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The Last of Reviews: A Very Late Review of The Last of Us
by Susana Polo | 12:28 pm, August 29th, 2013
I’m offering you a very late review of The Last of Us for a number of reasons. Primarily, because Naughty Dog reached out to us specifically to offer a review copy, not something that happens very often to The Mary Sue. More specifically, I’m offering it to you because our usual reviewer, Becky Chambers, does not own a PS3. Which is partially why you’re getting it so late, because I don’t usually have to factor in “playing a video game” to my job obligations. And since I’m not usually a game reviewer, and you’re not usually getting reviews from me on this site, lets get some expository information out of the way before I dive into the meat of explaining how The Last of Us is one of the strongest emotional experiences I’ve had playing a video game. And, you know, it’s pretty damn good with its female characters as well.
Lets start by saying this: I am not a fan of horror. In fact, as I put it to many friends while describing my experiences with completing The Last of Us, I am at best a “tolerator” of horror. I’ll watch Alien because it’s important to the history of women, science fiction, and horror in cinema. But I don’t enjoy creeping suspense. Twice while playing The Last of Us I had a drink before firing up my PS3 and getting back to, say, that half flooded hotel basement where a wave of squeaking, swimming rats had been the last straw in motivating me to turn off the game and do something else hours before. For another example: this review was written by a person who got to the first headcrabs fight in Half Life 2, turned off the game, and never played it again. The Last of Us loves its creeping suspense and its ambient soundtrack, and its zombie design is, no pun intended, frightfully effective.
The source of the zombies or, because nobody’s allowed to say “zombies” in zombie fiction, Infected, is the an advanced form of the cordyceps fungus (yes, that links to Wikipedia, click at your own risk) that infects human beings instead of an array of insects and arthropods. There are four stages, the first two pretty much indistinguishable from each other as far as gameplay is concerned (something that seems to be a failed initiative on the developers part). It’s the Clickers where things get really bad: aside from the body horror of having most of their faces covered by fungal plates that have erupted from their skin, they can no longer see, and instead sense through echolocation, constantly emitting a variety of inhuman clicking noises. They can only “see” you when you make noise, are twice as hard to kill as stages one and two, are tricky even to stealth kill, and if you don’t have a heavy melee weapon to keep them at bay, instantly tear your throat open upon reaching melee range. I honestly found them more terrifying than running into Stage Four Infected, which was a bummer because they’re far more common. I once nearly skipped an optional room entirely because I could hear two Clickers inside of it. Only two! (I didn’t skip it, though I had to turn the game off for a while and do something else in order to screw up my courage.)
It’s hard to say what’s worse in The Last of Us, the terrifying zombies or the terrible people, which is undoubtedly the full intention of the developers. I knew that the zombie plague in TLoU was fungus related going into the game, but I wasn’t aware that but for a brief prologue, the majority of the story takes place twenty years into the zombie apocalypse. The game opens with you piloting twelve-year-old Sarah during the hours that the Infected outbreak first reaches Austin, Texas, as she, her single parent and co-main character Joel, and his brother Tommy, try to get out of the city. It’s not insignificant that you begin the game playing a teenage girl, as you return to play Ellie later on in what was absolutely my favorite story arc of the game. If you’re really set on playing The Last of Us with 100% no spoilers, you’ll want to skip ahead now. I’m going to keep this spoiler-lite, but there’s a moment I feel I have to talk about in the prologue, so I’ll put a YouTube video after I’m done talking about the plot. Skip to after that video and you’ll be fine.
The prologue is perhaps five or ten minutes long, immediately grabbed my emotions, and ended in Sarah dying, terrified, in her helpless father’s arms. It is very significant that she’s killed not by the Infected, but by a soldier running crowd control. The aforementioned theme of humans being the real threat to the main characters of The Last of Us is a strong one, but one that is implemented with enough variety not to become overbearing. The prologue also sets up Joel’s primary flaw of having pretty big unresolved issues with loss, which, within a few hours of gameplay later, is paired up with Ellie, our second protagonist (and our second playable teenage girl)’s unresolved issues with abandonment. Ellie, as you might easily guess, may be the only person to ever develop an immunity to the cordyceps fungus, and Joel is pressured by multiple intertwined events into escorting her from Boston to Colorado in order to find doctors who are still even looking for a cure or vaccination.
