As much as I feel that the zombie apocalypse in gaming is becoming as putrescent and relentless as its source material, there are the occasional outposts of life and hope scattered like survivors across its decrepit landscape. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: The Video Game armed itself with a double-barreled shotgun of emotion and character that actually minimized the shambling ghouls to little more than meaty motivation for the survivors to escape the hell of Georgia. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us actually manages to trump even Telltale’s beautifully scripted tale with meatier gameplay, more terrifying monsters, and wrenching pathos.
Within the first twenty minutes, The Last of Us had reduced me to a simpering mess. We get a brief, beautiful peek into the life of single father Joel and his teenage daughter Sarah, celebrating a late-night birthday before all hell breaks loose and his world is torn from his grasp. Riots and mutating citizens reduce the world around him to ashes, and his daughter is killed by an overzealous soldier. In this pain-drenched moment, The Last of Us defines itself and its tone. There is no gentle release from the mortal coil, no gentle closing of the eyes punctuated with a death rattle. Instead we are presented with the agonizing chaos of Joel holding his dying daughter, terrified and unable to save her as she screams and bleeds.
Twenty years later, and Joel has settled into the world ravaged by the spore-based infection that reduces its victims to fungal zombies. Martial law is the way of the new world, which has been transformed into beautiful ruin. In the absence of man, crumbling buildings are now embraced by creeping greenery, a destructive dichotomy of life and death. Through these ruins Joel has to escort Ellie, a young girl who, in a typical post-apocalyptic fashion, may hold the biological key to humanity’s salvation. Unfortunately for the two of them, the ruins are populated by all manner of monsters, human and post-human, that must be avoided or overcome by Joel. The game’s open mechanics allow for a surprising degree of freedom, and all paths are a series of nail-biting challenges. Joel can stealthily sneak around, using a distracting toss of a bottle to divert his enemy’s attention, dispatch them with a sleeper hold or brutal finisher, or dive in with proverbial guns a-blazing. All provide their own unique challenges, with the more “open attack” method being particularly hairy at times, with some enemies overcoming Joel within moments or swarming in a truly horrific fashion. Stealth is especially crucial when engaging some enemies, such as the Clickers that hunt by sound as a result of their faces being blown open by the fungal spores, their upper mandibles reduced to mangled mushrooms.
Amidst all the horror is some true beauty. Joel and Ellie start off on shaky ground, but Joel’s paternal instincts take over soon enough and something beautiful begins to bloom out of all of the chaos. Parallels are quickly drawn as Ellie’s role as a savior becomes more fleshed out: she can possibly save humanity, as well as restore Joel’s. This is definitely much heavier stuff than Naughty Dog’s normal oeuvre (Uncharted played itself as a far more absurd archaeological adventure), but it works so beautifully that it becomes something far greater than one would expect. Maybe I’m getting soft on this side of 32, but there’s something truly heartwarming about watching Joel step back into his lost role as a father figure after two decades.
The Last of Us represents the best that the zombie apocalypse has to offer: focusing more on the Romero side of things than the Fulci, it reminds us that the human element and character will make sure that the genre won’t become completely lifeless.