Why The Last of Us Really is the Best Game Ever
Following the success of the Uncharted series, arguably the most important PlayStation franchise of the PS3 era, studio Naughty Dog’s next work The Last of Us had incredibly high expectations going for it. Even more incredible, The Last of Us managed to break those expectations above and beyond what anyone could have expected when it was finally released in June 2013. The Last of Us got perfect scores across the board and received over 200 Game of the Year awards, and rightfully so because it really is one of the greatest of the all time. With the new The Last of Us: Remastered having just been released on the PS4, improving the game to a 1080p 60fps performance, there’s been a renewed interest in the The Last of Us and many lucky people will get to experience it for the first time. However, all the talk I’ve seen of people remembering it has been about how good the story is, several of which said that “The Last of Us was the best movie they ever played.” While the story is admittedly incredibly great, The Last of Us is so much more than that. The fact is The Last of Us is simply an amazing game.
The Last of Us takes place in a world 20 years after a fungal virus called the cortyceps virus rapidly spread across the world and took over many peoples’ minds, mutating them into fungal-like beings called runners, stalkers, clickers and bloaters depending on how long they’ve been infected. It’s actually based on a real world cortyceps virus that sometimes infects ants. In this world are Joel, a smuggler who’s had to survive through those chaotic 20 years and seen some terrible things, and Ellie, a twelve-year old who was born in the Boston quarantine zone and so has only ever known life after the virus hit. Together the unlikely duo have to journey across the country to meet with the Fireflies, a rebel group that might be able to save humanity. It’s an incredibly simple premise that gives way for a very deep and emotional human story. And from a narrative design standpoint, The Last of Us does many things that solidify it as one of the best videogame stories of all time, if not best all-time stories of any medium. Matt Lees does a great job explaining all the interesting story decisions in this video (Spoilers!). It’s especially impressive how Naughty Dog managed to take the tired and cliché post-apocalyptic zombie genre and turn it into one of the best stories of all time. But although there is an amazing story, it’s how the story interacts with the game that really makes The Last of Us amazing.
The world of The Last of Us is simply stunning. Everywhere you go, everything is just stunningly beautiful, and everything about it tells a story as to what happened during the chaos of the initial cortyceps infections. In fact, the environmental storytelling in The Last of Us is really some of the greatest of all time. There are messes in houses that show how quickly people had to leave their houses, half-collapsed buildings from when the military bombed a city to try and contain the virus, and the ever-present wildgrowth that shows how nature has reclaimed most cities since the time the cortyceps first hit. Environments can also be insanely colorful at times, which is pretty cool considering most post-apocalyptic stories seem to only have color palettes of various shades of brown.
There’s also a lot of minor and important story content that happens outside of cutscenes that you can actually miss when you’re playing the game. For example, when Tess dies early on, she sacrifices herself so you and Ellie are able to continue on their journey west. When that happens you can either continue straight through the building or hang back on the second floor and actually see her take a few shots at intruders but eventually get shot and fall, a pool of blood slowly growing around her, while the intruders then spread out through the building. Another cool example is how, when in the toy shop, Sam says he really wants this toy robot but Henry says he can’t take anything. Later it’s revealed that Ellie actually took the toy robot and gives it to Sam, but if you actually look at that initial toy scene, Ellie actually hangs back near the toy and waits for you to go on before re-joining you on the adventure, taking it behind your back. There’s also a lot of “optional” conversations, hilariously bad jokes, and touching notes that can be completely missed by the player, all of which really do add a lot of character growth and make the characters and world more relatable and believable. Examples like these show how amazingly well programmed the AI are in The Last of Us, something that isn’t immediately obvious. Small animations like how Joel puts his arm around Ellie when they’re crouched down together or when he adjusts his backpack while he’s walking also add a lot to the overall presentation.
Naughty Dog also makes some pretty small yet revolutionary changes to the standard third-person shooter gameplay formula that really make it a fun game to actually play. The camera is a lot closer to the character than in other works like their own Uncharted franchise, which doesn’t sound like much but it makes the game feel a lot more personal and grounded. Much more important, however, is just how scarce all the resources are in the game. Throughout The Last of Us players will find only a very small amount of various resources like bullets, scissors, bandages, alcohol, etc. All the materials besides bullets can be combined in various ways to make important tools such as Molotov cocktails, health packs, nail bombs, smoke bombs, or upgraded melee weapons. It’s cool how both the Molotov cocktail and the health pack are made with the same items. It really forces you to decide whether you want extra health later in case you get hurt or extra weapons to make you feel more secure now.
Everything you do in The Last of Us feels like something people would actually do in that type of world. Scavenging every room is immensely important to progressing through the game, since you won’t have enough resources to take on groups of enemies you meet and keep you alive, exactly what Joel and Ellie would face as they continue westwards. Also, the scarcity of bullets really does create an environment where you want to make every shot count, more so than any other game yet, and even though The Last of Us is a third person shooter you really can’t just shoot your way through every environment. In fact, the gameplay mechanics actually heavily discourage shooting at all, and as the player you realize that stealthily making your way through as many encounters as you can is the optimal way to play the game. When violence does occur, it is often incredibly violent as it would be in a collapsed society such as that. It’s often just brutal and actually really makes you feel awful for killing people in a videogame, something almost no other game has accomplished. It’s also almost impossible to progress at all if the player’s being reckless. This is another way The Last of Us does a great job of discouraging violence, and mechanically making the player do things that people would actually do in those situations.
The real success of The Last of Us, however, is that the gameplay mechanics are not only what people would actually do in that world, but that they actually make the player feel emotions similar to what would be felt in those situations. There was a genuine feeling of hopefulness in wanting to find something good whenever you searched every house. Walking around a peaceful neighborhood really did make me feel pretty relaxed and hopeful in a pretty eerie and desolate world. Trying to sneak past some guards or infected was genuinely tense and incredibly stressful, just as I imagine it would feel actually trying to do that. There was one section where Joel sneaks past some infected through some people’s backyards where I barely could breathe at all. And there was a real stressful urgency to taking out enemies if you got caught and had to fight your way through, and again a need to make every shot count.
The story of The Last of Us is really good. Naughty Dog accomplished some of the greatest character development and overall story in all of videogames through some very innovative narrative design techniques. But that’s not the only reason The Last of Us is amazing. If it was, someone could just watch all the cutscenes on Youtube and understand it. It could’ve been just as powerful as a movie, which is actually happening by the way and is being written by the game’s lead writer/director Neil Druckmann, so many more people can go experience the story. But the many complaints that the game’s difficulty in getting through enemies should be toned down, if not made completely optional, are really unfounded and miss the point of the game. The game was really hard because life would have been really hard in that world. Doing all you can to survive would’ve been really hard. But the reasons The Last of Us is so good are that the story is incredible, the mechanics are both really fun and feel like things survivors would do, and because there’s just a perfect fusion between the mechanics of the game and the story and lore of the world. Everything you do in The Last of Us is something you would do and feels the way it actually would in that world. And frankly, The Last of Us is the best game I’ve ever played.