This article contains many story spoilers for The Last of Us, obviously.
Naughty Dog's The Last of Us ended the last generation of consoles with arguably its greatest game. It took seven years' worth of gaming's best and brightest mechanics and refined them into a master class of storytelling and gameplay. Almost three years on from its first PS3 release, it's also the best game available on PS4, in its Remastered guise. With the most nerdy, saccharine adoration I can conjure, here's why I think The Last of Us is still so amazing.
"Guess what, we're shitty people, Joel. It's been that way for a long time."
Most big-budget, triple-A games attempt to attract the player with style over substance, with sweeping vistas and bright blue skies, striking environments and colourful characters. But while it's from the same massive-publisher production line, The Last of Us isn't like most games. It's dark and claustrophobic, gritty and cruel. It's shitty people, with dirty clothes and greasy hair, doing whatever shitty things it takes to survive.
The game's macabre world sees every ounce of your hope and joy and slaps them out of you with frighteningly cold indifference. It bludgeons, garrottes and contorts your twee perception of morality until you're mercilessly and systematically gunning down an entire hospital of innocent people. And, in the end, you'll be glad for the experience. Because, never mind other games, no other entertainment medium can evoke such raw emotion, can make you care so passionately about its characters. The Last of Us is special because it encapsulates that innate will to survive like few examples of its kind can so much as aspire to. This is as good as it gets.
"What's wrong with its face?"
In the insect world there's a parasitic fungus that plagues ant colonies, called Cordyceps. Once infected, the fruiting body of the fungus erupts from the ant's head in deadly spores. The fungus is so virulent that it can wipe out entire colonies, and it's not just ants that fall victim. There are thousands of types of the Cordyceps fungi, each specialising on a single insect species. Now imagine one of those species was humans, and you have the basic gist of The Last of Us.
Most developers are content with conforming to the banal, long-established conventions of (for lack of a better word) zombie games. But by putting a fresh spin on those tired tropes, The Last of Us sets itself apart from being just another game about zombies. In this case The Infected come in various levels of Cordyceps transmogrification: runners, stalkers, bloaters and, most notably, clickers. These ugly bastards, their heads having exploded in a fiery orange blaze of twisted fungi and red sores, rely on echolocation (hence the name) to hunt. Entering an abandoned building and hearing their clicks and shrieks is genuinely unnerving – a feeling rarely experienced in zombie games.
"I shot the hell out of that guy, huh?"
Killing someone in The Last of Us feels exactly how killing someone should: awful. Sneak up behind an infected runner and shiv them in the neck and they'll gargle to death on their own blood, convulsing and twitching erratically. Strangle a (human) hunter and his eyes will bulge as his face turns purple and he claws desperately at your face. Take one step you shouldn't have, get heard by a clicker, and you'll wince at the screen as Joel's flesh is ripped apart by their teeth.
Or, if you're packing some ammo and a Molotov cocktail, set the bastards alight and blow their infected brains out their arse with a shotgun. Either way, you'll be left drenched in blood and death. Games are often quick to glorify violence, embodying the player as a one-liner-cracking psychopath. But in The Last of Us, violence is simply the product of two people struggling against all hope to survive in an unthinkably bleak world.
"People are making apocalypse jokes like there's no tomorrow."
What would a person born after the world is chewed up and spit out by a fungus that turns people into murderous clicking monsters look like? Probably not Ellie, but who cares, because she's the best. She's funny, smart, endearing and, most importantly, strong. That she can shoot, stab and maim with the best of them, in some cases better than Joel, is just gravy.
Despite all the swearing (saying "fuck" 53 times) and killing – and due in no small part to Ashley Johnson's incredible vocal performance, for which she won two BAFTAs – there's a certain innocence about Ellie. Walking down the street, she'll regularly stop to inquire as to how life used to be. For her, these conversations often end in perplexity and somewhere close to pity. The remnants of the 21st century are all around, but they're fragmented and without context, disparate vestiges of a dead civilisation she couldn't possibly hope to comprehend, or fit into.
