In talking at length about the story and the world of The Last of Us at IGN’s Black Beta last night, game designer Ricky Cambier added ‘well, we are Naughty Dog, so…’ It was tongue-in-cheek, said with a laugh, but there’s also a truth to it. It’s not that Naughty Dog are the great bastion of videogame narrative and storytelling, but it’s hard to deny after three adventures in the Uncharted world (or even from as far back as the Jak and Daxter trilogy) that Naughty Dog takes storytelling seriously.
It might be normal to set up the world to your audience before introducing the gameplay. Expected, even. But Cambier’s setting up of the world here was undeniably the focus of his talk last night. He shaped the world for us, discussed the infection and the state of the survivors of such a world, but most importantly he went into detail for the main characters, Joel and Ellie.
He described Joel and Ellie as opposites of each other. Joel is an adult and more experienced. He’s lived in a world pre-infection, and has seen everything slowly decay since then, including his own morals. Ellie by contrast is only fourteen, and was born into a world plagued by infection. A life of fear is all she’s ever known. The result of their pairing as they traverse the world is that they influence each other, but perhaps not in entirely unsurprising or groundbreaking ways. Joel regains a bit of humanity while Ellie loses innocence.
Gameplay wasn’t exactly an afterthought, but it took backstage to everything else. Cambier was more willing to let the demo do the talking there, and it was with luck that I managed to nab a controller and a TV early on in the night. Throughout the demo, which took upwards of 45 minutes to an hour for us to complete, we swapped the controller between us a few times (myself, ShiggyNinty, and PatienceMaddox) in relatively equal parts.
We played the Lincoln demo, in which Joel and Ellie are trying to locate a car in order to travel further west. To do so, they need the help of an old ‘friend’ of Joel’s, who owes him a few favours, but they’ll need to find him in the ruins of an infected town.
Joel moves quite fluidly. There’s more weight to his movements when put up against the looseness of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. Ellie followed along diligently as we approached the city outskirts, asking questions about the world and taking in sights she never seems to have seen before. There’s a lot of this kind of dialogue scattered across the demo, but only in these sorts of otherwise quiet moments. They’ll shut up entirely or reduce themselves to short whispered statements at any sign of trouble.
And trouble is exactly what we found next. With the town gated up and locked off, I had to find an alternate route in, and after a short puzzle we found ourselves in a small fenced-off section with plenty of boarded up doors and a few infected enemies who hadn’t taken notice of us yet. I grabbed the first thing I saw, a pipe that can be used as a melee weapon (Joel already has a gun with very limited ammo) and began scavenging the area for supplies. Fortunately, the infected don’t notice – Cambier mentioned earlier that some have gone blind from the infection.
There’s an overwhelming sense of emptiness to the world and that feeling manages to hit hard in this area. The town is lonely and quiet, long since abandoned, and the walls are overgrown with vines and weeds to signal how long they’ve been left abandoned. All around the area, both in and outside, are a scattered mix of items you can and can’t pick up, chairs or bricks or pipes, briefcases or drawers ripped open and left to gather dust on the floor. Bar the infected, nobody has set foot in these areas for a long time.
There’s a decent amount of stuff to scavenge in an otherwise empty building. Some scissors, tape, a note, and a few bullets. At the time it felt like a good haul, but with these materials Joel was only capable of making one shiv, which can be used as a quiet and quick kill on an enemy. It seemed the real loot lay ahead of us, in progression, past the two infected.
The first infected I attempted to deal with was surprisingly strong, even with the game set to the easiest difficulty. My first shot missed the infected’s head by the closest of margins – aiming is intentionally unsteady and the crosshairs move just enough that any shot can go awry – but the obvious sound spurred it into action. It also alerted the other infected some twenty metres away from us, so, not the best first shot.
The first infected grabbed hold of me, and it would have been the end of it there had I not crafted a shiv, which can also be used as a second chance in these situations. If I hadn’t crafted it, I would be dead, but the shiv only has one use, so the materials that made it, that could have been used elsewhere, were now gone forever because of my blunder. Every crafting has a risk.
It was pointless anyway, because the second infected was on me at that point, and a full clip of pistol ammo wasn’t enough to bring him down (not that every shot connected, mind, and even the ones that did didn’t hit anywhere particularly damaging). As I frantically tried to reload he lunged and tore a decent chunk of flesh out of my neck.
And that’s how Joel died the first time.
