"Moral ambiguity" has been the leading drive in video game narrative over the past decade or so. More often than not, however, it is delivered through the option of simple "choice" rather than a strong narrative and self reflection. Players choose the outcome of a story based on their decisions, and, in practice, their own moral choices shape the world.
Not Naughty Dog's latest masterpiece, The Last of Us.
This "not-zombie" survival horror adventure doesn't provide its audience with a choice on how to proceed or what decisions the protagonists ultimately make. This is a strictly linear tale which will unfold the exact same way every time you play it, and the game soars because of it.
The Hinderance of Choice
It is in this bold and determined narrative which might have forever turned me off to the idea of "choice" for the sake of narrative forever. Typically, choice is interpreted by developers as either doing something nice or doing something mean and continuing on with the story. These so-called moral choices more often than not cheapen the conclusion of a story.
Granted, some companies are better at choice than others (see The Walking Dead); but, by and large, the decisions are a hinderance to the overall story arc.
Sometimes they are made on a whim and not reflected upon afterwards. Other times, certain choices do not line up with the final outcome and go unexplained as to why a savior might just decide to be a jerk one day. The biggest offender these days is that one single choice provided at the end of a game can determine an ending based on nothing that has transpired throughout the story.
Leaving the narrative in the hands of the story teller, Naughty Dog's The Last of Us doesn't have time for cheap gimmicks, shock value, or gamers' awkward rationale. It is a tale that will challenge your own ethics by how you judge your way emotionally through each uncomfortable situation, not by how you control the situation to fit your views on the world.
Forcing you to endure and contemplate events your thoughts and values don't agree with will open much larger questions about what kind of person you are.
And, in the end, this expertly crafted tale of bonding between a father-figure and his adoptive daughter will be so much more rewarding simply because it's not your choices that mattered, but how your feelings evolved alongside their struggles.
Like Father, Like Daughter
The Last of Us follows the story of Joel and Ellie, a middle-aged man and a young girl he is hired to escort across an apocalyptic America. Spores have overrun the country, causing those who breathe them in to become "infected" humans who have lost their minds and are out for nothing but violence and flesh.
On the road, Joel and Ellie quickly realize that it is not the infected who are their real enemy, but rather the humans who stand in their way. Marauders, bandits, rapists, cannibals and murderers. The road is not a pretty one, and the battle hardened Joel soon finds himself struggling to keep his already diminished humanity in the face of his newfound fatherly feelings towards this girl.
If left in the wrong hands, The Last of Us would be just an average story. Technicalities aside, it is at heart a zombie survival game with a human edge thanks to the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
Each of their stops on the long journey west provides a self contained conflict in the overall storyline, giving it more of an episodic feel. Naughty Dog excels in creating situations Joel and Ellie must survive together. Other NPCs will come and go, but the real drive here is the ever growing and beautiful relationship between a reluctant father and daughter forced together not by love, but by circumstance.
The entire relationship boils down to an excellent climax which will challenge your thoughts on both a gut reaction level and a much more in-depth look at love for someone and the greater good of all mankind.
It is paced perfectly from beginning to end, and Naughty Dog deserves a pat on the back for creating a truly believable and gorgeous post-apocalyptic world. From the beautiful scenery to the inhabitants within it, very few have taken the generic setting to such amazing heights, and I doubt anyone else is willing to try given how perfectly Naughty Dog has handled this.
Survival of the Fittest
Of course, this world is not worth exploring if the gameplay wasn't as perfect of a match. Naughty Dog has never been a slouch at platforming and shooting, but how well does it handle the slow, tactful approach required by such a strict genre as survival horror?
Not to worry, because Naughty Dog has the shoulders of Resident Evil and Dead Space to stand on. It heavily borrows from the over-the-shoulder gameplay already perfected by other studios, and it builds on their success by using it in unfathomable ways throughout its many confrontations.
