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How The Last of Us came to be hailed as

2023-01-13  Sophia Zackary

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As a premium narrative experience, The Last of Us debuted in 2013 on the PlayStation 3. The game's development team included Naughty Dog, a company that played a major role in establishing the benchmark for narrative-driven video games that followed a conventional Hollywood structure. Its Uncharted video games emulated the grandeur of adventure movies by using Nathan Drake, an Indiana Jones-style character with the good fortune of John McClane. However, with The Last of Us, the studio shifted from blockbuster action into the dystopian genre that ruled the early 2000s, giving video games the calibre of high-end television drama. The game's impact has been unavoidable ever since due to how well it was tied to the event.

For over ten years, The Last of Us and its many variations have dominated the video gaming industry. Now, it appears that it will do the same in the setting that served as its inspiration. One of the finest video game adaptations to date, according to early assessments, is HBO's The Last of Us, which is about to be released. The Last of Us is "the best tale that has ever been told in video games," according to one of the project's major creatives, Craig Mazin, who recently made this clear to Empire. In general, his viewpoint is consistent with many of the important reviews that were published at the game's 2013 launch: The review in Game Informer concluded with the staccato phrase "you won't forget it," while IGN rated it a perfect 10 and dubbed it a masterpiece. GameSpot termed it a "unique journey."

That perspective, in Mazin's opinion, appears to be founded on a particular relationship between characters and their life in a wasteland overrun by zombies. He describes the plot of the game as "grounded" and says that "it truly made you feel" before saying that he has been playing video games since 1977 and has never had an experience like it. For those of us who have followed the evolution of the link between conventional cinema culture and gaming culture over the years, this type of argument is not unfamiliar. In 2004, Steven Spielberg stated that "when someone reveals that they sobbed at Level 17" would be a measure of a game's medium maturity. In 2010, Roger Ebert asserted that "no video gamer presently living would survive long enough to experience the media as an art form," to the chagrin of many gamers. Ebert has previously doubled down on the controversial topic of games and actual emotional experience.

The greatest video game story ever told could make a fantastic television series, according to many people, including someone with a significant development deal with a major network. It is obvious that we have lived long enough to cry at Level 17, and many people, including that person, have come to this conclusion.

The Last of Us stands out for so many people, including Mazin, but why exactly?

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The video game The Last of Us introduces players to Joel, the sole survivor of a fungal plague that has wiped out most of humanity on the planet and created small human enclaves that are desperately attempting to protect themselves from the zombified dead who have been infected and reanimated by a strain of Cordyceps that transforms them into attack-ready monsters. The story begins with the passing of Joel's daughter and then jumps ahead several years to show him being forced against his will to look after Ellie, a little girl who can avoid becoming sick from any disease. Together, they explore the entirety of the United States in pursuit of the Fireflies, a group that has made statements indicating that it is working on a treatment for the disease. Along the trip, they come across more survivors, as well as killers and a large number of infected individuals who they have to sneak past, cut, and shoot their way through. The storyline of the video game paves the road for Ellie to develop from a child into a young adult while also bringing Joel, who has spent his whole existence focusing solely on his ability to survive, back to becoming an emotionally complete human. They eventually develop a father-daughter bond, which takes a surprising turn in the game's closing hours due to the game's denouement, which is breathtakingly ambiguous yet open to infinite debate.

When the first iteration of The Last of Us was released in 2013, the connection between its narrative and how its emotional journey was conveyed through the gameplay was a big component in many of the more prominent reviews. The review published by Polygon notes that the rhythm of avoiding enemies or clumsily fighting them lent a context to the relationship between the game's protagonists, Joel and Ellie. The review also mentions that the game's stealth sections and wobbly gunplay generate a tension that sets it apart from other third-person action games. Game Informer made similar allegations, expanding it to the scarcity of resources in the world, and pushing players to hunt for the materials to build essential gameplay items that would allow them to confront the hurdles that, once they were solved, offered the next important plot moment. Neil Druckmann, who was involved in the creation of both the game and the show, has stated in the past that "a lot of the storytelling happens on the joystick."

