Why The Last of Us Doesn’t Deserve GOTY

Since its debut trailer at the 2011 Video Game Awards, The Last of Us has enjoyed disproportionately positive press and anticipation, despite the fact Sony and Naughty Dog didn't show any gameplay video or explain the game's mechanics and style. All we knew at the time was that the game's setting was a post-apocalyptic America infested with zombie-like spore-infected human mutations while a man and young girl struggle to survive the horrific chaos. Despite the lack of any real, palpable information about the game, the press and internet fan base went wild. In the months that followed, The Last of Us easily sailed into its subsequent release riding upon the back of effusive positive coverage and universal praise. There was never any doubt that this title would yield review scores in the high 9s and 10s given that the pre-release previews of the game read more like positive reviews. Naughty Dog seems to be infallible in the eyes of so many who cover video games on the internet and it isn't a surprise that many have selected The Last of Us as their Game of the Year. After completing The Last of Us, I was left in a state of incredulity and consternation. Believing the game would be something more like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, I was anticipating the game's release with cautious optimism. I am not one to fall for ubiquitous hype, and I reserve judgment until I actually play a game for myself. Initially with The Last of Us, I wanted to be drawn into its world and game mechanics, but in the end, I came out of the experience feeling empty and only superficially entertained. I found the game to be average – it was boring in places, lacking any real appeal or likeability, and it was fundamentally flawed. At best, the game is good, not great, and it most certainly doesn't deserve the distinction of Game of the Year. Why The Last of Us Doesn't Deserve GOTY

This Game is Not “Realistic”

I don't know what I would do if I heard this argument one more time. Let's put aside the game's premise that the world has experienced an event that has begun changing human beings into feral plants, and let's look at some of the specifics of the game's story, systems, and features. Just because The Last of Us has some of the best voice acting and motion-capture technology seen in a video game, this doesn't mean the game is more realistic as a result; in fact, the contrary is true. The believability of the voice acting and physical performances are subverted by the abounding uncanny valley effect seen in every cutscene. Realistic animations are quickly supplanted by robotic, artificial looking animations; affective facial expressions sometimes appear permanently affixed to the character, a phenomenon most noticeable upon the transition from cutscene to in-game character models. For example, did anyone ever notice how Joel's in-game model's expression made him appear to be in a perpetual state of constipation? Because Naughty Dog opted to remove any semblance of levity in The Last of Us, choosing instead to take the game way too seriously, these minor foibles became major detractors to the game's immersive quality. I laughed almost every time I noticed Joel's strained, grizzled facial expression.
Doesn't anyone think that one of the first things a grown man would do in the face of an apocalyptic world filled with monsters would be to learn how to shoot a gun accurately? Apparently after 20 years, the notion of learning how to shoot a gun straight never occurred to Joel. I found the game controls in The Last of Us to be problematic; they were slow and exhibited a little lag, and the constant figure eight Joel would make while aiming a gun relegated gun-play to an almost detrimental mechanic. I died almost every time I tried to dispatch a Clicker using a pistol. Also, ammo is so rare that even carrying a gun seemed unnecessary. I understand that Naughty Dog was trying to enhance the game's “realism” by disempowering the player for the purpose of heightening the game's tension, but when you are the same company who has demonstrated technical excellence with the Uncharted series, this only sounds like a convenient excuse to explain away mediocre design. One final thought regarding the game's shooting mechanics: did anyone else notice when Joel was hanging upside-down after being caught in a trap, that he suddenly had unlimited ammo while trying to defend Ellie from the Clicker and Infected onslaught? Realistic? I think not. Finally, the last salient aspect of the game's unbelievability involves Ellie. Who would have thought that the diminutive youth would be such a proficient murder machine? Toward the last act of the game, Ellie goes on a killing spree of a large group of hardened, trained, murderous hunters to save Joel's life. I actually enjoyed this part of the game, but not in the way Naughty Dog intended for me to enjoy it. I laughed out loud in disbelief almost every time Ellie surprised one of those cannibalistic killers with a shiv to the neck. How is this little anecdote as a testament for the game's “realism?” While within the walls of the cannibals' hideout, I had Ellie hide inside of a bathroom in one of the buildings. Every few minutes, an alerted cannibal would walk into the bathroom, only to meet his summary death at Ellie's hands. As the bodies continued to pile up, the enemies just kept coming. Don't you think with a half a dozen dead bodies to greet you at the entrance of a room, you would think twice about entering said room? Not these geniuses. It appears that in all the effort to produce eminent cinematic quality, Naughty Dog forgot to apply the same level of attention to their A.I. design.

