like paying dues. Basically, you have to pad out the ninety-minute running time, because no one’s going to pay $60 for cutscenes and ingame dialogue, no matter how good it is. And it is good.
If Bioshock Infinite was Irrational’s Christopher Nolan’s Inception, The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Neither quite lives up to the source material because both have long and often soggy bits of gameplay clumped between the inspired story beats. In the case of The Last of Us, the story beats are also astonishingly human. I say astonishingly because Naughty Dog’s track record since the first Uncharted has veered away from the human interaction between Nathan and Elena into the Hollywood set piece interaction between Nathan and the cargo net of an airplane at 10,000 feet above the Sahara. The Last of Us has none of that. If there’s any Hollywood in this game, it’s the downbeat art house Hollywood of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Joe Wright’s Hanna, or Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Young women coming of age in harsh times and the men who try to protect them.
Last of Us hero Joel is played by Troy Baker, gruffing down his Booker DeWitt voice and letting a little Texas through. When Joel comes up against cover, he crouches down and puts his hand against the wall. His hand indicates that he’s sticking softly to the cover. Now you’re hidden. Now you’re protected. Now you can pop up and shoot. It’s the sort of subtle but important animation cue good games know to give you.
Joel is almost never alone. He has a 14-year-old in tow. Ellie, perfectly voiced by Ashley Johnson who you glimpsed as the waitress saved by Captain America in The Avengers, mostly fends for herself while Joel does the obligatory sneaking and shooting. She’ll stay close, mostly invisible to enemies and mostly invulnerable, so you don’t have to worry about her. At times, she stays really close. She seems to clip through Joel’s character model and stand in the same patch of cover. I took this for sloppiness on Naughty Dog’s part. Until I looked closer and realized it was an example of how much care Naughty Dog takes with their characters.
When Ellie occupies that same spot as Joel in cover, she is not at all in the same spot. Since she’s small, she is instead ducking under his arm and hiding in the gap between Joel and the wall. He is, nearly literally, taking her under his wing. It’s a lovely bit of animation, and an iconic image for The Last of Us: a grizzled action hero, his arm around a frightened young girl, protecting her while he ducks behind cover, encircling her. They are almost nestled together. She is the manifestation of his vulnerability. It’s one of the many examples of heart-aching expressiveness between the game’s devastating prologue and the even more devastating final four syllables.
For all the awful boss battles and heavily armed swarms of soldiers that descend on the finale, Naughty Dog knows precisely when and how to end their story. One character makes a choice. Another character reacts. We read in their virtual eyes the acceptance, the resignation, the implications. We watch characters at the culmination of their relationship. There is nothing more important in The Last of Us. No villain, no solution, no voiceover, no denouement, no fate of the world. These four syllables are the point.
Bioshock Infinite’s final note was the last piece of a mind-bending puzzle, more mind than heart, more concept than character. But the final note of The Last of Us is all heart, as broken as the world, small, fierce, withdrawn, resolved, salvation be damned. There will be no baptism. There is only the father and this child of men. Okay. The central question of Bioshock is “Dude, what if there were a million dimensions?” The central question of The Last of Us is, “How do you demonstrate that you love your daughter more than all the world?” I have immeasurable admiration that Naughty Dog has done this. I am proud that game designers are growing up and having children and expressing their power fantasies in a different context. I marvel at the emotional depth of Naughty Dog’s creation. And I therefore hate that I didn’t like the actual game piled onto this emotional depth.
Metro: Last Light is another linear shooter with sneaking elements (and a very similar theme), but it has a consistent gameplay identity, an ongoing setting and tone, a sense of focus that sustains it. The Last of Us is every bit as linear, but it has an uneasy time deciding whether it’s action, stealth, survival horror, or a reload-and-replay atrocity. It visits urban jungles, suburban idylls, and even wilderness, but it’s always the same tortured rooms and hallways. A lot of the time it’s a tactical soldier vs. soldiers shooter amid conspicuously arrayed waist-high cover. When you come into a room, you know by the layout when there’s going to be a shootout. As this is the post-apocalypse, you can expect a lot of gamey scavenging and crafting, about on par with Rage. Maybe not that bad. It’s at least elegant.
