“The Last of Us” is a game I never thought I’d play. So what happened exactly? Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was driving through town in my giant, yellow van while listening to The Goo on my stereo. You can literally get seasick in my van because I have a 350 gallon water tank bolted to the frame and the constant sloshing can make you a little green around the gills. Having something to focus on is key in this situation. You see, I own my own business and in my industry you will find yourself driving almost constantly to different appointments all day (I maintain aquariums). All the driving can get monotonous but thankfully, I have The Goo to help keep me sane (and sober) while traversing my 75 mile radius of cleaning up fish poop.
On this particular day, I happened to be passing by a Play N Trade at the exact moment that Scott and Leo were getting heavily into their love for “The Last of Us.” Thanks to this little coincidence, I promptly hit the brakes and spun the van around causing the water in my tank to slosh and glug and my transmission to pop out of gear. Not to mention my lunch nearly came churning up out of my stomach. But I made it into Play N Trade and very quickly snatched up a copy of “The Last of Us.” It amounted to a complete impulse buy (Thanks Guys!). And because of it, here I am writing my “official” first article to compliment what the three amigos are doing on the podcast. I just hope it does their thoughtful commentary justice in the end.
Moving on to the game itself, I had heard about it on various podcasts and read the reviews but I still hadn’t been compelled to buy it until I heard Scott and Leo’s gushing oratory. Frankly, I am not a big shooter guy and one thing that always troubles me about most AAA games is that they are shooters and generally involve mowing down as many human beings as possible. You know, the kind of games that our lovely senators call “murder simulators.” I’ve always had some issues with violence, not so much in movies but games are a different beast. Perhaps because when you are watching a movie you are more of a spectator. In a game however, you are the one acting out the violence so it is more personal to me. Despite this, my issues with violence are my own and I will always find a way to deal with them when it comes to an awesome gaming experience.
My own prejudices aside, “The Last of Us” delivers in a big way. It is NOT a typical shooter. There are many, many shooting sections but what makes the game brilliant is that in between these intense sections you are hit with what I like to call “exploration time.” And by “exploration time” I mean that everything stops and you are simply left to soak up the bleak, lush and frankly, desolate environment. I use the words “lush” and “desolate” in the same sentence because this game is both. You have a beautifully crafted, lush plant covered concrete jungle but at the same time, a desolate ruined world devoid of most higher life forms. In reality, it’s probably more like a real life situation would be if the world was in turmoil and fungal spores had turned everyone into zombies (an interesting twist on this somewhat stagnant genre). You wouldn’t be constantly fighting, you’d be exploring and looking in every crack and crevasse for anything, ANYTHING to help you survive. I LOVED that about this experience. The environments are detailed in a way that I don’t think I have ever seen before in a video game. It’s truly staggering.
That being said, this “experience” does have typical shooter elements and many game play mechanics that would be considered typical for the genre. You get progressively more powerful guns as you get further and further towards the end. There are some “RPG Light” elements that involve upgrading your stats and some minor crafting abilities. There are loads of curse words, blood, gore and frankly, some unnecessarily grotesque scenes that I could have done without. But the argument here is that people like to be shocked and that violence is so commonplace in entertainment now days that it’s almost expected. This is of course especially true in a bleak, gritty game about the destruction of life as we know it. I can forgive these things though because it is expected when you are playing a game that probably cost more to create than most small countries GDP’s. In this instance you really have no choice but to deal with game play that is somewhat tired, otherwise an experience like this could simply not be made. I just thank Naughty Dog for doing the game in third person perspective instead of first. Perhaps it was the Nathan Drake influence.
So at this point, in the spirit of what Scott, Leo and Adam will be doing on the Podcast, I want to get into major spoilers. And just a word of warning, I am a long winded writer and I am going to get detailed. So if you don’t like reading novels, just stop now. I am also not going to focus too much on the game play elements because they were quite frankly, the least interesting part of the game for me. So, you’ve officially been warned. If you have any intention of playing this game and want to be surprised, stop reading now!
Ok, a lot of interesting things happen in “The Last of Us”, many that will simply take your breath away. It starts out in Texas with the protagonist Joel and his daughter Sarah on what appears to be a pretty ordinary night. The game cements right off the bat the importance of Joel and Sarah’s relationship and the close father daughter bond they share. You actually start out playing as Sarah as she awakens in the middle of the night to find her father missing. I found myself exploring all around the house looking at the incredibly detailed environment and the trinkets that lined every nook and cranny. The items I discovered really gave me a sense of who Sarah was and why she was so important to Joel. In hindsight, this was all very deliberate and makes the fastly approaching “scene” all the more tragic and unbearable.
Soon after exploring your house and discovering that something is seriously wrong, you find yourself (as Sarah) sitting in the back of your uncle Tommy’s Jeep with your dad in tow watching as the world begins to crumble all around you. It was a stellar move by Naughty Dog to allow you to view the destruction at your leisure while sitting in the back of the Jeep. It gives you a false sense of security, like you are a kid again, safe in the back of your parent’s car. I always felt protected when my parents were driving, like nothing bad could ever happen to me. But of course, something does happen and you are forced to head out on foot.
This is when the real insanity begins. You are now playing as Joel, sweeping your injured daughter out of the wrecked Jeep and carrying her through a rapidly deteriorating environment of wanton destruction. Gas stations explode, cars collide, people are at each other’s throats, buildings are burning, hell has broken loose, the world is coming apart and you are right in the middle of it. Every second of this segment is intense. It really does seem like everything around you is real and that the Earth is crumbling at its core. It’s hard to believe that this game was done solely on the Playstation 3. The fact that nearly 8 year old hardware is capable of creating an environment like this is downright incredible. We really are in the final, golden years of the current gen hardware.
