The Last of Us

If you haven’t played The Last of Us, don’t read this. Go buy the game and play it. Buy a PS3 if you need to. The first twenty minutes of the game are worth three hundred dollars. They’re worth a lifetime of waiting for this game to finally be made.

Joel and Ellie

Joel and Ellie

I can’t stop thinking about The Last of Us. There’s a montage of highlights playing in my memory, revealed as if by flashlight in the darkness. I see and hear broken tile, bricks smashed against skulls, the crunch of ruined wallpaper underfoot, the sound of dogs barking in an abandoned suburb, the voice of Ellie in a panic. A ceiling settling in a hiccup of dust. A bad joke told in deadpan. A young boy who wants to keep a toy looted from an empty shop. The sunlight between empty skyscrapers. The action of a bow-string, followed by the bleat of an injured animal. The clicking. The clicking. The clicking.

The Last of Us has infected my dreams. I’ve been keeping a dream journal -- I heard it’s good for creativity. All of my dreams in the last three weeks have been wreckage and dead birds, and cold bullet casings in my pockets. I can’t get away from The Last of Us. It’s going on my keep shelf.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game more than once all the way through. Maybe Secret of Mana. Maybe Final Fantasy VIII. Okay, those two, twice. But never three times. I’m on my final play-through of The Last of Us. I’m in Survivor+. I’m about to finish the journey again. We’re in an abandoned University near the mountains. Joel is about to get injured. I don’t want to go on.

I bought the soundtrack. I’ve got those guitars plucking in my office. I want to write about zombies at work, I want to write science fiction instead of comedy. The greatest compliment I can give a piece of art is that it’s inspired me. It makes me want to be better. To make something better.

Why is The Last of Us so good?

Because it believes in itself. And in games. It believes games can be something great.

The sound. Wow, the sound. I’ve played the game in 5.1, and also entirely in headphones. I can’t recall being so aware of such great and nuanced sound in a game. Even unzipping your backpack, or the rustle of your shirt against your shoulder is lush. Suddenly, there are sounds in my life that I’m newly appreciating; the click-snap of my Sony Nex camera when I switch lenses recalls the satisfying mechanical reply when reloading a Naughty Dog pistol. My apartment is quiet, and every sound sings with the same honest confidence as The Last of Us. Because the sounds are real.

The sincerity. The first act of Last of Us demands more of your emotions than all of Bioshock Infinite. There’s an infinity of loss in that first half-hour. It’s got more heart than anything released in three thousand theatres this summer. The acting in this game makes me angry with its quality. It makes me embarrassed of all the shitty improv or sketch shows I’ve seen in my life. When a video-game out-acts you, maybe you should quit. I want to teach students by making them play the game. I want to say, “This is how people should feel right before you make them laugh. Because they’ll laugh harder than they ever have in their lives.”

The design. The rooms are little nested traps, with multiple entrances and exits. The enemies are overwhelming, but never unfair. Even when it’s one-on-one, the game is relentless. That stalking game between Ellie and David -- where can I even start to dissect how perfect that sequence is? It strips video-games down to the beginning. We’re playing Pac-Man in a burning maze of counter tops, and we’re the ghost trying to catch the one who would devour us. The anxiety of this game recalls the panic attacks I had in the subway of New York City. The relief is comparable to when I finally got above ground, and could breathe again.

The art. Look at those tableaus. Look at them. Look at that color. Look at the stories told in each broken window. Look at the way you can reframe the images and they’re still gorgeous. Naughty Dog lets us be the director of photography in their game, but they made a world that’s impossible to shoot ugly. I wish I had a real camera in the streets of Boston, 2033. I just want to see everything.

One way to go

One way to go

If it wasn’t for the final section, where we battle military targets in a hospital, the game would be perfect. I dislike that section because it could be in any game. It’s the best version of any game, sure. But it could belong anywhere. The ending that follows, though, could only belong to The Last of Us. Can a game be perfect even if it’s flawed? Then this game is perfect.

When Play Magazine went bankrupt, I didn’t want to write about video-games ever again. I hated the industry, the trade shows, the entitled way that gamer-enthusiasts shoved their way past each other, demanding more. The swag. The stink. The devolving art of games; watching weird titles like Out of this World and Final Fantasy III disappearing into larger budgets, giving way to marketing compromises, exploding as Super Bowl ads of headshot footage. Games were sinking into the foam of a filthy green sea. Too much money breeds fear. And fear means risk aversion.

I read that Naughty Dog refused to take Ellie off the cover of her game. "I know I've been in discussions where we've been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused,” said Neil Druckmann to Escapist. When the cover of the game is that important to the team, you know that they believe in the game. There’s no amount of risk you won’t take for something you believe in. Because if you believe in something, it doesn’t feel like a risk to admit it. The Last of Us -- even with its violence and ladder puzzles, even with the floating wood palettes and secret rooms -- is the opposite of everything I was beginning to hate about video games because of that belief. It’s almost as if the gamey puzzles were there to remind you that you’re playing a game. In all that tension and stalking, the rote familiarity of little game things feels nostalgic. Like you’re looking over the wreckage of what used to be, from the vantage of the future.

Goodbye, Ellie. Goodbye Joel.