McMillan’s Codex #5 By C.T. McMillan
The Last of Us
Conveying emotion in videogames is difficult. Taken at face value they are toys, superficial things that do not require deep thought or examination outside of times in which players want to escape reality. The fun factor alone makes most games worth the purchase, but some developers make a conscious effort to do more. Naught Dog, a company known for platform adventurers, went outside their usual haunt to make a game unlike any other: The Last of Us.
Employing classic survival horror elements, Last of Us puts players in an environment where choice and resources are vital to success. It is possible to complete most sections without being detected or loud with all the enemies aware of your presence and both affect the number of health items and ammo. The louder one plays, the more they spend clearing a section to move on. The stealth option is best to conserve resources, but is more challenging as players must evade, distract, and takedown foes without arousing suspicion.
Enemy intelligence plays a big role in the difficulty. Whenever a body is discovered or disturbance detected, enemies go on alert to seek you out. They move slow and can surprise you if not careful. Players can also throw objects to coax enemies into an opening for a quiet kill. When engaged in a firefight, some enemies draw fire while others move in from the flanks to finish you off. Both outcomes are dependent on player skill.
Like most post apocalyptic worlds, the resources available are precious and must be exploited for what little worth they have left. The game utilizes a crafting system where health items, knives, and bombs takes a number of components that are worth only a small part of each item, encouraging players to explore levels for every available piece. Upgrade points can also be found to increase the stats of items and player abilities.
Last of Us is a tad overrated. At face value, its story and what it does with emotion is no different from an episode of Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both works are very dark in their subject matter and present a side of the apocalypse genre not often seen. They emphasize the survival element in a dystopic environment and the human cost of what must be done. I believe Last of Us is so revered because it was the first videogame to do what those titles did in their respective mediums.
The emotion comes from the relationship between characters Joel and Ellie. The story is similar to Children of Men where Joel must escort Ellie to a location while trying to stay alive. Outside of cut scenes a lot is learned about who they are through casual interactions. The player will stumble upon a derelict arcade cabinet or the wreckage of an ice cream truck and Ellie will ask Joel what it is. He represents the past, a survivor who has been changed by decades of living in this dystopia, while she is the future, born behind walls, and must learn the ways of the world.
The player controls Joel as Ellie tags along, creating a mentor/student dynamic enhanced by their interactions. The player knows what is going on and what to do, but she remains mostly in the dark. It gets to a point where being separated becomes unnerving, especially with encroaching bandits or infected enemies. It is the implication that is truly dire as when the player dies, Ellie is left alone with those who want to kill her or worse. Eventually she learns to take care of herself, but the devotion remains. For about 12 hours you get to know her and Joel and you do not want the experience to end.
A key element that makes the relationship feel real is the performances. Veteran voice actor Troy Baker assumes a gruff Texas accent for Joel, sounding old and clearly affected by the years of doing what he has to. He has great chemistry with newcomer Ashley Johnson as Ellie, whose performance reminds me of Ellen Page from Juno if the character did not make me want to sterilize the human race. Ellie’s naivete has a major cute factor, but her resilience as a survivor with some semblance of hope and innocence makes her more sympathetic.
The Last of Us does what games like Silent Hill 2 used to do. With deep characterization through gameplay and storytelling, we witness the struggle of survival from the perspective of two very different people who come to depend on each other. We feel their anguish, understand their plight, and want to see them overcome the hardships of the apocalypse. If there is any testament that videogames can convey emotion, it is certainly The Last of Us.
C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer. He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.