Are you as sick of zombies as I am? They're everywhere. Perhaps the real zombie apocalypse won't be caused by radiation or a genetically-engineered plague; it will be caused by media corporations drowning our brains in zombie entertainment until we all go crazy and start eating each other.
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OK, sure, the creatures in Naughty Dog's latest adventure game, The Last of Us, aren't actually "zombies", they are humans infected with a fictionalized variation of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. But they're functionally the same thing. The "infected", as they are known as in the game, are mindless, mutated monsters that shamble around and eat any human they become aware of. And if they bite you, you become infected and the fungus takes over your brain, turns your flesh into spore-producing tendrils, and makes you a cannibal.
The game takes place 20 years after the sudden outbreak of the human cordyceps infection that leads to the death of the protagonist's daughter. Society has collapsed into ruin, with the surviving 40% of people (including the protagonist, Joel) concentrated in quarantined ghettos in the remains of major cities. Joel is working as a smuggler, bringing food, weapons, and supplies into the Boston quarantine zone to be sold on the black market, and he is tasked with escorting a young girl, named Ellie, to a research lab out west. Ellie is unique in that she seems to be immune to the cordyceps infection. She was bitten weeks ago, and has suffered nothing more than some ugly skin lesions near the bite; whereas, everyone else begins to turn into a zombie within hours of being infected. This, of course, makes her survival paramount, and Joel must do whatever it takes to ensure her safe arrival at the lab so that the researchers can hopefully study her to find a cure or vaccine.
The concept of The Last of Us is intriguing from both a narrative standpoint and a gameplay standpoint. The cordyceps zombies (or "cordies", as I like to call them) aren't the only threats. Individuals at an advanced stage of the infection sprout fruiting bodies that emit spores that can be inhaled and infect other people. So characters have to be very aware of their environment in addition to just watching out for cordies. It's interesting. I'm not sure just how believable it is though.
A clip from a BBC documentary showing cordyceps in action.
Viewer discretion is advised!
The cordyceps fungus is able to take over its host's brain and influence behavior. When it infects ants, it forces them to climb to the an ideal spot to die and release spores to cause maximum dispersal and infection rate. These ants don't behave antagonistically to other ants, as doing so would give them away. But ants have still learned to identify the symptoms of the infection, and when they notice an infected ant, they will carry the victim as far away from the colony as possible and leave it to die. It's a freaky, and unsettling little parasite.
It doesn't affect humans though. Right now, cordyceps infects primarily arthropods (insects, spiders, and so on). While there is no real reason why cordyceps couldn't achieve zoonosis (jump from species to species), it wouldn't happen overnight. In fact, the variations of cordyceps that do exist each exclusively affect a single host species. This means that the two probably evolved together, and the transition from species to species is unlikely for this particular fungus. Also, it is interesting to note that cordyceps actually has medicinal applications.
[LEFT] An ant infected with cordyceps.
[CENTER] A moth infected with cordyceps.
[RIGHT] A human infected with cordyceps, as depicted in The Last of Us.
Put simply: a human cordyceps outbreak wouldn't be that big of a threat, and it certainly wouldn't lead to an apocalypse within a few hours as it does in this game.
But, let's suspend our disbelief for a while, since zombie outbreaks are standing on thin scientific ice to begin with, and this game doesn't pretend to be a scientific authority.
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One part "survival horror"; one part Metal Gear Solid; two parts Uncharted
Simply walking from Boston to Colorado wouldn't make for an exciting game, so obviously, things don't go as expected. Joel and Ellie run into trouble everywhere they go, and this trouble makes for the central gameplay elements of the game.
When you switch aiming shoulders,
the characters suddenly become left-handed...
