WARNING: Spoilers for The Last of Us and Left Behind are ahead!
In video game development, among the many and above the noise, there stand a rare few. These are the studios who, despite the incredible pressure, competition, and demand for greater and stronger quality games each year, continually produce high-quality pieces of digital history. Naughty Dog is one such studio. The Santa Monica-based studio, which began its work on high profile projects in 1994 and was acquired by Sony in 2001, has provided the industry and gamers alike with some of the most memorable and defining experiences on the PlayStation platform for over two decades.
The truly defining characteristic of Naughty Dog’s remarkable efforts is in their ability to generate such dramatic success time and again on the first try by the introduction of new IPs. It began with their first major release, Crash Bandicoot, which spawned three sequels throughout its transition from the PlayStation to the PlayStation 2. Their next IP, Jak and Daxter, followed suit and is remembered today as one of the best platform based games of the PlayStation 2 era, mixing its competent platforming elements with creative gunplay and a fun story centered around brand-new characters. It also spawned several sequels, but it wasn’t long before Naughty Dog had moved on again to its newest IP, an action/adventure game called Uncharted.
Launched in 2007, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune set a new bar of excellence for the developer as it and each successive game in the series received overwhelming critical praise and together have sold more than 17 million copies worldwide.
Then, in the fall of 2013, Naughty Dog decided to go at it once more and launch their first new IP in five years: The Last of Us. The game, in true Naughty Dog tradition, has garnered a plethora of awards and critical praise and is about to receive a facelift. Set to release on July 29th in North America and August 1st in Europe, the remastered edition will include the original game running in 1080p at 60 frames per second. It will also include the single-player DLC, Left Behind, as well as both of the multiplayer packs and a new difficulty level called Grounded. In light of the game’s newest release only weeks away and given the extraordinary success it achieved in the less than one year that it’s been out, it’s time to take a closer look at the impact that Naughty Dog’s latest IP has made.
First, since commercial profits so often serve as the barometer for the measure of a game’s perceived success , it’s important to begin by looking at how well The Last of Us performed in that regard. Within the first three weeks, 3.4 million copies of the game had been sold and has outpaced all previous Naughty Dog releases, as well as all Sony releases, on its way to becoming the fastest selling title in either companies’ histories. To date, it has sold over 6 million copies. When comparing that to franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, it sounds much less impressive, but considering that The Last of Us is a narrative-driven action/adventure game with an overwhelming focus on character development rather than combat, the 6 million units in under a year begins to sound much more significant.
So sales mark a definitive new threshold for Naughty Dog and its storied history of producing profitable new IPs. There is far more to a game than just a few digits in the units sold column, though. Games, for better or worse, are experiences and particularly so in the case of story-based games which attempt to craft a narrative in digital form and then present that narrative around a series of established mechanics. Each of Naughty Dog’s previous franchises worked on this same model in their own ways: Crash was a colorful adventurer, Jak was a boiling pot of genres with a simple story binding them together, and Uncharted was an action-heavy adventure game with a collection of narrative beats and charming characters in between.
What sets The Last of Us apart and what it will ultimately be remembered for is its focus on character. Without exception, every character in the game is a fully realized — and more importantly, complex — piece of the larger narrative puzzle. Each of them masterfully avoids the pitfalls and tropes of classic video game clichés and expectations. Tess is the closest thing to a typical female love interest, but rather than being helpless or entirely dependent on the male lead, she is strong-willed and decisive. Her first moments in the game are of her dragging Joel, the male protagonist, out of his home and on a mission to shake down a black market dealer. Joel’s brother, Tommy, is absent for most of the game and it’s alluded to that he and Joel separated on less than cordial terms. When Joel finally does reunite with his brother, we learn that Tommy has taken control of a hydroelectric power facility and is using its walls to try to rebuild a small part of society by sheltering refugees.
This theme of creating dynamic characters that continually surprise and fight back against the expectations their individual roles demand permeates throughout the entire experience. Where it is used most effectively and where its impact resonates the most is in just two characters: Bill and Ellie.
Bill is a character that first appears relatively early in the game, but even before he does, the characters make it fairly clear that the experience of running into him will not be an enjoyable one. For the most part, this turns out to be true. Joel and Ellie first have to fight their way through an abandoned town full of the infected, including an excellent sequence involving a snare trap and a revolver, only to finally run into Bill and be met with a tornado of fury and rage. Bill is livid that most of his traps were sprung and now have to be reset and on top of everything, Joel needs him to get them a car. Right until the very end of the interaction, after fighting through a high school, into a house, and push-starting a truck, Bill is difficult to like.
In the same way as with all of the other characters, something changes and in a wonderfully subtle way. A new piece of his past is revealed and may have been missed entirely if careful attention wasn’t paid. He mentions a partner that he once worked with who is now gone, but much isn’t said about it beyond this first cursory mention. That is, until they arrive at that house and see a man hanging in the living room, wearing a Hawaiian shirt —the same shirt that Bill’s partner always wore. It’s only after this moment, coupled with a letter Joel finds in the other room and a particular telling clue that Ellie finds and shows Joel later, that we learn definitively that Bill is gay and that that man hanging in the living room was his significant other.