Sometimes this is a zombie game. The prologue is one of the finest zombie games you’ll ever play. Well, “play”. But the zombies become oddly peripheral, and they’re way too silly. They’re fungus zombies. Did anyone think this wasn’t ridiculous? There is, of course, something fundamentally silly about zombie mythology, but some silliness is sillier than others. Mycotoxins that turn people into popcorn-headed zombies is at the far end of the silly scale. Luckily, for long stretches, The Last of Us seems to forget it’s got zombies. The stretches should have been longer. Say, twelve hours longer. Furthermore, the entire McGuffin that motivates the characters to make their journey is a disappointing cliche and nearly as eye-rolling as Milla Jovovich herself being the fifth element.
But this doesn’t impact the story much, because the story is rightly concerned with the most important thing in nearly any story: the relationships among characters. And not just Joel and Ellie. Memorable characters come and go. The Last of Us is as generous with its characters as it is confused with its gameplay. It follows them through large and small moments. One of my favorite moments in the last Uncharted, after the series had strayed from the central relationship between Nathan and Elena that made it so good, was a moment with a kid and a soccer ball. It was a tiny scripted interaction brimming with charm and personality, bringing to bear the full force of synergy among the writing, animation, and voice acting. For a brief moment, I didn’t mind that the game wasn’t very good. I was enjoying the characters that much.
These moments start early in The Last of Us. A girl gives her father a present and he playfully pretends it’s broken. She totally falls for it. You’ll often see a helpful icon telling you to press the triangle button because something cute or touching is going to happen. It rarely disappoints. On a few occasions, it’s almost magical. The Last of Us has a powerful capacity to be human and affecting. It sometimes glows with life and character.
But then you’re reloading for the umpteenth time — sheesh, why don’t I just drop the difficulty level down to easy already? — to get through some canned encounter where you have to fight with only so many bullets or stealth through a patrol pattern or hit a boss’s weak points. It’s tedious and overbearing, and all the goodwill you have towards the characters drains away as yet another zombie insta-kills you because you used your melee weapon’s third and final durability pip, or because you misjudged which way a bandit was looking, or because you haven’t found that last fragment of rag salvage you need to make a health kit.
Furthermore, there are no stakes. There is no risk of failure in a game like this. There is only the risk of having to play the same section yet again. In a survival game, that’s anathema. A survival game without meaningful death isn’t a survival game. It’s just a game. Because it ultimately doesn’t matter how many rag salvage fragments I have. All that matters is whether I can get through this part without taking so much damage this time around.
Stealth is usually mandatory since you never have enough bullets for straight-up action. Using supernatural insight to stealth past zombies that will insta-kill you wasn’t a good idea for those funky Siren games and it’s not a good idea now. But once the gunplay gets going, it can be hearty. Getting hit has real consequence, even if that consequence is usually having to replay the entire encounter. A gunshot knocks you back. Bullets hurt. Melee combat at first feels like wildly spamming the square button, but there’s more to it than that, particularly when you’re outnumbered, as you almost always are. And although your sidekicks often get in the way, I appreciate how they’re occasionally helpful without being automatons. Especially Ellie, whose gleefully R-rated exclamations are a real joy. She’s no mere waif. “Fuuuuck,” she mutters intently when you bash someone’s head in. This isn’t the kind of game where she’s going to neatly throw reloaded weapons at you as soon as you’ve fired your last bullet.
“Did I do good back there?” she asks after she’s stabbed a guy in the leg while you grappled with him or she called out a target that was flanking you. These things don’t always happen, so they’re all the more important when they do. Yes, sweetheart, you did. You did real good. And I couldn’t be happier to be talking to you now instead of playing that turgid stealth shooter.