The Last of Us follows the story of Joel and Ellie as they travel across a barren America, decimated by a zombie outbreak that first occurred 20 years prior. While at first glance The Last of Us appears to be a simple addition to the extremely over-saturated zombie survival genre, there’s a lot going on here beneath the hood.
The Last of Us is a great game – but come on, you don’t need me to tell you that. It’s rightfully earned a swarm of praise after its initial release in June of 2013. But despite its existing rave reviews, I still feel the need to explain why it’s such a special game.
In doing so, I’ll have no choice but to talk spoilers and reveal other game specifics that would ruin the game experience were they to be read prior to playing. Just a fair warning!
I’m not sure I’ve ever played a zombie game that was so pointedly not about zombies. I mean yeah, there are zombies present and yes, they are terrifying – and you fight hard to kill them, but it’s a testament to the game that they don’t come to the foreground when reflecting on The Last of Us.
While much of the game’s fascination (at least for me) comes from the ending’s aftermath, in which the player’s relationship to Joel violently shifts, it would be hugely unfair to gloss over the game’s central focus – the relationship between Ellie and Joel.
Ellie and Joel’s relationship changes dramatically over the course of The Last of Us. We start the game with an irritated Joel begrudgingly escorting Ellie, a spunky 14 year old girl. While Ellie is loud and unabashed, she’s also eager to please Joel.
Slowly, Joel becomes more receptive to Ellie’s charms, which quickly enamor the player – her joke book orations, her ongoing efforts to whistle, and her humorous observations lead us to love her. She’s an undeniably enjoyable character, and her naiveté about the world we know allows us to see the familiar through a new and strange lens. She’s a delightful deviation from the standard young-damsel-in-distress paradigm.
Ellie and Joel’s relationship faces a major junction when Ellie is forced to care for a sick and injured Joel. He eventually recovers and comes to the rescue of Ellie, who we find on the cusp of being eaten by cannibals (with some other dark implications thrown in as well). In this pivotal moment, we witness Joel tenderly cradle Ellie and refer to her as “baby girl,” a moniker we see him use for his own daughter who dies in the game’s prologue.
As The Last of Us nears its end with the two characters approaching their final destination in Salt Lake City, Ellie becomes distracted and mute, and it’s Joel’s turn to envisage future plans and goad Ellie into response.
What makes Ellie so quiet and distracted by the end? Is she simply nervous about approaching her final destination and encountering the Fireflies? She could still be suffering from her recent traumatic encounter. Maybe. Maybe that’s it. Or is it possible that Ellie is beginning to espy something about Joel that upsets her?
Ellie longs for Joel’s acknowledgement and acceptance, but I can’t help but wonder if, by the end of the game, Ellie suspects that Joel isn’t really seeing her. The cruel cynic might even claim that Joel doesn’t really love Ellie, but rather what she represents – the daughter that he lost. The Last of Us questions the purity of love and relationships amid a zombie-drenched apocalyptic backdrop.
While I can’t speak for all the cities traversed in The Last of Us, I was impressed with how real cities like Boston were depicted. So many movies take place in either Manhattan or a nameless metropolises, it’s refreshing to see some care put into personalizing a game with real, familiar landmarks in cities other than the Big Apple.
The game really drives home a vivid sense of desolation – we truly feel that we’ve entered a post-apocalyptic scenario in which large segments of the population have vanished. There are long stretches of time in which we’ll see neither human nor zombie, and it’s in these lonely moments that the game feels especially poignant.
The few companions that are stumbled upon feel precious and treasured, making it all the more striking when they are ripped away in a brutal reminder of the terrifying and dangerous world we’ve entered.
The game could be overwhelmed by the bleak and dark landscape, were it not peppered with special, tender moments that really give the game its heart.
Good soundtracks often go unrecognized, taking their bow from the shadows and ducking the limelight as they blend seamlessly with their accompanying media to strengthen the work as a whole. The soundtrack to The Last of Us is the game’s unsung hero, with an expert score crafted by Gustavo Santaolalla, winner of two Oscars for his work on Babel and Brokeback Mountain.
