OK, I see why folks like this game.
I’ve gone almost ten years without discovering The Last of Us spoilers. What caused this to happen? For one thing, I wasn’t covering the video game business in 2013 – I was working early mornings at a bakery kneading bread and creaming butter for cookies, then fussing with keys to get into strangers’ homes to walk their dogs. On my ancient Xbox 360, I played console video games, and on my Mac laptop, I played StarCraft 2. I hadn’t had a PlayStation system since the PlayStation 2, which had long ago been consigned to my parents’ garage, and I wouldn’t have one until the PlayStation 5 — except for a short time when I borrowed a PlayStation 4 from a buddy to play Death Stranding.
All of this is to suggest that I had no physical method of playing The Last of Us and, against all chances, I managed to dodge spoilers as well. And now that I have a PlayStation 5 taking up much too much space in my living room, I can finally declare that I’ve finished The Last of Us. And, yes, it’s still a fantastic game.
Given the game’s importance and popularity, summarizing The Last of Us Part 1 sounds trite, but I’ll do it anyway for the benefit of anybody who hasn’t seen it yet: The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which people have been infected with the Cordyceps fungus, a parasitic fungus that attacks the brain and transforms afflicted individuals into vicious, deformed monsters. The primary narrative picks up 20 years after the first epidemic, when people have relocated to decaying, military quarantine zones and isolated, hazardous settlements. Joel and Ellie are two survivors; Joel survived the first epidemic, but his daughter did not. Ellie, on the other hand, was a natural born citizen of this planet. At first, their connection is antagonistic, as Joel is charged with transporting the adolescent out of Boston and into the hands of the Fireflies, a revolutionary organization that intends to exploit Ellie’s immune system to develop a cure for the illness.
The environment of The Last of Us is as hazardous and terrible as any previous zombie epic, and the characters are as cruel and brutal. However, The Last of Us frequently reminds its players that the world’s cruelty is a relic of pre-infection civilization. Sure, many games focused on violence before The Last of Us, and many still do. Despite the plethora of post-apocalyptic games, movies, and novels that have followed in the footsteps of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s still seems inspired — almost new — in 2022. This might be because zombie fiction has fallen out of favor in recent years, or because linear, big-budget action-adventure games are scarce. In any case, the timing of this re-release seems exactly perfect.
Even in 2022, the brutality in The Last of Us is disturbing. People have said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Last of Us isn’t a very enjoyable game to play. It’s not like Halo Infinite or Fortnite, where shooting and killing are merely numbers on a scoreboard. Holding Joel’s gun, aiming it, and firing it is terrible, unbearable, and agonizing — not just because Joel is defending himself against other living people, but also because supplies are scarce: Will I come to regret firing that bullet?
The Last of Us is a surprisingly delicate game, despite its periods of cynicism and sadness for a lost world. It follows Joel and Ellie’s relationship through subtle and massive upheavals as they travel throughout the fractured United States. Ellie is a burden to Joel, the baggage of a promise he made to a now-dead partner, and their interaction starts antagonistically. And Joel is simply another stranger to Ellie who will forsake her at some point along the journey.
However, each western American metropolis serves as a fresh spark for that bond. Naughty Dog’s decision to pace the game alongside the seasons works wonders from Boston to Pittsburgh, through Jackson and Salt Lake City: from summer in Boston, where you can almost feel the heat radiating off its decaying buildings, to winter in Silver Lake, Colorado, where blood stands out on the bright, white snow. Though the game is very short — or, by current standards, free of bloat — the flow of the seasons makes time seem palpable. Joel and Ellie’s love blossoms as time passes.
They gradually have a tense father-daughter relationship. There are serenely wonderful moments interwoven among the violence, the most moving of which is when Joel and Ellie arrive in Utah and discover a renegade troop of giraffes who escaped and are prospering outside some abandoned zoo. It’s a moment that’s become ubiquitous, practically a meme – the thing that everyone brings up when talking about The Last of Us. And for good cause; the experience still astounds me nine years later.
The moment arrives unexpectedly, surrounded by anguish. Joel hoists Ellie onto a ledge, and she drops the ladder she was charged with carrying because she sees something Joel cannot. I was expecting something horrible, something more disgusting than even the biggest bloated bloater. But then her tone of speech shifted, and I understood it wasn’t all horrible. It was stunning. Naughty Dog cleverly allows the player to loiter on the overlook, the giraffes plucking leaves off trees and meandering about a flooded piece of city – now more like a lake. I lingered there for a bit, taking in Ellie’s happiness and the beauty of the scene, and it seemed terrible to open the door into The Last of Us’ next, dark chapter.
In some ways, I’m delighted I’m just now getting around to finishing The Last of Us. I can envision it outside of the cliche of violent, melancholy fathers that dominated the genre at the time — think BioShock Infinite, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Grand Theft Auto 5. The Last of Us is a product of its period, and there are clearly faults. But now that I’ve seen how well it’s aged in general, I can appreciate it for what it is — not as a cultural artifact or a stepping stone, but as its own horrific, gorgeous invention.