Ellie's wry bemusement towards our superficial and uncomplicated lives encroaches upon social commentary. The purpose of an ice cream truck for example, has her questioning the seriousness in Joel's voice. "You're totally fucking with me," she says, incredulous. Upon reading pre-outbreak entries in a girl's diary, she asks plaintively: "Is this really all they had to worry about?" And as to why models would starve themselves: "Pffft, that's stupid."
So, perhaps Ellie is exactly how someone born after an apocalypse would look, after all; our reality is as big a mystery to her as her's is to us. She's the best character in the best game.
Article continues after the video below
"I struggled for a long time with survivin'."
Ellie sees the handle of David's machete on the floor behind her. She reaches back and brings the blade slicing across his head. He collapses to the side, shrieking and clutching agonisingly at his face. Over and over, David's head becoming an increasingly pulpy mess, she swings the blade with apoplectic desperation. Joel bursts into the room, taking her in his arms as she begins to cry.
The next time we see Ellie, months have passed. There's a tendency in drama of, after a traumatic event, showing characters struggling with their emotions. Often these periods are arduous and frustrating but in eliminating them entirely The Last of Us shows another facet of its genius. After escaping David, Ellie is more introverted and distant towards Joel. There's no need to spend forever watching her moping around and feeling sorry for herself. Months later, you can tell by the state of her relationship with Joel how it's affected her. Simple? Sure. Effective? Absolutely.
"You can't deny the view, though."
Inspired by Alan Weisman's 2008 book The World Without Us, The Last of Us envisions nature reclaiming the Earth, restoring humanity's concrete jungles to, uh, jungle jungles. Vines twist and creep around rusting cars, packs of wild dogs stalk the suburbs as they hunt for prey, and a thick film of dust has settled over abandoned houses and crumbling skyscrapers alike.
Some of the game's most memorable moments are when the foot comes off the gas and the gorgeous, dystopian cityscapes unravel before you. One famous scene towards the end of the game involves Joel and Ellie overlooking a herd of giraffes, grazing in an empty lot. The sun is shining. The snow has melted and months have passed since David tried to force himself on Ellie. But for us, for the player, it's been minutes.
It's a quiet moment of wary reflection which foregrounds this game's subtle sensitivity and vivid intelligence. Whether it's toys, pictures or the real thing, giraffes are regularly shown in relation to children, almost as a motif for innocence. This scene is the calm before the storm, the bittersweet respite before the final push to the conclusion, and one of the most emotional moments in gaming.
On Motherboard: 'Californium' Isn't a Game for Philip K Dickheads
"It can't be for nothing."
It's been years since I first finished The Last of Us, but I'm still not quite over its ending. It's at once devastating, sordid, ignoble, contemptuous and, strangely, triumphant. To say the least, the last chapter asks some pretty harrowing things of Joel, at the time "controlled" by the player. Inverted commas necessary, because what you would do in his situation or what you think is morally right isn't relevant. You're playing as Joel and what happens in the hospital is Joel's decision, not yours.
It's heavily implied that, following his daughter's death at the very beginning of the game, Joel was suicidal; but, after years of struggling for a reason to live, he found a surrogate in Ellie. Suddenly the tables have turned: where once Ellie needed Joel for protection, now it's him that can't survive without her. The unthinkable prospect of losing another daughter is what drives him to abduct humanity's best hope for a cure, to kill the Fireflies' leader Marlene in cold blood, and to cover up the truth to Ellie in the process. Simply put, without Ellie there is no Joel.
The Last of Us has an unparalleled understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to love and to lose. There is no right or wrong when it comes to protecting the ones we care about – only shades of grey – and The Last of Us captures that perfectly. It may be fiction, but its world and its characters feel real. They are the remnants of our civilisation. They are, quite literally, the last of us.
A version of this article originally appeared on the author's own blog, which you can visit here. It is republished here with minor edits, with his permission.
Follow the author on Twitter at @gavmch
More from VICE Gaming: