The Last Of Us and the graduation of video games.
The late, great Roger Ebert once wrote that he believed video games could never be considered art. While I never agreed with that statement, I could see where he, as a film critic, was coming from. From a narrative point of view, video games are by and large two-dimensional endeavors, with plots designed to move the player from one action set piece to another. Just play any Mortal Kombat game’s story mode to see what I mean.
Character development in particular is traditionally neglected by game developers. The more anonymous a protagonist is, they reason, the easier it is for players to project their own personalities onto him. I’ve never quite understood how a faceless character like Master Chief has become so iconic. At least Mario had an ethnic background.
The Last of Us is one survival horror game that understands that true suspense does not come from ever bigger, gorier monsters (looking at you, Resident Evil franchise). It does not even come from atmosphere. Suspense is the fear that bad things might happen to good people. In other words: you need to care for a character before you can fear for him.
From the very first desolate notes of ambient music in the Last of Us’ opening menu, you know you are in good hands. “Less is more” has never been an adage that held much sway in the realm of video games, but here is a game by people who understand that we’re not all hyperactive teenagers. Well, not anymore anyway.
The game is set in a world ravaged by a plague that has turned the
majority of the population into mindless and bloodthirsty monsters. So it’s the Walking Dead, I hear you think. Weirdly enough, the game is made with such integrity that it did not so much put me in mind of that hit-and-miss TV show. Instead, it is much more reminiscent of a film like The Road.
As in that movie, the plot of the Last of Us centers on a man (Joel) and a child (Ellie) on a journey through a post-apocalyptic America. Unlike The Road, though, said America looks breathtaking. Twenty years after the initial catastrophe, cities and roads lie in ruin, while everywhere you look nature is making a comeback. Joel and Elly make their way through an urban jungle where tall building have become mountains, flooded streets are rivers and tunnels function as caves.
Everything is rendered beautifully and clearly a lot of attention has gone into lighting. Most levels look as if they’re perennially close to sunset. The game is gorgeous and knows it. Ellie, who was born post- apocalypse and has rarely been outside of the quarantine zone that was once the city of Boston, is filled with wonder by the strange, new worlds she finds herself in and frequently draws your attention to their little details. It is these little distractions that I enjoyed most about the game.
The lush locations form a stark contrast with the game’s themes of loss, survivor’s guilt and redemption. Joel and Ellie are damaged people that slowly (reluctantly, on Joel’s part) grow closer after spending four seasons of surviving out on the road together. It is precisely this dynamic that is the heart of this game. Some truly terrifying “infected” (don’t call them zombies!) notwithstanding.
Writer Neil Druckmann has succeeded in creating characters that are extremely likable while still being flawed and, at times, even morally ambiguous. Exposition on their backstory is not crammed awkwardly into dialogue but is kept to a minimum, leaving just enough to the imagination. It makes it feel like the story we’re experiencing is only a part of a much larger story. The time-skips of several months between the chapters only serve to reinforce this. Subtle changes in the way Joel and Ellie relate to one another sell the idea that real time has passed much more effectively than the sudden appearance of snow.
The acting and motion capture are superb throughout and all of this amounts to what I can honestly say are the most lifelike characters I have ever seen in a game. Each supporting character (including one very memorable villain) will stay with you for a while. But it’s Joel and Ellie who truly get under your skin. By the end of the game you are on board for whatever decision they make. No matter what the consequences.
I always knew video games could be a great medium for storytelling. In recent years, games like Alan Wake, LA Noir and Red Dead Redemption have each raised the bar in significant ways, but I felt that the stories of each of those games fell just short of the quality of a good novel or film. With The Last of Us, I feel like video games have finally graduated as a mature art form and I am very excited to see what influence it will have on games yet to come. If only Roger Ebert could have lived to play them.
– Tim van ‘t Hul