What happens next, as I’m sure many will agree with me, is one of the most heartbreaking moments in gaming history. As Joel and Sarah reach the hills and finally, what seems like safety, they encounter a soldier who is then ordered to shoot them on site. He fires, Joel turns and throws Sarah to the side to save her. He falls down and right as the solider comes back to finish the job, Joel’s brother shoots him in the head and saves Joel’s life. All seems fine until we hear crying. Joel scrambles over to Sarah to find her lying on the ground, shot and bleeding. He pulls her into his arms, she is sobbing and whimpering and then, in a split second, the life drains from her eyes and she’s gone, fading to black, just like that. No goodbyes, no time to be prepared, just…. gone. The scene simply rips your heart out and sets the tone for the rest of the game, a tone of relative hopelessness and despair. It’s truly like nothing I have ever seen in a video game before. You were invested in this little girl, you even played as this little girl and now she is dead. It was enough to make my wife sob and curse me for buying such an awful game. I could almost agree with her, if I didn’t feel the scene was so important to the rest of the game and to who Joel ultimately becomes as a result.
After the opening credits roll and a montage of news clips explaining what happened flash before your eyes, you fast forward 20 years to Boston and the world is the crumbled, dystopian mess that we all knew it would become. This again makes “The Last of Us” stand out to me. Most zombie apocalypse type stories don’t bother to go too far into the future. They mostly focus on the event itself and the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe. “The Last of Us” was able to do something slightly different by taking us 20 years into the future and showing us what the world looked like after years of neglect and utter hopelessness. It gave the game a more authentic, weathered and rusted feel that you would not have had otherwise. I appreciated that refreshing viewpoint very much.
Our protagonist Joel is now an older, hardened, ruthless and bitter man who has seen better years. His companion is a woman named Tess who frankly, I found to be the weakest character in the game. She was just an angry, alpha female type who didn’t seem to add much to the story other than to give Joel some sort of companion, despite the fact that they never even once (that I can remember) showed any affection towards each other. Joel and Tess make a living by smuggling contraband in exchange for ration cards to survive. I guess with a lonely existence like that, anyone would be bitter and angry. I excuse you Tess.
Over the next several hours of game play, you track down a gangster named Robert who stole a cache of weapons from you, torture and kill him, meet Marlene, the leader of a group known as the “Firefiles” and of course you also meet Ellie. A spunky, foul mouthed 14 year old girl who is apparently immune to the spores that are causing the infection that is slowly destroying all sentient life on the planet. On your journey through this section of the game, Tess (predictably) gets bitten and then sacrifices herself so that Joel and Ellie can escape, your goal being to get Ellie to the Fireflies so that a cure can hopefully be found. I hate to admit it but after Tess died, something “clicked” and the game became more enjoyable to me.
And as soon as that “click” went off in my head, “The Last of Us” finally starts to pick up steam. Up until this point (other than the brilliant introduction) I had been frustrated by the game. It was a lot of shooting and learning of the mechanics and I found myself just wanting to get through the laborious, typical running and gunning so I could see the next story beat. Thankfully, this all changes once Joel and Ellie head out on their own and their relationship begins to materialize. It’s pretty easy to tell that Joel has completely closed himself off from any type of attachment or emotion since his daughter was killed. Even though it’s been 20 years he refuses to acknowledge that Ellie is anything but someone he has to take from point A to point B. What makes this interesting over the next several areas are Ellie’s attempts to get Joel out of his broken head and back into something resembling normalcy. She constantly nags him about his past, practices whistling, examines and comments on random items she finds, exclaims “Holy Shit Joel!” or “What the Fuck Joel!” when you are forced to brutally murder someone and that’s just a select few things. It’s charming and genuine in a way and brings a certain type of humanity to this otherwise inhumane situation that you find yourself in.
The next act was one I thoroughly enjoyed. Joel decides to seek out an old acquaintance named “Bill” who owes him a favor. Bill is a paranoid, isolated and apparently, gay man who is in no mood for visitors. He has booby trapped an entire area of town which you have to navigate through in order to find him. And when you finally do, what a surprise you are in for. Walk through a particular door and a trap is set that sees Joel’s leg get nabbed by a noose which is attached to a refrigerator. The refrigerator falls, sweeping Joel up like a Killer Whale flinging a helpless seal. What happens next is a brilliant and nerve-racking scene that forces you to blast away approaching zombies as they surround Ellie and assault your useless hanging torso, all the while dangling by your leg upside down. This encounter took me totally by surprise and had my wife screaming at me every time I missed a shot. Being ripped to shreds by clickers, as the partially mutated humans are called, is horrifying. To me, moments like these are what make “The Last of Us” great.
Hang in there long enough and your acquaintance Bill eventually arrives and saves the day but once things slow down and you have time to talk, you discover that Bill is not happy you are here. After some prodding he agrees to help you get a running vehicle so you can make your way south to find Joel’s brother, Tommy. As I made my way towards the car, I really began to pay attention to my surroundings. I felt the need to search every empty house and room, not only for supplies, but for all the incredible details present in everything you see. This is how you discover Bill’s sexual orientation and that his partner was killed, through notes that were left behind. It’s a sad little side story but one you will completely miss if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings. You will frequently encounter little Easter eggs like these throughout the game which give you more reason than ever to explore everywhere that you possibly can.
Once you acquire your truck there is an interesting scene where you and Bill are attempting to push it down a hill so that Ellie can hit the ignition while it’s moving (apparently this is the only way to get it to start, I don’t know a thing about cars, so why not). All of a sudden you find yourself being assaulted from all sides by zombified lunatics all the while trying to get this damn truck moving. It’s a tense and well done section which ends with Bill basically telling you good riddance. Nice guy!
On the drive, Joel and Ellie FINALLY start to bond, just a little. Ellie shares a comic book and a gay porn magazine with Joel (that she stole from Bill) which leads to a rather touching scene involving Ellie pretending that she had no idea what she was looking at and exclaiming “How do those guys even walk around with those things”? It’s a hilarious interlude that culminates with Joel being embarrassed and Ellie knowing that she finally managed to put a chink in that old weathered armor of his.
Your ride is cut short though when you reach Pittsburg and are confronted by a group of hunters (nasty bastards that kill anyone and everyone and then strip their dead bodies bare for supplies) and eventually, you meet up with two new characters, Sam and Henry. Sam and Henry are brothers who are in a similar situation to yourself in that they are just trying to survive. It is also at this point that Joel finally decides to trust Ellie with a gun. Mainly because in an earlier scene she saves Joel’s life and proves she is capable. And boy, is she a good shot, taking out baddies like she was born to. Glad you finally woke up Joel!
