"The Last of Us" creative director Neil Druckmann. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)Link
The 14-year-old Ellie in a scene from "The Last of Us." (Naughty Dog / SCEA)Link
Joel and Ellie in a scene from "The Last of Us." (Naughty Dog / SCEA)Link
There are anxious, control-rattling moments in “The Last of Us,” Sony’s survival horror nail-biter for the PS3.
Set in a post-apocalyptic terrain that’s familiar to anyone who plays games or watches television in 2013, “The Last of Us” visits near-deserted cities where former upright citizens now hunger for human flesh. There’s cringe-inducing violence and plenty of detail about the fungus that’s infected the remaining population’s soon-to-be-eaten brains.
Don’t stop reading.
“The Last of Us” is not your typical doomsday narrative. Zombie-like attacks aside, tension here comes from an underutilized game-play tactic: conversation.
Dialogue is almost as plentiful as weapons in this patiently cinematic tale of a smuggler and the reluctant bond he forms with the 14-year-old girl he’s hired to protect.
Developed by Sony-owned Naughty Dog, responsible for the hit “Indiana Jones”-inspired “Uncharted” series, “The Last of Us” acknowledges gaming clichés and then skillfully avoids them by keeping its focus on the relationship between Joel (the smuggler) and Ellie (the teen he watches over).
But warding off enemies isn’t the primary goal here. This is the rare game that will actively avoid action for lengths at a time, instead letting Ellie pester Joel with questions about what it was like to be alive before the fungal apocalypse. Did he frequent coffee shops? Did he ever stay in a fancy hotel? What kind of music was on his old cassettes?
Creative architects Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley have cited the 2007 drama “No Country for Old Men” as primary inspiration for the game, and like that film the violence here heightens the misery and not the spectacle. Those coming down with an infection beg to be killed, and the infected, no matter how badly their features have been obscured by the fungus, sound rather human in the final, wheezing moments.
The score from Oscar-winner Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain”), with its minimal guitar and string tones, keeps the atmosphere mournful. Even when there’s action, the music tells us this is an elegy first, fight scene second.
And fighting isn’t all that easy as Joel, whom players control for almost the entirety of this 20-or-so hour story. He’s a bitter, slouching draft dodger who’s been holed up on the East Coast since mankind gave up on a cure for the fungus. Dire circumstances have driven him to kill, which is a problem since he can’t hold a gun straight.
The latter is a key point, as “The Last of Us” is the rare game to seamlessly marry narrative and mechanics. One way to make video game killings less fun — and provide the player with incentive to avoid them — is to simply give the main character a sloppy trigger hand.
Here’s a common “Last of Us” scenario: ready, aim, twitch and miss. Difficulty settings can correct Joel’s shakiness a bit, but it further creates a sense that players really are controlling an exhausted survivor, one who will fall asleep at the wheel mid-game.
The chore of escorting Ellie is one Joel initially resists, but their perilous environment makes the task unavoidable. She’s borderline innocent and is sarcastic and tough to Joel’s angry and brutal.
The more time the game takes fostering the unlikely connection between Joel and Ellie, the more unsettling moving around in it becomes. Perhaps the most frightening moment of the game — for this player, at least — came when Joel, stopped by a locked fence, grudgingly lifted Ellie to the other side to unlock it, leaving her unprotected for 30 seconds. But nothing happened, as it often doesn’t.
Doors will rattle, bottles will break, and flooded, Massachusetts subway lines will be traversed — all of it often without a fight. Boston and its nearby cities are essentially ghost towns, and stores, with the exception of a well-stocked vinyl shop, have been ransacked for supplies. Inventories are kept to a minimum and reloading a gun is a real-time drag, so every time a shadow is just a shadow there’s the foreboding sense that one’s luck is about to run out.
“The Last of Us” takes pains to make its grotesque moments unstomachable, such as smashing a man’s head into a wall and then stomping on his skull — or listening to Joel gurgle for air as he’s strangled and Ellie yells to help — are all thoroughly disconcerting moments that had me traversing battle scenes for hours looking for alternate attack routes.
The level design is huge, as even a war zone that is Pittsburgh, with its rotting hotels and double-story bookstores, usually had a stealthy, less bloody route.
Still, the real innovation will come when “Last of Us”-type characterization is applied to a blockbuster release that forgoes violence and horror entirely. But even glimpses at what’s to come on the next-gen PS4 and Xbox One (revealed at the E3 conference in L.A. this week) don’t seem to offer that promise yet. For big-budget releases, the risk-taking only goes so far.
Until that day, “The Last of Us” will more than do. With Ellie, Naughty Dog has done what no other shooter has done this year: “The Last of Us” has given us a character worth fighting for.
– Todd Martens
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