3 Lessons Learned from Playing The Last of Us

In the end, I won’t look back on this year having playing the majority of its heavy hitters. I’m leaving the country until August and my game exposure will be limited. It means no GTAV, no Beyond: Two Souls, no Assassin’s Creed 4, nothing. But there was one game I’m superbly pleased to have experience, and of course, it was the The Last of Us.

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Naughty Dog isn’t usually in my runnings of most important or meaningful developers out there. The Uncharted series is fun, sure, but it never felt like it was pushing the industry much beyond graphical milestones. They never felt extraordinarily immersive or touching, and there are serious issues I have with the juxtaposition between Nathan Drake the fun-loving adventurer and Nathan Drake the mass murderer. An entire nation’s worth of people have been killed in his wake, aggressors or not.

But I digress. The strengths of their newest title are great and plentiful, and having recently completed it, I came to the realization that my perspective on video games had been changed, ever so slightly.

#3: Sometimes Hard is the Only True Difficulty Option

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Usually, I go for normal difficulty. I imagine most do, since that offers the clearest equivalent to what the designers were intending (at least, for many games, but not all). Challenge is also something I appreciate in small bursts, but never to the point of frustration.

However, when I was given that ever-important choice at the game’s start, I sat and weighed the options carefully. My rational self was screaming at me, this game will kick your ass! But it was vying with a different perspective. Maybe, in The Last of Us, hard is the only real option. Well that and Survivor, but I legitimately feared for my sanity and went with the slightly lower denomination.

And I was rewarded for that effort, not because it made the game more fun, but because it whipped me in ways that gave the situations a much greater sense of realism. I spend almost all of the crouched, cautiously gathering the sparse supplies I could find, constantly listening for threats. It was, in a number of ways, exactly how I would have to act in that situation to survive. No amount of gun-toting bravery would save me. I’d have to use my brain.

And so most of my solutions weren’t direct. I learned to avoid conflict, a premise entirely foreign to previous Naughty Dog titles, and seek the way that would see me live, not the way that would get me the most exciting kills. Essentially, The Last of Us flipped my usual game priorities on their head, and it was all because of that simple choice.

#2: Film Can Teach Video Games a Thing or Two

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Typically, I’m on the side of the fence that respects the differences between games and film as being substantial. Why make games to mimic movies? Why make movies to mimic games? There’s no real reason for it, since games themselves need to learn how to define themselves on their own terms. It’s high time we dropped phrases like “the Citizen Kane of games” because to assume that games and film need to have anything in common is like saying Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be critiqued using the same standard one would use for The Persistence of Memory or A Day in the Life. Yes, they’re all works of art, but most understand and can define the individual characteristics that make up literature, painting, and music.

And yet, The Last of Us manages to succeed using a few lessons pulled from a film mindset, and does them extremely well. Maybe the problem isn’t so much that these cross-media interactions are happening, its that up until this point, they’ve happened poorly. The Last of Us uses timed edits and cuts to separate its narrative across a long tapestry of time. We don’t always get a clear vision for how circumstances in situation A evolve to situation B, especially when they travel extensive distances.

But the cuts help the narrative to identify key moments in the characters’ arcs, and the game knows not to waste any time filling the blanks with pointless fluff and exposition. It’s something good film does well, as no film should ever make arbitrary use out of its limited screen time. Games can be a little more free form with time, and often we as players are given a lot of unimportant space, time spent pushing the world, atmosphere, challenge, character development, and narrative very little.

The Last of Us, though, is mean and lean. It respects the player’s time to an unheard of degree, giving us incredibly rich development with very little. And that’s something that a well-rounded knowledge of film surely helped create.

#1: Good Doesn’t Always Equal Fun

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Now wait a minute. Isn’t fun what it’s all about? Don’t we go to games to experience a fantasy and play to our deepest desires? I certainly have powerful fun overseeing legions of subjects in SimCity and Roller Coaster Tycoon. And the fun I experienced in Mass Effect came from building up a team of pals and having a space adventure. Fun is the essentially ingredient in the best of games. If it’s not fun, then isn’t a waste of time?

Wrong. Fun is important, sure, and oftentimes the very reason we go to the titles we do. But it’s not essential. Again, let’s pull into the realm of film a bit to discuss the matter. Back in the day, American cinema was built around giving its audience an experience. Popular film wasn’t so much about realism or experimentalism or powerful emotion, it was about entertaining the crowd like an energetic circus.

Think about films like An American in Paris or Singing in the Rain. Certainly, these are well designed, fun movies that have every place in the history of cinema. But that isn’t all the film is. While Americans were giving their audiences experiences, the Germans, French, and Italians were showing their audiences experiences. And many of the films that preceded weren’t fun to watch at all. They were terrifying, depressing, maddening, and insane. And film as a medium and industry developed far more from their influence. And which of these two kinds of film do we respect the most today? The fun, cozy crowd pleaser or the Schindler’s Lists and Fight Clubs.

Games have every right to try to be as fun and entertaining as possible, that’s certainly true. But that doesn’t mean that games have to be fun. And The Last of Us is, in its purest form, one of the least fun games I’ve ever forced myself through. But that’s okay! I feel better for the experience, and the character development, stressful mechanics, atmosphere, and emotional tone carried such strength that it really teaches us that games, like film, can rely on different vehicles to be considered great. Maybe games aren’t just about how we are entertained by the game, but how deeply we interact with the game. It’s an interesting point to consider, and certainly the greatest point of conflict that raged in my mind after completion.

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