The Last of Us – Into The Gem Vault

If you play video games, there’s a strong chance that you’ve either played The Last of Us, watched someone play it, or at the very least heard about it. Before you start reading this, if you haven’t played it but have the means to, then I strongly recommend you do so. Safe to say that I believe The Last of Us to be deserving of its place in our “Gem Vault”, so let’s find out why shall we?

In order to succinctly explain my love for this title, I will absolutely have to spoil most major story beats, so you have been warned. Also, while I never played the original release on PS3, I have played the remaster a fair old amount on PS4, with two completions under my belt. 

The Last of Us originally released in 2013, to a storm of praise and extremely positive review scores. Both the 2013 release and the 2014 remaster for PS4 sit at a monumental 95/100 on Metacritic. Points of praise amongst critics, once you factor in DLC, noted its strong writing of female and LGBTQ+ characters, as well as its focus on realistic relationships.

It holds the title of being in the top 5 highest rated PS3 titles, and is featured on multiple “best games of all time” lists. The story was almost universally praised, as was the combat, with many reviewers commenting on how gritty the game was, and how vulnerable it made the player feel.

But this is all fluff. Naughty Dog have a habit of picking up critical acclaim, whether it be through Crash Bandicoot, Uncharted, or The Last of Us. They’re a studio who’ve had no shortage of drama, with accusations of a crunch culture in their development cycle the most standout mark on their record. But they have an unerring ability to provide games of a shockingly high quality. 

The Last of Us, if you don’t know, is set in the United States. In September of 2013, a viral outbreak swept through the civilisation, killing or infecting 60% of the population. The game starts with one of the strongest openings that I can recall playing through. Joel, his daughter Sarah, and his brother Tommy have to escape Austin, Texas, while everything is getting FUBAR around them. 

After an atmospheric, and mildly horrifying, scene of events, Sarah is shot by the US military, who are attempting to quarantine the town. 

The game fades out after a harrowing scene where Joel has to say goodbye to his daughter. This is the introduction to a game that is, in my eyes, more than just another post-apocalyptic tale about zombies. 

Across its roughly 15-18 hour journey, The Last of Us isn’t afraid to challenge your emotions. It cements itself as a story that’s just as much about human relationships, the differences between people, and the effect that a bad situation or experience can have on a person, than it is about survival horror. Different people playing The Last of Us might feel different things while playing, but for me, it made itself clear that the infection and the resulting world state was just a backdrop to a game about vulnerability. 

The game picks back up twenty years later, in 2033. Over the course of these twenty years, ordinary government and command chains are abolished, and the US turns into a police state. Cities and areas deemed safe from infection are quarantined and the people there are forced to live under something akin to martial law. Venturing out into the world is forbidden due to risk of infection.

The Last of Us has aged magnificently in most of its areas, but this first section of the game is the section that I think suffers the most in 2020. It’s a little laborious and dare I say dull, but not without reason. Naughty Dog clearly wanted this world to become something that you’re familiar with and aware of from the get go. Stepping back into the shoes of Joel, you’re forced to walk around the Massachusetts quarantine zone and watch how the people have to live. It’s a set of scenes that radiate “immersion”. 

Immersion is a gaming journalism buzzword, and one that I don’t like to overuse, but it’s apt when used in a discussion around The Last of Us. This first section of the game is heavy with set up, conversation, and motivation, but extremely light in engaging gameplay. 

The Last of Us is refreshingly unafraid to give its characters and story room to breathe in its story. A fair chunk of your time inside this grim tale is spent solving light environmental puzzles, rifling through closets, and doing other such quiet tasks that are believably necessary in a post-apocalyptic scenario like the one found here. 

This downtime is strewn with conversations, moments of reflection, and even occasional spurts of levity. Joel and Ellie are the two primary characters of The Last of Us, and they’re used to highlight the differences in circumstance. Ellie is a 14 year old girl, who has only ever known the world as it is now. Joel is an aged man, who’s had to spend the last twenty years violating his own moral code in order to survive. 

