The Last of Us is a game that stayed with me for a long time. We’ve all got games like that, I think; ones that well after the credits have rolled still stick in the mind like a needle scraping away at the back of your brain. The first time I beat it I had to sit back and take a moment to let the stress and tension wash away from me; that was years ago, and I can still very clearly remember the catharsis, and how I felt about what I’d just seen as the game came to a close. This time, only my second playthrough of Naughty Dog’s beloved fungal post-apocalypse, I still felt the same heady rush. That it held that emotional response after all these years is incredible; but what else should we expect of a game that captured the hearts of the gaming landscape back in 2013?
The Last of Us (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Released Jun 2013 | Developed: Naughty Dog | Published: Sony
Genre: Horror, Action-Adventure | HLTB: 15 hours
Things start pretty bleak when we open with a scene of Joel, a regular suburban Texan dad cradling his teen daughter in his arms as she slowly bleeds to death. The pair had been attempting to flee their sleepy little town in the wake of an outbreak of a deadly fungal infection that turns its victims into crazed murderous zombies when the army appeared and started peppering shots on those trying to get away in a desperate bid to quell the infection. The entire sequence takes maybe 15 minutes but it’s deeply and genuinely harrowing; from the moment Sarah wakes up to a silent house, the tension starts growing at breakneck pace. The decision to frame this entire intro from the perspective of Sarah is a brutal one; adults chatter about things that we don’t have the context for in panicked tones, conversations are shushed hurriedly around our protagonist, and as the screaming mobs start to bay and turn on one another you’re not given any time to focus as Joel scoops up his daughter and pulls her away. A sharp cut to black forms a harsh end to the prologue, leaving us little support or opportunity to reflect or absorb what has just happened.
We rejoin Joel 20 years later. The passing decades have moulded him into a cold, bitter, and ruthless man. While we might love to imagine that society is strong and adaptable enough to react and bounce back from any kind of disaster, The Last of Us thinks differently. The US remains in a state of decay and ruin. Martial law and militia groups tightened their despotic control over population centers, with curfews and shoot-on-sight patrols around huge concrete walls. Joel makes a dangerous living as a smuggler alongside his partner-in-crime, Tess; caught between the illicit act of slipping out of the city limits, defying curfews, and handling black market goods, not to mention an escalating war between the militia and a group of rogue fighters named “The Fireflies”, Joel lives a reckless existence. He’s a far cry from the scared, caring dad of the prologue, a front made ever more apparent by his apathy towards summary executions carried out by the militia and his vicious mauling of people who cross him.
In the midst of this drops Ellie. A 14 year old girl and recently infected, she is revealed to be immune to the fungal spores that have decimated mankind. To that end, Marlene, a leader within the Fireflies, charges Joel with her safe transit to a rendezvous point where another Firefly cell can take her. When that inevitably fails and the cell is revealed to have been killed before Joel and Ellie could reach it, instead Joel finds himself wrapped up into a trek across America in order to deliver her to the remaining Fireflies. The relationship between our unlikely pair is central to The Last of Us; in truth, it’s far more important than anything else, really – perhaps that’s why the game translated so well into TV show form.
Joel is gruff, often uncaring, and always brutal. To the player it’s obvious that Ellie reminds him of his daughter, that every second spent in her company reminds him of his perceived failure to protect his own child, and as a result he swings between wildly overprotective and abusively cold. Ellie, for her part, is a rare thing: an exceedingly well-written young person in a game. While Joel treats her like a kid much of the time (that is, when he’s not treating her like a literal piece of cargo), she’s quick to remind him and us that she’s a child of her era – she’s no stranger to swearing, and is a dab hand with a gun. When she kills her first enemy in defense of Joel, she has only a short period of shaking adjustment, before the kill-or-be-killed reality of their situation forces her to suppress her feelings and take up arms again. She rebuffs Joel’s clumsy attempts to hide or coddle her, often veering into recklessness as she forces her way into dangerous encounters in order to be a part of the action.
