The lights are on
Power Member - Level 9
He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of floating cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small penknife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment?
The above passage taken from The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s novel that has become the master text of post-apocalyptic literature, is probably my favorite in the novel. It’s a beautiful, terrifying moment of reflection that, like the book at large, turns its language as it does the reader’s stomach. As I read so many articles comparing Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us to McCarthy’s novel, I became skeptical. Sure, the game tells a similar story, but that’s just surface material. McCarthy grounds his story of stark horror with elegant prose at once biblical and modern, his aesthetic constantly torn between a grotesque narrative and beautifully crafted language. A game would need much polish and care to come close to what McCarthy achieves.
Fortunately, The Last of Us comes very, very close. So close, in fact, that dwelling too much on its relationship to The Road does the game a disservice. With their latest effort, the team at Naughty Dog has crafted a work of art so expertly realized that I could scarcely imagine a better game to usher in the twilight of this console generation. It blends narrative and gameplay so beautifully that its central mechanic--a mix of scrounging, stealth, combat, and exploration that I'll just call "survival," for lack of a better word--never feels remotely out of place, even in its clever multiplayer modes. The Last of Us strikes with such emotional and technical precision that it hits a balance between unflinching frankness and understated subtlety rarely (if at all) seen in the medium.
On the surface, The Last of Us seems steeped in clichés and tempered over formulas. Taking place twenty years after a widespread fungal infection has destroyed most of humanity, Joel (a world-weary smuggler who remembers the world before it fell) and Ellie (a tough-but-spunky teenage girl who knows nothing other than the life she lives) trek across a dilapidated United States from Boston to Salt Lake City with stops in Pittsburgh, Wyoming, and Colorado. Controlling Joel, the player is charged with escorting Ellie to the headquarters of the Fireflies, a rebel group who (using Ellie) may know how to cure the plague. Together they encounter other survivors attempting to eke out existence under the boots of a ruthlessly strict militia and the ever-present threat of infection. Like any story of its type, characters drop in and out to offer fleeting glimpses of humanity after society’s collapse, but each encounter carries with it the potential for betrayal, tragedy, and violence. It is a simple story, but wonderfully-written characters inject the standard plot with vibrant life.
The story’s directness melds quite beautifully with the game’s minimalist design. Button prompts are few as environmental investigations highlight certain interactive elements such as gears to modify your equipment, materials to weaponize, or weapons and items to be thrown as distractions or used in melee combat. The game never pauses when Joel digs through his backpack to cook up a nail bomb or bind a pair of scissors to a wooden plank. Even reading a note left from some unlucky person does not cause the game to suddenly stop. Menus are kept concise, trophies are (thankfully) sparse, and there are no arrow prompts to highlight set paths to the next plot point. These design choices keep the player grounded in a world that refuses to hold his/her hand.
This austerity in design, however, suffers from a bit of uncanny valley syndrome, as attempts at verisimilitude butt up against the usual game logic. The ruthless enemy AI flanks player position so tactically and quickly that it makes it all the more bizarre when a bandit overlooks Ellie as she sneaks out of cover in plain sight. Similar situations occur when Ellie makes more noise around a clicker (usually a very audible "Holy ***, Joel!") than anyone attempting to pass unnoticed should. Other moments such as Joel's eating candy bars and other items to regain health or finding the same wooden palette to help Ellie cross bodies of water seem at odds with the game's narrative logic, but not a single one of these is cause for concern as they are handled in the midst of such style.
This stripped-down design influences the game’s approach to combat as well. The infected only come in two varieties: the “runners,” zombified humans that overwhelm the player with speed and numbers, and the “clickers,” terrifying advanced-stage infected that track the player’s position with echolocation (there are heavier breeds of these called "bloaters" that launch dangerous spores, but these number in the single digits). The different human factions are no more complex, differing only by the weapons and armor they use. There are no real boss fights either, only certain scenarios that require you to mix up tactics from aggressive attacks to stealthy approaches. The player often has the choice to avoid combat altogether, and, since success is measured in inventory management and basic survival, some of the most successful encounters are the ones with the fewest shots fired.
