Why The Last of Us is the first truly mature action game (and our Game of the Year)

Warning before you start. I need to discuss the entire game to do this right, so there will be spoilers. Gigantic ones. With teeth.

“…it could be argued that The Last of Us is the first truly mature interactive narrative in the action genre.”

That’s a statement that I made near the beginning of my review for The Last of Us, back in June. And it’s one that drew a few doubts before the game’s release. Perhaps understandably, given the weight of the sentiment and the many important leaps forward in video game storytelling over the last few years. But it’s a statement that I stand by, and one I feel is evidenced by our proclaiming The Last of Us as Game of the Year 2013. In fact, it's because the game bagged the top spot on our list that I'm urging you to take a second look at this article, which was originally published in June.

Know from the start that I’m not necessarily stating that The Last of Us has the best story in action gaming. For me it’s one of the all-time greats, but narrative content is an entirely subjective matter. Instead I’m arguing the above statement in its literal entirety. That The Last of Us is the best example thus far of mature, intelligent, cohesive storytelling using interactive narrative mechanics to truly augment the events it depicts with subtext, depth, and empathy.

For me, video game storytelling isn’t about having an engaging plot and well-directed cutscenes. It’s about how a game uses the developing language of interactive narrative--in the same way that cinema had to learn how to use camera angles and edits--to add more to its storytelling than another medium could. And The Last of Us is a masterpiece in that regard.

First up, there’s the simple but important point that almost all of The Last of Us’ gameplay systems seem designed not only to be mechanically interesting, but to forge a 1:1 psychological bond between the player and Joel. Some things are obvious. The manual crafting and healing--both of which take real, in-game time ensure no reality-breaking jumps into gaming’s traditional pause-screen safety zone--force the player to adopt Joel’s approach of cautious preparation or suffer the consequences.

Fail to, and while the game won’t necessarily punish you with failure, the panic-stricken multi-tasking required to regroup and find a safe space to resupply adds not only tension, but real emotional weight. You got into this mess because you didn’t think ahead, and not thinking ahead has put you and Ellie in danger. Now drop everything and put it right before something happens to her.

But that point about adding a weight of responsibility to combat only scratches the surface of The Last of Us’ approach. Pathos in this game isn’t just something that comes with the cutscenes. Its hardwired into the very fabric of the game. Take that brutally powerful opening prelude for instance. Yes, its resolution is shocking, but the outcome alone isn’t what makes it powerful. Think back to the start. Think back to the very first moment you get control of the game. It’s the night of the outbreak, and you’ve just been introduced to Joel through a beautifully underplayed scene with his daughter. It’s a scene as affecting as it is unsentimental. But once you start the game, you’re not playing Joel. You’re playing Sarah.

In most games this prelude section, light of challenge as it is and unconnected from the main story, would function as a control tutorial. It would be a safe environment in which to get a feel for the game’s handling. But while it does serve that purpose, that’s not really what The Last of Us’ opening is about. Rather than being a mechanical tutorial, it’s an emotional tutorial. Sarah is alone, defenseless, and scared in a big, empty dark house. You’re in control of her and there’s no help to be seen. You are entirely responsible for her safety. Sound familiar?

Yeah, the game is immediately conditioning you into the mindset of the character you’ll inhabit for most of its running time. The mix of protective duty and paternal paranoia is tangible throughout. The game is training you to think like Joel before you even get anywhere near playing him. So when Sarah ultimately dies, it’s not just Joel who has failed to save her. It’s you, the person who was first made responsible for her. In that way, yourself and Joel are emotionally bonded throughout the game, and the loss that informs his every action is one that you feel yourself every step of the way.

Thus, when Ellie starts to change in response to her journey with Joel, the sense of personal responsibility is immense. As useful as having a wingman would be, it’s impossible to disagree with Joel’s decision not to arm Ellie for the first chunk of the game. When she finally starts to cover you with a hunting rifle in the streets outside the hotel, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. You might have fire support, but you’ve also brought Ellie well and truly into the fight. You might be safer, but she might now not be. In any other game, the sudden appearance of a co-op AI partner would be nothing but a blessing. By the time it happens in The Last of Us, it’s weighted with much more complicated emotional issues.

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.

That’s why Joel’s ‘death’ isn’t the messianic sacrifice it would ordinarily be. That’s why playing as Ellie isn’t about how Joel’s selfless care has empowered her to complete the quest without him. Both of those ideas are hackneyed; and let’s face it, Joel isn’t that selfless. The Last of Us is smarter and more real than that. Joel’s impalement does occur while protecting Ellie, but it’s a clumsy accident. And even months after he’s put out of the action, Ellie is still weak as diluted water.

Sacrifice doesn’t magically fix anything. It just makes things harder. But separating the characters during the end of the ‘Winter’ phase does serve one very important purpose. It makes both of them, through the player’s reaction to their separation and eventual fight to reunite, realise just how important they’ve become to each other. It’s not about their long-term quest to save humanity. It’s about their immediate quest to save each other.

That’s why the ending matters. That’s why the ending, although sure to be divisive, is brilliant, perfect, and the only way the game could end. Joel’s decision to sacrifice humanity in order to keep Ellie in his life--going so far as to murder those who would save the world--is an unexpected one. Jarring, even. And it remains ambiguous and enigmatic until the credits roll.

He could be seen as saving her. He could be seen as screwing her out of her accepted and doubtless noble purpose in life. He could be seen as paternal or he could be seen as selfish. All of these interpretations are entirely correct, and none of them are exclusive from one another. They don’t need to be. Because it’s only when Joel ultimately does what he does, and when Ellie--knowing that he’s lying to her--accepts that, that the true meaning of the game’s title becomes clear.

It isn’t The Last of the World, or The Last of Humanity. It’s The Last of Us. That’s a word with much more personal, individual, unique significance. It doesn’t denote a species or a society. It denotes closeness, sharing, and family. ‘Us’ is Joel and Ellie. ‘Us’ is Joel and Sarah, and previously his (presumed) ex-wife. ‘Us’ is every other family and group of friends in the world, and the shared joys, relationships and losses that exist between them. Joel has already lost one ‘us’. He’s not going to lose another. Selfish he may seem on a global level, but to save the world you don’t need to save every human being on it. To save an entire world you only need to save the way of life of a single family within it. So he does.

This article was originally published on 21 June, 2013.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.