Oh great, you might think, another male main character given emotional problems by killing a female one who will be “fixed” by interacting with a secondary female character. And, yeah, I was a little worried. But the reality of Joel’s character arc turned out to subvert this in a very real way. Whether you consider The Last of Us to have a happy ending may depend entirely on whether you are or have ever been a parent. Joel’s final actions could be seen as either an incredible act of selfishness, or the only possible choice anyone could have made in his situation. And Ellie is just… I find it difficult to describe how firmly the game establishes that she’s smart, capable, and subordinate to Joel only in twenty-five years of emotional experience and maybe 150 pounds. That is, without explicitly describing the events of the game. There was a point where I really thought The Last of Us was going for the old “play as the secondary character until she gets in trouble and then the main character regains consciousness to rescue her heroically,” but I was proven wrong. I was proven wrong with machetes.
Welcome back, plot spoiler avoiders! The rest of the women of The Last of Us are all characters I, if not genuinely loved, then loved the presentation of, especially in the case of one female character (who shall remain nameless for spoilers) who the game could easily have demonized but instead took the time to expand on her struggles and emotions through the system of collectable notes and diary entries. And then there’s Tess, introduced just after the 20 Years Later jump, as Joel’s partner in Quarantine Zone smuggling, a ruthless, pragmatic defender of her turf and her merchandise who is clearly the leader of their duo. This is the moment where I have to mention the superb voice acting. At one point, when a contact confesses he sold the guns he was supposed to be delivering to her, Tess responds by saying “Excuse me?” What could have been a sentence dripping with sassy lady sarcasm is instead delivered as an exclamation of genuine surprise and anger, exactly as if Tess cannot believe that he would do the thing he just said he did, knowing what she knows he knows about her, and I knew then that I loved her with all my organized-crime-lady loving heart. While the ratio of named women with speaking roles to men drops off significantly as the game progresses (at a certain point in the beginning, it was four women to three men), The Last of Us passes the Bechdel test the very first time two female characters exchange words. That said, it would have been nice if any of the groups of antagonist humans in the game had visibly included women, especially the one established as a community with couples and children. There were plenty of Infected who were still visibly female, so it isn’t as if Naughty Dog was too strapped to make female enemy models.
The tense mood of The Last of Us was bolstered by its world building: collectable documents and the occasional scientist’s recording device gives you almost universally depressing windows into the current and past lives of folks affected by the Infected outbreak. Abandoned suburban houses outside of Pittsburgh are covered in spray painted screeds announcing that the premises are occupied, the occupants are armed, and looters will be shot on sight. Things are also kept very real with the scarcity mechanics: you’re limited in how many of your craftable items (shivs, molotovs, nail bombs, etc.) you can carry as well as how much raw material and ammunition. And every melee weapon in the game eventually breaks, though you can learn to improve their durability through a skill system.
Scarcity of ammunition generally worked well to get me to mind my usage, though there were a number of handguns that I pretty much never used, and others that I would have liked to use more if found ammunition for them hadn’t dried up completely for three or four hours of gameplay at a time. It was sometimes difficult for me to gage whether my actions would alert enemies during stealth, and sometimes even hard to figure out whether I was supposed to sneak my way through an obstacle or go to Rambo mode. There were some areas where the game didn’t seem to really care, regardless of character conversations about sneaking just beforehand, and some where it seemed to be pretty adamant about avoiding open combat. Usually I only figured this out after dying multiple frustrating times. I also never felt like I understood the pacing of the game from a gameplay stance: I could never tell when I was good to relax with some curious exploration and when I was about to run into a combat or stealth sequence, leaving me unbearably tense and overly cautious for most of the game. I could chalk this entirely up to, well, being the sort of person who stops playing Half Life at the first headcrab, except that I spent The Last of Us‘ most obvious “just sit here, relax, and enjoy the nice music and this nice view and the nice emotional moment we set up for you” sequence physically tense because the scene was so laid back, horrified that the next door I opened was obviously going to pop out a Clicker to maul my face.
In a nutshell, I’ve been unable to stop talking about The Last of Us to my friends while playing it, so I can whole heartedly recommend it to anybody looking to go through some serious emotion and adrenaline ups and downs. If this horror-tolerator can play the entirety of this game during a month where her roommate is out of the apartment on vacation, you probably can, too. Aside from not being a big horror person, not being particularly experienced with reviewing video games, and not having the time to deliver them on time, there’s one more way in which I feel I’m probably missing a big chunk of perspective on The Last of Us: I am not, nor do I ever plan on becoming, a parent. I won’t say anything specific about Joel and Ellie’ journey, or it’s conclusion, because I’m committed to keeping this spoiler free. I’m not sure I’d call the ending of the Last of Us brave, exactly, but it is not at all what my cynical early guess made it out to be, and as a writer and an appreciator of heroic narratives, I expect it will stick with me for a very long time.