Seven years ago, I eagerly awaited the release of The Last of Us. A game I had stumbled across six months prior to release, as I endlessly scrolled through YouTube on my Mum’s desktop. Watching the gameplay for The Hotel level, I was struck by something about this game instantly. Was it it’s apocalyptic setting? Possibly. It’s contrasting duo in Joel and Ellie? Could be. More likely it was an atmosphere or vibe to the game, which I had never felt the likes of before.
The Last of Us came out on a Friday. A Friday that coincidentally aligned with a yearly weekend family trip to a lochside resort in Northern Scotland. Determined that I wasn’t going to wait another three days before I got my hands on The Last of Us, I begged my Aunt to nip into town with me to pick up the game – since I was under 18 at the time. With The Ellie Edition finally in my possession, I was brimming with exciting over the prospect of playing this game – a game that was singularly responsible for my purchasing of a PS3. Getting ready to leave I packed my clothes, swimwear, PS3 and even my television in the boot of the car.
These holidays were quite often the highlight of the year, with several of my cousins (all similarly aged) getting together for a weekend of arcades, swimming pools, and vast forest landscapes to run around in. However, that year, I couldn’t give a damn. The second I arrived, the television and PS3 were set up, and the calming apocalyptic window of The Last of Us menu screen was blessing my eyes. All of this, as my Mum and Dad still heaved bags out of the car.
Headphones in, and laying lifelessly in front of the TV, all of the bustle of my family unpacking, went silent as the isolated ticking of a clock started, and young girl sleepily awaited her father. The now infamous opener to The Last of Us, was truly a revelation in gaming. Where traditionally, the first hour of a game was the least interesting as it found ever more tedious ways to introduce gameplay tutorials, before letting you get into the real stuff, The Last of Us was happy to dial back that control for its first 20 minutes. Move forward, move backwards, and turn. That was it. However, without the constant barrage of menus popping up to tell me this or that, I was able to steep in the brilliant atmosphere of this opener, feeling the tension and fear through this little girl. From the get-go Naughty Dog grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, with their story mesmerisingly staring me dead in the eye. As Joel aimlessly tried to fix what was irreversibly broken, I didn’t cry. I just stared. Mouth agape. Eyes burning into the screen. Unsure of what to think. Unsure of how to move forward. The Last of Us had just taken a traditionally climactic moment and put it before its title card. From then on, I was destined to fall in love with this game.
I continued on to play The Last of Us to completion in two sitting in my lochside lodge. A notoriously slow gamer, it is rare that I complete a new game over 2 months let along two days. Yet unlike every game that came before it, The Last of Us effortlessly transitioned from one moment to the next. Summer, to Fall and so on. Across its fifteen or so hours, I never had a dull moment. I never checked my watch. Not a single distraction from the outside world could pierce the cocoon that The Last of Us had wrapped me up in.
The Last of Us went on to be a game that I revisited every year or so. Each time, I found new meaning percolating its way through scenes which had different nuanced layers of emotionality to them. Watching Sarah slip away from Joel in that early scene still left me silent, yet further considering the magnitude of a father losing a daughter. Or as Tess takes one last valiant stand after being bitten, the underplayed aspects of Tess and Joel’s relationship come to the forefront. And realising the severity of Joel’s damning lie. A lie that Ellie most certainly did not believe.
All of these moments would not have the impact that they have without the superb focus on character. Whereas most games aim to be an exploration of a world or setting, The Last of Us untraditionally lets that world take a backseat – even one as lavishly realised as this one. I’ve spoken in the past about its connection to film, as it splits it identity between both that and videogames, yet I think this became an integral part of my loving of the game. At first playing, I was two years away from enrolling in a film course at college. Watching and playing this game, felt like something that shouldn’t be. Characters shouldn’t be this well realised. Exploring these themes shouldn’t be this nuanced. Prior to The Last of Us, videogames to me were kicking enemies into spikes, and gleefully firing oversized machine guns towards ever more monstrous attackers. Yet moving forward, The Last of Us showed me that videogames could be artistic. They could impressionable. And they could have the same level of structural storytelling, and well realised characters as the best of film. Since its release, there has undoubtably been an increase in games more akin to The Last of Us, but none have left me so anxious, covered in goosebumps with tears rolling down my face as I carried an infected teenager out of a certain hospital.
Yet to me, The Last of Us isn’t just the dramatic moments, it is the quieter ones too. Small exhales, Joel muttering under his breath, Ellie commenting on an old arcade machine. These smaller moments helped humanise the whole experience to show that these aren’t just characters when a cutscene starts. They continue to be once the control is put back in your hands. These are the moments that captured that feeling way back when I first discovered the game, and continue to be the reason I play the game slowly, eager to soak up every little interaction, and each optional conversation.
Seven years later, and on the cusp of the eventual sequel, The Last of Us has stayed as important to me now, as it was when I first played it. Ageing like a fine wine, I find new meaning with each new playthrough, and I believe I will continue to do so in the years to come. I can confidently proclaim that it is almost singularly responsible for chartering on the path of games journalism. It is a game that showed me games could be more. It is a game that introduced mature storytelling, before most films even got the chance to. It is a game like no other, and even as I watched Ellie’s doubtful yet accepting stare in it’s final moments, I still sat perched forward waiting for her eventual “Ok”, as much as I did all those years ago.