The Last Of Us: A Harrowing Masterpiece Of Storytelling
By – Jack Stewart
The Last Of Us is a masterpiece which single-handedly changed the way I look at video games. With a single game, Naughty Dog convinced me that video games are an art form and there is potentially no better storytelling platform on the planet.
Of course, this article will be packed with major spoilers from the next paragraph onward. But more importantly if, for some reason, you haven’t yet played this game, just know that I’m extremely jealous. That may seem like a weird response but go into any thread about the game and you’ll see similar comments. Playing through The Last of Us for the first time was one of the greatest, most impactful experiences any piece of media has ever given me. Going through that intense, gruelling, harrowing journey with Joel really plays on the emotions.
Prior to The Last of Us, the only other Naughty Dog franchise I had experience with was Uncharted. At that time in my life I was heavily into online multiplayer and had multiple failed attempts at completing a single player game. The Last of Us honestly wasn’t on my radar until the brief E3 demo a year ahead of its release. The juxtaposition of Ellie’s childish curiosity and the brutal way Joel took down guards was fascinating. The abandoned cities overwhelmed by greenery. You could sense the scale of tragedy yet it was strangely beautiful, there had been bloodshed but the earth kept spinning, there were signs of life but none of it was human. It was oddly enticing.
“I was sold and quickly pre-ordered the game. I had no idea what I was getting into”
Still, the game slowly sunk to the back of my mind until the reviews were released. Across the board this game was getting perfect scores and shining reviews in a way I had never seen before. I was sold and quickly pre-ordered the game. I had no idea what I was getting into.
I excitedly rushed home from college and booted up the game for the first time. You start the game playing as a young girl, who isn’t the main character Ellie, waking up to an empty house in the middle of the night. As you creep through the home, you see a news report on TV that a major outbreak of an infection has hit the city, causing utter chaos. Eventually it’s revealed that you’re playing as Joel’s daughter. Many players saw where this was heading but my naivety meant that I was fully immersed and hadn’t even stopped to wonder where Ellie was.
After watching your Dad murder your infected neighbour, you rush into the car as everybody attempts to escape the city which has been decimated overnight. You helplessly sit in the backseat, no choice but to leave all of your possessions and friends behind.
The story then reverts to Joel who, under your control, abandons his car and attempts to find his way out through alleyways and deserted buildings. You fight your way through a bar into an empty field where it finally looks as though you’ll make it, until you’re held at gunpoint by an army man who has been ordered to take no risks regarding possible infections. You hear him call over the radio that there’s a young girl but the tragic response is that there are no exceptions. Joel pleads that they aren’t sick but it’s too late and the army man pulls the trigger. Joel turns to shield his daughter but can’t prevent her being hit. Heartbreakingly, we watch as she dies in his arms.
“I was always willing for Joel to succeed. After watching the opening scene, it’s near-impossible to not instantly feel some form of connection to him.”
I’d seen tiny bits of this game but didn’t truly know what to expect until this point, as I sat in my room with my jaw on the floor. What on earth had I gotten myself into? I continued to ask that question whilst playing the first level, repeatedly dying while sneaking around. The stealth almost had a horror feel to it, a genre I really don’t like but I was compelled to push through regardless. The level design alone was enough to invoke strong reactions and was so immersive that I was always willing for Joel to succeed. After watching the opening scene, it’s near-impossible to not instantly feel some form of connection to him.
Unlike many other narrative-driven video games, The Last of Us does not make the player the star of the story. Instead you are effectively a bystander, experiencing the world through the jaded eyes of our protagonist. And what a bleak world it is. Following the opening sequence, we see that that United States has collapsed. A fungus called ‘Cordyceps’ has managed to contaminate some humans, turning them into vicious, deadly creatures known as ‘the infected’. Effectively zombies, they exist to do little more than ripping your skin apart and infecting you, trapping you into the same awful fate.
“This fungus actually exists in real life but thankfully, to our knowledge, only infects ants”
This fungus actually exists in real life but thankfully, to our knowledge, only infects ants. A BBC documentary showed that it takes over an ant’s brain and cause it to attack every colleague it sees. One single fungus has managed to wipe out entire ant colonies and within the The Last of Us, humanity is in a similarly perilous situation.
It’s crucial that the fungus is a real thing because the entire game is grounded (pardon the pun) in reality. What’s so striking, so gut wrenching, about this world is the awful feeling that something like this could actually happen. The world flipping on its head, potentially seeing loved ones and friends around you die or turn into horrific beasts – the thought of it makes my stomach crawl.
The game makes you think; what would you do? What would you do if you had to rely on yourself to survive? What would you do if you had to fight for what little you had left?
Every part of The Last of Us feels real. The sensational acting performances of Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) encapsulate the human emotions which are pushed to the edge in such situations. But what feels most tangible of all, is the relationship between Joel and Ellie. A partnership that, at first, neither of them want. You can sense the weight of the sorrow both of them carry.
