(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in June 2020)
The sequel to the seminal The Last of Us - the 2013 Naughty Dog PlayStation game - is imminent/already released, depending on when you’re reading this, so what better time to revisit and remind ourselves of the original?
I'm holding my breath and crouching behind a desk. There's a Clicker in the room, scarred legs shuffling awkwardly as he stumbles around looking for me, his head now a bloated and blind fungal mass. It’s acting on pure animalistic instinct, years of infection having removed any vestiges of humanity he once possessed. A guttural tick echoes from his mouth as he claws at the air in desperate frustration. I'm about to breathe a sigh of relief when he shuffles on me by but then I hear it - the sound of one of those less infected but as deadly nonetheless who has spotted me - and realise I'm going to run for it. I've only made it two or three steps before the Clicker hears me and screams after me in pursuit.
My vision is fading from the blood loss as I slide down behind cover, hurriedly trying to craft myself a medical kit from the few scavenged remains I've pocketed. Bullets ricochet off a nearby wall as the soldiers advance from behind their cover, suspecting I'm out of ammo. Which I am. I could have made a Molotov cocktail with the same kit, but it's too late for that now. I have no time so run towards one of them in desperation, my fist swinging towards his face.
The Last of Us is a survival horror game set 20 years after an apocalypse has devastated the Earth. And for once it's not World War III or Zombies (in as much as 28 days sort of isn't a zombie film), but in a world where the fungal insect disease Cordyceps has spread to humanity, making a mammalian leap as in the excellent Mike Carey novel The Girl with all the Gifts. The remaining surviving populace have been herded into Military controlled quarantine zones.
The prologue - which introduces you to the lead character of Joel - is one of the best openings to a videogame I've encountered since the original Prey and Bioshock. It's very reminiscent of the opening to Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead in that it does a great job of introducing something quite horrific into a typical domestic scene - it's powerful, well written, perfectly paced and - most unusually for a video game - is phenomenally well acted. I haven't been as moved by watching anything that took such a short period of time since Pixar's Up.
20 years later sees your character Joel eking out an existence as a smuggler, skilled in the art of survival and travelling between the quarantine zones. It’s a living, of sorts. And in the introduction - which does the great thing of being a tutorial that doesn't feel like a tutorial - sees you and your partner Tess reluctantly press-ganged into a most unusual smuggling operation; To escort a young girl named Ellie - with a very important secret - out of the city and to safety.
What follows is a breath-taking journey across a plague ravaged America where the military who seek Ellie are almost as deadly as the disease-ridden infected who wander the wastes. You'll be forced to scavenge for every piece of equipment you can get your hands on - every piece of ammunition is scarce with value beyond compare, and you'll rarely be in a position where you can afford to plough dozens of bullets into an enemy to take him down.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So far, so video game. The survival horror genre has been done to death, so what makes this any different? Any seasoned gamer must have wandered across hundreds of post-apocalyptic landscapes fighting three dozen varieties of mutants/zombies/maniacs, etc.
Well for once the script doesn't feel like it's been cobbled together by a couple of games designers who thought they were up to the task because they watched the Mad Max Boxset at the weekend. With music composed by a decent musician (Gustavo Santa Olalla) as opposed to somebody who was roped into the task because they had a Casio SA-46 keyboard in the attic which still had some batteries in. With the roles acted out by a decent cast instead of dragging people in from the street or getting a developer who was in the school’s performance of Oliver a decade ago.
The Last of Us is an immaculately presented package. Originally one of the last big titles for the PS3, it was a perfect swansong for the console - a perfectly worded eulogy for what gaming can be if the ingredients and recipe are right. I'll go out on a limb and say that it's probably one of the best videogames I've played in the last 30 years. Nigh on perfection. A PS4 remaster soon followed, giving me the perfect excuse to play the game again from scratch.
The film critic Roger Ebert wrote a brilliant yet contentious piece back in 2010 describing why he thought that videogames could never be art. It's a piece I don't necessarily agree with, but it's a shame he died - not least of which because I'd love to have known what he thought of The Last of Us. He probably still wouldn't admit it was art, but I think he'd have loved it as one of the closest links between cinema and gaming I've seen in a long, long time.
