Big triple-A games look the same, let’s be honest. When I’m watching previews it often feels like one game being duplicated over and over and over again. They feature a hero, often male, dressed in some sort of military garb, drab environments, and dull colors to reflect the edgy tone of the game. The combat usually feels uninspired and formulaic. Tack on a ridiculously over the top orchestration (usually a reworking of a famous song from the ’90s) and you have a modern action game trailer.
The trend was largely kicked off by Gears of War, a game released exclusively for the Xbox 360 by Epic Games in 2006. Though the game felt revolutionary at the time for its next-gen graphics, it has a lackluster story, the gameplay is repetitive and uninteresting, and the level design is bleak and uninspired. Ubisoft games followed the same pattern, in no small part led by the Tom Clancy and Assassin’s Creed games.
In many ways, The Last of Us embodies many of the traits I listed above. It adheres to action game tropes and cliches. Tropes and cliches are not inherently bad in and of themselves. They exist to help consumers understand what they are getting into. But when you look at the way The Last of Us approaches the tropes of action games and action stories, this is where it proves itself to be much more purposeful than others in the genre.
The game wastes no time by immediately setting itself apart in the prologue. A typical action game would begin with Joel as the player character. Joel would come home from work, receive a present from his daughter, put her to bed, and then follow his life from there. The player would get to see Joel hear a disturbance at the neighbor’s house and encounter his infected neighbor for the first time. Then they would play as Joel as he runs back home, grabs his gun, and shoots in order to protect his daughter. That last bit might even contain a triangle button prompt.
Following this, the player would also be the one to drive the car, making sure to follow the right path and avoid infected and pedestrians on the street. This section would serve as a good driving minigame. All of this would serve to throw the player immediately into the action, similar to Uncharted 2 which opens on Nathan Drake climbing out of a train that hangs off a cliff.
The Last of Us chooses to have us play as Sarah, Joel’s daughter. Unlike Joel, Sarah is young and powerless. Playing as her is a very passive experience as everything that occurs happens to her. She lacks agency and is unable to affect the world in a meaningful way. She doesn’t carry a gun or know how to drive. This forces the player to reside in a vulnerable character who has no power to defend herself.
By removing that power, the game demands we pay attention to the smaller details that allow the story to unfold organically. Sarah wakes up to a strange phone call from her Uncle Tommy and meanders around the house. She may see the newcast on TV and witness the explosion from his window. She will see police cars racing by the front of the house and hear a dog cry out in the backyard. Sarah is unable to do anything but walk in fear. This vulnerability and lack of control help set the tone for the rest of the game.
After Joel kills the infected neighbor, he and Sarah jump in the car with Tommy. In this section, when the player moves the camera, Sarah moves with it. She will watch her home disappear, stare at the neighbor’s house on fire, or watch as the family on foot fade off in the darkness as they cry out for help.
Playing through this section always makes me feel as if I am on a 3D zombie dark ride at Universal Studios. The riders would be in Sarah’s shoes and would have to rely on Joel and Tommy to get them through this crazy turmoil. The ride queue begins in Sarah’s bedroom and transitions to the various rooms of the house while she looks for Joel. Mounted TVs play the news program on loop while red and blue lights flash every few minutes.
When strapping into the ride, it begins with a presentation of Joel killing the neighbor before he and Sarah run outside and into the car. The ride lurches forward, slow at first. Then bang, hold on for dear life as Joel and Tommy whisk us through the chaos. No time for hesitation, no time to slow down, the only thought: escape the city…
Okay, clearly I have put way too much thought into this. My point in being so specific is that like a dark ride, the player is watching the action instead of participating. Both experiences cater to the same emotions. But unlike a dark ride where the outcome is in our favor, the game does not allow us to escape.
The Last of Us follows the standard action game loops when it comes to its combat. Joel and company will traverse areas as they explore for survival supplies. Eventually they will enter combat and solve the encounter using stealth, ranged, or melee tools. Exploration and traversal will then recommence and Joel will search the area to replenish his supplies.
