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Why The Last of Us is the first truly mature action game (and our Game of the Year)

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Warning before you start. I need to discuss the entire game to do this right, so there will be spoilers. Gigantic ones. With teeth. 

“…it could be argued that The Last of Us is the first truly mature interactive narrative in the action genre.”

That’s a statement that I made near the beginning of my review for The Last of Us, back in June. And it’s one that drew a few doubts before the game’s release. Perhaps understandably, given the weight of the sentiment and the many important leaps forward in video game storytelling over the last few years. But it’s a statement that I stand by, and one I feel is evidenced by our proclaiming The Last of Us as Game of the Year 2013. In fact, it's because the game bagged the top spot on our list that I'm urging you to take a second look at this article, which was originally published in June.

Know from the start that I’m not necessarily stating that The Last of Us has the best story in action gaming. For me it’s one of the all-time greats, but narrative content is an entirely subjective matter. Instead I’m arguing the above statement in its literal entirety. That The Last of Us is the best example thus far of mature, intelligent, cohesive storytelling using interactive narrative mechanics to truly augment the events it depicts with subtext, depth, and empathy. 

For me, video game storytelling isn’t about having an engaging plot and well-directed cutscenes. It’s about how a game uses the developing language of interactive narrative--in the same way that cinema had to learn how to use camera angles and edits--to add more to its storytelling than another medium could. And The Last of Us is a masterpiece in that regard.

First up, there’s the simple but important point that almost all of The Last of Us’ gameplay systems seem designed not only to be mechanically interesting, but to forge a 1:1 psychological bond between the player and Joel. Some things are obvious. The manual crafting and healing--both of which take real, in-game time ensure no reality-breaking jumps into gaming’s traditional pause-screen safety zone--force the player to adopt Joel’s approach of cautious preparation or suffer the consequences. 

Fail to, and while the game won’t necessarily punish you with failure, the panic-stricken multi-tasking required to regroup and find a safe space to resupply adds not only tension, but real emotional weight. You got into this mess because you didn’t think ahead, and not thinking ahead has put you and Ellie in danger. Now drop everything and put it right before something happens to her.

But that point about adding a weight of responsibility to combat only scratches the surface of The Last of Us’ approach. Pathos in this game isn’t just something that comes with the cutscenes. Its hardwired into the very fabric of the game. Take that brutally powerful opening prelude for instance. Yes, its resolution is shocking, but the outcome alone isn’t what makes it powerful. Think back to the start. Think back to the very first moment you get control of the game. It’s the night of the outbreak, and you’ve just been introduced to Joel through a beautifully underplayed scene with his daughter. It’s a scene as affecting as it is unsentimental. But once you start the game, you’re not playing Joel. You’re playing Sarah.

In most games this prelude section, light of challenge as it is and unconnected from the main story, would function as a control tutorial. It would be a safe environment in which to get a feel for the game’s handling. But while it does serve that purpose, that’s not really what The Last of Us’ opening is about. Rather than being a mechanical tutorial, it’s an emotional tutorial. Sarah is alone, defenseless, and scared in a big, empty dark house. You’re in control of her and there’s no help to be seen. You are entirely responsible for her safety. Sound familiar?

Yeah, the game is immediately conditioning you into the mindset of the character you’ll inhabit for most of its running time. The mix of protective duty and paternal paranoia is tangible throughout. The game is training you to think like Joel before you even get anywhere near playing him. So when Sarah ultimately dies, it’s not just Joel who has failed to save her. It’s you, the person who was first made responsible for her. In that way, yourself and Joel are emotionally bonded throughout the game, and the loss that informs his every action is one that you feel yourself every step of the way.

Thus, when Ellie starts to change in response to her journey with Joel, the sense of personal responsibility is immense. As useful as having a wingman would be, it’s impossible to disagree with Joel’s decision not to arm Ellie for the first chunk of the game. When she finally starts to cover you with a hunting rifle in the streets outside the hotel, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. You might have fire support, but you’ve also brought Ellie well and truly into the fight. You might be safer, but she might now not be. In any other game, the sudden appearance of a co-op AI partner would be nothing but a blessing. By the time it happens in The Last of Us, it’s weighted with much more complicated emotional issues. 

But it’s not all about the combat. Of course there’s further bonding with Joel as you gradually realise that his abilities have been carefully pitched so that--barring the ability to take a couple of gunshots-- he’s not capable of anything you’re not in real life. There’s none of that character separation you get in an Uncharted here. No moment when realistic everyman dialogue gives way to 12-foot leaps and parkour platforming. There’s no separation between plausible characterisation and implausible action at all. 

