I’d heard great things about The Last of Us since its debut this past summer, but I didn’t have time to play it at that point. Thankfully, my scheduled lightened up late in the year, so when I got the game for Christmas, I played through it at lightning speed (for me, anyway) and beat it in a few days.
I love the open world freedom available to me in something like Grand Theft Auto V. There’s a level of playability there that goes far beyond the story mode, and ensures that even after I beat the game, I can cruise around the insanely detailed greater Los Santos area and do practically anything I can think of at any time. It’s a wildly different kind of game than The Last of Us, and though it offers tons more freedom, that doesn’t make it a better game experience overall. Better replay value? Sure. Better overall? No way.
The Last of Us is the best game I played in 2013 because it actually made me care about its characters.
Hollywood has been fighting similar battles in the film world for decades, but the fight has only intensified since it became easier to incorporate stellar graphics into would-be blockbusters. Some producers hope bigger and better visual effects will be enough to draw audiences into a theater to see their films, and sometimes that tactic works, but all too often those kinds of movies are emotionally hollow. There’s no dramatic center to grasp onto, no compelling characters to make us care about the world crashing down around them.
With The Last of Us, the developers at Naughty Dog made damn sure we’d care about the two characters at the center of this adventure. Joel and Ellie are thrown together in this story under tough circumstances, and we actually get to know them in a meaningful way as their relationship changes over the course of the game. Along the way, they do some awful things as they head toward their common goal. The characters in GTA V are also capable of doing terrible things (and, boy, do they), but they’re also fundamentally worse people than Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us takes place in a world in which the only way for our heroes to survive is for them to make unthinkable sacrifices and sometimes kill without a moment’s notice; the trio of leads in GTA V kill, steal, and lie because they can, not because they have to.
Maybe I liked The Last of Us so much more because of the fact that Joel and Ellie’s mission is so much more important than anything the GTA guys go through: if J & E don’t succeed, the future of the entire human race could be compromised. If GTA’s Michael doesn’t reconcile with his family or do what his FIB contacts tell him to do, maybe he goes to jail or dies. Not exactly the same level of stakes, huh? The gut-punch ending of The Last of Us is also far more complex than the ending of GTA V, which feels like it just sort of ran out of story instead of completely wrapping up its overarching tale.
Like I said, I’m still a fan of both games. I’ll probably get far more playing time out of Grand Theft Auto V than The Last of Us, but I suspect it’ll be the kind of mindless, zoned-out couch playing I’ll engage in just to amuse myself. Grand Theft Auto V may have broken sales records this year, but in terms of video games, I’ll always remember 2013 as the year The Last of Us came out of nowhere and surprised me with its excellent gameplay and powerful storytelling. Despite the fact that it’s surrounded by zombie genre tropes, The Last of Us is the kind of experience that will inspire future generations of game designers to want to tell meaningful stories with intriguing characters, not just bask in the glory of open worlds. Ultimately, that’s something we can all celebrate.
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