There are monsters out there. They lurk in the sewers, they scour the suburbs, they roam the crumbling, collapsing cities. The haunt the historic neighbourhoods of the east. They track through the thickening snow of the frozen west. They’re horrific caricatures of what human beings used to be and they all stare at Ellie with hungry, vacant eyes. Mindless, slavering, they’re motivated only by that most base self-interest: survival.
It’s truly horrible to see what human beings have become. They have turned. They have transformed into predators and even cannibals, amoral animals that prey on the weak. And I’m not sure if your journey is any different.
Somewhere in the background of all this are the Infected, those who succumbed to a mutated version of Cordyceps, the fungus that infects and takes control of insects, manipulating them to spread its spores before turning them into husks out of which new fungi sprout. In an act of magnificent misdirection, The Last of Us leads you to believe that it’s a game all about fighting the Infected, maybe even about defeating them.
The Last of Us is a game about lies.
Its narrative arc is perfect. Beginning with the merciless and clearly unnecessary killing of a girl, it doesn’t get any better from there. After clearly telegraphing who the real monsters are, it shows you both how they turn on one another and how their attempts to cope with a very different world create distrust and disorder. It ends with another merciless and clearly unnecessary killing as part of an attempt to save another girl. And another transformation into a monster.
Since Night of the Living Dead, zombie narratives have always been as much about how people treat one another as they are about surviving any apocalypse. They show them at their best, they show them at their worst and there’s frequently a subtext that comments on something such as humanity, morality or consumerism. The Last of Us approaches subtext with the same originality and harshness with which it approaches everything else. It says that we lie to ourselves, constantly, and that this has terrible consequences.
We’re too distracted by what we’re doing to see the truth and there are certainly plenty of spectacular distractions to keep us busy. Six years on, The Last of Us is still a remarkable game, dragging us through deliciously decrepit urban landscapes with ruined skyscrapers collapsing into one another, rural retreats overgrown and untouched and, in one particularly memorable moment, a reclaimed hydroelectric dam. Unique set pieces pepper this progress and one moment you’re hanging upside-down as you fight back zombie hordes, the next you’re up in a sniper’s nest, covering the frantic advance of your friends.
It’s all uncompromisingly violent. Heads are smashed against walls. Throats are choked. Teeth tear into flesh and someone is taking a bullet through the skull every other minute. While there are moments of respite, from gentle horseback journeys to an unexpected encounter with escaped giraffes, these are few and far between. We barely have time to reflect and that’s the point.
The combat was and still is one of the best combinations of third-person stealth and gunplay that there is. After gently schooling you in the importance of not being seen, the game gradually rewards you with a growing arsenal of weapons to employ at your discretion. Through pacing that is just about perfect, you upgrade these weapons to make them ever more impressive, but right up to the very climax of the game it’s frequently just as wise an idea to sneak and to stab as it is to engage in unrestrained gunplay. Ammunition can be scarce and your opponents are savvy.
And they’re savvy because they’re so often human. Your first kill is a helpless person who begs for death, knowing that the Cordyceps fungus is in their system and that they’ll soon turn. Once again, the game telegraphs what is to come. You continue by taking down a team of smugglers and soon you’re slaughtering whole gangs of scavengers, outlaws or even authorities who you have crossed. You don’t seem to keep friends for very long. That, I’m afraid, is never a good sign.
Like everything else, the Infected are teased before they’re truly unleashed. Your first clicker again emphasises the value of stealth as it hunts you by sound, twitching in response to a bottle you just hurled. The first few human hosts you meet are relatively harmless and easily managed. Then, suddenly, you’re trapped in a museum with dozens of them rampaging their way through recent history, coming at you in close quarters and exhausting the supply of shivs you keep to slice your way out of trouble.
But I swear I killed far more people than I ever did Infected. Even though humans are supposed to be in short supply, with society fractured and floundering in the face of this mutant menace, it seems that they’re finding any excuse they can to kill one another. I shot them. I cut them. I set them on fire. Still they kept coming. It was justified. They were all bad people and this was in the service of a far higher cause. This was for Ellie.
Ellie, of course, is special, and Ellie must be protected. After that merciless murder of his daughter, protagonist Joel must surely harbour feelings of paternal protectiveness as he escorts Ellie across the United States. Exactly what he thinks is hard to tell, though, as he’s frequently grouchy, uncommunicative and avoidant. Even as the journey lengthens and the months roll by, he dismisses many of Ellie’s questions and seems to even resent the bond that grows between them. In spite of her street smarts and growing independence, it’s too long before he trusts her with a weapon. When you’re at last given direct control of her, it feels like a long overdue liberation that very quickly turns into a validation of all her skills.
Ellie’s transformation is a good one.
The Last of Us also continues to provide what is arguably the best blueprint for a protagonist and sidekick working together. Not only is the growing connection between Joel and Ellie carefully and credibly developed across the arc of the game, Ellie’s increasing competence makes her an ever more valuable and viable ally in a fight. This thoroughly trounces the efforts of Bioshock Infinite, released just one year before. While that game’s Elizabeth was a twirling, smiling friend who tossed ammo toward you and threatened to descend into doe-eyed deferentiality, Ellie constantly unleashes expletives and questions every other decision. She demands answers and makes decisions. She’s her own person from the very start.
And then there’s Joel.
You are Joel. I was Joel. We were all Joel. And surely, of all the people in the world, I can’t be the only one who resented him. The only one who came to despise him. Joel’s transformation was not a good one, though I wonder now, as I write this, if he was always this way. If he’d already turned long ago.
On the surface of it, Joel undertakes a noble quest to protect a young damsel in the hope that, together, they can find a way to heal a broken world. In practice, he’s patronising, hostile and, ultimately, profoundly dishonest. During the game’s final moments, I didn’t enjoy being Joel and I didn’t like what he was doing.
The moment I realised, all too late, that Joel had turned was the moment that The Last of Us gave me no choice but to kill a doctor. Joel killed him as quickly and as ruthlessly as he kills so many other people, which is the way that Joel solves almost all of his problems. Then, during its uncomfortable and unsettling ending, Joel told Ellie a lie that could not possibly endure. As the epilogue closed, it was difficult not to read so much doubt in her muted response.
I almost didn’t reach that epilogue. I was so angry at Joel that I nearly stopped playing. I don’t remember the last time a video game provoked such a reaction from me.
The Last of Us is a game about lies. It’s about survivors locked inside militarised compounds convincing themselves they’re better than the horrors outside. It’s about burying your feelings. It’s about telling yourself the ends justify the means. It’s about never facing up, never being vulnerable and refusing to face the consequences of your actions. It’s about that timeless facet of toxic masculinity that is older men who think they know best.
It continues to resonate, six years on, because these are all things we have experienced and can relate to. Consciously or not. And because we’ve all seen others who have turned.