Revisiting The Last of Us – Part I

rtlou-001

The Last of Us is a game that demands a second playthrough – the question is, does it change for the better a second time around?

Editors Note – this is Part I in a two-part series on revisiting The Last of Us. Click here to read Part II.

When it was initially released, The Last of Us garnered high praise from everyone in the video game industry, including this very site. In his review, author Nick Olsen summed up The Last of Us as “an exercise in greatness.” This success was anything but shocking – developer Naughty Dog was coming off of two amazing games, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. To hear that their latest was a must-play was akin to saying Nintendo’s latest Super Mario game was good.

But when I first played The Last of Us, I found a game that, although enjoyable, was far more flawed than I was expecting. The game suffered from glitches, anything from egregious clipping to enemy AI that would either suddenly lose all of their senses, allowing me to walk past them with no consequence, or gain superpowers, sniping me with a pistol from ridiculously far distances – either scenario was common. More importantly, the allegedly tense gameplay was so far removed from the brutality of the world (at least while playing on normal difficulty) that it prompted an essay on the importance of defining normal difficulty in video games.

Despite my many problems with the game, it was one that never quite left me. I would  walk through downtown Chicago on a lunch break, see buildings covered in ivy, and my mind would wander back to the bleak yet beautiful worlds of The Last of Us, in which cities such as Boston and Pittsburgh were decaying and crumbling under their own weight. I would watch the news and hear of some new atrocity people inflicted somewhere in the world, and sometimes I would think about Joel’s selfish choices that seemingly doomed humanity, and ponder over whether he was, ultimately, right or not about the fate of the human race. A bleak outlook to be sure, but few games have presented a world and characters that have had such a lasting impact on me.

I hoped to one day revisit The Last of Us, and my time came when Naughty Dog released a remastered version for the Playstation 4. I picked up a copy, and what I found was a game that still spoke to me, provided hours of entertainment, and in some ways improved. I also found greater clarity on what went wrong my first time around, and perhaps more insight into Naughty Dog’s philosophy as a developer. Revisiting The Last of Us was important, not only to understand such a critical and commercial success, but to also gain some insight into what Naughty Dog may have in store for the future.

Story and Characters – Initial Thoughts

One thing Naughty Dog got absolutely right with The Last of Us was the introduction/opening level; it’s among the best I have ever experienced. The opening sequence, in which players see the first wave of destruction and violence caused by the mysterious Cordyceps fungus, stands out not only for its impact and violence, but for taking place from the view of Joel’s daughter Sarah. By getting to observe Joel first before playing as him, the game is able to establish his personality and character in a way that feels natural. We’re shown who Joel is, rather than the game telling the player who the protagonist is.

Yet despite this strong beginning, the story and characters continued to stumble throughout the rest of the game. I watched as Joel met up with Ellie, and suddenly they went from Boston to Pittsburgh, and then it was on to Colorado and Utah, and along the way some people were killed, both good and bad. It all felt very rushed and repetitive – go to a new area, avoid infected monsters, encounter humans (who are the real monsters), kill them, escape, rinse, repeat. I had a difficult time grasping the journey, mostly because it betrayed the expert storytelling found in the opening. I was being told this was a long journey, but I wasn’t necessarily being shown that.

To make matters worse, Joel and Ellie’s story ended in a way that, at the time, felt unsatisfying. I pushed these two characters across the country, and even if it seemed rushed, I still had to watch them awkwardly bond, overcome injuries and dodge horrific fates. But then it all came to a sudden end, with Ellie being taken away to have medical tests performed on her, ones that would kill her, but would produce a cure for the disease that ravaged the land. Without any input from the player, Joel made the choice to stop all the people trying to find a cure (which is another way of saying he killed them all) and took Ellie, leaving to go live with his brother in a sort of post-apocalyptic hippie commune. To top it off, the player had no say in these choices, which culminates in Joel lying to Ellie about the potential for a cure. It really felt like the entire story was all for nothing, that neither Joel nor Ellie were in any better shape than they were before they met in Boston. What started out with such a high level of promise ended on a flat note, and I couldn’t believe that this story was told by the same people who were able to sustain a narrative about thieves and legendary treasures for three games prior.

Story and Characters – Revisited

Any story, no matter how simple or complex, is easier to digest the second time around, because the player can set their expectations at an appropriate level. On my second playthrough, I decided to focus on characters instead of narrative. By doing this, I no longer worried about the details of the fungal infection, and the results where immediately beneficial. By focusing more on the characters, I was able to appreciate them all, not just Joel and Ellie.

I’m convinced that the heart of this game comes from the characters the player bumps into along the way. So much was initially made of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, how complex and tense it was, how it might be sexist or it might not, and although I found it far less forced this time around, I was far more impressed by characters such a Bill, who helps Joel get a car so he can head west. His story was far more tragic than I initially recalled, because it was clear that all of this yelling and brash, in-your-face attitude was a cover for a human being feeling the pain and agony of loss. But therein lies the rub – Bill knows that dwelling on the loss of his partner, of letting those emotions linger, will cause him to lose sight of the ultimate goal – survival. He has to bury those emotions if he wants to live, but what kind of life is he living?

