I was anticipating The Last of Us: Remastered Edition because I had softened on it. I had played the game when it was originally released, and I had come away nonplussed, believing that the game was mostly a further entrenchment of stale plot points and values packaged in a difficult and unrewarding set of mechanics. I wanted to like it, even love it, and yet there was nothing I could do to make it work for me.
There’s bitter irony to what happened, I guess, because time went by and The Last of Us went out of my mind and before I knew it I was in a place where I was bringing it up in casual conversations. I was talking about the ending. I was trying to parse my severe and negative reaction to the game. Much like the vines of the cordycept-infested world of The Last of Us, my memory of what I had experienced began to cover over what I had actually felt in the moment, and so when the new version of the game was announced, I was ready for it again.
I avoided playing “the game” at first. This is a strange way of going about things, I realize, but there was something about the weight of it that kept me from starting it up again. I knew I would watch characters die. I would have to sit through plot points that didn’t resonate or went on too long, and worse, I would have to slog through sewer levels over and over again to reach the plot points that mattered. My memory had papered over the game’s flaws, one of which is its interminable length, and when I was faced with the menu screen, I turned away.
I played “Left Behind,” originally a downloadable mission that fills in some of the back story for Ellie, a protagonist of the game, which is included in the PS4 version. I watched her grow as a person and find love at the end of the world. There was a water gun fight. There was a photo booth where I chose what kind of silly face that Ellie would make. Then the game remembered what genre it was—the running zombies appeared, bad things happened, and it ended on a heartbreaking beat that feels just short of cheap.
I watched Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us, a documentary included on the disc about the creation of the game. It features interviews with Naughty Dog developers and actors, and it gives a look behind the curtain of development in order to show what kind of process was involved in the process of crafting a game as massive as The Last of Us. I supplemented this by listening to the commentary tracks provided for each of the game’s cinematic sequences that feature the insight of creative lead Neil Druckmann and voice actors Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker.
I was intrigued by these visual and audio special features because they provide a particular insight into some of my core problems with The Last of Us as a game. In one point during Grounded, Druckmann explains why the infected exist in the game, stating that “a lot of storytelling happens on the joystick,” and because of that there needs to be an active enemy for characters (and therefore players) to react to. The problem with this is that very little of the storytelling actually takes place there. It mostly occurs during cinematic scenes where Joel and Ellie either talk to one another or secondary characters, and the most important plot beats seem to actively avoid happening “in game” in favor of cut-scenes. Every major plot point happens as far away from the joystick as possible, and it turns the drama of the game into a “sit back and watch it” experience. It becomes like watching a movie, but because The Last of Us is a videogame, it is impossible for it to fully lean into its cinematic qualities. What we’re left with is a long, drawn-out journey where Joel and Ellie emotionally mug for the camera while I wait to walk through more chest-high water while avoiding clickers. It does not make for a fun experience.
However, when I am “on the joystick,” the game is (outside of some puzzle sequences where the pieces are zombies) incredibly fulfilling. The strongest part of The Last of Us, ostensibly the giant killer app narrative game to rule them all, is the multiplayer. It rests on a bare-bones skeleton of community management: Each match is a competition for resources, and you need those resources to grow your community. If you lose, your community members get sick. If they’re sick too long, they die. Sometimes there are events in which your community is attacked from without, and you have to complete objectives in matches to fend off that attack or else you risk losing 40, 60 or 80% of your population. The stakes can become very high.
Zoomed in from that macro is the micro, a finely-honed application of the basic mechanics of the main game in small arenas. You crouch around the world, looking for glimpses of other humans over the precipices of waist-high walls. You craft and you throw bombs blindly. You relentlessly beat other people with 2×4s in order to survive. And this is the strength of the multiplayer, because in the main game it is always apparent that Joel is going to live through this. Short of being one-hit-killed by a clicker, Joel almost always comes through; he’s an inhuman tank in a world of walking mushrooms. The main narrative has an air of inevitability because of this. Joel is always moving forward, and it never seems like this life is Joel’s last. In contrast, your life in a multiplayer match is much more deliberate. Like all supplies, your life will eventually run out, and you have to hone yourself like a blade.
There is very little added value to The Last of Us: Remastered beyond the special features or the ability to play the multiplayer matches on your PS4. The narrative remains the same, and the DLC is not implemented into the main narrative. There are graphical updates, but without a direct comparison, I can’t tell the difference between the two. There are new, more difficult game modes for the true hardcore masochists. If you haven’t experienced the game previously or you need to have a new Playstation 4 game during this time of drought, then there’s something here for you. If you have fond memories already, it is probably unnecessary to relive it one more time.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.