But it’s not all about the combat. Of course there’s further bonding with Joel as you gradually realise that his abilities have been carefully pitched so that--barring the ability to take a couple of gunshots-- he’s not capable of anything you’re not in real life. There’s none of that character separation you get in an Uncharted here. No moment when realistic everyman dialogue gives way to 12-foot leaps and parkour platforming. There’s no separation between plausible characterisation and implausible action at all.
In fact some of the most important moments in the game happen at times when nothing seems to be going on, and you won’t notice their significance until much, much later. It’s the long, quiet periods of exploration and foraging that really massage in the game’s ambient emotional resonance. Every abandoned home tells a story, be it more explicitly through notes and diary extracts, or more subtly through the relief pattern of domestic life left by the missing inhabitants. When Ellie playfully starts messing around with a family’s long-abandoned dart board, it’s not only a bittersweet discovery of a lost world she never knew, but a temporary resurrection of the lives that used to happen there; a physical evocation of ghosts long-since departed.
The Last of Us though, isn’t just the story of a few disparate individuals, small details of loss and sadness scattered around to evoke token downbeat moments. It’s the story of a whole world made up of unique communities gone the way of the dodo. So the game builds much bigger, connected story arcs of its ambient narrative. The storyline that unfolds between the beach, sewers, and countryside is a particularly powerful example. Beginning with a throwaway note by a trawler boat captain, it follows his story--both literally and figuratively--through the underground, building and expanding alongside his new-found community through subtle references and slight hints in the words and homes of a multitude of unseen characters. Inevitably it ends badly, but the story doesn’t just go away.
Instead, it ends by presenting its tragic culmination alongside the dead family’s last batch of supplies, Joel’s inevitable use of which infuses the resulting weapons and supplies with immense significance. He only has the tools he has because of someone else’s loss. They couldn’t save their previous owner, so he’d better made damn sure that count now. And that subliminally feeds even more emotional weight back into each and every combat encounter. There’s none of the usual division of story and action here. No dissipation of a scene’s emotional content once the shooting starts. You don’t forget any side-story in The Last of Us, because they never remain side-stories. They become part of yours.
Scavenging is no simple case of mindless bin-raiding, a la BioShock Infinite. Textural narrative is no simple matter of hearing and forgetting dying screams conveniently recorded on an audio-diary. Both elements are subtly tied together to bring the past into the present, making the tales of the dead a prelude to the story of the living, and Joel and Ellie’s quest a sequel to the survival bids that went before. Even in a game as good as a Metal Gear Solid, you’ll forget Snake’s tragic lot in life the second necks need too be snapped. In The Last of Us, every thrown Molotov is a reminder of the years-long price of making it.
And most importantly of all is the way that Naughty Dog treats the scale of The Last of Us’s story after establishing and connecting with its huge human cost. In most games, The Last of Us’ narrative arc would be typical global tragedy fare; a bombastic save-the-world scenario whose weight is tied to--if not solely evoked by--the epic scale upon which it operates. But that’s not the case here.
The Last of Us is always a story much smaller but at the same time much bigger than the global disaster it exists within. It’s the story of individuals working not only to survive, but to live during the aftermath. It always operates on a localised, internalised human level. Its story arcs and subplots exist within human minds and emotions rather than amongst the broad-strokes tropes of a glorious hero’s quest. There’s no clumsy attempt to appear mature by bluntly referencing Big Issues like racism or war. There aren’t really even any good guys or bad guys. There are just people. In storytelling, that’s all there ever really needs to be.