If there’s one problem with “The Last of Us,” it’s the game’s linearity. Once you’ve made your way through one section of the game — and witnessed the inevitable cinematic cutscene that bolsters the narrative between gameplay chapters — there’s no going back. The loot you missed is gone, the small plot details lost to you. But even though you’re essentially a rat in developer Naughty Dog’s narrative maze, the linear structure doesn’t feel restrictive. You’re hardly aware of it at all — you’re making your way through a masterpiece.
It sounds familiar: A pandemic wipes out human society, and the infected humans become mindless, aggressive and deadly. “The Last of Us,” like many similar apocalypse stories, begins with the outbreak. The game immediately sets the player up for emotional turmoil; the protagonist, Joel, loses his teenage daughter, Sarah, when the soldier that should have been protecting them from the infected shoots her. The game then fasts-forward 20 years in the future, and Joel has become a smuggler in the government-controlled Boston quarantine zone. He’s asked by a counter-government group, The Fireflies, to escort Ellie — a 14-year-old girl who had been bitten but never “turned” — because they suspect that her supposed immunity is the key to a vaccine.
The game’s plot begins robustly and only continues to get better, as “The Last of Us” does storytelling the way it should be done — by showing, not telling. None of the information is spoon-fed, no one mentions the word “zombies,” and the fact that society has collapsed isn’t overstated. Joel is obviously not over the death of his daughter, but she isn’t mentioned directly. Ellie is around Sarah’s age, but, again, the comparison isn’t explicitly drawn. Instead, the game trusts the player to observe the environment and characters and infer the rest, which makes for an incredibly compelling and haunting world that’s much different from similar games in the genre.
The beauty of this brand of storytelling is that it paces the game naturally rather than forcing the player through heavy-handed, overly explanatory cutscenes. Clues, plot points and side stories are littered everywhere, waiting for the player to discover them; the tales of the long-since dead or infected are found in graffiti on the walls, notes in deserted rooms and the occasional tape recorder. The cutscenes add to the plot as well, of course, but much of the added detail that makes “The Last of Us” special is hidden, and it gives the game an element of calm in what could otherwise be an endlessly violent and chaotic experience.
The violence, however, is still prevalent and brutal, and “The Last of Us” does not spare the player any gruesome detail of the world in the wake of a societal collapse. While the infected — “runners” who attack on sight and the blind but dangerous “clickers” who navigate using echolocation — are threatening and appropriately terrifying, Joel can usually sneak past them without killing them all. By contrast, in almost every encounter with humans — soldiers and poachers, typically — Joel must eliminate all of them before proceeding. The player has no choice, and it becomes clear that “The Last of Us” isn’t about the player’s interaction with the world; it’s about Joel’s, and Joel’s character has been decided before the player ever takes control of him.
Saying anything else would spoil what is sure to be one of the best games of the year. It’s the perfect example of where the video game medium is headed. It’s a narrative that is meant to be experienced, and, most importantly, it’s a game that is meant to be played. “The Last of Us” masterfully navigates moral conundrums, the father-daughter dynamic between Joel and Ellie and the reality of the post-apocalyptic world while remaining an intensely satisfying gameplay experience, a balance that most games with strong narratives have a hard time finding.