Late the year before last, when I bought my first console, and played Red Dead Redemption 2 quite soon after its release, I was completely bowled over. ‘This game changes everything!’ I ranted enthusiastically to you, my journal. Of course if I hadn’t been in the Mac gaming ghetto all my life I’d have been able to see it coming, and I would have been aware of games like The Last of Us, which came out in 2013. RDR2 is still a remarkable achievement, and makes all of its mechanics storyable in a way I still haven’t seen elsewhere, but it is not as unprecedented as it seemed to me at the time, particularly not in its careful attention to character development and emotional narrative. It was the first game to make me cry, but only because it was the first game I played that had that power. Others already existed, among them The Last of Us.
I had heard of this game, because I’ve been reading the gaming press lately, and there’s a great deal of excitement about its sequel, due out in May 2020. I wouldn’t have been that likely to buy a six-year-old PS3 release though, even a ‘remastered’ one, given my current state of exhilaration about finally being able to play up-to-date AAA games. However, a Playstation Plus subscription (required for all multiplayer or online content) comes with two free games a month, and this was one of them. You can see that it’s not the latest visual technology, particularly out of doors, and sometimes the figures and faces are a bit weirder than you’d find in a game like RDR2 or Horizon Zero Dawn, but I’d been playing for at most three minutes before I forgot all about the difference, so absorbed was I by both the story and the gameplay.
The scenario is a post-zombie-apocalypse one, set twenty years after an outbreak of a fungal infection that has devastated America, leaving it mostly uninhabited, with survivors corralled in quarantine zones administered by the military. The narrative follows three inhabitants of one of these zones on a journey out into the wilds, ostensibly on a quest for a cure to the infection, although by the end of the game it’s clearly a quest for personal redemption that’s more important. Gameplay is third-person action-adventure, with survival horror elements. Enemies have a pretty viable AI, even on easy (I’m a gaming wimp in my dotage), which requires you to learn and anticipate their behaviours; stealth plays a big part, as pretty much every encounter features enough enemies to swamp you in a straight fight. The infected (zombies) are mostly much more predictable than uninfected enemies, which makes them easier to deal with, although some have a habit of running around randomly, and some are very thick-skinned.
There is a focussed crafting system, which enables you to upgrade weapons and create consumables such as medical kits and nail bombs (nice). Most crafting systems are frankly bloated and over-complex, but this one was a welcome exception. There’s a sharp limit on the number of things you can make and on the quantities of materials you can carry. Everything you can make is also useful – I guess that’s the case in most games, but there is usually no need to use any given crafting product, whereas here you pretty much need them all. There’s a constant pressure to resupply, and a constant drain on the stuff you produce.
Movement and combat are solid and satisfying, and there was clearly a great deal of effort made to balance difficulty against progress. Even on easy there’s a real sense of risk, but rarely a sense that any obstacle will be insurmountable. However, there was an equal or greater investment of time and effort in story and character development, and the game features a lot of very high quality motion capture and voice acting. Although the core gameplay loop is very enjoyable, it was the story and characterisation that kept me obsessively playing this until idiotically-late o’clock.
The emotional cost of survival, and the exigencies of loving another person in a situation of constant, extreme peril, are explored thoughtfully and empathically. These are by no means outlandish scenarios: the fantastical setting of a zombie apocalypse simply offers us enough distance to engage. If these stories were told realistically, set in a contemporary war zone, the game would simply be upsetting – it would be a Mike Leigh movie, and gaming is not quite ready for that. Here it is entertaining, but it still challenges the player. The conclusion of the narrative is nuanced, and promises little in the way of resolution to anything beyond the immediate arc of the central characters: their longer term emotional wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the world as a whole, are left in limbo. These were fairly grown-up creative choices, but clearly also canny ones, as the game was a bestseller.
The understated performances, the quite drab appearance of the decaying urban cityscapes, and the masterfully atmospheric soundtrack contributed by Gustavo Santaolalla, contribute to a playing experience that is relatively unspectacular, and all the more immersive for it. Violence is brutal, and sometimes shocking – however often you confront it, it never becomes routine as it does in a first-person shooter. There is a real melancholy to the setting, and to the loneliness of the characters, whose eventual bonding is as scrappy, as compromised, as down-and-dirty as the fighting. The more games I play the more I become conscious of my ignorance of this youngest of cultural media, but I’m pretty sure this one is a stand-out example. The best speculative fiction explores the world we inhabit in ways that are unavailable to mimetic storytelling, and that’s exactly what The Last of Us does.