Video games are often praised for their potential to expose players to experiences they would never otherwise have from perspectives they would never consider. But too often the opposite is true: Mainstream video games are often about you. They strive to make you feel powerful and accomplished; like your $60 purchase was worth it. Rare is the game that asks you to consider things outside of yourself, uncomfortable things that will leave you feeling more hollow than accomplished by the end.
The Last of Us, one of the most celebrated games of 2013, is one of the few mainstream games to even attempt this. (Other notable examples: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line.) And it was met with near-universal acclaim. Set 20 years after a pandemic based on the very real and super-creepy cordyceps fungi has turned much of mankind into infected zombies, it’s the story of an old smuggler named Joel and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie, who are forced by circumstance to travel across the ruined country together. Somber and beautiful, it’s The Road by way of The Walking Dead, and yet somehow managing to be something more.
After a full year of being showered in praise and awards, the game was re-released on the Playstation 4 as The Last of Us: Remastered, a sort of directors cut that comes with improved visuals and a load of other features for fans of the original. I had never played the game, and thought it would be worth checking out a year removed from the hype train. But a game like this demands to be discussed, so I asked fellow EW writer Jonathon Dornbush, who played the game when it was released, to chat with me while I try and sort out what the game was about. To quote Ellie: “It can’t be for nothing.”
(This is your spoiler warning. Get out while you can.)
Joshua Rivera: So. I just finished The Last of Us. And damn, man.
Jonathon Dornbush: So you’re coming to it, I think, from an interesting perspective, because it’s after the game has been hyped, won so many awards, etc. I picked it up right at launch, so I had all the perfect reviews and everything coming into it, but it hadn’t had a yearlong victory tour. Did that color the experience much?
JR: It definitely did. But the way that it’s constructed is almost impervious to hype or spoilers. With all this hype you expect a sort of white-knuckler of a game, with a sort of pleasing, three-act structure and gradual escalation. But as you move towards the end, the game actually dials back. I’m surprised at how little the Infected were in the game/
JD: Yeah, the game’s not really concerned with the traditional ramp-up of difficulty/fighting enemies as most games are. Even that final spot in the game where you have to sneak past all those infected in the tunnel, I did so without attacking a single one.
JR: And the pacing is atypical—each season is its own sort of self-contained drama about Ellie and Joel’s relationship.
JD: It feels very episodic in that nature. Chapters of a book, rather than “levels” of a game.
JR: Absolutely. It’s very deft at playing with expectations—when you hear a game is “gut-wrenching” or “emotional,” in your head, you think, “Okay, somebody’s gonna die,” because games tend to be very heavy-handed at those sort of beats. The fake-out with Joel’s death was kind of a brilliant example of this, because it’s so mundane. I mean, mundane as far as your encounters in the game go. There’s nothing particularly climactic about that level. Things just go wrong, and the game is far from over. And then Ellie!
JD: That transition into the Ellie segment is brilliant. I totally agree it doesn’t go out of its way to make those scenarios any more bombastic than the rest of the game. The whole game does so well with subverting expectations both story and gameplay-wise.
JR: Playing as Ellie really gives you a different understanding of the world. Which is why I’m so rankled by the game’s violence. With both Joel and Ellie, it’s really good at turning combat into a sort of desperate struggle, and a brutal one. But each time you have to fight, it very much weakens the impact of the messy ugliness of it all. Playing the game, I came across a part or two where I could effectively sneak past people and progress without having to fight, and I thought, “Why can’t I do this every time?”
JD: I definitely didn’t need as much combat in the game. That part where ellie runs away is total gunplay filler. But I enjoyed the combat scenarios enough most of the time to be okay with them.
JR: Having beaten the game, the sort of freedom I’m describing might undermine the ending—which is absolutely incredible, but might disappoint those who’ve heard the phrase “absolutely incredible” to describe it. Because we’ve become accustomed to the Big Twist.
JD: Well, to an extent, you could argue the big twist is the hospital scene.
JR: I don’t see that scene so much as a twist. It’s more of a realization.
I’m going to pontificate here for a bit. One of my favorite endings in pop culture is actually from the TV series Angel. From the very beginning of the series you hear about The Apocalypse, and as you get to the end, the characters all become preoccupied with trying to prevent it. And then Leslie has his speech, one of my favorite speeches in television (Angel actually was really good at those):
That The Apocalypse already happened—it was a slow doom. The Apocalypse wasn’t this thing that was coming, but was really just life happening to the characters, keeping them from standing in its way. The Last of Us is really similar in spirit in its climax: you’ve been playing as a selfish man, sympathizing with him, killing as him—all under the guise of saving humanity. But in going on this journey, you set in motion a story that dooms humanity.