The controls for this game were a bit weird. For one thing, it uses the shoulder buttons to use weapons instead of the trigger buttons. Some other button commands seem arbitrarily different than the conventional controls used in most games. Switching the targeting camera between left and right shoulder is done with R2 instead of clicking the right analog stick, and crouching is done with the circle button instead of clicking the left stick. These commands take movement controls and camera controls off of the left and right stick (respectively) and make the controls feel a bit awkward. Melee attacks are handled with the square button instead of just using the regular attack button when no gun is drawn, and manual reload is assigned to pressing the fire button when the gun isn't drawn. Because of this, I could never remember where the manual reload was, and went through the rest of the game going into gunfights with only one or two bullets in the chamber.
Somewhat mindless scavenging
The biggest gameplay mechanic revolves around scavenging for supplies and the judicious usage of those supplies. You spend most of your time searching the environment for ammunition and supplies which you can use to craft health kits, molotov cocktails, smoke bombs, shivs, and nail bombs. Each of these items requires a set of two out of about six different supplies that you can pick up, which means there is a lot of overlap between which supplies are used to craft which items.
This focus on supply management brings The Last of Us very close to feeling like one of the traditional survival horror games. Supplies are scattered all over the place, but you need to collect four pieces of a particular supply before you can even use it to craft an item. So it feels like you're always finding useful items, but you still are barely scraping by with enough to fend off the enemies. Thus, you need to be very deliberate and judicious in how you deal with enemies. This puts a great deal of pressure on the player to try to find non-confrontational routes. It's better to sneak past rather than waste valuable resources engaging in combat, especially since you need to keep a buffer of offensive weapons to fend off enemies with one-hit-kill attacks.
I ran into an issue every now and then where the game would tell me that an item's inventory was "full",
even though I had plenty of room in my backpack. Is this a glitch? Or am I missing something here?
This mechanic falls a little bit short in several ways. First and foremost, each item that you can carry (supplies, crafted items, and ammunition) has a specific, independent capacity rather than a single item limit or carrying capacity. Because of this, you can pick up pretty much everything that you come across as long as you have room for it. This takes a lot of the thought and stress out of managing your inventory, since you don't actually have to manage the inventory. You never have to make a decision between picking up that extra box of handgun bullets or an extra set of bandages. You don't have to decide whether to carry your lightweight handgun and have more room for supporting supplies, or take the high-powered - but bulky - rifle and sacrifice the ability to carry as many molotovs and med kits. The limitations feel very arbitrary, and the player is never presented with any kind of imperative to "take only what you need to survive." If it's not bolted to the floor, you take it with you!
It's not completely mindless though. You still have to weigh the benefits of the various crafting items to decide which is the most practical. But even this is undercut by the huge disparity in usefullness of the different craftable items. I found that shivs and molotovs were the most useful items in the game, and I always prioritized them, followed closely behind by med kits. I used the nail bomb a couple times after a death to a mini-boss forced me to restart the encounter several times. I think I only used 2 smoke bombs the entire game.
Linear environments limit strategic options
Beyond the items that you can pick up, the levels are also littered with glass bottles and bricks. You can't store these in your inventory, but you can pick them up and throw them to create distractions for the infected cordies or human soldiers that you encounter throughout the game. Proper usage of these items can allow you to sneak past many enemies undetected or get easy kills on them while their back is turned. I was hoping for the game to provide more incentive to sneak past enemies, and for it to offer multiple routes through areas and multiple solutions to challenges. But it seemed like every time there were bad guys, you had to go through them to get to the next destination.
The game also completely lacks any kind of survival mechanic. You don't have to carry food or water to keep yourself alive. Accessing your inventory and crafting items or bandaging your wounds all occur in real-time, so you need to find a safe corner to hide in to perform these actions. But since you don't have to manage limited food, stamina, or character health, the developers have to railroad the player into encounters with enemies in order to keep the game engaging.
I got so sick of all the funfights by the end.
