One of the most frustrating things about video games is that people often think of them in the same category of movies in ways both big and small. One of the smaller ways in which this comparison shows up is in the idea that a game has to be completed in order to be appreciated or evaluated. Quitting a game midway when it could redeem itself at the end is said to be a fallacy that immediately invalidates any review on the game.
This is an argument that I’ve had multiple times. Convincing friends and readers alike that the reasons why I decided to not play a game any longer speak to the problems of the game and that those problems are substantial was an uphill climb that was often met with boulders of how not playing a substantial part of the game invalidated anything I had to say. This is an argument so recurrent my life that I even almost considered the possibility that I might be almost yet not quite not on the ball.
Of course, then I realized I was on the ball and y’all are wrong. And it was because of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s attempt at turning Uncharted into Resident Evil 4. If that doesn’t explain how ill-conceived this game is, then I can’t think of any way of explaining it.
My first time trying to play the Last of Us had me quitting in the middle of the prologue because it did a few things that always bother me in video games. The unnecessary prologue meant to install sympathy on the main character through the murder of a younger character. Putting you in the position of protector with a charge that was unobstructive (because it’s harder to sympathize with people who are genuinely helpless in video games) and most importantly, putting you in a position where the skills that the game would demand later (or, in other words, why you bought the game) are genuinely irrelevant.
My second time was for this burgeoning project of mine, where I finally play through all the games I’ve acquired in a lark because they were as cheap as a McDonald’s’ meal. I got a bit farther this time, but as soon as I started to realize exactly what kind of game I was playing I realized that I was less and less invested on what it wanted to be and say. Children of Men is a fine movie but kind of a bad idea for a video game, except for the few people who genuinely fantasize of the breakdown of society as an excuse to live a life with meaning.
The few moments of brilliance in the game by the time you’ve reached fall in Jackson County are related to this. Joel being skeptical of Ellie’s immunity to zombie-itis and his eventual acceptance of the task are mostly related to the fact that he had become one of those roaming warriors that every single player who engages with this kind of fantasy dreams of becoming, where conflicts are as simple as “fight or flight”. What’s so frustrating about this game then is that those conflicts seem to play out in very predetermined ways. You always survive and the more survivalist elements in your life also do while the less cynical people don’t. The second Tess realizes that Ellie is her ticket to some sort of higher purpose she’s done for. Henry and Sam are done-so the moment they really bond with Ellie and Joel. It’s misery after misery and it has almost nothing to say about people.
I don’t really expect games like this, with such a large budget to have some grand thesis. But its mournful Santaolalla soundtrack and its art direction are clearly indicative of a game that wants to have solemn concerns. And yet it all feels so manipulative. The comedy feels mournful and the drama feels melancholic. It’s all staged in a way that leads to characters like Ellie and Sam, another young kid, to talk about the state of the world in lofty terms. They even ponder the afterlife and they don’t have the vocabulary for it. It certainly captures their voices but then stifles them in a plot that clearly has bigger concerns, like how to heap misery on misery.
The tone wouldn’t be so worrisome if the gameplay was good. You don’t have to go far to see that. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is a playable Indiana Jones movie and has a hero that feels distinct enough from Harrison Ford’s take in its action set pieces to feel exciting. Granted, Nathan Drake kills hundreds of people and his ability to keep some sort of cheerfulness through this is frankly disquieting. But Uncharted knows the material it is imitating and knows how to emulate it. And let’s be honest, that material also seemed deeply sociopathic once you consider the easiness with which Indiana Jones and other 80s adventurers dispatched henchmen and quipped about their deaths.
And yet the gameplay in The Last of Us is so bare. And this would be a compliment in any other instance except that it also requires a weird degree of complexity. It’s a game that asks you to upgrade weapons and scavenge resources to craft weapons and then it just makes most of it rather redundant. In the end, there’s no situation in the normal difficulty that can’t be resolved by using firepower and punching and there’s no situation that can’t be resolved in hard without using distractions and sneaking to get past the guards/zombies. It feels like adding sugar to an omelette in that it’ll only create one reaction: why?
The Last of Us is a game I wish I could understand. I have dedicated at least 8 hours to it and I still can’t seem to derive any significant enjoyment from it. One that games have been trying to replicate since Resident Evil 4 without understanding that the reason why that works and why Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us don’t work is precisely because they go the inverse route. In RE4 you have to be Ashley Graham’s guardian and she can be intrusive and make you reconsider your next step, making you reconsider every strategy. In BI and TLOU, Elizabeth and Ellie are pretty much invisible, removing the stakes that their existence in that situation imply.
It all even can be traced to one of the most simple, brilliant things about RE4. You can’t move and shoot. So evasion and offense become different games and strategies. Choosing which to use when is thrilling and it involves a degree of strategic thinking that can make the action more about creativity and finding the right position than just the skill to aim at the right place. In the Last of Us, positioning and creativity are not really involved. The stealth path is laid out for you. If you screw it up, it’s a matter of timing, of not figuring out when to do the thing that the patrol pattern wanted you to do. You can’t solve for variables in the same way that you can in FIFA with an interception or a sleep dart in MGS.
It might be because I’ve been playing FIFA alongside all of this (and some thoughts will come along with that) but I do admire the sports’ like design of RE4, which rewards fast action and foresight in equal measure, in the same way FIFA does.
The Last of Us, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to reward. Is it a fast paced game that rewards quick reflexes? Or is it a game that rewards patience and calculation. It clearly wants to be both but both approaches are just unrewarding. Being unseen in an area just feels uncalled for. Shooting through thugs just feels like picking the low risk-low reward route.
TLOU’s last sin is probably the fact that it has no significant investment on stealth. In TLOU patience and planning is never rewarded. Observing patterns, figuring out blind spots and the like is almost impossible. It is just a preamble to the inevitable moment when you’re caught. I have never been able to complete a sequence without being found or, failing that, being found more than three times. And I’m the sort of person who spends 20 minutes on MGS tagging guards, observing their patterns and figuring out the best route. Maybe other players can go sight unseen but I feel that at one point or another, stealth has to involve improvisation. You have to have resources when seen.
Overall, I feel bad. I wish I could like this game. TLOU is a game that is beloved for its storytelling but I was immediately skeptical of it. And I kept being proven correct in that skepticism. The few moments where The Last of Us shines are in its short interpersonal interactions between Ellie and Joel and yet those moments just serve to underline how the rest of it is so unequivocally hard to enjoy. A game that is supposed to be challenging and yet is very accommodating in its game design, consistently favoring a lack of patience and planning in favor of sheer brutality and its mentality, which fits with how most gamers perceive a zombie apocalypse to be.
The Last of Us is a conventional game dressed as a subversive game. It’s a game that pretends to break the rules while simply accommodating them in a slightly topsy turvy game. In part it is also a game that wishes it could be more but it can’t be more because the things that it absorbs as direct inspirations are movies that have done what it does better than what it tries to do. The Last of Us exemplifies why it’s so easy to convince nerds that videogames are art and why it is so hard to convince skeptics of the artistic value of games. It is a game that is only good when it is a movie, rather than when it is a game.