The Last of Us and the Concepts of Tension and Release in Gaming

2 min

Tension is one of those things that can make art more meaningful and provide the viewer/listener with a journey through an emotional experience. It was something that I first really learned about as a musician, by studying some great musical pieces that featured that tension and release that built up anticipation and took the listener on an emotional rollercoaster. The same can be said for a well-written piece of literature, when paced properly it gives the reader a chance to calm down and to digest what is happening before leading to tense moments that keep them interested and turning the page. Tension and release are concepts that are inherent in just about all kinds of art and are relatively new in the realm of videogames.
If you were to ask me what one of the main features of The Last of Us is I would say, without blinking, that it is tension. The Last of Us is an experience that is almost unrivaled in modern videogames, harkening back to the days of games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill that left you on edge throughout most of the game. It is an interesting way at tackling storytelling, but can make for a game like The Last of Us hard to digest in large doses due to how tense the experience can be.
Part of what makes tension effective is when used in concert with release. There is a good reason why you hear tension and release together all of the time, because they are complementary to each other, making the other all the more special. A game like The Last of Us feels a bit unbalanced at times due to just how much tension there is throughout the game with no real release in sight. In this case it is used to help push that concept that this is indeed a bleak world full of dangers and very little “good” left.
Sometimes while playing through tense encounter after tense encounter it is hard to remember that the character of Ellie is representative of that “good,” one of the few last remaining rays of light in the wasteland of a world featured in The Last of Us. Part of the logic behind this is to have so much tension built up that when you expect that release and only find yourself crawling through another building infested with runners, clickers or hostile survivors that it begins to feel helpless. This makes for the eventual releases that happen in the game to be that much more effective.
When you reach those sections of the game where you get an eventual payoff, a chance to rest for a short while and collect your thoughts, they are that much more welcomed and important. I’m not sure if I could handle a lot of games that are paced like The Last of Us, but every once in a while a game will come along that is paced like The Last of Us and it will feel intentional, well-done and exceptional. That is what The Last of Us is.

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