Warning: What follows are light spoilers for The Last of Us, and explicit spoilers for story beats in The Last of Us Part II. If you’re visiting the series for the first time, tread lightly.
It’s been nine years since the release of Naughty Dog’s seminal horror odyssey The Last of Us. It’s a game that was “remastered” for the PlayStation 4, roughly a year later. And today, we’re on the doorstep of a…remake? Sony calls it a game “rebuilt for the PlayStation 5.” Regardless, the world’s introduction to Ellie, Joel, and the now-iconic mushroom infected has been given a very shiny coat of paint for Sony’s newest console. And we’ve played it.
Broadly speaking, Waypoint wasn’t a fan of the sequel, The Last of Us Part II. But we still reviewed it, and spent many hours breaking down what didn’t (and some of what did!) work in a podcast. Even if The Last of Us Part II was seen as a disappointing follow-up, it compelled conversation. No surprise, then, that revisiting the original prompts the same.
People throw around a lot of hyperbolic words when it comes to The Last of Us. “Masterpiece.” “GOAT.” “Classic.” What I can confidently say is that The Last of Us left a real imprint on both Rob and I, and so this “rebuilt” version of a game we both enjoyed was an opportunity to revisit the kinds of apocalypse stories video games usually tell, what kind of father Joel is, and much more.
It also seems this game seems to hold up pretty dang well.
We’ll have more to say on an upcoming podcast, but in the meantime, here’s what Rob and I had to say when we had an opportunity to sit down and exchange thoughts on this update, having played a big chunk of the game.
Rob: You’d know better than I, but even by the standards of zombie horror, it’s always seemed to me like The Last of Us is uniquely about suburban dread and precarity. Replaying it today I still feel like it is a gloomy mood piece that has a lot more to do with a dread of the city, anger at the loss of a particular vision of idyllic American life, and despair over the social atomization that attends the death of community.
Maybe this is why I always liked The Last of Us so much, and why The Last of Us 2 was so frustrating. The Last of Us works whether it fully knows what it is about, or whether or not it fully sees Joel for what he is. He is a compelling antihero and most of The Last of Us functions as a kind of action-packed character study. The adventures Joel and Ellie have aren’t really important in themselves, they are a backdrop for this relationship and the way we see these two characters relate to the world, and the relationships they see others have developed with one another and this fallen world.
I really wasn’t sure if I would still enjoy The Last of Us after souring so hard on the grim self-importance of Part 2. I knew that I loved this game when it came out and felt it was probably Naughty Dog’s best or second best game, but I had my doubts about revisiting it because I feared that the things I disliked about Part 2 had been there from the start, and that it was merely the novelty of the first game the prevented me from burning out on it.
And yet here I am, Patrick, pretty much enjoying the game as much or more than I did the first time. I don’t know that anything about it leaps off the screen to me in terms of wow-factor. I played the PS3 version and remember that as one of the best looking games I ever played, I think maybe the biggest success with this new PS5 version is that it’s not really jarring or flashy in terms of what’s been added. It just feels like a much more detailed world, one that better rewards lingering over its various tableaus and sets. For instance, I don’t recall the town that your friend and foil Bill lives in as having much in the way of an interesting character, but there’s definitely a lot of establishing details of what kind of town it was, who lived there, and what Bill has been up to in its ruins in the years since. It’s not important detail necessarily, but it is more legible here and certainly rewards a slower and more searching approach to play, which I think accentuates the slower, more elegiac quality that a lot of The Last of Us was going for originally.
But hey I’m burying the lead here. Because if I recall correctly, when this early pinnacle of dad-core games came out and really set the mold for this “morally compromised father figure guiding a surrogate child” subgenre, you were not yet a father yourself. So I am very curious how this is landing now that you are, well, much closer in your life to where we find Joel and his daughter at the very start of this game.
Patrick: Moments ago, I got a text message saying my daughter had been marked “absent” from school. I dropped her off at daycare, but the world takes over after that. The daycare gets her on the bus. The bus driver drops her off at school. She, then, has to walk herself to class. When I called the school, a woman asked “is this about Jessica?,” the kind of question that briefly stops your breath. The school said it was probably a mistake—bus drivers chronically understaffed right now—but for a minute, I was on hold. It was only a few seconds, but in those seconds, your brain gets a chance to run wild at how things could’ve gone wrong the moment you stopped holding her hand. Thankfully, it was all a mistake.
Anyway, I’ve never entirely forgotten how The Last of Us opens, but I didn’t fully appreciate what was about to unfold until I had the controller in my hand a few nights ago. I’d finished putting my oldest daughter, who turned six in the past week, to bed. I don’t know how old Joel’s daughter is—my guess is roughly twice the age of my own, early teenager?—but even at six, my kid is a whole ass person. Still figuring life out, of course, but a person. My person, in fact. And so the main difference between 2013 and 2022, a gap in which I went from not a father to a father of two, is that the game’s intro went from merely shocking to truly upsetting.