The impact of this existential debate could easily have been lessened if the player chose to focus on the larger narrative; however, when focusing on just the characters, it’s as plain as day. When Bill chastises Joel for accepting the job of escorting Ellie across the country, his words carry a weight that signifies that, in the pit of his stomach, Bill knows exactly why Joel took the job (well before Joel fully understands his own role in this story), but he knows that he could never take on something like this, not in this new world with a whole new set of rules and priorities. As noble as Joel’s mission is, Bill knows that it puts into jeopardy the only one that matters.

And then there’s Sam and Henry, two characters I almost forgot were even in the game to begin with, yet stood out this time through. Their story obviously serves as a mirror for Joel and Ellie to view their own journey, and for them to both truly understand how much they need each other in a world in which life is so fragile and weak. Preventing Sam from succumbing to infection was the one goal Henry had, and yet it wasn’t his fault that Sam got bit – anyone can get infected at any time. But Henry still failed, and without Sam his life had no purpose. Even though these characters enter and leave the story early on, they foreshadow how Joel and Ellie’s relationship evolves over time.

rtlou-002

The Winter chapter, which stars Ellie as the player character, is not only the highlight of the game, but also the chapter that best demonstrates the game’s flaws.

But the character who still left me perplexed was David, the villain of the Winter chapter. During my initial playthrough, I thought that, for as solid as the combat in this section was (playing as Ellie is  the highlight of the gameplay), the entire premise of this chapter, and the character David himself, felt a bit cheap and exploitative. It never sat right with me how quickly David went from getting Ellie medicine to abducting her and, in a literal and metaphorical sense, forcing himself onto her. What stood out when revisiting this chapter wasn’t so much how exploitative it felt, but how nonsensical the tension in this game can be. The set-up is that, in the previous chapter, Joel and Ellie hoped to find scientists at Eastern Colorado University who could use Ellie to engineer a cure. After finding the school abandoned, the duo were attacked by bandits who we later learned were David’s men. But their initial attack was without provocation, so David’s revenge on Joel and Ellie is already based on shaky logic – if he didn’t want to risk his men dying, he shouldn’t have sent such a trigger-happy group out in the first place. You could argue that David has gone crazy, and therefore questioning his logic is a waste of time, but the problem extends far beyond David.

Throughout the entire game, most people seem content to shoot first, ask questions later, even though we see that people can be civilized and coexist peacefully (Joel’s brother Tommy and the town he has built suggest that humanity still has a future). Yet, when these gun-crazed bandits get shot back, their reaction is that of betrayal, as if they were doing the right thing all along. Or, as David puts it to Ellie, acting out of necessity. But there is no evidence to support these actions, that the only way to live is to shoot blindly, and therefore the tension in the story often feels forced. It’s not in David’s best interest to be so violent, but without that aggression, there would literally be no combat in all of the Winter chapter.

Yet despite this, I found myself enjoying the resolution to Ellie’s conflict with David. What felt exploitative the first time (that Ellie seemed capable of killing David on her own but still needed Joel’s help in the end), the second time through it highlighted the central conflict to Ellie’s character – she’s always been physically strong enough to fend for herself, but is she mentally tough enough? Is she capable of shredding the final pieces of her childhood, her innocence and purity, to survive? That gruesome scene, of Ellie relentlessly stabbing an already-dead David over and over until Joel pulls her off of him, was able to simultaneously show growth in Ellie while also demonstrating that she still has some growing up to do.

Of course, this all leads up to the ending, and with a clearer understanding of the characters and their motivations, and proper expectations for the story, I found the conclusion to be far more satisfying. Although I morally object to Joel’s decision to take Ellie away from the scientists and lie to her about the possibility of a cure, I now understand it – in this world, no matter how brutal or bleak it gets, it’s even worse if you’re alone. It’s a fitting conclusion to a story that is at its best when it’s working in the background, allowing the characters to take center stage.

Gameplay and Combat – Initial Thoughts

One of the many areas The Last of Us received praise was gameplay, and the brutal tone of the combat. In many games that involve stealth, developers will often litter their levels with bottles or stones so the player can throw them to distract guards or enemies, but in The Last of Us the same brick can also be used as a weapon, and the closeness and violence of these scenes stands out to many as a gameplay victory for Naughty Dog. But I struggled with the combat during my first run, mostly because a lot of the brutality and overall tone felt like fancy window dressing with little substance.

From the first level, The Last of Us emphasizes stealth – the player has to sneak out of the military camp in Boston, and continues sneaking until they meet Bill and obtain a car. Yet as I hid in cover waiting to take out an enemy, Ellie would often get up and run straight toward danger. My instincts would kick in, and I would jump out of cover to rescue her, but that’s when I learned that the enemy AI was programmed to not notice Ellie when she popped out of hiding. It’s also when I learned that the brutality the player inflicts on enemies can also be inflicted back onto the player, and I often found myself restarting a section because Ellie decided to go for an impromptu jog in the middle of a warzone.

