The Last of Us is a magnificent game. But you already knew that, since the game has won a ridiculous amount of awards and is generally viewed as one of the best games of all time. You might indeed have also wondered if it deserves all that praise, and I’m here to tell you it does. The game basically has no flaws. Oh sure, it starts out a bit slow. It’s very story driven; and after an extremely solid and tense introduction, the game jumps forward 20 years and the pace falls a bit. By that point you’re not yet fully immersed in the story and its characters, so you tend to watch the proceedings from a distance. And truth be told, this part of the game does last for a few hours. The Last of Us is kind of like a 400-page-book that takes 100 pages to get going. But once it does, oh my, you’re in for a treat.
In the meantime, the game uses the slow parts to teach you how to play. The Last of Us falls into the survival horror genre, although personally I didn’t find the game to be scary at all. There is a fair amount of survival however, as ammo is very scarce. It’s not actually that big of deal since the weapons are downright lethal. It’s interesting that this is the same developer who made Uncharted, a series known for having guns raining from the skies, a near unlimited amount of bullets and enemies who can eat them like I can eat candy. But here it’s the complete opposite: firearms are as lethal as they are in real life, which makes for very satisfying firefights. However during the first few hours you barely find any ammo so it plays more like a stealth game, with you taking out enemies from behind or just plain avoiding them.
It’s a good thing then that the stealth mechanics are top notch, with a cover system that feels so natural, so fluid, that it’s a wonder nobody thought of it beforehand. This fantastic stealth system coupled with amazing shootouts makes for one hell of a package. And I’m not done. While the game is extremely satisfying from a technical perspective, the real magic is the game’s artificial intelligence. The fights feel very unpredictable. In most shooters I tend to fall into a groove where I know exactly how to approach each situation, exactly which guns I will be using, how I will use them and how to do so while conserving as much ammunition as possible. But The Last of Us constantly messes with your mind by having its characters behave in erratic manners. They sidestep when you don’t think they will, they don’t rush when you think they’ll rush, or the chaos around you makes it hard enough to aim that you miss. It feels like you’re never fully in control of fights, and for a gamer of my experience that is very rare. The game constantly foiled my best laid plans, and it felt amazing. All in all, it’s some of the best gameplay around.
So what is the game about? In short, it’s a zombie game. There are no actual zombies, but the enemies you face are akin to zombies. You play as Joel, a man who’s been trying to find himself in the twenty years following the death of his daughter. Joel ain’t a walk in the park; he’s a tough man with a tough past. Soon enough you encounter Ellie, a girl who seems to be immune to the plague that has been tearing through civilization. Her caretaker tasks you to take Ellie to a lab, and off you go on your adventure. I don’t want to get too much into the story proper in case you haven’t played the game, or if you have played it then you already know what’s going on. The acting is so natural that at times, you think you’re watching a movie. It makes characters who aren’t sweethearts very endearing, and once the game has its hooks in you it refuses to let go.
But what is it REALLY about? The game touches on a wide range of issues. It tackles complex emotions in complex ways, and might very well be the most human game ever made. It’s also interesting because of Joel, who is the most violent and un-good leading character I might have ever played as. Most of his motivations for doing stuff are based in selfishness. The reviews I’ve read on the game tend to say that even though you play as Joel for the majority of it, Ellie is really the true main character. I disagree, as I find that Joel has a much more complex and interesting personality.
However if I had to choose, I would say that the main theme of the game is love. The Last of Us is all about love. Love of those you have lost, love for those you haven’t, love for those you are scared to lose, but most strikingly for me, love for the environment. The Last of Us is at its core deeply environmentalist. In most zombie shows or movies, you can see how nature regains its footing. It creeps back into cities, and animals run wild and free. However it is rarely focused on, it is simply a thing that happens. But The Last of Us is constantly reminding you of it, with the camera ceaselessly panning towards nature shots. There are even some cutscenes that serve only to show you how gorgeous cities are when there are no humans in them.
The game’s enemies fall into two camps: humans, and humans who have been infected by cordyceps. Cordyceps actually exist, and are a type of fungi who invade insects, eventually growing out of their bodies. In fact that’s how the fungus reproduces; it kills the host and then through it it releases spores to infect other hosts. The first stage of infection tends to be disorientation, as the insect stumbles around and the fungus starts taking over its brain. Then once that is done, the fungus will direct the insect to a suitable ‘dying spot’, and will slowly start growing out of the insect’s head. Once it is fully grown, it starts releasing spores to infect other insects. Each species of cordyceps infects only one specific insect. You can see the entire process in the following video from BBC wildlife.
In The Last of Us, a strand of cordyceps can now attack humans. And humans go through almost the exact same stages as the insects, except that those stages are also accompanied by intense aggression. The first stage is the disorientation stage, which in the game they call runners since they tend to run straight at you while screaming and trying to beat the crap out of you. The second stage, clickers, are when fungi starts growing out of the human’s head. They lose their eyesight, but they gain increased hearing in return, and are physically stronger than runners. The third stage, bloaters, is when the human starts being able to release spores. By this stage they are very big and armored, can instakill you if they grab you and will throw spores at you from afar. They are ‘boss’ enemies. And like insects, the last stage is death, in a way, as they will merge into the wall and become a spore factory.
Using cordyceps as the source of infection in The Last of Us is interesting because of the fungi’s role in nature: it is a population control agent. Its main function is to make sure that a specific insect does not become too widespread. If it does then it’s very likely to come into contact with its own brand of cordyceps and thus infect other colonies, wiping them out. Thus to recap, the game is constantly showing you how gorgeous the planet is when there aren’t any humans around, and is using a population control agent as its main antagonist. Plus, the game likes to reinforce the idea that as terrible as the infected humans are, the non-infected are far worse. Mass murder, cannibalism, sexual abuse, those things are all committed by normal people. The infected are being brain controlled by an extremely primitive organism, but what’s your excuse? A while back I participated in a study on climate change, and one of the striking things that I learned through it is how effective population control was to manage the climate. Not only that, but in a simulation game that I played, one of the most effective worst-case (meaning that global warming gets at a dangerously high level) options was to commit genocide in overpopulated countries. This is exactly what’s happening in The Last of Us: humans are gone ‘en masse’ and the planet prospers in return. And if you look at the ending, some might say that Joel makes a selfish decision that effectively dooms the human race. However, the game constantly begs the question: would that be such a bad thing?