So, first off, let's get this out of the way: the game is fantastic, and if you have a PS3, you should play it. Seriously. If you're remotely considering playing this game, play this game. Okay? Cool cool cool.
I'll try to do this with a minimum of spoilery content, but if spoilers are a particular concern of yours, obviously you want to play the game before reading further. Also, I'm not going to lay out the basic parameters of it story, so if you aren't familiar, just check out any review or preview or what have you.
The Last of Us is frequently compared to Children of Men, which is a reasonable comparison, but I think in some ways it's more like Gareth Edwards's Monsters. Children of Men is a story about people fighting the death of humanity, and fighting to give their lives meaning in a world which may not have a future — which is a story that The Last of Us could have told, but for the most part does not.
Rather, as in Monsters, the apocalyptic landscape of Last of Us forms a kind of backdrop and mirror for the humans who inhabit it. It shows us who they are, by outline and by reflection. Its history is not narrated so much as it's furnished — in the homes people have made for themselves in the quarantine zones and in the wilderness, and in what they've left behind.
It's not that everyone gets the devil they deserve in Last of Us — nobody could deserve most of what happens in the course of that game. It's that everyone's experience of hell is their own, and for better or worse, they all carve out their own places within it.
Games have made us accustomed to finding narratives in audiologs. Environments are littered with breadcrumb recording conveniently left behind by important characters compelled to provide exposition dumps about themselves and their world. The Last of Us uses audiologs almost not at all, instead filling the world with hastily scrawled notes to loved ones, inventories and shipping manifests, children's drawings, and ad hoc memorials.
These traces rarely flesh out world-important characters or people we actually meet. Mostly they just populate the world with uncounted numbers of everyday people — essentially anonymous and interchangeable, as we ultimately all are in our essential concerns: to live, to take care of people who matter to us, to hang on to the places and things that furnish our identities.
There is perhaps one case where these traces serve to provide backstory for a person we actually meet — in a sewer level where your party explores the tragic remnants of what had been a small colony of survivors, there is a fleeting reference to a man with the same name as someone you encounter later in the game, at first as an ally and again as a horrible antagonist leading a much more sinister community. Is it the same person? Is the predatory society he has constructed all that could be salvaged out of what was once a small bastion of hope? Perhaps, perhaps not. That in either case it really could be anyone is the point. (As Joel tells Ellie of highway ambushes, "I've been on both sides.")
Update: Nope, I was totally, totally off-base on this one. I thought a certain name appears in a child's drawing in the sewer level, but doesn't -- the name is similar, but not the same. Oh well.
This is not a story about what is happening in the world and why, and it's not a story about saving the world, although some of the characters are striving for that. These aren't messiah characters or even typical legendary antiheroes — Joel and Tess aren't selected to transport Ellie across the country because they're the best smugglers available. They aren't the chosen to do this job because they're best qualified for it; they kill the guy who was chosen and qualified in an arms deal gone wrong and get stuck with Ellie by default. He's just some guy.
Joel and Ellie never uncover an evil conspiracy or the mustache-twirling progenitor of their apocalypse. There's no global or national narrative beyond what we can infer from the terrain over which they travel. Everyone we meet — even the one possible "savior" figure — is just a person, just trying their best to get by. No heroes, no villains. Just people.
This is my favorite aspect of The Last of Us — its comparative restraint of scope, and its insistence on telling stories about human beings, rather than abstractions.
Of course, it doesn't execute this perfectly. Enemies aren't as fully fleshed out as they could be, and Ellie is definitely somewhat over-idealized. And there are definitely some aspects where they've clearly sacrificed a smooth, consistent narrative to the needs of gameplay. But on the whole, it's an amazing feat of game storytelling.
The gameplay in last of us is really interesting. It's not exactly your standard survival horror game, but it's also not a standard third person shooter. Supplies in general are not all that scarce, but so many game systems (including melee combat and quick stealth kills) are based on different discrete expendable resources, that the game basically forces you to diversify your playstyle. In some respects, the result feels somewhat like Deus Ex lite, with multiple approaches to many situations along a stealth/action spectrum, but Last of Us is not giving you the freedom to specialize so much as it is forcing you to be a generalist, by never allowing you to have enough of any one resource to rely on it.
This, in conjunction with your relative weakness, non-regenerating health, and the unreliable shooting mechanic, does a good job of encouraging you to develop a playstyle that fits with the narrative. You are still, in a sense, a one man army, but the feeling is less that you get that way by being a juggernaut, and more that you get that way by being an utter bastard. You play less like a video game hero, and more like a movie villain: brutal, opportunistic, and with a deeply dysfunctional moral compass. And the game gets you there not just through cutscene action and dialogue, and not through a transparently rigged choice system, but through gameplay mechanics that encourage pragmatically bloody play.
