The Last of Us: unravelling the new hottest game in the world
The cryptic unveiling of The Last of Us last week piqued our interest. It wasn’t so much the news of an upcoming game that got us thinking, or even the fact it’s a PS3 exclusive; it was more the tease from Spike TV host Geoff Keighley that it’s being developed by an “amazing developer”.
We were promised a big developer and we got it; Naughty Dog, the studio behind Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Uncharted, are amazingly the ones working on this.
Despite the subtle hints spotted during the week in Uncharted 3, it didn’t seem likely that it would be them. After all, the studio has already developed three AAA Uncharted games this generation. The notion that they could produce another new blockbuster IP throughout this period is simply remarkable. It seems, according to Naughty Dog co-president Christophe Balestra, the studio has in fact been running two teams all along:
While one team has worked tirelessly gaining critical acclaim for Uncharted, Naughty Dog has had a separate team working on The Last of Us. That team is led by creative director Neil Druckmann and game director Bruce Straley. Curiously, Druckmann revealed in a tweet that he’s been working on the project for two years, but we know that “thelastofus” YouTube account, the source of the original trailer, was registered back in July 2006. This game has clearly been on the irons for a long time.
So, what did we learn from the debut trailer? We gained a good idea for the world. It’s set in a ruined city, possibly New York, with a middle-aged man and a young girl fighting off an attack from infected people. They just about get away and the trailer closes with the young girl saying, “This is our routine. Day and night, all we do is survive. It never lets up.”
The Last of Us, then, is Naughty Dog’s first foray into survival horror gameplay. We have two characters fighting for survival in a post-disaster situation, a situation that appears to have been brought about by the spread of Cordyceps — a parasitic fungus that infiltrates the body and controls the mind, before sprouting out of the body. Thankfully, Cordyceps currently doesn’t affect humans, but clearly it has adapted in the game.
We can be confident that it is Cordyceps for a couple of reasons: one, it’s hinted on www.lastofus.com via a snippet of BBC’s Planet Earth documentary. Secondly, there is that clue in Uncharted 3, with the headline on the newspaper reading: “Scientists are still struggling to understand deadly fungus.” Thirdly, there is newspaper headline in the trailer which reads the words “epidemic”. Finally, why else would fungi be sprouting from the infected guy’s head?
It’s not technically a zombie game, but it plays on similar fears: breakdown of society, isolation, survival, lawlessness, etc. While many zombie stories look for conspiracies — often government experiments going wrong —The Last of Us appears to play on our fears of disease. It’s a very real anxiety, even if we don’t always acknowledge it, as shown by the recent success of Contagion in the cinemas.
The seriousness and (relative) believability of the situation therefore distances The Last of Us from other trigger-happy zombie games, such as Dead Rising, Dead Island, Left 4 Dead or Yakuza: Dead Souls. It’s not completely original, but few developers have entered this territory with a big budget and serious heads. It is certain to be a much more cinematic experience. Evan Wells, co-president of Naughty Dog, suggested as much at the VGAs.
“We are confident The Last of Us will take a leap forward in cinematic gaming and storytelling, providing gamers with an experience unlike anything else in the industry.”
Early signs point to it being similar in tone to Francis Lawrence’s film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend, which is about a lone survivor struggling to stay alive in a zombie infested world. The narration from the young female character suggests that loneliness and weariness will be key themes in The Last of Us — the name says it all, really.
They aren’t completely alone, however; there are two of them. The man may, or may not, be the father, but either way he can’t be anything but a fatherly figure in this context. This puts us in a similar territory to that of Cormac McCarthy’s famed novel, The Road. The Road tells the story of a father and son journeying across a ravaged country, decimated by an unspecified disaster. Those that have survived have become tribal and dangerous. They can’t trust anyone but each other.
An article on www.naughtydog.com suggests similar themes: “Nature encroaches upon civilization, forcing remaining survivors to kill for food, weapons and whatever they can find.” It seems Cordyceps won’t be the only thing that we will have to worry about. If you look closely in the trailer, there appears to be three males other than our two principal characters. One comes after our characters, but two others run off. It looks as though it could be an infected chasing an uninfected.
The article also states that our characters are on a “journey across what remains of the United States.”, so this once again draws us back to The Road. We also suspect it will be set in a similar time. In the trailer, the girl says that her father speaks of a time when the streets were “crowded with people”. Considering the male is likely in his late 30s or early 40s, and the girl is only a teenager, this puts us in the near future. Maybe 10 years later?
Who are our unfortunate heroes then? The man is described as a “ruthless survivor” called Joel, and the girl is a “brave young teenage girl who is wise beyond her years” named Ellie. They are voiced by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson respectively, as confirmed by Druckmann on Twitter. Neither is well-known, but both have plenty of experience. You may recognise Baker as Harvey Two-Face in Batman: Arkahm City or as Booker DeWitt in the upcoming BioShock: Infinite. Johnson meanwhile has done plenty of animations and played a key role in What Woman Want.
Both characters lack obvious distinctive qualities, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This formula has proven hugely successful for Naughty Dog with the Uncharted series. Joel and Ellie are everyday people and you can instantly relate to them. Ellie, in the way she talks and acts, has led to comparisons with Ellen Page (Juno, Hard Candy). She comes across as intelligent, confident and grounded, despite her horrible situation. She doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty though, and she’s certainly comfortable with that flip-knife.
We have a good idea for the world and its story already, but we’re less sure about the actual gameplay. Wells is promising “a leap forward in cinematic gaming and storytelling” and an “an experience unlike anything else in the industry”. What does this actually mean? The likelihood is that the studio will continue to strive for that seamless blend of cinematic storytelling and action. That means dynamic environments, cut scenes and plenty of motion capture work to ensure a natural performance. Those who played Uncharted will know that they are pretty decent at this.
Will this essentially be Uncharted then, only with new characters and a different setting and mood? That wouldn’t quite fit in with the “genre-defining” part, although developers are known to unrealistically and irrationally big-up their games. To really surprise everyone, they would need to move away from the now familiar corridor-shooting gameplay. This may be necessary anyway with the new survival element. If everyone is fighting for food and weapons, maybe we can’t expect to have endless ammo.
It’s all speculation at this point anyway; we don’t even know if it will have platforming gameplay.
We do know that it is looking splendid, though. The trailer shows off an incredible level of detail and impressive lighting that matches, if not surpasses, everything that we have seen before on the system. Some say that it won’t be representative of the game, but Naughty Dog was quick to respond to that accusation via Twitter:
The Uncharted series is known for its high graphical quality in both cut-scenes and gameplay moments. Some detail will be sacrificed when the engine has to cope with thousands of dynamic objects, but the actual gameplay footage should not deteriorate considerably. We expect to be impressed.
Two weeks ago, just about no one had heard of The Last of Us, but the announcement that Naughty Dog, one of the most revered developers in the world, is working on it has pushed it to the forefront of our most anticipated list.
They say you can’t keep secrets anymore in gaming, but this has certainly shaken that logic. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t mind having a few more secrets divulged in the near future, including the following: When is it out? What sort of gameplay can we expect? Was Uncharted only a side project all along? Mm. Now that’s a fascinating thought.