While action games with heavy story elements have typically followed the gameplay-to-story-segment-to-gameplay rhythm since the 1990s, with franchises like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto generating discussion about whether or not you skip the cutscenes, the blockbuster games of the early 2000s that came before The Last of Us laid track that Naughty Dog could follow to determine best and worst practices. This allowed Naughty Dog to determine whether or not to include cutscenes in The Last of Us The video game brands Halo, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Assassin's Creed had each primarily built their reputations based on unique gameplay and storyline that was directly presented and readily separated. A whole media industry was converging around magnificent, costly, and aggressively advertised action games that claimed to give both meaningful, adult tales as well as fascinating gameplay. Naughty Dog's Uncharted titles were a part of this trend, and they were only one example.

However, there are a lot of reasons why The Last of Us is regarded as a masterpiece by such a large number of people. One of them is the fact that Naughty Dog isn't afraid to lean towards cinematic language. Every single component of the story in The Last of Us made use of the technology of the PlayStation 3 to portray highly animated human beings who had natural responses to the environment around them. The sweeping cameras or the evocative cuts to objects in the world that are present in the majority of other blockbuster games have been replaced with close-ups and tight quarters. This technique is known as focalization in narrative theory. It's just a fancy phrase for staying close to the thoughts and feelings of the characters we're viewing the world through and with. The Last of Us is a game that has a very narrow focus point. The strategies of the story relied on this as well, producing characters that were purposely complicated and whose actions were oriented not only at the obstacles in front of them but also at a wider range of emotional issues. Given that the creators of The Last of Us attribute some of the fundamental structural assumptions made regarding player commitment in story and action to the highly programmatic textbook Story written by fiction expert Robert McKee, perhaps this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

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The performances that are concentrated in finely directed motion-capture scenes are another factor that helps the game's drama succeed. Seeing how much the physical and voice acting performances of the actors drive the emotions that are shown in the game can be noticed while watching some of the more heartbreaking parts with the graphics taken away, as seen in the official making-of documentary for The Last of Us titled Grounded. Because one of the earliest promotional pieces for the game was an evocative vocal performance from Troy Baker, the video game actor who plays Joel, talking wistfully about the world gone away, it is clear that Naughty Dog knew what they had. This is evidenced by the fact that one of the earliest promotional pieces for the game was released. A person is drawn in only based on the performance, in a manner that is more typical of movie trailers. When it comes to video games, a promotional website from the past or the present is more likely to feature a strange 3D representation of a gun than a voice-over that uses hand gestures. In 2013, they were remarkable, and they stood out against other narrative-centric games that stayed more typically science fiction, such as Gears of War, or that remained more related to the tactical-badass genre, such as Call of Duty.

These tones did not suddenly materialise out of thin air. In a manner resembling that which was done with the action movies that were plundered for the Uncharted franchise, The Last of Us amplified and further mined several aesthetic allusions that were hugely popular in other forms of media. The video of Baker speaking over stock footage was not the only thing posted on the early official website for the game. There was also a 14-second clip lifted from a section of BBC's massively popular Planet Earth nature documentary that demonstrated the effects of the Cordyceps fungus on ants. This idea served as the foundation for the concept of The Last of Us' infected enemies. This gave the game's concepts a sense of familiarity for many players and a plausible explanatory concept because they were ripped from the headlines in the same way that science fiction texts have always done. In this way, the core concept of the game was ripped from the headlines in the way that science fiction texts have always done.