Violence, though, is often the only option, and The Last of Us handles the concept with maturity. Combat is never pleasant, it's never smooth or kitschy. Joel wavers as he tries to level a revolver, and swinging a metal pipe at an enemy takes considerable effort and time, making it easy to dodge. Setting traps and scrounging through your backpack to make one more molotov cocktail becomes intense and nerve-wracking, another feeling that carries over into the game's combat-focused (yet characterisically stripped-down) multiplayer modes as human opponents tend to be much more devious than the game's AI. I never felt like I had a comfortable supply of ammunition in either the campaign or the multiplayer, giving weight to each round fired.
Even when you do succeed at killing your way out of a situation, the cost is steep. I've played many games in which killing is essential, but few games offer enemies whose eyes bulge desperately as your character strangles them. Fewer still contain enemies that once down beg pitifully and realistically for mercy. Even the infected enemies gurgle and gasp as the last of what little humanity left in them escapes through terrified eyes and shrill shrieks. Skulls crack. Bones break. Bullets smash into meat, and arrows stick in bodies with a sickening thud, dangling vulgarly out of mangled bodies. It's a sordid, sickening business that purposefully makes you question the price of survival. The first time I confronted an enemy who pleaded for mercy after his band tried to kill me, I hesitated only to catch a shiv to the ribs--a mistake I never duplicated.
These moments are made all the more poignant when juxtaposed with the startling beauty of a world after civilization. McCarthy may have contained his metaphysical horror in the trapping of elegaic prose, but Naughty Dog clads its own existential horrors in the trappings of beautiful and terrible art direction. Nature creeps into the urban spaces, retaking buildings and streets with frightening realism. These new spaces where the organic and synthetic meet provide a brutal backdrop for the story as well as its central tension between the collapse of social order and the desire to restore it. Just as urban spaces crack and decay, so too does nature breakdown the bodies of the infected, exploding in fungal flowers of color and gore across the faces of the once-human clickers. These spaces play host to brutality as often as quiet meditation. Passing by a record store, an old ice cream truck, a swing set all prompt conversations where Ellie inquires about the world that had been. These conversations provide insight to their relationship as well as context for the world, but never too much to ruin its mystery.
In fact environmental cues and human detritus tell stories deeper than the origin of the infection. I can honestly say this is the first game in which I delightfully read every note I could find to learn more about the people left behind. Still, after all the posters and diary entries I came across, nothing told me more about the state of things than seeing an infected clicker standing, simply standing, in a child's bedroom, looming over the crib in stark contrast to the pastel colors on the walls. It was such a vulgar, obvious moment that I should have been annoyed at its appearance, but I was too stricken by its cold insistence. I wanted to kill the monster on principle, but a shiv was more valuable than righteous anger. I crept silently and vulnerably away.
Here is where The Last of Us finds its footing, scuttling in the dark outside of generic classification. Its survival-horror structure meets a road narrative while constantly subverting the standard scenarios to provide something more than digestible fiction. The game never offers any manichean choice systems that pretend to distinguish between right and wrong in a digital environment. Joel and Ellie, like the shambling husks of humanity they seek to end, become not immoral, but amoral, no longer beholden to those petty systems that kept this facade of society intact before the world fell. The game may even be a bit prophetic, standing as likely the final critically nuanced and brilliantly totalizing console release specific to this generation--a quiet vigil toward an uncertain future for the medium. I have to say, it's a hell of a sendoff.
After I finished The Last of Us, I went to bed and attempted to sleep. The following morning, I woke up and biked to work. People went about their lives, entering and exiting buildings, driving cars, smiling and talking in the most normal way possible. My God, it was a beautiful day.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!