Originally published on CultNoise Magazine (now closed) | February 5, 2014
Mild Spoiler Warning – in this article I discuss certain story elements of The Last of Us. If you’d rather your experience be absolutely free of spoilers, don’t read. No ending details or major plot spoilers are discussed.
Deep in the jungle there is a parasitic fungus called cordyceps, which infects the minds of certain species of ant, spider, and other arthropods. Worker ants have been known to carry infected individuals far from their colonies for fear of exposure, and with good cause. Cordyceps is essentially a zombie pathogen, infecting the brain of the host; after some unusual behavior it directs the ant upward, where the ant clamps on with its mandibles and dies. Slowly, the fungus sprouts from the ant’s head; in as little as a week, the fungus releases spores into the air, and any nearby creature will likewise be infected.
Cordyceps has been known to wipe out entire ant colonies. Each of the thousands of different species of cordyceps is specialised on just one individual species of insect. This might sound like science fiction, but this nightmare of the jungle exists as real as you and I. Now what would happen if cordyceps evolved to infect humans, as many pathogens have been known to?
This is the hook for The Last of Us, the newest title from acclaimed developer Naughty Dog, my Game of the Year for 2013, and winner of more awards can you could shake a stick at. It’s a story of loss, despair, and most importantly hope, set against a backdrop of a post-apocalyptic United States ravaged by cordyceps.
The Last of Us places you in the role of Joel, a survivor of the original outbreak some 20 years earlier, living in a Quarantine Zone in what remains of Boston. Joel is a man that’s haunted by his past, by what happened on the night the infection hit; I’ll refrain from spoilers but lets just say the opening 20 minutes were some of the most harrowing I’ve spent with any work of fiction. Now Joel is a smuggler, evading the corrupt military to sneak out into the wilderness beyond the QZ, scavenge what supplies he can, and sell what he finds to the highest bidder. He’s no Robin Hood; he’s done bad things, killed people, all in the name of survival.
You see, at the first stage of infection from this new strain of cordyceps, the Infected begin to lose motor functions. The fungus starts eating its way into the brain, controlling the limbs of those infected and making them more aggressive. These ‘Runners’ are creepy from the get go. They stumble around the ruins of civilisation, crying and visibly trying to fight the infection that racks through their bodies. They know they’re infected and can’t control their actions. These are most akin to the ‘fast zombies’ we’ve seen in other fiction, attacking and devouring their prey. Since the infection spreads not only through spores but also through cuts and bites, they’re a dangerous foe even at this early stage.
As the fungus matures, it begins growing out of the eyes of the Infected, forming hard fungal plates that cover most of their heads and faces. These Infected, called ‘Clickers’, have lost their sight and minds; everything that made them human is gone, and they’re controlled entirely by cordyceps. These Clickers are truly terrifying; they stumble around using rudimentary form of echolocation to ‘see’ by clicking with their mouths, and if alerted they rush at you screeching. They grab you, and it’s game over; if I had a pound for every time I saw them rip the flesh from Joel’s throat, I wouldn’t need to work the rest of the month. Sneaking past them is a tense experience; if you hear them clicking in your direction, and all you can do is stay still, praying they don’t see you. Thankfully they can be killed, though not easily and not without its consequences. When the infected die in this later stage, their bodies become little more than incubators for the infection, which sprouts and releases spores into the air, ready to spread.
The Infected aren’t the only worry in the game; there’s also Hunters. They’re other survivors living outside the few Quarantine Zones left in this post-apocalyptic United States. They fight to stay alive, lie in wait to ambush other survivors (who they call ‘Tourists’ in a derogatory way, those innocents just trying to reach Quarantine Zones, independent settlements, or living as nomads). Murder and worse is the law for them. Throughout the game, you have these dregs of humanity to worry about in addition to the Infected; fighting them is different, since they’re smart, will try to flank you, and call out commands to their comrades in the attempt to kill Joel.
Enough about the enemies, however, as they’re only one facet of the game’s phenomenal story. Shortly into the game, Joel finds himself reluctantly tasked with smuggling a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, from the Boston Quarantine Zone. He has to bring her to the Fireflies, an insurgent militia bent on overthrowing the military dictatorship governing the Quarantine Zones. Ellie isn’t your average fourteen-year-old; she was born long after humanity was already in the pits, so all she’s ever known is the world inside the QZ and the Infected that roam the wastelands beyond. Ellie is a fantastic character, superbly voiced by Ashley Johnson. Since she knows little of the world pre-infection, she is often the voice of social commentary on what we, as players, take for granted or fail to notice. At one point, she sees an ice-cream truck and flat-out disbelieves Joel when he tells her what it was for. At another, she sees a fashion poster in the ruins of Pittsburgh.
