I like stories. I’m a sucker for them. I spend my life eating stories like a released POW being presented with a Family-Sized bucket of KFC. I read too much, watch too many TV shows and movies, I had to give up watching soaps and I play a lot of games.
The thing about games though is that most of the stories suck and if they don’t suck, the story is told badly. Even games with great stories like Mass Effect, sacrifice how they tell their story because the game bits have to happen. I’m obviously only talking about games with action in, here, and discounting obviously narrative led games like point and clicks and the Telltale games. And for a long time I was happy with that, until I played The Last of Us.
A couple of games had come close to completely intertwining their narrative and their game, notably Bioshock and the Fallouts, but they hadn’t managed to hit that perfect note where the game is the story and the narrative is what directly ties you to what you’re doing. This makes it a very linear game, but stories are linear. They are told to you, you don’t decide where they go and The Last of Us is an incredible story.
For those of you that don’t know the story, the game starts on the night a fungal infection breaks out in the United States, transforming almost all its inhabitants into dangerous, shambling, mushroom monstrosities. Not Fungi’s to be around. Sorry. Anyway, On the night of the outbreak, Joel, his daughter Sarah and his brother Tommy try to escape Austin Texas when Sarah Is killed by a frightened soldier.
20 years later Joel is eking out a living as a smuggler between civilized outposts, working with his partner Tess in a Boston that nature has already almost taken back. Trying to recover money from a deal gone South, Joel agrees to smuggle Ellie, a teenage girl, to a group of anti-government, pro-human militia called the Fireflies. It’s at this point we first learn of Ellie’s secret, she was infected three weeks ago and yet the infection hasn’t spread at all, as evidenced by her total lack of mushroom head, and she could be the cure humanity has been searching for to eradicate our delicious enemy.
From then on, the story is relatively simple, Joel must get Ellie somewhere, they encounter trouble along the way, same old, same old. However, thanks in part to Ellie being easily the best sidekick in gaming history, as they become closer and Ellie begins to heal the decades old wound of the loss of Joel’s daughter, something amazing happens. You begin to love them, to root for them completely. Because Ellie is a cheerful and helpful companion, chirruping away as you navigate another ruined and infected building, you build up actual affection for her as you manoeuvre Joel around a desperate, lawless land where the stakes are high and every corner turned could be your last. And, like us, Joel comes to rely on her too. To make him feel something other than the heavy darkness he’s felt every day since the day the world went to shit. She gives him hope.
The story is set into four chapters named after the seasons of the year, beginning in Summer, each of which deals with the themes of family and loss in a way that a lot of very good movies have never come close to.
In Summer Joel and Ellie escape to Pittsburgh, thanks to the help of Bill, a an old friend who is dealing with his own current loss in his own way (Bill is also one of the finest examples of a gay character in the history of gaming, in that his sexual preference is a quiet part of him that isn’t picked over or used cheaply) are ambushed and team up with two brothers whose own story shows us what family means now in a world where life is cheaper than bullets and can be over in the blink of an eye.
In Fall, Joel takes Ellie to an outpost in Wyoming that is being run by his brother Tommy and his new family. Enforcing time and again that people are stronger together, the game shows Joel warming up to the irascible Ellie at this point and his stoneface starts to crack a little. Soon enough though it’s time to leave this little oasis after all hell breaks out with bad guys tuning up to shoot the bejesus out of everyone and everything. Joel grabs Ellie and a horse and heads off looking for the Fireflies that can make the cure out of Ellie’s fungal-free blood. As the reach the University they’ve been headed towards, they are attacked by bandits and Joel is seriously injured.
As Winter bites, Joel is in a fever nightmare that he can’t get out of and Ellie has him holed up in a cave in the mountains, brushing up on her burgeoning bow skills to forage for food while checking nearby houses for the medicine Joel so desperately needs. As the game reverses roles, you are forced to play as Ellie, and it’s at this point where we grow to love the girl. She’s tenacious and kind, she keeps smiling as the world ends around her and she kicks ass. During this part she falls under considerable danger and, as Joel rushes too slowly to her side, handles herself with cunning, bravery and, finally, ruthlessness. It’s an astonishing sequence and it leaves her, and us, broken. But then Joel is there to hold her, to let her be broken until he can help her mend. It’s a scene that packs so much emotional resonance to the rest of the story as they finally become the Father and Daughter they were always meant to be.
As Spring dawns we them close to the end of their journey and now, instead of hiding from the world and their own selves, they are sharing both together, marveling at unusual animals in the streets and laughing as the traverse the sunken ruins doggedly, coming ever closer to reaching their goal. And they do get there. And, as is the way of these things, then end comes with a difficult choice, a choice that I rank as the most difficult I ever made in a game, because by then I cared for Ellie and Joel deeply. I cared for them in a way that can only possibly come from a story told well.
This is why, at the moment, The Last of Us stands alone in game writing and why it’s the game everyone should be trying to emulate