The other references are maybe more transparent, even though they are somewhat more general. The zombie subgenre became more popular over the first decade of this century, with early highlights in the film industry being 2002's "28 Days Later" and 2004's "Dawn of the Dead remake." The popular book The Zombie Survival Guide, published in 2003, provided some conceptual backbone for a diverse array of works that were created using various forms of multimedia. The book was written in a matter-of-fact tone about the "real" things someone should do about zombies should the problem arise. By the year 2010, an entire zombie phenomenon had slowly crept its way into American media culture, even infecting genres far beyond its horror roots. One need only look at the widespread success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the murder simulator Zombieland starring Bill Murray to see evidence of this. The Walking Dead, a show that premiered on AMC in 2010 and continued airing until 2022, was notable for its serious approach to the zombie genre as well as its heavy emphasis on dramatic elements. Leaning into some of the aspects that made Cormac McCarthy's The Road a popular and Oprah-approved bestseller half a decade earlier, The Walking Dead defined a template of charged violence, acceptable zombie gore, and parental relationships that continues to be deployed in a relatively unaltered form today. This template is used in a variety of media, including television shows, movies, and graphic novels. These resonances are felt so strongly that Kirk Hamilton's review for Kotaku was able to summarise these last two paragraphs succinctly by stating that The Last of Us is "built on the skeleton of so many post-apocalyptic stories before it" and that it "embraces the tropes of zombie fiction" to the hilt. This review was able to do this because these resonances are so strongly felt.

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It's also important to keep in mind that when "prestige TV" or the "golden age of TV" is mentioned, what it refers to are the higher goals and budgets that television had in the early 2000s and have continued to have today. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are just a few examples of shows that attempted to tell narratives that were different from those of previous TV programmes. These shows were made possible by increased budgets, increased cable availability, and changes in the acceptable levels of violence and language on TV. The main characters of these series were typically brooding guys who fluctuated between antihero and villain status and frequently treated those around them badly. They were also recorded in hitherto unexplored television filming genres, becoming the faces of "serious" TV work and typically dominating the TV drama market. Additionally, they frequently employed a stoic whiteness in opposition to the larger, coloured audience they were competing with (a thematic that The Last of Us also unfortunately inherited).

All of this is to say that the video game The Last of Us wasn't a surprise. It isn't a special item that sprang out of a group of geniuses' minds on its whole. Instead, it rode a wave of cultural and societal forces that made it possible for its innovations and crucial executions to be accepted and welcomed by a larger public ready to enjoy its gameplay and comprehend its thematic advances.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of yet another enormously successful video game story, The Walking Dead (2012), created by Telltale, which had a significant influence on the creation of games and their stories for an entire decade. It shares several family and maturity-related themes with The Last of Us and has received numerous awards. It has also received positive reviews from both critics and players. It also poses similar questions to the player regarding the moral use of violence and how one might behave in the event of global calamity. Since it had a strong connection to the zombie genre and also appealed to the outmoded adventure game subgenre, it featured a unique story and gameplay mechanics that attracted a lot of gamers.

As part of a larger trend known as the "dadification" of games, The Walking Dead was a pivotal title. Dads and their ties to their kids are now at the core of video game storytelling, a trend that has been witnessed in several late entries like 2022's God of War Ragnarök. Dedication, which refers to the idea that paternal feelings are the primary motivator of characters who we are meant to identify with, remains a term for a thematic movement in video games developed and published in the 2010s rather than a coherent genre. The Last of Us is perhaps the game where this idea is most strongly emphasised. Joel's daughter dies in the game's infamous opening scene, and the rest of it centres on how his relationship with his ward and cargo Ellie is evolving as a surrogate daughter (a reading mentioned often by the developers themselves in the official The Last of Us podcast.) The killing of Joel's daughter in the game's prologue, which serves to introduce him as a character, operates as "a dad's version of fridging a girlfriend at the beginning of a game," according to game developer and critic Mattie Brice, who was writing about the game shortly after its release. This is a common narrative technique that seeks to make us identify with men by hurting the women in their lives.

A last piece of the jigsaw in understanding the phenomena of The Last of Us and its ongoing impact as a significant success in video game narrative has to do with money earned and spent. Naughty Dog is a Sony subsidiary, and the games it creates are a part of a small core group of studios that also includes Sony Santa Monica and Guerrilla Games. These studios produce games that serve as a sort of front-of-house for showcasing Sony's impressive skills as a curator of mature stories and prestige games. One of Sony's pillar series and a fine example of their aesthetic sensibility is The Last of Us. Only two years later, Shawn Layden, then-president of Sony, promoted the "power of story" as a key lens for assessing player and audience commitment to video game goods.