High lights of this area also include a section in a Toy Store, a trip through an abandoned sewer town and several fights with a nasty Humvee that is never quite willing to leave you alone. The toy store in particular was poignant in that it is the most vibrant and colorful place you will see anywhere in this adventure. Compared to the drab and bleak color scheme of the rest of the game, this stood out in a big way. It is also where Sam, the younger of the two brothers is scolded by Henry for trying to take a small toy with him. Apparently in this hostile new world, there is no time for being a child anymore.
The abandoned sewer town was one of the most interesting places in the game for me. You find quite a few notes lying around penned by a guy named Ish which chronicles his life and struggles to survive. This area also has some of the most terrifying fight scenes, especially in the near darkness it provides. Being attacked in the dark by clickers simply never gets comfortable and the sewer was the perfect place for them to come at you hard. Some of the scenes here had me almost jumping out of my skin.
Scariness aside, the sewer really is a dense area as far as things to look at is concerned. Glance at the walls and you will see roaches everywhere (who react to you and your light), realistically rendered water dripping from the walls, graffiti, posters of bands and many other items that were once important to someone in a long gone world. I spent a lot of time exploring this area and simply looking for any shred of humanity that was left. It is truly amazing the lengths that Naughty Dog went through to immerse you in this world. Look at a book on a shelf or a table and you can usually read the title and see the cover, look at a picture frame on a desk and you can see the people clearly in the shot, look at the posters on the walls and you can instantly see what interests the particular person who once lived here had. I simply can’t stress enough that unless you take things slow, you are missing out on a plethora of incredibly detailed environments that most games simply do not have. Did I also mention that I rarely, came across repeats of any of the aforementioned items? Incredible…
Another interesting observation I had was that this game does an exemplary job of having your companions interact with you and your environment in a believable way. It really appears like they care about what is going on and are aware of things that happen in the space all around you. There was an area of the sewer where Joel is forced to separate himself from Ellie, Henry and Sam in order to take an alternate route. During this little trip Joel is accosted by several clickers and shots are fired. Once you take out the horde you hear Henry and Ellie calling from the other room checking to see if you were ok. Again, it’s moments like this that really make me love this game. I was shocked that my companions had the ability to care about what was happening to me in another room. It was just one of a great many touches.
As you continue on past the sewers, the hunters I mentioned a few paragraphs ago continue to hunt you. This ends up culminating in a sniper duel which has you sneaking your way up to a house to take the bastard out. This particular sniper is the epitome of annoying as he hurls insults your way with reckless spontaneity (this was one of the less believable parts of the game for me). You’d think the guy would shut the hell up so you wouldn’t find where he was hiding. No matter though, sneaking your way up to his hiding spot isn’t too difficult and I will have to say it was satisfying to finally shut him up. But wait! You left Ellie, Henry and Sam down below and as fate would have it, they are now in trouble. The hunters are still trailing you and they show up in that damned armored Humvee again. You now go through a complete role reversal as you adopt the deceased snipers gun to take out the approaching humans, and eventually, zombies that are attacking your comrades.
Once you dispatch most of the threats everyone regroups inside and you head out the back of the house, escaping the horde of infected clamoring to get in. You then reach a radio tower where Henry and Sam have a stash of food and supplies. Joel and Henry spend the evening chatting it up and bonding while Ellie finds Sam sitting alone in an adjacent room. What happens next is yet another anguishing scene but one which I found necessary to move the story forward.
In the room next door, Ellie and Sam talk about the struggles of life in this impractical world. Sam questions Ellie about things she is afraid of, particularly about whether or not she thinks that there is any remnant of an actual person still living inside someone who has been infected. This is significant and tragic because of what happens next. Ellie takes out her backpack and hands Sam the toy that Henry told him to leave behind at the Toy Store. She then says “see you tomorrow” and exits the room. Sam throws the toy on the ground and then slowly lifts up his pant leg, revealing that he has in fact been bitten. It’s an incredibly somber moment because the previous conversation makes even more sense now and makes what is coming all the more horrifying.
In the morning, Ellie goes to wake up Sam only to discover that overnight he has turned. He attacks her and they come crashing through the door into the main room. Joel reaches for his gun but Henry beats him to it and after a slight hesitation, shoots his only brother to death. After the moment of shock passes, Henry points the gun at Joel and blames him for his brother’s death. Joel attempts to talk him down but Henry then turns the gun on himself and ends his own life. Cut to black. It’s another crushingly merciless scene that instantly ends this section of the game. Once I knew Sam was infected, I suspected this would happen. But even though parts of this game can be predictable, they almost all feel like they have a purpose to the greater good of the story itself.
The game then cuts to several months later and you are traveling on the road to Jackson County, Colorado looking for Joel’s brother Tommy. You approach a Hydro Electric Dam and find him holed up with his wife and a group of people attempting to get the dam working with the hopes of creating electricity for the nearby town. I personally found this idea clever and in the reality of some sort of apocalypse I would imagine getting a hydro electric dam working is a pretty smart idea.
And speaking of the dam, the second it comes into view Ellie starts drilling Joel with questions about it. Once again, another charming aspect to Ellie and Joel’s relationship is Ellie, having been born 6 years after the initial apocalypse, has no idea what a hydro electric power plant is. Joel has to explain it to her, along with many other things throughout the game that before the downfall of humanity, everyone took for granted. For example, imagine explaining to a child born into this wasted world why someone would go to college and spend years of their life just reading books and studying? Ellie couldn’t comprehend this concept when everything in her life had always been about living in the moment and just… surviving. There was no time for studying anything. It was fascinating for me to listen to Joel trying to explain this simple concept to her. Along with what a hydro electric dam was used for.
Another kernel of interest: Up until this point Joel did a good job of aggravating me with his treatment of Ellie. No matter how hard she tried he just would not open up to her. He was a closed book on everything from his daughter’s death to the loss of Henry and Sam. Joel just couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about his true feelings. In all these years he had never, truly grieved. Joel’s reluctance to talk was of course employed intentionally by the developers and it is at this point in the game that Joel finally does open up although not after first trying to pawn Ellie off on his brother.
