By AARON YNCLAN, Staff Writer
Every year, new games are released that demand our attention. Most of us decide which titles we’ll dish out our cash for long before they’re released, and occasionally a cool launch trailer will coerce us just enough to pick up an extra one we were maybe on the fence about or hadn’t heard of. And along the way, we all find that one game that sticks out above the rest. Maybe some of us were beguiled by Columbia’s splendor and majesty in Bioshock Infinite, or were blown away by the trippy and tricky puzzles of Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, or perhaps were even left dumbfounded by the pure asininity of Saints Row IV. For me in 2013, I was left astounded and shaken by the beauty and horror of The Last of Us.
The Last of Us takes place 20 years in the future. After a fungal virus ravages the world and turns much of the population into hideous, ravenous creatures, humanity is left devastated and broken, with the few and lucky living under totalitarian martial law while the rest exist as rove packs of bandits, scavenging what they can to survive. You play as Joel, a smuggler-esque character charged with escorting a young girl to a group of freedom fighters called the Fireflies. Believing Ellie to be immune to the virus, the Fireflies hire you to safely transport Ellie across the country to a medical facility in Utah where they hope to discover a cure for the virus.
A basic premise that’s been retold a thousand times, developer Naughty Dog managed to subvert the clichés normally associated with the genre while also crafting one of the most poignant and brutal stories ever to grace the medium. Joel and Ellie are bi-products of this terrible dystopia; Joel, a man who lost his daughter to police forces, is a shell whose existence is merely to survive to see another day. Ellie, however, was born into this world, and knows nothing of what came before. Both her parents died years before, and what few friends she’s known have either died or left her. This serves as the basis of their relationship, as two people forced to coexist due to circumstance, and as their rapport builds their relationship slowly transforms from that of strangers into a father-daughter dynamic. The story plays on this notion from start to finish, forcing the player to become involved in these characters. As you progress it becomes less about wanting to beat the level and more about your investment in Joel and Ellie, and your desire to see them through their journey.
But the player’s investment, as well as the relationship between Joel and Ellie, is completely undermined by the twist of the last 20 minutes of the game. I’ll spare you spoilers, but Naughty Dog’s choice not only subverted the purpose of Joel and Ellie’s journey and the entirety of the 15+ hour campaign from a storytelling perspective, it also reminded gamers of an important truth; that this is not our story. This is not Skyrim or Mass Effect, where gamers can shape the world and story as they see fit. This world is broken, it’s people are broken, and it’s story is of two people that asks what you are willing to sacrifice to save what’s most important to you.
That is what stuck with me the most. I could write another article praising the gameplay and multiplayer, it’s top-notch voice acting, graphics and score. But what stood out most was the haunting revelation of who these characters truly were, and of the sacrifices they were willing to make for what they believed in.