A Grownup Video Game
Something big came out on Friday. It was produced by a legendary team known for their amazing work. No, not Man of Steel: The Last of Us, the latest game by Naughty Dog, a team most recently known for the Uncharted series.
It’s also a video game that will have you in tears after the first half hour.
Understand, The Last of Us is a grownup’s video game. No, not because of the gore or language, but adult because it’s not childish. The game does away with many tropes associated with games in its genre and instead creates a story that feels genuinely new and, more than that, genuinely emotional and heartfelt.
The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. Like most stories in the genre, order has been lost. There are quarantine zones where martial law is in effect but, for the most part, it’s lawlessness. But what are the quarantine zones quarantined against? Not zombies per se, but rather people who’ve been infected by this weird fungus-like thing. It’s a great scenario for a video game: put us in control of a late-twenties/early-thirties man who carves a wave of destruction through the military and infected for some reason or other. Fantastic.
But writer/director Neil Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog are having none of that. You don’t play as some supersoldier and this isn’t some story about a hero shooting his way to victory. In fact, the first character you play as is a helpless teenage girl looking for her father in the middle of the night. For the rest you play as Joel. His hair is graying and he’s very, well, normal. He’s like John McClane from the original Die Hard: incredibly vulnerable. He’s just an ordinary guy without training, gadgets, or even a fitness regime. Joel’s job — and by proxy the player’s — is simply to smuggle a girl, Ellie, out of the quarantine zone. He’s not out to save the world.
It’s easy enough to have this in the narrative only for it to be disconnected from gameplay. After all, the Planet may be in danger but if Cloud and friends want to go on a few side quests to level up, what’s stopping them? Not so with The Last of Us. It forces you to think as Joel. The game doesn’t let you run into firefights guns blazing, if anything it will punish you. You never have enough ammo, nor do you have enough health. The game bucks the trend of letting your life regenerate: if you get hit you’ll have to scavenge items to restore it. This reinforces your feeling of vulnerability in fights. More often then not you’ll try to avoid conflict: it’s easier.
That said, conflict in the game is visceral. Naughty Dog lays on the blood and gore in their first M-rated game; even strangling an enemy from behind is punctuated by gargles and resistance. You feel every life you take. Violence is unrestrained, but it never quite feels gratuitous. There’s no glory in it. Joel’s comments in cutscenes touch on that idea, but more the it’s desperation of battle that the game instills in you. All this is without touching on the moments of pure terror that characterize an encounter with the infected Clickers.
But large sections of gameplay are without active conflict. Sometimes it just serves story. The Last of Us takes the medium of a video game and blends it with cinema and fully utilizes both aspects. All the gameplay I mentioned earlier is married beautifully with Neil Druckmann’s script and exceptional acting and animation from all involved. I’m only a few hours into the game, but the opening — which takes place on the eve of the outbreak, twenty years before the main game — is one of the most powerful moments of storytelling I’ve experienced in any medium.
WARNING: The following paragraphs contains SPOILERS for the game's opening. If you’re like me and try to avoid any spoilers whatsoever, skip it.
The game quickly establishes the characters: Joel’s tired from work, he’s a single dad whose daughter stayed up late to give him an early birthday gift — a watch. If you’ve paid attention you’ll notice that nothing in the game’s marketing suggested that Joel had a daughter, and then it dawns on you that something has to happen to her. When you first take control of Joel the car he, his brother, and daughter were trying to escape town in has just been wrecked. Infected swarm around them and Sarah has broken her leg. In any other game you would play as the survivor shooting his way to safety while the girl limps behind. In The Last of Us you play as a father carrying his daughter to safety. You can’t fight, you can only run through town. You are the one carrying Sarah to safety, right now you are the father trying to protect his daughter. You feel immersed because it’s a video game; Joel’s goal has become yours.
Which makes Sarah’s death at the hands of a soldier when you’ve almost reached safety all the more painful.
You watch a phenomenal cutscene as Sarah dies in her father’s arms. You’re no longer in control, you can’t do anything. You feel that helplessness as Joel tearfully pleads with his daughter to live. And tears well in your eyes as you and Joel watch her die. You couldn’t protect her. You failed. Then the game cuts from Joel’s hopeless face to the opening credits.
That’s it, no more spoilers.
The Last of Us uses its interactive medium to immerse you into not only its world, but the emotions within. Like the conversation you can start with Ellie about an arcade game or the subtle glance Joel gives a familiar looking watch in a cutscene: the moments are easily missed, but so typical of The Last of Us’ storytelling. Druckmann and Naughty Dog aren’t talking down to you as a player or spelling everything out for you, and they certainly aren’t trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They’re telling a grownup story. When you watch someone you’ve spent the past ten minutes trying to protect die in your arms it hits you all the more.
This is the power of video games. This is the game that elevates the medium.