There are some places where this totally breaks down — such as a few pseudo-turret sequences, for example, and an inexplicably stupid raft mechanic in which you inevitably find a wooden pallet to ferry Ellie (who cannot swim) across water obstacles.
And I imagine that for players who are more skilled and/or more perverse than me, it's easier to break out of the playstyle that Naughty Dog is cultivating. But still, it's impressive. And a huge step up from the _Uncharted_series, where there is almost total dissonance between the narrative tone and the gameplay.
Vs. other games
Last of Us begs comparison to two recent high-profile games: Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider.
As a post-original-Bioshock epic narrative shooter, and as a game defined by a quasi-father/quasi-daughter AI partner relationship, I think Last of Us makes Bioshock Infinite look cartoonish and slapdash. In part, that's because Last of Us has such a comparatively conservative story to tell — it's focusing almost entirely on the human journey of its two main characters, where Bioshock Infinite expends most of its best efforts on worldbuilding. (And the worldbuilding in Infinite is admittedly fantastic.)
Joel and Ellie are so much more interesting, and so much better-developed, as human beings than Booker and Eleanor are, that it's unfair (and yet unavoidable) to compare the two. Infinite's characters are walking ideas, unfleshed symbols manipulated as needed in order to reveal the game's popcorn-Borges structure. And normally I'm totally into that shit, but I think in Infinite it actually just distracts from the most interesting aspect of the game: the criticism of American nationalism and racism that is almost totally delivered by way of the game's art. As a story about fathers and daughters — and about second chances — Last of Us totally outclasses Infinite.
The comparison to Tomb Raider is less obvious in terms of what's on the box, but it's unavoidable once you get into the game. (Note: SPOILERS START HERE) In fact, there's a segment in the later parts of the game that reads like Naughty Dog is actually taking a shot at Lara. It opens with a character getting impaled after a fall — which, in Tomb Raider, is something Lara can basically walk off, but in Last of Us it puts Joel out of action for an extended period of time (and necessitates antibiotics), and requires you to play as Ellie for what is one of the best parts of the game, in terms of both level design and character development.
That section of Last of Us ("Winter") opens with Ellie alone in the wilderness, bow hunting to find food for herself and Joel. (Similar to the section early in Tomb Raider where you learn bow mechanics.) And this section also highlights how Ellie's character has changed — how tough, hardened, and resourceful she has become. (Similar to the overall arc for Lara in Tomb Raider)
In terms of character development, though, Last of Us has two key advantages over Tomb Raider. One is that the narrative in Last of Us is discontinuous — there are major jumps in time between sections, whereas Tomb Raider appears to unfold more or less in real time — which makes the massive personality changes Lara undergoes for seemingly no reason totally weird. We also see in Ellie's case the ways she's imprinting on Joel — over the game, she gradually acquires certain of his mannerisms (for example, in the way she cusses out cumbersome mechanisms), and it feels natural that when she has to take over for him, she does so seamlessly. Lara's badassery comes out of nowhere; Ellie's badassery comes from somewhere and has time to develop.
(Of course, it's much less challenging in our society (and especially in AAA games) to tell a story in which a girl learns to be a badass from a man than one in which a young woman essentially has to teach herself how to be a badass. Also, imagine how great The Last of Us would have been if instead of Joel, Ellie's primary role model had been, let's say, a woman in the mold of Margo Martindale's character on Justified. Dude, that would be the awesomest.)
Ellie's still herself, though, and you can see even though she feels she has to be as distrustful, as tough, and as determined as Joel, she has not abandoned her own worldview and values. And her actions, including her acts of violence, have their own meaning.
In many ways, the section in which you play as Ellie feels like the real culmination and payoff of the game, and if Naughty Dog does a sequel, I will be really disappointed if Ellie isn't the primary playable character.
Jesus, the giraffes. That segment is so fucking heartbreaking, even the part that they put in all the damn trailers. Seriously, go play this game. Also: Foreshadowing, your key to quality literature.
One thing that I've repeatedly dinged Naughty Dog on in the Uncharted series is race. Non-white people in Uncharted are typically either bad guys or straight up native caricatures, with accents or no English, and are ridiculous. I get that this is coming from a pulp background, but frankly, Uncharted is if anything a step back from Indiana Jones here.
Last of Us is…a step forward. Not all the way there, but it's progress. There are three moderately significant black characters in Last of Us, and two of them are well-fleshed-out, and they're not hideous stereotypes. They're as compelling as any of the white supporting characters.
But…while Last of Us certainly doesn't fall into the horror trap of "the black guy always dies first," there is a notable difference in the mortality rate of black supporting characters vs. white supporting characters, and the amount of time spent on placing those deaths in story context is difference. (To compensate for the fact that white deaths are always more surprising and thus require more context, I suppose.)
Again, it's a big step forward for Naughty Dog, and it's a real relief. But there's still room for progress.