But one thing that became readily apparent to me upon first playing is the game’s heavy consequences in combat. If I played a Tomb Raider or Uncharted game, dying to a horde of enemies may force me to change my position on a second try or memorize enemy placement. I may try to use a wider variety of weapons. While The Last of Us contains this same type of strategizing, it feels far more punishing than other games. One wrong step and a clicker will devour you.
In comparison, many action games like the aforementioned Uncharted focus more on getting to the goal and making your way through areas. Dying does not feel so much like a punishment but a brief failure and a chance to do better next time. The Last of Us doesn’t feel this way. The “game over” shots of Joel getting his throat ripped out by infected feel discomforting and final.
During my first playthrough, I struggled a lot with the combat to a point where I was having such a hard time I wasn’t having fun and had to change my difficulty settings from normal to easy. But even though there were sections in the Uncharted games that killed me over and over again, I never stopped enjoying the gameplay. I don’t think this leads to the conclusion that Naughty Dog purposefully made The Last of Us “not fun” in an attempt to say something deeper; to do so would have been pretentious. The combat explores the necessity to not act reckless when it comes to survival, something that is not felt in other action games. The infected are literal monsters, disfigured, grotesque. The threat they present is far more dire than your typical action game enemy, whether they be human or supernatural.
Adding to this is the overwhelming sense that making it through a horde of infected or past a group of hunters feels less like a win, and more of a necessary action to stay alive. There is no victory in this combat but a continuing sense of dread. As you put enemies down, a mercy for the infected, the disillusionment grows, reflected not just by the combat, but Joel himself.
Joel is disconnected with few interests beyond survival. On the surface, this could be any action game protagonist. However, it is Joel’s underlying motivations that make him atypical. His disillusionment comes from Sarah’s death. He has been conditioned to bury his emotions beneath the surface, keeping him from truly connecting with those around him. He acts out of self-preservation and this often leads to his questionable actions. Beneath his tough persona is a great deal of fragility. He isn’t someone who aims to get along with people and wants to help others because this risks growing close, and in turn risks the pain of loss. Joel’s reclusion is cowardly, and the game takes pains to challenge this behavior. He is not to be celebrated: he is not a great agent of change doing the right thing. Aspiring to Joel would be a severe misreading of the text. And this ties directly into Joel’s choices at the end of the game.
Joel does not go out as a hero and this may be the biggest departure from the action game genre. While most games will show the main character doing something in the name of a worthy cause or choosing to do the right thing at the last moment, Joel does something entirely selfish. He doesn’t face the ultimate bad guy or come out victorious (though in his own mind he certainly achieved what he thinks was right). The whole plot is about him bringing Ellie to the Fireflies for a cure and he robs the world of this possibility. Additionally, he robs Ellie of her agency. He takes away her ability to make decisions, as the pandemic stripped Sarah of her agency, and life. The ending is more unsettling than anything else. It leaves the player with more questions than answers.
On top of this, the lack of a final boss or true villain reflects on the nuanced nature of The Last of Us as an action game. It isn’t as simple as taking down a singular bad guy and you win. The game actively forces players to question what they are doing. It doesn’t tie a bow at the end. Joel gets what he wants, but at a great cost. And that cost weighs heavily on the final minutes of the game as it is clear he and Ellie’s relationship is unstable. Joel’s final line being a lie is the opposite of a feel good ending. There is no moment of reflecting on the journey and where we have been; no gazing off into the sunset.
The Last of Us directly contradicts many tropes of its genre in service of the overall narrative. The confronting combat, coupled with the ending, delivers a coherent and unique play experience. It is these choices that result in such an excellent and thought provoking game. There is a reason why so many consider this the best game of the decade, if not all time. The game uses tropes in unique ways that make it stand out from others on the market.
- Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2013.