The Game is Buggy

Many of my favorite games are buggy: Morrowind, Skyrim, and Mass Effect, just to name a few. I am usually pretty magnanimous in regards to a game's technical proficiency when the game strives to offer players an expansive, robust play experience or complicated role-playing mechanics. But in the case of The Last of Us, none of these variables apply. This title is quintessentially linear, and as mentioned earlier, it takes itself way too seriously. As a result of these two factors, the impact of any technical shortcomings becomes too augmented to ignore. During my play-through of The Last of Us, I encountered myriad bugs and glitches that relentlessly reminded me that I was playing a video game. Collision detection with enemies was inconsistent: sometimes melee swings would go through enemies ending the encounter with Joel's brutal, and inevitable death; sometimes firing a shotgun at close range at enemies would have no effect and end with the same grizzly result. One time I spent over half a minute swinging away at a human enemy, watching my blows phase through the polygonal model until the collision detection finally clicked on.
I also experienced a few bugs that impeded my advancement through the game. During a pivotal encounter with human soldiers sniping at me while elevated along a wall, the graphics for that wall and the enemies continuously glitched between visible and invisible. Sneaking past or aiming at invisible enemies is a virtual impossibility. Another game ending glitch involved a ladder that needed to be moved in order to proceed to the next location. The context sensitive icon that is supposed to appear when positioning Joel next to the object refused to appear, and I had to reload my save file. The final game ending glitch occurred when I had Joel jump into a body of water (something that happens far too often in the game, slowing the pace of progress to a crawl). Joel somehow managed to fall through the world's graphics, and I was unable to bring him back within a playable space. Again, this resulted in the need to reload the previous save file.

The Story Was Unsatisfying

From the very beginning of the game, I didn't really like any of the characters. Joel was abrasive and unlikable, and Ellie was abrasive and immature. I had hope, however, that as the story progressed, the characters would develop steadily over time. As the seasons passed, and after the game's conclusion, I am not sure if the characters developed in any substantive way at all. In fact, what I believe we were witness to was the regression of these characters and their humanity, not the progression of them. Ellie became a mass murderer out of necessity, and Joel unapologetically carried out his brutality in order to survive. In the end, it was all for nothing. The world wasn't changed in any significant way due to the actions, or inaction, of the game's protagonists, and it would have continued down its entropic path with or without Joel and Ellie being in it. Over time, it became clear to me that The Last of Us was meant to be an allegory about the violence and barbarism that is quintessential to the human condition. The problem with this is: we already know that humans are capable of extreme violence and barbarism; we don't need to be incessantly reminded. After witnessing the first shocking execution, every subsequent brutal moment in the game loses its impact. I became desensitized to the game's violence, and as a result, I began to care less for the world and the characters that struggled to survive within it. What the game ultimately became to me was a platform for a sequence of horrific events that the developers felt the need to bludgeon the player with over the head. They chose not to balance this violence with any glimmer of hope or display of human dignity. The one opportunity they had involving a giraffe was squandered since this scene was relegated to an insignificant afterthought as the game moved forward, yielding little or no subsequent character development. One of the most notable aspects of the PS3's generation of games is how many narrative based games allow players the illusion of being able to shape their own personal stories, despite the over-arching narrative leading to the same conclusion. The Last of Us doesn't even attempt to do this. Instead, Naughty Dog composed a narrative that is as linear as the title's core gameplay. During the sequence in the neighborhood with the sniper, all I could think about as Joel arduously traversed the streets dodging bullets was how I was going to kill that haughty jerk. I narrowed my options down to these two: he was going to get a shiv in the neck, or he was going to get a Molotov thrown on his back. As I made my final approach toward the room the sniper was hiding in, the game shifted to a cutscene, depriving me the satisfaction of killing the enemy myself. It was as if Naughty Dog pulled the controller out of my hands, threw it on the floor, and stomped all over it while waving a finger side-to-side in my face.

The Last of Us is a title that benefits greatly from the stature and universal respect Naughty Dog receives from an adoring fan base. They do do an impeccable job with the production values of their games, but production values alone do not make a good game. If this title were made by a lesser known studio, I firmly believe it wouldn't have received such an outpouring of praise. The game just doesn't advance game design or playability in any significant way. The gameplay is formulaic and pedestrian, failing to represent stealth mechanics as well as other established franchises have been doing for years. As a narrative based game, the story fails to resonate and feels empty and pointless. Although the voice acting and motion capture are some of the best in gaming, the story is steeped in cynical nihilism, dystopian hopelessness, and is generally missing the single most important ingredient for a video game – fun. The Last of Us is good on many levels, but it isn't great on any level that concerns gameplay. For these reasons, The Last of Us falls short of deserving that lofty distinction of Game of the Year.

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