While I don’t plan on spewing forth any explicit spoilers, due to the nature of how you should play The Last of Us, I recommend you only read on if you’ve played the game. You should really start The Last of Us with a clean slate, but if you really don’t mind, then read on.
Venturing beyond this point means it’s all on your head if things get spoilt for you.
It’s not often that I wear my heart on my sleeve and gush outwardly in an article about how I feel and what people mean to me. But after playing Naughty Dog’s latest epic I feel that I just have to say something about myself and why I found the relationship between Joel and Ellie – along with the raft of characters you cross paths with – just so damn enthralling, and touching.
Watching both of them journey across America in search of the Fireflies grew to become one of the most engaging tales I’ve had the pleasure of playing in any game of recent memory. It could have just been a paint-by-numbers affair on the part of Naughty Dog. After all, it already featured what people considered to be zombies, it was a third-person shooter from the action-heavy gameplay trailer that was released to the public, and it had that grubby post-apocalyptic vibe to all of the press releases. But thankfully that’s so far from what’s on the table here.
Instead you have a journey about the touching evolution of a relationship between partners as they struggle to survive in a gruelling dog-eat-dog world where threat lies around every corner. Due to the fungal parasitic spore that infects humans being easily carried by the wind, mankind can never be deemed truly safe.
It’s this looming threat that, albeit virtual – although surprisingly probable – feels like the continual worry in the back of my mind that I’ll just have a breakdown in one of the unlikeliest of places. It’s my apocalypse moment I suppose.
Despite this threat, people have formed bonds, come together, and helped one another survive. It’s not just Joel and Ellie that rely on one another. There are other groups that rely on one another to fight and find food, the bandits and hunters you encounter are just people trying to get by. It’s testament to Naughty Dog’s work that these relationships – no matter how inconsequential they are to the story – feel deep. Overhearing bandits talking shows camaraderie, killing one evokes a panic stricken and heartfelt cry of pain from others.
However, no relationship is bigger than that of Ellie and Joel. It would have been very simple to just make that 14-year-old redhead girl little more than an emotional vice for you to become attached to. Needless to say, many who are yet to play the game think this. But she isn’t. Sure she’s there to help form a bond between you and the characters, but she’s so fleshed out and independent that you never feel that she couldn’t handle herself – in fact she can and does handle herself in most situations. You don’t want to protect her because she’s vulnerable, you want to do it because she’s Joel’s only friend.
And here’s the interesting thing about their relationship in The Last of Us: they need each other. This is no more evident in the winter section of the game where Joel is rendered largely out of action – for reasons I shan’t spoil. Here you see Ellie worry about her friend and his health. You suddenly aren’t looking out to protect Ellie, you’re looking out for Joel and yourself. It’s a wonderful narrative choice that suddenly makes you realise that you can fight through even the most adverse of situations when you have someone to care for and worry about instead.
I found it strange, at first, how instead of projecting myself onto Joel I found myself as a passive observer of their interactions – my only input being the instigation of some contextual conversations and moving Joel around the level. I’m well aware that doesn’t sound overly interesting from a gameplay perspective, but it’s utterly enthralling. I fell in love with exploring the environment and seeing a truly human relationship unfurl.
It does also help that the gunplay is absolutely fantastic – bar the slightly absurd amount of people I’ve managed to wipe from the earth.
Exploring the world of The Last of Us also resonated with me – as I’m sure it will with many others. Having found many things rather dull and trite as of late, in both life and video games, the macabre world left behind is utterly enthralling. Here the smallest of details about the fall of civilisation and the heartbreak felt by those involved is so carefully crafted. Instead of treating the fall of mankind as just a statistic like many other post-apocalyptic titles do, it creates an incredibly personal world to be in.
Stumbling upon a makeshift children’s classroom, complete with alphabet pads on the floor, drawings on the wall and educational materials on the board, you see a survivor society that’s tried to find normalcy within the chaos. That’s then completely torn away when around the corner you spy small shapes piled underneath bloody sheets, nearby a decomposing corpse rests with an apologetic note in its hand. It’s clear this is a man pushed to the brink of desperation in a bid to save those, who’ve never known anything other than surviving, from a fate worse than death.
Exploring houses or university dorm rooms to find diaries on tables, personal letters to loved ones or remnants of a life that’s just fallen apart at the drop of a hat. Posters remain on walls of pop icons and favourite films, while shelves are lined with framed photos and well-worn books. You’ll even see snapshots into other’s lives through photographs of better times tacked onto walls. It’s all incredibly powerful stuff and serves as somewhat of a reminder to me that no matter what I do, I’ll always be powerless to stop some things from happening.
It also doesn’t take long to put one and one together when you’re soon faced with a swarm of infected; infected families and friends that were once just like Joel and Ellie. In some respects many of them still are, they’re just powerless to stop themselves.
The Last of Us is incredibly brutal, but honesty always is. However, despite the dismemberment at the hands of melee weapons or the breaking of limbs with shotguns, nothing is more horrifying than the look in the eyes of someone who’s infected.
It doesn’t always happen, but killing a crazed Runner – as later forms of infected people don’t have faces anymore – gives you a chilling insight into just how human they really are.
Due to the nature of the Cordyceps virus, the parasitical fungus takes over the brain and controls the body against the users will. Occasionally you’ll hear a muffled yelp of “help” or “kill me” from the mouths of crazed Runner, but nothing is as harrowing as seeing their faces as you slice into them or blow their head off with a gun. Their eyes show a mix of panic and relief as you end their lives, after all, these aren’t the faceless undead hoards found in other survival horror titles: these definitely aren’t zombies. These truly helpless people don’t want to be attacking others or tearing their flesh in a feast, but they’re compelled to by the parasite. It’s a fate worse than death – hence why so many kill themselves rather than turn.
While some may have chastised it for not breaking the genre conventions it never promised to subvert, there isn’t another title out there that has had such a profound effect on me purely through its storytelling and character development. Despite loving the Final Fantasy series and Persona 4 Golden – which are easily five times longer – I’ve never felt so connected to a set of characters before.
To me, Naughty Dog’s adventure isn’t about the infected – they honestly only have a bit part in the grand scheme of things. It’s about the people and pushing through adversity. It’s about finding yourself and coming out on the other side of the woods a better person for it.
The Last of Us certainly isn’t for everyone (but what is really?), those who find themselves lost within Joel and Ellie’s beautifully depressing adventure will never feel the same way about characters in a video game – or probably any other media – again.