Suffice it to say that the dam gets attacked by bandits and Ellie discovers Joel’s plans to leave her which causes her to grab a horse and bolt. Joel and Tommy track her into the woods and stumble upon another group of hostiles along the way which of course leads to more bouts of gunplay. Once they do finally track Ellie down she is holed up in a farm house, upstairs in what resembles what was once a child’s room. You find her sitting by the window reading a diary of what is probably a long dead little girl. Ellie wonders how children back then could only worry about “boys” or “what shoes go with what top.” Once again an interesting thought for someone not accustomed to living in what was once a civilized world.
Earlier at the dam, Tommy’s wife (without Joel’s knowledge) told Ellie about how Joel lost his daughter. Once Ellie confronts him about this, the inevitable, emotional confrontation between the two of them ensues with Ellie expressing how important Joel is to her and Joel doing what he does best, giving her the cold shoulder, ending with him telling her that they are going their separate ways. But before much else can happen, bandits attack the house and you are left to wonder what is really going to happen in this difficult little web of multiple conflicts. But after the fight is over and on the ride back to town, something changes in Joel. Perhaps he realizes how valuable Ellie could be as a possible cure for humanity or more likely and as you suspected all along, he really does care about her. All this time he refused to see her in the same light as his lost daughter but now perhaps, he is finally changing. They saddle up, say goodbye to Tommy and head for The University of Eastern Colorado which is the last known whereabouts of the Fireflies.
The University is probably the most uneventful area in the game as far as the story beats go. But I found it interesting exploring the abandoned campus on horseback and especially the dorm rooms where you will find all kinds of neat little Easter Eggs. From posters of popular bands and movies lining the walls, to text books strewn about, to some notes from a student (that sounded like he smoked a bit too much weed) planning to ride out the apocalypse in his dorm. I even managed to find a book on Hawaii laying on a desk (my wife is half Hawaiian and was amused when I showed it to her). Once again, the elements of this game that really blew me away were in the minute details.
After a harrowing fight with a throng of clickers and even a couple bloaters (a much older and more ghastly version of a clicker) you discover through audio logs that the Fireflies are long gone. They retreated to a hospital in Salt Lake City to continue research on possibly finding a cure although it seems that they have mostly lost hope in being able to doing so. Although before you can blink, you realize that you are not alone. For whatever reason, you were followed and the guys looking for you aren’t happy.
After what seems like an endless stream of angry humans stalking you around every corner of the university, you are taken by surprise. A goon bursts his way through a door and slams into you. After a brief struggle you both go tumbling over a ledge and onto the floor below. Unfortunately for Joel, he lands on a piece of rebar sticking straight up out of the ground and impales himself in one of those video game/movie scenarios where you know that in real life you could never possibly survive. Despite this, Ellie is by your side almost instantly and helps Joel up and off the rebar and then, in another interesting game play twist, you control Joel in his far from nominal state. Your heart is pounding, you’re bleeding everywhere, your movements are sluggish, your vision is blurred, sometimes you can’t even stand. Fighting your way through the next round of baddies is a chore and a challenge but at the same time, interesting.
This entire section culminates with Ellie saving your life yet again by taking out a couple of thugs right at the last minute in a cut scene which has you watching helplessly on the ground from Joel’s perspective. You eventually make it back to your horse but Joel doesn’t make it far before he falls off and passes out from his injury. It’s now up to Ellie to keep you both alive.
Next is “Winter” and what is probably the most solemn and introspective part of the game. The scene unfolds with stark white snow all around, the wind blowing in your ears, a bitter cold place. A white hare hops out of its burrow in search of food. A finely aimed arrow ends its life in an instant. This scene very quickly symbolizes the situation you are in, pure, almost hopeless survival. You soon discover that it was Ellie who shot the hare and that you are now in control of her rather than Joel. You are alone in the woods with your horse and a bow and arrow.
Out of the corner of her eye Ellie notices a deer. She knows this will be a much bigger and better meal than the small hare so she begins to track it. It is now up to you to hunt dinner. As I tracked the deer through the woods I couldn’t help but think that this reflective, yet beautiful scene had to be a huge risk for Naughty Dog to take with a game like this. It’s a slow, methodical approach that has you fighting for your life in a way other than just shooting your way through mindless idiots.
You will eventually hit the deer three times before you kill it. You will also be able to track it by the blood stains it leaves in the snow once it has been hit. If you follow its trail long enough it leads you to what appears to be a town. You find the deer dead in the center of a clearing. As you approach though, you are confronted by two men who reveal that their names are David and James. They seem helpful at first, despite the fact that Ellie is holding them up at arrow point. They even heed Ellie’s request for antibiotics (for poor ailing Joel, she doesn’t tell them that part though) in exchange for deer meat. One of the men runs off to retrieve the items and David suggests they go inside. Ellie takes his rifle and they drag the deer into the safety of a nearby building.
It is in this next cut scene that David presents himself as a caring, kind man who only wants to help. He asks Ellie a couple of questions, most of which she reflects but overall you get the sense that he is a decent guy. Unfortunately, they don’t have much time to bond because infected quickly surround the building they are in leading to what is in my opinion, one of the most frustrating segments in the entire game.
It is now up to you to protect yourself from what seems like an endless barrage of enemies that quickly surround your building. Oh yeah, and this building seems to have an insane number of windows and if you don’t’ watch them all closely, you will die, over and over again. David does a fair job of shooing some of the clickers as they climb and bash their way into the building, and he’ll even throw you ammo when you get low, but it’s really up to you here.
Once the building is clear, you and David make a run for it and end up fighting through an abandoned power station which climaxes with the two of you heading up a walkway off the main plant which leads to a dead end room. How convenient! And it is here, that you will lose your mind. Once again, a room with many windows, a hole in the ceiling and a long corridor, all for you to watch simultaneously as you are mercilessly slaughtered by the ceaseless, ethereal puppets of Lucifer as they come groveling in from every angle. Yes, this section was frustrating to say the least. I think that I attempted this spot at least 20 times before I could finally complete it. It was entertaining the first few times, but honestly, I could have just done with a cut scene here instead.
