As the species at the top of the food chain, humans – particularly in the more affluent countries – don’t really know what it is to struggle to survive. We complain about the job we didn’t get, about the price of petrol and food, and about the girl or boy that got away. We even complain about our own ‘brothers and sisters’ seeking refuge to escape persecution or war. But our survival isn’t about life or death, it’s about luxury, wealth and pleasure – and we have forgotten parts of our humanity in the process.The Last Of Us reminds us what it is to be human.
The world envisaged by Naughty Dog is a bleak one. The Last Of Us tells the story of humanity being brought to its knees after the rapid spread of a fungal infection that renders its victims walking dead, with only a few quarantine zones as the last bastions of hope. Those that remain are fighting to survive, scrounging for food and supplies, fighting against their infected foes and turning on each other in a bid to stay alive.
The Last Of Us is breathtakingly stunning. The buildings are crumbling after years of neglect and the trees have overgrown our once great architectural achievements. But the sheer artistry of Naughty Dog’s artists and designers makes this destroyed world beautiful and brimming with detail. These aren’t just kill boxes, or walled environments covered in detailed textures, they are homes and workplaces, restaurants and shops. The world feels real and lived-in, and is stunningly realised. It manages to paint a bleak picture of the world you’re playing in, while still oozing with beauty and an impossible serenity. The frantic moments where you are fighting for your life are masterfully punctuated by stretches of exploration, time for you to stop and take a breath and admire the beautiful world. And you will feel compelled to explore each and every nook and cranny. Each and every location tells a story – the homes that were evacuated in a hurry, coffee still on the table and childrens’ toys on the the bed show the panic at the onset of the pandemic. The people that once lived in these cities may be dead, but the environments have all had life breathed into them by first-class craftsmanship. You play as Joel, a battle hardened and world-weary man who lived through the onset of the virus and suffered his own losses in the process. Early in the game he is partnered with Ellie, a sharp-tongued teenager who knows nothing other than life in the quarantine zone. And it is the interaction between these two, an odd-pairing, and the people they meet along the way that brings it all together into one cohesive whole. Ellie in particular left me in awe of how real these characters feel. Born after the event, Ellie is inspiring in her observations of the world she never knew. Her new-found obsession with comic books, her curiosity at pop culture are refreshing – watching her flick through records in an abandoned store is one of the most amazing moments in any video game I’ve ever played. Similarly her dismay at the horrible acts committed by able-bodied and -minded humans against one another are haunting and disturbing reminders of just how bad we can be as a species. But amongst all of this there is this amazing sense of hope emanating from her character. She embodies the side in all of us, admittedly or not, that can see through the horror and the hopelessness to what could be. And it is the way that this hope gradually rubs off on Joel, the hardened survivor of the wasteland, that makes it a jaw-dropping and heartwarming depiction of the importance of relationships in our daily lives.
I felt like I was Joel and by the end of the game I felt like I knew Ellie as well as anyone in real life. I would do anything to protect her, and whenever we were seperated my heart remained in my mouth until I found her safe and unharmed. I felt like I had lived through the nightmarish hell that these characters had to go through just to survive. The places, the situations, the near death experiences, the kills and the loss – they all now sit firmly in my mind as if they were my own memories. And while there are no polaroid pictures or diary entries, that 16 or so hours I spent making my way across a depressing and dilapidated version of the United States of America felt like a burden I had to bear. While the Last of Us is a brilliantly designed game that is moment to moment a blast to play through, the mechanics of the game, the controller in my hand, they were all irrelevant compared to the characters, the places and the story that Naughty Dog has told. The Last Of Us wasn’t a game, it was a journey. And it was a journey that has left me speechless.
[penned in place of words by Sir Gaulian]