So much for the theory that cockroaches are the species most likely to survive the apocalypse. In the world of The Last Of Us, where a mysterious virus has decimated the human race almost to the point of extinction, ladders are taking over. They are everywhere, breeding and multiplying and conveniently placing themselves next to ledges the main character needs to reach.
The ladder’s mortal enemy is the plank of wood. These can be mainly found in their natural habit, next to gaps that must be crossed. If only ladders and planks of wood teamed up, they might have a fighting chance against the most prolific occupants of this ravaged landscape: walls, fences, bushes, and crates that are exactly the right height for crouching behind.
The guy doing most of the crouching is Joel, a gruff, middle-aged Texan with a brow more knitted than a woolen tuxedo. He is accompanied by a precocious teenager, Ellie, whose hobbies include swearing and not being able to swim. Together, they must fight off hordes of jabbering homicidal lunatics, which they call “the infected” but which anyone will recognize as zombies. Joel and Ellie are also at risk from other survivors who have abandoned their moral principles in favor of blowing people’s heads off for a jar of Miracle Whip. Life in this desolate world is nasty, brutish, and short, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a half-fat hazelnut Frappuccino after 6 p.m.
It is not the most original premise, as Cormac McCarthy would probably agree. And to start with, this feels like Just Another Video Game, following the formula of run-hide-shoot-repeat, with occasional breaks to find ammo in lockers. But as it gathers pace and confidence, The Last Of Us reveals itself to be a refreshing and remarkable game. It is by turns poignant and thrilling, scary and surprising. It could even be described as innovative, if Sony and Microsoft hadn’t bought up all the rights to that word for their E3 press conferences.
What sets The Last Of Us apart is the amount of faith it places in the player’s intelligence, patience, and imagination. This is evident in everything from the way the game looks and feels to the way it sounds—or rather, the way it doesn’t sound. For great swaths of the game, there is no music at all. You’re left to wander through an eerily quiet world, experiencing the encompassing isolation that only comes with stillness. The effect is so powerful that it’s startling when the silence is broken by a distant gunshot or a screeching enemy.
When music does feature, it is always appropriate and understated. The score, by Oscar-winning Hollywood composer Gustavo Santaolalla, skillfully layers melancholy refrains with a Southern lilt evocative of Joel’s roots. It frames the game’s most moving scenes gently without intruding on the moment.
The sense of uneasy peace that permeates The Last of Us is enhanced by the way the characters know when to shut the hell up. Unlike so many of their video-game-hero peers, they resist the temptation to comment on everything that occurs or to remind each other of the time that thing happened that explains everyone’s relationship and all their motivations.
Neil Druckmann’s excellent script leaves room for ambiguity and counts on the audience to read between the lines. Even more bravely, it declines to provide all the answers. At one point, Ellie raises chilling questions about the enemies she and Joel (and by extension the player) have been merrily blasting out of existence. Earlier on, the issue of scavenging versus looting is addressed via a short, beautifully written exchange between two other characters. They happen to be black, by the way. The game rightly does not make a point of that. Characters are allowed to be black, female, or gay without having that attribute define them.
Along with moments of peace and pathos, there are boss battles and shootouts. And there is a crafting system: You create weapons and health kits by combining items you’ve collected. This makes sense in the context of the story—faced with mobs of bloodthirsty monsters, who wouldn’t grab all the duct tape they could find with a view to knocking up a few nail bombs? It also adds tension. Exploring an abandoned subway station in the dark is even more stressful when you’re worried about where you’re going to get your next shiv.
Although there is a linear path through each section of the game, there are plenty of shadowy corners and dead ends to investigate for those who can be bothered. The rewards for exploration extend beyond extra ammo. Entire subplots about characters you never meet are played out by way of scattered notes, abandoned possessions, and messages scrawled in blood. Following one of these trails in the sewer level, I made an awful discovery that will stick in my mind as one of the most horrifying moments of the game.
In fact, it had more of an impact than all the times I watched someone get their eyes poked in and their jaw pulled apart. The level of gore in The Last of Us is somewhat excessive. It’s gratuitous from the get-go, so after a few hours the violent deaths are no longer shocking, just unpleasant. But to be fair, this is a survival horror game, and some people like that sort of thing, in the same way some people enjoy the music of the Black-Eyed Peas and haggis.
Full credit to the development team for delivering some of the most realistic renderings ever seen of someone getting their eyes poked in and their jaw pulled apart. More importantly, credit for creating a world that feels alive even as it has been ravaged by death and decay. Crumbling buildings and rusting cars are standard issue in post-apocalyptic landscapes, but this one is embellished with touching details, like the poster for the Twilight-style werewolf film that catches Ellie’s attention. She mourns the fact she will never get to watch a movie, a poignant scene tempered only by the knowledge that at least she will never have to watch a Twilight movie.
Moments like this are made even more powerful by spectacular character animations. Once again, it’s all in the details, like the way Ellie reaches up to tighten her ponytail mid-run. The facial expressions are startlingly realistic, even if Ellie’s eyes do sometimes go a bit “Puss In Boots from Shrek.” In short, The Last Of Us is a fantastic technical and artistic achievement. At the very least, BAFTA should announce a special award for Best Beaded Curtain in a Video Game.
But above all, The Last Of Us deserves praise for exhibiting one quality in particular: restraint—at a time when so many games subscribe to the theory that more is more, with extra more on top. Nothing demonstrates this game’s commitment to dialing it down better than the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, so let’s leave it at this: It’s worth playing right through to the finish.
And that means playing through those first couple of hours, when it’s all planks and ladders and “Hang on, didn’t that happen in episode three of The Walking Dead?”. Stick with The Last Of Us and all that falls away. What’s left is a bleak yet vibrant world, populated by engaging inhabitants and packed with intriguing secrets, heartrending details, and guns that are really fun to shoot.
The Last of Us has been crafted with care and confidence. It’s a smart game that assumes the player is just as clever. The characters and the choices they make stay in the mind long after the disc has stopped whirring (or going WHHRRREEEEEEEE, if you own a first-generation PS3). Here’s hoping this new species of video game will prevail.
Ellie Gibson is the associate features editor at Eurogamer.