In fact some of the most important moments in the game happen at times when nothing seems to be going on, and you won’t notice their significance until much, much later. It’s the long, quiet periods of exploration and foraging that really massage in the game’s ambient emotional resonance. Every abandoned home tells a story, be it more explicitly through notes and diary extracts, or more subtly through the relief pattern of domestic life left by the missing inhabitants. When Ellie playfully starts messing around with a family’s long-abandoned dart board, it’s not only a bittersweet discovery of a lost world she never knew, but a temporary resurrection of the lives that used to happen there; a physical evocation of ghosts long-since departed. 

The Last of Us though, isn’t just the story of a few disparate individuals, small details of loss and sadness scattered around to evoke token downbeat moments. It’s the story of a whole world made up of unique communities gone the way of the dodo. So the game builds much bigger, connected story arcs of its ambient narrative. The storyline that unfolds between the beach, sewers, and countryside is a particularly powerful example. Beginning with a throwaway note by a trawler boat captain, it follows his story--both literally and figuratively--through the underground, building and expanding alongside his new-found community through subtle references and slight hints in the words and homes of a multitude of unseen characters. Inevitably it ends badly, but the story doesn’t just go away. 

Instead, it ends by presenting its tragic culmination alongside the dead family’s last batch of supplies, Joel’s inevitable use of which infuses the resulting weapons and supplies with immense significance. He only has the tools he has because of someone else’s loss. They couldn’t save their previous owner, so he’d better made damn sure that count now. And that subliminally feeds even more emotional weight back into each and every combat encounter. There’s none of the usual division of story and action here. No dissipation of a scene’s emotional content once the shooting starts. You don’t forget any side-story in The Last of Us, because they never remain side-stories. They become part of yours. 

Scavenging is no simple case of mindless bin-raiding, a la BioShock Infinite. Textural narrative is no simple matter of hearing and forgetting dying screams conveniently recorded on an audio-diary. Both elements are subtly tied together to bring the past into the present, making the tales of the dead a prelude to the story of the living, and Joel and Ellie’s quest a sequel to the survival bids that went before. Even in a game as good as a Metal Gear Solid, you’ll forget Snake’s tragic lot in life the second necks need too be snapped. In The Last of Us, every thrown Molotov is a reminder of the years-long price of making it. 

And most importantly of all is the way that Naughty Dog treats the scale of The Last of Us’s story after establishing and connecting with its huge human cost. In most games, The Last of Us’ narrative arc would be typical global tragedy fare; a bombastic save-the-world scenario whose weight is tied to--if not solely evoked by--the epic scale upon which it operates. But that’s not the case here. 

The Last of Us is always a story much smaller but at the same time much bigger than the global disaster it exists within. It’s the story of individuals working not only to survive, but to live during the aftermath. It always operates on a localised, internalised human level. Its story arcs and subplots exist within human minds and emotions rather than amongst the broad-strokes tropes of a glorious hero’s quest. There’s no clumsy attempt to appear mature by bluntly referencing Big Issues like racism or war. There aren’t really even any good guys or bad guys. There are just people. In storytelling, that’s all there ever really needs to be. 

That’s why Joel’s ‘death’ isn’t the messianic sacrifice it would ordinarily be. That’s why playing as Ellie isn’t about how Joel’s selfless care has empowered her to complete the quest without him. Both of those ideas are hackneyed; and let’s face it, Joel isn’t that selfless. The Last of Us is smarter and more real than that. Joel’s impalement does occur while protecting Ellie, but it’s a clumsy accident. And even months after he’s put out of the action, Ellie is still weak as diluted water.

Sacrifice doesn’t magically fix anything. It just makes things harder. But separating the characters during the end of the ‘Winter’ phase does serve one very important purpose. It makes both of them, through the player’s reaction to their separation and eventual fight to reunite, realise just how important they’ve become to each other. It’s not about their long-term quest to save humanity. It’s about their immediate quest to save each other. 

That’s why the ending matters. That’s why the ending, although sure to be divisive, is brilliant, perfect, and the only way the game could end. Joel’s decision to sacrifice humanity in order to keep Ellie in his life--going so far as to murder those who would save the world--is an unexpected one. Jarring, even. And it remains ambiguous and enigmatic until the credits roll. 

