We're celebrating the end of an incredible decade for games, movies, and TV shows. For GamesRadar, The Last of Us is the game that defined the last 10 years of play, placing 1st in our 100 best games of the decade rankings.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew The Last of Us (opens in new tab) was going to be something special. It wasn't, as it is for many, that harrowing prologue, but instead what follows immediately after. Set to Gustavo Santaolalla's haunting, sombre score, the game's opening credits are a mercurian portrait of the day the world ended, shot in real time via Naughty Dog's homegrown concoction of fungi, resins, and slimes.
For many, this sequence might seem like mere window dressing to the game proper, yet non-playable credits sequences – particularly ones as high in production value as this – were practically non-existent at the time. Naughty Dog's deployment of a device usually saved for cinema thus resembled the mark of a game that respected both itself, its medium, and the mediums that paved the way before it, and that meant something.
Since then, a myriad of games have followed suit with their own bespoke opening title reels, reflecting just one way in which The Last of Us has encouraged its peers to treat their creations with the reverence they deserve.
Endure and survive
To say that I grew up on Naughty Dog games isn't quite accurate; it's more like we grew up together. Weaned on a healthy diet of Crash Bandicoot, the studio's matured follow-up series – Jak & Daxter – entered my tweens before we both hit puberty together with Jak 2, whose Rated R redesign reflected my own sudden pivot towards a permanent state of sulky adolescence. The later stages of teenagehood, meanwhile, saw Uncharted elevate my relationship with games from frivolous childhood hobby to full-time passion project, but then The Last of Us came along, arriving just as I was about to enter university; a time when many begin to more seriously consider what we want to do with our lives, and how we might get there.
I burned through Joel and Ellie's American odyssey in a single weekend, the experience leaving such a heavy and deep-seated impression on me, it felt as though the only appropriate response was to scribble my thoughts down as soon as the credits rolled. I didn't know it then, but that moment would spark an affection for games writing that I'm still lucky enough to be making a career out of to this day.
The Last of Us isn't the GamesRadar+ Game of the Decade (opens in new tab) because it's responsible for this journalist's professional development, though. Instead, the game's true brilliance derives from its power as an exercise in understatement, where silence screams loudest. You see it in the cursory, crucial shot of Joel's watch as he calmly paces towards a desperate Marlene, gun in hand. You see it in Ellie's easily missed attempt to stuff Henry's toy into her bag while Joel isn't looking. You see it in the constant, painful memories of Sarah decorating the landscape of this dying world, manifested in the form of the very same posters, albums, and books first glimpsed adorning her room in the game's opening.
These moments are a masterclass in the art of 'show, don't tell' that Naughty Dog has always excelled at, where what isn't said can reveal far more about a character, setting, and subject matter than what is. It's this science, this art of restraint and implication, which Naughty Dog exemplified with The Last of Us, certifying its status as a seminal touchstone for interactive storytelling.
It can't be for nothing
Truth be told, I'm not sure any game, even its upcoming sequel, The Last of Us Part 2 (opens in new tab), will ever match the same thresholds of accomplishment as The Last of Us. Its impact is still being felt across the industry today, having infected our entire approach to making, consuming, and talking about games, from grassroots indie titles to blockbuster giants, not to mention cinema itself.
Why is it the GamesRadar+ game of the decade? It's quite simple; The Last of Us unleashed its own epidemic of change, pushing our art form to be smarter, bolder, greater. As a result, almost all other games to come after it owes a debt to Naughty Dog's counter-cultural masterwork, as will – and of this I am sure – the greatest games of the decade to come.