Why everyone needs to play… The Last of Us

I had an idea for a series of posts about video games that are “essential” for any newcomer to the field. While this may be a rather cliché review-slash-list feature, I hope I’ll give you some personal insight as to why I think you should play this game (if you haven’t already). This series will be mostly spoiler-free, at least contextually-speaking, and more a series of my reflections on why these games have fixed themselves into my memory. All clips/images are from very early on in the game. Additionally, as I am now a father of one (soon to be two) girl(s), I believe it is essential to pass on this extremely important legacy of detailed video game examination. Without further ado, here is entry number one, The Last of Us.

What is it about

The Last of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie; a forced partnership that has them travel across a post-infected (read: zombie) apocalypse in the USA, to find a possible cure. The story takes place approximately 20 years after the initial outbreak, where 60 % of the world’s population has been infected and want to eat/murder you, caused by a mutation to a genus of the Cordyceps fungus that seemingly jumped to humans. This fungus takes over control of the host’s body, essentially “zombifying” them. Oh, and it’s a real thing, at least in the insect world.

The Last of Us is an action-adventure game, with similar third-person mechanics to Naughty Dog’s previous Uncharted series, however, instead of focusing on making Indiana Jones into a video game, here they take a much darker tone, inclining towards stealth, tension and a deeply unsettling narrative. Much of the game is played while crouched, not running around shooting things, and avoiding the infected, who can manifest in various forms, e.g. blind infected called “Clickers” that use echolocation to navigate the find prey (read: you). This is a survival game at its core and hence full on confrontation will not work – you have to avoid encounters as much as possible. Additionally, there are human factions that add to the complexity of the world, who are also trying to kill you (for resources, for trespassing, to cook you into a nice human soup, etc.).

The Last of Us is a game that frolics in escalating tension, in making your back sweat, in raising your heart rate. The gameplay is simple, linear-based (get from point A to B), and builds mechanically from Naughty Dog’s previous Uncharted 3. In 2020, the gameplay can certainly feel clunky, however, its grounding in one of greatest video game stories of all time makes it absolutely worth a play.

My story

In the summer of 2013, I stumbled upon The Last of Us. I was out of touch with video game news, gossip and the “hype-train”, and as such, the critically acclaimed release on PS3 swept past me invisibly. After watching this trailer, I emphatically boarded said locomotive and took the plunge:

A few hours into the game, I instantly regretted my decision.

This game was far too scary, too intense, and too dark. This was a game that relied on prioritising stealth, on survival mechanics, and that at its core, was a dozen hour escort mission. However, I was enthralled by the story; it struck an excellent balance between player interaction and cinematic style, the writing and dialogue were brilliant and I was at once transported to Joel and Ellie’s horrific and painful world. Unfortunately, disheartened at having to get through a difficult horror game to experience their journey, I reluctantly put the controller down.

One year later

In the summer of 2014, I stumbled across the PS4 Remastered edition of The Last of Us. “Ah,” I thought, “here’s that game I couldn’t get through on PS3, and now it’s on PS4, a console I have recently purchased and looking for a game to play.” Over the course of the past year, video game critics had touted The Last of Us as the single greatest AAA game in the history of the universe, and I was suitably chagrined from not having played this “masterpiece”. So, I decided to give Neil Druckmann a second chance.

Several hours later it turned out that I could play the scarily intense sections of the game without turning into a gibbering, sweating wreck! Don’t get me wrong, this was not as obviously terrifying as Alien: Isolation or something like Dead Space, nor anywhere near as difficult as Dark Souls (there was an easy mode, for one thing), but there was something so unnerving about the world of The Last of Us that I had to consciously overcome my own anxiety to stealth past a Clicker, or shiv a few Runners, or run blindly towards escape with the infected at my back. Every cutscene became a rest-spot, a moment to exhale loudly and mutter, “Jesus!”

As the game went on, I was spending more and more time with Joel, crafting, running, crouching, shooting (carefully), all the while trying to “brave it out”, just because the story was utterly engrossing. Every time I felt that I couldn’t get past “this next bit”, I would have an internal conversation with myself, shouting at my inner worried psyche to grin and bear it. I should emphasise that my struggle with playing The Last of Us wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I cannot handle tension and high pressure situations well. Every cutscene, every section of gameplay, I was evaluating my experience and while being tensed out of my mind, I was also thinking, “Holy crap this game is utterly incredible”.

#tangent1: Why do I play video games?

