“The Last of Us”: Love in the Time of Cordyceps

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I’m not terribly sure where to begin here as The Last of Us left me speechless last night.

As the game cut to black, I leaned back from the edge of the couch and let out a big cathartic sigh. The preceding fifteen or so hours had been a complex cocktail of tension, fear, heartache, and occasionally even tenderness.

The Last of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie as they trek across the United States 20 years after a mutated cordyceps fungus wipes out the majority of humanity. Joel is a hardened survivor who’s given up any morality he ever had in order to stay alive. Ellie’s fourteen years old and as such, she has lived in this post-pandemic world all her life. The two are thrown together by chance and circumstances push Joel into accepting the mission to deliver her to a rebel band known as the Fireflies.

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I am deliberately avoiding too many plot details because the greatest strength The Last of Us is the masterful way the story unfolds. It is astonishingly excellent. It weaves together player agency and cinematic presentation to create not just atmosphere and mood, but a true emotional connection to the central characters. Late in the game, Ellie and Joel have been separated and she is in the worst danger you possibly could imagine. When the game gave me back control of Joel I threw down the sprint button and thrust Joel forward into a blizzard in hopes of finding her. I heard a voice say “I’m coming, Ellie!” but it wasn’t Joel’s, it was my own. I realized then that I no longer thought of Joel and Ellie as polygons and clever coding, but as people. Ellie has been under my protection, and I wanted to keep her alive. Not because the game needed me to, but because I needed her to be ok.

It’s that strong emotional connection to the characters that informs the way you play, you don’t like to lose not because it’s no fun, but because you want Joel and Ellie to survive.

Perhaps that is the greatest success of The Last of Us, it not only tells a compelling and gripping story, but it connects you to Joel and Ellie unlike any game I have ever experienced before. This is not a story told, but a story lived.

The Last of Us proves once and for all that video games are a legitimate medium for storytelling.

All of this is great, but The Last of Us is a video game, so in order for it to be wholly successful it needs to play well. Thankfully it does. Developer Naught Dog has all but mastered the third person shooter. What sets it apart is the little things, the way Joel rests his hands on the wall he’s hunkered down by, or how when Ellie’s there, he opens up his stance to accommodate her proximity.

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Occasionally, because this is a game, there are experience breaking moments. Perhaps Joel doesn’t react immediately to something, or an object doesn’t render properly, or you happen to catch sight of an enemy spawning. These small moments will take you out of immersion, but never for long. Soon you’ll be hiding from a pack of infected, your chest tight with fear, and all hiccups will be miles from your mind.

By the third time you have to fetch a pallet in order to be able to ferry Ellie across a body of water, The Last of Us shows its game-y-ness. Fortunately Naughty Dog is able to keep each encounter and puzzle fresh despite relying on repeated tasks. The circumstances change, perhaps the infected are closing in, or a ladder breaks, or power goes out. By changing the conditions surrounding similar actions, the game never feels dull.

By the time I reached the final moments of The Last of Us I think I was ready for it to end. I had, by proxy, gone through some harrowing experiences that, in the moment, were visceral to me. I was exhausted. The ending left me speechless. It doesn’t end in with a big whiz-bang show-stopping number, but in this somber, heartbreaking way that you won’t expect. It is powerful and unlike anything any video game has attempted. You will be left questioning choices made by both the characters and yourself as an agent in the story.

The Last of Us is an achievement in video game development. It pushes the medium to new heights and it will be long held as among the finest the PS3 has to offer. There’s nothing else like it.

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