Warning before you start. I need to discuss the entire game to do this right, so there will be spoilers. Gigantic ones. With teeth.
“…it could be argued that The Last of Us is the first truly mature interactive narrative in the action genre.”
That’s a statement that I made near the beginning of my review for The Last of Us. And it’s one that drew a few doubts before the game’s release. Perhaps understandably, given the weight of the sentiment and the many important leaps forward in video game storytelling over the last few years. But it’s a statement that I stand by, and one that I am going to argue today.
Know from the start that I’m not necessarily stating that The Last of Us has the best story in action gaming. For me it’s one of the all-time greats, but narrative content is an entirely subjective matter. Instead I’m arguing the above statement in its literal entirety. That The Last of Us is the best example thus far of mature, intelligent, cohesive storytelling using interactive narrative mechanics to truly augment the events it depicts with subtext, depth, and empathy.
For me, video game storytelling isn’t about having an engaging plot and well-directed cutscenes. It’s about how a game uses the developing language of interactive narrative--in the same way that cinema had to learn how to use camera angles and edits--to add more to its storytelling than another medium could. And The Last of Us is a masterpiece in that regard.
First up, there’s the simple but important point that almost all of The Last of Us’ gameplay systems seem designed not only to be mechanically interesting, but to forge a 1:1 psychological bond between the player and Joel. Some things are obvious. The manual crafting and healing--both of which take real, in-game time ensure no reality-breaking jumps into gaming’s traditional pause-screen safety zone--force the player to adopt Joel’s approach of cautious preparation or suffer the consequences.
Fail to, and while the game won’t necessarily punish you with failure, the panic-stricken multi-tasking required to regroup and find a safe space to resupply adds not only tension, but real emotional weight. You got into this mess because you didn’t think ahead, and not thinking ahead has put you and Ellie in danger. Now drop everything and put it right before something happens to her.
But that point about adding a weight of responsibility to combat only scratches the surface of The Last of Us’ approach. Pathos in this game isn’t just something that comes with the cutscenes. Its hardwired into the very fabric of the game. Take that brutally powerful opening prelude for instance. Yes, its resolution is shocking, but the outcome alone isn’t what makes it powerful. Think back to the start. Think back to the very first moment you get control of the game. It’s the night of the outbreak, and you’ve just been introduced to Joel through a beautifully underplayed scene with his daughter. It’s a scene as affecting as it is unsentimental. But once you start the game, you’re not playing Joel. You’re playing Sarah.
In most games this prelude section, light of challenge as it is and unconnected from the main story, would function as a control tutorial. It would be a safe environment in which to get a feel for the game’s handling. But while it does serve that purpose, that’s not really what The Last of Us’ opening is about. Rather than being a mechanical tutorial, it’s an emotional tutorial. Sarah is alone, defenseless, and scared in a big, empty dark house. You’re in control of her and there’s no help to be seen. You are entirely responsible for her safety. Sound familiar?
Yeah, the game is immediately conditioning you into the mindset of the character you’ll inhabit for most of its running time. The mix of protective duty and paternal paranoia is tangible throughout. The game is training you to think like Joel before you even get anywhere near playing him. So when Sarah ultimately dies, it’s not just Joel who has failed to save her. It’s you, the person who was first made responsible for her. In that way, yourself and Joel are emotionally bonded throughout the game, and the loss that informs his every action is one that you feel yourself every step of the way.
Thus, when Ellie starts to change in response to her journey with Joel, the sense of personal responsibility is immense. As useful as having a wingman would be, it’s impossible to disagree with Joel’s decision not to arm Ellie for the first chunk of the game. When she finally starts to cover you with a hunting rifle in the streets outside the hotel, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. You might have fire support, but you’ve also brought Ellie well and truly into the fight. You might be safer, but she might now not be. In any other game, the sudden appearance of a co-op AI partner would be nothing but a blessing. By the time it happens in The Last of Us, it’s weighted with much more complicated emotional issues.