The Last of Us (2013)
Directed by: Bruce Straley & Neil Druckmann
Running time: 13 hours approx.
I have essentially spent this entire blog talking solely about films or film related topics, but I have mentioned on occasion that I am also a huge fan of video games. I have never really been overly keen to write about them on “Now Showing” as a lot of video games (that I’ve played recently) haven’t been very strong on the story/characters side of things and also because video games often have such long play times. When combined with my day job and social commitments, it may take me a fortnight to complete a new game whilst a film I can knock off in an evening. But with a couple of days off work recently, I managed to get through one particular game in a short space of time, and it was such a compelling experience that I felt I had to write about it. This game is called The Last of Us, and it was enthralling.
Note: I will be discussing the narrative of The Last of Us, but will not be spoiling the twists and the ending. However, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the game prior to playing, I suggest you leave now.
Now Showing this week on pretty much every PlayStation 3 everywhere is The Last of Us, directed by Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann along with Naughty Dog studios. It has been twenty years since Joel (Troy Baker) lost his daughter during a viral outbreak that crippled the world. A Cordyceps fungal virus has evolved to infect the human body, resulting in victims who become highly contagious and extremely aggressive, as well as growing mushroom like growths all of their bodies. After a trade deal goes bad, Joel is told that in order to set things straight he must do a favour for the underground movement called “the Fireflies”. That favour is to escort a teenage girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson), who is seemly immune to the contagion, to a rendezvous with some scientists who wish to generate a cure. What follows is an epic journey across the ruins of the United States, with danger lurking around every turn from both the infected and other survivors…
The most stand out thing about The Last of Us is the character driven story that the player is undertaking. The premise is very simple, clichéd even: zombie apocalypse has happened, rumours of a cure abound, other humans are scumbags, and we must travel towards the possibility that there will be someone to meet us when we get to our destination. I would say that the story of The Last of Us is a combination of various other apocalyptic films such as Children of Men, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. But what this game has is two brilliant lead characters who are both complex, interesting and have amazing chemistry and it blows the clichés clear out of the water! Naughty Dog studios creates their characters through recording the vocal work along with the motion capture simultaneously, with the actors performing the scenes as though they were in a film and the results are tremendous. Instead of weirdly moving animations combined with disjointed voice acting, the vocal tones and movements in The Last of Us match up perfectly and also realistically. If it weren’t for the limits of rendering technology on the PlayStation 3, you could be convinced that these characters were real people! This result allows for the player to truly engage with Joel and Ellie, and to be effected by the scenarios they find themselves in.
A lot of praise must be made to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for their portrayals of Joel and Ellie. Baker’s performance shows us a man who has seen too much, has done too many horrible things to survive and is almost devoid of any empathy for others. Salvation is not something he strives for, neither for himself or for mankind as a whole, he just wants to live to see tomorrow. Ellie is unlike any other female escort (in a gaming sense) character I have ever some across. Most escort characters in video games require “babysitting”, and seem to be overly playing the damsel-in-distress angle; but not Ellie. Ellie has been raised in this new world, she never knew life before the infected and she is hardened by this upbringing. And what’s more, as the game progresses, so do her combat skills and her ability to help you in a pinch. I would not be able to say that Ellie was ever a nuisance in The Last of Us, allowing us to warm to her over time and letting her and Joel’s relationship blossom. And their relationship isn’t touching because either of them has innocence that they want to protect, more that together they give each other a new found innocence, something to care for in this bleak future. And what’s more, we the players care for them both!
Speaking of bleak, The Last of Us uses not only its narrative and environment to convey its dark future but also its gameplay. The Last of Us is no action-shooter, where can you run into a room guns blazing and defeat every enemy in sight. Guns and ammunition are a lot rarer here than in most games, as are explosives or any form of ranged weaponry. As a result, the most common and effective ways to survive are to get up close and personal to your enemies, and take them down quietly. This gameplay style really changes up the formula from more traditional shoot-from-a-distance kind games. To silently kill a member of a raiding party, Joel must sneak up on them and put them in a choke hold, where he then has the choice to strangle him to death (at the risk of someone seeing him) or to quickly shove a home-made “shiv” into his neck and take him down fast. Both options are visceral and graphic, using sound to convey the victims gurgling throat and vibrations in the controller to feel him struggle. It really hits home the gravity of every kill, everything you have to do to stay alive.
The only complaints I would have about the game are on the gameplay side, and mostly just to do with continuity. When in combat with the infected, providing a stealthy approach has failed, one bite from one of them and you are dead. Game over. I initially found this to be an amazing design choice as it really helped you feel your true vulnerability. However, there were many times when due to more cinematic camera angles and the game choosing to attack an enemy I didn’t want to, an infected I wasn’t aware of would suddenly grab me and then I’m done! Again, this was great from a vulnerability standpoint, but the sheer difficulty of some of the forced combat sequences resulted in me having to attempt them many times. I find after trying to do the same section in any game more than three or four times, it really breaks the flow of the narrative, I suddenly am far more aware of the “gamey” side of things with retries etc rather than feeling like I’m actively in the story. Other examples of things that broke me out of the narrative were when your non-player companions do things that should really affect the situation but do not. For example, in the sections when you must sneak through a room of infected without them seeing you, Joel (the player) may make it passed an infected unseen, but Ellie, coming to catch up, walks in plain view (even bumps into them sometimes!) of the infected but it does not stir. These moments were infrequent but they were quite jarring sometimes.
Bottom line: The Last of Us is an experience that I won’t be soon forgetting. Rarely has a game been so touching emotionally, with such heavy themes of loss, sacrifice, endurance and hope. While it may have suffered from a crazy difficulty spike and some “video game AI” screw ups, it is a sprawling, interactive story that is hard to put down. I’ll never forget the feeling of emptiness I felt when the credits rolled, unsure of how to feel about the events that just occurred. And I realised that while the ending may be simple, and if explained out of context it might seem a bit naff; it was the ending in relation to everything that had come before it that made it so powerful. If you have a PlayStation 3, I highly recommend you do yourself a service and play this game. And if you don’t have a PlayStation 3, get one and play this game. You won’t be sorry.
See you next time, with a movie!