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The Last of Us and Devotion to Craft

I do not get emotional over video games. That is not a boast; I don't take pride in it. It's just a fact. So imagine my surprise when Naughty Dog's The Last of Us upset me to the verge of tears. No, not due to its ending. I speak of the game's first few minutes, which far surpasses the endings of many other games. How is that possible?

Naughty Dog had earned a reputation for quality games long before its work on the Uncharted series that has helped define this generation of console gaming. With the popular Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series of video games, the studio carved a niche as a reliable developer of top-tier platformers that set the stage for its work on Uncharted.

Those earlier games demonstrated the technical prowess necessary to pull off gameplay that not only rewarded quick reflexes and precise timing but did so in the context of consistently fun and entertaining environments. That foundation, in turn, provided a sound basis for their more mature platformer/action-adventure series on Playstation 3.

The Uncharted series is renowned for its superior action gameplay (whether its platforming elements or shoot-from-cover gunplay), its high quality production values and its impressive set-piece scripted moments. However, what truly sets the series apart is its realistic characters, authentic dialog and endearing relationships.

In Nathan Drake, the developer has fashioned an everyman who is brash and determined but also conflicted and vulnerable. He is a selfish treasure hunter who can't ignore his conscience. And while he's fallible, Nathan is also loyal. His old friend Victor Sullivan is a mainstay, despite their bickering and "Sully's" own foibles.

And then there are sometime colleagues and love interests Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher. Nathan's relationship with them is what helps make him the most relatable, partially in reaction to their strong personalities and earnest behavior, but also because he lets his guard down in their presence, revealing more layers of his own character.

It's these interludes among Uncharted's characters that provide the bedrock foundation upon which the action is built, not only complementing it but holding it aloft as a touchstone for the genre and the medium at large. This dedication to a quality experience is not simply a top-down corporate mandate, either, though Naughty Dog can be lauded for having hired skilled designers.

Indeed, the rank and file game developers themselves have demonstrated a commitment to entertaining but authentic storytelling that began before The Last of Us started production. At the game's midnight release, the development team revealed that some members had worked on Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Furthermore, one of the designers on The Last of Us -- Mark Richard Davies -- had been Enslaved's lead designer. These revelations, which were news to me, came when I asked if the latter had been an inspiration (to which they all laughed knowingly, and deferred to Mark, who was in attendance). I imagine I'm not alone in observing the similarities.

Enslaved has its own legion of fans due to its all-around quality presentation, whether solid platforming mechanics, entertaining melee and shooting gameplay, visionary post-apocalyptic art design (of overgrown ruin) or quality production values. But, like the Uncharted series, what most impressed was its intriguing characters and their authentic relationship.

Monkey, a tough lone male trader, and Trip, a tech-savvy female character, escape a slave ship in a dystopian future, only to have Trip enslave Monkey to assist in her journey. How they react to each other initially and how their relationship evolves over time represents one of the most genuine and appealing interactions in gaming, even when nothing is said.

What could have been a generic action-adventure game with two-dimensional characters instead becomes an emotional journey where each individual not only grows independently but develops in the context of their relationship with each other. (See my impressions of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West here.)

It's fascinating to watch their trepidation, fear and mutual distrust slowly erode as they confront their demons and insecurities, and how that process affects their interaction over time along their journey to their final destination. But as with all great stories, it's not the end that matters most, it's what happens in between that's important.

All these gaming antecedents provide fertile ground for creating The Last of Us, and help explain how the game can start from such a strong position, especially relative to most other titles in the medium. From here on out, I'll explore how Naughty Dog's newest release takes advantage of its pedigree, though without overt spoilers of such a remarkable experience to this point.

Part of the noteworthy achievement of the game's opening sequence is how it impacts the player with so little exposition to begin with. This is testament, again, to the designers' inestimable skill at capturing the essence of characters in the most minute detail, whether a word, expression or gesture, a skill on display throughout at least the first few hours.

The artistry with how the beginning unfolds in terms of characterization, exposition and dramatic pacing, and how they move in tandem toward their climax, is so exceptional as to take one's breath away. The point being, without revealing any one aspect, is that the drama is so well executed so as to seem like a revelation.

Thereafter, in moments large and small, the same attention to detail can be found in a character's tone of voice, facial expression or body language, to say nothing of the high quality dialog that likewise speaks to the authenticity with which the development team at Naughty Dog is able to imbue every situation.

Survivors of the epidemic that has ravaged society are wary of each other, authority figures and each and every situation they find themselves in. They're jumpy, desperate and exhausted, and it shows in the inflection when they speak, in their posture and in how their countenance can change from forlorn to angry and back again.

It is for this reason that spare moments of tenderness are all the more poignant, whether a conciliatory word, a helpful hand or a protective act. People in such a dire circumstance are not only desperate to survive but, more importantly, you sense they are desperate for the comfort of human companionship, a commodity that we are reminded is in short supply.

The dynamic between Joel and Tess demonstrates all these elements and then some. There is tension and there is compassion and sometimes they are inseparable. Their complicated interaction, however, is not the only complex relationship they have. Others come into and out of their lives with varying hints of past involvement large and small.

To its credit, The Last of Us does not dwell on exposition even as the story unfolds. Gamers are treated to tidbits of information here and there in much the same way that we are privvy to such detail in our daily lives. No more context or less is given than is necessary to experience Joel's journey through his world.

And oftentimes, that means having only expressions or gestures to know what others are feeling or thinking. There's one moment in particular when Joel says something to disappoint and irritate Ellie, and the look she gives him as she passes says all that and more. It is meant to express her profound emotion and to shame at the same time and it does both exceedingly well.