Not all players will consciously notice the music scores featured in The Last of Us, but they will most certainly sense and respond in some way to them.
I’ll admit the music went largely un-noticed by me until my second or third time playing. As I sat enrapt by a load screen of glowing spore particles and somber notes, it became obvious that this was no ordinary video-game soundtrack. Once aware of the exceptional music, it was easy to recognize its permeating presence throughout the rest of the game.
To play a game is to be what you can’t be in everyday life – to be a hero, to save the world, to destroy the baddies. The Last of Us is a game that manages to invert the classic gaming experience, turning a mirror on the gamer to confront an inherent truth of gameplay – that we are not the character we play.
As Polygon points out, by the end of The Last of Us, we may find ourselves horrified that for much of the game we identified with a murderous psychopath, although the scope of that realization is only really found towards the end of the game.
The Last of Us has quite the striking ending. More than a mere plot twist, it calls upon the player to reflect on his/her journey and relationship to Joel. Now in most videogames, we earn a free pass for killing those ever-eager NPCs. Maybe Han shot first, but we sure as hell didn’t – we can cry that it was all in self-defense. Or, at the very least, for an ultimate good – to save the cheerleader, to save the world. But in The Last of Us we find quite the opposite to be true as we reach a new understanding about Joel, and how purely selfish his motives are.
Joel’s rampage and dubious morals would be less objectionable if he were simply another character. But he’s the playable character – the one we follow start to finish, the character who we are led to identify with.
Most games let us enter this role easily and do little to make us question our position as hostage to the main character’s motivations. The playable character usually mirrors what the majority of us would imagine our own course of action to be (well of course I’ll diffuse that bomb and rescue the children).
From a gameplay perspective, the most pivotal scene takes place in the operating room, following the only slightly less upsetting massacre of righteous Fireflies. Without any alternative actions available, the player is forced to kill innocent surgeons. I did not want to kill those doctors. It felt wrong, and I felt very uncomfortable – possibly the most uncomfortable I’ve felt as a player.
It’s interesting that the operating room scene was initially going to be done as a cut scene. I’m glad they made it playable, as forcing the gamer to take the actions themselves is what drives home the horror of what is happening and personalizes the events immensely.
You see, I knew Ellie would want to go under the knife to save the world, and I would have let that happen. But Joel wouldn’t.
I said in my earlier post about Bioshock that I felt, as a player, I had become an amalgamation of myself and Booker. Here, really only within the last 30 minutes or so of the game, we are suddenly ripped from our connection with Joel as we come face to face with his sheer brutality, and it’s this new perspective that changes much of the game in the aftermath.
The ending even changes how I perceive the game’s other villains like the Hunters – the game’s human baddies that give the zombies a breather. Yes, they were messed up. I mean Lord, they were eating people! However, I initially felt that David (Captain of the Crazies)’s recanting tales of Joel’s massacre was unjust exaggeration; after some pause I realized that – yeah – I really murdered everyone. I took no prisoners in world that really was just trying to survive, and showed no mercy in a world that desperately needed it.
Even Ellie’s little comments and asides took on new meaning. When delivering a particularly fierce ax to the head, Ellie’s shouts of “Jesus, Joel” became more horrific, tinged with terror rather than the sheer awe and amazement I initially took them for.
Only at the end of the game does the player realize who they’ve been all this time throughout the game. Multiple characters throughout The Last of Us refer to Joel as a murdering psychopath – some discreetly, others less so. As players, we can easily brush off these sentiments – it’s a zombie apocalypse and Joel is a survivor, so naturally a few bad guy brains – zombie and human alike -have to get bashed. But then the veil is drawn from our eyes and we witness the real beast that Joel has become, and maybe always was since that first day in Texas.
The climax of the game toys with the Jacob and Issac archetype as we are forced to question our agency as the player. We are asked to confront the selfishness and impurity of love. When sacrifice is asked of us and we deny it, even for the whole of humanity, what does that make us? How much can love justify?
And that last line – that final lie – is crushing, as you witness Joel’s selfishness in all its glory.
What did you think about the ending of The Last of Us? Did you feel divided, or did you see Joel justified in his actions?