Friday, 26 July 2013

The Last Of Us, dir. Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann, wr. Neil Druckmann, st. Troy Baker (voice, mo-cap), Ashley Johnson (voice, mo-cap)

I'm going to do something I promised myself I'd never do. I'm going to review a video-game. 

Over the last few years, as computer-games have got more 'immersive' and striven for photo-realism and movie-like cinematics, I've done everything I can to resist the lure. But then Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain came along in 2010 and that was it. Although it still needed something of a fuller plot, and rounder dimensional characterisation, Heavy Rain proved that video-games had learned something about movies' atmosphere and tone. Playing the game, for me, was secondary to experiencing it.

And now Naughty Dog - the company responsible for the hugely successful and playable, yet lightweight Indiana Jones-style Uncharted game series - have created The Last Of Us, which since its release in June, has garnered universal critical acclaim from all four corners of the web. The inevitable comparisons with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later crossed with John Hillcoat's The Road give some idea of the dysphoria on offer, but The Last Of Us posits an altogether different kind of meditative dystopia. The story opens with Joel (Baker) and his daughter Sarah on the eve before an outbreak pandemic of cordyceps (truly the stuff of nightmares, seriously - Google Image Search it) starts infecting vast swathes of the American populace. Twenty years on and a leaner, gruffer, shockingly hardened Joel, now alone, unwillingly takes possession of a 14-year old girl Ellie (Johnson), and is tasked with trekking cross-country in order to deliver her to the Fireflies - a resistance group that operates outside the military-controlled zones. 

Such adult/child relationship-journeys are nothing new, certainly to cinematic tropes, one of the reasons being there is much mileage to be extracted from stoic experience gradually and warmingly eroded by naive idealism. The difference here is that Joel spends a vast proportion of the game treating Ellie as excess baggage rather than the scared but determined child she is, and likewise Ellie, only ever knowing the world in its new decaying state, is ever the optimist, un-nurtured - heartachingly - as she is by Joel. And don't forget, this is no 120-odd-minute flick - this is a 16-hour marathon. Over hours, days, weeks, you live these characters intimately. And that's Naughty Dog's trump card, for the motion-capture - usually most tellingly artificial when characters need to engage in emotionally-charged discourse - is startlingly realistic. We're not at photo-realism yet of course, but nods, furrowed brows, sighs, held-gazes, looks-away - characteristics previously only performers flesh and blood were able to execute - are all beautifully animated here. Not only that, for me, the game's two biggest selling points were Gustavo Santaolalla's fret-plucked score - one of the most hauntingly elegiac and spellbindingly arranged and performed I've ever heard - and the absolutely extraordinary voice-acting. One gets the very real feeling Baker and Johnson interact as their rendered counterparts do onscreen, rather than in booths in front of scripts. The environments are delicately detailed, as one might expect, and the monsters, sorry - clickers, runners and bloaters - are suitably scary, but the biggest palpitations come from not avoiding predators, but in keeping the pair - and their burgeoning relationship - alive. Once the ending comes round, and a year in the story's timeline has elapsed, you'll never want Joel and Ellie's story to resolve - let alone achieve any kind of narrative closure that might leave you feeling uneasy and desolately melancholic, but Naughty Dog, in their bold wisdom, have remained utterly faithful to their grand vision of a video-game that carries the same empathic weight and solemnity as the best of what the cinema has to offer.