The Last of Us hasn’t been a game I’ve been eager to revisit from a single player perspective since I wrote my review. The campaign is dense and left me with a myriad of emotions. I’ve been chewing on how I feel about the way things ended and wrapped up with Joel and Ellie and have been listening to others on Twitter, podcasts and through reviews. There’s nothing good about the Last of Us in the way that it makes the player feel. It’s dark and it gets darker, but it was in this reflection that I realized that during my play-through of the Last of Us, that I became a monster.
**Note: If you haven’t completed the Last of Us, there are SPOILERS in this article. Here is your last chance to turn back.**
After Joel loses Sarah at the beginning of the game we don’t catch up with him until 20 years have passed. In losing Sarah, Joel lost a part of himself and as time progressed he became a different man. He’s black inside, searching for something to fill the void but unable, and to a point unwilling, to fill it. He transformed into a survivor, doing what it took to survive and dull the pain and sadness that consumed his heart. I empathized with Joel. I had seen the man he had been before the outbreak and felt for him throughout the campaign, especially as his (and my own) relationship with Ellie developed. The pacing of the Last of Us is one of its strongest points. Its dark and brooding atmosphere, and emphasis on stealth, lends itself to sneaking through areas at a quiet crawl. It leaves ample opportunity for the player to think about moves and tactics for avoiding or engaging enemies. They say that once you have hunted another man, the hunting of mere animals has no sense of fulfillment. In the Last of Us, I was a hunter of men. Although resources are precious, and the avoidance of enemy units is encouraged I was of the opinion that a dead enemy was one that I no longer needed to worry about. The decisions I made became less about fight or flight and more about how to kill.
I would sit in a dark corner, pressed up against a wall, listening and watching my quarry’s movements and patterns. I would navigate the terrain as quietly as possible to place myself perfectly to give me the highest probability of a successful and quiet kill. Bullets are scarce, even on Normal difficulty, and guns are noisy. When employing guerrilla tactics there is a reliance on the tactical advantage that the enemy doesn’t know where you are. So revealing my position by firing a weapon became a method of last resort. When I had the opportunity I would employ the bow and arrow to take out humans, runners, and clickers silently from a distance. More often than not though, the landscape was tight and confined. Overturned desks, couches, and counters littered rooms. Concrete barriers and abandoned vehicles crowded streets and wide open areas. All of the obstacles broke up line of sight, granting me cover and the opportunity to kill them… intimately.
One of the most amazing things in the Last of Us is how human the character models are. One point in particular are the eyes. Never before in a game have the eyes been closer to “windows to the soul” than in the Last of Us. The amount of expression and depth is just brilliant. This humanity that is built into their characters is even more apparent when Joel kills people in hand to hand situations. The Last of Us contains a level of brutality that is right at home in God of War but is less over the top. Men die dramatic, gut-wrenching deaths when Joel comes up behind them to choke them out. They pull at his arm, eyes bulging, coughing and hacking. Their feet kick, only to stop when their life has been snuffed out. Choking; however, isn’t the only option in punching their ticket to the virtual afterlife. Joel can craft shivs which are crude blades made from scavenged sharp, pointy things and tape. It allows him to kill silently, as jabbing it into an enemy’s throat leaves them gurgling and spurting blood rather than alerting their nearby ‘brothers-in-arms’ through their relatively noisy struggles. When I encountered David’s men, the Hunters, I didn’t see them as other survivors, even though I knew they were. They were, in the scope of the game, men who might have had families, that were doing what they had to do to survive. To me and Joel, they were in the way.
Even when playing as Ellie, the thrill of the hunt was there. For instance, when she rides the horse away from their hideout to draw David’s men away from Joel, who is almost dead, I took literal pleasure from picking off David’s troops. I moved from house to house by the lakeside and took them out one at-a-time. I would be damned if they were going to stop us, to stop Ellie from saving Joel and protecting him while he was vulnerable. We had come so far on our journey together. Playing as Ellie did two things for me in the Last of Us. It not only brought me closer to her as a character, it also demonstrated the depth of the gameplay. Fighting a grown man as a 14 year old girl heads up, even with a knife, is never a good idea. Whereas Joel was right at home getting into a fist-fight, kicks and punches sapped Ellie’s health extremely fast.
The survive-at-all-costs mentality culminated for me in two very graphic scenes. The first was when Joel interrogated (read tortured and murdered) two of David’s men to find where Ellie was held after being kidnapped by David. The second was after reaching the Firefly’s only to find out that they would end up sacrificing Ellie to find a cure. The scene that played out between the Firefly guard and Joel kicked the adrenaline into overdrive and I was bound and determined to stop them. I slaughtered the Firefly guards in the single-minded pursuit of saving Ellie and dooming the world to the hell that it had become. Ellie was part of me, part of Joel. They couldn’t take her away from us and we had the means to prevent them from doing so.
Listening to and reading others’ reactions to the Last of Us made my experience all the more harrowing as descriptions of avoiding conflict were pervasive and numerous in many of the discussions I overheard and accounts that I read. Reading descriptions of just how uncomfortable the deaths made some people feel was insightful into just how well the Last of Us pushes our buttons and how committed it is to its dark narrative. In this game, I had become the monster that I so normally despise in film and books. The person that loses their humanity in the process of just surviving. Just like in real life, when it comes to survival and moments of life and death, morality turns to shades of gray instead of black and white. The Last of Us excels at communicating the dire situations that Joel and Ellie are put in. It was survive or die. It was about protecting those that mattered to me and Joel. No matter the cost… and what terrible cost it was.