Without a doubt, The Last of Us is the best game Naughty Dog has ever made. The Uncharted series is bombastic-but-shallow high adventure, the Jak & Daxter games were a pretty good time and Crash Bandicoot remains an icon today, but it’s 2013’s The Last of Us that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
In brief, The Last of Us was an adoptive father-daughter tale, an unflinching examination of a parent’s willingness to let the world burn—or even light the match himself—to save his little girl. As the protagonist, Joel, a bearded, weathered and broken husk of a man, against his better judgment began to love spritely Ellie, we did as well. As Joel’s primal, parental instinct to protect Ellie from the dangers of the world started to kick in, so did ours. It was brutal to watch and savage to play, a game I played through in its entirety in one thirteen-hour sitting and felt completely drained and exhilarated by all at once. It was fantastic.
It’s no surprise then, as evidenced by the games at E3 2016, that the industry has taken notice.
Take God of War. The game opened Sony’s E3 press conference with a demo showing off a game nigh-unrecognizable from the previous seven games in the series. We see a boy first, scrappy and playful, smashing together two figures in a mock battle between Norse god and beast. He is called into a hut where Kratos, now bearded and visibly aged, emerges and takes the boy out hunting for deer.
It’s a quieter, more grounded game than the epic God of War games of the previous two generations, and with a remarkably different tone. Whereas Kratos in past games has been a lone wolf and typically rejects the idea of developing an emotional attachment with other characters, in this new game Kratos has taken on a fatherly role. Here the relationship between Kratos and his son is a front-and-center key mechanic with an entire button dedicated to interacting with the boy. As the two track a deer, “Knowledge Gained” messages pop up to inform the player that the boy has gotten a little bit smarter, a little more capable. It’s two against the world in God of War, and that dynamic is going to feel familiar to anyone who played The Last of Us where Joel and Ellie struggled to survive against a savage world.
Even the camera angle in the new God of War feels grittier in the vein of The Last of Us. There aren’t any more cinematic, larger-than-life sweeps over scenery that leave Kratos a dot against a mountain or a top-down view as he runs up a spiral staircase. Instead the camera hangs close behind Kratos with a constant shot of the back of his head as he trots along through the snow. The entire demo—and according to director Cory Barlog, the entire game—is a one-take shot with the camera pulling smoothly away from or back toward Kratos’s shoulder with no cuts. We only see a few fights in the demo, but with the new angle, fights no longer feel like violent, choreographed ballet routines with cyclone spins, flips and rushdowns. Combat is now brutal in its simplicity, with vicious chops of Kratos’s ax crudely cutting away at enemies.
But God of War isn’t the only game pulling inspiration from The Last of Us at E3, and it wasn’t even the only game to do so at Sony’s E3 press conference. Days Gone closed the show with a more action-oriented showing, cribbing more from the aesthetic and vibe of the world of The Last of Us rather than its story or character dynamics. In the demo, the protagonist scavenges an overgrown world for supplies while hunting for another man. The two fight, attracting a massive horde of zombies, and the second man is taken. The protagonist manages to run away long enough to dwindle down the group, but the demo ends with on a hopeless note as he is surrounded on all sides by hundreds of encroaching zombies with no obvious escape.
While God of War feels a bit like a merger of two games, Days Gone is so close in tone, look and premise that it could just as easily sit within The Last of Us’s universe as a side story about a motorcycle gang.
This is nothing new, of course. Developers pull inspiration from each other all the time. Sometimes it’s as simple as “the sincerest form of flattery;” sometimes it’s to capitalize on a new trend. But that isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. For every Gears of War, sure, there’s a derivative Quantum Theory, but there’s also the fascinating Spec Ops: The Line. For every Resident Evil 4, yes, there’s a Shadows of the Damned, but there’s also the fantastic Dead Space. We’re going to see more games pulling from The Last of Us because that game did an incredible job at storytelling, world-building and designing tense, exciting gameplay. It stuck with us. Hopefully these games will be able to do the same.