The Last of Us
‘Kill or be killed’ has been a key theme for videogames ever since the first Space Invader fired a pixellated-laser at a plucky-unnamed cannon prowling along the bottom of the screen, a clearly defined dichotomy that has entrenched itself by connecting with our basest survival instincts. Of course, for such a set-up to exist, there also has to be an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and it is this concept that Naughty Dog’s long awaiting The Last of Us attempts to explore…and it does so with frequently astonishing results.
There is much in The Last of Us that impresses – from the visuals to the characters, to the sound design and more besides – but possibly the most impressive thing about it is that it manages to make such an emotional impact while remaining a videogame in the truest sense of the word. Methods for telling stories within interactive mediums are still evolving with recent experiments having occasionally blurred the lines between game and movie (yes, Heavy Rain, we are talking about you) and though (in true Naughty Dog style) The Last of Us makes frequent forays into cutscenes and periods of non-interactivity it remains committed to interactivity, but still wrings out an astounding degree of emotional complexity. It’s as thought provoking as it is challenging and pushes the relationship between gamer and game in bold new directions.
As bold a venture as it may ultimately be, there is much about The Last of Us that is actually quite run of the mill, most obviously in that it is a third-person action adventure/survival horror that treads a well-worn post-apocalyptic path. As horrifying as the concept of the end of life as we know it is, it’s hard not to feel a pang of disinterest when yet another game plunges you into a world in which humanity is on the brink; so saturated is the market that the apocalypse has become humdrum. And yet, through expertly executed mechanics, passionately imagined characters and a wonderful degree of detail, Naughty Dog have crafted a world that transcends it roots. In fact, it could be said that The Last of Us succeeds in part because of the attention it pays to the humdrum and the everyday, its naturalistically portrayed characters meshing beautifully with its decaying streets and buildings strewn with the remnants of humanity, all serving to underline and contrast with the frequently horrific themes and situations in which the cast of characters are placed.
The commitment to realism also extends into the game’s treatment of its more fantastical elements; here the near-eradication of the human race is the work of a scientifically sound, if exaggerated, infection based on cordyceps – a parasitic fungus that can replaces living tissue and, in some cases, can actually control the behaviour of the host. Such scientific grounding doesn’t quite manage The Last of Us to shake off accusations that it is merely a Zombie-apocalypse with a mycological twist, but it does bring a sense of authenticity that further heightens the horror while also reducing the requirement to suspend one’s disbelief.
The cordyceps theme also empowers Naughty Dog’s artists to go to town, crafting some imaginative and truly horrifying foes, all based on humans torn, twisted and distorted by fungal infection. Three main stages of infection exist (though, rumours of a forth are sprinkled through the game…) known as Runners, Stalkers and Clickers. The first two are relatively self explanatory, with Runners being fast moving and reliant on overwhelming you with their speed and numbers. Stalkers, on the other hand, are slow-moving but more deadly. Taken on their own, the Runners and Stalkers would be a pretty unexceptional bunch, but the top of the pyramid, the Clickers, manage to nudge The Last of Us’ fungal-zombies into the genuinely horrific. Although somewhat clumsy on their feet and blinded by the grotesque fungal formations sprout from their eye-sockets, Clickers earn your fear by being lethal killers and through the half-human, half-insect sucking and clicking that that they use to echo-locate. Many of The Last of Us’ most memorable moments of horror come when you find yourself hunkered down behind a wall in a room full of clickers, attempting to plan your next move while ignoring the sound of wheezing, chirping death that surrounds you. They might be zombies at heart, but the infected (especially the Clickers) carve out their own particular niche through strong visual and sound design.
Though the infected genuinely horrify, the extent of The Last of Us’ horrors run much deeper, with Naughty Dog exploring how human behaviour can be affected by extreme situations. Throughout the game’s 16+ hour run time, to whom exactly the ‘Us’ in The Last of Us is referring shifts constantly, and even upon completion is open to interpretation. This avoidance of obvious binary pigeon-holing (i.e. humans vs infected) and constant moral ambiguity lies at the game’s core and is a tool through which it manages to plunge deeper than virtually any other game of its ilk, toying with the player, meeting their expectations while at the same time subverting them and creating a world of fascinating moral complexity as a result.
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