He could be seen as saving her. He could be seen as screwing her out of her accepted and doubtless noble purpose in life. He could be seen as paternal or he could be seen as selfish. All of these interpretations are entirely correct, and none of them are exclusive from one another. They don’t need to be. Because it’s only when Joel ultimately does what he does, and when Ellie--knowing that he’s lying to her--accepts that, that the true meaning of the game’s title becomes clear. 

It isn’t The Last of the World, or The Last of Humanity. It’s The Last of Us. That’s a word with much more personal, individual, unique significance. It doesn’t denote a species or a society. It denotes closeness, sharing, and family. ‘Us’ is Joel and Ellie. ‘Us’ is Joel and Sarah, and previously his (presumed) ex-wife. ‘Us’ is every other family and group of friends in the world, and the shared joys, relationships and losses that exist between them. Joel has already lost one ‘us’. He’s not going to lose another. Selfish he may seem on a global level, but to save the world you don’t need to save every human being on it. To save an entire world you only need to save the way of life of a single family within it. So he does. 

This article was originally published on 21 June, 2013.

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112 comments

  • anthony-smith - February 18, 2014 1:59 p.m.

    For everyone that says this is a walking dead knock off, walking dead deals with zombies. this game deals with a disease that already exists in the world today that has mutated to affect humans, which many real life viruses and diseases have actually done.
  • anthony-smith - February 18, 2014 1:40 p.m.

    Damn good vocabulary sir. I shall have to read this continuously to expand my own. Hahaha
  • wickedgizmo - December 24, 2013 11:55 a.m.

    That was a beautiful article I must say. The passion that you have for this game is completely undoubtedly present and well placed. Beautiful.
  • RawadAJ1997 - December 22, 2013 9:06 a.m.

    How can one even say that TLOU is overrated? It has the best possible story
  • larkan - December 19, 2013 1:04 p.m.

    An overrated third person linear sneak shooter with an OK story that will be followed up by a shitty cash in sequel on the PS4, that about sums it up!
  • TanookiMan - December 19, 2013 9:46 p.m.

    This comment makes me sad. Couldn't you have at least tried to respond to or provide some discussion of ANY of the points made in the article?
  • BladedFalcon - December 20, 2013 10:34 p.m.

    He probably hasn't even played the game. He's a PC elitist, best to just ignore him ;)
  • TanookiMan - December 21, 2013 10:52 a.m.

    Hahaha, I try, but I find myself ignoring an increasing number of comments of late.
  • Lazy_Penumbra - December 18, 2013 8:10 p.m.

    the game... is a masterpiece. But saying that it is the first and truly mature content in a game and IN the action genre? That's overrating and insulting to other masterpieces. While I agree TLoU has created another cap on action/horror/narrative gaming, games like Metro Last Light, the Bioshock series and others also come to mind as contenders for such a title.
  • Tikicobra - December 18, 2013 1:48 p.m.

    This game made me cry. I've read many books, watched many movies, and played many games, and rarely if ever do I genuinely cry. But I cried at least twice over the course of this game, particularly at the end of Winter.
  • universaltofu - December 18, 2013 11:10 a.m.

    Coming soon, the 'pull my finger' dlc.
  • RonnyLive19881 - December 18, 2013 9:04 a.m.

    Pretty graphics aside and some fun story elements to me this was just another pointless shooter underneath it all. Eh, guess opinions are just widely different on this title.
  • BladedFalcon - December 18, 2013 10:30 a.m.

    Except that if Nintendo had made this game, or had it been published on the Wii U, you'd be screaming from the mountaintops about how amazing and perfect it is :P
  • Vonter - December 18, 2013 1:36 p.m.

    No because the story wouldn't have been good just the gameplay. That's the thing with Nintendo that sets it apart. Other M was horrible because its plot, Zelda ALBW even being a return to basis was more consistent and streamlined because it didn't had a vast plot or cinematics. Back to topic, I hope this game gets a port to the PS4 since PS3 was the only system I didn't get. It's just from jsut viewing it looks more pretentious than it really is, mainly due for the overused posapocalyptic setting and mysanthropy themes (humanity sucks).
  • BladedFalcon - December 18, 2013 2:01 p.m.

    Other M was horrible because the gameplay was also horrible... And actually I heard the story of Other M per se isn't that bad, specially at the end, it's mainly the portrayal of samus what sucks the most.
  • Vonter - December 18, 2013 2:26 p.m.