And yet, Ellie does still have moments of childlike wonder, and the retention of that in her character writing is a key part of why she’s such an entertaining partner. As she and Joel pick their way through the remnants of American civilization she often stops and gawks at aspects of former life that she can’t fathom existing, such as neighbourhoods gathering for barbecues, team sports, or students spending aimless years at university to “find themselves”. At the same time, her obsessions with imagining what a Mortal Kombat-esque arcade game was like to play or her running collection of comic books reminds us that, yes, she is also still a 14 year old. Her innocence is a sacrosanct part of her, but it’s not played mawkishly; yes, like any horror game, part of the remit of The Last of Us is to attempt to strip Ellie of her innocence in the cruelest ways so that she becomes as broken and cruel as the rest of humanity, but it also knows that the preservation of her wide-eyed worldview for as long as possible is a crucial part of making her a likable protagonist. She’s a foil to Joel, but not a perfect one; she doesn’t entirely reflect his cynicism but instead shares in it, at least in part.
I think in some ways The Last of Us, and what it wants to do, is exemplified not by its horror elements, or its gameplay, but by the tiny optional conversations one can find during your playthroughs. Some of these are quite well hidden or require specific triggers, so you might find multiple playthroughs necessary to catch them all. Each one gives Joel and whoever he’s traveling a moment to share thoughts or musings; typically it invites either a natter about life before or the bleakness of where the world has come to. The former are often flashes where Joel accidentally lets his guard slip and he momentarily falls into reverie before the mask is slammed back on; the latter though are one of the more effective vehicles through which The Last of Us espouses its particular brand of “aren’t humans fucking awful” horror writing.
And make no mistake, that sentiment is the real core of The Last of Us’s approach to horror. Yes, the world has been overrun by fungal zombies, but The Last of Us is very clear with its player: the really scary stuff is what humans do when they’re pushed to the brink. There are very, very few examples of what you might call “good” people; in fact, the only ones who show up are quickly left behind lest we become too comfortable and think that humanity might in any way prosper or survive the apocalypse. It’s a desperately cynical thesis, and I don’t think I’d blame anybody for finding it too much. There’s a concept in writing designated by TVtropes as “Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy”; essentially, when a piece of media’s writing is so grim, so constantly depressing and so obsessed with the rejection of hope that its audience simply gives up with it. I don’t personally think The Last of Us is quite there – it feels like there are enough tiny wins to keep you going – but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people pass on it for precisely that reason. It was at least still heavy-going enough that I couldn’t help but play The Last of Us only in fairly short bursts; any more and I ran the risk of being burned-out on negativity.
I also ran the risk of capitulating to sheer stress. The Last of Us is a triumph for many reasons and one of the big ones in my opinion is the exceptional work done to create a stunningly tense and stress-inducing experience. Every single encounter is fraught with peril; there’s no combat encounter that can’t end in an abrupt and grisly death for our protagonists. This is really where the game’s signature fungal zombies come into their own. Lesser infected mooks are generic fast zombies that can safely be punched, bludgeoned, or otherwise clonked to death with whatever heavy stick comes to hand (probably not so on the hardest difficulties, mind), but it’s the clickers, The Last of Us’ trademark enemy, that provide the greatest sense of tension. These are more heavily infected enemies, overtaken by the cordyceps to the point of the fungi growing up through their heads in a wide bloom. They can’t see, so they hunt you out via echolocation, meaning every encounter with them is scored by an eerie clicking echoing around you, and it doesn’t take very long at all before you wind up jumping at every slight sound that might be a click. The clickers kill our heroes more or less instantly, unless you have a shiv to hand to drive them off, so each time you find yourself faced with them it becomes a harried game of cat and mouse as you edge and sneak gingerly around, desperately trying not to accidentally make a noise and attract a horde of lethal monsters to converge on you.
