The world’s falling apart around us and dystopian apocalyptic stories have never been more popular. It’s testament to the huge degree of love and attention that has gone into The Last of Us, then, that it has managed to rise above this stifled genre, to establish itself on par with classic dystopias.
The game introduces us to the world (specifically the U.S.A) twenty years after a virus has infected the majority of the population, turning them into zombie-esque creatures hungry for human blood. So far, so I Am Legend, or Dawn of the Dead, you might be thinking, but, the first difference is that this virus is based in real science, borrowing from a real parasitic fungi that exists today. Cordyceps, a fungi encompassing over 400 species, works by infecting an insect’s body, taking over its host, before killing it and sprouting from the corpse. The people over at Naughty Dog productions have taken Cordyceps one step further and made it jump from insect to humans, with terrifying results.
Really though, as with most apocalyptic stories, the infection is merely a catalyst for the decay of human society. There are no good of bad guys in The Last of Us. At the end of the world, nothing is that clear cut. The nearest thing we have to a protagonist is Joel, a middle aged man tasked with transporting a young girl across the country. However, this is not a country one wants to wander about in, as our man well knows.
As Joel and Ellie traverse the ruined cities and navigate the walled military compounds, they fall prey to all manner of mishaps. Chief amongst these problems are other humans, now forced to scavenge for food, medicine, ammo, in the ruined cities of North America. If you thought The Road was brutal, you’re yet to play this game. Joel, and indeed Ellie, are deft combatants who are not afraid to smash a man’s head in on a table top, or strangle an unsuspecting scavenger. Of course, it’s really up to you as the player how you take down these enemies (many of whom are guilty of nothing more than just trying to survive), but however you go about it, it’s guaranteed to be brutal.
It would have been easy for the producers to knock out a generic survival horror, a knock-off Resident Evil where the scares are cheap and there’s little in the way of morality. The Last of Us sidesteps this trap, instead offering epic game play which explores human morality against a beautiful, cinematic backdrop of broken cities where nature had been allowed to run rampant. You’ll marvel at the sunset over overgrown skyscrapers. You’ll try to calm your pounding heart when the infected are closing in on you in a dark corridor. You’ll be genuinely terrified when engaged in a shootout with only four bullets to hand, and you might even shed a tear at the growing affection between Joel and Ellie.
The Last of Us is a terrific achievement that transcends not only the apocalyptic gaming tropes, but also the genre as a whole, offering more humanity here than many films and books which attempt to tackle the same subject. It’s a master class in storytelling, it’s a master class in visuals, and it’s a master class in what it means to be a human being. Buy this game, and you’ll love it.