The Last of Us is an amazing product. It came in the middle of June, just after E3, and in the midst of many other wonderful games like Max Payne 3, Gunpoint, and Rogue Legacy and it managed to stand out just fine. There are moments where I find myself staring at a broken door or an unkempt lawn and don’t just think about playing the game but feel myself reliving those afternoons and nights.
More games, however, came out, and slowly pushed The Last of Us down the list. It became more and more apparent to me that it is a game that needs to be taken as a whole to be held in regard. Disassembled into its discrete elements, The Last of Us is kind of nothing special.
The enemy encounters become confusing. Some of them can be avoided and others must end with either your or everyone else’s death, so you don’t know if you’re playing poorly or if the game is just poorly communicating its expectations. And the story, from start to finish, is full of tropes and is stocked with factory parts.
The exceptions are, without a doubt, the sound design, the art direction, and the voice acting. Take on their own, all of those can be the best the industry has to offer. Noises that sound even kinda-sorta close to Clickers still make me jump, and I don’t know if any two people could have fit Joel and Ellie more than Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.
But you have to take into account that Naughty Dog made The Last of Us, and it shows. To say they put a bow on mediocre gameplay and a rote story would be a disservice to them and the game resulted. The narrative touches they imbue into the 25+ hours are incredible. When just by happenstance you hear the fear Joel inspires and when Ellie huddles under you as enemies bear down.
When winter hits. When the fire burns. When a trigger is pulled. It seems painfully obvious, but Naughty Dog knows they were making a video game, and the actions and choices they put in front of you take that into consideration. It’s these moments where they decide to exercise that power of interactivity in a narrative that The Last of Us shines.
It’s almost as if the entirety of the game built up to winter. Dire straits, tests of faith, and steely, wildly irresponsible, and absolutely admirable determination might as well be falling all around you along with the snow. From that moment on, you know nothing will end well. And after winter, you know it won’t end well in the least pleasant way possible.
But the genius is that the game continues. It lets you stew in your paranoia as you panic and you wonder. Inside, you are pushing down the fear. Not fear for their lives or anyone else’s but the fear that a decision the worst possible decision you can think of is going to be made and it’s totally out of your hands.
And it is. The choice isn’t yours. It was made from the very beginning. For all the middling experience in the first two-thirds of the game, it was necessary. It set up every domino necessary because in that last moment, the game takes your hand, thrusts it forward, and says, “Watch.”
And you do. You watch. But in the back of your mind, you know it took you only 99% of the way there. The last 1%. That was you. This messy pile of raw emotions, exposed like a shredded cable, was you. This is The Last of Us, my number six Game of the Year.