‘That girl is so skinny,’ she says, ‘I thought you had plenty of food in your time.’
Joel tells her that they did, some just chose not to eat it. ‘Why the hell not?’ she asks, and through the conviction of Ashley Johnson’s voice acting you can tell she really means it.
She’s wise and scrappy beyond her years, and she quickly became my favourite character. Often, in combat, she’ll help Joel out by throwing a brick or bottle at his assailants, or rushing them with her switchblade, in some beautifully unscripted moments. These never got old. Later, in a troubling scene involving a serious threat to her life, you really feel for what she’s been through, for the world that she’s had to live with all her life. She’s a kid who has never been allowed to be one, and it’s in these more contemplative moments, when she marvels at fireflies, or beauty of the woods, or the size of skyscrapers up close, that you realise this most poignantly.
As Joel learns what is so important about Ellie, he is tortured by his own conscience and his own sense of inadequacy to fulfil his mission and deliver Ellie to the Fireflies. He’s a reluctant hero, but as the story goes on, he comes to care for Ellie and start to really bond with her. It’s this element that is the heart of The Last of Us; like The Walking Dead, the characters and their struggles are the most important things in this story, not the Infected. I came to care deeply about Joel and Ellie, and as the final act drew to a close, I found myself not wanting to see them go. The ending is part beautiful and part shocking, and though I won’t mention details I can guarantee it isn’t what you expect. This is a non-standard zombie story, if one was to boil it down to that fact alone. The Last of Us takes the overused clichés of the genre and successfully reinvigorates them.
Speaking of characters, in many ways the game’s environments are a character of their own. Naughty Dog has painstakingly crafted these locales, and each one tells a unique story. In a developer commentary they spoke about the beauty of nature reclaiming its domain, and the inherent contrast between the story’s dark themes and the beauty of the world. In one scene near the beginning, just prior to your first encounter with a Clicker, you come across the body of a soldier lying slumped against a wall, surrounded by empty rounds of ammunition. He’s been ripped apart. All around you the skyscraper you’re in creaks as it lies unsteadily against its neighbour. Meanwhile, little touches everywhere show the dilapidation of these abandoned towns and cities, and how nature is slowly reclaiming them. Grass grows in patches from the cracked pavements; trees are overgrown down once busy streets; burst pipes flood the roads.
Inside abandoned houses, suitcases lay hurriedly half-packed, and shards of glass litter the floor; it is actually possible to look at an environment and tell exactly what happened on the night of the Infection, just by spotting these little details. Notes hidden throughout the game, hand-written, support this attention to detail and tell their own individual stories; some are accounts of the infection’s spread, while others are simply memos to loved ones telling them that they couldn’t wait any longer, that they had to go, and to meet the addressee at a certain place. Joel and Ellie often comment on these notes, asking aloud if they think they made it to safety okay, or simply expressing their horror at the message’s contents. Each of these interactions are tailored for the moment at hand, never reused, and always add something new to the story if you take the time to find them.
Throughout this retrospective I’ve barely talked about the gameplay, and I think this says something about just how strongly I feel about the story. The gameplay is excellent, and fans of Uncharted will find something both familiar and fresh here, being a Naughty Dog game. Supplies, used to craft everything from health kits to Molotov cocktails, are scarce, and hunting around the game’s environments is a necessity if you hope to survive. Platforming is minimal, a refreshing change from the Uncharted franchise, and both shooting and melee combat are realistic. It’s possible to stealth large sections of the game if you’re slow and have your wits about you, particularly when dealing with the Infected, but the option is always yours to choose given your current situation. The Last of Us is never condescending, never handholding, and although largely a linear experience this never works to its detriment.
I couldn’t recommend The Last of Us more than I already have. It is a beautiful, emotional experience and one of the best stories in gaming, leaving a lasting impression with me to this day. Empire Magazine called it the ‘Best Film Of The Year That Wasn’t Actually A Film’, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. It has been said that gaming has matured a lot over the past twenty years in both its scope and its storytelling ability, and if that is so, then The Last of Us is a giant leap forward for the medium. It is often reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, a compliment to its highest degree, in its ability to tell a harrowing story about two people trying to survive amidst a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It’s about what remains of humanity, long after the lights have gone out and little more than darkness remains.
All images courtesy of Naughty Dog.
Available On: Playstation 3 (Exclusive)