There are no shortage of zombie games out there -- but outstanding ones have come out in the last year. At first glance, aside from the zombies, these games might seem like they don't have much in common. The Walking Dead is an adventure game about moral choices! The Last of Us is a cinematic survival horror game! Apples to oranges, right?
Not exactly. Comparing the two reveals some huge differences, sure, but also some illuminates some fascinating things about the games and storytelling in general.
Might as well shoot this in the head while we're here, no? Let's dig in.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US AND THE WALKING DEAD AWAIT AHEAD.
The Last of Us: Joel is a man with a past. The start of the game has him watching his baby girl die in his arms. Something like that changes a man -- and while the prologue characterises him as kind of on the stern and distant side, it's nothing compared to how hardened he seems after the outbreak. Granted, the world seems to necessitate it: it's the sentimental and the weak at heart that die. Joel wants to survive. "Survival," of course, doesn't explain some of the more unsavory parts of his past that the game hints at -- but nobody said Joel was a good guy. Not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway.
The Walking Dead: Lee was on his way to jail for murder at the start of the first episode, but "luck" would have it that the outbreak happened instead. While he escapes the prison cell, he gets thrust into a new type of hell -- one where the demons are zombies and humans alike. That reality means Lee has to make choices, lots of choices. Those choices have consequences; people in your group live and die depending on what Lee does.
Edge: The Last of Us. While both games feature men who aren't quite "heroes," Lee is mostly a stand-in for the player. You get to dictate what kind of Lee emerges from the cop car -- but whatever you choose isn't nearly as interesting as Joel's characterization. That's because Joel is deeply, deeply flawed. You get to see Joel grow as you play, but the ending is still a good example of how selfish Joel can be. Maybe you don't agree with the decision -- but it still seems like something a real person would do. Not a hero, not a video game character. A flawed, but real person. I can appreciate that.
The Last of Us: Ellie is a curious teen, and not just because she's somehow immune to the spores that turn everyone into zombies. Sure, she's tough and savagely stab a man in the neck if he get too close -- heck, when the game lets you play as Ellie, you can't help but wish the entire game was from her viewpoint. But there's a spark to her, too; a certain liveliness that stands out in TLOU's bleak world. More importantly, she brings out a more humane Joel.
The Walking Dead: Clementine is just a kid. She wants to see her parents, she puts bugs in boy's beds -- you know, that sort of thing. You have to protect her and teach her how to survive in a world that's too dark for such a precious soul. Typically, that sort of responsibility is a burden. Not here though. Clem becomes an anchor for Lee; a light that brings joy and warmth to a player's heart.
EDGE: Toss-up. Both Clem and Ellie are wonderful characters that are brought to life by fantastic voice acting. They'll make you laugh. They'll met your heart. They might even make you cry. The daddening of games has never been more heartfelt. Now if only we could get some games starring characters like these -- zombie games, nay, games in general could use characters like these outside of the supporting cast. That is, if the games are really serious about exploring the question of what our children will inherit after the world goes to shit!
The Last of Us: A pedant might say that the things that attack you in TLOU aren't "really" zombies. Technically, they're fungus-people that have had Cordyceps take over their body. It's entirely possible that the 'real person' is still in there, but who knows? What's for certain is that you have to deal with a handful of different zombie-like enemies which can eff you up if you're not careful. To get infected, you must either breathe in spores, or the fungus has to enter your body somehow -- likely a bite or a scratch.
The Walking Dead: As far as I can tell, The Walking Dead has your run of the mill undead; slow but deadly. That's how it was in the comics and in the show, that's how it is in the game. As for what caused the outbreak -- it's a mystery! Just know that turning happens no matter how you die, as the infection is in the air.
EDGE: The Last of Us. Not only are the zombies (kind of) novel here, they're genuinely terrifying. You can thank the game's emphasis on scarcity, along with a few zombie types that can one-shot you if you're not careful. The zombies in The Walking Dead, meanwhile, are mostly catalysts for gruelling moral situations. You're never scared of them inasmuch as you are scared of the situations they cause.
