I’m running. Running away from whatever has just happened to the quaint little world I’ve been living in. In my arms, I’m carrying my child, my daughter, who has suffered an injury in our flight and whom I now need to take away, to save, from this madness. As I run, I see these… things. They look like people, and as I run by them, I first assume that maybe they’re just trying to escape like I am. We can’t be the last ones left, right? How many of us are running from the horrors of our crumbling lives?
I hear them coming behind me, and I look back, trying to judge my distance from them. I can see them chasing me now. I try to move back, but I can’t keep my gaze on them without failing to maintain my speed. I can only look forward, if I look back, they’ll get me. And so, helpless and desperate, I turn back away from them and pick up my pace. But I’ve taken too long, and without a word, those-who-may-once-have-been-men tackle me to the ground, and within seconds, they’ve beaten, bitten, and maimed myself… and the daughter I was trying to carry to safety.
Now, of course, if you’ve been reading the news lately, I’m sure you understand none of this could have actually happened. I’m only in my early twenties. I have not ever had a real relationship. Let alone marriage. Let alone a child. The scene I just described to you was not anything from my life experience, but my first experience playing The Last of Us.
This is partly a response to an article by Edward Smith, who talks about how the opening to this game signals what things are to come, and more importantly, how player’s should react to what’s ahead. It didn’t occur to me until I read this how much Naughty Dog (the company that developed this video game, for those of you who are uninitiated to the field) really put into enforcing the idea behind running away, getting away from the infected. Clearing the game.
The control of the camera-a fundamental mechanic in the way a player views the game-is perfectly manipulated to enforce that idea. It’s not uniquely noticeable, and certainly, that’s a plus. In any review of any high profile game, you never see any mention of the camera control except when it functions terribly. Take most if not all of the 3D Sonic games released in the past ten years: there are multitudes of reviews for each of them that list camera control as the instigator for deaths, bugs, etc. It can be a real problem if not done correctly. But when it works just as it’s supposed to in games like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III, it goes unmentioned.
The Last of Us’s camera controls have gone the way of most well-made titles. The camera functions excellently, so no one makes mention of it. There’s not much that sets it apart either. It controls exactly like it would in any third-person game taking advantage of the right analog stick to look around while the left analog stick controls movement. But there’s one key difference: the player controlled character, whichever one you’re playing at the time, always turns their body in the direction the camera looks.
It may not seem like much, but take it in context with my first experience with the game. I’m running through the back alley towards the bridge (of which many who have played the game may remember for being just before the infamous run-in with the soldier) and I see infected climbing out of the woodwork, yelling out all around me. Curious as to their general distance, I turn the camera around to get a better look at them, assuming Joel will continue running, and facing, in the opposite direction. But this connected mechanic didn’t do as I had expected from what I had experienced in a plethora of other third-person games previously. Instead of continuing on the path at the same speed, Joel turned around to take a look at his assailants for himself. It was an odd moment of immersion that I wasn’t expecting, having Joel turn and look back at the creatures just as I was doing the same. (and ironically, that immersion took me out of the game for a few seconds) Deciding to abandon looking back, I instead turned in a last ditch effort to sprint towards safety, but it was already too late. A second later, the runners caught up to me, and I was lying dead on the ground.
Fleeing from enemies is no new experience for gamers, especially those of us who have played Naughty Dog’s previous work, the Uncharted series. In the first game, released back in 2007, there’s a moment a bit over midway through the game where you’re forced to flee from a hoard of swarming enemies. Without the player’s control, the camera forcibly plants itself in front of the lead-man, Nathan Drake, and tasks the player with sprinting away from the hoards, in the direction of the camera, using the viewpoint to fire a rifle off behind him and take out whatever enemy gets too close. It was an exhilarating experience in the moment, repeated, again, early in the third installment in the series, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, with the enemies in the first game replaced with a swarm of turbo-fast, killer spiders. In both cases, players aren’t quite sure what they’re up against, but you are certainly afraid of them, and all you know is that you have to get out. (Preferably alive) A situation oddly reminiscent of the opening scene in The Last of Us.
What’s so surprising, and perhaps ingenious, about the differences between the scenes in Uncharted and The Last of Us, is how small the changes were. In the original Uncharted, there was fear, maybe, but as I mentioned, the prime feeling in the moment was not of fear, but of exhilaration. It was the thrill of the chase. You had a gun in your hand and it made you confident beyond all reasonable doubt that you were going to reach the exit. Hell, the sequence may not have even cared about the player reaching the exit. How could it when the camera wasn’t ever in a position to show you where the exit lay until you had passed through it? Like most players in third-person games where the camera is so freely controlled, the game in that moment isn’t as much concerned with where the player is going, but the direction the camera is facing.
The Last of Us’s focus is on where it’s going. Because of that one simple connection between the direction the player is looking and the direction Joel is looking, the player cannot make the conscious decision to look one way and quickly flee to the other. They cannot direct their attention away from the most important task in the moment without risk of being taken down by a rabid infected. Whatever is important to survival, the player has to put it in front of them. When I was running from the infected in that opening scene, I had no time to look behind me. People were sprinting around behind me, scared out of their wits. Some of them even took the chance of looking back. I passed by them. I never looked back. I did not see them again. There was no thrill in this chase. To escape I had only one option: turn away and run. Run as fast as I could to the exit, to the end of the level, to the end of the game.
The most important task at hand is to survive. The most important lesson taught to me at the start of The Last of Us by an unappreciated and underutilized mechanic.
Thank you, camera.