Joel is offered up as a gruff, quiet man. Even early conversations with other characters around his age are delivered in a way that demonstrates just how little he cares about meaningful interaction, or opening up. Speaking as a quiet and reserved person myself, I found it extremely easy to relate to a man who doesn’t like talking about his issues, or appearing vulnerable. The Last of Us is a game that isn’t afraid to challenge character and gender roles, and representing Joel as your typical example of “toxic masculinity” is the standout example of bringing very real issues to the fore.

Ellie on the other hand is a decent example of “plucky”. From the get go, she’s able to find pleasure and enjoyment in the small things. Being an avid consumer of material from when the world was normal, she’s obsessed with most things related to pop culture. Somewhat of a juxtaposition to how she’s represented in the sequel, Ellie radiates a childlike innocence of the world around her, and is something of the players window to the world. On the same hand though, Ellie isn’t afraid to resort to violence, and is much more reckless than Joel, reacting on impulse instead rather than adopting a more measured approach.

The Last of Us takes these two characters, as a narrative juxtaposition if you will, and provides them a journey. Joel has taken on the job of a black market smuggler over the period of time between the outbreak and 2033, and his newest cargo? Ellie. By some fluke of biology, Ellie is immune to the virus. A paramilitary group called The Fireflies are convinced that she’s the best chance at a cure and tasks Joel, and his friend Tess, with the job of getting Ellie to the Capitol Building. 

Things never go to plan in these types of stories, and the same is true of The Last of Us. 

This is a game where things aren’t left up to the imagination. The story that Naughty Dog wanted to tell, is the one that you will experience. There isn’t much in the way of narrative agency, and the start, middle, and end, will be the same for everyone playing.

In this way, The Last of Us is a grim tale. Yes, it’s punctuated with moments of aforementioned “levity”, like the famous Giraffe scene, but this is a world where moral black and white doesn’t exist. 

In fact, the game wants you to be painfully aware of its residence in the “grey” areas. Over the entire journey, you’re led to believe that Ellie is the cure, the biological key to open up the virus. At the start, she’s nothing but Joel’s job. Another package to transport safely. But as the characters grow, and learn from each other, she becomes a daughter figure for Joel.

At first it doesn’t appear like a healthy development. Joel never recovered from the loss of his daughter at the start of the game, and seeing Ellie come in as the emotional replacement is uncomfortable. Fortunately The Last of Us doesn’t linger in this emotional uncertainty, as Ellie quickly becomes something much more than just a window to his happier past. The two of them go through so much that they come to rely on each other.

This is why the ending of The Last of Us is so brutal.

MORE SPOILERS AHEAD

Joel realises too late that The Fireflies plan to remove the section of Ellie’s brain that is home to the infection, in order to analyse why she’s not affected in the same manner. Of course, this will kill her and Joel just can’t accept this. 

In other games, you might be given a choice. You might get to decide which is the better option. One life, in exchange for a slim chance at saving humanity, but you have to sacrifice what is essentially family. 

The people at Naughty Dog don’t give you this option. Joel isn’t a good person. This much is clear from minute one when he shoots his infected neighbor without pause for thought. 

Throughout The Last of Us, Joel shoots and beats his way through encounter after encounter, with little thought or consideration to the consequences of his actions, and this culminates in a brutal, and frankly terrifying, rampage.

Unable to accept and process the idea of losing someone else, he puts a bullet in every single soldier in the hospital where Ellie is being kept. Each of these people that he puts down are there attempting to save what’s left of humanity, but Joel doesn’t care.

Systematically fighting your way through soldiers and doctors, cutting a path through floor after floor, Joel eventually reaches Ellie just before surgery is due to begin. It’s here that The Last of Us offers the player their first real choice. While one of the surgeons is killed by way of cutscene, the others aren’t. 

