When The Last of Us begins, it pretends to be a video game about a teenager in Texas named Sarah, the kind of girl who wears rock T-shirts and loves her daddy and is impossible to find as a playable character in nearly every game ever made.
This being a video game, we already know it's not really about Sarah. She's not pictured on the box, for one thing. And yet, for a few fleeting minutes, I really did think I was going to play something different, a game that would transport me into the life of someone very unlike me.
Then, as so often happens in video games, Sarah was gone.
The Last of Us, a new post-apocalyptic zombie drama for the PlayStation 3, was hailed, with some justification, from the stage at a Sony event before last week's E3 trade show in Los Angeles as the most critically acclaimed video game of the past two years. It does some things better than any other game I've played. But I found it hard to get past what it embraces with a depressing sameness, particularly its handling of its female characters.
You can see why people really like the game. The animation is nearly photo realistic. The characters' eyes are full of life and emotion, with none of the vacancy gamers so often confront. Their eyes give Joel and Ellie, the characters the player spends the most time with, a weight and a reality that surpass all other video game characters.
Their story is morally complex, with people who say things they don't mean and who do things for reasons they don't make clear. There is indirect characterization, unexplained subtext and acting without talking. The climax avoids easy judgments about who is right and who is wrong. (All of these elements are virtually nonexistent in video games.) The score by Gustavo Santaolalla — who won Oscars for his work on Brokeback Mountain and Babel — is beautiful and effective. Naughty Dog, the studio behind this game and the excellent if overpraised Uncharted series, might be the most skilled maker of interactive drama in the world.
At the same time, the game strains to overcome the conventions of the genres it wants to merge: the stealth shooter and the interactive movie. The first couple of hours consist largely of looking for white circles on objects and pressing the triangle button to interact with them. There's a lot of very slow walking. The characters kill scores of people without much consideration or reflection. The cardinal rule that cut scenes should be used for exposition and character development, and not action sequences, is routinely violated. In its opening hours, it seems, The Last of Us is so eager to do what games haven't done well that it forgets to do a few of the things at which they have proved themselves terrific.
Much of this becomes forgivable with time, as the somewhat labored opening pivots to riveting final acts. Yet the game never quite transcends its most disappointing and sadly familiar aspect.
The Last of Us aspires to be an interactive, mixed-company version of The Road, in this case the story of the relationship between an older man and a 14-year-old girl as they try to survive in an oppressive and deadly wasteland. Almost throughout, however, it is actually the story of Joel, the older man. This is another video game by men, for men and about men.
Ellie is such an appealing and unusual video game character — an Ellen Page look-alike voiced expertly by the 29-year-old Ashley Johnson — that at one point I found myself rooting for Joel to die so that The Last of Us would become her game, a story about a lost girl instead of another look inside the plight of her brooding, monosyllabic father figure. To my surprise, the game almost relented.
For a brief time, The Last of Us becomes Ellie's game, and the player is asked to direct her journey. As you would expect — it is the magic of the medium — I identified more with her character when I was playing as her. I became more interested in her. Her feelings became my feelings. And then she — or at least my ability to inhabit her — was gone. For a second time, the game surprised me, did something wonderful and then took it away.
The Last of Us does at least present gamers with a likable, sometimes powerful female character, even if she is for the most part unplayable. Joel grows over the course of the game into an admirably complicated protagonist. Perhaps it is unfair to visit the sins of the medium upon a work as well made as this one.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
'The Last of Us'
Platform: PlayStation 3
Style: One-player action
Developer: Naughty Dog
ESRB rating: M