I’ll always buy Naughty Dog games, they having convinced me of their undying commitment to our love via the Uncharted series, but I don’t tend to slaver with excitement before they actually come out. Thus I wasn’t suffering from the can’t-waits in the days leading up the The Last of Us, their fungus-fueled post-apocalyptic proxical-parent TPD (third person depressor). I just waited until Friday and bought the game. Didn’t even unwrap it until the next afternoon.
You’ve probably seen boatloads of perfect scores from full reviews already, along with the odd 7.5 outliers that’ve caused such internet furor. Here’s what I have to say, after several hours, an assortment of hideous deaths, and more clicking feral mushroom-zombies than you can throw a bottle to distract.
And I Heard, as it Were, the Noise of Thunder
There’s this mushroom, you see, called the Cordyceps. You might have watched it in gory HD on that Planet Earth show. Some species of Cordyceps release spores that infect insects, penetrating their little buggy brains and making them do stuff. Like any well-evolved characteristic, a Cordyceps infection is designed to propogate the species: the fungus takes control of an infected bug, makes it wander away from its friends, climb to just the right altitude, orientation, and relative humidity, then clamp down and refuse to move from the spot even when tempted with pie.
Eventually the insect dies, because the Cordyceps infestation has been growing in its brain. “Grow” means get bigger, and almost anybody will die when a giant-ass mushroom erupts from their skull. It’s horrific and gruesome and probably quite excruciating, because why would the Cordyceps bother turning off the pain sensors when it already controls its subject like a marionette?
Fortunately, this mushroom only infects bugs, because holy shit can you imagine if such a thing worked on people?
Enter The Last of Us.
Multitudes are Marching to the Big Kettle Drum
It opens peacefully enough, tweenage Sarah giving a birthday gift to her distracted but caring single father Joel. A nice scene, ruined by what they don’t know. They don’t realize that a new strain of Cordyceps unilateralis has already begun its work, that this night will be the worst night ever, that it is the beginning of humanity’s end. One of the Horsemen has been unleashed, and you’re going to bear witness to the grisly harvest it will reap.
Did you happen to see Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead? The beginning of that film, all the way through the opening credits, clearly inspired the prelude to The Last of Us. Swapping between Joel and Sarah sets up the controls (standard third person fare), and also the enormity of panic and chaos as society crumbles within hours of the global outbreak. Along with Joel’s brother Tommy they try to quit town, only to discover about eleven bazillion others already had that idea. The Cordyceps infection spreads fast, and in the early stages, when the mushroom is still planting its feelers in a host’s brain, victims are moody but otherwise indistinguishable from healthy people. Temper gives way to murderous aggression. Normal-seeming individuals suddenly fall savagely on their neighbors, pummeling and biting.
Panic breaks out. The National Guard is deployed. Bullets are fired.
Some are Born and Some are Dyin’
Twenty years later Joel makes his living in one of the martial law quarantine zones, smuggling in guns and drugs. Survivors aren’t immune or anything, and the Cordyceps infection is still very much a threat. Outside walled enclaves, the rest of the world goes back to nature, pocked by great unearthly blooms of this killer fungus, haunted by millions of infected – some so far gone by now that the mushroom has burst through their heads, keeping them alive as little more than blind, shambling, ambulatory fungoids you’d do well to avoid like the plague they are.
Life, such as it is, goes on, and Joel gets roped into shepherding Ellie across the continent. A 14 year old with a secret, this charmingly potty-mouthed kid is the emotional heart of a story as hideous and tragic as the Uncharted games were self-assuredly goofy. The pair’s journey through the ruins of America brings with it more humanity than you tend to see in games, enhanced by Naughty Dog’s now near-perfect mastery of performance capture and facial mapping technologies. This is one of those “it looks as real as a movie” games, expressions and subtleties that empower a script driven by actual human communication.
They say The Last of Us will make you cry, and I haven’t done that yet, but more than once I’ve known awful things are coming, I’ve seen the writing on the wall and wished it away; I’ve felt my heart pounding as I crept through subway tunnels so thick with infectious spores the air itself is sullenly green; I’ve been frozen by terror, crouched in the absolute darkness of a partially-collapsed office building, surrounded by plague victims that are little more than shelf mushrooms from the neck up. These things naturally lost their sight when the fungal bloom crashed through their eyes and skull, but they’re the deadliest thing I’ve yet encountered, echolocating new hosts and racing toward every errant sound and footstep. They still have their teeth.
So I haven’t cried yet, but the cinematic work is so real, and the script is so good, that I could see a little choking up happening. I’ve certainly felt other emotions.
Everybody Won’t be Treated All the Same
The Last of Us has received top scores almost across the board, with a few exceptions. Of those, one that’s particularly interesting is Tom Chick’s review: the respected iconoclast says, basically, that The Last of Us shines in cinematic-ness but is not particularly innovative as a game.
I’ve gotten maybe six hours in – no idea where that is in game terms, Ellie and I are in Pittsburgh – and played enough to say that Chick’s remarks are not untrue. They are somewhat unfair, though.
