Having recently completed Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, I felt compelled to write about my experience with this post-apocalyptic action title.
The Last of Us is genre-defining experience blending survival and action elements to tell a character-driven story about a population decimated by a modern plague. Cities are abandoned and being reclaimed by nature. Remaining survivors are killing each other for food, weapons, and whatever they can find. Joel, a ruthless survivor, and Ellie, a young teenage girl who's braver and wiser beyond her years, must work together to survive their journey across what remains of the United States.
I recently completed Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us.
Despite having picked up the game with my PS4 over a year ago, I found it quite difficult to make time for. The opening levels are fairly gloomy, and the stealth aspect was a little off-putting for me. Last month, I picked up the controller, determined to complete the masterpiece I was promised. I was not disappointed.
Naughty Dog have designed and built an amazing world with a very strong, character driven narrative. Throughout the story, there is clear development of the characters and in particular their relationship as they fight to survive. It is this relationship between Joel and Ellie that pushed me to keep playing whilst the world was going to hell around me.
Despite the rich setting of the game, a post-pandemic middle America, the focus of direction was on the characters, making this much more than just another zombie title.
Despite my initial detachment to the game, I almost felt a sense of loss when the story eventually came to an end. The story ended leaving me wanting to know more about the lush, extensive environments I had travelled through.
This game is the odyssey of Ellie and Joel, and their relationship together as they struggle to survive. Both characters are damaged and imperfect, but they are believable despite the science fiction backdrop.
During the story I watched Joel adapt to a world he was unfamiliar with. A world he didn't want to be in. Though he had every right to be embittered by all that was taken from him, eventually he shows a warmer side as he spends more time with Ellie. He grows to be very caring towards her.
Ellie had no need to adapt to the ruined world; having been born into it. She begins wary of Joel and expresses a strong dislike towards him. As she ventures outside of the quarantine zone for the first time, she expresses a sense of constant wonderment at everything new she comes in contact with. She displays a child-like innocence and curiosity I wouldn't have deemed possible in such a world.
On their journey, there are many terrifying encounters with 'The Infected', victims of a parasitic fungal spore. Greater still are the challenges presented by the remaining pockets of human survivors, who seem to have no discrimination between their targets.
Naughty Dog portray this lack of humanity incredibly well. It's a world in which people will do anything they have to in order to survive, even if it means surrendering their humanity. It's very easy to draw comparison to some remaining humans and The Infected, and I'm sure this is intentional. I personally find that the handfuls of remaining people, who make the conscious decision to hunt and kill other humans are far more frightening than the zombie like foes. Despite their gruesome appearance and vicious actions, The Infected act on primal animalistic urges rather than conscious choices.
This game features a vast wealth of fantastic work, by many talented artists and developers. After completing the game, I wanted to find out more about the process behind its development. I've curated some of my findings below.
Created for Naughty Dog by Area 5, the Grounded documentary features behind the scenes footage from the making of the game. Though it mostly features motion capture insights and interviews voice talent Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, there are also some glimpses of environment modelling and workflow which are sure to inspire. Be warned though, there are some pretty major spoilers, so it's worth playing the game beforehand.
I picked up The Last of Us artbook almost immediately after completing the game. I wanted to see more of the concept work involved in creating a world in which humanity was pushed towards a very ugly means of surviving.
The concept art and matte paintings are very beautiful. There is a strong theme of 'urban decay' throughout, though taken to its furthest extremes, in which nature has totally reclaimed the cities and structures created by mankind.
Environments aside, there are also lengthy sections of character concepts and development. It provides an interesting opportunity to see how different Joel and Ellie looked before their appearance was finalised. There are also pages upon pages of gruesome concept work detailing The Infected at various stages of their lifecycle.
Parkablogs have a full review of the book, including a few preview pages and flick-through video, if you need extra convincing.
Whilst playing through the game, I was aware that sections with extended silence could be just as impactful as scenes with composed audio tracks. Not to disparage the beautiful, largely acoustic soundtrack, but the direction of the game uses the absence of musical build up to enhance the tense atmosphere.
The film-like direction of the game extends to the soundtrack, and it follows the characters through their journey. Whilst characters don't have their own themes, as their journey transitions between different seasons, I heard variations of the main theme which fit the setting. I found that the audio was incredibly well placed and really immersed me. It strengthened my empathy towards the characters, by manipulating the mood of the story and dialogue.
When employed during tense moments, the soundtrack gave me goosebumps. The slow heavy drumbeats are almost primal, and made me very aware of being in a hunter-versus-hunted situation.
You can listen to the soundtrack for free online using Spotify or iTunes (via Apple Music) if you have an account.
If you want to learn more about the creative process behind the soundtrack, the podcast Top Score once featured an interview with game composer Gustavo Santaolalla which was really quite interesting. He discusses his inspiration for the journey, based on his own experience. Definitely worth a listen.
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