Saturday, 22 June 2013

Game Review: The Last Of Us

This is a review of the video game The Last of Us, released in June of this year. I watched a full play through of the game by a YouTube user by the name of NukemDukem who played the entire game on the Playstation 3. I picked his play through because of his focus on exploration and absorbing of the story. The play through was watched by me over the course of a few days. The following review contains massive spoilers and complete story and plot dissections. Do not read it if you don't want to have the game and/or story spoiled for you.

Moving on with the review, I first caught a glimpse of this game before E3, when the demo for it was released. Watching videos of people playing through the demo I didn't really feel too tantalized by the story scraps being shown, not even by the trailer reel thrown in after one finishes the demo. It seemed like an okay post-apocalyptic world survival game. Then I watched the first first play through video containing the entire introduction section of the game.

The video starts off innocent enough. You are Sarah, the teenager daughter of Joel, an apparently single father. You are waiting for him on his birthday with his gift, waiting for him to come home. eventually you have fallen asleep and that's how Joel finds you. After some friendly bantering you give him his gift, which turns out to be a watch. To replace his old, broken one, you say. It being very late, you retire to your bed.

Waking up suddenly by noise, it turns out that your uncle Tommy is trying to contact you on your phone, asking for Joel. Getting up, you find Joel's bedroom with the lights on but otherwise deserted. Downstairs nobody can be found either, just Joel's phone which is being spammed by Tommy, desperately trying to contact him. Just as you get to Joel's study, the sliding doors to the garden open and Joel stumbles inside, desperate to get the door closed again. With a smack the neighbour runs into the glass. Joel yells at you that it's not really the neighbour. Not any more.

You caught something on the TV earlier, about massive riots and violence in the city. As an explosion rocks the camera, the feed is cut off. In the distance, towards the city, you can see smoke rising up. It all begins to eerily make sense. There is however no time to dwell on all this. Joel and you run outside where Tommy just arrived with his car. Getting inside, the three of you try to escape the madness that's beginning to swallow the city. Encountering hordes of frightened people, running away from something, it suddenly becomes clear what they are running from: a horde of overly aggressive people. As cars from other people trying to escape begin to collide, your car is caught up in it as well. After coming to, the car is wrecked and you have to get out of the car.

The control now switches to Joel, who has to free Sarah from the car wreck. Together with Tommy they make their way through the crowds, trying to find safety. The enraged mobs are chasing them now. Passing through a restaurant, Tommy volunteers to stay behind to give them a chance to escape. After a brief moment Joel and Sarah leave. Shortly after leaving the restaurant, they encounter a soldier. Upon approaching them, with Joel carrying Sarah, the soldier contacts command on orders. He listens, then comments that there's a child among them. After a brief pause, he confirms the order and raises his rifle. Joel begs him not to shoot, but to no avail. After a short burst, Joel lies on the ground with Sarah nearby. The soldier moves towards Joel, clearly intent on finishing the job. Joel begs him not to do it, but there's no hesitation in the soldier any more. Then a shot rings out and the soldier collapses as Tommy rushes in to assist.

Joel seems to be fine, but as he rushes over to Sarah, he finds that she has been mortally wounded. Unable to speak a single word, Sarah's strength slowly fades as Joel desperately tries to save her.

Twenty years later, Joel is living in a quarantine zone in Boston. The events of twenty years ago were caused by a fungus infecting people, taking over their brains and slowly mutating them. Contact with the fungus spores or the infected leads to infection. Most of the US has been turned into a wasteland as a result. Joel works together with Tess, a woman who like him has become a smuggler within the zone, whether legal or illegal. All to survive. While settling a score with another trader who has betrayed them, they come across Marlene, a leader of the Fireflies, a resistance group who want to break the rule of the US military over the surviving people. She wants them to smuggle a girl out of the city to meet up with another group of Fireflies. Eventually Tess and Joel agree to this.

The girl is 14-year old Ellie. She is was raised by Marlene after her mother died. Initially upset that Marlene isn't accompanying her, she eventually agrees to follow Joel and Tess. The latter do not know what's special about Ellie. This is revealed a bit later, when things of course go south. They find that the group of Fireflies was slaughtered by soldiers and are haunted themselves. Tess sacrifices herself to allow Ellie and Joel to escape, after revealing that she was bitten by an infected an hour before that. Her life is forfeit anyway. During the same scene it is revealed that Ellie is special because she is apparently immune to the fungus. She was infected weeks ago, while normally 2 days suffice for a full infection. Tess wants Joel to take Ellie to the Fireflies, to get a cure and save humanity.

