I’ve managed to go nearly 10 years without encountering The Last of Us spoilers. How did this happen? For one, I wasn’t covering the video game industry in 2013 — I worked early mornings kneading bread and creaming butter for cookies in a bakery, then fiddling with keys to get into strangers’ houses to walk their dogs. I played console video games on an aging Xbox 360 and StarCraft 2 on my Mac laptop. I hadn’t had a PlayStation console since the PlayStation 2, which had long been retired to my parents’ garage, and wouldn’t have one of my own until the PlayStation 5 — save for a brief period where I borrowed a PlayStation 4 from a friend to play Death Stranding.
This is all to say that I had no physical way to play The Last of Us, and, against all odds, I somehow avoided spoilers, too. And now, I have a PlayStation 5 taking up way too much space in my living room, and I can finally say that I’ve played The Last of Us. And yeah, it’s still a fucking good game.
It feels trite to summarize The Last of Us Part 1, given its significance and ubiquity, but I’ll do it for the sake of anyone else who doesn’t know the setup by now: The Last of Us is set in a postapocalyptic world where humans have been infected by the Cordyceps fungus — a parasitic fungi that infects the brain and turns infected humans into violent, mutated monsters. The main plot begins 20 years following the initial outbreak, where humans have moved into decaying, militarized quarantine zones and remote, dangerous settlements. Joel and Ellie are two of the survivors; Joel survived the initial outbreak, although his daughter did not. Ellie, on the other hand, was born into this world. Their relationship is initially hostile, at best, as Joel is tasked with smuggling the teenager out of Boston and into the hands of the Fireflies, a revolutionary group that wants to use the immune Ellie to find a cure for the infection.
The Last of Us’ world is as dangerous and violent as any other zombie epic, and its characters are just as ruthless and brutal. But The Last of Us is constantly reminding its players that the brutality of the world is a holdover from pre-infection society. Sure, lots of games centered on violence before The Last of Us, and many continue to do the same. But despite the sheer number of postapocalyptic games, movies, and books that have emerged in The Last of Us’ wake, Naughty Dog’s still feels inspired — almost fresh — in 2022. This may be a result of zombie fiction falling out of fashion in the last few years, or the fact that linear, big-budget action-adventure games are few and far between. Either way, the timing for this re-release just feels right.
Still, in 2022, the violence in The Last of Us still feels upsetting. Folks have said it before and I’ll say it again: The Last of Us isn’t exactly fun to play. It’s no Halo Infinite or Fortnite, wherein shooting and killing is just a series of numbers ticking up on a scoreboard. Holding Joel’s gun, aiming that gun, and shooting that gun is miserable, unbearable, and painful — not only because Joel is fending off other surviving humans, but because the resources are so scarce: Am I going to regret using that bullet?
For all its moments of cynicism and regret for a lost world, The Last of Us is also a very tender game. It navigates Joel and Ellie’s relationship through shifts both subtle and tectonic as they travel across the broken U.S. Their dynamic begins antagonistically — Ellie’s a burden to Joel, the baggage of a promise he made to a now-dead partner. And to Ellie, Joel’s just another stranger who will abandon her at some point along the way.
But each westward American city presents a new catalyst for that relationship. From Boston to Pittsburgh, through Jackson and Salt Lake City, Naughty Dog’s choice to pace the game alongside the seasons works wonders: from the summer in Boston, where you can almost feel the heat radiating off its decaying buildings, to winter in Silver Lake, Colorado, where blood stands out on the bright, white snow. Though the game is relatively short — or at least, devoid of bloat, by modern standards — the movement of the seasons makes time feel tangible. And with that time, Joel and Ellie’s relationship begins to grow.
Little by little, they settle into a fraught father-daughter bond. There are serenely touching moments interspersed between the brutality of it all, the most affecting of which is when Joel and Ellie reach Utah and find a stray pack of giraffes that escaped and are thriving outside some abandoned zoo. It’s a scene that’s become pervasive, almost a meme — that thing everyone talks about when they’re discussing The Last of Us. And that’s for good reason; the moment still floored me, nine years later.
The moment comes so suddenly, surrounded as it was by misery. Ellie, hoisted onto a ledge by Joel, drops the ladder she was tasked with handling — she sees something that Joel can’t see. I expected horror, something more grotesque than even the most bloated bloater. But then her voice changed, and I realized it wasn’t anything bad. It was beautiful. Naughty Dog smartly lets the player linger on the overlook, the giraffes nipping leaves from trees and wandering around a flooded patch of city — now something more like a lake. I stayed there a while to relish in Ellie’s delight, and the beauty of the picture, and it felt cruel, in retrospect, to open the door into The Last of Us’ next, bleak phase.
In a way, I’m glad I’ve only just now seen The Last of Us through to its conclusion. I can see it outside the trope of violent, sad dads that dominated the milieu when it was released — think BioShock Infinite, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Grand Theft Auto 5, too. The Last of Us is very much a product of its time, and there’s certainly issues there. But now that I’ve seen how well it’s aged overall, I can really appreciate it — not as a cultural relic or a stepping stone, but as its own grisly, beautiful creation.
The Last of Us Part 1 will be released on Sept. 2 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.