A good friend of mine with whom I play a lot of games often tells me, with good reason, that I hate everything. So it is with some surprise that I admit to having really liked – if not to say loved – the last three games I’ve played. More surprising still, my long-established taste has generally been for sprawling adventure games, free-form strategy and sandbox open worlds, rather than more tightly scripted, ‘on rails’ gameplay, and these recent three – Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and The Last of Us – are all pretty tightly scripted. Even more surprising, I’ve always said gameplay is king, and gameplay is actually not a particular strength of any of these three, but in various ways they score huge on character, setting, story, and that rarest and most desirable of things in video gaming – emotional involvement. These are three exceedingly well written games, which taken together are making me feel very optimistic about the future of gaming. It’s a character, story and setting bonanza trifecta. It’s a video game fruit machine emotional involvement jackpot. It’s a goddamn end of generation scripted adventure holy trinity we’re looking at here.
And the apex of the triangle, the best of the crowd, is the Last of Us. Let me be clear. From its title to its final scene, it is a superb experience. Raw, thrilling, affecting, uncompromising. Quite possibly the best tightly scripted game I ever played. This may be the old generation of hardware, but it is a new generation, a quantum leap, a brave new world in character, story, setting, and, you guessed it, emotional involvement.
So, it’s 20 years after the apocalypse. Mankind has been largely wiped out by a fungus that turns people into fungal flesh-eating fungus zombies. The eponymous last of us are scratching out hand-to-mouth existences in military run totalitarian quarantine zones, banding together for survival in the wilds or living as packs of predatory hunters in the ruins of the cities. Joel is a hard-bitten old survivor with a dark past and violence issues obliged to escort Ellie, a 14 year old girl with a secret, across the ruins of the US.
Studio Naughty Dog has good history in the cinematic action adventure arena with the Uncharted series, but while those games have a sparky, humorous, Indiana Jones sort of a feel you can probably tell already that they’ve gone for something an awful lot more solemn – if not to say horrifying – with The Last of Us. If I say the game sits somewhere within the venn diagram formed by The Road and the recent Dawn of the Dead, I’m probably making it sound a bit more dark, hopeless and cynical than it is. But not a lot more. There’s some nasty, nasty stuff going on out there, and our protagonists are responsible for a fair bit of it themselves.
Looking for a video game comparison I guess Resident Evil 4 springs to mind with more stealth and less shooting. Indeed if you’re reaching for a gun early on the chances are high you’re doomed, because once they’re alert to your presence the infected will swarm you in a heartbeat with hideous consequences. Much better results are achieved by creeping around and throttling the infected from behind, blowing them up or torching them with improvised explosives, and, when you must, beating their skulls to pulp with a lead pipe with five pairs of scissors taped to it. Or for that matter distracting them with a tossed bottle and avoiding the creepy bastards altogether. Action is swift and extremely savage. Sneaking is pretty simple but plays smoothly and intuitively. There’s a simple system for crafting helpful items, upgrading weaponry and learning new skills which will have you scouring every decaying corner for anything of use. There are varying styles of infected to overcome or sneak around, but as in all the best horror the true hell is other people, with soldiers, raiders, freedom fighters gone wrong and loopy cannibals all making their own particular attempts to horribly rob, murder and eat our protagonists, not necessarily in that order.
Characters are big and detailed, move with a believable weight, interact convincingly with the surroundings and each other, helping with that feel of cinematic realism. I’ve never seen such a beautifully realised setting, so cohesive, realistic and believable. Although in some ways it’s repetitive – lots of abandoned cityscape and suburbs – colossal efforts have obviously been made to make everything individual. It’s not just an office – it’s an architect’s office with fancy furniture, drawing boards and certificates for each employee. It’s not just a smashed-up shop, it’s a toy shop where they were having a half price sale when the world ended. It’s not just a cellar, it’s a janitor’s closet where a band of psycopaths were stripping their victims of their clothes and neatly arranging them in useful heaps. The atmosphere is second to none, music spare and haunting, the groans and unearthly clicking of the infected suitably nerve-wracking. They’ve done a very smart thing, I think, by not crowding every area with masses of enemies as well. Large sections are just empty, abandoned, rotting, overgrown, with the noises of wildlife taking back the city, and everywhere evidence of the carnage that ensued following the outbreak, human stories picked out in notes, journals and photographs that rarely have happy endings.