This was not a moment brandished aloud or spelled out conspicuously but rather, like so many other moments in the game, it was handled with care. That moment for Bill was an extremely private, personal moment and one that you believe as the player that he will be struggling with long after Joel and Ellie drive beyond the horizon and on to the next step in their mission. It completely changed the dynamic of Bill’s character, forcing the player to reevaluate their perception of him, a fact that remains relevant for all of the characters.
The real centerpiece of the story and where the theme of dynamic, rich characters is most perfectly realized is Ellie, the female protagonist and the purest example of why Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us will live on and be remembered. Her development as a character over the course of the game is some of the most well-crafted in recent memory. The narrative “beats” that mark her progression are noticeable enough, from rebellious teen to terrified survivor and then from hardened fighter to caring companion. Each transition is handled so naturally and smoothly that it never feels disingenuous. Everything, from her pattern of speech to her body language around Joel and the other characters to her physical interactions, are all expertly handled to make her feel like a real person dealing with an extraordinary situation.
In one particular stand-out moment in a Salt Lake City train station, when Ellie is still visibly shaken from a traumatic experience, Joel needs help getting down a ladder. It’s a moment that had been played through numerous times before: Joel asks for help, he gives his partner a boost, the partner throws down the ladder, etc., but this time, Ellie doesn’t move. Joel calls for her to help with the ladder, but she doesn’t show up. She sits on a bench across the lobby, lost in her thoughts, completely oblivious to the world. This simple twist on expectation tells volumes about the situation without ever addressing it directly or resolving the issue. Joel simply gets her attention, asks her to help, then watches as she begrudgingly and slowly makes her way over, acting by rote repetition of an exceedingly banal task shadowed by much darker and more powerful events.
Ellie’s story is a truly remarkable piece of video game storytelling, but it didn’t end with the The Last of Us. Last year, Naughty Dog announced they would be releasing a single piece of story DLC and once again, they exceeded expectation. Rather than take the opportunity to flesh out any of the other characters, like Bill before his partner left or Tommy before leaving Joel, they chose to return to Ellie, expanding on the story she herself told about her friend Riley and how she came to be infected. On the surface, it would seem pretty cut and dry: two girls go out exploring beyond the QZ walls, they run into a group of infected, they are both bitten and wait to die, with only Ellie making it out again. If that had been the entire experience and having the chance to play that part of Ellie’s life as Ellie was the only reward, that would have been enough, but Naughty Dog, in keeping with their dynamic character theme, offered so much more.
We were shown an entirely new side to Ellie that made her even more enduring as a character. In a moment of peace, when they’re alone in the mall and Riley convinces her to dance with her, we see a moment of vulnerability when Ellie kisses Riley. She apologizes, to which Riley responds, “For what?” It’s such a simple and beautiful moment, not because it tries to make a statement or prove anything, but because it shows two best friends in a rare moment of peace and absolute freedom in a world that is a shadow of what it once was. In seconds, it encapsulates a lifetime’s worth of shared experiences and just as quickly, we are reminded that the ending to this story is a tragic one, that it will only be Ellie walking out of that mall, and that she will live with that moment for the rest of her life. It takes what was already an incredibly powerful character and gives her an ever greater level of depth, creating one of the most relatable, interesting, and important characters in gaming history.
The significance of Bill’s, and more importantly, Ellie’s, story is far reaching. By seeing Naughty Dog achieve such remarkable success utilizing characters over gameplay, it could inspire similar attempts in future games. We are already seeing echoes of this in the games of the present and the near future. In the realm of smaller digital games, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series and their more recent The Wolf Among Us are implementing stronger and more complex characters as their respective series continue and evolve. In the case of both of those games, the story is quite literally the game, making the inclusion of strong and relatable characters and the games overall success all the more telling.
As far as larger commercial titles are concerned, the new Tomb Raider game, which was revealed at E3 this year, promises a very interesting version of the famous explorer. The Lara Croft that gamers were left with at the end of the most recent installemtn was one that was confident, independent, and battle-tested. However, the one shown in the first official trailer for the new game is markedly different. She is traumatized by her experiences, unable to cope with the reality of what she had to do to survive and how that conflicts with who she believes herself to be to the point that she seeks therapy. It’s a much more complex version of the character in a game not known for offering very much depth and complexity. It’s an exciting revelation, as it shows that even the most grizzled and action-centric of games still has room for character depth and growth, paving the way for other franchises to follow suit.
The Last of Us was not only a brand new IP for Naughty Dog; it was also an experiment to craft a highly involved and complex character-driven narrative whose gameplay mechanics would serve more as tools for telling the story than as a means to advance it. When taking into consideration the critical reception for the game, which has been numerous and overwhelmingly positive, it’s safe to say the experiment was a success. With Sony’s recent announcement that many PlayStation 4 owners have never played The Last of Us, its release on the new platform in the coming weeks ensures that many past and future fans of the game will have an opportunity to walk in the shoes of Joel and Ellie, to hear their story, and to understand why it is such an important and seminal work of art.