Spoilers ahead: I will try not to give away too much but as with all texts discussing a thing, it’s impossible not to say anything at all about the thing. So tread lightly or avoid this article completely if you want to go into the gaming experience innocent like a newly born child.
So, when I got my Playstation 3 – my first console ever – in 2013, a year that was one of the shittiest years I’ve ever had, “The Last of Us” was the first game I played on it which was probably the worst start because regarding the visuals as well as the acting of the characters, it was pretty much miles ahead from most of the other games (since then, there’s been a welcomed uptick in well acted games). As with many who played the game, the sheer loneliness and the deep connections with other characters that made any goodbye painful resonated with me. Having replayed it numerous times, I’ve also come to really appreciate the dialog, including the few but precious bits of humor in it.
I also feel like mo-cap actors and actresses are absolute beasts when it comes to acting. Imagine having this set-up and trying to convey any other emotion than befuddled amusement? And I really mean it, to act out these scenes without make-up, a wardrobe, a proper set and real-looking props is a lot harder than all those things to get into the character. I don’t value method acting as it is but compared to mo-cap acting it sucks even worse.
No need for a dystopian outlook
Because I’ve come to love the characters – even Joel, that deeply flawed mass murderer of our hearts (voiced and acted by Troy Baker, who’s become the one voice actor I recognize and love always) – I returned to that game whenever I felt I needed a break from the world. There is something quite cathartic to step from my (privileged) banal real world problems into an incredibly harsh and – might I say ‘unrealistically – violent and hostile world. In the last few years, I’ve read a few arguments from that claim that humanity actually would not be as horrible as dystopian movies, novels and tv show us along the lines that “The Last of Us”, “The Walking Dead” et al might suggest. In times of peril, those arguments claim, humanity would actually come closer. Now, it depends on your general world view but personally, I think that we don’t need a worse version of humanity and I’d even say there is not a worse version because this is the worst of all the worlds, looking at our history of genocide, imperialism and slavery. So, in a way, I agree that if push comes to shove, we wouldn’t be really take a turn for the worse because there’s not much room to get worse.*
*Look, I am not a cynical “South Park”/”Rick and Morty”-fangirl that thinks that this is reason enough to be a total ass to everyone and be selfish because who cares. Actually, the fact that this world is as horrible as it is should be motivation enough to not make it worse but actually try to make it a little better, because there’s so much more room for better than there is for worse.
Get ready for ALL the emotions
ANYWAYS! As soon as the rumor mill started that there would be a TLOU-sequel, I was holding my breath and the postponement of the game made for a tense waiting period (also moving the release date from my birthday to some rando June date – how lame and not as written in the stars as I would have liked it to be).
But I finally got it and I played it and even though I also saw it for its flaws (for a 20-30 hours long game, there are bound to be flaws), it was one of the most emotional gaming experiences I ever had, probably also due to my own history with the first game and a general surreal mirroring of current events with the pandemic and all. At times, it was even emotionally exhausting which was really interesting for me and made me reflect a lot because I wonder how much of that was because of the game, my expectations/history of and with the game or some underlying emotional baggage that I hadn’t taken care of properly in the past few months.
Now, I will not dwell on the plot because I don’t want to spoil the game and since I only finished the game yesterday, I still need a few days and weeks to stew over it and make my mind up how much I liked it overall. What I can say: from the story’s and character’s perspective, most decisions made sense and especially the bigger plot beats were understandable and did not ruin the first game for me. TLOU is not a game that makes you decide how to end it, there are no multiple endings and choices that affect the rest of the game and personally, I appreciate it. I don’t need to steer the wheel when it comes to a game/story and I think it’s actually interesting to be led into directions I myself am uncomfortable with. But that’s just it: if we get to be the hero in games, we don’t care how unnatural our decisions are. But TLOU usually turns that notion a little upside down and causes a certain dissonance with who we want to be in video games and who we get to be. I actually like that, even though some parts took that notion a bit too far for my liking.
