A slight preface.. I've been playing games "seriously" for most of my life, and as I've matured I've built a mental list of game design itches that is fairly far reaching. I'm a "worrier". I always cared too much about things and I have an unfortunate habit of publishing things that cause people to feel like I'm overstepping. "Why don't you just let people enjoy the things they enjoy". "Who are you to say X". "Who are you to determine quality, or what's right".
Of course I'm not "anyone" to say any of these things. I never go into these topics from a high horse, and I don't expect to be agreed with. My reasons for posting is simply that keeping it bottled up drives me up the walls; I hope anyone taking the time to read (which I appreciate to no end) come at it from that perspective. I'd rather you think me a harmless crazy person than some video game nazi that, similarly, needs to be stomped out.
So with that out of the way, I'll talk about why I find The Last Of Us an almost intolerable playing experience. There'll be no story spoilers.
The Last Of Us has few good reasons to be a video game. It is a wall-to-wall technical masterpiece, with some of the most emotionally resonant game characters I've seen, and a spectacular sense of place. There's a timing to this game, a way with faces, and eyes. You believe these characters truly look at eachother.
But it is also a game in which characters pop through one another, display blatant disregard for mortal danger, and follow the script so slavishly that as a player you are often left in a dissonant space where your attempts to follow that same script tend to cause indifference at best and outright conflict at worst.
This is a game that will tug viciously at your heart strings with characters that feel grounded and real, only to show them glitch through eachoher, bumble uncaringly through an area that to you, the player, is incredibly dangerous to move through. You can't climb up that ladder before they have climbed up before you. You can't push that box anywhere but the exact correct spot - watch that box drift into the correct state as you approach it - so that the script can play out according to plan. They'll squat, infuriatingly, at the feet of enemies who will otherwise open fire on you as soon as they catch you breathing. The young girl you are asked to care for throws herself idiotically into the face of horrors at every seeming opportunity.
And then you are asked to let them into your heart again, in another beautifully produced dramatic scene.
This is a game where you have a listening mechanic for approaching areas full of enemies with some degree of omniscience. This same mechanic also, unfortunately, allows you to spot enemies spawning into place, often in preparation of a scripted, unavoidable ambush.
This is a game that will tell you to stay out of trouble where possible and employ stealth tactics to conserve resources, only to throw you into an area scripted to omit stealth as an option.
This is a game where you'll approach a door to open it, only to be faced with having to push the button 3 times, exactly, to open it in a completely rote diversion. A game where box-pushing or ladder-finding "puzzles" are insultingly telegraphed with yellow paint on relevant surfaces. The ghost of the concerned designer, haunting me throughout the otherwise beautifully crafted solidity of the game world, through gaping yellow cracks of blatant busywork.
This is a game where the act of playing it is uniquely in service of "turning the page". It's to suspenseful science fiction and horror what Call of Duty is to the big budget military action movie. And it has the same effect on me as a player; It makes me tune out. It makes me look at all the systems that are nothing but speed bumps to keep me busy. To keep me convinced that I'm taking part. In The Last Of Us, the mechanics are there because telling this story in game form required mechanics to justify that distinction.
There is virtually no challenge to this. Everyone who plays this game can - and with a modicum of effort, will - finish it. I read of the "clicker" enemies and how scary they were. Encountering them myself I was baffled; There is nothing unpredictable about these entities. They have a role, a "class" of enemy, and they conform to it completely. Paired with their seemingly nonexistent relationship with my AI partners, they devolved so rapidly in my mind I never even got to experience any kind of tension from them.
And so, after my first long session of The Last Of Us, I couldn't understand why this game wouldn't be better served as a Walking Dead style adventure game, where the mechanics could just fade away and let me enjoy the narrative. Instead I was forced to wade through this mire of "gameplay" that was actively preventing me from enjoying what was, I could tell, a fantastically told story.
As an aside, I'm also playing through Zombi U, taking my time. Whatever story is built into that game is completely incidental; An excuse for gameplay scenarios. There is more moment-to-moment tension and memorable "reality" to 30 minutes of Zombi U than there was in the entirety of my first few hours of The Last Of Us. I have stories of scrambling for control of an escalating crisis, of running for my life, of making the crucial mistake of thinking I could take control, the failing of my judgment. Zombi U never fudges its systems in favor of a scripted story; The systems, as far as the play experience, are the story.
Naughty Dog's games tend to be somewhat unique in this regard. Their games are clearly suffused with cinematic ambition, and in terms of their cinema I think they are making a complete fool of other, more obvious pretenders towards that goal; Naughty Dog are simply the best in the industry at this particular field of presentation.
But I'm'still waiting for the modern Naughty Dog title that feels truly confident as a video game. That doesn't feel like it's irritated with the narrative limitations that being a video game implies. Or that finally works out a way to overcome those limitations without simply not being a video game in the process. I'm certainly not the one to tell them how to do this, hell if I know the best approach. But I know this approach does practically nothing for me as a player of games.