The Last of Us: A Belated Review
I recently grabbed a digital copy of The Last of Us on my PS4 with my PS+ subscription, and having just beaten it and its DLC, “Left Behind,” I find myself with many feelings. Not all of them good.
CW: Major plot spoilers, violence, suicide, end of the world stuff, existential angst.
The Last of Us is a zombie game, and like every other entry to the zombie genre, this story takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Civilization has collapsed, martial law rules in the few pockets of humanity that still exist, with small experiments in commune living existing here and there just to add a splash of narrative color.
I am not a fan of the zombie genre, if you couldn't tell. For me it is the Wonder Bread of story-telling. Can't figure out a central conflict to drive your plot? Boom! Infectious outbreak of zombie pathogens. Now you have an easily accessible template for shepherding your story forward:
Someone close to the main character(s) will get infected and either kill themselves or be killed by a member of the cast.
When the author needs the plot to take the characters away from a location, there will be a sudden and unexplained wave of zombies that overwhelms them and forces them to run.
Many many extras will have their heads exploded, preferably by a shotgun.
There will be an obligatory leg-grab sequence at least once an hour, wherein the main character(s) will either kick their way free or an ally will come to their aid with a gun or blunt instrument.
There will always be a storyline involving a cure, and it will almost always be a fools errand.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Predictable, boring, and overdone.
Yet apparently I'm alone in this belief. The zombie genre, like its subject matter, marches ever onward, unable to be stopped by anything short of nuclear detonation. TLoU is Naughty Dog's attempt at telling a zombie narrative in their interactive/cinematic game style. And in many ways they succeed.
It isn't lost on me that, despite my loathing of the zombie genre and my general dislike for shooters, I played this game from start to finish in less than a week. There's clearly something here that works well.
After my disappointment with Horizon Zero Dawn this summer, TLoU was a much needed palate cleanser. Where HZD's combat felt hollow and confusing, TLoU's felt punchy and straightforward. It does a remarkably good job of making you feel both empowered and also limited. You often find yourself short of ammo and have to get creative with how you take out your foes. The stealth in this game is solid, something that's actually remarkably difficult to pull off. And that's good because you'll need to stealth kill quite a few enemies to try and conserve ammo throughout the game.
The game also gives you your weapons in a very steady, satisfying drip. The assault rifle doesn't become available until the very end of the game, after you're done killing Infected and are instead fighting a paramilitary organization. Battles thus never become about using a bullet hose, but instead about precision, timing, and planning. It's a satisfying recipe that serves the gameplay well.
As a game I was really impressed with TLoU. I'd actually rank it in the top 3 action-shooters I've ever played.
But this game has some problems.
The story starts out pre-decline, having you play as Joel's daughter, Sarah. There's an obligatory “everything is normal” sequence where Joel comes home and does normal heartwarming dad-stuff with his daughter until she goes to sleep.
Then she wakes up and everything goes wrong.
For reasons that are never explained, Joel isn't in the house when Sarah wakes up and hears an explosion. It's clear he was doing something important, because he left his phone behind and takes a long time to get back to the house. His brother, Tommy, has left several voicemails and text messages asking where he's at. The game alludes that Tommy and Joel know more about the situation than they let on to Sarah, but if that's the case we never learn what. This becomes a strange, dangling plot thread throughout the game.
There's an escape sequence, during which Sarah is shot and killed by a US soldier. This moment defines Joel's character throughout the rest of the game.
The game flashes forward 20 years. It's a bold move, narratively speaking, to jump forward that far and focus on the same character. It's the difference between infancy and college, or college graduation and middle-age. It's actually one of the things I admire about TLoU as a story, because they handle this jump really well.
Joel is now a bitter, grizzled old man, constantly sore and perpetually cranky. He's fallen into smuggling, trading gun-fire with black market dealers and torturing people to get the information he needs.
In a series of events that serve as the tutorial, Joel meets Ellie. Ellie needs to be smuggled to a group called “The Fireflies,” a paramilitary rebellion that opposes the US Army (which control the quarantine zones in several major cities). Joel and his partner agree to take her in exchange for a large payment of guns.
This is where the game runs into one of its first major recurring issues: the moving goal post. At the beginning of the game, the whole point is to get Ellie to a location nearby in exchange for payment. This payment, surprise surprise, never materializes. In fact about 3 hours into the game we never hear about it again.
This plot device is used again and again to move the story along in arbitrary ways. Upon arrival at the meeting location, Joel finds all the Fireflies are dead. So he decides to take her to their base. Then they find that base abandoned, so he decides to visit his brother. And so on, and so on. The game uses deferred success to switch locations so often that it makes the game's flow quite predictable after the second bait-and-switch.
There's nothing wrong with thwarting the goals of your main character. Some of the most interesting plot devices involve a twist where things don't go according to plan. But the zombie genre has an annoying trope wherein the main characters never win. And it's exhausting. The constant teasing of the audience that “they might pull it off today!” leads to a sense of frustration that makes for very unpleasant stories.
