Damage Report: The Last of Us Remastered on Playstation 4 offers below to average gameplay combined with an above average though derivative narrative. It has faults, but the game’s ending more than makes up for all of them, warranting every gamer to play this game to completion.
When Thomas Hobbes wrote about the state of nature in his landmark work, Leviathan, he described it as the natural state of all mankind in a world before civilization. For Hobbes, the state of nature was a nasty, brutal place where all men were born equal and were equally willing to fight to the death in order to survive. Hobbes was too obsessed by the ruthless, animal-like behavior of humans, untrammeled by law or any accepted sense of morality, to ever get around to mentioning zombies. The exact same thing can be said for The Last of Us.
Naughty Dog’s Game of the Year hit first released in 2013 on the Playstation 3. I missed the original release, so I was grateful to see a remastered edition released so quickly on the Playstation 4. In the Last of Us, you follow Joel and Ellie as they risk their lives running from one urban, postlapsarian hell to the next, hoping to find a mysterious group known as the Fireflies. During the game’s powerful opening act, we’re introduced to Joel’s daughter, Sarah, on the night of a massive zombie outbreak. We see a world not unlike our own as Joel, his brother Tommy, and Sarah all try and find a way out of the city toward some sort of safety. Without any answers or warnings, the first authority figure Joel and Sarah run into must maintain a quarantine over the area, and he ends up shooting Sarah before Joel’s eyes.
Sarah’s death works well as an emotional opener – it sets the bleak, hopeless tone for the rest of game – but it proves to be a pivotal moment in Joel’s life which clearly haunts him. After Sarah, the story starts again twenty years in the future after Joel has made a bit of a name for himself as a gun-for-hiring running who-knows-what for meal vouchers in a military-controlled safe zone. After losing a weapon shipment in a deal gone south, Joel and his partner, Tess, agree to help the Fireflies in order to get their weapons back. Helping the Fireflies entails transporting Ellie, a young girl who has somehow managed to avoid turning into a zombie after being bitten and who may hold the cure that humanity so desperately needs.
In truth, The Last of Us rarely focuses on the zombies that have ruined all of civilization; instead, the narrative tends to focus on the many, many humans who have thus far failed to rebuild anything meaningful from the wreckage. Like Hobbes’ state of nature, mankind has fallen into a state of complete lawlessness and anarchy, with vaguely defined tribes of humans warring with the few remnants of established order for control of desolate urban wastelands. Each group that Joel and Ellie encounter seems progressively worse, as their extreme violence and willingness to maim or murder with almost zero provocation seem to have replaced any of the humanity they may have had left.
Themes of humanity’s natural propensity toward doing evil occurs frequently in post-apocalyptic fiction. Often, humans in anarchic states are depicted as even more warlike and murderous than when they were in control of bombs and armies. The Last of Us goes out of its way to make you hate humanity by setting up characters you like, then killing them off in heartbreaking ways. It doesn’t help that Joel, in typical game fashion, is a one man army, constantly choking, beating, and gunning down other humans with no real humanity of his own. The game’s in-your-face violence makes scenes of emotional turmoil with Joel a little harder to believe.
I found the first half of the game to be a bit dull – the linear nature of the game never quite meshed with the attempts to make it seem more open-ended. I appreciated the intent to include crafting, but the implementation fell flat. I particularly hated having to decide between listening to a character speak out of cut scene or running out of earshot to pick up various crafting materials. The upgrade system also seemed similarly weak and could have been excised completely with minimal loss of value to the game overall.
The first half was also marred by slower story development and poor puzzle designs that ended up plaguing the rest of the game. Frankly, if I have to find a wooden pallet for Ellie to carelessly leap on to completely a boring water section or watch the ‘character lifts other character up to higher point’ animation one more time, I may have quit the game in disgust.
But I didn’t because The Last of Us’s only real strength is its strangely appealing narrative. Despite the rather cliche post-apocalyptic setting, the inclusion of zombies (for better or worse), and the ‘obviously this is a video game’ main hero, The Last of Us’s second half had me completely hooked. The writing and direction on this game combined perfectly to create an emotional resonance from some fairly stock characters. I couldn’t turn away.
In other reviews of the game, a lot has been said about the transformation of Ellie over the course of the game. There are a lot of bloody scenes dedicated to her coming into her own as a partner to Joel and as someone capable of surviving in such a harsh world. While I certainly believe Ellie is an important (and incredibly well voice acted) character, Joel proves to be the real star, but in the way I typically think of video game protagonists.
As their odyssey continues, Joel’s humanity seems less and less certain. The narrative never directly points you to what exactly Joel had been doing for those twenty odd years or the full nature of his rift with his brother, Tommy. It does, however, state time and time again about his inability to cope with losing Sarah. Ellie slowly develops in a surrogate for his deceased daughter, which only complicates Joel’s character. If there is one thing that distinguishes The Last of Us from similar stories and from most other videogames, it’s the fact that this is not a redemption story where a broken Joel is fixed by Ellie.
When Joel finally deliveries Ellie to the Fireflies, they are both relieved to have finally seen their original intent through to a proper end, even if they had to leave a giant trail of bodies behind them to get there. This has all been for the greater good: Ellie will unlock the secret that will save mankind. Realizing that doing so will cost Ellie her life, Joel cannot handle losing someone again, and he goes on a murderous rampage to ‘save’ her from what we soon learn was what she wanted to give her life for all along.
That moment in the car when Joel lies matter-of-factly to Ellie about what happened was my ‘I Am Legend’ moment. Recalling a scene earlier in the game when a stranger named David tells Ellie about a maniac traveling with a young girl who killed many of his men, there’s a strong case for relating Joel to the main character of Richard Mattheson’s classic, Robert Neville.
SPOILERS FOR I AM LEGEND ((A BOOK YOU SHOULD HAVE READ ALREADY))
In the book, Robert Neville goes around killing zombie/vampire creatures daily to free them from their undead state and to have less to deal with when they come out at night to surround his house. When he is finally captured by zombie/vampire creatures, it is revealed that they’ve rebuilt civilization in their own way, and that Robert Neville was the scary monster they hard warned one another about.
Joel too was a monster all along. We’re presented his humanity at the loss of Sarah early on but that ends up being a red herring that misleads us when it comes to judging the man he becomes afterward. Like every other murderer and rapist you encounter in the game, Joel has lost most of his humanity. He murders the doctor preparing to operate on Ellie. Every chance the player takes to sneakily kill an enemy, melee one down, or use a shotgun at close range results in a violent, often ruthless bit of carnage. These sorts of violent episodes are typical of games, but The Last of Us goes out of its way delivering gore and human anguish not for marketing to dudebros, but because that too is a red herring guarding how far Joel has fallen.
The game’s title has an obvious meaning: it literally is about the last surviving members of mankind, fighting to survive in a world that wants them all dead. It has a less obvious meaning too. As the only character who seems genuinely selfless and caring, Ellie represents humanity at its best. The story she tells of her wanting to die alongside her friend once they were both bitten highlights her willingness to lay down the will to survive to nobly die with someone you love. Ellie functions as a literal hope in that she can be the cure that saves humanity from the zombie disease, but she also functions more figuratively as the only hope humanity has left of maintaining its noblest traits. While Joel and the other victims of a world fallen into pandemonium are humans at their worst, we all can exhibit traits akin to Ellie and embrace our humanity rather than throw it away to eke out a living amongst trash and rotting corpses. We can be like Ellie because she is the last of us.
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