In this day and age, finding a truly good game is more difficult than it should be. Even with the biggest AAA game releases, opinions can be mixed and/or divisive. Yet, even though the quest to find something great can be more challenging, it also makes finding that special game to play even more rewarding.
For me (and thousands of other fans), this game is The Last of Us.
Released in 2013 by Naughty Dog, The Last of Us is a game built solely around survival and follows two desperate survivors, Joel and Ellie, on a journey across America. There are a lot of things that make this game unique, and that make it appeal to me personally.
A Meaning for Everyone
A few weeks ago, when I had nothing else to play, I decided to boot this game back up on my PlayStation. I thought I knew what I was expecting when I loaded it up, but I didn't get that. Instead, what I got, was an experience that was entirely different to my first playthrough. This is one of those games you can play a hundred times, and it's never the same experience.
There are certain things you miss the first, second, third, and even the fourth time you play it through. Snippets of conversations, subtle looks on the character's faces, and documents that reveal more of the storyline. And the more times you play it, the more you see the extensive depth the producers put into each of these characters. Each time they say something, you see it in a different way; the game constantly makes you reconsider everything you know about it.
One of the biggest changes I noticed since the last time I played it was just the detail. Determined to collect everything and complete the game (which I failed at, by the way), I spent hours searching desolate environments for scraps of paper, ammo and comic books. And one of the things that this scavenging really revealed to me was just how much time and effort had been put into every little detail of the environment. Several times, I found myself just stopping and looking around at the beautiful destruction that nature had caused. The game has a very unique art design and the terrifyingly alluring environments have been designed with each detail being pressed with care.
There was so much subtext in the characters that I missed the first three times I played it. Little things like Joel and Tess' relationship, the way Joel occasionally glances at his watch, Ellie's approach to Joel. Having played the Left Behind DLC, I saw so much more in the way Ellie talked to Joel and acted around Joel. Everything in this game has several layers of meaning, and it really takes several playthroughs to get it all. I'm sure there are still things I missed.
One of the things I did pick up on by trying to get all of the optional conversations (which I also failed at), was Ellie's response to a thin model on a poster. She's confused as to why the model is so thin, even saying "I thought there was enough food in your [Joel's] time". Little snippets like this in the game are meant as social reflections and show that people have become too used to luxuries in life. People take things like food for granted, and it would take for an apocalypse to descend for us to really understand that. This social reflections are dropped in throughout the game to enhance the experience and make the player really consider the some of society's expectations.
Another example of this was the reveal in the DLC that Ellie isn't straight. Many fans denied this and hated the idea, saying that it was 'just a phase' or that 'they're just friends'. The game's creative director and writer, Neil Druckmann, openly dismissed the idea in an interview, saying that his intention was that Riley and Ellie were in a relationship. Personally, I think they put this in as another social reflection. Ellie never outwardly says whether she's a lesbian, bisexual, etc. because she doesn't need to. When the world ends, labels no longer matter and Ellie can just love who she loves. I think it says a lot about our generation and society that people were outraged by her kiss with Riley and that people denied it because nobody else in the game ever openly opposes gay people, black people, religious people, etc. Perhaps it would take an apocalypse to hit for social equality to finally take place.
The voice acting in this game is probably some of the best voice acting in any video game in my opinion (perhaps not as good as Ellen Page in Beyond: Two Souls though). Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Troy Baker (Joel) have a natural chemistry that really works on screen. Something about these two actors makes it easy for them to create authentic characters. Everything about their language and expression of emotion is realistic, and that's perhaps what makes the characters so endearing.
The first time I played the game, I found Ellie annoying to begin with but then started to really appreciate her as a character. However, over the course of the times I've played it, I've developed almost paternal feelings over Ellie. The writing is so good that, in playing as Joel enough times, I feel a parental protection over Ellie and find myself not considering her as someone nearly my own age, but as someone that I need to look after and protect as a parent would. This really shows off the ability of the writer (Neil Druckmann) as any game that can make you rethink your stance on a character so drastically is well written.
Another part of the game that is often overlooked is it's beautiful and atmospheric music score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Something about this music just fits the game perfectly and this track inspires such raw emotion and deep thoughts from the link with the game. It always comes in perfect timing and it always gives me literal goosebumps, just like whenever Joel says "Baby girl." Never underestimate an epic score, because it can really make a game all that much better.
This game might trick you, the first few times you play it, into believing that the message of the game is about survival. In the Left Behind DLC (which won two BAFTAs and a Writer's Guild Award), Riley very easily explained what the game was really about. The game is about learning to deal with loss, love, and sacrifice.
"We fight for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether it's two minutes or two days, we don't give that up." (~Riley, Left Behind DLC)
In retrospect, this quote really makes a lot of sense throughout the whole game. The reason why Ellie refuses to leave Joel is because Riley has told her that you can't give up on someone to save yourself from getting hurt. Bill is an example of letting grief and pain consume you- it turns you bitter and hateful. The game is primarily about Joel learning that, as Riley says, you can't distance yourself from other people to save yourself from hurt and pain. Joel learns this through Bill, who he sees has been so consumed by loss that he has completely shut off any human contact he has. Also, through Ellie who knows that getting close to Joel is probably going to end in heartache but does it anyway for the joy of spending time with loved ones. Even Henry's story makes sense in this context- he was willing to kill himself over his own loss, which made Joel cautious again. Just after Henry and Sam's death, Joel tries to get rid of Ellie, knowing that he won't be able to go through losing another daughter.
That was something that I didn't get the first three times I played the game. It really took me a while to understand that the whole game wasn't about survival at all, or even about love. It really is a story about loss, and learning to live with it. If you think about it, all of the characters have lost someone close to them.
The last thing is the ending of the game. Every time I play the game the entire way through, I find the ending morally ambiguous. Part of me understands why Joel did what he did (as I said before, learning to deal with loss is the whole message of the game) but at the same time, I completely disagree with what he did. It seems incredibly selfish to me that he would put his needs before those of the entire world. Sure, it's possible that Ellie wouldn't have been the cure, but honestly I believe that Joel should have at least given it the chance. I think that Ellie's growth was definitely the cure for the cordyceps, which makes Joel's actions seem even more selfish. Furthermore, the very end of the game, when Ellie says "Okay" has different readings every time I play it. Sometimes it seems as though she's falling for Joel's lies, other times it seems as though she knows what happened at the Firefly hospital but is denying it to herself. Personally, I think the look on her face is acceptance. She knows what Joel's done, but for whatever reason, she chooses not to kick up a fuss about it.
Something about this game just keeps pulling me back. Even just a few weeks after I finish it, I want to dive right back in. Something about the deep narrative, beautiful environments and fleshed out characters just makes it my favorite game of all time. I could never not love this game.
What's your favourite video game of all time? What game can you keep replaying again and again? Let me know in the comments!