As a game, The Last of Us is relatively easy to classify. It’s a third-person stealth survival/horror adventure with a balance of close combat and gunplay. The hand to hand fighting – which should be your mainstay since ammo is pretty scarce – has a surprising and cinematic brutality to it, as Joel smashes heads and stomps throats. This is a game where you’ll beat men to death with a brick and feel bad about it, not because of the murder but because their stupid skull broke your brick. Shooting errs on the side of realism, with heavy recoil, slow rate of fire, and agonizing reload times. It offers cover mechanics in the sense that there’s plenty of waist high stuff to lurk behind, but it’s not a cover game (cover stickiness like what you see in Gears of War wouldn’t work here). It has elements of crafting and scavenging, both fairly simple but also rewarding. It’s extremely hard, occasionally frustrating, and always tense. The escort mechanic is a major factor throughout, though Ellie is almost always invincible and her actions rarely trigger enemy attention the way yours do.
So why are Tom Chick’s comments unfair? Because though I agree there’s nothing wildly innovative about The Last of Us, it’s still a well-designed, well-conceived example of the style it represents. Though imperfect, it is better than good. Chick compares it to Bioshock Infinite, another game that had better-than-average writing and emotionalism. I’d argue the comparison is invalid, though. Bioshock Infinite is brilliantly written, yeah, but it’s a mediocre shooter. The kindest thing anyone could say is that its gameplay is “competent.” The Last of Us is also brilliantly written, but it’s way better than competent. It’s a quite good three-pee-ess.
And does every game need to be innovative? The script alone makes this worthwhile. The acting. Troy Baker (also the voice of Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite, this time equipped with a slight Texas drawl) does a great job with Joel, though he’s got less substantial material to work with than Ashley Johnson, who is revelatory as the teenaged Ellie. Tertiary characters (there are no secondary ones, this is about Joel and Ellie and the game keeps it that way) are just as well developed; they’re the ones who wind up making you laugh and (maybe) cry.
“There has got to be enough… here…” one says, “that you feel some kind of obligation to me.”
Without Naughty Dog’s technology the line wouldn’t work in a game. You need facial expressions so subtle no artist could animate them, you need tiny hand movements and pleading eyes and a whole bunch of stuff you cannot do without a performance capture rig (and a hell of a writer/director team, here handled by Neil Druckman and Bruce Straley). Without these things the line is too ambiguous. It’s in the character’s face and tone what’s meant, not in the words. With the expression and the hands and the eyes and the tone you can read the necessary volumes into enough, and here, to understand the layers of human connection, the dimensional nuances of love and friendship and trust and frustration.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom Come
That is what The Last of Us does so well, and that, I think, is why it’s getting – and deserving – all those perfect scores. Yeah, Chick and other, more reserved reviewers are right. As a game it has its flaws, and the gameplay isn’t as forward-leaping as its cinematic experience.
The game part of the game is about a 7 (the number’s actual meaning out of 10, not the IGN scale). Ellie has gotten in my way or knocked me off things in a most infuriating manner. Those infected funga-people who can’t see sometimes do perceive you even when you’re being absolutely still and silent. Instant kills are quite common if you make the tiniest mistake. That Ellie and any other hangers-on are usually indestructible and can make as much noise as they want during stealthy scenes is distracting. Most of the action or stealth moments are obvious set-pieces clearly decorated with available cover. You’ll have to repeat certain segments a dozen or more times before you get it right. Though wide, it’s linear. Some of the graphics clip. The system takes an inexplicably long time to perform manual saves.
My point, hopefully without coming off as indecisive, is that Chick’s complaints (and those of others) are validated by my own experience, and the compliments from him and many are similarly validated. Both Tom Chick and the perfect-scorers are right, essentially.
The Last of Us is melancholy more than sad, hideous more than horrifying, vicious more than violent. Naughty Dog knows what it’s doing with this stuff. Things like the sounds emitted by plague victims at various stages of infestation, the structure of resources keeping you forever without something you need, but well-enough prepared to go on, these are the hallmarks of confident, experienced developers. At this point my only real concern is that the game will end before I’m ready for it to. I would like to see a longer experience here. Not 200 hours or anything, but I don’t want to finish in a few days.
There may be something to the idea that gamers are Cordyceps mushrooms themselves, taking control of proxies and causing them to do things according to our whims. I doubt Naughty Dog intended this as a theme in The Last of Us, but it’s interesting that they didn’t go with the usual zombies. Mysticism has no place in it. It’s based, somewhat, in actual science, and that is part of its impact. Exposition is light-handed, leaving much to your imagination, and where appropriate Naughty Dog’s designers are happy to break out lavish color palettes and sun-dappled lighting. This isn’t a gray and brown apocalypse. At times it’s almost lurid, gorgeously so.
Though to be truthful, it’s not an apocalypse at all. The Last of Us is about the last of us, not the end of the world. The world, as you see quite plainly, is doing just fine. There is nothing unnatural going on. In fact, nature, and nature only, is what’s happening. The sadness implicit in the end of our people, and the mournful feeling that permeates the game, is unique so far in the medium. This doleful experience may or may not make me cry, but it has so far left me deeply affected, thoughtful, and still eager for more.
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