I know if I were in this sort of situation, I would try to avoid conflict at all costs. If you walk into an apartment building and find it swarming with cordies, you're forced to try to sneak through. You can't back out and try the next building in the hopes that it will be safer. Trying to find safer, longer routes at the cost of consuming more food and water or missing rendezvous with other characters could have added a whole other layer of problem-solving opportunities: take the short path through a battalion of armed guards, or risk taking another path that might detour you for hours or days of in-game time (or prove to be even more dangerous)? Deciding to raid the supplies of humans that you encounter also could have become a mechanic within the game, and would have given the player some real moral conundrums to deal with.
Wait, I thought the zombies were supposed to be the bad guys?!
The designers don't help matters much by filling the world with so many people to kill!
Every area you visit is full of cordies or human patrols, and they are always hostile. I had a lot of trouble with the annoying one-hit kills from the "clicker" cordie early on, but all cordie encounters became trivial once I learned how powerful molotovs are: just toss a brick or bottle into a group of cordies, wait for them all to converge on it, then lob a molotov into the middle of the pack. No more infected! This is why molotovs always topped my priority list of items to craft.
Maybe the designers realized that the cordies were too easy, so they had to fill the game with hostile humans with guns. You spend more time in gunfights with aggressive human scavengers and soldiers than you do in engagements against cordyceps zombies. I guess the only thing you have to do to become immune to infection is be a sociopath, because virtually every character you meet in the game is a sociopath. You can try using bottles and bricks to distract them and sneak by, but one screw up and you'll be stuck in a gunfight with wave after wave of heavily-armed and (later on) armored people. Much like in Uncharted and Tomb Raider, gunfights occur far too frequently and by halfway through the game, they have lost all their excitement and have become mundane, tedious, and annoying. There's no silver-bullet that allows you to skip past these gunfights either. If you can sneak by on a consistent basis, then good for you. But if you screw up, you'll probably end up surrounded.
Naughty Dog seems to want to stick to what they do best, and what they do best is to make desperate fights for survival become boring and tedious.
"Listening" allows Joel to see through walls.
To help you out, the developers gave Joel superhuman sonar hearing. At any time, you can hold R2 to be able to locate enemies based on sound. This makes the screen go gray, and any source of sounds becomes highlighted in bright white. On the normal difficulty level, even cordies and people standing still make enough sound for Joel to hear them from a good 20 yards away, so this power essentially gives Joel the ability to see through walls. On the harder difficulties, this ability is a bit more balanced. The developers could have been a bit more creative with this mechanic and taken advantage of surround sound and visual indicators to highlight the general direction of sounds, instead of simply giving the character X-Ray vision. Ah well.
You also don't have to worry about getting infected by spores. Whenever you're in an area that has spores, Joel automatically puts on a gas mask. So there's no threat there either. You don't have to worry about the environment, only the bad guys (which you can see through walls...).
Oh, and as if all that didn't make the game easy enough, your companions are completely invisible to enemies until you get caught and the inevitable gunfight begins. This alleviates a lot of the problems typically associated with a game being one, big escort mission, since you don't have to worry about stupid AI companions blowing your cover. But it sure kills immersion when Ellie runs right in front of a guy who is actively looking for her without being noticed. I hate to cite Resident Evil 4 as a positive example, but that game was pretty clever with its escort mission, since it allowed you to tell your useless companion to just hide in a dumpster until you took care of the bad guys. I guess Ellie isn't useless. She can hold her own on a fight, so I'm not upset with having to take her with me, but it was still disappointing that the game didn't include any mechanics to force the player to have to scout ahead or distract the guards and then gesture for Ellie to move when the coast is clear. More missed opportunities to add challenge that isn't the result of having a gun in your face...
Shining gem of a chapter
There is one chapter late in the game that really allows the game to reach its potential. Late in the game, Ellie is kidnapped and held prisoner in a small resort town. As Joel attempts to rescue her, a blizzard rolls in.
I lost track of the kill-count fairly early...