Due to Sony and Naughty Dog's continued support of the series, The Last of Us continued to draw interest even after it was released. The original game was released in the summer of 2013, the brief (but essential) DLC Left Behind followed in the early months of 2014, and later that year, The Last of Us Remastered was released for the PlayStation 4. The game remained a member of the PlayStation family and was continuously teased and marketed from the sequel tease in 2016 forward, even though it took six years for the official sequel to be released. Even while damaging claims of crunch culture centred on the developer, the television programme and remake of the original game from last year both demonstrate a significant financial and promotional push from the larger corporate machinery.

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Even while Sony and Naughty Dog have contributed to keeping the dialogue about this franchise alive over the last ten years, a significant portion of that upkeep has been carried out by fans who are interested in discussing the concepts that underpin the game. The question, "How do you understand the conclusion of The Last of Us?" is a recurring issue for both fans of the game and game reviewers, and discussions regarding people's various interpretations of the game account for a sizeable portion of the total number of words that have been published about it.

The tone of these conversations shifted after the release of The Last of Us Part 2, particularly as fans became more invested in the development of the game as a result of the departure of Bruce Straley, the co-director of The Last of Us, from Naughty Dog following the release of Uncharted 4. In this context, "leaving" refers to the fact that Straley left the studio after Uncharted 4. Fans started having public discussions on who on the creative team was most responsible for the development of The Last of Us' final direction, offering detailed explanations of how the treatment of co-director Neil Druckmann as an auteur did a disservice to the larger efforts of the team. Given that Straley is first mentioned in the official podcast forty minutes into the first episode as an aside to explain something a combat designer is discussing, and after Troy Baker calls Druckmann the greatest director he has ever worked with, this was present in Naughty Dog's official promotion as well. Because of Druckmann's role as the product's public face, he found himself in a position where he was a direct target of harassment from those who had a political grievance against the project. This predicament was only made more complicated by the fact that the sequel borrowed structural elements from actual world geopolitics. It would appear that these discussions will continue to follow the IP as a result of the investment made in Druckmann as the creative force behind the project as well as his transition into a major creative role for the television programme.

The Last of Us has maintained its popularity over the past ten years, and its status as a great game narrative, even though it hit the market with just the right genre tropes and just the right amount of capital expenditure to hammer itself into the public mind. This is a cynical take on why The Last of Us has been so successful. That success was intelligently followed up on by a corporation that could appreciate the worth of a prestige intellectual property with an auteur standing behind it, and so we have a very costly television programme that will push the IP even further into the public eye.

That's a harsh perspective, whereas I adopt a more nuanced approach: The development of the prestige video game The Last of Us was approached by Naughty Dog in a manner where the process of capturing performances, writing the plot beats and dialogue, and designing its world were all subordinated under very traditional cinematic forms. This was done to create a more cinematic experience. Because of this decision, the game stood out, and more importantly, it stood out as a narrative about difficult realities and challenging paths. It is not a coincidence that Craig Mazin, who (in partnership with John August on their Screenwriting 101 Scriptnotes podcast), is well on his way to having the wide-ranging renown of a guru like Robert McKee, cites The Last of Us as having the best plot of any video game. It is presented, both aesthetically and intellectually, inside the frames of television that he is intimately aware of and which he has a hand in pushing as serious works of art.

The move to adapt The Last of Us, a critically acclaimed video game, into a prestige television drama is a strategy that will enable more people to become involved with the game and maybe seek it out. At the same time, it can be seen as a way of developing intellectual property beyond the bounds of console games. This is especially important as mobile games continue their global dominance of the gaming industry and redefine the position of prestige narrative titles that are played on a large machine that sits near a television. The Last of Us began its existence as a video game, but it has the potential to have a far broader life and have an afterlife as the thing that it was trying to imitate.

Some people in HBO's The Last of Us find hope amid a new zombie apocalypse.


2023-01-13  Sophia Zackary