In 2010 noted and respected film critic Roger Ebert made the infamous statement that video games, in his opinion, can never be considered art. Immediately the worldwide gaming community gave a strong and concentrated reply to this claim. Seminal classics such as Bioshock, the Mass Effect trilogy, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and indie favourite Journey were presented as evidence against Ebert's claims. Had Ebert made that inflammatory proclamation today another game would be added to that list: 2013's The Last of Us.
To paraphrase Heath Ledger's Joker The Last of Us takes a familiar and overdone concept and turns it on it's head. Set 20 years after the decimation of the human race by a real-world fungus called cordyceps, which renders the infected persons into zombie-like drones, a worn-out and tired smuggler named Joel is tasked with escorting a smart-arse 14-year-old girl named Ellie across the ruined and nature-reclaimed remains of the United States. There's a lot more to the story than that but to say much more would ruin the experience.
The Last of Us is terrifying, brutal (easily earning its R18 rating) in both gameplay and storylines, hilarious, and above all else beautiful. In the game's 14 hour playthrough I witnessed events that left me speechless, not out of horror or disgust but just in absorbing the full scope of what I was seeing. True credit belongs to the game's designers and animators for bringing such breathtaking awe to decaying ruins. The game is smart and recognises these beats, allowing the player to sit and explore these scenes. The standout scene of sublime beauty took place about two hours before the game's ending. I dare not spoil it for you but when you see it you'll know what I am talking about.
In order to appreciate the beauty in the world there has to be horror and the game delivers that in spades. The remaining humans infected by the cordyceps spore are merciless and unrelenting. Driven blind and insane by the spore these "clickers" use echolocation by clicking their tongues to "see". If they find you its an instant kill and game over. The clickers and their ilk aren't the real villains of the game though, they are more victims of circumstance. The true evil of the game are the raiders you occasionally encounter in your trek. Coordinated and savage they too will put an early end to the adventure. Only by having true awareness of your surroundings can you be expected to survive.
Players take control of Joel, a man haunted by past traumas. Joel is very obviously a loner, not looking for any company, which makes his interactions with Ellie the true centre of the game. Voice actors Troy Baker (previously Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite) and Ashley Johnson bring gravity and humanity to their roles. The relationship that develops between the two is probably one of the most true to life relationships ever depicted in gaming, despite all of the sci-fi and apocalyptic overtones.
Joel navigates this metaphorical minefield using stealth and taking advantage of the environment to hide and flank the enemy. Joel can also craft items such as tools and weapons from junk found scattered throughout the game. Joel's backpack is not very large so players have to be smart as how they approach each situation. Adding to this difficulty is the scarcity of ammunition, forcing players to be economical when using firearms. Players should also be aware that creating too much noise alerts enemies to your location, which more often than not leads to a swift and bloody snap to a black screen and a saved game being reloaded. Noise discipline is a must.
The Last of Us is a cinematic game borrowing heavily from sci-fi and end-of-the-world films such as 28 Days Later and I am Legend. The dialogue and story beats also owe a lot to cinema in set-up and delivery. The cut scenes are lengthy and animated beautifully and realistically; it is easy to get caught up in them.
At its heart The Last of Us is a road movie. An interactive exploration into the lives of two damaged people, trying to find meaning in their lives and facing unimaginable situations. It is confronting and a little harrowing but it is a journey well worth experiencing if you have a weekend free, and a PlayStation 3. The Last of Us is a defining game, not just of the last generation of video game consoles, but in the history of video games to date.
If you like this also play:Bioshock, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Fallout 3