By: Adam Leonhardt
When you have a video game that is the benchmark for what the medium can be in so many different respects it can be a daunting task to articulate just what it is that makes it so special. The Last of Us has so many wonderful moments, characters, story beats and scenarios that when I think about my favorite moments from my time with it I’m flooded with memories of scene after scene where Naughty Dog consistently delivered the pinnacle of video game narrative. But this is The Last of Us Week and I undertook the task of selecting the five best moments from Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, an experience that was more stressful than tiptoeing through a pack of Clickers. It probably goes without saying but there are MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead. If you have not yet played The Last of Us DO NOT READ any further.
There are many moments of loss in The Last of Us, it is a heavy experience that rewards players who don’t get too attached to their favorite side characters as the chances of survival in this world are slim. But one death in particular is quite impactful and that is of Joel’s partner Tess. As a player you are shepherded into the post-pandemic world in the early hours through the lead of Tess. She’s tough, determined and in a circumstantial relationship with protagonist Joel. Tess teaches the player what life is like in this world and when her time comes it comes from out of nowhere.
After a series of skirmishes and close-calls, Joel, Ellie and Tess stop to take a moment to catch their breath. It is in this fleeting moment that Tess reveals her source of infection, a neck bite from a previous encounter. She is doomed and they all know it. But rather than focusing on her impending death, Tess takes her final moments and her time for goodbyes to instead plead with Joel to take Ellie to the end of their mission. Tess confesses that her life hasn’t amounted to much but with a final act of sacrifice she could possibly make a difference in the world. It’s heartbreaking, heroic and breathless as the game gives you no time to think about the moment. The enemy is at their doorstep and Joel must flee with Ellie immediately. Tess’ final moment of giving her life to hold back the oncoming threat while Joel and Ellie sneak away is a beautiful tragedy.
Danger is everywhere in The Last of Us. Some of those dangers are obvious like the infected and some of those dangers come from where you least expect them. After acquiring a working vehicle from an estranged friend, Joel drives Ellie down deserted roads and highways trying to make their way towards their end goal. Things are going well enough until they reach the city and a roadblock of abandoned cars on the freeway, which force them down the off-ramp and through a channel of open streets below.
It only takes a moment for a man, bleeding and injured, to stumble in their way begging for help. The occurrence is not surprising as many people wander the world looking for help and safety. Ellie asks Joel if they should stop and help the stranger but Joel orders Ellie to fasten her seatbelt as he stomps his foot on the gas pedal, because “he ain’t even hurt”. The following scene is a jarring ambush as scavengers descend upon Joel and Ellie from all directions. The two have fallen right into the scavengers trap, but unfortunately for these opportunistic killers and thieves, they fucked with the wrong car. Joel kicks into survival mode and violently dispatches of the threat in brutal fashion using bricks, bullets and broken glass. The scene is a stark indication of the human threat that awaits you, and what you must be willing to do to survive.
There are so many moments along the way in Joel and Ellie’s journey that push you down and continually punch you on the ground until you’re out of breath. This game is an experience that doesn’t give you a lot of time to see the bright side. There is one standout scene towards the end of Joel and Ellie’s travels together, where it’s becoming clear that you’re reaching the end of the road. As a player you can’t help but wonder how could this story possibly end in anything other than tragedy? The characters themselves carry that weight with them as they walk quietly towards their destination, resolved that no matter what, through all the death and sadness they’ve had to endure, somehow this book must close.
But there is the strangest moment of hope right at this pivotal point, when Ellie comes across a herd of giraffes walking majestically through the overgrown and abandoned quarantine zone in the heart of Seattle. A symbol that even though the world has been rocked with calamity, there is still life here. Mankind isn’t the end of this story and that is made clear in a beautifully quiet scene where we see life continues to move forward through even the worst circumstances.
There is no greater opening of a video game than the opening moments of The Last of Us. Period. It is not up for debate and it’s not even close. The way Naughty Dog sets the stage for what is to come is on an entirely different level than any game that came before and anything that has come after. Through masterfully reserved world-building, slight-of-hand player agency and some of the best acting you will ever experience in the medium, Naughty Dog delivers the most impactful and breathtaking opening sequence of a video game ever. It will shake you to your very core.
Much like the beginning of this story, the closing chapter of The Last of Us is a masterfully crafted work of art. Your expectations of where this story is headed are side-stepped the moment Joel and Ellie arrive exactly where they’ve been headed all along. There is no miracle or safe harbor awaiting them however as once again the harsh reality of the world overshadows even the chance to save it. Joel must decide between saving the world and saving Ellie as life comes full circle for him. With Ellie’s life literally in his hands we as the player are forced to see the parallel between this moment and the one where Joel lost everything in the opening moments of the game.
What follows is a breathtaking choice that leaves blood, bodies and the last hope for mankind smoldering in Joel’s wake. As a parent this scene is immensely powerful as we cannot help but reflect on what we would do to save our own children. What would you be willing to give up? What would you be willing to sacrifice? The closing moments of The Last of Us are just as much a masterpiece as it’s opening. Truly an achievement in storytelling.