Why THE LAST OF US Is Among The Most Powerful Storytelling Experiences I’ve Ever Had

22 Jul

TheLastOfUs

Let me preface this by saying I have no intention of it degenerating into yet another “Are Video Games Art?” debate. I’m not interested in having that discussion mainly because I think it’s a stupid conversation. It’s a completely circular argument that is never going to reach a satisfying conclusion; for the simple reason that you cannot truly define art.

Wiser men than us have been trying for hundreds of years.

What I do want to talk about, however, is video games coming of age as a legitimate storytelling medium. It started out as rudimentary blocks and circles performing rudimentary representations of human action – a recreational tool specifically designed to suck quarters out of your pocket while giving you a completely false sense of accomplishment. But, today, it has become cinema with an interactive component.

I want to talk about Naughty Dog and how they are most definitely pioneers in this medium, with The Last Of Us being absolute evidence of that fact. And, finally, I want to state for the record that playing this game gave me one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had with any work of fiction. I know that sounds hyperbolic but please bear with me.

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I became familiar with Naughty Dog, like most people did, by playing their acclaimed series of Uncharted games. It was, in fact, while playing through the first game in the series – Drake’s Fortune – that I became completely convinced of the video game medium’s potential to equal cinema in terms of entertainment value and audience engagement. If not surpass it in some respects.

Because here’s the thing… I had seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (God, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?) and enjoyed it just fine.

Settle down.

The purpose of this blog is not to defend the fourth Indy movie, but just gimme a minute here please… I was okay with it. I was not among the chorus of rabid film fanatics who felt that director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas had raped their childhood, simply by putting together a slick action film that was, for all intents and purposes, pretty much on a par with the two sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn’t hate it. It was an entertaining movie that entertained me.

But that’s neither here nor there.

My point is… I played through the first two Uncharted games relatively quickly (I was late to the party on the first one. And, lucky for me, the second was already out and waiting for me to splurge my hard earned cash). What I decided upon completing them was they were each superior to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. They were superior stories, they had more interesting characters… They were superior entertainment experiences. They were superior films.

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The Uncharted series is very clearly modeled on 80s adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and its no less entertaining knockoff Romancing the Stone. The games deal in the high flying cliffhangers of scoundrel adventurer Nathan Drake, and his circle of friends, as they travel the world searching for mythical and mystical artifacts – always with dastardly, evil villains close behind them searching for those same artifacts.

It is pure pulp fiction of the Indiana Jones variety. The series, in fact, is very clearly modeled on the original Indy trilogy. Drake’s Fortune is not unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, although it takes place in the present day. It’s about Drake and his buddies trying to wrestle the secret of El Dorado away from a shady villain, all wrapped up in a mystery that dates back to the Nazis during World War II. The sequel, Among Thieves, is a grittier adventure – which finds our heroes in more exotic, Asian locations trying to unlock the enigma of Marco Polo’s lost fleet and Shangri La. The third part of the trilogy, Drake’s Deception, brings the adventure full circle – tying it to the first game and even taking us all the way back to Nathan Drake’s childhood – revealing the origins of a deep bond with his sidekick and father figure: an energetic old cigar-chomping rascal named Sully. It’s a father & son story, not unlike Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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So… The Uncharted games are basically high-tech, interactive remakes of the Indiana Jones films. (If #4 adds a sci-fi component to the mix, I will not be surprised) And they could probably be dismissed as simple, derivative knockoffs made for the video game market. Were they not so well-written and superbly crafted – possessing a wealth of production value comparable to any big budget action film. The game’s director – Amy Hennig, who is basically in charge of crafting and orchestrating the project – has written some very engaging stories that could easily function as credible screenplays for any action/adventure film. The plots have clever twists and turns, the characters are well drawn and the dialogs are rich and witty. This is enhanced by very good actors who, not only do voice work, but perform the scenes with motion capture suits as well. Add an appropriately bombastic orchestral score, complete with an identifiable “hero’s theme” and you’re all set.

Video games having cinematic “cut scenes” and cribbing from film tropes is nothing new. They’ve already been doing that for years. What makes the Naughty Dog crop stand apart is the level of quality at which they do this; and the care taken to integrate a cinematic narrative into a gameplay experience, so that it all feels like part of a whole. You can look at a game like Grand Theft Auto IV and praise its cinematic cut scenes, clever writing and good voice acting too. But, as you play, it never ceases to feel like a game. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the French company Quantic Dream – and their head honcho, David Cage – who’ve made huge strides in “video game storytelling” with projects like Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain. But that’s another extreme. Because, Heavy Rain – for all its attention to narrative and character building – is an interesting experience, sure, but it never actually feels like a game.