During a cutscene in this chapter, a character points out that Joel and Ellie have killed a lot of people. Naughty Dog is no stranger to subtle self-referential analysis in their games. Nathan Drake commented quite regularly on the absurdity of situations in the Uncharted games. So someone on Naughty Dog's writing staff apparently recognizes that they have trivialized human murder, but the developers still create a game to appeal to the lowest-common denominator instead of experimenting with new styles of gameplay.
In any case, this chapter ends up being the highlight of the game. Visibility is limited, and your "sonar" power is significantly less effective, but the bad guys are also mostly blind and deaf too. You start out with no weapons except for your knife. It's a race to survive, and it's capped off with a one-on-one cat-and-mouse game with the group's leader inside of a burning restaurant while a bass-ey background track reminiscent of the music from John Carpenter's The Thing plays in the background. This was my favorite section of the game, and it made me wonder why the entire game wasn't more like this: limited number of enemies, with a greater emphasis on evading conflict instead of engaging in mindless gunfights against waves of bandits and infected. This particular encounter is treated like a boss fight, and it reminded me a little bit of a stripped-down, shortened version of the exceptional boss fight with Mr. Freeze from Batman Arkham City.
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An engaging narrative makes up for uninteresting action
I know I'm probably in the minority, but I found the gameplay of The Last of Us to not be very enjoyable at all. There's too much focus on gunfights and not enough focus on giving the player interesting decisions. Fortunately, the game's well-crafted narrative managed to keep me engaged throughout.
The focus of this game is on the development of a familial bond between Joel and Ellie, and on how people deal with traumatic events. Ellie is the centerpiece of the narrative. Her desire to chat with Joel and talk about his life and the things that are bothering him, as well as her attempts to make idle jokes and sing to herself give the game a lot of personality. Ellie feels very real and likable, which is important because the entire game is framed as one big escort mission to protect her (even though that isn't what it is). Joel has to learn to move on from the past, and that there are more important things in this world than one's own survival. There's a massive build-up to a climactic moral dilemma, as the game deals very heavily with the internal conflict of protecting one's own loved ones versus the desire to do what's right for society as a whole.
So even though the gameplay is pretty standard and mundane zombie-shooter fare, the narrative at least has some substance behind it.
Joel and Ellie's cross-country trip provides plenty of opportunity for visual variety.
The story isn't perfect. Because the game never gives the player any meaningful decisions that affect the narrative, I felt an irritating detachment from the protagonist. For one thing, he's kind of a jerk. After the first 10 minutes of the game, it's very hard to sympathize with him anymore because he comes off as being so abrasive. The only time I ever felt sympathetic towards him for most of the middle act of the game was when he was with an even bigger NPC jerk (i.e. Bill).
Granted, this is all part of his character arc (or lack of character arc, depending on how you look at it). He's supposed to seem cold, remorseless, and detached because he's lost the thing in life that really made life worth living, and the whole game is about how he essentially regains his humanity through his growing attachment to Ellie, even though he's sociopathic. The net effect was that I just didn't like him for most of the game, and shoe-horning me into killing more people (who may or may not deserve it) didn't do anything to make him more likeable.
Ellie gets kind of annoying too. Mostly because her favorite word is "fuck". I know 12-year-olds really do love that word, but Ellie's dialogue was repeated way too often. Everytime I cleared a room with a molotov, stealth killed a group of enemies, or in any way cleared an area without being caught, Ellie would invariably comment "Oh, fuck," in a surprised tone, as if she hadn't seen me do the same thing ten times already. This wouldn't have been a problem if the gameplay designers didn't repeat the same situations so often. But it does repeat, so Ellie's dialogue repeats, so she gets annoying.
Also, for a game that is supposed to be about the two main characters bonding with one another, the game sure does skip over a whole lot of their interactions. Entire weeks or months of Joel and Ellie's time together is glossed over as the game skips from one whole season to the next in between certain chapters. Perhaps if the designers hadn't put all their efforts into designing the whole gameplay experience around combat encounters with cordies and soldiers, they could have put some more time into giving the player unique and interesting challenges during this skipped time, so that we could spend more time with the two characters as they travel together. After all, there isn't much time for bonding when you're looking down the barrel of a gun. But when you're wandering along the highway for weeks at a time, there is plenty of time for talking. Even short montage sequences of platforming, exploration, or puzzle-solving gameplay (similar to the "lost in the desert" chapter of Uncharted 3) could have offered a wider variety of gameplay experiences as well as further explore the characters.
