The lights are on
Recently, I picked up a copy of Naughty Dog’s newest video game: The Last of Us. Within 24 hours of owning it, I had completed the entire story mode. Suffice it to say, this game takes video game narration to new heights. It’s downright savory.
The most overused narrative tool in the video game industry is the cutscene. I consider them a crutch—cutscenes portray moments that could not have been adequately portrayed with regular gameplay. Game developers are essentially assuming the role of a film director to make up for the medium’s shortcomings. Cutscenes also shatter the player’s sense of immersion, by taking them out of the driver’s seat. Cinematic shorts within The Last of Us, however, are superbly directed and blend smoothly with the gameplay. Before playing, I had an openly pessimistic view of cutscenes; after playing, I realize their potential to contribute.
Additionally, Naughty Dog uses some less conventional story telling techniques:
1) Certain segments of the gameplay are unusually cinematic, and would have likely been made into cutscenes by other developers. But consider this: the experience of running through a panicked city with your injured daughter in arms is much more impactful than watching a video of someone else doing it.
2) Less dramatic interactions, which also occur during gameplay, are seemingly insignificant, but flesh out the characters and their perspectives with great profundity. For example, on two separate occasions, Ellie casually admits: “you can’t deny that view.” The statement demonstrates her inherent hopefulness and sense of optimism.
3) Finally, the vast, detailed environments often tell stories of their own; players who explore might stumble over a lost letter, and piece together the final moments of another survivor. Relationships come into view without a word of dialogue. Too often, these relationships end in tragedy.
Some comments regarding the gameplay:
1) Because of the expansive environments, combat can be approached a number of ways, but stealth is easily the most effective. Utilizing cover correctly to obscure an enemy’s line of sight, while suppressing the sound of your footsteps or breaking bottles to trick him will reward the player with a satisfying assassination.
3) Because of the scarcity of ammunition, hand-to-hand combat is often necessary. Melee feels smooth and natural, and is a specifically powerful weapon for risk-takers, making it a relevant part of every encounter.
4) Real-time crafting and healing give encounters a pervasive sense of urgency, allowing the player to build new tools and weapons during the heat of battle, but requiring a moment of vulnerability in exchange. The game’s combat has been accurately reduced to a “scramble for supplies” by a number of other reviewers.
These brutal combat sequences are continually juxtaposed with idyllic serenity, as Joel and Ellie traverse a landscape reclaimed by the natural world. In these quiet moments, the game reveals an unsettling ambivalence: unlike most post-apocalyptic fiction, The Last of Us seems wholly unconcerned with the plight of the human race. In fact, humanity has essentially been extinguished, since those who persist have been hardened into something else entirely. Only the deluded fanatics seek a cure. Earth was never our planet, perhaps—we were simply permitted to run our evolutionary course, and die.
Because of this ambivalence, survival in The Last of Us is not a collective pursuit, but an individual one. The game’s title may imply unity, but in reality, ‘us’ seems only to suggest isolation, as it does in the phrase “us against them.” Fear has segmented the remaining population, and reduced interaction to the only law that remains: violence. In a world where few legitimate companionships exist, Joel and Ellie may truly be the last ‘us.’
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