 

NOTE: I definitely have more to say about Quantic Dream and David Cage. But I’ll save that for October, when their latest project – Beyond Two Souls is released.

 

Naughty Dog have absolutely mastered this interactive movie concept. The Uncharted games feel very much like  games. And they also feel very much like movies.

Which brings me now to The Last Of Us.

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Here, Naughty Dog have created their masterpiece in all these respects. They have put all their technological tools and programming expertise to work, together with their storytelling savvy, and delivered an immersive, riveting and complete narrative experience.  I have not been this invested in a game’s storyline, this captivated by its characters since… Well, since the Uncharted series I suppose. But this still raises the bar to another level. Because one thing I have never done while playing a video game…is cry.

The Last Of Us made me cry. More than once, if I’m being honest. And you know I’m being honest because it’s pretty embarrassing to admit I cried while playing a fucking video game. So, cut me some slack. I’m not exaggerating here.

So, yeah, the video game made me cry. It elicited a whole mess of emotions, really, and actively made me consider my actions. You’d think a game about killing zombies would be fun to play. The Last Of Us was certainly thrilling. But it was never “fun.” And I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism. Because I don’t think their intention was for it to be fun. I am sure their intention was to grab you, shake you up and disturb you. Their intention – as it has seemingly been with all these games – was to tell a captivating and moving story.

 Boy, did they ever do that here.

And they pulled it off with a fairly simple concept. The storyline of The Last Of Us is hardly anything new in the world of action/adventure fiction. It presents us with a post apocalyptic future, in which the world has been laid to ruin because of a vicious fungal virus that has decimated the population. No cure has been found. All who remain are small communities of people spread out amidst the carcasses of what once were great cities; living in ‘quarantine zones’ controlled by an Orwellian police state. On the fringes are the outcasts: Predatory scavengers who believe it’s every man for himself; and the revolutionary ‘guerrillas’ known as The Fireflies – who vow to overthrow this police state, find a cure for the virus and offer hope for humanity. Beyond the fringes, are the scores of infected – mindless zombies who wander the land and prey on everything in sight.

The world of The Last Of Us.

The world of The Last Of Us.

Into this mess falls a hardened survivor named Joel, who – through a series of adventure contrivances – is given the role of protector to a 14-year-old girl named Ellie; and must escort her across the ruined landscape of the United States to a community of Fireflies – for some unknown ultimate purpose.

I’m sure you’ll agree this storyline could just as easily be the plot for a blockbuster action film. And, to be fair, it is. Strewn throughout are elements of several existing works of fiction. There’s a bit of Dawn of the Dead here, and 28 Days Later (which, itself, borrowed from Dawn Of The Dead). There’s bits and pieces of Children of Men, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In fact, I’m more than a little certain that – in its tone and tenor – it is precisely with The Road that this game wants to be most closely associated.

Now, that probably sounds pretentious and – hell – maybe it is a little pretentious when we get right down to brass tacks, but damned if they don’t pretty much pull it off.

Joel and Ellie on their journey of survival.

Joel and Ellie on their journey of survival.

I think I knew I was in for something special at the very start. Because this has one of the most gripping openings I’ve ever seen in a game. Essentially an extended interactive suspense sequence that puts you right at the center of an unimaginable chaotic situation. Something you’ve read in the novels of Stephen King; and seen in the films adapted from those novels, but the visceral jolt you get from actually being thrust into it is tremendous. And the sequence happens to end with an awesome punch to the nuts, unlike anything I have ever experienced in a video game.

But – again – most games nowadays have cinematic elements. So, how is this any different? Well, like I said, the folks at Naughty Dog just happen to be a little bit better at this than most everybody else.

Besides, that’s just the beginning. I don’t think I really understood the level at which this game was operating until the first real action sequence. By that, I mean the first time you are put in a combat situation (because there is a prior bit where you have to take out some infected individuals squatting in a burned out house).

The scene happens relatively early on – about a half hour or so into the game – when Joel and another hardened survivor named Tess are looking for a traitorous associate named Robert (Yes, I am aware of the very “so what” nature of these stupid names. Maybe that’s part of the point). They are confronted by three assholes who basically tell them to get lost or get dead. Tess shoots one of them in the face and we are into a bloody battle for survival.

