Many people have called The Last of Us another step towards evolved video game storytelling. People have said it's a refreshing artsy triumph from a triple-A developer. Some have even stated it's the best game in recent years with it's heartbreaking, dark, and dramatic story.
I want to start off by saying you can love The Last of Us, I could even see why. Now, at the risk of sounding preachy, it is not a new holy grail for game design. In regards of mechanics, aesthetic, and even storytelling in games, The Last of Us has a lot wrong with it.
Story, As It's Told By The Game
I'm going to mention a Forbes article about the game and its linear story. The article is titled "The Last of Us Isn't A Game About Choices"
I'll argue that the one and only integral device in all videogames is choices. Not in that whole "Choose A for good ending and B for bad ending," but in the sense that literally the only thing separating videogames from other mediums is interactivity, and the choices the player has with such a conduit.
It's much like saying "So-and-so isn't a book about reading" or "This-movie isn't a movie about seeing things with your eyes (and hearing things with your ears)". What the hell is The Last of Us about then? A game about...not choosing? Also the article then devolves into score numbers in reviews for some reason.
Anyways, the article argues it's rather a game about "emotional involvement", of course referring to that between the characters in the story. And yes, that story is well written and frankly good. But it doesn't involve me. The writer of the article even acknowledges this, pointing out the story is about Joel and Ellie. Well...why the hell is it even in a game then?
There's a moment brought up by a critic in the article. A doctor threatens Joel with a scalpel. I had shot above the doctors head to scare him off. No luck. I decided to shoot him in his hand, attempting to non-lethally subdue him by making him drop the scalpel. He died. They obviously wanted this to be a character decision for Joel, killing an innocent doctor. Why the hell am I doing it then? I don't want to kill the doctor.
So are games about playing as somebody else, and forcing us to act out their decisions? I'd rather games at least acknowledge the player as some sort of entity in the story, especially if through the surrogate of a main character.
This story isn't really told in a way that benefits it's medium. The player is really no where to be seen in the story. To make it worse, Joel is such a developed and fleshed out character that (while well written) I just didn't like him. This makes things particularly disconnecting considering that I'm playing as him. The story seems better suited for a novel or (especially considering how most of it is told) a film. There's literally no parts of the game that you actually play where you're doing something integral to the story. I don't mean that filler stuff of "Get from building A to church B to high school C". I mean the shit that matters. The characters, the relationships.
Now about our main character Joel. Let's compare:
The Walking Dead. Some game about zombies I think. You play as the main character and important shit happens in the story between him and other characters in the game. Here's a very prominent difference between Joel and Lee from The Walking Dead. Joel is Joel. He always is, and he's a well defined Joel. He thinks what Joel thinks and he does what Joel does. This fact is very important in many aspects of the story, including it's ending. Now Lee. Lee is the player. Lee does what the player does. Lee says and acts out what the player chooses for him to. Lee as a character is adaptive to the player playing him. It's not weird or dissociating because Lee is a close reflection of us and we feel connected to him because of it. By extension, we are also connected to the story and it's characters.
Now for the opposite end of player characters:
Half-Life. Some game about aliens I think. You play as the main character and important shit happens in the story between him and other characters in the game. Here's a very prominent difference between Joel and Gordon from Half-Life. I'll spare you the Joel is Joel shit and go on to Gordon. Gordon isn't anybody. Gordon is ambiguous. Gordon is really just a template and has no opinions or voice to speak of, even in the literal sense. But that's okay, because we're Gordon, and we don't want to be anybody else other than ourselves (except we're named Gordon now). We can do what we do and act as we act and it's not weird or dissociating because Gordon is so blank we really fill his role.
Call me weird for saying the main character is too developed, but Joel is so Joel that I could never connect myself to him, or reflect myself unto him to connect into the story or characters in a deep way. After all, it's Joel's story, not mine.
I will state one last time. If the stories going to be so much about a main character doing his own thing and making choices in the narrative that very well define him, then why even make it a game? I really would've enjoyed The Last of Us's story more as a movie or a book. And that ending with Joel's last bomb of a decision to make, while perfect in terms of the story, was terrible for me as a player. The last couple of hours, with Joel's intense decisions and actions, essentially shut out any hope of the player being in the story whatsoever. Also, the story wouldn't even exist if you skipped the cutscenes. Essentially, nothing you really do in The Last of Us matters past a superficial level. But that's enough with the story!
Aesthetic, Gameplay, and Harmony
Or lack thereof I should say. It's hard for me to pin what kind of game The Last of Us is (besides obviously not being about actually playing it! HEY-OO). But no I mean the gameplay and the aesthetic of the game brought together by the gameplay. I'd normally just ambiguously say "action-adventure" but obviously it's trying to do something else. At times, it certainly succeeds with fluid gameplay of tense stealth and combat. These times are essentially in the early game and maybe mid game. But a lot of the time, the game seems to have to opposite styles. An action shooter, and a horror stealth.
These two styles combine and blend well for the most interesting parts of the game. These parts usually confront players with relatively complex hostile situations and allow them to approach the situation as they like. Unfortunately, there's some segments that go too extreme in one area or the other. The "action shooter" extreme has some moments that essentially feel like a slower paced Uncharted with sluggish shooting (seemingly meant to mimic Joel's inexperience with a weapon) and less freedom of movement. The "horror stealth" extreme isn't quite so bad, except for some parts where you find yourself dying over and over again from one-hit-kills. Speaking of death, let's look at what aesthetic the game is trying to achieve with this gameplay, and see how it holds together rather un-harmoniously.
