It was never for nothing, Naughty Dog. Never.
(SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS FROM EIGHTH PARAGRAPH ONWARDS)
Placing in GOTY list: first, 2013|Watch a Cullen Plays LIVE live stream of The Last of Us right now here
It takes just ten minutes for The Last of Us to give you that first emotional punch in the gut with its opening salvo. I counted a further three times throughout the game where it gives you a similar punch to the gut – the confrontation between Ellie and Joel in Fall, the final scene of Winter (I want to come back to that) and *those scenes* just at the start of Spring (again, I’m going to come back to that).
See, in doing these playthroughs of this entire top ten, I don’t think I’ve had one game that I’ve written more story notes on than gameplay or anything else than The Last of Us. All I can mostly correspond to in the eleven pages of notes I’d written on the game is the story of Joel and Ellie and their cross-country adventure throughout an entire year, twenty years after the outbreak of the Cordyceps virus and the events of the game’s prologue.
Yes, the crafting system works. Whilst I was playing on normal, it still makes you think tactically with the items you’ve gotten, strategies that will get harder on higher difficulties. One alcohol left is the difference between life and death as you decide to whether to craft a molotov cocktail or a health kit that could be the key difference in surviving a horde of Hunters or infected, or being killed by a bullet or the nastiest of bites from a Clicker (though you can never have enough Shivs to take down a Clicker or two in the Boston underground).
Yes, stealth feels much better and much improved in play than, say, in another certain Naughty Dog game (Uncharted 2) and more suited to something like The Last of Us as you try to avoid infected and even human enemies. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction in taking down a swarm of Hunters before getting to the hotel in Pittsburgh quietly rather than going in guns blazing. In fact, if anything, it’s a testament of how well The Last of Us managed to mesh action and horror better than most action-horror games that have attempted to do so with a tense atmosphere like no other.
Yes, you absolutely should play this game with a pair of headphones. You immediately recognise more so how incredible the sound design is when you have a set of cans in your ears.
Yes, multiplayer makes sense and it’s actually fun to play to boot. It’s one of the very few multiplayer suites in a game that makes sense and perhaps even one of the rarer ones that further ties it into the narrative of the backstory and the rivalry between the Hunters and Fireflies. And, like I said, it’s incredibly fun to play.
And yes, even after seven years since the system first released, it’s one of the best looking games on PlayStation 3. It’s not a massive leap over Uncharted the way UC1 to UC2 was, but man, you can’t help but still be impressed at the scope of it and the superb lighting in levels like Lincoln or in Colorado. It’s a beautiful game to marvel at and it shows.
But even despite those massively important things, the remaining notes I do have is mainly on the story of how much can happen to two people throughout the course of a year, how much can change within them whilst on this journey. As the game wraps up, its come a long way from the knife-wielding introduction Ellie gives to Joel (plus Tess), and the reluctance of teaming up together in Boston, and in the final third sees a kind of personality switch between the two.
The absolute innocence of Ellie in the game (though she can swear like there’s no tomorrow) shines through, but especially in certain bits. Being surrounded by actual fireflies as we enter Lincoln, being caught off by the fact in the old world trucks used to come and sell ice cream to kids on the street and seeing a pair of dogs playfully fighting amongst each other on the street (“Aww, doggies!”) in the suburbs of Pittsburgh shows off that innocence. Yet, it seems at risk when Joel is impaled at the end of Fall and, having to mostly survive by herself throughout the entirety of Winter, is taken from her as she beats ten snots of Sunday into the Nolan North-voiced David with a machete, which left me clenching my fist and digging my nails into my palm with chills running down me as you see her continuing to attack David after he’s already dead.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the closed book nature of Joel, twenty years after the outbreak and losing his daughter Sarah in the most heartbreaking of ways after celebrating his birthday and being given a watch by Sarah – of which he doesn’t seem to too appreciative of besides a fleeting thanks (seeing the card Sarah forgets to give to him just breaks your heart even more given what’s about to happen) – eventually starts to open up bit-by-bit to Ellie with the turning point being running into that burning diner and consoling Ellie at the end of Winter.