When you finally manage to get past the insanity of the room of annihilation, you and David head back to your original location (why didn’t they just stay there to begin with?). This is where things start to get a little interesting. You see, David makes a somewhat compelling revelation. It starts casually, almost gently. But he reveals to you that a “crazy man” has been traveling along the country side killing a lot of his men, accompanied by a little girl, the “crazy man” of course being Joel. This revelation was interesting to me because it showed that murdering dozens of people in this game has its consequences. Here you have this seemingly friendly group of folks just trying to survive like everyone else in this grey, aborted world and Joel’s habit of killing was starting to catch up to him. Granted, you can play the game “stealthy” if you want, but some situations call for killing, no matter how you want to play it.
Once David reveals his little secret he offers Ellie a place among his people. He also orders James (who has recently returned) to give Ellie the medicine she requested. Ellie, being the spunky survivalist that she is, takes the medicine and bolts for the hills. You are left with David sadly glancing down at the ground and you can’t help but think that you haven’t seen the last of him. And you would be right. Your encounter with this group of people is only beginning.
The next scene has Ellie heading back to the hiding place she has taken Joel while he recovers from his impalement. She returns to find him groaning and delusional. She injects him with a Hypospray that would make Doctor McCoy proud (ok, so it’s a shot of penicillin, but seriously it must be a wonder drug because it cures Joel over night) and hopes for the best. As Ellie awakes the next morning she hears people talking outside the house. As it turns out, David and his crew tracked her back to the hideout with the intention of getting revenge on Joel for the murder of his men. Ellie quickly gets to her horse with the idea to steer the men away from Joel which leads to an exciting chase scene on horseback. You appear to be surrounded as you are accosted from all sides while galloping through this seemingly deserted town. Then, suddenly Ellie’s horse is shot out from under her and you are forced to go on foot.
I will have to say that once I reached this part of the game I initially felt a bit awkward playing as Ellie. This is the first time you are forced to take on regular “live” human opponents while playing with Ellie. In other words, you’re playing as a young girl killing other human beings. Perhaps this was Naughty Dogs intention, to take you out of your comfort zone with the fact that you are now playing as this unsullied teenager as she is forced to make many of the same ruthless, split second decisions that Joel was faced with throughout the entirety of the game. It’s an interesting twist and I honestly never felt completely comfortable with it. But this is to the game’s credit. When an experience like this can engage me by making me uncomfortable with the decisions I have to make, it’s always a good thing.
Continuing on through the town eventually leads you to a lodge of sorts with what looks like a way to freedom. Not so fast though, David has tracked you down and proceeds to choke Ellie out of consciousness and the scene fades to black. As things become clear and Ellie awakens, you find yourself locked in a room behind a chain link fence. Looking beyond the fence Ellie sees a man chopping something up on a table. As she looks closer she witnesses a severed arm hit the floor and quickly realizes what the people of this town have resorted to, cannibalism. Normally, this would be shocking to me. After all, cannibalism is one of those universal taboos that pretty much all societies look down upon. Which of course is perhaps why you are seeing it more and more in entertainment these days. Studios are looking for new ways to shock people to the point where they are using elements that were once considered too grotesque to ever touch (except in books maybe). The problem is that cannibalism is so prevalent in modern, post apocalyptic stories that it has lost its edge, at least for me. I found myself disappointed with this reveal.
Another issue I had with this disclosure is that it made most of Joel’s actions up until this point seem more justified. He was killing these bastard cannibals! He could absolve himself of all responsibility for killing any of these people because they were all horrible, ghastly human beings. I believe this was a cop out from a story perspective. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if they weren’t cannibals and this whole society of people were just average Joes living off the land instead? How much more conflicted would you then feel killing these people as Ellie? It could have made this part of the story more compelling and interesting, rather than just another group of cannibals. Just some more food for thought.
After this grand discovery, David enters and what follows is a discussion with each party attempting to justify their actions. David laments his people’s struggles to survive in an attempt to convince Ellie that she can “come around.” Ellie of course refuses and in a total act of defiance, manages to break David’s finger through the fence thus sealing her fate. David’s last words to her allude that she will be the next body on the table being cut into little pieces.
Flash forward and Joel awakens. Not realizing where he is or what exactly happened, he gets his bearings and then heads out in search of Ellie. While playing as Joel you notice that he is hobbling a bit and constantly holding his side. Again I appreciate the lengths Naughty Dog went through to really make you feel wounded. Speaking of wounded, once you leave the house you are under almost constant attack with Joel screaming at his assailants to tell him where Ellie is being held. Eventually you are assaulted from behind by two men who, despite his wounded body, Joel is able to knock out fairly easily. It’s just one of those video game flesh wounds. No problem.
What comes next is a scene that troubled me deeply. Joel drags the two men into a house and proceeds to torture them until they reveal where Ellie is being held. He beats the first man senseless for no apparent reason and then stabs the second man in the knee cap and twists until the poor sap gives in and points out on a map where Ellie is being held. Joel then proceeds to break his neck and despite the second man’s pleads, kills him as well with a metal pipe. This scene cemented to me Joel’s nature as a remorseless killer. Yes, they took Ellie but something deeper is going on in Joel’s head. Morality may be a complicated subject in many circumstances but Joel is apparently no longer mindful of the word or its meaning.
Immediately following Joel’s judgment, jury and execution of the two men, we switch back to Ellie. David has returned with a friend to do as he promised. As they take Ellie out of the cell and toss her atop the butchers table, Ellie decides to use her secret to her advantage. She yells out that she is infected and calls upon David to roll up her sleeve. He plays along and does so only to be astonished by her bite wound that looks far too old for her to still be alive. Ellie takes this split second opportunity to grab a nearby knife, stab one of the men and escape out an open window into a complete whiteout blizzard.
This next area was both interesting and somewhat familiar to me. You have no idea where you are and because the blizzard is so pallid you can’t really see very far in front of you. You have no map and you can’t use your “listening” skills to help you either. The “camera lens” even begins to fog up and freeze making it even more difficult to see. It’s truly a disquieting scenario.
I mentioned that this setting felt familiar to me, that’s because I recall a similar area in Metal Gear Solid 4 where Snake is stuck in a blizzard with very little visibility. Snake however, had night vision goggles which negated it mostly. I would venture to say that “The Last of Us” does it better simply because you have nothing but a knife and your wits to figure out what to do. And I will have to say I spent a pretty fair amount of time wandering around in this bleached delirium until I figured it out.
