I didn’t do much in the way of gaming before 2006 and I’ve never really regretted that. But few things’ reach and grasp are ever on par with one another, and by 2006 the PS3 and XBOX360 had given game developers the hardware to match their ambition. Kind of like how computer generate imaging gave George Lucas the ability to realize the full potential of the original Star Wars trilogy.
I sat down with a friend and watched him play the original Gears of War and it blew away my perceptions of what video games could be. In hindsight that notion is a little ridiculous because, let’s face it, its Gears of War, but at the time the last game I’d played with any real vigor starred Tony Hawk. 180-nollie-heel-flip-to-manual am I right? Gears had character and (melo)drama and an overwhelming sense of weight and scale. In the seven years since I first took on the locust horde the gaming industry has enhanced those elements tenfold and the results have been spectacular; Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock. This generation of gaming has proven to be a wunderkind not only for the medium itself, but for media in general, and for my money The Last of Us is a perfect summation of the massive strides gaming has taken during this generation of consoles.
The Last of Us follows local sad sack Joel, a grizzled survivor in a post-apocalypse America who is tasked with smuggling Ellie, a fourteen-year-old who has known no life before the apocalypse, out of a quarantine zone in a presumably post-Wahlberg Boston and across the dilapidated ruins of America. And ruins have never looked so lovely.
The Last of Us is a gorgeous game, and a testament to how far console graphics have come in just a handful of years. Whether Joel and Ellie are creeping through blackened, collapsed subway tunnels, bolting through the remnants of a suburban high school or taking in the scenery of a cityscape overgrown with lush vegetation the attention to detail, aesthetic and atmosphere put the player right there with them.
That same attention to detail is put to use in character animations both in and out of gameplay. When Joel strangles some jive turkey to death it looks like muscles are being used and energy is being expelled. When Joel talks with Ellie in the moments free of immediate life-threatening danger the characters’ subtle facial expressions and mannerisms add nuance to the voice actors’ performances. Not that said acts need any assistance.
You cannot talk about The Last of Us without talking about actors and performances, which is in and of itself a testament both to the game in particular and gaming in general. In 2006 the notion of relating dramatic performance to gaming would have been entirely lost on me.
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice Joel and Ellie respectively and their performances are the backbone of The Last of Us. I gave a shit about shanking the shiv out of fungus people with great stealth and subtlety because I could hear the fear and caution in Joel’s voice. Inversely, I could tell Ellie was distraught at times because she wasn’t talking. I probably spent more than 12 hours with Joel and Ellie working my way across America. By the end just as I knew how to shiv mushroom folk with a certain apocalyptic sangfroid and how the controls worked when wielding a bow and arrow I knew that even in the most dire of circumstances a relic of pre-pandemic America would invoke equal parts curiosity and disbelief in Ellie and that Joel’s nostalgia for the old world would creep up on him like a half-remembered TV show theme song.
Watching and listening to Joel and Ellie’s emotional journey unfold was every bit as captivating as playing through their geographical trek through the lavishly decaying American dystopia. Both journeys provide for phenomenal stories in their own right and together they prove a regular tour de force of thrilling shootouts, terrifying encounters and brass-knuckled emotional gut punches all culminating in a phenomenal ending that will keep you steeped in contemplation and consideration for days.
The Last of Us’ narrative is thoughtful, well-placed and engaging. It could have been a comic book, or a television show, or a movie. The Last of Us could have been a novel. But it isn’t. A narrative of this caliber is told through a video game with story beat after story beat perfectly executed and characters, themes and exposition fully realized.
In the waning years of the PS3 generation the video game has become a legitimately viable story telling medium on par with any other and The Last of Us is proof of that. Even when compared to post-apocalyptic peers in other media like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or TBS’ Falling Skies, or the multimedia juggernaut that is The Walking Dead, The Last of Us stands as the best piece of literature in the genre today.
Ten years from now, when every other piece of fiction doesn’t revolve around the end of the world, looking back on the current fascination with the apocalypse and all that fascination says about this time and this place, The Last of Us won’t be a novelty footnote, it won’t be some video game, it’ll be a principal example of fiction circa 2013.