The opening minutes of The Last of Us are magnificent. The slow build as you walk through your house as a child, the fear and uncertainty growing as you slide from room to room is magnificent. As the sequence builds, you’re thrown in a car and allowed free view in all directions. The game has specific things happening, but I’m just as likely to miss it looking through the wrong window. The sense of disorientation grows and grows as more and more begins to happen. Something major happens and I miss it, running the other way. The Last of Us doesn’t force me to look, and I don’t want to look, I want to run.
Then the game slowly evolves into something where I’m not allowed to run, I’m expected to stand and fight, and everything I found interesting about the opening moments of the game mutates into this strange hybrid 3rd person stealth/cover shooter. And the game started forcing me to play its way. Suddenly, I couldn’t miss stuff, I had to tackle things just so or face the developer’s wrath.
Developer Naughty Dog is lauded for its amazing storytelling, but critiques often emerge that the actual gameplay is on rails. You’re on a roller-coaster ride. I heard The Last of Us was different, it was the antithesis to Uncharted. Well, it isn’t. It’s the same kind of game. Yes, there is decidedly less shooting, but it’s still a constricting, contained and controlled experience, but it’s so subtle about it, you might not notice. Unless you’re “that” guy. And I am “that” guy.
To be fair, the game sends mixed messages. Early on, when I’m hunting down the man who has all my guns, my companion, Tess, tells me that maybe instead of fighting these guards, we should sneak past them. The game is speaking my language. I deftly move from room to room, make a break for cover before guards can turn around. I get to this open space where two guards chat for a second and then remain completely immobile.
I sit there for a full minute, looking at them, waiting for signs of life, hoping they will turn and patrol. Neither moves an inch. I am ready to sneak past every last guard, but now this part wants me to incapacitate these guards in a mini-conga line. I could just shoot them, but that would squander the stealth I’ve maintained up to this point. Maybe I have a different definition of what “sneak past” means, but I’m pretty sure no one has one in which “strangling people from behind” means sneaking past someone.
I shrugged off this minor hitch, thinking it might have just been a way to introduce the mechanics. There are certainly elements that impressed me so far. I like the weight of the shooting, it feels far more deliberate than most games and the violence feels visceral without being grotesque. However, the actual design of the encounters and the story that begins to emerge did nothing to hook me into the game. There’s still a great sense of desperation. When I sneak past a military platoon chasing me, I feel the tenseness of being feet from enemies I know I couldn’t take in a straight fight. I had a gun, but it would be near useless in this fight. It’s a wonderful sense of powerlessness.
However, the patterned of a controlled experience emerged again when the clickers are introduced. These are the zombies of the game and Tess once again encourages me to sneak past them. We alternate chucking bricks and bottles to get past a lone clicker. The next major room involves about five or six clickers. Make a sound, and you’ll be swarmed. I decide to take on the same approach, throwing bricks and bottles, distracting clickers, until I get to the end of the room. It takes a couple of attempts, but I get to the door on the other end.
However, instead of allowing me to progress, the game punishes me for using the technique it just taught me by placing a creaky filing cabinet in front of the exit. I begin pulling the cabinet, the rusty metal creaks, and I end up getting swarmed by all the enemies. Turns out I was supposed to clear the room of clickers before progressing, but the game never conveyed that to me. In fact, it led me to believe the opposite was possible: that I could sneak past all of them.
I wasn’t expecting great mobility of play in this game, but the fact that twice in the first two hours the game tells me what to do, and then slaps me when I actually have the gall to do it instead of doing something it never told me to do makes it frustrating. This made me distrust the game as I have to die because the game mislead me. I don’t mind a controlled experience from time to time, but this one punished me for listening to someone I should trust.
I didn’t expect to sneak my way through the whole game, but the fact that sections where the game seems to encourage stealth and even give you tools to stealth misdirect the player into death is frustrating to me. I’d much rather be playing a game that either better conveys what it wants of the player or lets them have the mobility to fulfill multiple approaches.
Would it have ruined the game if the developers rewarded me for taking the harder route and sneaking past those room of clickers? What do they gain by forcing me to play it their way when one change could have kept me playing it? I still would have had the same sense of helplessness and desperation without the creaking filing cabinet forcing my hand the play the game Naughty Dog’s way.
I hate to make sweeping statements that this kind of design is always bad, but it’s the kind of design I personally find the most frustrating. If you give me multiple ways to take on challenges and then being invalidating some of those options, especially when you give me the tools to tackle said option in a room, I feel betrayed as a player. When the game even trains you in this style of play and then takes the option away in the next encounter, I feel infuriated.
The nature of games requires them to have boundaries and borders and while I can respect that, these types of games often have me bashing the borders of the game over and over again in frustration. As a player who loves self-expression, I find these experiences stifling, suffocating and unenjoyable. After hearing so many great things, I want to be able to enjoy it, but I think I’m the last type of player Naughty Dog had in mind when developing The Last of Us.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing