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In 'The Last of Us,' the end of the world is only the beginning

It’s been a while since a violent video game’s violence was truly shocking. That’s how engaging The Last of Us can be.

It’s been a while since a violent video game’s violence was truly shocking. That’s how engaging The Last of Us can be. Sony

Finally, after all these years of gaming, the world is ending properly.

Popular culture has been in the throes of a morbid fascination with the end of the world since time immemorial, preceding even the writing of the Book of Revelation. But it took Naughty Dog's The Last of Us to do up apocalypse porn right — for PlayStation 3 owners, at least.

Beyond being a crowning achievement in the zombie-inspired genre of games flooding the market in the last two decades (Resident Evil, House of the Dead, Dead Island, et al.), the game's June 14 release date appropriately punctuated the E3 reveal of Sony's next-gen console. By showcasing what a development studio can do with 7-year-old hardware, Naughty Dog has effectively ushered in the PlayStation 4 era by whetting our appetites for what could be next.

The Last of Us, about a grown man and a 14-year-old girl wandering the wastelands of an America long vanquished by a deadly fungus that transforms people into zombies, is worth hailing not for what the game can do, but rather what it doesn't have to. It doesn't overwhelm players with cumbersome controls. It doesn't ruin the narrative with overwrought exposition. It doesn't ask you to suspend your disbelief that this is how the characters would behave. In short, it doesn't act like a game.

That's an odd thing to say about an interactive experience, because playing something is different than simply watching, listening to or reading something. To be able to engage players the way The Last of Us does takes skill, effort, time and technology, explaining why it's taken this long to reach this zenith of modern entertainment.

You don't play The Last of Us, you experience it. You feel the connection between protagonists Joel and Elle in a way that allows subtlety to triumph over spectacle, an inverse relationship from what has long been the modus operandi for most video games, but particularly the hallmark of titles invoking the zompocalypse.

According to creative director Neil Druckman, that was the goal all along.

"I don't think we could have done this game five years ago," he told the Wall Street Journal's Yannick LeJacq. "The performance-capture techniques are something we started with Uncharted. Without those nuances, the dialogue would have to be more on the nose. And without dialogue being as smart as we were able to make it, we would have to make the combat more game-y, as you were saying, to make it more engaging. It took a lot of effort for us to build these systems up and then for us to become confident enough in them to design by subtraction, to remove a lot of things that we were using as crutches before to create this kind of experience."

Game director Bruce Straley added that the studio "pushed the PS3 to 110 percent." As the console slides into its twilight years, there's probably still room to grow, but this title is a deserving pinnacle.

I would hesitate to call The Last of Us high art. It's still an ultraviolent survivalist fantasy, after all. But it does provide a benchmark in gaming that spotlights a level of sophistication in creative direction that matches the high-powered medium it utilizes. It's a capstone in a progression illustrated by recent high-quality releases like the Mass Effect series and the Tomb Raider reboot.

Just think what studios will be able to do with the next-gen's AMD chips.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to disagree with his opinions at [email protected]

In 'The Last of Us,' the end of the world is only the beginning 07/11/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 6:19pm]
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