It was clear guns weren’t the answer here, so on the next attempt I opted for stealth. Randomly placed on the concrete nearby was a solitary brick. Picking it up and crouching low, I threw it at a fence to lure the first infected out, having no idea whether this would work or not. The plan was not to fight him at all and simply sneak past him. But for whatever reason it didn’t work, I moved too fast or it could still see me anyway, and in the ensuing panic I found myself foolishly firing my gun again. The second shot blew the top of its head clean off, and as it fell I turned to await the other infected who would have undoubtedly heard the struggle.
I was not expecting the half-headless infected to get back on its feet and rip into me. And so it was that Joel died a second time.
That completely took me (and the people around me) by surprise. It was at this point that I handed the controller over to Patience, who took the melee approach and used the pipe I’d picked up earlier for more efficient, if not equally stressful combat. Right after that we noticed a gap in the barbed wire on all of the fences in the area. The way to continue forward. In the complete opposite direction of the two infected I had spent twenty minutes trying and failing to deal with.
Some might consider all of that a waste of time, but it was an oddly joyous feeling to realise I’d been so distracted on something like that. It’d be easy to skip the area entirely, but in doing so you lose the chance at materials you might really need. ‘Interesting choices,’ Camier had said, and I can certainly see that now.
Continuing on, Joel and Ellie move through sidestreets and over rooftops to reach the heart of the town. Along the way they encounter explosive tripwire traps and learn how to deal with them. The solutions here felt like the designers were just handing them to you at times – a brick that can be thrown at the tripwire lies only a metre away from it, for example, or a fallen ladder lies right next to where you need to place it.
The end of the demo is a combat-heavy sequence that begins with Joel hanging upside down from a rope and having to protect Ellie from a hoard of infected as she tries to free him. What was fun in its stressful nature at first did get a bit tedious by the fifth or sixth attempt – remember, we were playing on easy – as the sequence was long and for whatever reason Joel can’t reload his gun unless it’s completely empty (but only while hanging upside down here). The key to success was in headshots which were difficult to pull off but satisfying when you did. After that, Joel and Ellie meet with Bill, the man they’ve been looking for, and rush through the streets to (relative) safety, where a cutscene begins and our demo ends.
This is the first cutscene of the demo so I was eager to view it. But it was impossible to hear anything over the loud music playing at the venue, so we had to rely on subtitles to tell us the story. Trust became an issue between the trio and it was here that we saw the first signs of Ellie’s lost innocence in the form of a few swears and threats against Bill. It’s difficult to judge story in a loud environment, but what we saw and read mirrored Cambier’s discussion of the seemingly polar personalities of Joel and Ellie and the influences they have on changing each other.
There were no human enemies in our demo. Perhaps guns are more effective on human enemies, but Cambier also talked about the risks that came with such gunplay. Human enemies are clued in to when you might need to reload, and if you continue trying to fire an empty gun in your panic (which is ashamedly very easy for me to do), the resulting *click* will alert them to the fact you’re empty. It’s all stressful, but a wonderful kind of stress where you’re engaged in what’s happening at the time and able to laugh about it when it’s all over.
Talk of the game’s recently announced multiplayer mode is left here almost like an afterthought in part because its late announcement makes it feel like just that, an afterthought. We saw a brief trailer in which two teams worked together to try and take out the other, and it appeared to rely on a lot of cooperation between players – working to heal each other or flank an enemy or use somebody and their items to lure somebody out of hiding. All of this featured a lot of in-game communication between the characters who call out to each other for assistance, but whether those shouts are controlled by the player or not, we don’t know yet. Multiplayer has its own story of sorts revolving around several weeks of survival with each day having its own objectives and difficulties, and that was the most interesting part of the video. It’s easy to roll your eyes or groan when a game suddenly announces a multiplayer mode, and in all honestly it didn’t seem all that different from anything else out there, but if it can do something interesting with that ‘weeks of survival’ framing, it might hold my attention.
What was most memorable about the entire experience last night was that constant thought process regarding choice and risk. Was it worth it to take a detour and expend resources to hopefully find more at the end of the path? Was it safer to avoid enemy encounters in favour of making quick and easy progression? The Last of Us doesn’t really push you towards either of the choices. It doesn’t implicitly tell you that one is better over the other. It leaves that decision entirely up to you and it’s fun to have to stop and think and determine which way you want to approach the situation. Whether that feeling will translate to the full game or not, well, we don’t know that yet. But after the hour I spent playing and watching friends playing this, my attention has certainly been caught.
The Last of Us is out June 14, only a week away from now. It’s not a long wait at all, but I’m very eagerly looking forward to that week being over so I can fully experience the game and review it properly.