Critically hailed by many as one of the best videogames of the year, The Last of Us has been proclaimed as good as any book, movie or television show but did the fact that it was a videogame detract from its greatness?
Spoiler warning, I will go into very specific plot details below:
Last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown sure was a fun video game, wasn’t it? It was difficult to be sure and sometimes very stressful, but playing the game was fun and was the main reason you pick up the controller in the first place. The story of the game was a non-factor and ancillary to the game, but its tight gameplay and ‘one more turn’ hooks left many gamers satisfied. It was by all accounts a great video game. Critics have also called The Last of Us a great video game as well. Unlike XCOM though, the gameplay portion seems a bit ancillary and it’s primarily the story that people are talking about. Ellie, Joel and their story are the main reason this game is getting its 10 out of 10’s.
I have had difficulty talking about The Last of Us as my opinion had not finalized on this game. There is no denying that it is a good video game, perhaps even a great one. It is very well made, has deep characters, amazing graphics, and intense storylines with a fresh take on the Zombie genre. However, after completing the game I didn’t get a feeling of satisfaction but rather a nagging feeling of indifference. It was a confusing feeling; this game, whose artistic accomplishments clearly shone through left me feeling so blasé?
Perhaps that this was intentional and desired effect due to the way in which the game ended. The Last of Us seems to want its players to be dragged down with every chapter purging deeper into the hell Joel and Ellie try to survive in. After reading other articles of the game and thinking back on it, I do not believe my reaction was intended. With the Last of Us, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts and I think that is primarily due to that fact that this piece of art is in the form of a videogame. This games foundation as a videogame betrayed the very story it was trying to tell.
By the nature of this story be told through the medium of a video game, elements of the story are fundamentally changed. Video games need to play in a certain way and since the Last of Us tries so hard to be this realistic, the protagonist sometimes behave out of character or are put in scenarios that seem illogical. These inaccuracies make it difficult to identify or relate to the protagonists. Due to these inconsistencies, I have no idea what kind of man Joel is. This is a problem because the satisfaction people generally get from narratives fall on how they view its main characters. By the time the story is done, Joel could be any number of personalities based on his behavior.
I finished the game thinking Joel could be either one of two things. He is either a father haunted by the loss of his daughter willing to do anything to save his new “baby girl” (as the game seemingly wants you to believe) or a cold blooded killer who will murder anyone he wants as long as it suits him. If he is the father, then he has killed a lot of innocent people along the way that posed him no threat to her safety and I am not just talking about Marlene. I slipped past countless bandits, only to come go back and murder them because there might be some gear parts I missed and they were worth more than the life of NPC’s. Ellie and hid from a patrol, but we killed them later because they may have ammo. Because I had become so used to murdering, I killed both doctors and the nurse in the final room only to be horrified watching YouTube clips realizing I didn’t have to. Joel is a man who has murder hundreds and sacrificed millions more by not surrendering Ellie.
Then are we to believe Joel is option two; a cold blooded killer and a murdering sociopath. If that is true, than this is the man we are supposed to believe loves Ellie indefinitely? But his actions betray this option as well. Joel showcases likably traits in the game, in his relationship with Tess, his love of his brother and other things he says in the game. In the final scene Joel admits that, “I struggled a long time with surviving” which would seem to suggest that Joel has expressed remorse for his actions. You think a man who is seemingly as conflicted about the murders and atrocities Joel’s committed might be a little less quick to take a life. But never in the course of the game did Joel’s hand hesitate to commit more murder.
Okay, I am out of bullets and we snuck by 10 armed men, Ellie and I can just leave now and be safe to.... oh wait, is that more gears!? Sorry Ellie, try to duck and cover from the gunfire.
Basically, what happens in the game never seems to match what we are told or led to believe about who these characters are. This is symptomatic of the larger issues; The Last of Us contorts the plot in directions only in service of this being a game. For example, the whole section of the when Joel and Ellie visit his brother Tommy felt off to me. Here we are in a secluded retreat with concrete and power surrounding everything and somehow magically, bandits show up and another fight scene ensues. Because this is a game (Triple A in fact) action cannot slow down for too long because publishers fear players might get bored. When the gang of bandits infiltrated an audible sigh escaped my mouth. Instead of meaningful conversations with his brother, maybe Ellie learning more about Sara and the game giving us at that point some much need character development it was another hundred dead corpses for Joel to put on his resume.
Is it the players will that hundreds of extra men died along the way of Ellie and Joel’s journey to the fireflies, or is the will of the developers? More prudently, do either of these reasons have anything to do with who the character of Joel is supposed to be. What would Joel do if this story was only a narrative and not an interactive videogame where we must kill because the game demands it. Exploring these and other questions begin to break the narrative for me and cracks in this games logic start to flow and sour the experience I had.
An easier and much more succinctly specific example is Ellie’s swimming. Ellie grows on her journey; she learns to shoot a gun, to hunt for food, to ride a horse. At one point, overcome with emotion Ellie stabs David like 30 times in the chest in. Yet in the next portion of gameplay Ellie cannot swim again, because gameplay mechanics. I spent 10 minutes looking for a damn board for Ellie to stand on; when in real life I would take 15 minutes to teach the kid how to swim so I wouldn’t have to search for boards for a year. Who knows, maybe when I taught her she would trust me a bit and we would learn to rely on each other more and it would make for a tender moment, enhancing the story.
It is a nitpicky example, but even on this level you can see how the fact that this story was a video game ultimately change the elements of the story to service its medium. Think about if The Last of Us was a movie or a book; do you think Joel would have killed the same number of people? Do you think they would have written more dialogue between Joel and Ellie? Would the whole Dave storyline even really be necessary at all? Would Ellie need to have killed as many men as she did herself? I would argue that many, if not all of these things would be different and if they were to be changed they could all work to make the overall narrative better by not being beholden to video game requirements.
While this is technically a "movie" this would need a ton of editing before any movie critic would give it a thumbs up
The flow of the game might have been different as well. Throughout the 14 hours of the game a certain pace of cut scene, fight, explore, cut scene, fight explore set in. Bottles and bricks herald incoming fights like battle horns. This pace lead to a very monotonous overtone to the game and made the story progression seem like a progress bar on a loading screen rather than a natural and organic story.
Because The Last of Us main offering is story and narrative, these questions have stuck in my mind and have ultimately made me less appreciative of the game. As noted in the first paragraph, XCOM put gameplay first so it is natural to have its critics come from technical bugs and gameplay issues. The Last of Us puts narrative first and as such, the first point of criticism should come be directed at the story. I have seen many people praise this games story and by videogames standards, it is excellent. However, as pointed out above, The Last of Us is by no means flawless or the best that videogames are capable of but it is a good starting point and interesting to think what might have been had it been a book or movie.
Maybe the game doesn’t even need to change its medium, but just refine its gameplay. Perhaps instead of 14 hours of murder, there could have been long stretches of exploration and ridding like RDR or maybe a dialogue wheel in Tommy’s town ala Mass Effect allowing you to get some personal conversations would have been just as exciting. As games become more real, its important for developers to understand weight of its gameplay as it relates to their characters. The gameplay must demand us to perform actions that are not out of line with the characters we play, and until we learn that lesson video games will be without its Citizen Kane.
DanimalCart’s Soapbox: 08/06/13