During the first few hours of The Last Of Us I couldn’t quite understand the fuss. After coming to it straight from the all-action thrills of Tomb Raider, and an incredibly intense opening sequence that ranks right up there in my favourite starts to a game ever, it seemed to just plod along for a while, not doing much and I felt nothing but apathy towards Ellie.
It was only towards the end of the game that I realised I felt exactly how Naughty Dog intended me to feel during those opening stages. Joel doesn’t care for Ellie at the beginning and neither did I, she’s merely a job he’s been given, but through the story his bond with her grows until, at the end, she’s a surrogate daughter to him. At one point towards the climax of the game I loudly exclaimed “Shit, Ellie!” at the TV during a particularly tension fraught moment, and I realised The Last Of Us had firmly sank it’s claws into me. Even during pre-scripted animation routines, for example when she climbs down off the roof of a lorry that had blocked our path, I caught myself on more than one occasion turning around just to make sure she got to the bottom safe. Joel cared for Ellie and, in turn, so did I. By the end credits I felt like I had been dragged through the wringer. I was exhausted, broken by the fight for survival against terrifying odds and drained from the concern for Ellie’s wellbeing.
The Last Of Us handles the moments of conflict majestically. Despite learning new skills and the ability to craft extra weapons throughout the game, Joel never feels overpowered when faced with the various enemies encountered throughout, in fact it’s always the opposite; Every single fight pits you as the underdog. Whether it’s a group of Infected spotted ahead, a few Scavengers loitering in your path or, most terrifying of all, a room of Clickers, each time you’re confronted with them you’ll feel doomed by insurmountable odds. The game purposefully backs you into a corner by various means, such as the scarcity of ammunition, or Joel’s inaccuracy with a firearm, or just the sheer number and violent ferocity of your adversaries. The survival of these sections is rarely met with the usual feeling of elation but rather relief that somehow you made it through, usually by the skin of your teeth.
There are many reasons that The Last Of Us seemed to connect with people. For the parents amongst us, the loss of Sarah and it’s effects on Joel would have had impact. The infection starts with a mutated version of the real world Cordyceps fungus and it feels like a frightening realistic concept, especially as we’re routinely warned about the potential of global pandemics reaping havoc. For many though it was the insight into the effect such an incident would have on the mental state of humanity and the brutality it in turn would create. The story we see in The Last Of Us is set a mere 20 years after the start of the infection, yet we have already turned on each other. A fractured and broken society, with the fringe elements resorting to cannibalism, doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous idea, and that in itself is fascinating and terrifying in equal measures.
The script is masterfully delivered by all the actors, with Troy Barker delivering yet another wonderful performance, but the highlight though is Ashley Johnson’s portrayal of Ellie. She’s the perfect counterpoint to Joel’s world-weariness; a 14 year old girl dripping with sarcasm, the occasional wisecrack and the false sense of self-assurity that only teenagers have but also filled with curiosity about the world before the infection. Her growing maturity through the game is a joy to behold as she progresses from a frustrating sidekick to a useful ally, carved by the battles her and Joel have fought.
One of the most important things TLOU has done has pushed forward the validity of gaming being regarded as a respected medium for storytelling. Despite such an idea being mocked by many, you’d struggle to find a story from the last 12 months that delivers such a masterfully told tale from the moment you start right through to the final, poignant, and heartbreaking word.