I often get the feeling of gritty barebones survival from the game, especially with it's relative "disempowerment" and limited ammo. Some moments have you using all that you've collected to try and scrounge something up just to sneak by. But others have you mowing down dozens of enemies by the second with the armory you've gathered in your backpack, and then some just throw a mini-boss fight at you in an arena. These moments seem to want to turn the game from "barebones survival" to "fast paced action romp", with more empowerment tropes.
The weapon collection system is something of a classic, with an armory building up in the characters inventory. While somewhat nostalgic and neat, it doesn't really fit with the survival aesthetic. Seriously, you get a fucking flamethrower, mini-shotgun, a magnum with a scope on it, and an assault rifle, and you hold them all at the same time. Just seeing Joel with a flamethrower, shotgun, one-shot-scoped-magnum-thing, and mini-shotgun on his back all at once kind of breaks the disempowerment and general feeling of "oh shit" survival. The game has a bit of a survival device in that it still doesn't give you much ammo, but this just becomes frustrating and still brings about the empowered walking-armory trope, as now you just have to switch between your ten guns as soon as you run dry of ammo.
There's also one moment in the game where I mowed down about six enemies in a matter of seconds with an axe, which insta-kills. I explicitly remember feeling like some sort of horror movie murderer with crazy killing powers. While I very legitimately think that's awesome and deserves a place in some game, it feels out of place in The Last of Us. Well actually, by this time in the game I wasn't sure if it was in place and maybe the survival stuff wasn't.
Speaking of survival, this game often loses it's tension and fright factor in some of the clicker scenes. There was a bit of trial-and-error involved in the stealth/fighting sections with clickers. They attempted to make the clickers scary by making them kill in one hit. Rather, they demeaned death as any sort of consequence, employing a sort of player-fail design that's used in games like Super Meat Boy and VVVVV, having the player respawn quickly when they die so they can get back at it. If death isn't meaningful in a horror or "survival" game then it doesn't have much to ride on. Opposite player-fail design philosophies that worked in favor for this sort of aesthetic are seen in Don't Starve, Minecraft, and State of Decay.
I already mentioned it, but I'll go into more integral detail here: the gameplay has really nothing to do with the story. The closest moments we get are exploring environments with some nice dialogue that includes subtle character development. These are probably my favorite parts of the game, and the closest we get to really "doing" something as Joel.
In another unfortunate return to conventionality a lot of the gameplay and scenes revolve around violence and Joel just kinda killing people. This is normal for many games but it feels particularly out of place with the games unstable aesthetic of survival and for whatever reason the aspect of violence and it's morality is hardly brought up between the coming-of-age girl and her rising father figure. It's just kinda there for no real deeper meaning. Now. About violence.
The "Necessity" of Violence
This section is going to be more about a tiring gaming device rather than about mechanical flaws in the game, so you might want to skip it if somehow you read this far.
You may have or may have most-positively definitely not read my post about how
violence isn't essential in games.
I really don't think I'm the only one who's a bit tired of having just about all games be about killing and killing and fucking killing, especially whenever the game itself seems to want to be about something else, possibly something deeper (emotional involvement, according to Forbes).
But it's an action-adventure-stealth-horror-survival game! How can the action revolve around anything else? How can Joel be anything other than a ridiculous axe murderer! I'm going to compare once again, and this example is with a different medium but please bear with me, it's hard to find games that don't revolve around killing dudes and I already used The Walking Dead.
Let's look at the also action-adventure post-apocalyptic movie Children of Men. This is a very tense movie with some impressive action scenes (one is a 6 minute long-take!). It's also about a man escorting a girl across a country to a group of people because she could cure humanity. The main character is Theo, and every single scene in the movie is from his point of view.
Theo never once uses or even touches a firearm in the entire movie, even though plenty of them are around. There's about two times when he attacks in self defense, once with a car door and another with a car battery (both times seemed to fuck the person up but it's unknown if they explicitly died). I compared The Last of Us to Children of Men a couple of times during my playthrough, if just for story and atmosphere relations. But Children of Men's Theo never revolved around violence despite the film being intense. The film didn't need violence to create tense action sequences, and I don't believe games need to use it for the same effect either.
I'm also still waiting for a Children of Men-like game.
So what really is wrong with The Last of Us?
By now you should get my quips with The Last of Us in it's aesthetic instability, unfortunate compliance with conventional third person action tropes, and player-narrative dissonance. But none of these are the "thing" I'm talking about.
A lot of people seem content with enjoying The Last of Us more as a cinematic experience than that of a game (one review even stated "It's more than a game, it's like a movie!" in the up-most positive manner). The problem isn't with The Last of Us's flaws explicitly. Many games have similar design and story-dissonance flaws. The problem more accurately lies in the community and culture treating this game.
I'm not saying that not enough people don't enjoy this game or that too many people like it or some stupid shit like that. But it shouldn't be viewed as some grand step for games whenever the game and even some of its players treat it as a movie rather than an interactive experience.
Now I think there is something to be celebrated with The Last of Us, mainly with it's story, mood, and utterly fantastic visual design (the opening was also tight). However, if we praise a game that's more of a film for being "innovative", then we shouldn't expect devs and publishers to bring us anything different.
*Straps on flak jacket*
What do you guys think?