I couldn’t put my finger on why the game felt so good back then. It felt like a perfect marriage of story and gameplay; something I personally found lacking in other games I’d played. I have a preference for narrative-heavy games, and The Last of Us was scratching that itch, while also not just presenting me with “David Cage-ian” button prompts whereby I’d press X to “ELLIE!” (side note: I adored Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human, which are brilliant in their own way), but giving me a challenge that I didn’t know I wanted, or needed in my life. I will not play a game on hard mode, with very, very few exceptions (read: Ratchet and Clank). For me, playing a video game provides me with the illusion of task completion, of being transported to another world, of being an actor in a play, with a medium level of challenge. I suppose it’s about control; for me, I want to relax in my free time by doing something with confidence, which gives me televisual pleasure. Another way to think about it is why I enjoy LEGO; you are a given a task to complete (build this thing), you know all the rules and are fully confident you can do this task (block stacking), and it will take you some time, which will enable your mind to forget about work, life, responsibilities, at least for a few hours; it’s free time, time which doesn’t cost you anything mentally.

What was it about the story of this particular game that enraptured me? The Last of Us is a story about anger and grief. Joel’s actions are motivated by grief and manifest as anger. I have never felt such rage, nor such loss. Video games allow me to, at least on some level, roleplay these emotions, these simulations, and monitor how I react to them. Games are like lucid dreams, in that regard, more than movies; you have agency and a level of control. And, like dreams, we use them to probe ourselves, to push against our rote lives and ask, “How does killing all these people and infected make me feel, how does it make Joel feel?”

Why you need to play it

The Last of Us isn’t just another linear, action adventure game. It subverts the genre, and traditional storytelling in video games. This is why, I believe, the game deserves to be on the pedestal it is. While the gameplay was innovative at the time, the stealth mechanics, the infected A.I., etc., these wouldn’t be enough to place the game in history as a pivot point for the industry. Nor would the story deliver the same impact if it were condensed into a glossy Netflix-style 2 hour movie. It is the synergy of these two tenets of game design that elevate The Last of Us; the game tries to be a coherent piece of art first, and a money-making, financially-savvy release second.

The moment-to-moment gameplay is fundamentally grounded in tension. There are a lot of parameters you have to weigh in your mind at any one time. Do I have enough ammunition to make it past this combat section? If I use up my ammo here, will it be enough to get past the inevitable horde of Clickers, Bloaters and the like in the next section? Should I be stealthy here, or try to barrel through for speed? Can I lure the infected to that location? Does that look like the end of this part so I can just bullet spread now? Should I save this shiv to take out a Clicker later or use it to open up this possible weapon and item cache? Every action has a consequence, and while it may be an illusion – the levels are not designed to be punishing (read: try it on Grounded difficulty if you dare), but to give you the feeling that you’re just about able to get through this journey, as a survivor, not a demigod – the fictional unease and pressure it creates is addictive.

The narrative aligns with the gameplay very closely, providing your characters with plot, development and motivation that urge you to continue on your adventure. The game doesn’t give you any blatant choices (there is no karma system), narratively speaking at least, but one can easily project themselves onto Joel and why he is doing what he is doing. His past, his intense and brooding personality, and his relationship with Ellie are easily understood and accepted by us, the player. The story superficially paints Joel as a gruff, grumpy, action-hero, who will surely soften as the story goes on and culminate in some sort of positive mental epiphany, be it a learning process or something else – a generic formula that players have come to expect. Gameplay-speaking, this is seemingly at odds with the relish and ease which with Joel dispatches multitudes of infected and human enemies alike – he is like Wolverine: a killing machine. How do we, as a puppeteer of Joel, reconcile this “ludonarrative dissonance“? How can we believe Joel will end up in a positive relationship/mental state at the end of all this killing that we make him do? Because it’s a traditional gaming trope.

#tangent2: Ludonarrative dissonance

At its core, ludonarrative dissonance is the idea that when a game tells the player one thing through its story and environment, and then contradicts it though gameplay, the player becomes unimmersed and disconnected from the experience to a degree.

from Destructoid

One example of ludonarrative dissonance is in the 2007 game Bioshock. In this game, players are faced with a choice: to harvest (read:kill) “little sisters” (cute little girls) to get stronger and progress (gameplay objective), or to rescue them, taking less of a character boost, but taking the altruistic, moral high ground (narrative objective). This gameplay choice is at odds with the main narrative, since later on, you are prevented from following a coherent character choice (if you chose to harvest the little sisters, out of your own self-interest), since the story forces you to align with a party that expected you to be rescuing them.

Another example is in the Uncharted series of games. Nathan Drake is essentially a quippy, witty and handsome explorer of ancient/mythical cultures and artefacts, at least in the cutscenes that is. Gameplay has Drake murder 1000s of goons and thugs sent by an opposing party who want to use said artefact for “evil”. Naughty Dog leaned into this critique by having a trophy pop in Uncharted 4 if the player kills 1000 enemies.

