It’s a funny thing, hype. It’s funnier when something lives up to the hype, thus creating more hype, in an endless hype circle. When The Last of Us hit in the middle of last year, it was instantly hailed as the new bar for what gaming could and should be going forward. The dreaded comparisons to Citizen Kane were thrown around like candy, thus opening the game up to a whole new level of scrutiny, scrutiny that even in its new, beautiful, 1080p, 60fps clothes, the game doesn’t stand up to and most importantly never invited.
The Last of Us succeeds not at what overzealous fans want it to be, but at what it actually aims to be: an elegiac parable of what it means to live versus surviving in the near-post-apocalypse that doesn’t work its way under the player’s skin to unnerve, but simply reside and haunt. It owes its bones far more to Cormac McCarthy than George A. Romero, even standing apart from its closest tonal contemporary, Telltale Games’ Walking Dead, in how often it opts for the gentle, the melancholic, or the beautiful in lieu of the vicious, though vicious certainly has its time here. Even at its most frenetic and predictable, the typical high-strung, guns-blazing braggadocio that defines modern gaming, especially when zombies are concerned, is missing here, opting for every extreme action taken in Joel and Ellie’s cross-country journey to have a visceral heft and consequence, and a depth of on-the-fly decision-making that even Naughty Dog’s work on the Uncharted series never hinted they were capable of prior.
And yet, that series’s pedigree is here, and The Last of Us’s stubborn refusal to go its own way in terms of how it handles combat makes sense in context of a world where guns are more likely to get you out of a jam than, say, a dialogue tree. What it does, though, is make for a title that goes for long stretches putting aside its own headier promises to settle for less. There’s simply one too many instances of the player strictly running and gunning as if Joel was nothing more than a leaden Nathan Drake, when there are far more interesting gameplay mechanics at work with the exploration, tense stealth, and scavenging.
This may also be the point. More than that wavering Texas drawl of his, Joel’s first language with the world, after the harrowing intro-sequence death of his daughter, is killing. He speaks it well, and he speaks it often, and the world around him understands it very well indeed. The difference between this and every other game on the market where this is the case lies in Joel’s own struggles in finding someone to not just speak it with, but speak it for. It’s what’s keeping him alive, and that makes Joel both fascinating and terrifying as a player protagonist, where constant, brutal killing is the only way to progress, and he’s vocally and uncomfortably self-aware of this fact of life.
This need for someone to kill for is what brings Joel to Ellie: 14 years old, smart, capable, sharp-tongued, and somehow still very much a teenager in a place and time where no one gets to be a kid anymore. There are oh-so-many ways in which the game could fall victim to the laziest surrogate-daughter/damsel-in-distress tropes with Ellie, and the game does nigh-miraculous work avoiding the majority of them. The idea of Ellie as a surrogate for Joel’s daughter permeates the game, but it’s painted in shades of increasing, compelling gray, even as the inevitable happens, and the two become genuinely close and Joel makes the worst decision of his life: He starts to hope.
Hope is dangerous here. Hope is a burden. Hope is fragile china in the world of The Last of Us, and life swings a mean baseball bat, as the myriad survivors Joel and Ellie encounter along the way almost unilaterally discover. For someone whose day to day is predicated on the will to kill to suddenly find himself struggling with responsibility and the terrifying possibility of everything someday being okay, hope is a twisted, frightening thing, and does nothing against the power of self-interest, which is what makes the game’s final moments some of the strongest in any storytelling medium in recent memory.
It’s the reason why the Left Behind DLC included in Remastered is a crucial piece of the puzzle that should never be parted from the larger game, ever. As gameplay, it’s not as cohesive as the main game, but the two-hour-or-so detour is worthwhile to not just get more of Ellie being more than capable of carrying a game all by herself, but also to see what’s she’s lost, or rather, who she’s lost. How she lost Riley, her bold, brash, and sadly exiled best friend is still a mystery by the game’s end, because it’s not the point of the tale. The point is Riley’s last, morbidly defiant words before the cut to credits. We know where and why Joel arrives at the place he does. What’s informing that infamous, hollow, enigmatic “Okay” at the end of the game is entirely contained in that fast, funny, and heartbreaking two hours.
Again, hype is a funny thing. A first playthrough of The Last of Us in the midst of overbearing platitudes made it out to be the stuff of legend, a game capable of breaking the glass art ceiling we like to pretend matters when it comes to great work in games. A next-gen playthrough, with the graphical beauty cranked to its highest, and divorced of all other critical noise, reveals a game that doesn’t break new ground, but very much tries to reach perfection with the tools Naughty Dog and the industry as a whole, really, are all very well aware of. The gameplay settling for being hewn of the same cloth as Uncharted doesn’t change the fact that Uncharted couldn’t and really never should go to the somber places The Last of Us dares.
And yes, The Last of Us does dare, and demand in ways AAA action never does, and involves the player in horrifying, stained morality along the way. But it wouldn’t be worth a second look if it also hadn’t also earned so much of the player’s heart as well.