They’re visibly terrified of you, and disgusted by Joel’s misplaced priorities. You’re free to either walk out with Ellie in your arms leaving them unharmed, or put a bullet in them. Doing either doesn’t change the outcome, but The Last of Us has a remarkable effect on people playing it. 

I myself wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t shoot them, but many other people shot them because they didn’t think there was any other choice. The Last of Us is a game that embraces violence, and willingly paints it’s characters in a way that they’re hard to judge, and in doing so enforces the idea that violence is the answer to everything in a world like this.

By the time that the end of the game rolled around, I neither liked Joel, or hated him. Normally this would be down to poor direction, or bad writing, but with Joel? With Joel it was more that I hated the necessity of each and every action he made, but I understood why.

The Last of Us is more than just its wonderfully crafted story and characters though. Up until this point I haven’t really even talked about gameplay which, if anything, goes to show why it maybe doesn’t even matter.

Stealth is extremely recommended in this game. Joel is neither a ninja, nor a professionally trained marksman. In almost all of the human combat situations, Joel is at a disadvantage. Taking a leaf from the Resident Evil series, ammo and resources are scarce, making every bullet matter. 

Stealth itself is remarkably easy in The Last of Us, which perhaps goes further to highlight how poorly the gameplay has aged in places, but that’s not to say the stealth itself is necessarily bad. By way of “listen mode” Joel, and Ellie later on in the game, can listen for movement through walls and over short distances. An interesting mechanic that works quite well, it does make navigating dangerous areas stealthily somewhat less challenging. 

I’m rarely one for making games harder, but I can personally attest to how much better The Last of Us is if you don’t use Listen Mode. In my second playthrough, I used it the least I could, just to make the experience a little more frightening, and it works. When you reach the later game areas that are crawling with infected, Listen Mode is almost a necessity, just due to how unpredictable situations can get, but opting away from using it is something I wholeheartedly recommend. 

In terms of gameplay outside stealth, you obviously have gun and melee combat. The former is…. wonky. Especially since third person games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted have gone out of their way to make this easier, replaying The Last of Us now can be challenging. Shooting someone never feels easy, but in a weird way it works. 

Joel isn’t some expert marksman, who could place a bullet between your eyes at 20 yards. This is mirrored in the gameplay where, if you’re unfortunate enough to get caught, firefights are frenetic, difficult, and often frustrating. Every time you get shot you can feel Joel’s balance shift slightly. AI enemies are smart, and won’t all line up to get riddled with bullets, with many of them attempting to flank, or suppress you while you’re cowering behind cover. 

Later levels, when you’re contending with actual soldiers, are extremely difficult to manage if you fall out of stealth. Many of these scenarios involved me frantically crafting healing items to plug whatever just shot me, while attempting to avoid the enemy trying to hunt me down after losing line of sight.

The Last of Us never feels easy. Struggle is a word that could be served hand in hand with Joel and Ellie’s journey, and it comes across in almost every area of gameplay. As I’ve mentioned, the story is grim, and this is regularly supported by the character moments you have to endure. More spoilers incoming.

Whether it’s Ellie’s first up close and personal kill, or the person she shoots point blank to stop Joel from being drowned. Whether it’s watching Henry have to kill his infected son, and then shoot himself. Whether it’s having to experience Ellie trying to survive the possible threat of rape and cannibalism, only to brutally hack her attacker to death with a machete.

Each and every cutscene is either punctuated with sadness, or violence. It’s exhausting, but at the same time enthralling. You want these people to succeed, even though Joel arguably doesn’t deserve it. You understand why they do what they do, even though you can’t imagine doing it yourself.

Complex character relationships and decisions are hard to craft in a video game. Creating a story that’s emotionally relevant, sensitive, and believable, while still juggling a post-apocalyptic scenario in a videogame is an achievement that cannot be understated. Doing all this while avoiding cliches and predictability is something else entirely.

The Last of Us is one of the best narratives to grace video games, and arguably Naughty Dog’s greatest achievement. It really is a real gem.

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