The Last of Us may be five years old, but it’s still the best big game story out there. If you have access to a PlayStation 4 and haven’t played it yet, you should definitely get your hands on the The Last of Us Remastered.
Naughty Dog’s writers and developers have proven themselves to be the best high concept video game storytellers in the world. The post-apocalyptic America they created in the original game stands out among a horde of other zombie worlds. It is believable, beautiful and often surprising.
At the time of The Last of Us’ release, Polygon’s review acknowledged the game’s strengths as a story, and its relative weaknesses as a slightly samey physical experience of sneaking, shooting, climbing, killing and all the rest of it.
In the half-decade since, I’ve played plenty of games that are more fun and more tightly constructed. But no big budget game has yet equaled The Last of Us for story.
There have been strong contenders among the multi-million dollar production set — Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Wolfenstein 2 come to mind — but none of them have delivered the levels of depth, sophistication and narrative transgression that we saw with this game, back in 2013.
I came back to The Last of Us in recent days, wanting to re-familiarize myself with its characters. It surprised me that I was just as affected by the relationships in this game as I was when it first came out.
We are now deep into the console generation following The Last of Us. It’s astonishing to consider that the game has yet to be bested in such a crucial area as story. Perhaps it will only be beaten by its own sequel.
Apart from the talent of its creators, and Sony’s lavish investment, the reason for this creative achievement lies in the original game’s ambition. In most games, even those with a strong story, the narrative is an adjunct to the action. But The Last of Us’ action always plays a supporting role to its story.
[After this point, this article includes MAJOR SPOILERS for the original The Last of Us.]
Even in those games where story is strong, most of the effort is invested in its main character: Tomb Raider and Uncharted for example. But The Last of Us is not about its protagonist Joel. It’s not even about his relationship with Ellie, the teenage girl he must deliver across country. It’s the story of his breakdown.
This is a departure from the video gaming norm of heroic heroes. It also transgresses the all-too common arc of character redemption, seen in all story forms.
At the beginning of the game, Joel is a gruff, middle-aged man who happens to be highly competent at hurting and killing people. We’ve seen a thousand anti-hero Joels in a thousand games and movies. They are often pitched against the establishment, making their money from low level crime. Joel is a smuggler who steers clear of the fascistic authorities, as well as from its idealistic terrorist enemies, the Fireflies.
Joel is deeply affected by the death of his daughter, Sarah, many years in the past. This is an entirely conventional motivational device, especially in games, where the story must justify extreme violence and mass-murder on the part of the hero.
And so, Joel is no longer a nice guy, trying to get by. He’s a bad-ass who hurts people and doesn’t much care about it. In an early scene, Joel tortures Robert, who has cheated him on a deal.
When he first meets Ellie, Joel makes it clear that he doesn’t care one bit about her. He doesn’t want to babysit a teenage girl. His job is smuggling stuff, not people. A girl is just a crate of guns, except more problematic.
So, we get it. Joel is emotionally impenetrable. This is the early part of the story, and we’re clearly being primed for the relationship taking flight, later in the adventure.
When Joel’s partner Tess is killed. Joel doesn’t want to talk about it. Later, in his interactions with old friend Bill, Joel is protective of Tess’ reputation. This all follows a familiar road of the emotionally stunted man slowly tackling his grief. Around this time, he also displays some acceptance of Ellie as a real person. But his way of showing her his trust is by giving her a weapon.
When chatting with the affable quest-giver Henry, Joel mentions taking a motorcycle journey across America with his brother. But when asked how that felt, all he can muster is “good,” much to the amusement of Henry.
At this point in the game, about halfway through the story, I was beginning to lose all interest in Joel. The gruff, strong, silent type is a nerd culture favorite. And it’s pretty boring.
As a person, he’s not even as interesting as the curmudgeonly, grieving Bill. Or Henry, who joins their team for a few scenes.
Henry obsesses over the safety of his younger brother Sam. When it comes to his mission, Henry is just as ruthless as Joel. But he is eager to take a humorous look at the world and wears his heart on his sleeve.
It’s striking to me that the Sam and Henry’s death scene is the most powerful moment in the game, up to that point, even though these are side characters with whom we have spent a relatively short amount of time.
The story begins to wend its way toward resolving Joel’s need to come to terms with his daughter’s death. But when we begin go see the cracks in his tough exterior emerge, we aren’t witnessing the bright flowering of a welcome, healthy emotional inner life. We’re watching the emergence of a psychopath.
When Joel is about to meet his brother, Ellie asks him how he’s feeling. He says, “I don’t know what I’m feeling.” His brother shows him a photograph he’s found, of Sarah. Joel looks at it a while, and then rejects it.
This is the key moment in the game. Most writers would have forced us to watch Joel take the picture, and we’d have seen him thumbing it at some point in the future. The fact that Joel won’t take this one artefact of Sarah’s life is a good example of The Last of Us’ determination to subvert the rules.
Much later, he accepts the photograph from Ellie, accepting that we all have to live with the past. But although this appears to follow convention, it does not ring true. By this point, Ellie has become his only focus in life — he starts to call her “baby girl” — and we’ll soon see the story wrap up with a shocking ending.
Ellie’s value is in her immunity to the zombie virus. The Fireflies can use this to create a vaccine that will save the world, and many, many lives. Yet the operation needed to formulate the vaccine will kill Ellie.
Fireflies’ leader Marlene was Ellie’s guardian, and loves the girl. But she understands — entirely reasonably — that Ellie needs to die for the greater good. She sees no good reason to debate this with Ellie, preferring that the girl “feels nothing.” At this point, Ellie is unconscious.
Here is a thorny moral problem: life of girl we care about versus countless lives of people we don’t know and the potential birth of a new human civilization. In truth, there’s only one answer here, assuming Marlene is right when she says there are no practical alternatives.
But Joel has other ideas. He kills just about everyone in the hospital, all of whom are working to save humanity, including Marlene. He saves the single life of Ellie. When she later wakes, he tells her that the program to find a cure has been abandoned, and they’ve been let go. He embarks on a new life with her.
These are the actions of a madman, so far damaged by grief that he’s lost all sense of perspective. But there’s also a sense that he is acting for more selfish motives. He tells Ellie that the secret to survival is finding “something to fight for.” He’s found something to fight for, and he’s willing to sacrifice the entire world to keep it.
This is a far more interesting ending than a more conventional one, where Joel does the right thing and allows Ellie to be sacrificed. Or the one where, hurrah, they find a cure and Ellie gets to stay alive.
Now we can look forward to a sequel in which Ellie and Joel have had a few years to get to know one another better. An early trailer for The Last of Us Part 2 shows Ellie playing guitar, a skill Joel promised to teach her. But Ellie has killing on her mind.
The real story is going to be Ellie’s reaction to Joel’s horrible betrayal. In the original game, her development as a character was not as interesting as Joel’s. She was a tough, smart, funny kid who craved belonging.
Now I’m looking forward to seeing how The Last of Us 2, in which Ellie is the protagonist, deals with the devastation of her discovering the most extreme survivor’s guilt imaginable. I hope this game is just as willing to subvert convention as the original.
Below, watch an episode of our series FiendZone, in which we discuss why zombies stories like The Last of Us are still relevant, even after all these years.