Like you, I have fond memories of that first game, primarily because of Joel and Ellie’s bond. (And, uh, because the combat is interesting and enjoyable, unlike anything in the Uncharted games. I’m a sucker for spectacle, aka Naughty Dog’s specialty, but shooting in Uncharted is frequently a slog, and I liked The Last of Us enough to spend time in the dang multiplayer.)
The opening hours, especially, remain special. My favourite part of an alien invasion movie is the invasion, and my favourite part of an apocalypse movie is the onset of the apocalypse, when the dam breaks and civilization starts to collapse. That part remains so good here, and for as iconic as the series’ mushroom-y creatures have become, it’s remarkable how restrained the worldbuilding is early on. You spend hours in The Last of Us before you have any real sense of what happened, or what ongoing threats linger. It makes the first encounters with the infected all the more impactful, because you have zero clue what you’re up against, and it’s only informed by how scared characters like Joel and Tess are. Those two won’t flinch against a man with a gun, but a clicker? They shit their pants. It’s great.
Perhaps the highest compliment you can make any remake is that it fits with—and doesn’t contradict—existing memories. I haven’t spent much time looking at comparison shots and videos, and so I genuinely don’t know how much different this looks compared to what came out nearly a decade ago. I’m sure it’s a huge leap, because that’s what Naughty Dog does! But what I can say is that it looks terrific, in the way it looked terrific when I first played it. Is that worth $70, a wild amount to charge for a game that’s been re-released twice now?
Man, I don’t know.
And while this world is dark and oppressive and full of death, it’s a story about hope—hope for Joel’s broken heart, Ellie’s sense of purpose, and heck, the world potentially getting a vaccine. Gosh, I’ve missed that, and it was sorely lacking in the nihilistic sequel that came later. My favourite parts of the second game, a game I ultimately did not like but probably liked much more than you, happened in that early town. I wanted a whole game about that community. Have you watched the television show Station Eleven? It’s a show about a very contagious flu-like virus that takes out most of the population. It’s an apocalypse story, but one that doesn’t assume the world on the other side is one with only violence and depravity. It follows a group called The Travelling Symphony, who move around performing plays, and trying to keep art and history alive. Awful things happen in Station Eleven, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Instead of presuming what rises from the ashes of disaster are the worst elements of humanity, it wonders what we might build in its place. It’s really beautiful.
The Last of Us starts from a place where things are bleak. But there’s a chance to imagine another world, and the characters you’re with might play a part. I liked that then. I like it now.
Rob: I didn’t watch Station Eleven but it is one of my favorite books of the past several years. It’s a book that definitely made me think about The Last of Us a lot as I was reading it, and in retrospect I think highlights some of the issues with the sequel. Station Eleven has interesting thoughts about how a society fractures and what begins to rebuild it, whereas I think for the reasons you allude to, the Last of Us series is preoccupied with collapse. Maybe that’s why it has to leave that town so quickly in the second game: the survivors’ community exists as a kind of Edenic ideal, a place where Joel cannot live for long because of his sins, and where Ellie will eventually be barred from because of the weight of her own sins and trauma.
But in The Last of Us Part 1 isn’t consumed by the “cycles of violence” angle. It is instead about the tensions between wanting to be safe, emotionally and physically, and wanting to forge connections whose first requirement is vulnerability.
I do think, as I replay this, I think Naughty Dog did an even better job with how they sketched out Joel. I don’t think there is much hope for him, not really, and I think the game is aware of that and is sounding warnings about it throughout its runtime. We hope that he will bond with this little girl, we hope that they will forge a healthy, happy surrogate family. But from the very beginning of the game through his journey with Ellie, I am struck by how consistently Joel’s growing warmth and protectiveness is accompanied by the same hard selfishness that he shows in the opening minutes of the game. The crisis that defines the end of the game is taking shape throughout the journey, and we can kind of feel how so many Joel’s best traits are tied to his absolute worst vices and impulses. I think one question I have for people playing through it again is, on this replay, do you think the death of his daughter actually changes him at all? Or does it merely justify what was already there at the start?
By the way, maybe this is mostly relevant to me but every time I play a Naughty Dog game I am reminded of how head-and-shoulders above most other games and movies that their audio mixes are. I think there are so many big-budget action adventure type things where you kind of have to choose between having dialogue be legible, having an immersive sensation of being in the action, and being safe from sudden volume spikes that will shatter windows and get your neighbors beating down your door.
I guess something similar is happening with the way this game deploys HDR lighting: with only a few tweaks based on how I liked the calibration images to appear on my display, I’ve basically never had a moment in this game where I felt it was too dark for the game to be fun or too bright to be appropriately oppressive and obscured.
I don’t know what the secret is. I always assumed there’s just a huge tension in how games and movies are being presented where settings for high-end systems are inappropriate for a ton of folks’ TV-and-headphones setups, and settings for simple stereos and older displays waste a lot of the capability that nicer equipment can provide. But Naughty Dog’s games always feel like they somehow deliver a system-maximizing spectacle no matter what you are using and it makes most other AV sources, not just games, look half-assed by comparison. Even if I hadn’t been away from this game for close to a decade, I think I’d be loving this remake just as an amazing showpiece for a good TV and sound system.
