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SEVEN YEARS OF DYSTOPIA: REVISITING THE LAST OF US
Seven years is a long time.
To put in perspective, from the release of THE LAST OF US to this day, an entire console generation has nearly come and gone. This December both Microsoft and Sony will release their newest consoles, effectively bringing the PS4 and Xbox One era to an end.
Originally released in the summer of 2013, with a remaster for the PS4 arriving a year later in 2014, THE LAST OF US was an instant critical and commercial hit. Heralded as one of the great games ever made, it became a definitive modern classic for both consoles, showcasing a marriage between narrative and gameplay few others had reached. Only Naughty Dog’s other projects, mainly the UNCHARTED series, could compete.
Now, with the long gestating sequel finally arriving on June 19, we went back to replay the original and see what still holds up after all these years.
THE LAST OF US begins where the world ends. Sarah, daughter to protagonist Joel (played by Troy Baker), wakes up during the night to find the house empty. Controlling her, you explore the deserted home, picking up clues that something is off. Soon Joel rushes in, disheveled and panicked. Before you know it, you’re packed in a car with him and his brother, Tommy. The radio is blaring emergency broadcasts. The streets are packed with cars driving erratically as people scurry on the road to escape from… something. A tanker plows into the car, and Joel is forced to carry the wounded Sarah. It’s here that the focus point moves to Joel as the trio make their way towards the unknown.
As far as openings go, THE LAST OF US stands apart from all others. It perfectly blends in control tutorials (you learn all the essentials in the safety of the closed house) with exposition that never feels clunky. Before the inevitable collapse happens, we’re introduced to not just the dynamics between Joel and Tommy, but what drives our protagonist for the next 20 or so hours.
After nearly a decade, the graphics do look their age, and Naughty Dog’s controls, while never bad, have a certain sluggishness to them that require a bit more getting used to. But most of this is easily ignored when you consider the superb art direction and presentation.
Playing it for the first time, most of the information comes at you so fast it’s impossible to grasp entirely. It’s only on further playthroughs that the details begin to shine: Sarah’s room has posters for a teen movie Ellie and Joel talk about later in the story; a tiny giraffe toy foreshadows an important scene towards the end. Even Joel’s tone of voice, a soft Texan drawl even in the face of danger, shifts for the majority of the game to indicate his change as a person. Only until his relationship with Ellie begins to mend him into something more human again do we return to what once was.
Eagle-eyed players will also notice the game’s opening and closing bookends, which I won’t spoil, that are hugely rewarding. To put it simply, there isn’t a single thing out of place or unnecessary in the opening 20 minutes of the game. It’s a masterclass in setting, tone, and design.
We skip forward by ten years. Joel is now a ruin of a person, settled in for a life of violence and smuggling as he barely survives with his partner, Tess. One day they’re approached by Marlene, the leader of a militant resistance group called The Fireflies, with a job requiring their skills. That job is transporting a child, Ellie (a terrific Ashley Johnson), across the country to a Firefly sanctuary, no questions asked. Accepting the errand out of desperation, Tess, Joel, and Ellie set out on the long road ahead; unaware of who Ellie is, and why both sides of the crumbled society want her so badly.
The journey takes the trio through wilderness, decimated countryside, and cities now reclaimed by nature. While the areas are reasonably large, the progression is highly linear, often forcing the player to merely guide the character from cutscene to cutscene. It would be until the release of UNCHARTED: A THIEF’S END that Naughty Dog found the right balance between driving the story while allowing the player freedom of exploration.
Combat similarly is not a strength for the game, often leading to encounters where it’s more rewarding to avoid fighting entirely. Enemies usually take a few punches to go down, though this can be expedited with bricks, pipes, and other items found in the wild. Ammo is rare, and the game forces the player into shooting once in a blue moon. Everything else breaks from a single use, meaning a single brick isn’t going to be your weapon of choice for long.
Elsewhere it’s the Clickers, the zombie-like mutations created by the virus, that cause the most grief. While blind, they hunt by sound, meaning anything other than crouching and sneaking will alert them instantly to the player’s presence. These stages are usually built like puzzles, requiring Joel to discover an exit not just for himself, but one for Ellie to escape safely. Fighting the creatures is not an option, as only bullets or a well placed knife will be able to stun or kill them, and even that isn’t a guarantee. If they catch either Joel or Ellie, the game ends instantly.
While this does add a sense of urgency and panic to the story (just hearing the clicking sound is terrifying), it does make most of these stages feel like a slog. A single slip up means that the entire scene must be restarted, leading to frustration when the game introduces new types of enemies midway through the story.
On a purely narrative standpoint, the mix does work. The Clickers aren’t something that can be repelled by violence as they’re the new norm in nature. It’s man who poses the more urgent threat, as nobody can be trusted and everyone is out to get something.
THE LAST OF US is a story about the world moving on without humans, and what that means for us in our fight against our worst nature. Each of the main characters is out looking for a chance to rebuild something: Joel, who lost his daughter, hopes to forge a new bond with Ellie; who in turn is looking for answers to her survivor’s guilt. Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, sees in Ellie a chance to rebuild society by her rules and no one else’s.
Throughout the road trip, Joel and Ellie encounter different perspectives on how the world should go on. Joel’s brother, Tommy, finds solace in community, creating as much an utopia as he can in the wilderness. Hoping that normality will overcome savagery. Bill (W. Earl Brown), believes in isolation above all else. Meanwhile, the nefarious David (gaming icon Nolan North), chooses another kind of society: one where the weak are the fire that fuel the flames for the strong.
Building to a rousing and unforgettable climax, THE LAST OF US forces the player to ask just how much faith they have in humanity.
It’s this aspect that has aged best for the game, and the story is as good today as it was upon release. Told with uncommon elegance for games, it combines survival horror with political parable and family drama, each feeling like a natural fit with one another. While it does hit a number of classic zombie genre tropes (hidden bites, backstabs, etc.), much of the story feels fresh despite these inclusions.
This is thanks to a winning chemistry between Baker and Johnson, playing the two leads. They’re on almost every scene of the game, including their chatter during gameplay. These interactions are some of the best scripted in any game out there, naturally going from antagonistic to familial without feeling forced. Watch how Ellie’s monosyllabic grunts towards Joel turn to playful teasing and then outright small talk as she becomes more comfortable with thim.
Some of this is hidden in the gameplay itself: depending on what places the player explores or looks at, the characters will respond accordingly. Bumping into a poster of the same film Sarah once had in her room, Joel will reminisce about having been dragged to see it. Ellie, who hasn’t seen a film in her life, can only wonder what on earth makes Joel so frustrated about a poster.
… AND SUMMER
Time has barely touched THE LAST OF US. It remains a riveting experience even after others have followed, and arguably improved, it over the years. Where games like UNCHARTED: A THIEF’S END might offer a more cathartic and crowd pleasing experience, THE LAST OF US is like a fine art film, comparable to Alfonso Cuarón’s seminal masterpiece CHILDREN OF MEN.
And while the gameplay stutters in places, as it always does when returning back this far, the story and nuanced performances make up for it in spades. All this sets up the bar immensely high for a sequel to follow, but based on early reviews, Naughty Dog just may have achieved the impossible.
We’ll see in a week when we get our hands on THE LAST OF US: PART II.