The game's choice does not come from narrative, but rather from its approach to combat. A room full of zombies can be dealt with slowly through stealth kills or by running and gunning, Rambo style.
Nowadays, developers enjoying punishing players for using the latter as games are becoming much more a thinking man's hobby. Running and gunning in most modern video games provides absolutely zero benefit whatsoever, and playing it safe and simple almost guarantees a victory. Developers don't want you to blaze through their games anymore, but rather they want you to take your time.
Naughty Dog and The Last of Us at least have the decency to encourage both. Stealth might save resources, but it leaves Joel exposed to failure much more frequently. Enemies called Clickers are easily agitated and extra sensitive to noise, and they instant-kill 100% of the time.
Running and gunning provides an easily escapable situation, but heavily drains resources like bullets, shivs, or tools used to make special weapons.
Both are required to survive, and a balance must be found if one wants to complete Joel's extended escort mission. Being low on bullets means you must resort to stealth for a while. However, more often than not, I found that guns blazing works when taking on a large group of enemies.
Best of all, like I said before, there is no moral consequence for how you play, so the combat is safe to approach however you feel without the fear of consequence. There is no narrative punishment for choosing to mow through a group of bad guys.
No Fear of Death
If I had one complaint about the combat, it's that checkpoints appear a little too frequently and are easily exploitable. Tension is instantly dissolved if death provides just a simple restart to less than a minute earlier. More often than not, exciting gunfights boil down into mere trial and error, a huge problem which initially turned me off to Naughty Dog's Uncharted games as well.
Perfectionists like me who see a plan in every firefight and want to see it unfold flawlessly also have the option of simply restarting a fight should it fail. A particular example comes from an excellent stealth section in which Ellie is armed with a bow, and she must take down an entire group of enemies. One false move and the plan goes to hell, but thanks to the option to simply restart a minute or so earlier, tension vaporizes too easily.
Make Every Bullet Count
Naughty Dog makes up for this lost tension by making every bullet count. The shallow nature of something like a Call of Duty single player campaign comes from a gratuitous number of bullets and seemingly infinite supply of allies. Nothing matters in a firefight because you are guaranteed to be replenished in some fashion before the next one.
The Last of Us hinges on the idea that every firefight could be your last, and each pull of the trigger has consequences that will carry over into the next one. Running and gunning might work in a battle, but that just means you'll have to be more careful in the harder fight just around the corner.
The action set-pieces created don't have the unnatural flare of Uncharted's extravagantly designed behemoths. There are no boats, no temples, no towering infernos, or dangling trains. Everything feels natural in this world gone awry, and Naughty Dog wisely kept the caps on their imagination with this game as well.
Gunfights might come off as slow to the lightning fast nonsense we see as fun in the modern day shooters of the world, but they are far more tense and exciting thanks to the limitations on resources and layouts of the enemies.
The Past and Future of Morals at Naughty Dog
Naughty Dog first started dabbling in moral ambiguity with Jak II by turning the fun-loving mute from the first game into a hardened gritty soldier. The mystery surrounding his tonal shift caused a lot of gamers to wonder why such a transformation occurred.
The Uncharted series continued this path by making gamers cheer for a charismatic psychopath who murders by the dozens to uncover treasure. Seriously, Nathan Drake has a bodycount no simple treasure hunter should ever tally up, and it took Naughty Dog practically spelling it out in Uncharted 3 for his fans to realize how horrible of a person he really is.
The Last of Us is the biggest leap the company has ever taken in nailing what games truly need to become if they want to be morally ambiguous. Leaving decisions in the hands of gamers does not force them to face their darkest fears, and lets them steer away into a more comfortable zone. The Last of Us grabs a hold from beginning to end and never lets up in forcing you to come to terms with what you see and do.
Bravo to Naughty Dog for calling out a decade of "choice" in video games with The Last of Us; it's truly a one of a kind masterpiece.
We purchased The Last of Us through company funds and completed the single player campaign before writing this review.
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