Warning: Spoilers abound. Don’t read if you’re still hoping to play.

I’m a little late to the party on this (the game was released back in June), but in the last few weeks I’ve finally found some time to sink into clearing some of my backlog of video games, and most of that time has been dedicated to The Last of Us—a brilliantly written and executed post-apocalyptic tale, and one of the very finest games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in many years. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot not just about this game in particular, but the potential of gaming itself as a storytelling medium.

Inspired partly by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, an aging smuggler living 20 years after the onset of a global fungal pandemic, and Ellie, a 14-year-old girl whose apparent immunity to the disease could be the key to a cure. When a planned rendezvous with a resistance group goes bad, Joel and Ellie are forced to traverse the continent alone, evading both the zombie-like infected and the violent, desperate human survivors living outside the relative safety of military-controlled quarantine zones.

Nearly everything about The Last of Us, from the writing to the technology to the gameplay, works masterfully in concert to add believability and emotional resonance to the narrative. All the animations and cutscenes were fully acted using motion capture, and the result is characters who are realistic and expressive, beautifully communicating the emotions the story calls for. The gameplay is tense and at times terrifying, with supplies always limited and the challenge always being to merely survive the next encounter.

The heart of the story, though, is the relationship between Joel and Ellie. At first the two are resentful and distrustful of one another, but over the course of their journey (which takes roughly a year within the in-game narrative) the two bond, eventually coming to love one another like father and daughter.

This bonding, however, comes with a cost, because what was once a black-and-white matter for Joel becomes very gray. In the end the two do reach their destination, but after Ellie is rendered unconscious the doctors discover that they cannot extract what they need for the cure without killing her.

Even though a cure for humanity is now finally attainable, and even though Ellie herself was willing to die for the cause, Joel can’t bear to lose the one person he loves. So he rushes the operating room, kidnaps Ellie, and flees the facility, eliminating anyone who gets in his way. When Ellie regains consciousness, Joel lies to her about what really happened.

It’s a staggeringly selfish choice. And it was hard, very hard, for me to play out the final few scenes. In most video games the player character is a thinly-veiled vehicle for the player’s own wish fulfillment; we’re supposed to feel like we are the protagonist. But The Last of Us stubbornly refuses—I think wisely—to allow you this indulgence, and in fact reverses the normal relationship. Joel is not you. You are Joel, and the game forces you to play from the character’s perspective, rather than your own.

Ultimately, Joel is not a good guy. He is capable of great good and possesses many admirable qualities, but at his core he is a violent, selfish man who looks out for himself and those he loves but has little time for anyone else and little remorse for those he must fight to protect himself and his own. The Last of Us makes no attempt to justify Joel’s actions; indeed, much of what Joel does is unjustifiable. In the end, I did not like him, and I did not always enjoy what I as a player was forced to do because of him.

But after spending roughly 20 hours with Joel, I did develop some ability to see his world through his eyes. And I wondered: if it was me out there trying to scavenge supplies to survive another day, and someone else was in my way, would I have done anything differently? If it was my child on that operating table, would I have made the same choice?

The Last of Us made an emotional impact on me. The story constantly twists and turns, and produces moments so tense and frightening, and others shocking and heartbreaking, that on more than one occasion I had to set down the controller and walk away to reflect on what I had experienced.

That’s not a typical reaction for me with pretty much any fiction, especially not video games, which typically lack the depth and cohesion of other types of storytelling. But The Last of Us was gripping and unpredictable, it was emotionally draining, and it ended not with a happy victory or a heroic sacrifice, but with cowardly decisions made by broken characters. The Last of Us does not have a “great story for a game.” It has a great story, full stop.

A legitimate question, then, is whether The Last of Us needed to be a game to achieve its artistic aims, or if it would have been equally (or more) effective as a film or miniseries. Unlike games with branching storylines affected by player choice (Mass Effect, Dishonored, plenty more), The Last of Us ultimately pulls every player down the same narrative road. If all great linear game stories, as the argument goes, would be better told on film, why choose games as your storytelling medium?

I don’t really have an answer to that question, honestly, because as much as I love games a part of me fears that such criticism is probably legitimate. And yet I can’t deny that The Last of Us genuinely moved me, more than any work of fiction has in a long time. And I doubt that I would have taken the time to experience it if it had been released in any other medium.

I’m not sure yet whether The Last of Us represents a major step in the continued maturation of video games as a storytelling medium, or whether I’ll look back on it as an isolated success. As brilliant as it is, spiritual follow-ups are far from a given—single-player adventures as ambitious as The Last of Us are hideously expensive to produce and often have limited commercial viability (at least when compared to, say, Call of Duty). As well as The Last of Us sold, I doubt it made a particularly large profit.

But if anything, The Last of Us has proven (again) in my mind the potential of the medium. Great games can stand with great movies, great TV, and great books artistically. Yes, as with any other storytelling medium, gaming poses unique constraints and challenges on narrative. But it also brings unique strengths.

Whether or not more than a trickle of games will ultimately realize this potential, of course is an open question. We’ll have to wait and see. But I’m much more optimistic than I was two months ago.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Stephen, I was similarly moved by the PS2 game “Shadow of the Colossus,” another linear narrative whose character becomes increasingly difficult to empathize with. Its visual style was austere, its soundtrack was spare, and its moments of action spaced out by long passages of walking (and horseback riding) through empty terrain with only ambient noise to break the silence. The game’s imagery continues to haunt me even six years after first playing it, so I guess I can say it has infiltrated by consciousness as thoroughly as almost any book or movie.

    That said, I think games like “Colossus” and “The Last of Us” still represent a small minority of what’s currently available to most gamers, definitely much smaller than minority of truly worthwhile books and movies published and produced each year. I wonder if that’s because the medium has yet to break out of its mutually parasitical relationship with adolescent men.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Andrew, sorry I missed this the first time around.

      I’m familiar with Shadow of the Colossus (I played Ico, the previous title by the same developer); it’s actually sitting on my shelf. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only played an hour or two even though I bought the game a few years back. It’s a very sad, very haunting experience even right at the start, which is probably why I’ve avoided picking it back up again. I’ll get to it again, I promise.

      I definitely agree that these sorts of games are well in the minority yet, and also that the medium as a whole skews much further toward, shall we say, a younger and more immature audience than films or books. And the medium has inherent limiations that get in the way of story integrity — for example, you need to give the player something to do, and a set of coherent and relatively simple mechanics that stay consistent throughout the entire game. That really limits your palette in terms of what you can do and the kinds of stories you can tell (or at least tell well), compared with the much freer possibilities of a non-interactive visual medium, or the essentially boundless possibilities offered by books.

      But I remain hopeful. The proportion of gamers is still growing and aging, so there’s a growing market for people who want these kinds of games. The technology continues to improve, widening the range of possibilities and making more immersive experiences possible.

      If we’re talking about averages here, or breadth, I would agree that the medium as a whole lacks the maturity and depth and ESPECIALLY the variety that can be offered by books or TV. Quite possibly it always will. Think, for example, of how many great movies could never ever work as games. The King’s Speech: The Game. Etc., etc.

      But if we’re talking about the best of the best? A well crafted game that understands its limitations and maximizes what the medium does best can provide a truly stunning narrative experience. The number of games in that category may always be small in comparison to other media, but each year as the industry gets a little older and the technology gets a little better, the possibilities increase. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

      Reply

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