Postmortem: The Emotional Impact of The Last of Us

The Last of Us 1Now that The Last of Us has been out for a little more than a month, I’ve had numerous opportunities (as I sat around doing nothing) to reflect on what did and didn’t work. I kept swinging around in semi-circles with my chair as I thought back to the major thematic beats and emotionally gut-wrenching dialogue.

I stand by my review of The Last of Us; it is a flawed game. But I constantly find myself thinking about different, highly impactful moments. I run over my review time and again, never questioning my opinion, but wondering if there was a better way to articulate it. I continue to remember the fantastic narrative beats and the rich characters that permeate all throughout The Last of Us, and little by little my rose-colored glasses tint just a shade darker. I gave The Last of Us a positive review, even if some don’t think that’s the case. I really like the game, and it will probably make it into my top ten at the end of the year (but let’s certainly not think about that now), so I’m attempting to explore why I still think The Last of Us is one of the best games this year.

It really all boils down to narrative, characters, and voice acting — three intrinsically linked parts that culminate into a single, unified whole. The Last of Us is an example of Best in Class storytelling, a rare occurrence in video games where most stories boil down to Good Guy kill lots of Bad Guys until Good Guy fight Big Bad Guy.

Yes, there will be major story spoilers. So do not read this if you haven’t played the game.

*The Last of Us spoilers begin now*

The Last of Us constantly makes you care about characters right before ripping them away from you. The Last of Us constantly eschews exposition and instead uses that time to build relationships, letting the player fill in the world-building blanks through context or the in-game collectable notes. The Last of Us constantly wore me down until I was emotionally raw and mentally unstable. The Last of Us constantly built upon a relationship between two complex and compelling characters.

Joel is an asshole. He’s not a hero, he’s not a white knight, he’s just a dick who knows his way around town. It really seems like no one likes him — which is probably because he’s distant and closed off after losing Sarah, and to be honest I can’t blame him. He lost his daughter. (For those keeping track at home, I shed tears in those first twenty minutes.) The fact that he could still function as a human being for twenty years after that is more than I could probably say for myself.

Ellie is a snot-nosed little brat. She’s not a hero, she’s not a princess in need of saving, she’s just a kid growing up in the worst possible circumstances. (She’s also a MacGuffin, but whatever.) I didn’t like her at first. I thought she was annoying, careless, talked way too much and didn’t know when to shut the hell up. But she grew on me and I knew she cared about people. She’s the kind of girl that stopped and waited for everyone to look away before grabbing a stupid little robot action figure for a kid she hardly knew. (And on the Clint-Cry-O-Meter that entire exchange at the radio tower was Tearfest #2)

Joel and Ellie are two characters that shouldn’t work together, but overtime the relationship grows and they become more comfortable around each other. It becomes the father-daughter bond Joel lost twenty years ago, and it also becomes the crux of the entire story. Joel becomes so dependent on her he would do anything, even let the entire world suffer, just to protect her.

The Last of Us also creates some fantastic atmospheric storytelling through the random houses and apartments that Joel and Ellie pillage for supplies. I had to steel myself for what lay beyond the doors to child bedrooms, flashing back to Sarah’s bedroom from the game’s opening. It was at one point, I think in the sewers, where Joel walks into a makeshift classroom for a group of children. I don’t know if it was a note on the ground, or if I just put the pieces together myself, but I saw a group of small humps covered by blankets. It was around 2:00 AM the day the game came out. I set my controller down and walked outside, needing fresh air and an escape from what I just saw. (Water-works 3.0)

But there’s one moment I can’t get out of my head: Ellie had just been assaulted and she wasn’t herself anymore. She hardened up overnight and nothing Joel said or did could cheer her up. I felt hopeless and scared for her, wanting to take the pain anyway I could. After a long, awkward walk through the city streets, the impossible happened — we saw giraffes. Immediately I was overwhelmed with emotion and adoration for Ellie who, in an instant, changed into the little girl she never was. Ellie had never seen anything so beautiful and for a moment, a brief, fleeting moment, I forgot I was playing a video game. For that instant I was right there with Ellie and Joel and tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t stop. (Yeah, so what I get emotional #4)

Of course, there are so many other really great story beats in the game I can’t think of right now, or don’t have a lot to say other that “that was totally a great part of this game!” I mean, the entire sequence as Joel is running through the hospital with Ellie in his arms is incredibly impactful, and the playable moment with the three doctors in the operating room is one of the most gut-wrenching parts of The Last of Us because this is the first time Joel is put in a situation where people aren’t pointing guns at him. I shot the first surgeon because I was scared and confused. Other people I talked to shot all of them, or none of them. It’s the one moment where you have a choice in what happens, and it’s the hardest moment to face.

In fact the whole ending was emotionally damaging as Joel lies directly to Ellie’s face because he cares more about himself than what she may want. (I guess we can call this cry #5, even though it was more of a prolonged sense of sadness than actual tears.)

When I think back, I don’t really think about the combat or the level design; I think back to the story they told. What simply started out as a journey from point A to point B, ferrying a girl to the resistance (a la Children of Men) turns into a unique character study on what happens to innocence in a world without much happiness. I think back to how I felt when Joel hesitantly handed Ellie a rifle and told her to be safe with it.

I think back to the Winter chapter and realize how perfectly out of place it was within the main narrative. Not everything in the world goes according to plan, and Winter is a horribly depressing view of how unprepared Ellie is on her own. In Winter she lost her last bit of innocence and childlike wonder. She could barely survive on her own, but she wouldn’t go down without a fight. In Winter I worried for Ellie, not because I thought Joel might be dead, but because I didn’t know if she was ready for life without a role model, or at least someone to protect her… she’s just a kid, after all. And goddamn, that juxtaposition between her escaping David’s compound and Joel forcing his way in to save her was absolutely fantastic. You know she’s in trouble and will do unspeakable things to get her back. In that moment, Joel becomes something of a villain — or at least a psychotic nutjob hellbent on saving his surrogate daughter.

In a review, especially for a game that just came out, it’s hard to express the great things a game’s narrative accomplishes without spoiling the entire thing. What praise I was able to give towards the story without giving away the best parts gets lost in the less-than-positive thoughts on things like combat and level design. I still stand by the words in my review of The Last of Us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of my favorite games this year.