Year of release: June 14, 2013
The greatness that is The Last Of Us starts out simply, which is: It shouldn't have been so great. It goes without saying that it was gonna be really good, of course. Naughty Dog—makers of the Uncharted series—makes smart, funny, cinematic games that get bigger with each installment. Sure, early previews of this one looked really impressive. But the Uncharted series suffered from getting bigger, and we were all told again and again how ambitious and big The Last Of Us would be.
We also knew, prior to its release, that it was a game that involved a zombie outbreak, or something that looked like a zombie outbreak, and if there's one thing we really don't need, it's yet another zombie game, and especially another zombie game with ambitions to revolutionize other games (see: Dead Island, Left 4 Dead, any Resident Evil game, et al). And the gameplay looked weirdly slow, and basic. There didn't seem to be all that much to talk as far as action gaming went—it had stealth elements with what looked like yet another duck-and-cover system. Again: It had all the makings of a really good game, sure, but nothing mindblowing.
Is it depressing? Absolutely. And is it cliched? Of course it is: Almost every halfway decent apocalypse narrative has some element of humans forsaking humanity to fend for themselves. But it's also riveting in ways we never imagined video games would be.
Or so we thought. From the very first moments of The Last of Us, you not only realize that something is wrong—playing as the daughter of blue-collar Texas contractor Joel, padding around her house in the middle of the night, rubbing her eyes in the mirror and watching news reports about a viral outbreak—but that something here was so, so different. And so right.
So many of the narrative issues and engagement issues that video games have been trying to revolutionize and take further over the last few years were being worked on, here. Without spoiling anything about it, the opening sequence of the game is, in and of itself, one of the greatest achievements in video games and interactive narrative you'll ever see.
It's not just one of the most realistic and intense takes on what a zombie apocalypse would look like in video games, it's one of the greatest takes in any medium. In the first twenty minutes of this game, an entire origin story and mythology for that backdrop is developed: Laws, logic, worldviews, character motivations, all of it. The sequence is nail-biting, fun, exciting, and at points, jaw-dropping: Being able to crawl around the back seat of Joel's jeep, and watch the world begin to fall apart around you was nothing we'd quite seen before. But the moment it really hits home that this game will be different is in this sequence's closing moments, which had most people tearing up, if not outright sobbing.
In twenty minutes—in the first twenty minutes—this game doesn't just show you how beautiful and fun and impactful it's going to be. It also lays out a vital, previously unseen worldview in almost any video game, ever. It shows you that it's a game that recognizes the brutality of its own senseless violence, and how its body counts will be gruesome, and terrible, but also, how they're the product of a much worse scenario: The one that takes place when the delicate fabric of society's humanity is ripped apart, and what happens when we're forced to find out just how animalistic the human race is at its core.
Is it depressing? Absolutely. And is it cliched? Of course it is: Almost every halfway decent apocalypse narrative has some element of humans forsaking humanity to fend for themselves. But it's also riveting in ways we never imagined video games would be, by exemplifying a key value of great storytelling: That the best stories are about great characters and the emotional journeys those characters take. It doesn't take long after this opening sequence to realize that this isn't a game about whether or not Joel can save humanity from the zombie apocalypse, but a game about whether or not Joel can save what little humanity he has left within him.
In The Last of Us, zombies aren't brain-hungry demons so much as they are instruments of a virus attempting to spread itself. In other words: Nature. Their primal impulses aren't guided by a desire to eat brains and feed their bloodthirst, but more simply—like a flu—to spread their sickness. Which is why as terrifying and scary as they can be in the game, they have nothing on the humans, who are savage, and driven by things only humans can be driven by: Greed, power, paranoia, and so on. When we find Joel, we find a character who has killed and stolen and betrayed, who's done all he's can to survive, and this process has ravaged what little of the humane, loving, caring father we met at the beginning of the game. Tasked with escorting the teenaged Ellie to a citizen-driven rebellion against the militarized American government (or what's left of it), Joel's not just annoyed, he's downright pissed, and utterly disdainful of the first truly lovable character we meet in the game.
As Joel takes Ellie through the remains of Austin, Texas in the game's first chapter, they travel through collapsing buildings, and see first hand the process of nature resuming a natural growth without humans destroying it en masse. The result, again, is glorious. There isn't a boring setting in the game; everywhere around you, scenery represents story, and the graphics—from deteriorating walls to floating spores and wake created by walking through water-logged basements—respond in kind. The visuals are as close to perfect as we've seen in games, and they all serve that ever-crucial purpose of relaying a world in decay, or rebirth, depending on how you choose see it.
