The leap in both graphics quality and storytelling in the last ten to fifteen years is nothing short of astounding. To think that twenty years ago all of us were playing 2D games on Super Nintendo etc. with next to zero story to propel them forward(Minus the classics like Chrono Trigger and the early Final Fantasy games) is mind-blowing, frankly. That's not to say games like Donkey Kong, Super Mario All Stars, Street Fighter II etc. weren't fun, it's just that they didn't wow you with their graphics or, more importantly, with an engaging storyline that could rival, or even surpass, feature films. To be fair the technology just wasn't there and wouldn't be there until the PlayStation hit shelves in 1994.
Between 1994 to now gamers around the world have been treated to some of the greatest video games the world had ever seen and will ever see: Final Fantasy VII-XII(1997-2006), Metal Gear Solid 1-4(1998-2008), Halo 1-4(2001-2012), Resident Evil 4(2005), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time(1998), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City(2002), Bioshock(2007), Dead Space(2008), Read Dead Redemption(2010), The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim(2011) and Gears of War 1-3(2006-2011). These are but a handful of some of the fantastic games I and millions of others have had the privilege of playing, all of them on different consoles ranging from PS1/2/3, XBOX/360, N64 and the Gamecube. Most, if not all of them, still hold up today. Why? Because they pushed the limits in what was possible in their medium, whether it be creating characters that one could actually latch on to and root for the entire game(Solid Snake, Master Chief, Link) or taking you on journeys so complex and immersive ( The Metal Gear Solid/ Final Fantasy/ Halo/ GTA series) that you had no choice but to set aside everything else you had going on that week in order to see the characters and story through. Often times these aforementioned games blended both accomplishments together with such ease you often wondered how they made it work.
This year alone we've had three(soon to be more) games that have pushed the envelope of what is possible in the realm of this generation's games: Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Infinite were the first two to appear, both amazing accomplishments in their own right when it came to characters, voice acting, writing and graphics, but the real deal, arguably THE best game of the year already, is Naughty Dog's ultimate accomplishment: The Last of Us(PS3); a post apocalyptic masterpiece that takes your expectations of what is possible to accomplish with video games and then flips them on their ear as violently and shockingly as it possibly can.
The game follows a man named Joel, a single father living with his daughter Sam, who one day, along with the rest of the world, discovers that a deadly virus has been unleashed upon the world and is transforming people into mindless, rage fueled monsters whose only mission is to kill or mutate any "normal" people no matter what. Sounds like every other zombie/disaster related outbreak movie ever made, right? Think again. The game takes that very dumbed down/simplified description and fleshes it out and molds it into an experience that most movies/television shows can only dream of doing.
Let's get the obvious successes out of the way first: the graphics and level design are nothing short of jaw-dropping. There have been games in the past that have wowed their audience with amazingly detailed maps and environments but next to none of them have come close to what Naughty Dog has achieved here. Every single crack in the road, blade of grass, drop of rain, flake of snow, face crease is presented with such clarity and resolution that I had to remind myself at times that I was playing a game and not in a movie. Like Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Infinite that came out before it, The Last of Us has environments so detailed and realistic at times I just stopped playing and just looked around at the hard work the designers and programmers put into creating the world of the game. Truthfully, the environments are more than enough to give you a reason to play The Last of Us.
Then there's the voice acting/character renditions, arguably the greatest I've ever seen for a video game. The characters of Joel and his 14 year-old companion Ellie(the one who can possibly save the rest of the world with her blood) will no doubt go down in history as two of the greatest characters ever created for the video game medium and maybe one day as two of the greatest fictional characters ever conceived PERIOD. What makes them so great? The fact that they are heroes without trying to be heroes. They do what they do to survive, nothing more. When dozens of infected "people" or just as inhuman bandits surround our characters and violently attack them, they fight back and kill because it is kill or be killed, not to gain fame or glory. There is no glory to be had in the bleak world The Last of Us presents, just dog eat dog brutality. Joel and Ellie, rocky companions at first, eventually grow to be each other's reasons for living. Without Ellie Joel loses his mission as well as his second chance at being a father and without Joel, Ellie loses her chance for a surrogate father as well as her only source for human interaction. Or let me rephrase, her only source of human interaction without worrying about being eaten.
There are other characters in the story, some good, some evil, but it is Ellie and Joel that stick with you long after you've beaten the game and the credits scroll up the screen. The actors that voice Joel and Ellie say their dialogue with such natural conviction that you never once shake your head at a phony delivery or a superfluous line of dialogue. Hell I'd even say that Joel and Ellie are more fully realized than 90 percent of movie characters, and much easier to relate to as well. I mean who wouldn't behave the way they do in the situations they find themselves in.
Then there's the shockingly real violence in the game. True, when you attack the infected in the game it doesn't leave much of an impression because they aren't really alive, strictly speaking. It's when Ellie and Joel attack and kill the living that the game gets nasty. I've played some violent games in my time, some more excessive than others, but none have had the impact that The Last of Us possesses. There is a part in the game where a mildly significant character and his younger brother face an impossible situation: The younger brother has been bit and is transforming into one of the infected before our character's very eyes. The older brother is forced to shoot and kill his little brother and then, through a haze of anger, confusion and despair, turns the gun on himself and commits suicide. It's shocking, to say the least. I stared at the screen in disbelief for a good couple minutes before resuming play it affected me that deeply.
I realize that those to whom this article would interest have more than likely already played and beat the game weeks ago. It's the skeptics and haters of video games in general that I'm out to convince. Why is it that so many people, including the late Roger Ebert, have said that video games can never be art? They are just as, if not more so, immersive than movies and television shows and the time and effort that goes into creating them is about the same if not more. Both of them tell have characters and stories and can affect their audience both emotionally and viscerally depending on the story, so what gives? The Last of Us, along with many other games I already mentioned, have proven that video games deserve to be taken seriously and they will only continue to improve in the years to come.