Brenna is as enraptured by the story of The Last of Us as much as anyway, but she’d probably have enjoyed it just as much – if not more – if it were a movie.
I don’t think anybody’s going to argue that The Last of Us isn’t a compelling piece of storytelling. I’d be happy to call it one of the best stories in mainstream gaming. I’m not happy to call it one of the best games in mainstream gaming, though.
There are several reasons I’m just not that into The Last of Us. It’s slow to get going. It’s packed with minor annoyances. I’m a little tired of white dude stories about white dudes doing white dude things, in which women and people of colour appear mainly so they can be rescued, die, and move the plot along.
But all of these complaints are secondary to my main gripe with The Last of Us which is: it tells one of the most engaging stories the medium has ever produced by almost completely ignoring those aspects which separate gaming from other media, namely: player agency.
Obviously I’m not going to complain about the fact that Naughty Dog has put together a cast of well-written, well-acted characters and used all its prowess to convey emotion. That’s wonderful. I’m just deeply frustrated that it does it in such a “cinematic” way – with the player so often robbed of control and relegated to passive receptor of story, rather than owning it and making it their own. It fails to capitalise on what makes games special – interactivity.
And I mean interactivity in a more interesting sense than “press triangle to proceed while we quietly mask a loading point with an animation you’ll be tired of pretty soon”. Playing The Last of Us rarely seems to involve the player doing anything except what they’re told. There are loads of small, inconsequential decisions like “shall I pick up this blade and make another shiv” and “shall I ghost this section or murder all the dudes” but in terms of what you as the player are doing from moment to moment it’s very similar to Uncharted – there is, ultimately, one linear path that needs to be followed, and little room for creativity.
Yes, the environments branch, but they certainly don’t branch even to the extent of, say, Tomb Raider, which apart from its fast-travel system is also a very linear game. There’s no reason to take one path over another when the choice is presented – often, you circle through both looking for items and find very little besides dialogue to distinguish the two routes.
My role in The Last of Us seemed to boil down to moving the camera from one place to the next, occasionally pressing triangle to collect an item or solve a woefully simple puzzle. The freedom of strategy and expression in combat and stealth encounters isn’t prevalent or frequent enough to disguise the fact that each arena is a game of elimination or an A-B passage through a linear space. My function was as a roving ear for Naughty Dog’s dialogue, and a roving eye for its ruin porn. I could have been anybody and the game wouldn’t have noticed; there was no room for me to feel like my experience differed from that of thousands of other players (it’s that quality which I personally value most in gaming: writing a unique experiential story through action).
In fact, I don’t feel I even needed to be there. Surely the game could be automated to play itself, since Joel is mainly just going to walk down a series of corridors until the next cutscene plays?
They are great cutscenes. I don’t think anybody’s going to argue that The Last of Us isn’t a compelling piece of storytelling. I’d be happy to call it one of the best stories in mainstream gaming, without hesitation and with only a small rueful nod towards the low standards set by the rest of the pack.
I’m not happy to call it one of the best games in mainstream gaming, though, and that the story relies so heavily on Hollywood conventions of “sit back and I will tell you a thing” rather than utilising the strengths of interactivity keeps me form feeling comfortable suggesting The Last of Us has done much to move gaming forward as a medium, something it has been widely hailed for. I like a good yarn as much as the next guy – maybe even more – but it’s just not enough for me this time.
I don’t believe games need to wholeheartedly swallow cinema’s model of passively-received narrative in order to forge emotive, meaningful and communicative experiences. That doesn’t feel like progress. It feels like burying the best parts of gaming beneath the trappings of borrowed convention.