The main complaint that critics and players aim at the Last of Us is that it doesn’t do anything new with the genre or medium. It’s always characterized as a game that perfectly executes an old formula of game design without bringing anything new to the table. Like the narrative and the gameplay are oil and water. This is true for the majority of the game, but there are some really crucial moments in the narrative that would be nowhere near as powerful if not for the use of gameplay.
The first way is through environmental storytelling. This isn’t just being able to read journals that people have left behind though. The environmental storytelling in the Last of Us is particularly creative, at least for this genre. Two moments come to mind, the first being short time before you meet Bill. The game doesn’t give itself very much time to set up Bill, so it does so in a very dense way. You do get the odd comment or journal before you reach Bill’s town, but that’s not where the meat of the characterization comes from. When you enter the first street in Bill’s town you can have a look at the very messy traps that he has set up at the end of the road. The road-block is incredibly messy and disordered. It does the job very well but is very dishevelled and inefficient, a lot like Bill. Then you find the man with an arrow in his chest, which you can pick up and use yourself. You get an idea that Bill is very good at surviving, which is really what his character is there to talk about. That Bill is the result of sacrificing everything for survival. By the time you get past a few of his traps you know that Bill has the know-how in which to survive and goes beyond anyone else in ensuring it. The second example is smaller one; it’s the part after the chase in the sewer. This part of the game is obviously full of environmental storytelling, but it’s the creativity that Naughty Dog shows that raises it above a lot of journal-based environmental storytelling. You get to read a bit about a family that are about to leave their home, but the journal ends before you get to see what happened to them. Then you walk outside and you see the car with all the suit-cases on, and you realized they were so close to making it. That’s environmental storytelling to be proud of.
An incredibly dramatic moment of the game is when Sam and Henry die. The scene is harrowing; Druckman does a really excellent job of portraying a man who realizes he’s lost everything and desperately wants to escape reality. So he does, and you’re left to attempt to comprehend everything for less than twenty seconds. After that you’re suddenly in a different season and totally different environment and told to walk the path up to Joel’s brothers’ place. You’re told to forget about them and carry on like you’re supposed to, to survive. The game depicts the intense relationship and then instant cut off that would be the reality in that situation. You can now see why Joel is the way he is. This is why he has to move on very quickly and not get very close to people, and the gaming is forcing you to do the same. Yes this could be done in film form, but I doubt it would be quite as effective as it is here. Here you are not only expected to accept the change in tone, the odd pace and new goals, you’re expected to work, to actually walk in Joel’s shoes and realign your goals and emotions quickly. Engage your critical thinking again, where do I have to go? Where were we going again? It doesn’t feel right, but this is reality. It feels kind of like when you have plans but you realize you have to work overtime or you have been given an assignment that needs to be in quickly. Only you don’t just have to drop something entertaining you wanted to do, you’re dropping an entire person and all the emotional processes that go with losing someone. I don’t think a film could do that in the way the Last of Us does. It isn’t the noblest way to use gameplay, to take the heart away from the situation, but it does so in the aim of helping the player understand Joel and the theme of the game, it is artistic use of the stress that comes with having to pick up the controller again so soon after something devastating.
The last and most important example of Naughty Dog’s skill at weaving theme and character in gameplay is at the end where Joel has to save Ellie from the Fireflies. This part doesn’t just demonstrate skill at weaving theme and character into gameplay, it actually weaves emotion into the gameplay. Whereas Pittsburgh used gameplay to take the emotion away, this chapter puts the heart into the gameplay, and I haven’t ever seen something like it done before.
There’s a reason the run up to finding Ellie is such a harsh difficulty spike. Where it’s crucial to be stealthy and not doing so will lead to very harsh consequences. It’s a very frustrating moment, but you might not realize why it’s there. It lays the groundwork for the escape with Ellie. If you already know, nay, have already experienced how stressful and how improbable getting through the hospital is, the next bit is going to be even more powerful. You have to pick up Ellie and escape out of the hospital. It forces a horrible mish-mash of stress, fear, hopelessness and sadness onto the player. If we had just watched this part of the game through cut-scene, I doubt it would have the power that it does. Apparently Neil Druckman and Bruce Straley didn’t think to put it in for a while, thank god they did, it’s the peak of the game in many ways. The colour palate changes in this part, your mechanics are restricted and the motif of the spotlight being emitted from behind you is back.
The colour palette is different to emphasise the urgency of the situation. It’s a subtly more red with flashing lights. The music is the sad and hopeless “All Gone” soundtrack from Gustavo with the sound of sirens at the same time. You’re mechanically restricted, unable to run but still able to control. And finally the motif of the spotlight is back. Remember at the start of the game where Joel’s daughter died? Well she was killed while Joel had is back to the guard trying to escape, and when the guard was pointing the gun and spotlight at him. So the inclusion of this motif is very important to the narrative and sub-consciously brings back the memory of Joel losing his daughter.
This is where Naughty dog break the formula of the survival horror genre in gaming and where the medium is being played with to great effect. Can anybody possibly make the claim beyond this point that the narrative and gameplay are separate and that you might as well be watching it? If you think so, please tell me.