Playing as Ellie through this area was even more troubling to me than the last. Perhaps it was because I chose to use the blizzard to my advantage and sneak up on my adversaries. When you do this, Ellie generally leaps onto the backs of anyone she is attacking and stabs them repeatedly in a rather disturbing display of power for such a seemingly young child. This whole area was a challenge for me mentally because of this, but again, I’m pretty sure that’s what Naughty Dog had in mind.
You eventually find your way to what appears to be a very large restaurant. As I crept around, hoping not to be seen by someone, I noticed broken plates all over the ground and heard that they made a noise when I stepped on them. What a nice touch, I thought. That deduction was about to come back to haunt me because as I attempted to leave through the front door, David appeared once again.
What follows is what I would consider the games one and only real boss fight. David pushes you back inside, closes the front door and starts a fire, effectively sealing you in. You are forced to creep your way around the restaurant, avoiding the damn noisy plates and jumping out at David with your knife. Unless you hit him from behind you don’t stand much of a chance. The fire also spreads fairly quickly so time is of the essence. It’s a nice, tension inducing scene that really makes you feel desperate. The only flaw I would say is in David’s typical, psychopath banter. Comments like “ Oh, hey, Ellie? I’m sorry about your horse. I truly am. I hope you take comfort in knowing that we won’t waste any part of him” got tiresome after a while and made me want to finish the job all the more quickly. When you finally do hit David from behind on that third try, he rears back and smashes you against a wall, then a table and you both go tumbling down, fading to black in the process.
Moments later you are controlling Joel again, back in the blizzard. In essence, repeating what you just did while using Ellie. After another lengthy battle through town, you come across the burning restaurant and then the view switches once again. Back inside Ellie and David are both grounded, attempting to recover from their fight. Across the room Ellie sees a knife and begins to crawl over to retrieve it. As you inch closer and closer to the knife (the game gives control back over to you) you can almost feel Ellie’s agony as your saving grace is just out of reach. Knowing that David was lying close by of course leaves you with the thought that he will stop you which moments later he of course does. David then does, disappointingly, what every bad guy in the history of time has done, which is endlessly delay killing Ellie for his own apparent sadistic delight. This technique is of course used to heighten the tension in a scene but at this point in my life I find it tiresome. The only more predictable thing that could happen would be Joel swooping in to save the day.
That being said, I was somewhat surprised when in fact, Joel did not swoop in to save the day. Ellie however, being the resourceful girl that she is, takes advantage of David’s lapse in judgment once again, grabs the knife and finishes the job herself. It was a disturbing sight, seeing a young girl stab someone over and over again past the point where you know David is sufficiently dead. Again, it’s a scene I’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred different horror movies (Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” comes to mind as being the most disturbing example of this) but this time it was different, because a little girl was doing it. Once again, Naughty Dog knows how to play with your perception and emotions quite well.
As Ellie continues her out right slaughter of David, Joel does finally arrive to pull her off of him and comfort her as only a father, or in this case, father figure can do. Ellie’s face is shown, bloody and traumatized as Joel wraps her in his arms and tells her it will all be ok. You are left with Joel and Ellie exiting the building and a still shot of the knife sticking out of David’s lifeless body. A reminder of what Ellie is now fully capable of. It’s a chilling shot and one that I won’t soon forget.
I had mixed feelings overall with this “boss fight” and story arc. I understand that the game ultimately needed some kind of antagonist to create tension and a sense of accomplishment once you finally vanquished him. And David was an admirable attempt at creating a sinister sort of human monster that wasn’t one of the infected. I just think it would have been more interesting without the whole cannibal element thrown in to vilify him and ultimately justify Ellie’s and Joel’s actions. I think it would have been more interesting to investigate Ellie and Joel’s feelings about killing these people had they not been the ruthless monsters that they were portrayed as. Instead we get a rather typical, overused story element. But alas, I must admit that the whole situation was compelling none the less.
We now come full circle to “Spring” and what is effectively the last section of this harrowing experience. You are just outside of Salt Lake City and the scene begins with Ellie intently staring at a carving of a deer on a wall along the highway. It is no coincidence that this sculpture looks much like the deer she hunted back in the winter. It no doubt symbolizes her struggles with coming to terms with the events that happened with David and the group of cannibals. It is also a good way for the developers to sum up how she has been feeling in the time that has passed since winter.
Walking down this mutilated highway was somewhat peaceful for me. Despite the burned out cars, graffiti, and encroaching vegetation, the mountainous Utah view and lack of anything that would seem potentially hostile was a refreshing change of pace from the tension filled madness of the last few hours of the game. The breeze was softly blowing and the sun was gently hitting Joel’s face, a nice atmospheric breather if you will. I always appreciate moments like these.
As you begin to traverse into Salt Lake City, it is quite apparent that Ellie is not herself. She is distant, aloof, quiet, and seemingly contemplative. Joel on the other hand seems downright chipper. Commenting on the weather, telling Ellie that he is going to teach her how to play the guitar and recounting stories about his past as you make your way towards the hospital where the Fireflies are supposedly holed up. It’s pretty obvious by now that Joel has also come full circle. He now views Ellie in the same light as his long deceased daughter and no doubt hopes that she feels the same way about him. But if Ellie does feel this way, she isn’t showing it.
As you head deeper into the city you come across a large, overgrown bus station that you decide to use as a potential corridor to reach the hospital. Upon entering you realize that the only way around is up. After a little prodding by Joel to get Ellie up and moving again you boost her up so she can grab a ladder that you see on the second floor. But as Ellie drops the ladder down to Joel, something catches her eye and she rushes off with great excitement. Joel, in an obvious panic, sets up the ladder and races after her. Ellie remains a couple paces ahead of you, running through the hallways on the second floor exclaiming: “Oh… you gotta see this!” Each impending turn giving you a short glimpse of a shadow outlined on the nearby windows. What could it be?