    The thing in the end it's execution; you can tell a story about everything but the execution it what tells how much you get invested. Like I said I've not played the Last of Us, I've had some bothers about my perception of the game because of its brutality, the grim reality it displays, but I also assume it most have beautiful moments beneath all the harsh aspects it displays and I think that what makes it work and why so many are invested in that game. Nintendo is more purist in regards to their games. They have admitted several times they don't see story as something essential for their games, is the last aspect that is worked in most of their titles. But still, they do best than many in regards to gameplay and controls. Other M storytelling had potential but its execution felt like a playstation era game, with awkward voice acting, and loose plot that jumped from one place to another. Personally I think its like a bad Metroid movie adaption since you can watch everything relevant after you beat once, even boss battles. My main bother is what the character accomplish, since everything was solved by somebody else (MB killed the deleter, Adam detached and destroy sector zero, Queen Metroid killed Ridley and even at the end was because of Anthony why Samus could take custody of the scientist).
  • filipe-alves - December 18, 2013 1:48 p.m.

    Let's be real for a sec... I can't possibly imagine this game being made by Nintendo... it's just not possible on the other hand very nice to point out hypocritical nintendo fanboys.. this guy is probably the biggest nintendo fanboy I've seen here... it gets old really quickly.. he obviously never playd this game in his life and yet he comes here and tries to put it down like the good fanboy he is... very sad
  • rainn'sgaydar - December 18, 2013 5:07 a.m.

    I doubt anyone has summed up what made this game so great as well as you have here, Dave. And despite having finished the game months ago, reading through this article brought back all the emotions I remember feeling, and you really only lightly touched on the story points that evoked those emotions. As you said, the gameplay really helps reinforce the narrative, which may be most easily demonstrated by the fact that I remember so much more detail of the scenery of various points in the game. In most games, I would have probably been moving very quickly while I explored every nook and cranny (as I did in Bioshock Infinite), but since one turn around the wrong corner punishes you with at most, death, and at least, wasted supplies, I took everything so slowly that I remember scenery and details much more vividly. The only thing that would have made it more submersive is if Ellie could actually die, but that would have been far, far too difficult to get right, if even possible to get right. Her invincibility and the clickers' inability to hear Ellie or anyone else move around are certainly valid complaints, but with the only other alternative being "you were attacked and killed by clickers you never intended to engage because your AI partner made noise and you didn't," I think they nailed it. Maybe if they ever make another they could allow you to control both companions by switching whenever you want, a la GTA V. It could work if done correctly, but I don't think the PS3 had the power to handle that type of system requirement.
  • hester2 - August 23, 2013 9:21 p.m.

    This is super late (I just got around to beating the game) and I doubt anyone is reading this, but I take issue with the "Ellie is as weak as diluted water" line. I took that whole chapter a completely different way. This was a girl who had hunted and scavenged for the two of them for God knows how long, and then she runs into the bandits they had killed at the university. She's taken into captivity, and even behind bars, she puts up a fight. That's when things get real dark. It's made pretty clear that the lead bandit (can't remember his name) had intentions of raping her. As soon as she's about to get away, you're put back into the role of Joel, fighting to save Ellie. You think you're going to get there, but then...you're back in Ellie's shoes. You're being hunted by this guy who wanted to make you his "next pet" as his cronies called her. All of a sudden, you're thrust into Ellie's mindset. She thinks Joel is still out of commission. She's all alone. There's no one to save her. What does she do? She fights. She sneaks up behind the guy, stabs him, fights him off, runs and hides again, and then she goes after him again. She becomes the predator. Even after she thinks she's won, he attacks again. So she grabs that machete and annihilates his face. That's not weakness. That's every moment of fear, pain, and sorrow she's experienced throughout her life being taken out on a monster she can finally put a name to.
  • BladedFalcon - December 18, 2013 7:06 a.m.

    I don't think he was talking about mental or psychological weakness so much as he was referring to the fact that physically and in terms of experience, she IS still weak, something evidence by the fact that almost everything concerning Ellie when you play as her feels weaker or less effective when compared when you played as Joel, she has way less health, her proficiency with weapons is also lesser, and she's completely useless in a direct close quarter encounter unless she sneaks up to an enemy from behind. The point I believe David Houghton was trying to drive home here, is that in any other game, or a lesser story, the temporary loss of Joel would have made Ellie become a stronger person in every sense, rising up to the challenge and being more capable all around, inspired by her loss... Which is bollocks because as shown in The last of Us, the loss of Joel is nothing but a cause of trouble and grief for Ellie, which IS what happens in real life most of the time.

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