“Are you carrying the fire?” the boy in The Road asks of the adults around him, most often his father. Cormac McCarthy uses the question to highlight the thin line that separates right from wrong, good from bad, in a deteriorating world. It’s a world and a story that seems to bear a lot in common with The Last of Us.
As we approach its release I can’t help but wonder if Naughty Dog still has that magical spark of storytelling and meaning that lifted Uncharted from run of the mill third-person shooter to something of substance. Is it still carrying that fire?
On Sunday the game was dated in a new trailer, and will see the light of day on May 7, 2013. But more than a reminder of what we already knew about it, this latest snippet of goodness from Naughty Dog shifts focus from the action towards the game’s story.
It would be easy to assume that this, being a videogame, will stand or fall by how good the shooting, exploration and climbing mechanics are. That is a mistake though. While a key part of Uncharted is the interactive elements, it is that series’ ability to leverage this with its story that makes it so compelling to play. Equally true vice versa, its interactions engage players with the story and complete the circle.
The trailer underlines the harsh realities of the world of The Last of Us. “Once upon a time I had somebody that I cared about, but in this world that sort of s–t’s good for one thing: getting yourself killed.” This is a place of every man, woman and child for themselves.
Threading through this landscape is the story of Joel and Ellie. Joel, a middle aged man, and Ellie, a young girl, who form a father-daughter bond as they journey across the city. This is the stuff of novels rather than video-games — where usually it’s easy stereotypes rather than believable characters that are found.
While the description for the trailer reduces these two to caricatures of what they might be (“Joel, a ruthless survivor, and Ellie, a young teenage girl who’s braver and wiser beyond her years”) the content of the trailer is much more promising.
“What if it’s true?” Asks Ellie about a some fact not yet revealed. Then, as the visuals of dilapidated and decaying architecture roll, we are given our first indication of what this might be: something about Ellie that relates to the state of the world.
The voices come thick and fast.
“I need something smuggled out of the city” asks one woman and it’s pretty clear she is talking about Ellie. “She’s just cargo, Joel.”
“I reckon it’s got something to do with that girl,” says one man, before another answers: “It’s got everything to do with that little girl.”
It is all starting to add up to something both interesting and engaging. As we are offered more glimpses into the world that Naughty Dog has created it not only curdles the stomach with violence and sadness but invites us to play a part.
But still, for all the attentive work on character and storytelling, circle-strafing video-game stereotypes left right and center, there remains one caricature that Naughty Dog has yet to escape. Is there space in the game for a laying down of arms to be a potential response to all the death and carnage or is that still a non-negotiable — the shooting must continue whatever happens?
It’s something I asked Jacob Minkoff about at E3 this year and it will be fascinating to see how all this plays out in May 2013, I’m more than a little hopeful.
Last of Us is available to pre-order from Amazon for $59.99.