The next scene was to me and many others I’m sure, the most beautiful and touching in the game. Once you round the last corner you find that those shadows you were spying are in fact, Giraffes, in Utah, no less! What made me forget about the fact that Giraffes couldn’t possibly survive in Utah’s frigid climate on their own was the magnitude of this moment. You start out seeing only one Giraffe grazing from some vines on a blown out exterior wall. You approach slowly and are allowed to gently pet the gentle giant. Joel coxes Ellie over and she too gentle strokes the Giraffes head. For an instant, all is forgotten. Life is normal, Ellie and Joel are a father and daughter on a trip to the zoo in a less brutal world. Just for a moment, you can remember what the earth used to be like or in Ellie’s case, experience something remarkable, like nothing she had ever experienced before. The scene is beautifully crafted and the Giraffe is quite frankly, the best looking rendered object in the entire game. It looked completely real.
As the Giraffe moves on, you round the next corner and discover that there is actually a whole herd of Giraffes walking their way through downtown Salt Lake City. Ellie and Joel both lean into the railing on the roof of the station and simply gaze out over the horizon with the mountains and the city and of course, the Giraffes. “The Last of Us” is simply a gorgeous game to look at and Naughty Dog encourages you to soak it up and let it all in for this last scene of beauty and peace.
Once the moment has passed, Joel heads for a nearby door. Before he goes through he pauses and turns to Ellie. He tells her that they don’t have to go through with their mission and that they can go back to his brother’s town and live a happy, normal, hopefully peaceful existence together. But Ellie expresses herself otherwise. “After all we’ve been through? It can’t all be for nothing.” Ellie says as she walks through the door. Joel turns and takes one last look at the last Giraffe disappearing into the brush and is probably thinking that his last chance to have a normal life with Ellie is slipping away into the distance.
In the following couple hours of game play, Ellie opens back up to Joel and they are both, finally able to talk candidly about Sarah. It was nice to finally get this closure. I knew it would happen sooner or later but hearing Joel actually able to express his feelings about his long lost daughter and Ellie telling him how sorry she was, it was refreshing. The rest of the time however, is spent trekking back across familiar shooting scenes through mostly abandoned buildings and another sewer like area loaded with infected. Thankfully, this was one of the few places in the game were I effectively managed to sneak past all of the walkers without being detected. It was a liberating feeling to say the least.
Also on this trek through Salt Lake City you will face several more environmental puzzles which always seem to involve ladders and pallets (I didn’t bother to mention these puzzles earlier because quite frankly, I didn’t find them super engaging and I felt that they were just there to give you something to do). Since Ellie can’t swim you are usually forced to find her a way around the water that is quite prevalent everywhere you go. There is generally a pallet somewhere nearby so floating her across an impassible water hole is usually your best bet. There are also a good amount of swimming areas for Joel strewn throughout this game that once again I feel are there just to appease the “Mario swimming level” requirement that every game since 1985 seems to have.
You eventually come to what looks like it was once a parking garage or underground tunnel. The tunnel has been flooded and has been transformed into a raging river in the process. You must leap your way over dilapidated cars, trucks and busses to reach your destination. When you reach what seems like the final stretch of the tunnel, you hop down onto a bus that is flipped onto its side. It is being pelted by water hard from the river and I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t going to end well.
My fears were realized as I jumped down onto the bus and as fate would have it, the bus began to move and then broke free into the raging river by my ill timed leap. Ellie heads for the nearby ledge, climbs up and then reaches out for Joel but as you attempt to jump, the metal bar you grab breaks loose and you tumble down into the guts of the rusty, washed out bus. With water rushing in all around him, Joel is forced to hold onto the buses safety bars for dear life. The game gives you a slight level of interaction here allowing you to climb your way up the bars to the front of the bus. But once you reach it a bar snaps and you go flying to the back of the vehicle, slamming into a rear wall, the water pounding you flat against it. Seconds later Ellie leaps to the top of the bus and begins to pull at the bus door to free you. You both struggle to get it open but when it finally does the entire bus flips back to the upright position, knocking Ellie unconscious and spilling her into the water in the process. You then must swim as fast as you can down the raging river and grab her limp body before she drowns. Upon reaching Ellie and pulling her out of the water, Joel notices that she isn’t breathing. He begins performing CPR but two soldiers quickly approach. They bark at Joel to put his hands in the air but he ignores them, his new daughter’s life more important than his own. The soldier smacks him over the head with the butt of his gun and all goes black. This was a thrilling and terrifying scene that left me breathless. Literally!
Joel then awakens in a hospital bed. Sitting next to him is Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies who is the one ultimately responsible for sending Joel and Ellie on this groundbreaking journey. Marlene tells Joel that they were able to save Ellie’s life and that she is sedated and being prepped for surgery. Joel insists on seeing her immediately but Marlene is hesitant, telling Joel that he doesn’t have to worry about her anymore. When Joel presses more, Marlene reveals the truth. The growth inside Ellie that is making her immune to the virus is a mutation and it’s growing on her brain. They need to remove it in order to create a vaccine for the virus, in essence, a cure for all mankind. This of course leads to the question; what happens to Ellie?
This question of course leads to the classic saying posed by Spock at the end of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, which is: “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” Spock of course made the choice to sacrifice himself to save the enterprise and all its crew. To a being like Spock, who believes that logic trumps emotion, the decision is a simple one. But to an emotional being like Joel, this decision is torturous. In fact, I’m fairly sure Joel never even considered the option of letting Ellie die for the greater good. After all, she was now his daughter and he was going to do what most parents would do and protect their child at all costs. Mankind be damned!
Once Marlene realizes that Joel is not going to cooperate, she orders her guard to remove him from the building and kill him if he tries to resist. Joel goes willingly at first but soon pulls a fast one, beating the guard with his own gun, before shooting him twice and demanding to know where Ellie is being held. After the second bullet, the guard tells him what he wants to know. Joel repays him by putting a third bullet into his brain. It was pretty obvious to me at this point what I was going to have to do and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
The last segment of the game has you fighting your way through the hospital, dispatching what seems like dozens of soldiers. You traverse through a combination of long dark corridors, small claustrophobic rooms and one final stretch through a boundless hospital ward complete with concrete barriers and angry commandos carrying machine guns. Honestly, it turned out to be an exercise in frustration for me. It was a difficult slog and I can’t say I enjoyed it much. At this point I just wanted to get to Ellie and find out what happens next. Although if you explore the hospital enough you will find some interesting audio logs lying around recorded by a doctor who equates this potential vaccine to “the discovery of penicillin.” All the more reason to make you feel guilty about what Joel is about to do.
