One Life Left: The Last of Us

By Alex Newhouse

How do you confront the unthinkable? How do you persevere in the darkest situation imaginable, when everything familiar and comforting is warped and erased? How do you face the destruction of the human race? Like so many other works of fiction, The Last of Us tackles these questions and tries to present some spark of hope in the hopelessness of the apocalypse.

From the shattered highways to the roving bands of cannibals to the dynamic, intense love story between a child and a fatherly figure, The Last of Us exudes the influence of the novelist Cormac McCarthy. But although it shares a lineage with The Road, The Last of Us goes even deeper, impacting the very foundation of what it means to be human, by making the player take control of a violent, ruthless, but wildly protective and compassionate protagonist.

This game is a descent into the deepest areas of the human mind, where actions swing suddenly from the tender and caring to the brutal and animalistic. It is, put simply, a masterpiece. It transcends what it means to be a game, giving the player an experience that rivals the most moving novels and the most profound films.

The Last of Us chronicles the journey of a grizzled, rough man named Joel and his companion, a young girl named Ellie. The vast majority of humans have been infected by a fungus that hijacks their minds and renders them husks hell-bent on spreading the infection. The game follows Joel and Ellie as they travel across the United States, meeting others along the way who both help and hurt them in their quest to elude the infected.

But this is not simply a zombie story. Between bouts of tense and heart-wrenching violence, lulls in the game provide opportunities for touching and emotional vignettes about both Ellie and Joel. Ellie’s soft exclamation of “Look! Fireflies!” belies an otherwise tough and weathered exterior of a girl grown old beyond her years. Tracing notes throughout a sewer system uncovers the story of a man and his quest for survival and acceptance. Graffiti on the walls hints at an underground insurgency dedicated to overthrowing the dictatorial military state in power. And throughout the game, Joel’s brutality softens into something nearing love as his relationship with Ellie becomes stronger.

When you’re not wandering the world and looking for supplies, you will be fighting the infected. The fighting is punctuated by brutal executions and an excess of blood and gore, but rather than glamorizing the fighting, the extreme bodily destruction emphasizes the dark, anarchic world. It’s not fun — but it’s effective. It makes you think about your actions, it makes you feel for the victims and it makes you disgusted with the necessity of the violence.

And with every moment in the game, the most perfect music swells to fit the scene. The Last of Us has the best soundtrack I have ever heard. Its eerie percussive beats and lethargic guitar melodies exactly fit the atmosphere of the game, and I still cannot listen to the opening piece without shivering a little as I remember how it felt to first enter that world and confront the monumental task of survival.

On a psychological level, this game is hard to play. The combat sequences are suspenseful and I found myself approaching each one extremely tentatively. Encounters with the infected often bordered on terrifying, and I became jumpy whenever I heard the telltale scratchy shrieks of the Clickers, the most menacing of the infected. But fortunately, there are lulls in the combat. The most striking moments in the game come between fights, when the world goes silent and you have free reign to wander the abandoned houses, to read journals left by children sent to quarantine and to wonder what happened in each new region you explore. And ultimately, the game concludes at its highest point: nostalgic, intense, full of  flawed love, and with a great exhale of stress as you realize that your journey across the country has finally come to a close.

The Last of Us is a game, but it is also an interactive novel and a huge, rich, realistic world. This is the story of a destroyed America just as it is the tale of a man’s relationship with a girl, and how, between the two, some small part of the emotional, irrational and magnificent side of humanity survives. It is sad, it is bleak, it is desperate, but The Last of Us captures a piece of the human experience more perfectly than the vast majority of fiction before it. This is one of the best games ever, and it follows well in the legacy of The Road as one of the best pieces of post-apocalyptic literature ever created.