The designers have had the confidence to let things breathe, to leave silences, to let you fill in the blanks – it’s about the notes you don’t play, as Miles Davis had it. That extends to the characters too, who are vividly painted with some spare dialogue, some highly convincing, understated voice acting and some great visual design. You see what happened to Joel in the initial outbreak in a storming opening sequence which sets the scene for you to be put through the emotional wringer for twenty hours, and you know that he’s done some dark stuff since to survive, but the mentions are forced through tight lips in passing, never made explicit. The bond between Joel and Ellie is built up steadily, carefully, without a lot of show, but when it’s tested, you believe it. They don’t tend to make the easy choices – the characters are spiky, aggressive, shitting themselves, difficult, believable. The choices made become increasingly dubious, but never out of character.
It’s a very carefully and cleverly paced game, as well. They’ve split it up into titled seasonal parts. A classic multi-act structure. And each season doesn’t just bring a shift in the weather, the settings, the atmosphere, but a shift in the approach, in the relationships between the characters, in the emotional resonance, constantly changing things up and throwing new styles of gameplay and drama into the mix. New secondary characters come in too, and new dynamics between the characters. Men and women, which is good to see. It’s maybe 20 hours for a thorough, slow going play through, a mere bagatelle compared to something like Skyrim, but it in no way feels like a small game, and it’s an extremely intense one. The Uncharted games were packed out with cinematic set-pieces, with climbs up dangling trains, crawls through capsized ocean liners, escapes from burning chateaus, the full-motion video and the gameplay all smoothly dovetailing. They’ve applied all that expertise here, special moments scattered throughout, but they’re more intimate, more realistic. Caught in a trap Joel dangles upside down, trying to repel a zombie onslaught with a revolver while Ellie struggles to free him. You cover your allies, sweaty-palmed, with a sniper rifle while they’re attacked by a squad of thugs, then a legion of infected. Badly wounded Joel staggers through an abandoned science block towards safety, leaning on every counter he passes, occasionally blacking out from the pain while Ellie urges him on. You get the picture. It’s not one bland office block full of zombies after another, it’s full of incident and invention.
Criticisms? Pfah. Combat can be lumpy, jittery and messy but then combat is. Checkpointing’s maybe too smothering, you rarely have to go back far and that can make things a little on the unchallenging side. Sidekicks occasionally run about in plain view without being seen by enemies, but I’m clutching at straws in the light of what’s done so well. I’ve heard people say that they wish the game was less ‘on rails’, that there were more choices here, more ‘moral’ options, but I actually think the designers made the right call in telling the story they wanted without a lot of input from the player in the overall shape. I’m not sure how well those moral choices ever really work in games, nearly always they boil down to – will you be shining hero or cackling villain, actually making things feel more artificial rather than more organic – and here things are kept much more ambiguous. Events fall out how they may, sometimes with a sick inevitability, sometimes with a suddenness that leaves your jaw dropping. That goes right through to the ending which, without spoilers, I found to be wonderfully surprising, understated, and complex, but still hard-hitting. There are no easy answers, no simple decisions, no clear right and wrong, only the driving need to survive at all costs. Not what I was expecting at all, but a very bold choice in a game which, after all, is a big time commercial proposition. This does not feel dumbed down at any time. It does not ever feel adolescent. It does not feel lowest common denominator. And I think that’s the really heartening thing for me about The Last of Us (and Tomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite). While commercial cinema seems to be becoming ever safer, dumber, more dominated by the bland, repetitive and obvious, in commercial games there still seems to be room for originality, bold approaches, and great design and writing. Games – at least some of them – are getting grown up.
What makes The Last of Us so bloody good? I think, in the end, it’s a gestalt of many small things, technical and creative, all done very well and all aimed squarely at creating that atmosphere and that involvement with the characters, which in turn makes the gameplay – relatively simple though it is – so very intense. Great music and sound, great motion capture and expression, brilliant pacing with a fluid ebb and flow of calm and tension, strong dialogue, characterisation and a refusal to do the easy thing, a willingness to keep it all spare and tight and let the silence talk, and just amazing attention to detail throughout which makes everything feel powerfully real. It’s a masterpiece.
I am of the first generation to grow up with video games. I thrilled to Space Invaders, to Way of the Exploding Fist, to Elite, to Dungeon Master, to Street Fighter II, to Shogun Total War and many many many more. But it feels like gaming is starting to come of age not just as entertainment, but as a storytelling medium.
Fine, fine times to be a gamer, my friends. Fine times.
BY THE WAY: I’ve tried to keep this spoiler free, but I can’t say the same for the comments. If you read the comments, BEWARE OF SPOILERS!