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Now… That is a standard set-up. In an action film and in any action game that is attempting to emulate cinema, as this one does. The difference lies in context and tone for me. Usually, in these games, a bunch of henchmen will pop out and start shooting at you. You will find cover, come out of cover, shoot the henchmen in the face, chest and balls… Pick up ammo… Keep shooting… All that. Until the wave of enemies is vanquished. And it’s all a ton of fun if that’s what you’re looking for.

That doesn’t happen here.

First, you really don’t have a lot of ammo. Realistically, in a burned out apocalyptic future, bullets are in rather short supply. So, you have to make every shot count. Next, the guns don’t handle all that well. Just like in real life, it’s a bit of a bitch to aim properly and hit your mark – making a wasted bullet feel really tragic. And, here’s the most interesting part… This is not a whiz bang shootout between the action hero and wave after wave of faceless goons popping out of convenient doorways. This is a guy named Joel and a woman named Tess. And three other assholes standing in close proximity. That’s it.

I remember how it felt when I fired that first bullet… I missed. The guy came rushing at me. I missed again. Then he was upon me and I had to use my bare hands to break free from his chokehold. Then, I used a wooden plank to crack his head open. Just two whacks and he was down and done. The sound of the cracks was deafening and sickening. The man’s death gurgle was extremely unpleasant. Then I turned and fired a shot at the other rushing attacker. He clutched his belly in pain and said the word: “fuck!” Then I fired at his head and watched blood splatter on the wall behind him as he fell.

I am writing in the first person. Of course it was the character of Joel who was doing these things. But I was controlling Joel. So, he is an extension of me. That’s the thrill of video games. Especially the modern ones. They allow you a vicarious thrillride. And, the most state-of-the-art ones, such as this, create a truly immersive experience and you get sucked in and it feels great…And it’s a lot of fun.

Well… That shootout was not a hell of a lot of fun. In fact, it felt awful.

Awful.

Awful.

This is not a flaw in the game’s programming. I am pretty sure this is exactly what its makers wanted me to feel. The game continuously encourages you to avoid combat. You are always guided to sneak your way past enemies and it is clear you should only engage when it is absolutely necessary. When you have no choice but to take a life. Because it will never be an easy choice to make. Whenever you kill a guy, it is going to feel real. If you shoot him, it will be bloody and ugly. If you come up behind and choke the life out of him, he will clutch at you and gurgle his last breaths (You are also given the option of using a shiv to stab the man in the throat, but I could never bring myself to actually do that. It was just too horrible). If you beat him to death with a lead pipe he will scream in pain at each of the strikes until he finally goes down. He may, in fact, at some point cower – raise his hands and say: “no, please don’t kill me,” right before you inevitably smash him on the head one final time.

So it is only natural you would feel terrible and want to avoid going through this as much as possible.

Having written all of that, I now realize this is probably making the game sound like an extremely unpleasant experience. It’s so bleak… It’s so dreary… Why the hell would anyone want to actually play it? And to that my only answer is: Why would anyone want to watch a movie like Dawn of the Dead or The Thing? Why would anyone want to read The Stand? We subject ourselves to vicarious experiences that are ugly and potentially unappealing all the time. We do this because it thrills and entertains us. And The Last Of Us is no different. It’s safe to say that if the films and books I mentioned are not really your cup of tea, chances are you wouldn’t enjoy this game. But if those things are your speed, then I can attest that the experience of playing is every bit as engaging and maybe even more rewarding than the passive enjoyment of a film.

The quality of the writing and acting really sells you on that. These are vivid, sharply drawn and believable characters. The journey is mostly focused on Joel and Ellie and – through the course of the narrative – you really feel their relationship grow as you too become attached to them. But they are not the only characters. Joel and Ellie run into several people along the way; and they are all complex, interesting human beings with ticks and idiosyncrasies. That level of depth is really unprecedented in an action video game like this. And it is what allows the game to often have some stunningly moving passages.

One of the game's many idiosyncratic characters.

One of the game’s many idiosyncratic characters.

It is at this point that I should probably confess I have yet to play The Walking Dead. I have no doubt it’s a great game and I will get around to it soon. As I understand it, though, that one is more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” interactive comic book, than a game in the traditional sense, where you make decisions that ultimately have an effect on the story – complete with one of several endings depending on those choices. The Last Of Us is not like that. Its makers have crafted a linear story that follows a set path to a decided conclusion. You can’t affect that in any way. You’re simply along for the ride.

