I unwrapped the packaging for The Last of Us for the first time and sat down with one of my best friends to show him this new game before we left the house to meet friends. As the emotional prologue finished, he looked to me and said: “Why don’t you just play a little bit more?”
Two days, and 12 hours later of gameplay later, we sat in dumbstruck silence as The Last of Us appeared dramatically on the closing scene, which saw Joel promising Ellie that everything he’d told her about the Fireflies was true. This last scene and everything that led up to it was filled with some of the most incredible moments I’ve ever seen on a screen of any size; that I’d ever seen from any form of media. Despite the fact that I’ve basically played games my whole life, this one was different. This one changed me. Because I had played games that were beautiful, meaningful, well-written, well-acted, and impactful before. But I’d never played such a perfectly balanced game from a narrative and storytelling perspective, and while there are many games I’d say are “perfect”, The Last of Us was the first on my short list of perfect games that emotionally affected me so profoundly.
I’ve played through Naughty Dog’s masterpiece several times since that fateful summer in 2013, with my most recent playthrough coming this last December, and I have to tell you that it hit me even harder this time around, and I can tell you exactly why: Holy cow does this game get heavier when you’re a parent. The themes, the moments, and the relationships you forge in The Last of Us have only become more relatable, more impactful, and more poignant as the years have passed since its release. As I anxiously await the release date for The Last of Us 2, I decided to take a deeper dive into what makes The Last of Us, in my mind, one of the most accurate examples of video games as a work of art.
***NOTE*** I will be covering potential spoilers below, so if you haven’t beaten The Last of Us yet, I highly recommend you turn off your phone or computer immediately and find a PlayStation 4 to play the remaster as soon as humanly possible. Anyway, I digress…
As I’ve mentioned time and time again here on The Daily Crate, sound design in a video game is a major factor I consider when I think of the best games ever made, and the music and overall sound design in The Last of Us is nothing short of phenomenal. From the perfect melancholy musical scores in beautiful and haunting moments in the game to the subtle and terrifying sounds made by clickers as you sneak your way through dark caves and broken down buildings, the sound design and music in this game are truly second to none. It is so good, in fact, that I wasn’t remotely surprised to find that the composer for the game was award-winning Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has taken home BAFTA, Grammy’s, and Academy Awards for his incredible work over the years – the latter of which includes back to back Best Original Score Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and Babel. And if I’m being honest, I’m really glad Naughty Dog went out and sought the work of someone so talented, because there are numerous moments throughout the game that I guarantee would not have worked the way they did had it not been for Gustavo’s tremendous talent – and fortunately for us, Gustavo will be reprising his role as composer for The Last of Us 2, and we are all much, much luckier for it.
Visually, this game is truly breathtaking. There are moments throughout your playthrough where you’re exploring dilapidated buildings in post-apocalyptic cities, and some that see you exploring an unbridled wilderness – and each piece of scenery, each set piece, every single thing you set eyes on in this game is given such a tremendous attention to detail that this game holds up in the best possible way nearly six years removed from its release. The art design and character design in this game put the PlayStation 3 to the absolute limit and was so good that the PlayStation 4 remaster hardly had to change a thing to keep this game feeling like a visual masterpiece. This game really is a sight to behold from its opening scene to its closing credits, as you really get to see a wide range of characters, creatures, and scenic destinations that keep things visually interesting, and visually appealing, for the entire 10+ hour playthrough.
Challenge is typically something I look for on my short list of “what makes a great game”, and The Last of Us is the perfect balance of challenge and strategy that makes third-person adventure games so great. It’s very much reminiscent of video game franchises like Resident Evil or Naughty Dog’s other hit Uncharted in regards to an almost intentional clunkiness when it comes to interacting with the world, picking things up, moving things, and even fighting people – either in hand to hand combat, or with a firearm. This is not a twitchy fast-paced frenetic shooter game where you’re going to 360 no-scope headshot the bad guys, and that is totally okay and certainly makes it feel realistic, at least in my mind, because I imagine if I was in Joel or Ellie’s shoes, I wouldn’t be calmly and surgically landing blazing fast headshots on clickers as they race to tear me limb from limb. And I am really glad the combat system in TLOU wasn’t faster and more refined, because I think that would have taken me out of the game in a way that the claustrophobic anxiety attack combat you experience instead, which is a system that gives me the closest kind of idea as to how I might actually react if I truly was in the protagonist’s shoes.
Finally, the pièce de résistance for The Last of Us is obviously the incredible story it has to tell. This game is a tour de force from start to finish, from the aforementioned prologue that has one of the most emotional starts to a game in video game history, to the final seconds that Joel and Ellie after narrowly escaping the latter’s death at the hands of the Fireflies – and that narrow escape might be one of the most heartwrenching and controversial endings to a game I’ve ever played, as I was met with some of the most “morally grey” choices I’ve ever encountered with a video game controller in my hand. The story in this game is equal parts beautiful, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and heartwarming. You’re going to laugh, you’re going to cry, and if you’re like me you’re going to pause the game on more than one occasion to catch your breath and wonder aloud “did that just happen?”. And like I said before, I didn’t think this story could have hit me any harder until I played through it again as a dad, and let me tell you some things about a 31-year-old man quietly blubbering to himself 15 minutes into a video game…