JD: It’s much more of an internal closure than an ending, with some dramatic showdown/action blitz. It’s less concerned with that than being true to its story and characters.
JR: And what do you think of that? That it’s very much Naughty Dog’s story, to the point where you’re forced to go along with the script and have to kill the doctor and Marlene because Joel doesn’t want Ellie to die, even if it saves everyone?
JD: I was so, so pleased with that. I think Naughty Dog set out to tell a story, and while I love video games’ capacity to give players choice, I am always more than happy to go along with their story. (I’ve been doing it for years anyway.)
JR: Do you think that it sympathizes with Joel? One moment that was strange for me was the swelling, beautiful strings that come in as you lead Joel out of the hospital with Ellie in his arms. It left me feeling hollow in my gut, knowing what Joel’s decision meant.
JD: I feel like it’s intended to there, though. I was conflicted in the aftermath of all of that.
JR: I guess what I’m trying to get at is, why do you think it had to be a game? That’s what I’m turning over in my head.I think it works as an interrogation of the notion of a video game protagonist.
JD: I felt it needed to be, because its story is so much about subverting the idea of player control or authority that when the game forces you to do things as Joel, even though you realize they’re objectively bad, you still have to do them—because it’s true to the story and characters, not the power/morality fantasy players may want. Or something to that effect.
JR: Yeah! In the hospital, it felt like the devs were saying, “See this scene here? With Ellie on the operating table and the doctors cowering with fear? Here’s where other games would give you a Big Climactic Choice. We’re not that kind of game. Deal with it.”
JD: And they have every right to. I think it became such a trend to give players an illusion of choice (really just be good or be bad), and The Last of Us is saying, “We’re not going to do that. We have a story to tell, and we believe in that story.” Making the player have to commit the action that drives the story, even if they don’t agree, is brilliant.
JR: Definitely. There’s something to be said about video games’ need to worship the player. Too often games are about “Look at what you can do” and not “We’re going to make you think very hard about what it’s like to be someone that isn’t you.”
JD: And even when games more frequently had structured narratives that didn’t give players much choice, they were still all about empowering the player—so it didn’t matter if they lacked player choice. They made you feel awesome and mighty being those characters so there was usually little backlash.
JR: Yeah. Which is interesting to talk about in terms of The Last of Us, because I felt very different playing as Joel than I did as Ellie. After playing as Ellie, when I got to play as Joel again, I felt very powerful. But he becomes less sympathetic at the same time.
JD: Agreed, though in the end I still hadn’t lost total sympathy for him. But I could still recognize the monster he’d become.
JR: I’d go so far as to say that Joel’s journey is kind of a reflection of what a player goes through when playing games of a similar vein. The experience subtly changes your perspective, making you a slightly different person from the one you believe yourself to be. Maybe that’s a bridge too far, but I love that it’s open-ended enough to allow for that.
JD: No, I see where you’re going. I don’t know if that was the intent, but I wouldn’t fault someone for reading it that way at all. There’s such a wide spectrum of success when it comes to games making you feel like the protagonist, but I think that’s a really interesting relationship and one that most other mediums try to handle by presenting blank-slate or newcomer characters.
JR: BUT HOW BOUT DAT MUSIC.
JD: I bought the soundtrack.
JR: That really says it all, doesn’t it?
JD: It says quite a bit, but the long version is, I love it. Why I think it deserved so many of the accolades it received is because every individual part comes together to make the whole stronger. I think all major awards, whether it’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Best Drama at the Emmy Awards, or any other superlative need to take into consideration every facet of a project. The music is a key but often overlooked part. They didn’t overlook it here.
I take it you liked it as well?
JR: Oh man, it was beautiful.I loved how somber it was. Like the game’s narrative, it’s very understated, to the point that it just soars.
JD: Gustavo Santaolalla did an immaculate job with it. My favorite part of that live show they did was him playing it in person.
JR: Also, it’s interesting that it’s his only video game work.
JD: I think the promise of the game’s story and characters must have drawn him in. Don’t see him doing it again for a Devil May Cry anytime soon.
JR: Anything else you loved about the The Last of Us, maybe some specific moments?
JD: Giraffes, giraffes, giraffes.
JR: Hahaha, yes! The Jurassic Park scene, as I call it:
JD: Sure. Much more clever than me screaming “giraffes.” But I think there’s so much to the character and world building done in moments like Ellie looking at the nude magazine, her joke book, Joel looking at his watch—the game doesn’t really spell them out or draw attention, like, “Look, these are important!” The Last of Us lets them live. Like real, emotionally honest story beats.