Video Game Horror and Stabbin’ Jerks: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us

Horror (like any other genre, to be honest) isn’t something limited to dollar-bin paperbacks. And, since I’ve run into something of a snag on the current dollar-bin horror paperback I’m reading (spoiler: it’s boring), I figured I’d branch out into something a little different. Namely, Video Games!

And the video game in question? The Last of Us. I actually picked up this game shortly after it came out, but I re-played it recently, so I figured I’d talk about it here. This may be ‘old news’ as far as video games go, but I read decades-old sci-fi novels all the time, so I don’t feel so bad about it. Still, this blog post will be spoilery as all get out, so consider yourself warned.

Ever since the 8-bit era, there’s been an ongoing discussion of the ‘legitimacy’ of video games as an art form. As technology has advanced, this has opened up more and more options for game-makers. The budgets and development teams of ‘Triple A’ games are comparable to big summer blockbuster movies, with marketing campaigns to match. I mean, heck, I’ve been seeing a lot of commercials for Gears of War 4 on TV lately. Better than Clash of Clans commercials, I guess, but that’s neither here nor there.

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Using that movie analogy, The Last of Us is Oscar bait. Just … big budget Oscar bait. With zombies. Visually, The Last of Us is gorgeous. The game is post-apocalyptic, but not a wasteland. Buildings and cities decay– but it’s contrasted with lush greenery and forests overgrowing everything. But, even more than it’s stellar graphics, The Last of Us prides itself on its story. Where most big franchises like Halo or Gears of War basically can be boiled down to “you are gritty protagonist dude and you have to shoot a bunch of people,” The Last of Us can be boiled down to “you are a gritty protagonist dude and you have to shoot a bunch of people while a little girl follows you around.”

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With zombies.

To be fair, the plot is a bit deeper than that. The Last of Us centers around Joel and Ellie (I’ll let you figure out which one is which by looking at the cover) as they trek across a zombie-infested U.S. See, Ellie is somehow immune to the zombie infection, so they have to get her to the scientists on the other side of the country in order to formulate a cure. It’s grim and thoughtful and full of great character moments and such. In fact, if you’ve got a couple of hours free, you could sit down and watch all the cutscenes all put together on YouTube.

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But, the thing is, The Last of Us isn’t a movie. It’s a game. And while the gameplay is solid as well, it really doesn’t match the story, and that’s where things go askew … albeit in an interesting way.

The term “ludonarrative dissonance” was coined to describe the disconnect between a game’s story and a game’s gameplay. No matter the game, this is always going to come up– I mean, as long as there’s a pause button and/or a save feature, you’re already way different from modern life. The issue of ludonarrative dissonance wasn’t a huge factor in early video games, as their limited computing technology required a great deal of abstraction. You can cram a lot of character into 8 bits, but there’s only so much you can do. In contrast, games like The Last of Us try to have a more ‘realistic’ plot.

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Note the movie poster in the lower left. The in-game media that pops up from time to time is one of my favorite little touches in the game.

Like many zombie apocalypses, the setting of The Last of Us really doesn’t hold up if you look at it for too long. Most of the game takes place a good twenty years after the initial outbreak … which makes me wonder where the heck all the new zombies are coming from. I mean, sure, the critters are nasty, but they’re hardly invincible.

On the other hand, one of the key facets to zombie apocalypses (or really, post apocalyptic stuff in general), it’s not the zombies you have to worry about, but the other survivors. Fair enough. It’s just … well, just about everyone you meet in The Last of Us with very few exceptions is a raging asshole. The average raider you run into has as much self preservation instinct as the average orc, and thus they come a-charging at you with a board, even though Joel is an armed-to-the-teeth murder-machine. The average playthrough of The Last of Us will have you brutally killing hundreds of these maniacs just to survive. That’s how the game goes, after all.

Now, silly AI is one thing. But weirdo plot is another. The Last of Us is full of people who try to kill you … but it’s surprisingly lacking in compelling villains. You rarely get into boss fights or anything– you just have huge masses of crazed jerks who want to kill you Because Reasons … even when it makes no sense for them to do so. For example, there’s one part of the game in which you come across a city full of bandit-types who have overthrown the local government and taken their stuff– including an operational Humvee with a big-ass machine gun on it. And … for whatever reason, pretty much an entire city’s worth of homicidal assholes is chasing you deep into zombie territory, wasting who knows how much gas, ammunition, and manpower.

Or, during a part of the game where you play as Ellie (who, I should note, is surprisingly kick-ass, but that could be another blog entry on its own), you meet a dude named David, who doesn’t try to kill you on sight. David’s more or less a funhouse mirror reflection of Joel– he’s got the same father-figure-worthy beard … he’s just skinnier. But then the game has the BIG REVEAL that some people from David’s group went out foraging for supplies, only to have most of them get killed by “some psychopath and a little girl.” (Not an exact quote, but close enough). So you killed David’s buddies! Dun dun dun! You should feel bad!

Except … David’s buddies shot at you first. Unlike, say, a Fallout game, there’s no ‘Speech’ skill in The Last of Us. It’s linear, so pretty much everyone you meet will try to kill you. And, as such, you have to kill them first. Most of the time there’s not even a proper Metal Gear-esque stealth option to sneak by– you have to shank some dudes in order to progress.

And if that wasn’t enough, it turns out that David’s settlement he’s foraging for? They’re cannibals. And on top of that, it turns out that David’s a pedophile who’s, uh … interested in Ellie. Ew.

The Last of Us really tries to emphasize the gruesomeness and violence of its post-apocalyptic setting, and it wants to present Joel (and later Ellie, I suppose) as bad, bad people. By extension, you, as the player, are also theoretically a bad person, guiding your digital avatar around to shank all those guys in the neck. But … this loses pretty much any impact it might have once you realize that the hundreds of enemies you murderize are total assholes. I mean, space bugs and other monsters have the excuse of being mindless monsters, or enemy soldiers in the average Call of Duty or whatever are on the wrong side of a war. In contrast, The Last of Us is filled with nigh-suicidal maniacs who are out kill you (and/or get themselves killed) for no reason at all.

Complain as I may, I really enjoy The Last of Us, and I’ll probably go back and replay it again sometime. It’s just that when I play, I take a somewhat … different mindset. Once Joel’s leveled up a bit (helped by a New Game + feature), the game becomes less of a post apocalyptic survival horror, and almost something akin to playing a slasher movie monster. (There’s not a hockey mask skin, or a chainsaw weapon, but now I wish there were). Those post-apocalyptic hunter guys become the hunted as you prowl and stalk them, picking them off one by one. And it’s okay to shank those dudes anyway, ’cause they’re cannibal rapists. Bonus! With the Friday the 13th video game getting pushed back ’til 2017, there really aren’t many video games that give you that option. So all and all, it’s fun, even if it’s probably not what Naughty Dog had in mind. If you haven’t had the chance to play The Last of Us, you should be able to track down a PS3 copy for fairly cheap these days. Well worth checking out, despite the weird story/gameplay issues. And to Naughty Dog’s credit, they kept that in mind when they put out the Left Behind DLC which is arguably better than the central gameI may even give that a separate review sometime if I feel like replaying it and/or I get behind on my book reviews.

Finally, I just learned there’s some rumor of a sequel coming out at … sometime much, much later in the future. Should be interesting to see how that goes.

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