And about those zombies: They're crafty. From sound-detecting clickers to screamers, they, too, all make sense in their places, and in their placement in the game. More often than not, the zombies present challenges for the stealth elements of the game, which are mapped out with precise sectioning, and as part of a tiered difficulty system that strikes a virtually perfect balance between achievable and frustratingly difficult. Being good at duck-and-cover shooting games won't be enough here, but neither will simply having a gift for stealth action gameplay. The duck-and-cover system—and all of the action gameplay—seems a little slow at first, at least compared to the swinging, swashbuckling pace of Uncharted games. That's because this is how people would actually move in this situation, and it ratchets up the tension as well as a regard for precision.
In a real combat scenario, you can't just eat a square health pack and get back to work, part of why the real-time assembly of health kits and weapons during combat sequences is a mechanic that works so well. You can only live through some fights if you have good cover. It's not just great game design, but smart game design. And yes, the melee combat is a little absurd, with Joel punching zombies in the face. Then again, every time Joel breaks a brick over someone's head, it may occur to you that—in that situation—it's one of the few options he might have.
The gameplay is taut, refined, and works in every single way it needs to. As the story moves forward, and the relationship between Joel and Ellie with it, the moments in the game become more profound, each fight with an enemy (human or otherwise) more meaningful: Usually, this works the other way around. Not here. That relationship, of course, wasn't without its share of controversy from game writers.
In the New York Times, Chris Suellentrop now famously bemoaned the game's "[frustrating] treatment of women," and noted:
"In the game's resistance to allowing the player, for much of the story, to control—or, to use a more accurate word, to inhabit—Ellie, The Last of Us casts her in a secondary, subordinate role."
Suellentrop's critique came at a moment when the role of women in the video game industry was a firebrand topic hitting critical mass, and while the message behind the critique—that women are relegated to secondary roles in the world of video games, both in the games and outside of them—still stands true, we respectfully submit here that his knock on this particular game couldn't have been further off the mark.
In Ellie, Naughty Dog created one of the greatest female characters of all time, and the desire to play as her throughout the game (and take control of her fate) is part of the narrative tension that makes the sequences in which you do control Ellie—two of which rank among the game's three best—all the more meaningful. You might play as Joel for most of the game, but few people would argue that this game belongs to anyone but Ellie. She's the driving force of the story, and while Joel's emotional journey and its relationship to her fuels the plot, it's Ellie's coming-of-age that's the most crucial conclusion, and the knockout emotional punchline of The Last of Us that's anything but secondary. That duality doesn't work if you play as her for an entire game, and it'd be a shame if this game's legacy becomes a victim to the reputational politics of one writer (it'd also be a shame if the world of video games continues actually alienating and disenfranchising women where it does, but again, that's another thing entirely).
And as far as that ending goes—again, without ruining anything—we can only tell you that it's brilliant, and satisfying in the way a game ending never has been. It requires a certain amount of thinking, and not the kind of 'What the hell just happened?' thinking that dominates the discussion of game endings like Bioshock: Infinite or Limbo so much as the kind of 'What the hell just happened?' thinking that's usually reserved for Harold Pinter plays.
It's emotionally draining, and it's the kind of thing we've wanted for so long. None of this would work without the creative flourishes of this game's sound design, which is the last—and maybe, most crucial—piece of its greatness. You've likely heard enough about the Oscar-worthy score of Gustavo Santaolalla (who is, in fact, an Oscar-winning composer), a minimalist masterpiece that serves the emotions of the story and the terse dynamics of the characters, tightening and relenting, inhaling and exhaling.
But it also is perfect in that it gives room to the game's actors, who all deserve to be noted (especially underrated was Deadwood actor W. Earl Brown's performance as paranoid survivalist Bill). But ultimately, it's Ashley Johnson's Ellie and Troy Baker's Joel—who was fresh off of Bioshock: Infinite, a stellar performance, but goes above and beyond, here—who are the glue that bind this game together. Their chemistry and rapport draw you in, in a way no game has done before it, in a way that makes moving them forward through the game as much as physical act (pushing an analog stick upwards) as it becomes an emotional one.
Their journey and the strength of their performances forces us to relate to them, to cheer for them, to hope for them, and ultimately, to put ourselves in their shoes, and wonder how far we really are from being them. It's a trick that we've been on the cusp of achieving in video games so many times before, but one that's ultimately been hedged by technological shortcomings or disregard for the importance of storytelling in creative an immersive experience over, say, creating the coolest looking action sequence or the most realistic FPS possible.
Those games are Michael Bay to The Last of Us' Christopher Nolan, or maybe even Terrance Malik. Other games might have bigger guns, bigger explosions, better superpowers, scarier zombies, or harder hardcore gaming flourishes. But, compared to those, this one isn't just content to hold its own where fun and excitement's concerned, but it's got a bigger brain, and especially, an even bigger heart to go with it. —Foster Kamer