Mature content and ethical fuzziness
This game earns its "M for Mature" rating. Not just through violent gunplay, but also for including some very adult subject matter and themes. Over the course of the game, you'll come across many areas that were formerly occupied by survivors such as yourselves, and will learn about their fates through contextual scenery and collectible documents. Although there is a lot of explicit exposition through notes left by people, there are a lot of "stories without words" in this game. Aside from unrealistically-blocked paths, the environments feel very lived-in and organic, and a methodical exploration of an area can often piece together an entire narrative of the area's former occupants (even if you don't read the notes they leave behind).You'll read about people having to leave loved ones behind in order to save themselves or others, people euthanizing children in order to protect them from infection, sociopaths taking in underage girls as sex slaves, and even some questionable medical ethics.
The Last of Us does not shy away from grim and controversial subjects.
In addition to having strong themes about handling the death of loved ones,
this game also hints at the euthanasia of children, child sex slavery, medical ethics, and so on.
Most of it is handled very tastefully, and I found myself often times feeling more sympathy towards the authors of the various notes than towards the actual player characters.
One could make an argument that this game might have potentially been much more emotionally powerful if the developers had left some of the moral decisions up to the player - especially at the end. Instead, we are forced to watch the characters make decisions that we might not have made. This contributes to the aforementioned detachment that I felt for the protagonist, since I found his actions at the end of the game to be very objectionable, yet I was forced to play through them knowing full well that I would have no chance to affect the outcome. But taking away the player's agency to influence the outcome is a deliberate decision, and it's critical to the message of the game.
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At the end of the game, when you finally reach the Firefly lab, Ellie and Joel are captured, and Ellie is sedated and taken into surgery. The researchers plan to remove Ellie's brain in order to study the dormant cordyceps infection and hopefully develop a vaccine. When Joel finds out about this, he goes on a murder spree and attempts to rescue Ellie, killing anyone and everyone who gets in his path. This ending has some very weighty ethical implications.
Joel (not the player) makes the choice to sacrifice humanity's survival to protect Ellie.
First and foremost, it highlights how desperation can hamper a person's ethics. Throughout the entire game, Joel and Ellie have been murdering hundreds of people in the name of survival. The game doesn't make any of those kills dubious because it's always presented in self-defense, and the enemies are completely de-humanized. But at the end of the game, we see doctors and surgeons sacrifice their own medical ethical guidelines (the Hippocratic Oath) under the guise of "doing what is right for society." Heck, the Fireflies don't exactly give the impression of competence to begin with! They plan to kill Ellie in order to extract the specimen from her brain without her consent. (Even though she is in no danger of dying from it, and they have - effectively - all the time in the world to study her unique immunity.) This is absolutely wrong! No person should be made to sacrifice their life so that another may live. Such a sacrifice must always be voluntary; that's what makes it noble.
But Joel's rescue isn't exactly taking the moral high ground either. He kills all the Firefly guards in order to get to Surgery, and must kill at least one of the surgeons in order to be able to remove Ellie. (You know, all the people who may be most qualified to treat and cure the disease and save humanity!) He then takes Ellie while she is still sedated and runs away with her.
The reason that Joel's decision is ethically questionable is because
- a.) he's sacrificing humanity's future to save Ellie, and
- b.) Ellie would have volunteered for the procedure if given the choice, and he knows it!
What's worse is that Joel might be making the wrong decision for the wrong reason. By the end of the game, he hasn't simply grown attached to Ellie in a fatherly relationship; he has projected his feelings for his own dead daughter, Sarah, onto Ellie. This is apparent when Joel begins to refer to Ellie as "baby girl", which was his pet name for his daughter at the start of the game.
