My new year's resolution was to get through the year buying only one game. That one game is The Last of Us, which came out on Friday last week; I completed it late on Saturday with a total playtime of just over thirteen hours, and it's been stuck in my head ever since.
Part of that is because of the haunting score by Gustavo Santaolalla (which I'll be torturing my wife and neighbours with as I fail to learn it over the next few weeks), which constantly sparks flashes of the people, places and events from Naughty Dog's post-apocalypse.
The critical acclaim the game has collected so far is not unearned; while bits of the game do feel derivative and there's maybe too much emphasis on combat - I'd prefer fewer, tougher enemies and more sudden, brutal confrontations than the squads of opponents - the atmosphere and characterization is, I'm fairly certain, unequalled in gaming.
In every game, you play the hero. The player is the final moral arbiter of the world, and can do no wrong. Sure, some games let you do evil, but you still get what you want. The only "wrong" thing you're able to do, in most cases, is to die - that's the only failure condition that all games have in common.
The Last of Us might be the first game where you don't play a hero.
Joel is, in a lot of ways, a Bad Guy. He's a smuggler, running drugs and guns into the Boston quarantine zone. He kills people easily, and seems to have little trouble sleeping afterwards. Unusually for a game with stealth elements, there's no non-lethal takedown option.
The comparisons to Uncharted are perhaps inevitable, with similar gameplay and a common development studio. But where there's a certain amount of "ludonarrative dissonance" between the jovial, wisecracking everyman Nathan Drake of cutscene fame and the remorseless sociopath we actually play as, The Last of Us' Joel has no such contradiction; he's a killer in the cutscenes, and he's a killer when you're in control.
In the final climax of The Last of Us, Joel murders his way through former allies to save Ellie from a fatal surgery that has the chance to cure humanity of the infection that's destroyed it.
In games, we're told that our actions are The Right Thing (even when we're evil, there's usually a "greater good" angle), and no amount of indiscriminate slaughter is going to change the fact that Player Knows Best. Throughout The Last of Us we get to know Ellie, and it's only thanks to the monumental writing, acting and direction of the character performances that we grow to like her.
Even though she's seemingly invulnerable, we're protective of her, and when Joel is given the apparent "choice" of leaving the hospital and Ellie behind for the greater good, both he and the player know that's a step we can't take. We've brought her this far, it can't be just to let her die - no matter the benefit. The Player Knows Best, and the player knows that Ellie has to be saved - even when we're told "it's what she wants", we don't believe it because the Player Knows Best.
And then there's that final scene, where Ellie asks Joel if his lies, about the fate of the Fireflies and the cure they looked for in her, are true. She wanted to believe that she didn't watch her friends die for nothing, that she could have prevented more deaths. It turns out that we didn't know best. Marlene was right, and Joel's actions - the player's certainty that they know best, that they can only ever do The Right Thing - are shown to be the selfish tantrum of someone so used to getting their own way that there was no room for the possibility that maybe they aren't the center of the universe.