Tom Bissell has written a really interesting article about The Last Of Us, looking at it from a much deeper perspective into the mechanics of the game rather than simply marveling it’s aesthetic brilliance.
On a narrative level, The Last of Us is about survival, but this is not what makes the game such a model of subtlety. Most contemporary video games are about survival, however facilely. What makes The Last of Us subtle is how rigorously its mechanics and rule set express and emphasize the horror and tedium of survival. One of the things you find yourself doing a lot in The Last of Us is finding ladders, which are used to ascend to higher ground. Another thing you find yourself doing a lot is searching for rags and rubbing alcohol to craft med kits. Another thing you do is wander into abandoned houses and rifle through drawers and cupboards in the hopes of finding scissors and masking tape, which you can use to make a shiv. And don’t forget about the planks of wood, which are awesome to bridge gaps between buildings. And hey, look over there! A brick. The point is, The Last of Us makes you search and scrape for depressingly common objects, which you put to depressingly common use. It doesn’t bother to dress up, make “interesting,” or in any way glamorize this aspect of the game, or cater at all to what the majority of its audience will want to do, which is feel powerful and heroic. It’s pretty hard to feel powerful while carrying a ladder. It’s pretty hard to feel heroic while sneaking up on an enemy and savagely beating him to death with a brick. Indeed, the depiction of melee violence in The Last of Us is as upsetting as anything I’ve played. Significantly, this kind of violence is almost always one’s last resort.
There are plenty of guns in The Last of Us, and one critic is already on the record saying there’s too much shooting in the game. I confess this was not my experience. For the vast majority of my playing time, my bullet total was in single digits. I often wished there were a hell of a lot more guns, especially when I was hunkered down behind a wall, hot-eared, my heart hammering away, while I waited to sneak to the next piece of cover, because there were five enemies I could see and I had only three bullets to my name. Many gunfights can be avoided, but whenever gunfights do erupt they play out in frantic, unpredictable ways. You run a lot, and hide a lot, which tend to be no-nos in modern game design, as they’re thought to (and do) disempower the player. This is to say nothing of the rattlesnake cunning of the game’s enemy AI. If you’re in a gunfight and don’t move, you’re flanked in seconds and dead soon after that. When you pull a gun on an unarmed human enemy who happens to be sprinting straight at you, he’ll do something highly unusual for a video-game enemy that happens to be sprinting straight at you, which is sensibly turn around and run. A few human enemies, when you knock them down, will beg for their lives. While this last touch seems a little too self-consciously “gritty” for my taste, The Last of Us mostly stays clear of heavy-handed moralizing about violence. The few times it does succumb to heavy-handed moralizing about violence are, not coincidentally, the least effective moments of creative director Neil Druckmann’s otherwise excellent, sensitive, and understated script.
If you play a lot of video games, you’ll probably be shocked by how stripped of obvious gameisms The Last of Us is. The game never tells you when it saves or when a new chapter begins. The HUD is hieroglyphically austere. Its bestowal of in-game trophies that communicate player accomplishment are as parsimonious as any mainstream game ever made. During the flow of action or exploration there is very little iconic intrusion, by which I mean no glowing “Go here, stupid!” indicators. You wind up getting turned around and disoriented quite a bit, which allowance stands as one of the more audacious pillars of the game’s design. For all its simplicity and mechanically meaningful tedium, however, for all its attempts to ground its mechanics in something that could be described as video-game realism (which is reality shorn of 93 percent of what makes it real), The Last of Us does have its gameisms. Many of them. Eating candy bars, for instance, restores a bit of your health. Enemies don’t spot Ellie when you’re both sneaking around, even if she happens to be squatting at their feet. Many of the game’s guards were apparently trained at the Stare-at-a-Wall Guard Training Academy.
People will inevitably complain about this stuff, but they’re unwise to, given that the removal or alteration of the above gameisms would necessarily result in a vastly more frustrating experience. Norman Mailer once said, “Style is an attack on the nature of reality.” The designers of The Last of Us put an estimable amount of thought into how their chosen medium best attacks the nature of reality. I can’t imagine that anyone making an action game in the next 10 years won’t carefully study what The Last of Ushas, in this respect alone, accomplished.