"After all we've been through, everything that I've done. It can't be for nothing."
And with that single word spoken by Ellie, the screen fades to black and the end credits roll. After all that had happened, all we’d been through, she’d looked at me for reassurance. And I’d lied to her - and she knew but didn't mind.
It was more convenient for us both to believe the lie, or the entire journey – all the friends we’d lost, the sacrifices we'd made, the horrors we'd seen from both the infected and what humanity had become – be they fungus-infected monstrosities or desperate cannibalistic survivors and the sheer barbarity that both were capable of – would all have been for nothing.
It had been a couple of days since the end credits rolled and the last of the names scrolled up the screen, and I realised I’d been thinking about ending of The Last of Us a lot.
Like the poor zombie ants infected by the Cordyceps fungus that the game takes its inspiration that are compelled to do nothing but climb towards the light and then die, the path of Joel and Ellie was inevitable – It was always going to end like that. Not with a huge boss fight in which Joel would emerge holding a vaccine aloft, declared as a hero and the saviour of humanity, but with the two of them blinking into the sunlight having finished the journey as very different people to those who had begun it.
The infected are horrific, and chilling. There are those who haven’t been infected for long, those people who still have some semblance of humanity. They’re feral and murderous, with the Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis growths wrapped around their brain compelling them to perform inhuman atrocities. Unlike their more infected brethren, they’re quick and they’re noisy, shrieking aloud to alert others of your presence.
Clickers are the worst and, like the fungal growth that drives them, prefer the dark. They’ re blind, the fungus within them expanded through long-empty eye sockets and mouths and they hunt by sound, their clicking acting as a rudimentary sonar. Once you’ve been spotted by one, probably best just to take your own life. It’ll be easier, in the long run.
Never has a videogame put me through as many emotions as The Last of Us.
Fear - Absolute fear. There is no sound quite as terrifying as the guttural click-clicking of a distant clicker as it tries to locate you, or the frenzied snarling of the infected as they hunt you in the dark. I haven't been as scared playing a computer game since zombie dogs bursting through a police station window in a Resident Evil nearly gave me a heart attack, and in more than one such situation I had to remind myself to breathe and blink.
I'd relax with the characters in the all too rare situations when they too could relax. When for a few fleeting moments it wasn't about hiding and killing but about the fascinating growing relationship between a jaded killer and a young girl enthusiastic about her first trip into the world. I groaned and laughed with Joel as Ellie shared her dreadful jokes and awful puns.
I felt genuine anger when I saw that young Henry had become infected but chose not to tell his companions, and anguish when his brother Sam took the horrible unthinkable step of taking his own life - anything but continue this horrible existence without Henry. Anger when the apparent friendship between Ellie and the survivor David turned into the very worst and base of betrayals.
There’s an affecting moment towards the end of the game, in Salt Lake City. Joel and Ellie are nearing journey’s end. They’re in the upper remains of an old subway station, and Joel loses her. When he finds her again, she’s transfixed by something she sees through a hole in the wall. And then a herd of giraffes wander into sight. Ellie is a girl who has seen little of nature, born to the compound, suddenly confronted with such overwhelming beauty. Even Joel is moved by it all. They’d presumably escaped from an abandoned zoo long ago, wandering the remains of the city.
I’ll admit, I cried. It was a moment of innocence wonder in an unforgivably bleak and harsh world.
The Last of Us is truly brilliant. Beautiful, thought-provoking and - most importantly - a simply great game. It’s as perfectly paced and script as the best horror film, and the sequel will have to go some way to match or beat it.
The Last of Us is available for the PS3 and PS4. The Last of Us 2 is released on the 19th of June 2020 for the PS4.
The Girl with all the Gifts by Mike Carey; An excellent book, and an equally good cinematic adaptation. Starring the ever-reliable Paddy Considine, it’s refreshing to see a horror film set in Britain.
Sleeping too well these days? Watch this clip of national treasure David Attenborough on Cordyceps; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKjBIBBAL8. There’s a lovely short piece by National Geographic as well at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vijGdWn5-h8. If it wasn’t real, you wouldn’t believe it. You’re welcome.