The focus of the story is clearly about Joel and Ellie and how they form a surrogate father-daughter relationship throughout their journey. This is one of the best features of the game. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson do an amazing job playing off one another and delivering unique readings of a script that could have easily have come off as schlocky in the hands of less skilled performers. It's not an exaggeration to say that the voice acting largely carries the story, and that's not a complaint.
Joel slowly opens up over the course of the game, and by the end comes to care about Ellie. Ellie learns to trust Joel and allow herself to form a bond again, after losing several significant people in her life. It's a slow burn that works quite well, all things considered. The best parts of the game for my money are the ones where Joel and Ellie are just making small-talk while they walk between action/stealth sequences. It's charming, intense, and subtle. It's where the best writing in the game went, and I honor what the team accomplished in their characterization.
Unfortunately, the overarching plot of this game kinda sucks.
Ellie carries a potential cure for the infection. Despite being bitten, she has not turned, and likely carries something in her blood that could be used to synthesize a vaccine. Joel's partner, before dying, makes an emotional plea with him to deliver her to The Fireflies for the good of mankind. Joel agrees. Between this point and the end of the game the narrative is essentially filler. There's a lot of bandits, a cranky survivalist, and lots of ruins, tunnels, and sewers, but aside from some excellent characterization, very little of interest actually happens.
And then there's the zombies.
Despite what is in my opinion one of the best setups for a sci-fi narrative a video game has ever had, TLoU never manages to do anything interesting with its monsters. They stick to standard zombie tropes: some of them run, some of them have a heightened sense of hearing, some are big and take a lot of shots, etc.
At no point is the origin of the Infection ever discussed. Despite the fact that there's actually a scientific basis for fungi that infect non-plant hosts, TLoU seems content to just stick with “these are zombies and some of them have mushrooms covering their eyes.” It's a huge missed opportunity. I would have settled for an audio diary by a scientist, as contrived a game mechanic as those are, just to flesh the backstory out a little more and try to eliminate some of the glaring plot holes in this setup.
For example: why do these spores induce aggression in their hosts and cause them to attack non-infected humans? Aren't spores a far better adaptation for reproduction here, as there is less of a chance of accidentally killing the host? How do the mushrooms stop their host bodies from succumbing to decay for so long? How did the infection begin in the first place and spread so quickly?
These things are ultimately left to the audience's imagination. And the story is poorer for it.
By the time things swing around to the end-sequence, all of these issue coalesce into a singularity, perfectly epitomizing the game's problems.
In what is perhaps the most predictable plot twist ever, in order to get a cure from Ellie, she must die, as the spores have infected her brain and must be harvested for research. Joel goes on a shooting spree to free her, killing most of the Fireflies and the doctors performing the operation.
When she awakes from the anesthesia, Joel lies to her, and tells her that the research failed and they had given up on a cure. Ellie becomes quiet and distant. The final scene flashes forward to Joel and Ellie arriving back at his brother's compound in Colorado, where they will settle down. Ellie, obviously not convinced by his story, asks Joel to swear to her that everything he told her was true. Joel lies and swears that it was all true, and Ellie responds with a very ambiguous, “ok.”
And that's it. Hard-cut to black, roll credits.
This, to me, was the game's greatest betrayal to its audience.
Obviously from a narrative perspective this is the equivalent of “my wife gave me money for groceries but I blew it all on slots.” But what's worse, in my opinion, is that Joel, the protagonist, has essentially made a gigantic loop in terms of character development. He started out selfish, and he ended selfish, just more so. He chose his own comfort over the feelings of Ellie and, critically, the survival of mankind.
This, to me, in an inexcusable conclusion.
It's not that I dislike his decisions. In fact his choices were extremely relatable and, were I in his situation, I can't say whether or not I would choose differently. But ending the story without showing us the consequences of his actions on his relationship with Ellie feels like a huge cop-out.
The Last of Us made a bold choice in having its protagonist choose himself over the world, but in the last moment it lost its nerve. It refused to take a stand on a hill, and instead opted for an open-ended letdown.
What's worse is that the DLC seems to have figured out what exactly the game as a whole was trying to say. Focusing on Ellie before she leaves Boston with Joel, we see her and her best friend Riley wandering the ruins of a shopping mall, having fun and laughing in the middle of a sprawling wasteland. The contrast works well, and speaks to the enduring spirit of humanity and its ability to find joy even in difficult times.
Eventually, of course, Riley and Ellie get bitten. Before dying, Ellie goes through the stages of grief in a very emotional, well written scene. She rages and smashes things, then collapses into a sobbing heap, before trying to bargain and figure out what they do now. Riley states that they could use their gun to “take the easy way out,” but that option doesn't seem right to her. Riley states that they should fight. Ellie understandably asks, “fight for what?” Riley responds that they should fight for time with each other, even if its only a few minutes.
It's a powerful ending to the arc, and one that I think resonates well in a time where the fate of mankind is truly uncertain.
But even with this context, the ending of TLoU seems to subvert this message. What good is spending time with people you love if they lie to you, and betray your trust in them? It's not so much a collapse into nihilism (everything is pointless) as it is a collapse into nothingness. Its narrative arcs ultimately cancelling themselves out and leaving a void in their wake. It is this void that ultimately makes TLoU a failure.
In the end, it turns out it didn't have anything meaningful to say at all.