McGinnis: Looking back at “The Last of Us”: What made Naughty Dog’s action game so special?Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It was the most private story to take place in an apocalyptic world. From the ruins of society, where the vast majority of the population has been wiped out or turned into hideous beasts intent on spreading deadly spores, came a tale that at its heart was really about family. What it means to be a father, what it means to have a father. How hard it is to let go, even when the fate of the world is at stake — especially when that same world has already taken so much from you.
It is that human heart above all that made “The Last of Us” the best game of 2013, and probably the best game of its entire hardware generation. Coming at the end of the PlayStation 3′s life cycle — as the new and shiny PS4 was right around the corner — developers Naughty Dog unleashed a game that underlined, once and for all, how games could tell a story that was as involving, as personal and as subtle as any in fiction.
People had played third-person shooters before. But they had never met characters quite like Joel and Ellie. And though the actual gameplay of “The Last of Us” was outstanding — honed by Naughty Dog through its experience making the far different “Uncharted” franchise — it was the individuals players met on the journey that made the game the singular and powerful experience it was.
“The Last of Us” has been re-released for PlayStation 4, coming with polished up graphics, additional downloadable content and more. But the core of the experience still lies in the relationship between the two most distinctive individuals gaming has maybe ever seen.
We meet Joel (played in motion capture and voice by actor Troy Baker) on the eve of the world being torn apart. He’s worried about losing his job, gently scolding his daughter for staying up late, teasing her that his new birthday present might be broken already. It’s clear in just a few words how much his daughter’s love means to him. When she is killed in the initial outbreak, it’s clear something dies inside Joel, as well.
We catch up with him twenty years later, as life has been radically altered by the fungal outbreak which turns people into “the infected.” Unlike most zombie stories, society has not been completely eradicated by the infection, but intensified — a few isolated cities still stand, fortified against the infected, and people inside struggle to survive against the oppressive governmental regime which holds the virus at bay.
Joel survives as an outlaw, smuggling contraband with a partner named Tess. She is a firebrand. He is the muscle. The pair is contracted to transport unusual cargo — a young girl named Ellie (played by Ashley Johnson), who they learn is immune to the virus. Her body may be the key to finding a cure. When Tess is infected early in the trip, she makes Joel promise to follow through with the mission, leaving Joel and Ellie to trek cross-country to the people who may be able to save humanity.
As a story, this doesn’t sound like anything new, necessarily. A treacherous road trip with unlikely partners, who grow to like and love one another, is one of the oldest of tales. But as with any story, it’s not what is told, but how. And as this pair travel the horrific highways of an overgrown America, fending off infected and human alike, the distinct personalities they present gives the story a life and heart all its own.
Ellie, who has never known a world without the plague, has loved and lost just like Joel (a fact that is underlined by the excellent “Left Behind” DLC, included with the PS4 version of “Last of Us”). Players watch as two wounded souls find in each other a piece that can complete the other. Which is what makes it all the more powerful as the story pounds its way toward the thrilling climax, where both characters make choices that underline the evolution they have gone through.
We may not agree with either’s decision. But as with most great stories, we can understand and believe that they would come to such a conclusion at the end of their tale. There is much talk about a sequel to “The Last of Us,” as there always is when a game is successful. Though I would welcome more stories set in this universe, I for one hope that the tale of Joel and Ellie is left as it is. A singular, perfect example of how a game can say something profound about love, loss, hope and fate. And how when you love someone more than the world, that might mean the world will have to deal with the consequences.