I eventually learned to ignore Ellie, but this had a serious effect on the gameplay – every time she ran around while I tried to sneak past danger, it took me out of the element. I would watch as her character model and an enemy character model would bump into each other, and they would awkwardly act as if nothing had happened, and I was reminded that I was playing a video game and that these people are not real and ultimately the story, characters, tension and combat didn’t matter. Great games draw the player in and make them forget these things, yet the combat of The Last of Us was constantly reminding me how fake the world was.

But even if Ellie behaved and didn’t doom me to an untimely death, I still found many problems with the stealth-heavy gameplay. Stealth games work when the player is able to assess their surroundings thoroughly, and can plan many steps ahead of the enemy. This is where the thrill and sense of power comes from in these games – games like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell do not feature inhuman super-soldier bullet-sponge protagonists, but they allow players to use stealth to take out an entire enemy camp that would otherwise murder them in an instant. This set-up is a part of The Last of Us – Joel can very easily be killed, and it’s in his best interest to take the less-flashy approach and deal with his adversaries one-on-one. But every time I would hide in cover and observe the enemy, I would suddenly be spotted, and all hell would rain down upon poor Joel. The reason? An enemy I could often not see would mysteriously find me, possibly through the use of their own super powers. It felt unfair and also removed a fundamental aspect of stealth games – I never felt like I was able to fully assess my surroundings, and enemies would seemingly spawn right in the middle of rooms I had only just cleared. One could argue that the intended effect was to keep the player on the edge of their seat, but again this seemed like a cheap illusion and not the byproduct of a well-designed game. By the time Joel and Ellie were re-joining Tommy, playing The Last of Us felt more like work than fun because of the clunky stealth gameplay.

Gameplay and Combat – Revisited

rtlou-003

Developer Naughty Dog perfected run-and-gun combat with the Uncharted franchise.

When it came to revisiting the gameplay, I set out with a different attitude – to treat The Last of Us as part of Naughty Dog’s greater body of work, and not a one-off the studio was experimenting with. This is another way to say that I would take a more run-and-gun approach to combat, which Naughty Dog perfected in the Uncharted series, to see if that allowed the game to play smoother, or if it really was meant to be played as a traditional stealth game.

I was initially surprised to discover that The Last of Us played at its best when I would leap out of cover, brick in hand, and smash in the first enemy I saw, quickly following up with blasts from my shotgun to clear out any remaining threats. The combat felt great, almost as if it were an entirely different game than the one I played two years prior, and the biggest reason for this is that I never stopped moving for more than a few seconds at a time. I just imagined Joel was an older, less optimistic version of Nathan Drake, and treated every encounter as if I was Rambo. I was tempted at first to label this a flaw with the game – after all, the level design really does stress a stealth approach, but if there’s one area Naughty Dog excels, it’s in run-and-gun combat. So why not use it here, too? These mechanics may not be typical in stealth games, but in an odd way, Naughty Dog has shown a blueprint for how the stealth genre can evolve – one of the flaws with stealth games is that it seems very unrealistic that enemies would simply wait in one spot, maybe walking down to the end of the hall and back, until the player shows up to take them out. By putting so much emphasis on movement, Naughty Dog has solved one of the oldest problems in stealth games, while maintaining the essence of the genre.

Of course, playing the game as Rambo did reveal some issues, but these are issues with Naughty Dog’s idea of action-heavy gameplay – they are not unique to The Last of Us, but are a problem in the Uncharted franchise as well. Checkpoints are poorly placed – when I died and restarted a level, I often had no idea where I was on the map, and which enemies I had killed or rooms I had scavenged for supplies. This is due to a rather odd save system Naughty Dog uses – the player cannot save their progress anywhere, yet checkpoints are not clearly marked or defined, resulting in a lot of unnecessary backtracking. Again, this isn’t an issue unique to The Last of Us, as every Uncharted game features the same save system. But in a game that emphasizes scavenging the world for supplies and hiding from enemies, respawning in an unknown area at an unknown point is extremely frustrating.

I occasionally tried to use a traditional stealth approach, just to see the difference in flow, and to test if I was remembering my first playthrough correctly. Every time I did, I would notice enemies spawning out of thin air, enemies who would also have super-human vision and could snipe me from across the map. Every time I tried this, I would reload the checkpoint and engage in run-and-gun stealth, and rush those recently spawned enemies, shotgun in hand, and would find myself on the edge of my seat, the tension coming through organically. As much as I loved the combat, it is a shame that it took two playthroughs for me to fully understand it, and it’s an example of how important it is to establish tone and gameplay mechanics early on. With a better combat tutorial up front, this element would have been one I loved from the first playthrough, and would have gone a long way into making the original release an instant-classic.

Be sure to check out Part II, in which author Josh Snyder continues to breakdown his second playthrough of The Last of Us, along with the DLC, Left Behind.