Many things happen after this, including memorable encounters with characters, either in-person or via letters they find. Henry and his brother are particularly memorable. As Henry's younger brother becomes infected and has to be shot (by Henry himself), Henry can not take this and raises the gun to his own head before pulling the trigger. They also encounter a group of cannibals, first at the university where they had hoped to find the Fireflies, then again after Joel gets injured and Ellie has to go out on her own to gather food. She gets captured, but manages to escape. Eventually Joel finds her again, just in time to see her put an end to the life of the leader, who was apparently just on the verge of raping her. The savage rage with which she stabs into him with the knife she holds definitely suggests this.

The story quickly culminates to the ending hereafter. They end up at the St. Marie's hospital in Salt Lake City, where the Fireflies have taken up residence and are continuing research to find a cure. Upon encountering a Firefly patrol, Joel is knocked out cold. Waking up again, he finds himself on a hospital bed, with Marlene sitting on a chair next to it. She explains what has happened in the mean time and also that Ellie will provide the cure for sure. Somehow the fungus which has infected her has mutated so as to be harmless. If they can figure out how this happened, they will have the cure. As Marlene explains that Ellie is being prepped for surgery to remove the fungus and that Joel can not see her, realization dawns on him that since the fungus grows on the brain, they can not remove it without killing Ellie.

Marlene orders the guard to escort Joel outside the hospital and to shoot him if he resists. Joel manages to distract the guard and kills him in a savage way, similar to how he killed the two members of the group of cannibals who he questioned to get Ellie's location. After this he goes on a rampage through the hospital to free Ellie. Finding her in the operating room, he kills the surgeon with a single shot as he threatens him with a scalpel. Heading down with the elevator to the parking level, the doors of the elevator open to reveal Marlene standing there with a gun. She begs him to reconsider his choice, as this could save so many lives. Ellie is hereby still completely knocked out by the drugs given to her. Joel refuses and shoots Marlene, then puts Ellie into a car and drives away.

The closing scene is with Joel and Ellie finding their way blocked so that they have to abandon the car. Hiking a short bit, they come upon the town Tommy and his people have been setting up near a small hydroelectric dam. They had visited it before, where Tommy had shown his vision of rebuilding civilization. Asking for his attention, Ellie asks Joel whether everything he had told her about the Fireflies is true. Joel responds affirmative.

What Joel had told Ellie was that the Fireflies didn't need her, that they had found dozens others like her, and that no cure had been found.

One thing I definitely have to say about the story of The Last of Us: it's a lot to take in. There's a massive roller coaster ride you will go through, with many turns and twists. While none of the plot twists are major, the ending nonetheless wasn't easy to see coming. There is also a huge variety of events throughout the game, which makes one feel like they actually contribute to the story instead of merely acting as padding between the cutscenes. Graphics-wise the game looks very good despite running on such old hardware (2006-era PS3). Sound design is very good too, with subtle environmental effects and a distinct lack of background music. The result is a very immersive experience.

What most people including me felt rather conflicted about is the ending. Would Ellie's death really have brought salvation to humanity? Was Joel's lie to Ellie okay? Was Marlene simply misguided, evil or did she really have the best plan for humanity's long-term survival? Looking back at the whole story, I think that there really were only two choices: that of Ellie's certain death and the uncertainty of a resulting cure, or the fragile but conceivable attempt of restoring humanity to its former glory via settlements like those of Tommy. Instead of locking themselves away into quarantine zones which slowly disintegrated, got overrun and were abandoned, these settlements would focus on the future, on restoring the world for humans to what it used to be.

As Tommy says to Joel and Ellie before they leave for the university looking for Fireflies says as they look out of the settlement with its burning electric lights, the children will be watching movies tonight. More normal than that doesn't get it, compared to the madness of the crumbling world outside the settlement.

Even if what Joel says to Ellie is a lie, it's a white lie as far as I'm concerned. Ellie is already torn up over everything that has happened and everything that she has seen. She doesn't need more guilt and doubt about whether her death could have meant the cure. Throughout the story Sarah's death slowly comes to the foreground, as Tommy's wife tells Ellie about it and she figures out that it is part of the reason why Joel behaves so oddly towards her at times. Not having accepted Sarah's death, Joel is torn up by it inside still with the wounds still fresh and bleeding even after twenty years. In a sense Ellie's presence and how they become closer and closer provides the healing experience he needed to accept what happened so long ago.

In some ways this story comes round to meet itself at the end. It started off with Joel and his daughter Sarah and ends up with him and his more or less adopted daughter Ellie. Only this time there is probably no apocalypse waiting. It's the second chance Joel has been waiting for all this time, and to Ellie the hope for a stable existence which she has never known in her short life.

It would have been interesting if this game had had two endings, allowing the player to choose between having Joel leaving the hospital at the end, or rescuing Ellie, but in the end I think that such a thing wasn't the intention of the developers and would have degraded the overall experience. Yes, it's a video game and as such an interactive experience. It's also very linear and everything in it will always happen the same way no matter how often you try it. The point seems to be that you are allowed to live the story, in a way that a movie or book never could.

In that regard it seems to have succeeded masterfully.


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