What Makes “The Last of Us” Work So Well?


Like many of you, I recently finished Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. I found myself involved, affected, and taken aback; it moved me in a way few games have this generation. It’s probably the most emotional I’ve felt about a game since Red Dead Redemption.

Looking back, however, it’s not difficult to see the faults in Naughty Dog’s storytelling. It is derivative of a lot of post-apocalyptic/zombie fiction, but worse than that, it gives in to some of the worst habits of this genre.

But I still can’t deny the game’s strength. I’m going to break down a few of the issues I found, and then explain why I think Naughty Dog manages to overcome them.

*Major spoilers for The Last of Us follow the break*

 The game feels derivative

This complaint can be — and has been — leveled at just about every piece of zombie fiction to come out since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But it’s not the zombie stuff in The Last of Us that bugged me. It’s the post-apocalyptic setting and plot. The Last of Us is just a bit too close to two works, both of which are novels which have been adapted into recent films: The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and Children of Men, Based on the novel by P.D. James. unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to read the P.D. James novel, although I have seen the film.

The Road parallels are obvious. Both that world and that of The Last of Us were devastated some years ago, and the surface world has become nearly uninhabitable. Like The Road, the primary effect of The Last of Us comes from the relationship between parent and child. (Well, “parent” in the case of the game.) Knowing that the parental figure will do literally anything by the end of the story to save the child is powerful.

The Road isn’t a zombie story, but cannibals are a dangerous omnipresence. Cannibals also make an appearance in the second half of The Last of Us. The visual design of The Last of Us plays like a combination of The Road — the subpar John Hillcoat adaptation — and the History Channel’s Life After Humans. I’m certainly not accusing Naughty Dog of plagiarism, but if The Road was not read, or at least seen, by at least half the major development team I will boil and eat my clothing.


The Children of Men parallels are nearly as obvious. Like The Last of Us, it features a jaded older man who lost a child 20 years before the story begins, and who needs to escort a young woman to the safety of a supposedly stable group with medical/scientific capability. Unlike Ellie and Joel, however, not much of a paternal/familial relationship develops between Children of Men’s Julian and Kee, but otherwise the plot motivations are practically identical: the young girl is immune to the disease that has brought about the apocalypse, and getting her to safety represents, perhaps, humanity’s last hope.

Again, I’m not accusing Naughty Dog plagiarism, but some of the stuff feels overly familiar.

The “Everyone Sucks” fallacy

This is another complaint you can make about almost — almost — every piece of zombie/post-apocalyptic fiction: that everyone, except the very small number of people on which the story is focalized, absolutely sucks. They give in to the worst of human behavior: murder, theft, rape, backstabbing, cowardice, etc, etc… So many movies and shows illustrate this: 28 Days/Weeks Later, The Land of the Dead, The Walking Dead, Blindness, and, yes, The Road. The list goes on, and it includes The Last of Us. Nearly every character in the game, aside from Ellie and Joel, is unsympathetic (and even that is debatable).


I didn’t like the character Dale in The Walking Dead. I found him preachy and irritating. Then I got into an argument with a friend who pointed out the issue with these types of stories: we’re conditioned to expect everyone onscreen to be at least, let’s say, ⅓ evil. (E.g. The Walking Dead’s Rick better make some brutal decisions or else he can’t be the hero.) In reality, if the apocalypse came, there would probably more people like Dale, people who wanted to help and create a sense of stability. In my opinion, There would almost certainly be more Dales than Shanes.

As I said, this is not a complaint strictly about The Last of Us, but it would have been nice to see them break the mold. So why does it still work? I was frustrated from time to time as I was playing it, but I still found myself wrapped up in the world and seriously moved by the finale. There are two key ways, I believe, that Naughty Dog transcends the issues in The Last of Us.

Ellie and Joel’s relationship

A lot has been written about the relationship between the game’s two protagonists. Tight writing and phenomenal voice acting from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson make the characters come to life in a way few games have managed. But what really makes it shine is that their relationship is always front and center — even when it’s not.

Everything about the game informs their relationship. From the opening scene — Joel losing his daughter by blood not to a zombie, but to a bullet — to the various relationships formed and/or rediscovered along the way: Bill and Tess illustrate both sides of what it means to lose a loved one; Tommy is there to emphasize the importance of family, especially in times of dire need; and Marlene expresses the third party perspective of the games climatic decision — just how difficult it would be to sacrifice an innocent, even one you don’t know, for the greater good.

There are no extraneous characters just there to get shot. I’d say about half of them, in fact, survive. The Last of Us does a great job in not exploiting its emotional connections, and instead builds them toward a difficult ending.

Which brings me to my last point…

Joel is not a hero

Unlike Nathan Drake and so many other video game heroes who get away with slaughtering hundreds of faceless innocents, The Last of Us takes steps to dissect Joel as a villain. There are rumors going around the country of “a madman travelling with a young girl” slaughtering anyone he meets. He is a brutal individual, and, despite saving Ellie, there is little about him that is redeemable in the end.


This becomes clear in the games simple, eloquent final exchange between the two. Ellie wants to know whether he lied to her about the Fireflies. Joel chooses to lie again, swearing he told her the truth. Whether Ellie truly believes this is left ambiguous, but one thing is clear — Joel did the wrong thing.

Ellie is alive, yes, but all chances of finding a cure are dashed. There is the sense that Ellie would have voluntarily sacrificed herself if it meant a cure was possible. Not only that, but their relationship develops from this point on, whatever it will become, based entirely on a lie.

For those reasons, I think Naughty Dog has managed to produce something of remarkable emotional complexity — and that’s unique to the world of gaming.


Posted on March 9, 2013, in Opinions And Editorials, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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