Sep 03 2013
I was really looking forward to The Last of Us. For one thing, the first two Uncharted games are some of the most immersive, rewarding experiences I’ve had on the PS3 to date. With those, Naughty Dog proved themselves capable of delivering huge worlds, memorable characters, and surprisingly engaging narratives.*
Unfortunately, upon getting into the richly-realized world of The Last of Us, I found myself getting bothered by the combination of elements the game had to offer. Ultimately, I wound up selling it after, oh… a couple hours of gameplay. And the things that were bothering me are still on my mind, so I figured I’d just take the time to explain myself.
Also, I’m not here to kill sacred cows or troll or whatever. This is just my personal experience with the game. As always, let’s not get bent out of shape.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, like most popular narratives in gaming these days, uses violence as its primary way of interfacing with the conflict in the game. The characters encountered lots of engaging scenery, to be sure, and a decent amount of puzzle-solving, but the majority of the arenas that I played through and saw represented elsewhere are, essentially, rooms full of enemies that the player has to clear out. In terms of gameplay structure, the DNA of Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted games can be clearly identified in their newest outing.
On a level-to-level basis, the gameplay also reminded me a bit of Deus Ex in terms of the way you have to size up the opposition in a room before systematically going through and taking it out. I only play a few games a year, so you’ll have to forgive me if these comparisons aren’t the most apt. The point I’m making is that The Last of Us has a lot of mechanical similarities to other high-profile action/adventure titles of the past few years.
And it’s executed EXTREMELY well. This is a slick production from top to bottom; its world realized to a depth that’s almost truly immersive,** boasting design and talent to compete with the best of what mainstream gaming has to offer. In terms of its sheer ability to transport the player out of the living room and into the TV screen, The Last of Us is hard to beat.
And it sinks in instantly, too.
And that’s where the problems came in for me.
I feel like I should reiterate that I’m not here to rile anybody up. This isn’t a finger-wagging “how dare you” rant, it’s simply me trying to articulate what I perceived to be a tone/gameplay issue in a game that I was really looking forward to playing.
Despite the horror stylings of certain parts of the game, The Last of Us seems to fall pretty squarely in the “action/adventure” camp — as I said, it reminds me of games like Uncharted and Deus Ex. The action-adventure template, so to speak, tends to deploy armies of “faceless goons” to provide opposition to the hero character. Aside from the aforementioned games, you can see this in Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Assassin’s Creed, and a bajillion other narratives since forever. It’s a thing.
For this thing to work, though, there’s a certain level of shallowness that has to be met. Is that fair to say? Either the the enemy hordes need to be some sort of lower, nonhuman life or the story itself needs to avoid rendering its characters as serious, realistic people. This is why the Orcs in LotR are essentially oddly articulate animals, and why Temple of Doom isn’t a thoughtful character piece.***
The Fallout games have a very similar world and opposition catalogue as The Last of Us: A post-apocalyptic nightmare where you will face enemies both human and inhuman. That game didn’t bother me at all, because its tone was much less intimate. Even the characters you see repeatedly are still essentially shallow archetypes, so it’s hard to ever feel like the violence onscreen is “real.”
In The Last of Us, the violence actually does feel real. From the brilliant opening scene onward, it’s established that this is a world where small (for the medium) acts of violence can have brutal, permanent consequences. Though the apocalyptic scenario can’t be discounted, in the end it’s just one bullet that sends Joel into the dark place Ellie finds him in.
Now, I don’t think that it’s hypocritical to make an entertaining action game where violence is meant to have an impact. I’m a huge fan of Shadow of the Colossus, in which every single death you take in the game is meant to inspire sadness, even regret. The key differences are that in Shadow there are a LOT less deaths than in TLoU, and none of them can be undertaken casually. It can take a long time to bring down the Colossi. Conversely, TLoU contains many sequences where bodies drop fast; a roomful of enemies can be cleared in less than a minute — and then it’s on to the next one.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Uncharted games have a character who decimates the local criminal population everywhere he goes, but those games don’t ever REALLY ask us to invest that much in Drake as a person, and certainly don’t aspire to anything approaching realism. Tonally or otherwise.
I never identified with this.
For me, The Last of Us crossed the line into territory where the violence was meaningful. As Joel, I was a “real” person taking “real” lives. And yet the game didn’t make ALL of the violence meaningful. Shanking somebody in the neck, with blood spurting out as they struggled for life, was just as often meant to be a mechanical solution to a puzzle as it was meant to be anything more significant.
But really, most of these sequences are just roided-up variations on an Uncharted-style action quest. How many people does Joel kill in that opening mission? Roomfuls of them. It’s disconcerting to get to a point where “beating someone’s head in with a brick” becomes a regular strategy, especially when the characters are so “realistic”.
I alluded to the strength of the game’s opening earlier in the article. Part of what made it so effective is the perfect marriage of tone and mechanics. Tonally, it’s so real as to be banal in the opening moments. You feel every bit of the terror and chaos Joel feels. Part of what gets you there is that none of the NPCs feel like expendable obstacles. They’re frightened. Panicking. While you’re certainly most invested in his story, you totally empathize with everybody else. It’s fantastic.
Maybe the game gets there again. I don’t know. Until the level of bloodshed more closely matches the level of realism, you can find me over here behind Nathan Drake, fighting off hordes of enchanted zombies and cracking jokes the whole way.
What about you? I mean, obviously most people on this site seemed to dig the game a lot. What’s your take on the use of extreme violence in an adventure-style game like this one?
*And with the third, they proved they’re not INfallible. But my point stands.
**Well, except for the usual “helper” graphics that show you how many more swings you have left in your 2×4 and those kinds of things.
***It’s also why it’s kind of awkward to watch old Cowboys & Indians stories where the Native Americans are put in this position. Know a great movie that tackles this issue?
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