The Last of Us: Combat is brutal, mirroring the climate of the world itself...but only if you get in close. Savvy players need to learn how to navigate areas without being seen, otherwise they risk using up too many resources to survive. This is true regardless of whether you face zombies or humans, although they react in different ways. Humans will try to sniff you out depending on your last known location, and they don't give up until they find you. Zombies are deadlier and can appear when you least expect them. Either way, encounters are full of tension and anxiety, sometimes getting bad enough that you'll run away rather than take enemies head-on.
The Walking Dead: Although you'll have to defend yourself against zombies via QTEs and sometimes even cumbersome shooting sequences, most of the action in the game consists of simple puzzles and difficult moral choices. Will you cut a guy's leg off to try to save him? Whom do you feed? Whom do you save? What do you say to other people? Sometimes, these choices happen so fast that they hardly feel like choices -- which is not to say they won't weigh on your mind well after you're done playing.
EDGE: Toss-up. The games are wildly different in how they approach the action, ultimately giving us two potent, fresh takes on zombie games. Kind of crazy to think that could be true, but it is! Now, if a game could combine the action of The Last of Us with the moral choices of The Walking Dead -- now that could be the ultimate zombie game.
The Last of Us: While things are far from normal 20 years after the outbreak, there are still many survivors. Most of the ones we see are in closed-off quarantine zones that are governed by the military, although seedier groups run rampant. It's implied that the military has a force worth fearing, although in some cities, that wasn't enough to fend zombies back. There are also the Fireflies, which are an anti-government militia who are still looking for a cure. Finally, you have outlier groups -- some are opportunistic hunters, and some -- like Joel's brother -- simply choose to live in their own separate communities. Although Joel initially lives in a quarantine zone, it's clear that he mostly keeps to himself and prefers to be alone.
The Walking Dead: Groups are scattered about -- families, bandits and couples -- making most of the world in The Walking Dead seems fragmented. If there's a body of government, you don't come across it. Few outside your group seem to be doing well, with some communities resulting to cannibalism, stealing, and in some cases, inhumane edicts meant to ensure survival. The pack that travels with you all have their own needs and wants, often requiring Lee to diffuse tough situations and make impossible choices.
EDGE: The Walking Dead. While the survivors in The Walking Dead are a hot mess, the factions in The Last of Us seemed like excuses to give the player enemies that weren't zombies. It's noble that the Fireflies are still looking for a cure, though you don't learn enough about them to be invested in their cause. You don't see much of the military either. The Walking Dead, meanwhile, puts the survivors at the front and centre -- it's not really a game about zombies. It's a game about people; people cause conflict and drive the game forward.
The Last of Us: After the outbreak, Joel focused on survival at all costs. Thing is, there's a difference between survival and living -- but it took losing nearly everything for Joel to embrace life. This meant that after the sacrifices Tess made, and after all the ordeals he went through just to get Ellie to the fireflies, he chose to be selfish. He chose not to give Ellie up for a stash of guns and the mere possibility that a cure might be found for a world. And can you blame him, really? He's angry at the world and what it's taken away from him. Why would he choose to give something back to it? Couple that with the calculated decision to make you play as Ellie for that final bit, and....oof.
It's not surprising that Ellie goes along with it, either. I mean...she must've known, eh?
The Walking Dead: It's not obvious until the end, but the point of the entire game was for Lee to teach Clem how to survive. That's why he teaches her how to shoot. That's why they cut her hair. Survival, a lesson that continued up until Lee's final moments. We might never know what it's like to turn into a zombie, but having to watch Clem deal with losing Lee -- potentially even shooting Lee -- is painful enough.
EDGE: Toss-up. If both of these endings didn't punch you in the gut, I don't know what to say! The Walking Dead is more of a tragic story, since the central idea behind the series could be said to be "it never ends." Heavy stuff. The Last of Us is more of a literary game, opting for an ending with complicated character motivations. Both leave you wondering what comes next -- but hopefully the developers keep that a mystery. It's better that way, even if it's not as satisfying.
There you have it: two rather different games that, hey, maybe aren't that different after all. If you've kept count, it's nearly neck and neck -- The Last of Us at 5, and The Walking Dead at 4 (these are including the toss-ups, though). I wouldn't say The Last of Us "wins," however, because really should should play both of the games. They're both excellent, albeit for different reasons.
I'm curious, though: What do you think of these two games' similarities and differences? Share your own comparisons in the comments.