The argument for...
A year on from its release and back to the forefront of people's minds thanks to its remastered version, The Last Of Us remains one of the standout games across two generations. Both a justification to own a PS3 and a genuine reason to now invest in a PS4, there's a very strong argument to be had that Naughty Dog's action-horror is among one of the best titles, period.
As the developer is more than happy to let you know, a large part of this is down to its narrative. Taking risks that games don't often dare take, it follows very few of the cliches the genre often falls victim too. The focus here is on making the world both believable and depressingly real to the point where the idea of a protagonist doesn't really exist. You may be asked to take control of Joel, but there's nothing you can do to prevent him being, on occasion, an absolute asshole. Rather than giving you the opportunity to reflect yourself in his character, you're merely a tool as his story unfolds. For the most part, that can be exceptionally unpleasant.
This goes for every individual in The Last Of Us as well and yet none ever come across as false or uncomfortable in the scenario they find themselves in. Saying this feels 'real' may be a step too far, but it certainly never feels out of place. Every rule the Californian developer sets for itself is held up meticulously until the end credits roll, allowing yourself to be far more immersed than almost the entirety of the competition.
While it succeeds in doing this through its story, Naughty Dog also ensures the core of the game keeps you intrigued. The central concept constantly comes back to the idea of avoiding detection from the infected and continually feeling like it's never an even fight. I can't believe anyone didn't have a few 'edge of their seat' moments, desperately hoping not to be seen or have their face eaten off. In particular, finding yourself trapped beneath a hotel surrounded by Clickers is among one of the most tense and terrifying in all of gaming. I was genuinely relieved to get past it.
This why it excels, however. From the second it pulls the rug from under you with its prologue up to its hard-hitting end, it never shies away from the harshness it wants to represent or the journey it wants to take you on. There are few instances that can be described as jovial and uplifting, but they're all the more impactful because of it.
So while the argument will never truly be laid to rest, The Last Of Us deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ocarina of Time, Shadow of the Colossus, Dragon Age: Origins or whatever games come to your mind when you think about those that are your favourite. It's not perfect, but it comes pretty damned close.
The argument against...
Let me start off by saying I love The Last of Us. Its narrative touched me deeply, and was a game that I immediately showed off to friends and family who have no interest in the medium to show them how impactful the story was.
Watching my mum cry at the end of the prologue, turning to me and asking the simplest of questions, “why?”, will be as powerful as any moment. This also leads me to my major issue, not with the game itself, but with people’s appraisal of it.
Whenever I talk about The Last of Us with friends, I notice a common theme: when people discuss their favourite, or standout moments, very few are actually tied to gameplay.
Many of the key moments people recall are cutscenes, a piece of biting dialogue or that moment in the surgeon’s theatre, but nothing of which the player is the agent. Of course, it can be argued that the giraffe scene and pulling the trigger were gameplay moments, but in actuality, you had no control: they were in-game cutscenes in which you had no autonomy - you had to follow Ellie to the edge of the building, you were forced to shoot that doctor.
This is where my sticking point regarding The Last of Us lies: yes, it is the greatest narrative ever told, but it is not the greatest game ever made.
As I’ve said before, for a relatively young person, I’m a fussy old curmudgeon when it comes to gaming. I have a very old-fashioned idea for what constitutes gameplay. When people talk about the best of all time I think of Super Mario, Zelda and Dark Souls. But there have been narrative-driven experiences that also rank among my favourites, Telltale’s The Walking Dead being one such example. The gameplay in TWD serves the progression of the narrative. I don’t want a challenge; I don’t want to learn the intricacies of its mechanics - I simply want to get to the next cutscene and make an all-important decision that’ll probably lead to someone’s face being chewed off.
Naughty Dog's action-horror has very good gameplay mechanics for the most part - far superior to Uncharted, a series I’ve never particularly enjoyed because of its linearity. The gaming sections are very good, just not outstanding. Remember those plank-and ladder-fetching sequences? Do they scream G.O.A.T. to you? Again, my problem isn’t with the game. I’m perfectly happy with the gameplay and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I love The Last of Us and it will be a long time before a team offers a narrative as compelling, but there are already games out there that are more entertaining to play.