***The Last of Us is an extremely brutal and violent video game, depicting a dystopian world that pits most humans against each other. The videos included are taken from the game itself and particularly brutal.***
We, the consumers, who take in enough media to become experts on anything with a tail of credits trailing the end, have asked ourselves the all too important question: How would we survive the zombie apocalypse? Never mind the fact that we are still just guessing the behaviors of said zombies until they embrace our reality, we certainly have enough tv shows, games, movies, etc for people to form a coherent strategy for survival. If a zombie apocalypse breaks out in 2017 and you don’t survive to old or middle age, you just not making good use of your resources.
Just as important to the question of survival is what kind of person would you become to survive. I often joke that I don’t think I’d become Negan in the new world, but I wouldn’t be feather touch of Father Gabriel either. Or perhaps I would be a pretty decent guy, but I wouldn’t have to worry about code-switching anymore because my office was one of the first places overran. Who can tell? However, the kind of person you would become to survive is central to The Last Of Us. Surviving is pretty hard. Keeping your soul pure is damn near impossible.
If you haven’t played The Last Of Us, instead of me asking why you’ve been wasting your existence for the last few years, I’ll just say there are plenty of spoilers inbound. And if plan to play TLOU soon, the surprises will serve you well, so come back and read later.
As you probably know, you begin the game as Joel, partnered with his companion Tess as they live in a “safe zone” town after the outbreak and years after Joel lost his daughter on the day of the outbreak. It is at least evident that Joel isn’t a pacifist in the new world and possibly a pretty bad guy actually. You walk through town and hear people whisper horror stories about you as you stroll past them. Your first real action sequence of the game includes fighting plenty of guys from an organized unit that you identify as enemies, but that’s not easily defined. They’re really just some guys in your way.
Jumping way forward in the plot, you are still playing as Joel, but you’ve lost Tess along the way and you now have a mission: To deliver the young Ellie to the Firefly installation across the country because she seems to be immune to the virus and she may be the cure. Let’s be clear, TLOU may be one of the best games action games ever made. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a legit statement. There isn’t a weakness in this game, including the scripting and how it bucks traditional story tropes. I know most people that have finished the game focus on the ending and Joel’s decision, rightfully so. I don’t believe we’ve ever had a video game ending like that and if a movie ended that same way, we’d be just as shook. But that’s not the part I want to talk about. I loved the ending too, but as far as narrative gameplay goes, I had already seen the mountaintop well before that.
Over halfway through the game, Joel and Ellie reach the destination of a community college, where they thought the Fireflies would be. Well, they aren’t there anymore and it damn sure isn’t safe. After encountering another a heavily armed group, a scuffle ensues where Joel falls from a second story window and impales himself on a piece of rebar. Ellie helps Joel limp through even more enemies before reaching the horse, just for Joel to pass out from blood loss.
This begins not just what I think is the best narrative sequence in TLOU, but possibly in all of gaming. Previous to this we’ve seen the maturation of Ellie into a survivalist in the purest sense. She begins avoiding everything and hiding. Then she begins shooting zombies when necessary. Then, defending herself against people where violence is a last resort, to outright poppin’ off when any threat occurs. The final form is probably in the new trailer that just dropped. When the action resumes again, you are playing as Ellie for the first time in the game. The season has changed and snow is on the ground. You are alone hunting. You kill a rabbit, but comment that won’t last long. You do not know what has happened to Joel. But there’re hints, again the rabbit won’t last long and Ellie isn’t the greedy type. You find a deer and hit it with an arrow, but the deer is stubborn as the wind of this new season, so you pursue it deeper into the woods.
Finally, in your pursuit of a full meal, you stumble upon another party, in the snow. They assure you they don’t mean to hurt you, but you never lower the bow. There’s two of them, well, two that you can see, but an arrow to the chest will even that quickly if you need. They want the deer. In exchange, Ellie asks for medicine. Medicine for her friend. And finally, we’ve confirmed that Joel is alive. Obviously not doing all that well, but alive. And for a game that gives you loss after loss, there is a brief moment of hope, even if the word itself has wings and won’t stay on the ground very long.
While waiting for one of the men you found to bring back the medicine, you share a slightly creepy campfire with a guy as he tells you his story of survival. After some zombies invade your personal space and a long standoff sequence, you settle back down into tranquility with your new friend. He tells you about the one time his people ran into a crazy guy and a little girl that murdered most of his crew. Yes, he’s talking about you. And yes, you are the monster at the end of this book.
What is thrilling and infinitely interesting about this is to entertain the possibility that you are the villain. Now, David, your new friend is worse for a couple of reasons, but bad and evil are such a sliding scale in the apocalypse. Live long enough and everyone is in the negatives for morality. Shaken by the accusation (and revelation) Ellie still receives the medicine and flees, despite David’s invitation to join his camp. She finds her trusty steed and takes back off towards the homestead, simultaneously racing towards Joel and escaping the view of these shady men in the woods.
We finally see Joel again, shivering, half dead on the floor of a dusty garage, in and out of consciousness. Ellie has enough time to administer the antibiotics to him before she realizes that she’s led David and his cronies back to them. Knowing that Joel can barely wake up, let alone fight anyone off, she flees once again, this time to make sure these bastards don’t find Joel in his vulnerable state. What follows is nothing less than genius storytelling and tense gameplay as we first navigate Ellie on a more stealthy (but still lethal) creeping through a town populated with David’s foot soldiers trying to capture her and Joel’s awakening, seeing the clues of Ellie’s departure the men that pursue her. As the player you are volleyed between Ellie, who is focused on evasion and survival trying to escape the peril she has plunged herself into; and Joel, the predator and hunter pursuing the men that pursue his companion. The galvanizing moment, however, is when you are playing as Joel, searching for Ellie and have taken a couple of men captive.
Ellie has been taken prisoner by David and Joel needs these men to point out on a map where she’s being held. Joel wastes not time torturing both men and beating them to a pulp before asking for the information. When one gives up the goods on where Ellie is (after having a knife plunged into his knee), Joel dispatches him. And then the other guy. In the most merciless way possible. If it wasn’t obvious before, Joel is not a good guy folks. In fact, Joel hasn’t been a good guy since we saw the time jump after his daughter was killed. Joel is angry, vengeful, and ready to burn everything to find his companion, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy the crueler parts of it.
What really brings home this sequence, is the emancipation of Ellie. She is captured, but she frees herself from captivity and takes on David herself and dispatches of the cannibalistic psychopath. Joel is trying to rescue her, but Ellie doesn’t need to be rescued. It’s a flip on the “your princess is in another castle” video game trope where instead is “your princess is in another castle taking a machete to Bowser with extreme prejudice and should be ready to roll out when you get there.” There are so many times where most stories would have Joel saving Ellie, when by midway through he game, Ellie is more than capable of surviving on her own. Ironically (and also, very typically) Joel “saves” Ellie at the end, when she doesn’t need to be saved. When she was the person willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good, not Joel.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece of a game. I don’t think there’s a reputable gamer breathing that would argue too hard against that. It changed the game in plenty of arenas, but mostly in story and plot, weaving the raw tale of human instinct and capacity while subverting traditions and tropes that incorporated these kinds of characters. This is just the main game, I haven’t even divulged into the Left Behind DLC that hints at Ellie more personally, namely her sexuality. The investment in story is why people still play the single player campaign years later. It is why we are so damn hype for the newly announced sequel. May this be the bar all gaming storytelling is raised to. May our AAA titles never go backwards from this.