The Last of Us bests Uncharted by creating a world where violence is appropriate… and necessary
Sony showed new footage of the upcoming Naughty Dog title, The Last of Us, at a pre-E3 event in Santa Monica, and the game may have already stolen the show. Gamers may still be skeptical of the title’s use of a post-apocalyptic world and the relationship between an older man and a younger girl, but Naughty Dog has earned some up-front trust after the success of the three Uncharted games, a franchise that has spawned an iconic character while proving that feature-quality dialog and voice acting were possible in a game. It’s worth remembering that the Uncharted titles were also built on familiar tropes. Naughty Dog has found a world where the game’s violence won’t be a distraction. After years of dealing with a lovable rogue who was comfortable killing thousands of people, The Last of Us provides characters and a setting where the violence is both justified and contextually sound.
A plague has all but destroyed the world’s population, and the two options for survivors are life inside a compound where everything you do is controlled, or to escape into the wild and try to make your way in a hostile world where nature has reclaimed the cities and roving groups of bandits prey on anyone or anything that displays weakness. This isn’t the modern day travels of a lovable thief and his buddies. This is a nightmare scenario where there doesn’t seem to be much hope to be found in either option. Joel, the older man, is an interesting character in that he was alive before the plague and has learned how to survive in the world after it. During one scene in the demo, he tells Ellie that he’s been on both sides of the sorts of ambushes we see in the embedded trailer, and later he refuses to answer a question about how many people he’s killed. The other people we’ve seen in the game are willing to use violence to get what they want, and in this environment Joel has to fight back. The combat shown to date is bloody and intense; everything seems to hurt in a way you rarely see in games. Uncharted gave us Nathan Drake, a hero who made jokes between action set pieces where he killed scores of people, where the dissonance between the characters in the cut scenes and the in-game action could be distracting. The Last of Us has solved this issue by presenting the player with a world where there is no innocence, and you’re not alone. But there has to be more justification for the kind of violence we'll see in the game. Which brings us to our next point…
Naughty Dog has the luxury of spending more time with the actors that bring their characters to life than is common in video games. The natural-sounding dialog between characters in the Uncharted series is due to Naughty Dog’s ability to have those actors live with their characters for extended periods of time. The voices behind the characters also physically act out their parts with each other in the same physical space. These are rare things when it comes to recording voice acting in games, but the extra time and expense is worth it. Uncharted has characters that feel real, a result from the real relationships and interactions the actors have with each other. The Last of Us’s Ellie is a young girl played by Ashley Johnson, and spending time with the actress during development actually changed aspects of the character. “After delving further into the game’s narrative over the past few months, we decided to modify Ellie’s model to better reflect Ashley’s personality, and also resemble a slightly younger teen more fitting to the story,” Neil Druckman, the game’s creative director, told IGN. “We're happy with the final result shown in the cinematic we have released today, and hope the fans like her too.” She also makes sense in this world; she’s lived her life inside a quarantine zone so she’s unaware of what life is like in the wild. She’s seeing everything with the eyes of the audience, and she learns about the world outside the quarantine zone just as we learn of it. She’s also young and female, and both of these traits make her a target during the pair’s travels in the game’s world. Joel is even more likely to resort to violence as a first resort due to the high stakes of every encounter with another survivor and his young companion. We don’t know much of the story, but Ellie may be the closest thing this world has to an innocent, and preserving that triggers all sorts of protective instincts in the player. We also know that she’ll be helpful as the game wears on. She wasn’t scared to react violently to help Joel when he’s overwhelmed by bandits in the footage we saw. Ellie also works as a wonderful foil for Joel’s steely pragmatism, and we’ve already seen hints of the writing and voice acting that define Naughty Dog titles. The young girl in peril may seem like an overdone trope, but there has been nothing to make me believe the game will be a long escort mission, and much to give me hope that she will serve to further the story and raise the stakes of game.
So why is this important?
I had a long conversation with Naughty Dog’s Amy Hennig days before the release of Uncharted 3, and she spoke at length about the frustrations of trying to build characters that feel real in the cutscenes before they go on to kill scores of bad guys in the playable action segments. The Uncharted series has always suffered from this tension between the story being told and the need for video game-style action in the gunplay. The Last of Us seems to have bypassed this argument entirely due to a setting where violence is a given, and Naughty Dog has filled that setting with richly drawn characters. The dissonance has been removed, or at least the setting and characters were built with the idea that it could be ameloriated. The Last of Us features characters that, based on what I've seen, act the same during the cut scenes and the action segments I can’t wait to see more.