We have come to accept this dissonance in story-driven games because VIDEO GAMES, and The Last of Us seemingly follows suit with Joel, giving us the easy interpretation that he is growing, like any normal generic character would, regardless of the sociopathic killing we experience during gameplay.

What The Last of Us does is subvert this expectation. This is why the story is so brilliant. Throughout the game you project empathy onto Joel in the cutscenes, because you expect him to be a hero. Why wouldn’t you? Apart from the aforementioned video game dissonance, mainstream entertainment media that draw on the “Hero’s Journey”, be it video games, books or movies, tend to adhere to the good triumphing over bad formula, or the moral over immoral decision. We want the good guy to win, the hero to succeed, because down that road lies happiness and life. We want them to learn, to grow, to suffer yes, but to be better off for it. The converse of this would be wanting evil to triumph, which leads down a road of depression, sociopathy and death. While films and TV provide a large variety on this theme, with subversions in tow (e.g. Breaking Bad, Watchmen), triple-A video games tend to stick to formula – because it works, sales-wise. With a video game, we project our “goodness” onto the character, since we have an element of interaction. This is why protagonists in video games need to be relatable. I understand why Joel is killing these guys, because he’s protecting Ellie, and we’re the “good” guys because they attacked us first, and we’re just trying to find a cure, ok? It is less enjoyable to play as non-relatable characters in story-driven games.

#tangent3: The Music of The Last of Us

The soundtrack composed by Gustavo Santaolalla is hauntingly beautiful. It is stripped down, often to sombre guitar chords, or fleeting strings. It echoes the dark, brutal journey the player is on, unobtrusively, and yet is always there. Action sequences bring screeching percussion and fervent drums, while emotional, narrative sections allow a rare positive motif, reminding us that all hope is not yet lost.

The main theme is played on the lute-like “Ronroco”; it is a fragile finger-picking riff that is overshadowed by a looming baseline, symbolising a light in the darkness. The first time you hear it is during the opening titles straight after the prologue. This sequence is reminiscent of modern TV, and is a beautiful example of the beginnings of cinematic style influencing video games in the early 2010s.

Like the symbiosis of the story and gameplay that makes The Last of Us greater than the sum of its parts, its now iconic musical motifs and aching tranquility is inseparable from the franchise. I look forward to hearing Santaolalla’s work in The Last of Us Part II, releasing in June 2020 – make sure you listen out for it.

The finale of The Last of Us‘s story is masterful. It completes Joel’s story, it makes perfect sense in retrospect – the reason why the player is impacted strongly by the ending is because we had expectations of where the story was going, and they weren’t met. Before The Last of Us, we had been conditioned to be playing as the hero in video games. Here, the game questions our suspension of belief, our assumptions and “backseat” gaming tropes. Art is art when it challenges us, our convictions, our opinions. This spoiler-heavy Polygon article sums up a lot of the feelings I had after finishing it (don’t read it if you haven’t finished the game).

Wrap-up

After finishing the game once, I remember a conversation with a colleague at work I had the next morning in the break room. We were talking about what we were doing last night, which inevitably turned to the video games we’ve been playing. I said offhandedly that I’d finished The Last of Us. He nodded knowingly and said, “Yeah, I love replaying it every now and then.” He looked at me for a few seconds and a few gears started to rotate, upon which his eyes began to bulge and he said, “You mean not for the first time, right? You’ve finished it before?” I shook my head. My colleague exploded out of his plastic seat, rocking the biscuit-laden snack table dangerously. “We have literally 3 minutes until we have to go back onto the shop floor to talk about this!”

In addition to my own multiple play-throughs, I have sat down with a relative who stayed over with us for a few weeks, and also a good friend, whom I managed to convince to play the entire game. If I had time before The Last of Us Part II drops on the 19th June 2020 (7 years after the first), I would certainly play through it again.

This game has implanted so many powerful memories inside me, outside of the singular experience. From teaching me about writing and linear game design to sparking conversations between friends and to wanting to showcase the game to others. The Last of Us is probably my favourite game of all time. I highly recommend you play it.

Thank you for reading 🙂


P.S. Here is the opening title sequence that plays after the prologue. This type of high-production value, “good”-TV opening was becoming the norm in 2013, and The Last of Us‘s version is one of the best. The aesthetics and editing have now become commonplace in Netflix/Amazon Prime TV title sequences, but less so in video games; if anything they’ve become shorter and more interactive, e.g. see the opening from God of War (2018) vs. its predecessor God of War 3. Personally, I prefer the former, as it gives me a moment to relax my hands, and absorb what the game director is trying to convey during the credits.


Concept art image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mishski/albums/72157667502001346

Images/gifs captured from The Last of Us Remastered on a base PS4