When you’re not inching your way past clickers or thinning hordes of infected in frantic shootouts and physical tussling, you’ll find your path beset by that most terrifying of all creatures: man! Everyone and their mum is out to kill Joel and Ellie it seems, from the trigger-happy militia that rules Boston where the game begins, to slavers, raiders, and cannibal gangs who ambush unsuspecting victims. When The Last of Us is criticized, it’s typically for these sections as the game tends to devolve into fairly standard cover-based shooting of the sort that Naughty Dog already gave us in Uncharted. That said, getting involved in firefights is rarely a preferred option, although it will happen a lot; Joel is no action movie star, but instead fairly fragile and dies to only a few swift shots. You also don’t tend to have a lot of ammo available to you, so protracted shootouts are never opportune as they mostly exist to force you to shoot back and use up an already dwindling supply of ammunition. Just as with the clickers, the better option is always to be as stealthy as you can. If Joel can catch an enemy unaware he can sneak up and silently choke them into submission; it takes him a few seconds though so you’ve got to be sure no one’s going to catch you in the act.
Once you’ve cleared out yet another garrison of gun-toting madmen you’ll also have to scavenge like your life depends on it. You can find obvious stuff like new guns and ammo refills lying about the place (this is America after all, so it makes sense that there’s shotgun ammo just strewn about the place, right?) but perhaps even more valuable than that are crafting materials. Joel can cobble together an array of items to help during his quest, from health packs to molotov cocktails and homemade bombs, so you’re encouraged to search every nook and cranny you can to hoover up the requisite ingredients for each thing. One aspect of this I think is pretty clever is how there’s an overlap in what items each item needs to be crafted. For example, both molotovs and health kits require liquid ingredients, so you need to balance out what would be more useful in that moment or in the future. If you’re diligent then you’ll rarely be without enough resources to keep yourself stocked up, but you will have sections of the game where you’ll need to weigh up exactly what you need right now and hope to limp through without the other.
I can remember when I first bought The Last of Us, way back on PS3. I got it because of its lofty reputation, but it was one of those games that stayed on my shelf for a very long time after it arrived. I knew it had a bit of horror about it, you see, and I’m unashamed in my disinterest in the genre. It wouldn’t be until a friend convinced me that it was like a more serious Uncharted that I eventually gave it a spin, and while I think that my friend was not entirely right – I would defy anyone who doesn’t think The Last of Us doesn’t at least have horror roots – they were also not entirely wrong either. The Last of Us definitely owes a lot to Naughty Dog’s previous series, and I’m not just talking about the cover-shooting. Like Nathan Drake’s outings, The Last of Us is deeply ingrained in the mindset of “cinematic” gaming, and it always prefers to tell a story and let its characters shine over surrendering to the gameplay.
In a lesser game, that would be a damning criticism, but not so here. The Last of Us comes with a lot of pre-existing praise, but it’s praise that has been very well-earned. It has exceptional writing on display for all to experience, as well as a masterful command of its atmosphere. There’s little doubt in my mind as to the quality of The Last of Us; although it’s a harrowing game that I can’t readily or casually replay, it stayed in my mind for a long, long time after the credits had rolled. In all honesty, I can’t recommend it enough. Naughty Dog delivered a game that comes with a serious reputation but it is a real pleasure to say The Last of Us lives up to all of it.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.
4 thoughts on “The Last of Us”
TLoU really is a seminal video game. It’s influence will be felt forever, and it’s one of the few games I can replay over and over without getting tired. Would be intrigued to read your thoughts on Part II… !
Can’t wait to try Part II but it’ll probably be a while before I get there – don’t own it yet and there’s plenty of stuff I want to clear off my PS4 before buying even more new games 😅
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Haha fair, I know that feeling (the backlog never ends!) 🙂
This is a fantastic review of The Last of Us that perfectly captures the game’s atmosphere and emotional impact. The writing is exceptional, and it’s easy to see why the game has earned such high praise. Highly recommended!
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