A writer I respect named Justin Clark (go ahead and read his relatively spoiler free review over at CHUD if you want) criticized this aspect. The lack of choice and the fact that the characters often make choices and decisions that he himself would not have made (particularly toward the end, and more on that presently). It’s a valid criticism to make. Especially if your preference is a heavily choice-based game like The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain. But I don’t think the lack of choices is a demerit to this game because it doesn’t in any way affect the feeling of immersion and intensity of the narrative.

The Last Of Us has to be appreciated the way you would a good movie. Sometimes characters in films do things we don’t want them to do. We question their choices. It upsets us. At the end of Seven, for example, Brad Pitt’s character ultimately does something wrong. Though his decision is perfectly justified and logical within the context of the story. The point being, even if you don’t agree with the protagonist’s actions you still concede that it is an acceptable conclusion to the story… The entire finale of Seven is constructed to shock and disturb its audience.

The Last Of Us works exactly the same way. The turns the story takes during its final movements are purposely unsettling and upsetting. And this is intensified by the fact you are being asked to participate in events that might disturb you. Like in any good story, the audience is manipulated into feeling something. The final moments of the game are designed to leave you in stunned silence. It is deliberate, exemplary storytelling of the highest order.

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Actually… There is one moment, early on, where you do have a choice of sorts. It doesn’t affect the narrative in any real way but it has everything to do with your level of involvement.

I already discussed at length the game’s first shootout and the emotional impact it had. But the first time you actually fire a gun comes earlier than that and it’s arguably even more powerful. While traversing through a house filled with infected people, Joel and Tess come across a wounded man crushed under a file cabinet and unable to move. He is in agony because he has inhaled the fungus spores and will surely transform soon enough. He begs them to put him out of his misery. There is a gun lying nearby.

At that moment, you definitely have a choice. Tess even asks: “What do you want to do?” You could walk away. Or you could use the gun and shoot the man in the head.

In control of Joel, I chose to kill the man. This is the first time I had fired a gun while playing this game. The moment was sobering and just a tad sickening. I was manipulated into those emotions, once again, by an expert sense of storytelling. My point of identification was such, that I felt the moment very vividly.

Well…the whole game is like that. There isn’t the possibility of making narrative-altering choices. But there are several points in which you decide how to approach a specific situation. It’s always with subtle details. Like a wonderful beat, towards the end, when Joel and Ellie are confronted with a scene of natural beauty; and you decide how long to make the moment last before heading into a building. When put into the context of what comes next, the moment is made even more powerful and it all depends on how much you allowed it to linger. So, while you may not be altering the narrative, you are definitely choosing how to experience it. The game gives you the tools and you decide your level of emotional involvement. That, to me, is extremely powerful.

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They integrate the cinematic sensibilities with the gameplay requirements and make it all feel like part of the story. Because you are so involved, the suspense during the action sequences becomes palpable and you use strategy and make gameplay decisions based on the story’s logic. You gather materials and upgrade your weapons not because you want to get 100% upgrades on everything, you do this because the characters need it and the story demands it. They need better weapons to survive this hell. They need to stock up on material to make health kits. They need to survive and you’re an active participant in making that happen.

It’s really quite remarkable. Because I can’t think of any other game that is as layered and integrated an experience.

And so, I come away from The Last Of Us not feeling like I just completed a video game. What I feel isn’t some superficial sense of accomplishment that I “beat the game.” In fact, it is only now – as I play through it a second time with the express purpose of gathering all the optional “collectibles” placed throughout the areas – to achieve a 100% completion score, that I feel like I’m “playing.” My initial impression of this was that I had just experienced an epic journey and a story was told. It was a rich, detailed narrative that involved me, had real emotional impact and left me as gobsmacked as I have been with the best films and books I’ve enjoyed.

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And there you have it.

This is why I think the folks at Naughty Dog are so deserving of high praise. They have proven, without a doubt, that they really care. You can look at them as top tier game designers if you want. They definitely are that. But they are also real storytellers. They are real filmmakers. They are artists.

And The Last Of Us is a powerful and sobering work of fiction.

Period.

In any medium.

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One Response to “Why THE LAST OF US Is Among The Most Powerful Storytelling Experiences I’ve Ever Had”

  1. Franco Traverso July 23, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    dude this is great!!! couldn’t agree more as a gamer i love the fact the industry is moving toward real movie like games after RDR and heavy rain not to mention MGS and uncharted, i have experienced the best form of entertainment yet!! now like you i await beyond two souls, watch dogs, GTA V, and MGS ground zeroes and the phantom pain. since you are going to play it a second time check out the toy store to see an uncharted board game!

    what did you think about max Payne 3, and LA noire just curious i loved them!

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