Review: The Last of Us – Andy Robertson

Platform: PlayStation 3

Developer: Naughty Dog

The Last of Us is a third-person survival video-game that pushes hard to elevate the medium beyond entertainment. For those that can make their peace with the violence this is a heart breaking tale of a father and daughter discovering their need for each other in a harrowing world.

The Last of Us has been unanimously crowned by gamers the best of the recent influx of big-story video-games. It borrows heavily from Cormac McCarthy in both its post apocalyptic setting and its central father-child relationship.

We play Joel whose 14 year old daughter dies in the opening scenes of a fungal pandemic. 20 years later, now a gruff old man he begrudgingly takes charge of getting 14 year old Ellie across the dilapidated city. Joel’s brutal actions to keep them safe swiftly eclipse any heroic tendencies, heartlessly dispatching those that even hint at crossing him.

But Joel is slow to involve Ellie in the violence, apparently understanding the real personal cost of engagement in the grisly and graphically portrayed brutality. It’s a reluctance matched by their common unwillingness to trust each other or deal with their needs beyond getting through another day.

This tension hangs in the air for the game’s 18 hour duration, but is only really sustained relationally. Unlike books or films doing this work, The Last of Us is unwilling or unable to break out of its genre. There can be no real surprise for the player here, not in the way a novel can turn unexpectedly into an entirely different kind of tale. One way or another the shooting and knife-edge survival has to continue and this means that Ellie inevitably joins the fray.

The Last of Us invites us to resolve encounters with the city’s infected and desperate inhabitants with a chilling and messy efficiency. The game makes much of our ability to choose whether to engage or avoid these desperate bloody funerals but this choice, for a man of my skills at least, soon evaporates.

If you are willing to go the route of this compromise and play on, the violence is put to good use in service of the characters we journey with. Gameplay bleeds into non-interactive movies and even manages to cover some of the cracks that open up between these two worlds — the characters who do the shooting and the characters whose story we share, distinct yet the same.

There is an initial shock at the brutal steps Joel is willing to take to survive, and as we play we wonder what is left of the father in this desperate shell of a man. This shock is matched by sadness as Ellie is led down this same path of survival by her new found protector.

However, these complex and difficult human transactions are handled with real tenderness. Moments when either Joel or Ellie let slip their tough bravado, and admit their need for more than survival, match any I’ve experienced in books or films.

What starts as a story about being The Last of humanity, is in fact more concerned with what remains in Us after we’ve sunk deep past our ethical lines in the sand. The last of Joel and the last of Ellie may be running on fumes, but the memory of a father and daughter still ticks over, keeping present the knowledge that they need each other as much as they need their gun skills.

This is both the game’s greatest success and its biggest missed opportunity. It generates a strong emotional response, quite unlike most other big-story video-games. But that same resource of story-telling is never capitalised upon as it might be if The Last of Us took seriously the option of laying down arms, even for an hour or two, and redefining the sort of experience it had to offer.

What remains is a grotesquely beautiful tale about a father admitting his need for a daughter and a young girl’s gamble on this man’s ability to be her guardian. For some this will mean shooting, survival and entertainment, but for me this was more about the fractured commitments we make in our families and the need to renew them each and every day.

Andy Robertson appears as a gaming expert for the BBC and runs the Family Gamer TV channel.