The Last of Us E3 Preview: Violence for a Reason

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After a protracted fight scene in The Last of Us, Ellie stops and shudders as she stands over a bloodied, burning corpse.

“Oh, God.”

“I know,” says Joel, a 40-something grizzled man and de facto guardian of 14-year-old Ellie. He’s the one who did the killing, by lead pipe, in an act of self-defense that caused the assailant to stumble back into his own Molotov cocktail. “Come on, let’s just get a move on.”

The remarkable thing about this exchange is that it’s not a cut-scene or a staged moment. This was two video game characters expressing horror over a single slain opponent, who died at the hands of the player. They don’t exactly mourn, but unlike so many other action game characters, they seem stunned by what they’ve done.

In The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog may solve one of the biggest problems with its previous video game series, the critically-acclaimed Uncharted: Although Uncharted‘s main character, Nathan Drake, had all the charm of a Hollywood hero, his lighthearted attitude never wavered even as he murdered hundreds of nameless enemy henchmen. The action on the screen was out of whack with the plot. Academic gamers call this ludonarrative dissonance.

The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie as they try to survive a world stricken by pandemic, which occurred about 20 years before the events of the game. In a hands-off demo at E3, the two characters explore a city that’s been wiped out and overrun by gangs. As Joel and Ellie make their way through the city, they can either invite confrontation with the thugs or sneak around them with stealth.

But seeing as this is an apocalypse, guns, ammunition and other resources are rare. Enemies will flee for cover and warn one another if they see Joel brandish a pistol. They’ll also charge when they hear the click of an empty chamber. Health is finite–it doesn’t regenerate–and players will have to make their own medkits out of bandages and alcohol if they want to heal Joel’s wounds.

The cumulative effect is a type of video game combat that actually seems believable, and exists to provide tension instead of cheap thrills. As Game Director Bruce Straley said during the demo, “the violence is there for a reason.”

Naughty Dog says The Last of Us covers a cross-country trip from the quarantined city in the demo to the wild west of non-quarantined territory–presumably where the game’s infected mutants reside. In a nod to films like 28 Days Later, the developers want to explore human nature’s response to a horrific catastrophe. Along the way, players will learn the backstory through snippets of dialog between Joel and Ellie.

Of course, it’s hard to judge a game based on a hands-off preview. This especially true with stealth-based games, where a skilled presenter can show the design at its most elegant. And though the demo showed a situation where guns weren’t always an option, Naughty Dog will have to make sure players can’t stockpile enough ammo to always have the upper hand.

From what I’ve seen though, The Last of Us was one of the most interesting big-budget games at E3. It’ll be out for PlayStation 3 in early 2013.

MORE: Check out Techland’s E3 coverage