‘The Last of Us’ pushes the gaming envelope toward a storytelling medium

Published on Thursday, 27 June 2013 23:45 - Written by BY STEWART SMITH ssmith@tylerpaper.com

The Last of Us” is definitive proof that video games, as a medium, can be something significant, that they can be something genuinely affecting and more than just high scores and grunting soldiers.

“The Last of Us” is one of the best games I’ve ever played.

There are many things the game excels at, be it writing, acting, scenario implementation, gameplay cohesion, tone, thematic resonance, etc. But what all of those do in unison is to actively challenge the notion of what it is that games “should” be. Games, for the most part, are played because they are fun, because they provide rewarding challenges or interesting scenarios, or because we enjoy the immersive worlds.

But what I get from experience in playing “The Last of Us” is something that transcends the type of enjoyment that I often get from immersing myself into the challenge or world or gameplay of most every other game. “The Last of Us” is intimate, in a way that games almost never are (or strive to be, for that matter). I relished every minute of this game, but I’m not sure I could bring myself to say that I had “fun” while playing it.

“Compelled” is probably a better way to describe it.

“The Last of Us” takes place 20 years after a virus has nearly wiped out humanity. Unknown in its origins, the virus (transferred through bites and spore inhalation) transforms humans into frighteningly feral zombies. The landscape we see is in ruins, overtaken by nature and with pockets of survivors wandering the tattered, broken remains of a world that used to be.

The zombie apocalypse is merely the backdrop, however, a canvas to display the core of the game’s beating heart, the relationship between the middle-aged Joel and his young charge, a 13-year-old girl named Ellie. Ellie, it seems, is immune to the spores and bites of the fungal zombies (their design inspired by Cordyceps-infected insects), and Joel is thusly (and mostly against his wishes) tasked with taking her cross-country, where he’ll hopefully meet up with a group called The Fireflies. The group allegedly can concoct a cure, but even that is an uncertainty.

The game takes place roughly over the course of a year as Joel and Ellie make their trek through deserted towns, forests and cities in ruin, all the while desperately scavenging in search of rapidly disappearing supplies, always in avoidance of the dangers that lurk, both human and otherwise.

Combat is engaged via guns, blunt instruments and homemade explosives, but unlike most games involving zombies, the player is encouraged to avoid fighting. Stealth is the key to survival here, with engagement advised only as an absolute last resort (save for the few times you’re required to eliminate all enemies to proceed).

Yet, even when you do draw your gun (or bow), this isn’t your typical blast-’em-up. Joel’s aim is unsteady. He’s a construction worker, not a combat veteran, and the gameplay reflects this. I can’t remember the last time I felt so apprehensive about every encounter, desperate to figure out a way to avoid violence (or even detection) at any cost.

This is the first time that I ever wanted to not use the guns and other weapons at my disposal because every pull of the trigger, every swing of a pipe resulted in brutal, ugly violence. Combat in “The Last of Us” is not to be savored. It is engaging, but it never exhilarated or excited me.

And yet I was always compelled to go further, compelled to survive, to strategically and doggedly make it through every encounter, because it felt like it mattered. The relationship that forms between this grizzled, taciturn man and his tough-beyond-her-years companion is one of the most affecting, well-written and genuine that I’ve seen in any game ever, and is better written than most I see in theatrical films.

Of course, none of this would be nearly as effective were it not for the considerable acting talents of Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson, who provided both voices and motion capture work for their characters. They provide the souls of these two characters. It feels odd to say that a digital character (whom I control with a thumbstick and buttons) has a soul, yet there’s no other way to describe what Naughty Dog and its team of animators and actors and writers has achieved here.

Other games have moved me to tears (“Mass Effect 3” most immediately comes to mind), but none have ever provided a level of attachment that I found to Joel and Ellie. Their story comes to a definitive end when the screen cuts to black, and I hope and pray we don’t get a sequel starring them.

Their journey, as we experienced it, was enough (though I admit I found myself anxious when I realized the end was nearing). Writer Neil Druckmann penned what may be a perfect ending, one that manages to be both ambiguous and heartbreaking, and yet also provides something of a wash of relief.

That a major studio would allow their AAA title to tread the path which “The Last of Us” follows is surprising. Heck, most movie studios wouldn’t have the guts to end their blockbuster film with the sort of closure we get here. It’s exhilarating to know that such a high-profile studio is willing to take such a risk.

I could go on and on, piling on praise after praise of this remarkable game. The graphics are among the best I’ve ever seen on any system, which only makes the art direction all the more remarkable. The music, by Gustavo Santolalla, is moody and gorgeous. There’s simply nothing like the experience of playing through “The Last of Us” for the first time.

Games are evolving, there’s no doubt. “The Last of Us” shows that the medium has an honest and true chance of evolving into something truly significant.