When you finally reach Ellie in the operating room, she is out cold on the table, ready for surgery. There are three doctors around the table who are shocked by your sudden entrance. They plead with you not to do this and that what Ellie holds inside her is the key to humanity’s survival. But you are playing as Joel after all and the game leaves you with no choice but to kill the doctor blocking your path, sweep Ellie up off the operating table and head for the adjacent hallway.
This next section harkens back to the beginning of the game. Joel is faced once again with carrying the one he loves most to safety. Sirens ring, flashlights flare about on the walls, you are being chased and the Fireflies aren’t happy. You have no access to your weapons and there are soldiers everywhere searching for you. A sad, weeping score plays over this seemingly hopeless situation, shrouded in Joel’s desperation to get Ellie to safety. He failed to protect his daughter Sarah but he won’t fail to protect Ellie.
Run around long enough (without being killed) and you reach an elevator. Joel closes the doors just as the soldiers are about to catch him. The elevator descends to the parking garage and it seems that you may finally get away. However, when you step out you are confronted by Marlene, who has you at gun point. She pleads with Joel to “do the right thing.” The scene then changes to a car driving down a deserted highway. Joel is in the driver’s seat with Ellie in the back lying down. As she slowly awakens she asks Joel what happened. Joel tells her that they found the Fireflies and that there are dozens of people like her that are immune to the virus. He also says that they have given up on finding a cure. This story is of course a huge lie, fabricated by Joel to protect Ellie. Like a parent lying to their child to screen them from some awful truth. It’s a tragic scene and one that hits home even harder as the focus again shifts back to the parking garage.
As Marlene begins to put her gun down, Joel pulls his out and shoots her in the gut. He puts Ellie in a nearby car but then hears Marlene calling out in pain nearby. He walks back and listens to her beg for her life. Joel replies with: “You’ll just come after her” and puts a bullet in her head. Fade to black. Once again a brutal scene that begs the question: What would you have done in the same situation? Allow the person you care most about in the world to be killed for the betterment of humanity? Or save them and humanity be damned. I can’t even answer the question myself.
The final scene opens with Joel and Ellie abandoning their car and setting out on foot through the nearby woods. Your destination is the town where Joel’s brother and his wife live. The game once again puts you in control of Ellie in what I consider kind of an ironic twist considering that she had no say at all in the previous, earth shattering event. As you trek through this peaceful scene, Joel begins to lament about Sarah. He says that they used to take hikes like this through the woods and that he thinks Ellie and Sarah would have been great friends. Once again confirming Joel’s attachment to Ellie as a possible replacement for his daughter and the reason for the lengths he has gone through to keep her safe.
As they climb up over the final hill before the town, Ellie stops. With suspicion and sadness in her eyes, she tells Joel a story about how back in Boston, her and her best friend Riley were both bitten. She explains how she had to watch Riley die, then Tess, then Sam and now, what about her? She is still waiting for her turn. Joel is elusive, explaining that you just have to keep finding something to fight for to which Ellie replies: “Swear to me that what you said about the Fireflies is true.” Joel, after a short pause, swears that it’s the truth. The camera switches to Ellie, her face shrouded in uncertain emotion, and she replies “okay.” And that’s it. The game ends.
The shocking thing of course being that Joel is a bold faced liar. Not only lying to Ellie once, but twice. And these aren’t just any lies, they are lies that completely change her life or in this case, save her life. What was really troubling to me about this whole scenario though is the fact that Ellie was never given a choice. She was unconscious throughout the entire ordeal while two parties fought to decide her ultimate fate. There is little doubt to me that Ellie would have chosen to give her life for the greater good of humanity but neither warring party was willing to even give her a say in the matter.
Which leads to the question: “Who is the worst offender here?” Joel, who some would argue, was saving Ellie for purely selfish reasons and to make up for the fact that he lost his daughter 20 years earlier, obviously cared deeply for Ellie. But it is doubtful he could have lived with himself if he had lost yet another person so close to him. Does this justify his decision? To put this in perspective, we as human beings make choices like this every day of our lives, granted, on a lesser scale. We choose to drive fossil fuel powered vehicles that are destroying our planet, we choose to buy those Nike shoes or smartphones that are produced using basically slave labor, we choose to eat at McDonalds despite the cruelty to the animals that are killed for the meat and the damage we are doing to our own bodies, these decisions are what make up our very lives. And they are frequently selfish ones. We make these choices so that we can live our lives the way we want, consequences (especially out of our own personal sight) be damned. Ellie had become Joel’s way of life and he made a conscience decision not to disrupt that life even though the result would be to the betterment of humanity.
Marlene and the Fireflies on the other hand, were content to let Ellie remain unconscious while they decided to end her life for science. This presents yet again, another nearly impossible choice. A young girl with her whole life ahead of her, killed without a choice in the matter, so that potentially (but not definitely) a cure for the plague that afflicts humanity can be found. Again, shouldn’t Ellie be given the choice? The answer to this difficult question obviously isn’t black and white. Which is what makes the ending to “The Last of Us” really poignant to me. Like all good art, it leaves you wondering and questioning what you would have done in this same situation and of course ultimately, what the right choice really is.
In closing, “The Last of Us” was like no other video gaming experience I have ever had. The game without question has its flaws. The combat is janky and predictable, the pacing isn’t perfect and there are many over used elements that simply have to be present in AAA games that I could have done without. But again, like most good art, the good outweighs the bad. The environments are incredibly detailed and lush, the characters and narrative are compelling, and there were some interesting and unusual gameplay mechanics that I loved. Overall, the experience moved me and left me thinking about a lot of difficult questions. If a piece of art can have that effect on you and cause the amount of conversation that this game has caused, what more could you possibly want out of an incredibly engaging experience? Thank you Naughty Dog for a completely fulfilling but utterly devastating adventure that I will never, ever forget.