With that said… do yourself a favor and turn that film grain waaaaay down. The game defaults to max film grain setting and in my opinion it is a really graceless digital effect that just intruding on every scene. I think there was a time you could plausibly argue that the grain called to mind cheaper films or more documentary-style shooting where filmmakers can’t or don’t want to light the scenes so well that the cameras can resolve really clean images. Thing is, even cheap digital cameras handle bad lighting better than this, and The Last of Us certainly does not lend itself to some kind of B-movie grindhouse aesthetic. The absurdity of that pretense is even clearer here, where every scene is filled with the beautiful, picturesque ruins that give this series its defining style.
Of course, I haven’t been away from this world for that long. As you alluded to, we did all play The Last of Us Part 2 fairly recently and do you find that is changing your reaction to how Part 1 plays? I think there are times I miss some of the gear and gadgets I’d come to take for granted in Part 2 but I think there is a desperate scrappiness to the first half of this game especially that I think I missed in the second game. There is an early shootout in the Massachusetts state capitol where you get a single-shot hunting rifle for the first time and honestly the ensuing firefight in these long, backlit corridors between an invading army of military police felt fraught in a way that I’m not sure Part 2 often did. Ellie and Abby are such practiced killers and commandos in that game, and Abby especially gets so much military-grade hardware that in some ways I think that ends up feeling like a more traditional action game than Part 1 does for much of its campaign.
Patrick: Every game like this has a breaking point, a moment where it hands over enough ammunition and gadgets that combat becomes more about trying out new techniques than survival. For The Last of Us, it happens when the game provides a shotgun during the still-unforgettable chapter with Bill, and immediately makes the clickers, fast and vicious infected who function as a one-hit kill against Joel, less of a threat. Prior to the shotgun appearing, items like the shiv are more valuable than gold. Yes, you could use a shiv to take down a clicker in one go, but you’re not going to find enough resources to make another one, and that means you won’t have a chance to open that locked door around the corner.
It’s cool to blow the face off a clicker with a shotgun. But less thrilling than being chased.
I realize it’s possible to dial up this experience by playing the game on harder difficulties, but I’m not here for masochism—I’m here for sustained tension. And laughing loudly at Ellie.
Tension, heavy breathing, and studying white blobs in the dark are defining visuals sketched into my memory, but what stands out so clearly upon revisiting is how damn funny Ellie is. Ashley Johnson is a revelation. You anticipate a girl being the bait in a grand escort mission to be a pushover, but even while Ellie is finding her survival footing, her whits are razor sharp. This is crytalized when meeting Bill, and her response to his shit talking and attempt to handcuff her is to immediately grab a metal object and attempt to break his arm. Get ‘em!
And then later?? When she asks Joel why the dirty magazine has sticky pages, prompting Joel to lose his composure, and she deadpans “I’m fucking with you.”?? Incredible. Howling.
I do think you’re onto something about Joel, though perhaps I land somewhere differently. The way I found out about my father’s heart attack was a phone call. One moment, my life was one way. Minutes later, my life had changed. At times, in my darkest moments, I think about another one of those phone calls, perhaps while my family is running errands, or my wife is coming back from a friend’s place with the kids late at night. When I think about what kind of person I’d become if that phone call ever came, it’s where I have the most empathy with the person we find at the start of us in The Last of Us: surviving but broken. I think it’s possible Joel always was who he was, but his daughter changed him, softened him. I can say with conviction that’s been true of my children, as well. I’m a better person—more patient, empathetic—because of their presence in my life. You know how on a sports team, they’ll say “this person raises the ceiling of this team’s potential”? I think the best people in our lives lift us up in the same way, whether it’s children, partners, friends. They help raise the ceiling of your potential, but the floor remains the same. And if you remove them?
Well, see The Last of Us.
It’s telling that Naughty Dog’s impulse in the sequel was to kill Joel in the most brutal way, but without the courage to remove him from the story. It’s a concession the series is about Joel and Ellie, or betrays a confidence to move the narrative past them. Both games start from the same place: death of a loved one. Joel’s daughter dies in the most heartbreaking fashion possible, in the midst of chaos and confusion. Joel is beaten to death, and it’s portrayed like a snuff film. Naughty Dog wants you to feel anger and rage.
But I’ll tell you that I felt more of a reaction to the death of [REDACTED] in The Last of Us than Joel. (I’m not sure what constitutes a spoiler at this point. I’m so confused.) More to the point, the death that sticks out years later is not Joel, but his daughter taking her last, desperate breaths.
I don’t tend to replay games, but I’ve already played far more of The Last of Us than I needed to for the purposes of this exchange with you, Rob. There’s no reason that I needed to see the end of the section with Bill and play 30 minutes into the Pittsburg section, except that I felt a compulsion to keep going. I will probably beat this game in the next few weeks, too.
Revisiting The Last of Us makes swallowing the bitter pill that is its sequel even harder, because instead of making me better appreciate the story being told about these two characters over the span of years, it makes me long for a different ending for them both.