The Beautiful Hopelessness of ‘The Last of Us’ (Some Observations)

After waiting unnecessarily long for a copy of the game to arrive in the mail I finally own Naughty Dog’s blockbuster title ‘The Last of Us’ and have been playing it for a week or two. The game may be the most popular of the year, and for good reason; it’s highly ambitious, it features some downright beautifully rendered graphics, and it really pushes the limits of not only video game storytelling but voice acting as well.

I’ve been playing the game slowly and methodically since its arrival, and after a number of days haven’t even made it out of the quite incredible digital recreation of Boston. By contrast, I flew through another extremely popular and groundbreaking game, ‘Bioshock: Infinite’, gunning down enemies and collecting swag like a man possessed. And while the two games offer very different experiences, I think they bare more than a little comparison.

The two titles are running pretty much neck and neck in the race for “Game of the Year” in most gamers’ minds. But I fear the one thing holding ‘The Last of Us’ back when compared to ‘Bioshock: Infinite’ is the “fun factor”. Don’t get me wrong, both games are grim in their own way, and ‘Bioshock’ definitely received it’s share of criticism over the amount of carnage and graphic violence it depicted, but ‘The Last of Us’ can be downright depressing.

Whereas the run & gun style of gameplay in ‘Infinite’ felt fun, and the exploration of the world built up around it offered wonder and horror in equal doses, ‘The Last of Us’ feels more like a slog through one horrible event after another on the way to what one must assume is not going to be the happiest of endings, with the only reward being the experience itself. I mean, hooray for breaking the boundaries of video game entertainment and everything, but my life is hard enough already.

In that respect I suppose ‘The Last of Us’ might have more in common with the original “art deco mutants in an undersea world” iteration of ‘Bioshock’ than ‘Infinite’ did. It definitely takes a few notes on creepiness and scares from the earlier game. It could’ve taken a few on NPC AI from ‘Infinite’ as well though, as the other characters often get in your way and can even cause you to be discovered by enemies. She’s no Elizabeth, but at least Ellie is “cool” and likable as a character, despite being a klutz.

Speaking of character, I’ve gotten attached to video game characters before, and had all kinds of emotional reactions to the bullshit that happens to them. But I genuinely feel bad for ‘The Last of Us’ protagonist Joel. Here’s this middle aged man who has lost everything being backed into a corner by life yet again, sort of stumbling and wheezing his way through the exertion demanded of him to just stay alive! He’s practically the anti-Booker DeWitt who was an unstoppable middle-aged killing machine!

Sure, one is far more realistic than the other. But Joel has about as much business taking off on this mission as I do! About the only thing either of us has going for us is a hidden penchant for brutal nastiness. I’m surprised he hasn’t complained about his bad back yet! And granted, I’m not very far into the game, but there have been no barbershop quartet renditions of Beach Boys tunes or “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” interludes to break the apocalyptic mood of this virtually silent game.

That’s a bit of a problem when most of us play video games to escape from our day to day realities. The real world is scary enough with monsters like George Zimmerman and Rick Perry, among many others, running around, I don’t need to be afraid some fungus-infected asshole is going to eat my video game character’s face. It’s all enough to make a man give up! But maybe that’s the point, with a world like ours, maybe we should just give up and let the fungus take over?

But uhh, I should probably go finish the fucking game.

‘The Last of Us’
Naughty Dog
Playstation 3

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