By the end of the game, Joel hasn't simply adopted Ellie as a surrogate daughter,
he has projected his love for his dead "baby girl" onto her.
Now, this doesn't mean that Joel is wrong. Nobody can blame him for wanting to save Ellie, regardless of the underlying psychological complex motivating him. It just isn't the right decision (the two are not mutually exclusive).
I'm also not saying that this makes the game's story bad; it's just an unfortunate narrative decision for a game of this style. Especially since they went to the trouble of redesigning the Operating Room scene so that it would be playable, and the player would have the option of whether to kill the doctors or not; so somebody on the dev team knew how powerful a subtle little bit of gameplay could be, and how much more interesting it can make the game.
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How the game should have worked
The thing that differentiates a game from a movie or a book is the interactive element. If you make an action game, then you put the player in control of the action; it you make a racing game, you put the player in control of the racing; if you make a horror game, you put the player in the horrifying situation. Having a static narrative works fine for a game like Uncharted because that game is an action game. It is driven by its action and not by its story, so the player only needs to be a major contributor to the action elements. The story can still be entertaining, and a well-written story is always a plus, but the story (in that case) is just there to move the character(s) and player from one action set to another.
The Last of Us, however, isn't an action game. Or at least, it shouldn't be. It's a narrative-driven drama in the same vein as Silent Hill 2 (here I go again...). It's about the characters, how they interact, how they bond, and how they deal with the traumatic events around them. It's also about how their respective life situations lead them to the decisions that they make. The game should be working to train the player to make certain decisions, but the player should still be free to decide. By taking decision-making away from the player, and by forcing the player into stealth / shooter gameplay, Naughty Dog creates a situation in which there is a dramatic detachment between the gameplay and the narrative. How you play the character during the actual levels may not be the same as how the characters behave during cutscenes. One of the things that makes Silent Hill 2's story so strong and memorable is that the player has influence on the resolution of the narrative. James' reaction to the revelation of the climax of that game is determined by actions that the player makes over the course of the game. So when James makes his final decision on how (or whether) to move on with his life, the decision feels appropriate for almost every player because the player's actions lead James into that decision. This is one path that the game could have taken. In The Last of Us, the player has no control over how the story unfolds or is resolved.
Companions are invisible and a non-factor in stealth unless you are detected.
This doesn't make it a bad story or a bad game! The story is still excellent, and the ending is still gripping and satisfying in a very primal way. And I'm not saying that ending should have been changed or left up to the player's whim because that would undercut the message behind the whole story. But it does beg the question of "why is this a game and not just a movie or a book?"
And the fixes seem pretty obvious. The game could have been designed so that the player has to chose whether to raid other humans' supplies for yourself; thus, reinforcing the theme of conflict between self-preservation and the common good. And the stealth segments could have been augmented by mechanics in which the player has to scout ahead and distract enemies in order to clear a path for Ellie; thus, making protecting Ellie an active component of both the narrative and a central mechanic of gameplay. But neither of those happened, so the gameplay seems standard-fare and completely disjoint from the story and themes, even though that story and those themes are excellently written.
And notice that neither of those suggestions requires allowing the player to change the outcome of the story, or alter the development of the characters. All it does is shift the gameplay more towards the same themes that the game is about, would humanize some of the potential antagonists, and would allow the player more freedom of agency rather than being railroaded into a cover-based shooter.
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Worth it for the story
Despite being a bit disappointing in the gameplay design department, The Last of Us has a compelling narrative and interesting characters. The gameplay itself is excellently designed in its own right, it's just tedious and doesn't completely integrate itself into the game's strong narrative. Despite my frustration with the frequent gunfights, I kept playing the game because I wanted to see what would happen to Joel and Ellie. I couldn't pry myself away. And in the end, that's as high a praise as any!
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