The Last of Us, Thankfully


So about The Last of Us.

I finished the game last night and I felt that I needed to write something about it. No, not about how I was mesmerized by its story, and definitely not anything about whether it’s the so-called Citizen Kane of gaming. Actually, let’s take a moment to discuss that, shall we? A big part of why Citizen Kane is so well-remembered today and used as shorthand for achievement in any medium is not only that it was a good movie that told a good story – it was and it did – but rather because it advanced its medium, introducing new narrative and technological approaches that changed the way movies operated. So if we’re going to call anything the Citizen Kane of games it’d probably be Super Mario 64 or something, but that’s a post for another time.

No, I wanted to write a post today about The Last of Us, and why I am very grateful I no longer have to play it.


Let me get one thing out of the way first: The Last of Us is a very impressive technological achievement. It feels cinematic in a way that only Naughty Dog can pull off. The voice acting is impeccable, and the writing is excellent.

The problem is that none of it matters, because the story is something we’ve seen a million times before. Part of this is because we’ve hit the saturation point on post-apocalyptic zombie fiction (and let’s be real, that’s what The Last of Us is), part of this is because Telltale did it first, better, and cheaper with The Walking Dead (it didn’t help that the DLC for that game, 400 Days, launched right around the same time as TLoU), and part of it is because for all the grandstanding of how this is not your average third-person action game, Naughty Dog made what is basically your average third-person action game. It was either around the point where the game gives you a flamethrower, or the point where you fight an armored truck with unlimited sniper rifle ammunition, or maybe it was the point where a 50 year-old man could take down 30 armed goons by himself, but somewhere along the line The Last of Us stopped feeling like a movie and more like a video game – and not in the good way. Naughty Dog had the clout and potential to do something completely different with this game – and early previews suggested this was their original intent – but what could have been a pretty interesting game got served up to the gods of commerce in its development cycle and it’s poorer for it. I’m still waiting for the backlash against The Last of Us that Bioshock Infinite saw; despite the fact that it is actually guilty of the crimes of which Infinite was (falsely) accused, The Last of Us has all but been deified by the gaming community and press. Where are the endless, pseudo-intellectual essays on ludonarrative dissonance when your barely-keeping-it-together survivors end up killing more people than the actual monsters do?

The story, by the way, is not without its faults. The game begins and ends strongly – the very ending of the game in particular is a surprising and heartbreaking twist that makes perfect sense within the landscape of the game. That said, there are entire sequences of the game that ultimately do not matter to the larger narrative. You spend two hours trying to salvage auto parts with a character named Bill, who is never referred to again. A later act is spent with another duo of survivors, two brothers named Sam and Henry. They both die, and are never mentioned again except in a throwaway line from Ellie later. It’s laudable that Naughty Dog wanted to make a lengthy campaign, but when so much of the narrative just goes past without a follow-up, that length becomes artificial and mostly unnecessary. The puzzles also feel like padding – one can only do so many “get Ellie to the other side of the body of water using a pallet” puzzles before the entire exercise becomes tedious. The game attempts to make light of this by having Ellie comment on it, but you can’t poke fun at lazy game design and then keep doing it.

I could write for a while on this but at that point I’d just be venting. The Last of Us is not a bad game, per se, but it’s a very disappointing one. Sometimes, that’s worse.


3 Responses to “The Last of Us, Thankfully”

  1. July 13, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    I have a post written that’s going to go up this week that is so similar to this, it’s going to look like I ripped you off. I even make a ludonarrative dissonance joke. Get out of my head, man.

    More to the point, though, this is pretty spot on. It’s not bad, but if feels like Uncharted with zombies. Oh wait. Uncharted had zombies of a sort.

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