It’s not innovative, but it is still impressive.
Back in 2013, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us on Playstation 3. The aura surrounding the game was electric, with copies sold as numerous as its accolades. However, there has been mounting criticism regarding the game’s storytelling, mainly directed at the fact that the tale of Joel and Ellie is told through methods associated with movies rather than games. Having finished the game for the first time recently, I would say that this is an unfair assessment. Though the storytelling is traditional, The Last of Us is uniquely a video game, and if that rumored film adaptation ever comes out, something will certainly be missing.
For a quick example of what I’m talking about, check out this video (be wary of foul language, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing). At the timestamp 29:24, two journalists from the dearly-departed GameTrailers express their opposing views on The Last of Us and, though I respect them both, I can’t help but feel that the one in opposition to it is wanting the game to be something that it’s not. The Last of Us makes no efforts to depart with tradition; it tells its story just as all video games have since the 16-bit era. Gameplay and cutscenes live within two separate spheres. No matter how liberally the game may cut between the two, there are still those couple of frames of darkness in transition between them. Though I understand the frustration of players who see it as using the toolkit of another medium rather than showcasing what makes video games special as a way in which to deliver narrative, this comparison is only superficial. The thing is, the gameplay of The Last of Us really does enhance its story, and offers active players a way to consume the narrative that a passive viewer would miss out on.
Just about anyone who has played The Last of Us will be clamoring to tell you about how intense the gameplay can be. Resolute with the standards set down by survival horror games of days yore, ammo is scarce. While out and about, players’ magazines will only remain filled if they conscientiously scour the ruins they find themselves in. Because of the light weight of my backpack at any given time, I was much more likely to turn to stealth than an all-out brawl in any given encounter. There are few games that have made my palms sweat quite as much as The Last of Us. There’s nothing like creeping up behind an enemy, my last shiv lying broken in the neck of a foe in the last room, with only a handful of bullets between my firearms. That sort of high-stakes gameplay serves only to enhance the story Naughty Dog tells through the game. Though this isn’t something like a Souls game, where the story is told through lore that the player has to uncover through gameplay, the times where players’ hands are on the controller aren’t just a wash in the narrative department. When you finally get to set yourself upon your foe, the animations are suitably violent. Enemies hit with bats will reel, clutching their face in agony. Opponents getting asphyxiated will gasp for air, clawing at Joel’s face in hopes of survival. The brutality of the minute-to-minute gameplay brings players into the world more than a movie ever could. They get to feel the desperation the characters do when they’ve just run out of medical kits with a horde of infected barreling their way, and the grim totality of the kill when they prevail.
Because of its vigor, the gameplay is also used to great effect in the pacing department. Naughty Dog was able to reduce adding tension down to a science; tension is directly proportional to the number of enemies in a room, and inversely proportional to the amount of ammo and other supplies available. It’s really a no-brainer, but these two factors are played with extensively throughout the roughly fifteen-hour game. Whenever the pacing of the story picks up, Joel and Ellie get to carve a pathway through dozens of armed enemies or clickers. These more intense moments are bookended by quieter sequences without fail. If there was an extended subterranean stealth sequence that necessitated prolonged concentration, players can expect to be rewarded with a few minutes to explore the truly gorgeous environments, just chatting with Ellie.
One moment in particular, a little over halfway through the game, caught my attention in how it magnified the atmosphere and pacing called for by the story through playable sections. After what is about as close as The Last of Us dares to get into the realm of set-pieces, the tension like an over-tightened guitar string, the game treats players to an emotionally crippling cutscene. After the scene, the game smash-cuts to an entirely new location out in the wilderness. Players get to walk around, taking in the sights and sounds of the forest while mulling over what just occurred. Due to the aforementioned action sequence, ammunition and health are more than likely running low. After exploring for a few minutes, players come upon a safe location, by far the friendliest seen so far in the title. This is shown in the cutscenes, but what better way to portray this to the player than to present them with a veritable treasure-trove of supplies? This safety is certainly too good to last, however, and players are quickly thrown back into the thick of combat.
The section outlined above took less than an hour to get through, but it ran the gamut emotionally. From the frenzy of battle to a contemplative walk through the woods, players are left feeling just as Joel and Ellie would at that point in the story. In this way, The Last of Us really does gain a lot as something playable and, though it wasn’t exactly innovative even four years ago, tells a story that’s worth hearing, and one that many gamers rightfully treasure. The story wasn’t left for players to uncover, but to feel every single punch of.