The mechanics of mayhem

Considering The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto 5

My palms are sweating. I can still feel the man I’ve just killed struggling against my arm as he fights to take another breath. I can hear his body crumbling to the ground. I tell myself that his death will aid my survival before moving on.

Then, months later, I’m destroying police helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades and shooting dozens of innocent bystanders with nary a second thought. Survival doesn’t matter — if I’m gunned down I’ll simply head to the nearest hospital and emerge seconds later with my health, my weapons, and my bloodlust intact.

That’s the primary difference between The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto 5, two highly-regarded games released just a few months apart. One asks you to survive in a post-pandemic world where anyone can kill you; the other allows you to plunder a fictional Las Vegas where you can kill anyone.

These differences aren’t restricted to the games’ narratives, though the stories their creators are trying to tell certainly affect the way we play them. It’s easier to disregard human life in a game that tasks you with killing scores of government employees, gangsters, and rednecks for a quick buck than it is to do the same in a game about escorting a teenage girl across a desolate country in search of salvation. But there’s more to it than that.

The Last of Us makes you feel every kill. The controllers vibrate as you shoot a gun or land a punch. You can hear your shiv sliding into someone’s neck or the crunch of someone’s skull beneath your boot. The game’s commitment to making you feel the weight of every kill (and every death) goes beyond those tactile and audio cues, however, and permeates the very systems used to interact with its world.

Killing someone in the Last of Us takes time. Nocking an arrow or aiming a gun isn’t an instantaneous process. Making your shots count requires patience — which means that you spend more time observing your target than you otherwise might have. You have to hear them talk, watch them walk, and recognize that they’re as alive as you are (in the game, anyway) before you’re able to change that fact.

Grand Theft Auto 5 doesn’t require that much patience. You can shoot a mini-gun, fire a sniper rifle, or throw a handful of grenades in roughly the same amount of time it takes to aim a hunting rifle in the Last of Us. Many of these targets are as faceless as they are numerous, making them easy to kill without a moment’s hesitation.

Then there are the limited ways in which you can kill someone in the Last of Us. You carry only a few guns, impromptu weapons, and grenades. You’re lucky if you have enough ammo to use any one of them for very long, and you never know when you’re going to acquire more. Grand Theft Auto 5 allows you to carry a wide variety of weapons, purchase thousands of rounds for each, and switch between them on the fly.

I only killed someone in cold blood once during the Last of Us. I felt my blood boil as I pulled the trigger, and I knew that I had crossed the already tenuous line between “survivor” and “murderer.” Everything about the game, from the way it looks and sounds to the way it plays, was designed to make me feel that distinction.

I can’t even remember the last time I cared about someone I killed in Grand Theft Auto 5. The game doesn’t care. It didn’t affect my character, my progress in the game, or that fictionalized Los Angeles one whit. Why should it affect me?

You have to become a murderer to survive in the Last of Us. You’re encouraged to become a full-blown monster in your pursuit of cash, achievements, and amusement in Grand Theft Auto 5.