The Last of Us is a game that a lot of people are excited for, and I’m definitely one of those people. There’s just so much to love about Naughty Dog’s foray into the horror genre, and I’m sure a lot of my peers in the games journalism industry are already making a mental note to keep this one in mind when 2013’s Game of the Year season comes around. And that’s probably valid. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about one particular feature of this game.
See, The Last of Us includes something called “Listen Mode.” This is basically a mode that lets you see a visual representation of the game’s audio. As in, you can use this to see through walls. For those of you who have played the phenomenal Arkham games, this is basically Naughty Dog’s version of Detective Mode.
Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Arkham City was amazing, and Detective Mode was a great fit for Batman, a character who uses an arsenal of disgustingly expensive gadgetry to navigate his environment and take down baddies. But that’s the thing: It was a great fit for a Batman game; it’s not a great fit for The Last of Us.
See, I got to chat with Jacob Minkoff, Lead Game Designer on the game, and he spent a lot of time explaining just how much work has gone into making its world seem like it could be a real place. With everything from the game’s hyper-realistic sound effect design to an intensely well-thought-out explanation that makes the game’s Cordyceps-like infection seem like it could be scientifically plausible, the team has crafted this painstakingly complex environment in which to set their game.
In this context, Listen Mode seems like a weird superpower, one that stands in direct opposition with just about everything else we’ve learned about the game so far. Joel, the game’s protagonist, is a smuggler who’s fallen into this moral grey area, willing to compromise his sense of right and wrong in order to survive. He’s not a dude who can see through walls.
Now, I understand that Listen Mode is basically a visual metaphor. It’s an on-screen representation of the game world’s unique “soundscape,” one that’s been designed from the ground up to direct players in its combat/stealth scenarios. Joel can’t literally see through walls; his senses are just finely attuned enough that he can judge enemy locations and things using nothing but audio cues.
In fact, if there is the option to play as the game’s Clicker enemy type in some sort of zombies-vs.-survivors multiplayer mode, I can see Listen Mode actually being an interesting way to feel out the game’s environments through the perspective of a being that’s somewhat “otherworldly.” But I can’t help feeling like it’s incredibly out of place in the game’s single-player campaign.
Now, in Naughty Dog’s defense, I played about a half hour of the game, and I only used Listen Mode a few times, mainly just to test it out. Essentially, from what I’ve seen, this feature is entirely optional, and anal players like myself can just skip it entirely. Still, its very presence just strikes me as unnecessary. Especially when the game includes what Minkoff described as “probably the most complicated portal occlusion system that anyone’s ever built in a video game.” A brief explanation of this concept: The game’s audio elements are dynamically altered to allow the player to determine whether a sound is coming from the other side of a wall or the other end of a hallway. In fact, so much work has gone into these sorts of audio cues that Listen Mode just seems like overkill.
Now, I’m not suggesting you skip The Last of Us or anything; I’m as excited for this game as anyone. I’m just feeling slightly let down by a feature that feels both unnecessary and particularly immersion-breaking. And, in a game that’s otherwise so perfectly immersive, so incredibly well-designed, this just bothers me more than it would if it showed up in another game.
But I guess we’ll have to wait and see just how big an impact Listen Mode has on the overall story and gameplay when the game drops on May 7. Perhaps it’s not as bad as I fear.
So what do you think? Am I just being obnoxiously overcritical, or is Listen Mode a potential black mark on what otherwise looks like one of 2013’s most promising games?
Editor / Social Media
Date: February 11, 2013