Member the games you used to play? We member. The basement at the Hardcore Gamer office has a section known as the Crust Room, with an old grey couch and a big old CRT TV. All the classic systems are down there collecting dust, so in an effort to improve the cleanliness of our work space, we dust off these old consoles every so often and put an old game through its paces, just to make sure everything stays in working order. We even have a beige computer with a floppy disk drive.
After going through the past few months of 2020 it’s safe to say that collapse of the society type of events are much better experienced through works of fiction. While everyone’s experience will vary, living through a pandemic can range from traumatic and horrifying to downright boring, but it’s safe to say it’s universally not a good time. Pandemics are best enjoyed when they’re not part of the real world. They tend to be more exciting, interesting and also unable to harm us or anyone we care about. So to coincide with the highly-anticipated sequel, this month we are going to take a look at one of the greatest games that features a pandemic involving the collapse of society: The Last of Us.
Taking a five second glace at what The Last of Us is about, it seems on the surface that it can be lumped into the horde of forgettable zombie apocalypse games. Doing this would be a mistake because for one because despite some similarities to these titles the infected humans are not the walking undead and secondly it has a well written and emotionally-engaging story, not to mention top notch gameplay and production values to seal its place among the greatest games of this decade. If you have not played The Last of Us do yourself a favor and close this article immediately, go play the game and then come back to read this later since there are spoilers that will ruin the experience.
The Last of Us begins in September of 2013, which was only a few months after the game’s release date. An outbreak of a mutated Cordyceps fungus has spread and is turning people into aggressive horrific creatures who come to be known colloquially as the Infected. Protagonist Joel attempts to escape with his brother Tommy and teenage daughter Sarah, only to have her killed by the military. Fast forward twenty years into the future and the world is a very different place. Civilization as we know it has ended. Survivors hide out in high security quarantine camps save for some nomadic groups and militias. Joel has moved to the North End of Boston, Massachusetts from his native Austin, Texas, where he works as a smuggler.
Joel is given a lucrative job opportunity from Marlene, leader of the militia group known as the Fireflies. The job is to return 14-year old Ellie to a Firefly safehouse outside of the quarantine zone. Later it is revealed that Ellie has been bit by the Infected, but unlike most people who succumb to the Cordyceps transformation properties after a couple days Ellie remains uninfected after being bit three weeks ago. The Fireflies believe that her immunity is the key to developing a cure for the Cordyceps fungus. Nothing is ever easy in a post apocalyptic world and this is the start of a cross country trek heading west.
The story is one of the most memorable of any game, and while there are many emotionally-charged moments and interesting characters encountered on the journey, the main story arc centers around the paternal relationship that builds between Joel and Ellie. It’s not exactly a smooth drama-free relationship as both characters get on each other’s nerves a lot to the point where Joel is ready to abandon Ellie at one point. Despite the aggravation, they continue traveling together and do develop a close bond over the months they travel across the country. The role of caretaker switches at one point where Joel is severely wounded and Ellie has to hunt and care for him. The player takes control of her for a short while, and while she isn’t as battle hardened as Joel she is able to take care of herself. At the time this was simply looked at as being symbolic of her growing up and having to take care of herself, but now it looks like a training exercise for The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us is filled with gut-wrenching scenes as Joel and Ellie witness and do things that no one should have to. There are several heartbreaking moments in a world where regular humans are just as dangerous as the Infected. Between all the violence, cruelty and hopelessness there are some equally wonderful moments to be experienced. One such moment occurs near the end of the game where Ellie runs ahead and calls to Joel. This is of course the giraffe scene, which was so unexpected but one of the most memorable moments of the game. The world is still ruined as the environment for this is just as broken as everywhere else in the game, but for this sequence everything is tranquil. The music is relaxing and there are signs of the Infected or horrible people lurking about. Joel reaches out and strokes the neck of the giraffe before inviting Ellie to join in. For a few seconds it is like they are a family enjoying an afternoon at the zoo, admiring the beauty of a peaceful animal, oblivious to how the world around them has gone to hell. The happiness in this scene is real but unsurprisingly short lived. This scene shows that no matter how bad the world has become there are still moments that make survival worthwhile, few and fleeting as they may be.
After a series of traumatic events Joel and Ellie are captured by a Firefly patrol and taken to one of their hospitals. Joel learns that Ellie is being prepped for surgery to create a vaccine for the Cordyceps infection. This was always part of the plan, but the new information is that they need to remove the infected part of her brain which naturally will kill her. After having lost his daughter at the start of the outbreak two decades and after going through so much over the last few months Joel refuses to let Ellie die. Joel fights through the hospital, killing everyone who stands in his way including Marlene to get Ellie out of their to safety. As they leave the hospital Ellie asks what happened, Joel lies to her that the Fireflies found others who were immune but couldn’t figure out how to cure it so they gave up. Ellie doesn’t seem to believe him, but Joel insists this is the truth.
The ending of The Last of Us is the part of the game that has led to the most interesting decisions about the topic. Speaking in general terms, one person being sacrificed for the good of humanity seems like the right thing to do. Ellie’s death would have been tragic but could have saved countless lives and improved the quality of life for everyone else. Looking at it as numbers, her sacrifice could have brought great things to the world. But then if you’re Joel what matter more, the countless lives of anonymous people or the one person you care about more than anyone else? Over the events of the game and their turbulent relationship Ellie filled the void that was created when Sarah died. She annoyed him to no end but he loved her like a daughter. The certainty of whether or not the Fireflies could have created a vaccine or cure isn’t the point, I think even if it was a guaranteed success Joel wouldn’t have allowed them to kill her no matter how certain the cure was. He valued Ellie’s life more than a chance to return the world to how it was or save countless other people. And that opens the debate of what should he have done, but more importantly what would you have done in Joel’s shoes? Which decision would have been easier to live with?
The Last of Us is simply a masterpiece in gaming, but I’m sure the majority of people who read this have already played it and are aware of that. The mix of action and stealth gameplay is entertaining enough where this would be a good game based on gameplay merits alone but the atmosphere and story are what elevates it to being a work of art. It was originally released in June 2013 for PlayStation 3 and about a year later PlayStation 4 saw a remastered edition with all the DLC that expands on Ellie’s story. Games of this caliber are rare and this is one such title that should be played by everyone who likes video games.
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