It’s the one scene The Last of Us had been building towards: a relationship that had begun as distant as could be to slowly becoming a sort of companionship to finally evolve into the Father-Daughter like relationship it became with the simple sentence ‘Oh, baby girl,’ a term he’d only said to one person before: his own daughter, Sarah. From there, tears came streaming.
This role-reversal is perfectly summed up by what happens at the start of Spring. Ellie, the innocent 14-year old teenager who swears like (almost literally) there is no tomorrow and is the more talkative and open of the two for a good portion of the game, is quiet and closed as she seems to go through some sort of survivor’s guilt after what went down in Winter. Meanwhile, Joel is now the more open of the two and even promises that once everything’s done, he’ll teach her how to play guitar.
But then something happens within that Salt Lake City bus station which revitalises Ellie. After somewhat reluctantly sent to grab a ladder from above – a far cry from the “Teamwork…Yeah” high-five banter between her and Joel at the dam in Fall – we bear witness to wild giraffes that are roaming part of Salt Lake City. Add in the perfect usage of Gustavo Santalalla’s soundtrack and you have one of the most beautiful scenes that has ever been included in a game. I spent a full 20 minutes overlooking that view from that rooftop. But more importantly in the context of the game, after everything that happened, it’s a view that instills hope back into Ellie and reminds her that this entire journey she’s been on this past year has, indeed, not been for nothing up to that point.
There’s so many things The Last of Us does well, but that role-reversal of sorts, that kind of character development between Ellie and Joel is probably the biggest of them all. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s portrayals throughout the entire game is brilliant, but its in that one massive stint between the start of Fall and the cutscene as you get off that rooftop in Utah where those characters – and Baker and Johnson’s chemistry together as actors – are at their absolute peak.
The tranquility of the giraffes as well as Sarah’s death, that showdown between Ellie and Joel at Tommy’s ranch and Ellie hacking at David with a machete followed by Joel running in to comfort her just after one of the most traumatic things she’s ever gone through give such a direct emotional kick without having to build you up for it (in comparison to Metal Gear Solid 3, as duly observed recently in this fantastic post mortem that I highly advise you watch in its entirety).
Even the complaints I do have of some bits being perhaps too gamey, such as the suburbs sniper bit or the David fight, feel somewhat minor enough to overlook because the overwhelming sum of The Last of Us is too incredible to behold. Only a handful of games have poked some sort of emotional response, but just three have provoked such a massive, resonating feeling that have produced actual tears. The Last of Us is one of those three games. And I love it so much for that reason.
Which is why I don’t want to see a sequel.
We’re an industry that, for better or worse, love our sequels. But The Last of Us feels like a one-off, self-contained experience. There’s no need to further the story of Joel and Ellie, despite the events of the game’s ending and *that look* on Ellie’s face that I’d like to think most players who’ve finished the game by now know the context of.
Playing through as Joel and Ellie – or even just one of them (Ellie is an easily capable character whilst playing as her in Winter and is, despite having her own little vulnerabilities, one of the strongest female characters to ever be in a game) – would somewhat dilute the incredible experience I had of playing through their epic year-long adventure.
Yeah, of course Naughty Dog could tell the story of other characters within such a bleak and desolate world with little-to-no hope left in it. And of course, there’s Left Behind, the single-player DLC which comes early next year featuring Ellie and Riley in a mini-prequel for the game. But even then, I’d be perfectly fine with this being a one-off experience.
Either way, The Last of Us is a game we can hold up in the highest of regards as the absolute best example our industry can provide in regards to the question ‘are games a genuine form of entertainment’.
The Last of Us is special. Game of the Year doesn’t even come close to how I feel about it. Game of the Generation gets it partly there. But it overtaking Metal Gear Solid 3, the first game I truly fell in love with and the one game that made me realise that all I want to do was write about games, as my favourite game ever is probably the biggest honour I can bestow upon it.
It was never for nothing. Rather, it was for something. Something special. And when you run out of words or superlatives to describe it, you know it’s time to stop writing.
Highlight: The final few minutes of Winter – those final few minutes between Joel and Ellie perfectly encapsulated the entire relationship the game had been building up to by that point.
Find the full top ten list for Game of the Generation plus special and honourable mentions here.