There are two things I take for granted in life – everyone who has purchased and played Naughty Dog’s shinny PlayStation exclusive The Last of Us fell in love with the game at first sight and perhaps more pressingly, you cannot avoid paying your taxes.
So yes, I am a few lines away from becoming that guy. I am here to tell you that your undying passion for Joel and Ellie’s journey across zombieland may be somewhat unfounded. Do not go away just yet. Hear me out.
Here is the thing virtually nobody dared to discuss about Neil Druckman’s piece – the game goes far beyond its media darling label of gaming’s own Citizen Kane, this is pretty much an overlong movie with bits of gameplay peppered around its admittedly pretty shell. From the moment you start out on your adventure, The Last of Us seems enamored with its own tale, an acquired sense of grandeur that insists on elevating each and every cut-scene our main characters star in. Sure, it is interesting to watch Joel develop into a somewhat beaten middle-aged man that has lost the light of life in his daughter’s passing amid a virus outbreak, only to be emotionally replaced by Ellie a few chapters down the line. Again, as a pure narrative exercise The Last of Us is at least interesting, if fun to watch. Alas, one can argue the lion share of Naughty Dog’s efforts and budget went into making sure we are emotionally impacted by what happens on-screen. And that is not enough. Not for a game that was supposed to take gaming to the next level of maturity, that is.
I want – nay, I need to have fun whilst actually playing my videogames, thank you. I am guessing you do, too.
When you do pick up your DualShock in The Last of Us, you are basically doing one of three things – pretending that playing cat and mouse with zombiefied adversaries is fun, convincing yourself that crafting healing items for a good portion of your time spent in-game resembles an entertaining experience, or going full Gears of War on the opposing side by blowing them to smithereens. None of of the aforementioned activities achieve a fraction of the quality the game’s script and world building does. No, sir. Again, during my time with Joel, Ellie, the Fireflies and the The Last of Us’ remaining cast I seldom experienced truly phenomenal, game-changing or innovative gameplay beats. There is no mechanical hook here. There are very few gameplay twists. Conversely, you get to pet a giraffe in a post-apocalyptic setting, so I guess that evens things out.
PS: It does not.
For me, gameplay is king. You cannot sell me on an idea or concept for a game by beginning your pitch saying you “wrote a great script and have got amazing characters”. How will you translate that emotion into button presses? Can you support your “amazing script” with gameplay that matters in equal measure? I remember watching an old Japanese tape from the early 90s, in which a few game devs were talking about what was like to participate in a gamejam hosted by Nintendo’s legendary game-maker Shigeru Miyamoto. One of those kids said he had concocted a prototype for a game in which you controlled a vampire that would jump on your enemies necks only to rob them of their health meter (and their blood, I hope). He told the interviewer that Miyamoto-san’s recommended the dev had an additional mechanic built into the game that would allow for the player to mash a button while said vampire is sucking the blood off his victims. This would render the game “way more fun”, he said. If that is not the fundamental difference between a good game and a great one, I do not know what is.
Neil Druckman and Naughty Dog should had watched this tape before commencing work on The Last of Us, I reckon.
I have praised Bloodborne’s astonishing approach to storytelling whist using its script to add to its gameplay efforts, not replace them. Perhaps that is a very Japanese thing to do, anyway. In fact, most western studios seem keen on replacing playable, mechanical, prowess with “emotional storytelling”. Sure, Naughty Dog has pretty much guaranteed decades of finely made Joel and Ellie cosplay while securing Sony’s IP place in today’s particularly harsh AAA landscape. That is a good thing. But I am still waiting to have fun with a The Last of Us game. With the announcement of The Last of Us: Part II comes a golden ticked to rethink what this franchise can mean to millions of other players yet to give into its charm. Write a good script, Neil. But make sure you are focusing on making a better game in the process, too. Win me over.
There is time.