The Last of Us-soundtrack: first game vs. sequel
What the game did and does well is the use of music. Whereas in the first game, we hardly heard any music outside of the lovely soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla, who brought a desolate, bonfire melancholy to the whole experience and worked wonders with mostly percussion, weird instruments, a guitar and a whole lotta atmosphere which also came from different recording environments (kitchens and bathrooms – the latter being famous for having the best sound, according to a lot of people who sing under the shower). One of the nice touches of the soundtrack in the first game was the fact that the music was not there to create tension or horror but rather to come through in the calmer moments and story elements.
In the sequel, the music plays a much bigger role in the overal gameplay. There are sections during fighting where the music amps up the tension and therefore creates more of the cinematic feel of horror movies and/or thrillers. At least for me, it succeeded due to a heavy use of deeper drums/a dull bass like that scene in “Lord of the Rings” in the dwarf cave. There is a certain physical reaction if drums or a bass sound are low enough, it’s like a low wave through your body.
However, adding a more traditional approach to the soundtrack at times also took a little from the feel of isolation from the original game. If you’re surrounded by enemies but there’s no other sound but their voices and your own breathing, you feel very lonely (the sound design of the game is exceptional and the sequel adds a lot to it with many noises and details that add to the overall environment).
However, if there is a heavy layer of music over a tense experience, it takes you a little out of it – the immersion gets a little lost, in my opinion (which – for me – was not too bad because it wasn’t used always and TLOU is intense even without the quiet and from the Let’s Plays I saw, I am not the only one who usually bursts through enemy lines in other games but gets sweaty palms in TLOU).
‘Take on me’ but make it sad
The sequel also adds actual pop music which makes sense for the settings that we’re maneuvering through. Whether the characters perform themselves or listen to music, it’s a stark difference to the first game, where there was talk of music but not really actual music from radios, record players or walk-mans. In a way, it makes sense – we walk with Ellie (performed by the amazing Ashley Johnson in both games, who does a great job in ‘ageing’ Ellie in the sequel) and Joel through vast landscapes and don’t spend much time with big groups of people (except big groups of enemies but you usually don’t go karaok-ing with cannibals unless you’re a cannibal, right?). The sequel features more “human settlements” and why shouldn’t people create a certain sense of comfort by listening or playing music?
A lovely, albeit kinda obvious* moment is, when Ellie plays a lovely little cover version of A-ha’s “Take on Me”. The two regular readers of my blog know that I despise slow, sad cover versions of upbeat (80s) pop tunes but in the context of the game, this version makes sense and Ashley Johnson’s interpretation is moving. I think the reason why the song works is the fact that it simply fits for the character and the story to be what it is (and without a functioning synth keyboard nearby). It’s one thing to be a contestant on American Idol and turning a fun song into a sad sack version sung with a brittle voice. It’s another if you’re literally going through an apocalyptic landscape, trying to overcome the horrors of your past and finding solace in the memory of a song.
*It is because the use of music is usually one of the simplest ways to force an emotional reaction. The amount of tears I shed in shitty TV shows because they used the right song is … a lot.
‘Take on me’ – the most 80s 80s pop song ever written?
Now, the original is one of the greatest pop songs in pop history aided by a brilliant music video that was ahead of its time back then (directed by Steve Barron who also gave us the cinematic masterpiece “Coneheads”). I think the song writing is fantastic because there are bits in it that make it sound like an actual conversation with a person (“I’ll be coming for your love, okay”). Yeah, it might be there to have the damn thing rhyme but it also has such a beautiful effect on how it’s sung (and it is very fun to sing). Add to that the absolute power of Morten Harket singing it in a way that makes 99% trying this song at karaoke break down in the chorus. On my research, I learned that the song actually was written by A-ha-members Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen when they were still members of the band Bridges which later disbanded and partially became A-ha. The song sounded very different to the later, official version, by the way. I kinda love it for its rambling chaotic nature and the hints of that synth part that later became the signature for the future pop monster it turned into. It also kinda shows how similar punk and pop manage melodies and how differently they handle the whole production thing.
I also learned that Harket’s vocal acrobatics were quite intentional (show-off). Because we all know the cartoon version, might I interest you in the 1984 version that is just beautiful for the fashion moments in itself? I mean, there is an entire shot of a sneaker, socks over jeans-combo, I love it.