But for veterans of Uncharted and, especially, Enslaved, this is not a new frontier. In the latter title, Monkey and Trip often communicated in such shorthand and the game was richer for it. Trip's face, in particular, was so expressive that she wore her emotions on her sleeve and it encouraged the emotional investment of gamers in ways few words ever could.

Indeed, Ellie's early behavior suggests she might be an open book in much the same way Trip was, whereas Joel shares Monkey's mostly forced stoicism, and the dichotomy between both approaches is what fuels the compelling dynamic at the heart of each respective story. How the characters move beyond their stances provides the dramatic arc.

Although not survival horror, the daily desperate measures taken by survivors are what dictate the gameplay in The Last of Us. Whether pursuing objectives of their own design or the creation of others, salvaging items or food from the ruins of civilization, or just trying to traverse the post apocalyptic world in one piece, gameplay complements the story well.

Once again the quality execution of this aspect of the game owes its success to the combined experience of the development team. Movement, for instance, incorporates some platforming elements, whether crouching through narrow passages, hurdling obstacles in one's path, shimmying along ledges or climbing to higher ground.

In some cases, such navigation requires a little puzzle solving, as you can imagine it would in real life. Sometimes you'll need to find wood planks to traverse gaps or move objects to provide a kind of step stool. Even as simplistic puzzles, encouraging such ingenuity adds another layer of authenticity.

Some games vary movement between running or walking and sometimes crouching, but there is no interim speed to bridge the different controls. In The Last of Us, the speed of your movement appears to depend on how much pressure is exerted on the thumb stick, so there is a natural progression from slow to fast and vice versa.

This also applies to taking cover, where Joel will move along walls, using his hands to help guide him. In my experience, pressing the thumb stick forward into a wall will trigger such movement, whereas the opposite direction will slowly draw him away from the wall. There are no button presses to adhere to cover, though the crouch button is necessary to duck behind low-lying objects.

Likewise there are options for how to approach confrontation, though the game clearly emphasizes stealth over combat which, again, is a practical consideration given the infected foes you face. To that end, one can sneak when crouched and stealth kill opponents by strangling or stabbing with a shiv (one of the only ways to kill some enemies).

The stealth mechanic does work well and is familiar for anyone who plays games that implement it. Similarly, you can use items like bottles or bricks to distract enemies and create a path. In addition, Joel has developed extremely sensitive hearing that, when implemented, can virtually see enemies through walls and objects when in range.

Though firearms are available, ammo is in limited supply, so exploring alternate approaches to any given situation is encouraged. And in fact, you might find yourself with the opportunity to replay certain scenarios through trial and error experimentation; where I last stopped I can consistently stealth kill two infecteds, but the rest gang up on me every time.

At that point I resort to using the pipe I found nearby (which replaced the wooden board I had). It's effective one on one, however, given the number of blows necessary to fell an enemy, it is a poor choice for crowd control as I learned over and over. Therefore, I'm beginning to wonder if I should resort to using my firearm instead, and whether I've been too stingy with my ammo.

As it turns out, targeting is fairly intuitive though takes some practice especially when under attack, which is why it also can be upgraded along with other skills, abilities or conditions. I opted to first boost my health, though in retrospect augmenting my aim might have been a more practical consideration given how limited ammo is and how challenging some encounters can be.

In the meantime, I should point out that certain other RPG elements can prove beneficial to the journey. For instance, there is a crafting feature that allows you to combine items in your inventory to create other items such as med kits or shivs (which are useful for stealth kills against certain infecteds, though in the above scenario I can't get near enough to use it).

 

The problem is that many items are in short supply so dedicated exploration is necessary to salvage as much material and ammo as possible. As in other games, recurring glint off items will alert you to their presence, however, they're not so obvious that you can only do a cursory inspection. Indeed, searching in dark areas also can yield items but only if you're actively looking.

Among items you can salvage are artifacts or collectibles. The former in general will provide information that can aid or simply provide context to what's happened in a given location. You might find a map, list, document or letter, for instance. The latter include pendants that resemble kinds of dog tags; for completionists or just treasure hunters, they are extra incentive to explore.

If you're like me, you won't need extra incentive as the environments are so detailed and inspired that they are reward in and of themselves for venturing off the beaten path. In fact, the first similarity with Enslaved that I noticed was the overgrown ruins that provide a stark contrast to the otherwise barren wastes of most post-apocalyptic video games.

The vision is similar to the cinematic worlds of Logan's Run or I Am Legend and like those predecessors is suggestive of nature taking back the planet after it was laid waste. Even where foliage has not yet encroached, the abandoned, unkempt edifices and interiors bespeak the lonely existence of the unfortunate few relegated now to a hardscrabble life.

With detailed textures, a colorful though fading palette, realistic lighting and grim foresight, game designers have recreated commonplace settings in a haunting alternate reality of post epidemic America. There are few scenes more disturbing than to see locations we would otherwise associate with life now run down and collapsing from vacancy and disrepair.

Yet there is artistry is such harrowing portrayals, and a beauty that belies the reality depicted. From Spartan residence to inert warehouse, a harbor frozen in time to an office devoid of work, fallen highways to high rises laid low, here is an end and possible beginning, a world in transition, an artist's devotion to craft.

I have a long journey still ahead, and no path is guaranteed. I don't even know whether what follows can match what came before. But what is certain is that the beginning of The Last of Us is an exemplary evocation of what this medium is capable of, and an example of what a studio and its designers can accomplish when they've made careers of pursuing excellence.

Above: The Last of Us development team at a midnight release signing with yours truly (standing, second from right, is designer Mark Richard Davies, lead designer on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West).

Above: The Last of Us Survival Edition

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