“But what feels most tangible of all, is the relationship between Joel and Ellie. A partnership that at first, neither of them want”
The majority of America’s remaining population are herded into quarantine zones, forced to live off minimal rations while under the eye of brutal guards who will shoot on site anyone who breaks curfew or other rules. Joel, and his close friend Tess, are entrusted with an important mission by ‘The Fireflies’, a group of rebels ready to shed blood in hope of finding a light at the end of the tunnel. Your quest is to escort young Ellie outside the walls and across the country, where death and danger lurk around every corner. It is a dark reality that Joel only knows too well.
As you scratch and claw your way through the adversity of both humans and former humans, both characters grow before your eyes. Ellie’s inquisitive nature and stubbornness sees her become stronger and stronger. She’s a warrior, lethal with a bow and arrow yet still a kid. A child who knows nothing of the world, one who is befuddled at the idea of ice cream trucks and can only dream of what a trip to the cinema would be like.
“Naughty Dog do an excellent job of making you care for and sympathise with characters. Nobody is truly good in that world but you can understand their actions”
At the same time, the understandably cold, closed-off Joel begins to warm up. Instead of just trying to get the job done, it becomes about protecting Ellie. His development is demonstrated beautifully in minute details that most wouldn’t notice during their first playthrough. In certain locations, if you stay idle for a while, Ellie will pull out a joke book and start reading out puns so awful that they would make a Christmas cracker blush. At first, Joel groans and moans but as you progress into the game, he begins to play along and even laugh at some the jokes. Joel is human, despite his inhumane acts of violence.
Naughty Dog do an excellent job of making you care for and sympathise with the characters. Nobody is truly good in that world but you can understand their actions. Every character you meet on your journey, you end up feeling sorry for. For example I was livid when Henry and Sam betrayed Joel and Ellie yet, when they eventually met their fate, I was suddenly gutted. Bill was also a jerk but, after finding out his boyfriend committed suicide following an argument between the pair, you begin to understand why he is so closed off.
But most striking of all for me was the story of Ish, a character you never meet or even see. Once again the gameplay adds to the believability of this world as you are forced to scavenge for supplies, scratching and clawing through every area. This leads to you finding notes left by Ish, a sailor who had taken his boat out to sea to escape the terrifying reality on land. His sense of humour is charming and his belief that the world can return to normality is refreshing. You gradually piece together more of Ish’s life as you come across more notes in the sewers which have become his personal bunker. Ish takes in a local family and even helps create a nursery for the children to grow up in.
“Reading it at the time made me put down my controller and take a deep breath. Even writing it now gave me chills.”
Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time until the infected were able to break in. A note from Kyle, the kids’ father, reveals that a door had been left slightly open and they were overrun. He hauntingly swears to protect the children but you then stumble into the nursery where three haunting words have been scratched into the ground, “They didn’t suffer.”
Reading it at the time made me put down my controller and take a deep breath. Even writing it now gave me chills. Those three words are perhaps the heaviest I have ever read. The thought of a father having to kill himself and his kids to stop them becoming infected and knowing that our happy hero, Ish, came home to discover the same realisation breaks my heart. I was distraught over a character who we’re never shown and that’s how powerful Naughty Dog’s storytelling is.
By this point, I had come to the belief that there was very little good in that world and if you do find even a hint of happiness, you should do anything, and I mean anything, to hold onto it. That was why, when it came to the game’s ending, I didn’t second guess my actions.
“That was why, when it came to the game’s ending, I didn’t second guess my actions.”
Upon finally delivering Ellie to her destination you discover that, in order to try and find a cure, the Fireflies have to perform an operation that will almost definitely kill her. It might have been for the sake of humanity but I didn’t care, nobody was laying a hand on her.
Ellie’s most iconic quote rang through my ears, as she says to Joel; “Everyone I have cared for has either died or left me, everyone except for f*cking you”. They are words which work both ways. The world has taken everyone Joel ever loved away from him before spitting him out. Without her, he has nothing left.
This is where my opinion on the game’s ending differs from a close friend of mine. My pal was more than happy to sacrifice Ellie, it was for the better of humanity, what is one life when it could save millions? For me, however, the risk that it wouldn’t work was too great and the only guarantee was that I couldn’t stomach watching Joel suffer anymore. I stormed into the operating theatre hell bent on shooting anyone who got in my way, I was leaving with Ellie no matter what. My friend, who ironically is studying to work in medicine, was understandably reluctant to shoot the doctors. In fact, he actually stopped and didn’t move for ages in hope that the game would give him a choice before ultimately realising the cold, hard truth; this wasn’t his story.
“In fact, he actually stopped and didn’t move for ages in hope that the game would give him a choice.”
As I mentioned earlier, you are simply a bystander to this story, you are a slave to Joel’s will. To have survived that long you have to have done some underhanded, down-right cruel things just in order to survive. Joel is not a good person, in fact he’s a utter scumbag, yet I will never go against him. If you were in his position, if you seen what he had seen, if you had experienced his pain, can you confidently say you wouldn’t have done the same thing? I’m not 100% sure and I think that would be the same for anyone.
To me that’s the beauty of the Last of Us. I have never experienced a game that was able to provoke such deep thoughts and strong emotions in me. Sometimes you have to look out for your own interests in the pursuit of happiness, just be thankful you don’t have to kill thousands in order to do so.