Last time I wrote about games that let me travel vicariously to places that at least conceivably exist in today’s world. The focus was generally on pulpy action games like Uncharted or Far Cry. This week, I want to share a game that has probably been written about so much that it’s driving gamers mad (but I’m going to do it anyhow, so there): The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is one of the best games to have ever been made. I know – any of you who play games with some frequency are probably shouting at the screen, “We know already! Shut up about it!” The fact of the matter is this: the game beautifully captures the absolute highs and lows human nature while remaining a joy to play and having absolutely stunning graphical and audio fidelity. This isn’t a review of the game, but trust me – it is 100% worth a playing.
The Last of Us is truly the sum of its parts, but for me, the game is special because of it’s storytelling. At it’s core, The Last of Us is a story about a road trip. Granted, this is the road trip from hell – one of the worst road trips that you could imagine, but somehow, that’s what makes the game so incredibly good.
Games that focus on truly intimate human interaction are pretty rare, especially when it comes to those that fit into the action-adventure genre. I look at it this way, if you are playing a game where the main verb is “shoot” or “fight,” the story may be spectacular, but it’s unlikely that there is a secondary or leading character that your character is going to have any form of meaningful relationship with. At best, your character’s parent/friend/lover/acquaintance of a secondary character is probably someone who is lost/captured/needs to be avenged. There are very few games that are the exception to this, though they are becoming more common.
Games like Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us take a different tact and for the majority of the game, you have a character who is arguably more important than your own, tagging along with you on the journey. Really, the success that The Last of Us has with this concept shouldn’t be that surprising. The Last of Us comes from Naughty Dog, the same studio that makes the character and plot heavy (when compared to other action-adventure games) Uncharted games.
The Last of Us puts you in the shoes of the miserable Joel, a man who lost everything in the apocalyptic outbreak of a human strain of the cordyceps fungus. Basically, a fungus has started using humans as hosts, with a progression of symptoms ranging from enraged runners, to the blind clickers, to the nearly all fungus bloaters and finally death as the fungus matures and completely bursts from the host’s body. There is no cure.
The game picks up 20 years after the apocalypse. Humanity is holding on, but barely. Distinct quarantine zones have been set up in city centers and are defended to keep the infected from getting in. Joel lives in the Boston Quarantine Zone and is quickly introduced to Ellie, a girl who is quickly revealed to have been bitten, but never infected. She may be the answer to a cure and Joel is tasked with smuggling Ellie out of the quarantine zone and across the country to a lab at the University of Colorado. The lab is run by a splinter group known as the Fireflies, who, unlike everyone else, are still looking for a cure instead of just surviving.
What follows is as I stated earlier, the road trip from hell. Not only must Joel and Ellie dodge the infected, but groups of bandits and other survivors who are less-than-kind to outsiders or “tourists.” While this leads to a lot of action and suspense, the game really shines in its quieter moments. It is in these moments that Naughty Dog manages to show the dynamics of what goes on between two people who are effectively trapped in each other’s company 24/7. Joel and Ellie share moments of pure travel bliss (which I’ve mentioned before), but also the complete defeat of things not going according to plan. These two people start out barely knowing each other, but by the end behave as though they were father and daughter.
Road trips, and to a degree, all travel, really do bring you closer to your companions. Road trips do this in a special way by putting you in a car with someone for hours on end. There is little to do, but sit and watch the scenery go by. This can lead to moments where you open up to each other and when things go sideways (traffic, detours, weather), people showing each other there absolute worst. In most cases though, if you can get through a road trip with someone, your relationship with that person will be stronger than ever.
The Last of Us shows this throughout the entire game. It’s frequently heartbreaking and endearing the closest a video game has come to capturing the “road trip experience.” It’s ending even has something to say about who we are and how desperately we cling to those we are close to with one of the most ambiguous and melancholy lines ever: “Okay…”
What to know if you go
Please note that The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite are both rated M for mature. The Last of Us especially is probably not for the faint of heart.