[The following is a frank discussion of The Last of Us game, its characters and story, as such expect spoilers]
Going into The Last of Us I expected to be disappointed, the game was so hyped pre-launch and then all these 9/10 reviews rolled out, simply put; I thought there was bandwagon jumping afoot. Like every one of my generation in our teens we went through the whole ‘Counter-Culture’ thing, we wanted to rebel in our own little ways so we turned our backs on anything liked by the masses. Obviously that’s immature and stupid reasoning and each decision should be made by the individual, my main reason for expecting disappointment arose from the ‘Too good to be true’ mentality. When a game gets those kind of scores it sets expectations quite high and the want for your own expectations to be met is a natural thing.
When asked what I thought of The Last of Us I initially say I really enjoyed it, but then need to qualify that statement by saying it wasn’t a perfect game or perfect story. To start let’s talk about the gameplay; throughout most of the game I really enjoyed the experience, the world and its mechanics worked really well. Combat was engaging and well-built, many times I was pinned down with no ammo and no hope only to go on a rampage with a lead pipe and survive. It was this kind of visceral experience that I wanted from the game, I wanted to be sucked in and lose myself for a few hours. The problem came with the pseudo ‘puzzles’, about 15 times in the game you were required to do a puzzle that was no more than find a crate and drag it to wall or truck. This broke flow and though interesting once or twice, especially with planks being used as bridges, it just grew to be a tiresome affair that added nothing to the experience.
For those reading this that haven’t played the game, and don’t care about the massive spoilers in this piece, the story follows a plot seen in literature and film for a long time, but not usually featuring all these fungal zombies. Joel is a man, who thanks to the start of a plague that destroys the brain, has lost his daughter and direction in life. 20 years after the outbreak he, through a long chain of events, is tasked with getting Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, across half the country to a university where an underground group of rebels believe they can cure the disease. The reason for this? well Ellie got bitten by an infected creep, rather than doing the cliché thing of dying or turning into one of them she chose to be immune. After three-quarters of the game the unlikely duo have been through a lot; ambushes, traps and falling buildings did nothing but bring the duo closer together. At the university the pair discover The Fireflies, the rebels of this story, have moved on to a Hospital in another city, deciding they are going to push on across the country, in what is the most depressing road trip ever, they start their journey. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan and a well placed tackle from a raider sends Joel plummeting over a railing and down 3 floors only to land safely and comfortably, apart from a pole going his spleen. [fade to black]
When the game pulls out of its black screen nose dive we are shown Ellie, hunting alone in the woods, the player is left to fear the worst, she spots a deer and charges head first for the blood. After going all Hunger Games and placing three arrows in the deer it runs off and you go to find your dinner, only to bump into one of the greatest written characters of this generation, David.
David is the leader of a group of survivors that bumps into Ellie while out hunting. His demeanor is that of a friends dad, someone you can trust and his appearance doesn’t instantly make you on edge. Ellie and David are left alone in a shack, after taking his rifle Ellie agrees to sit with him, before long the horde of infected are at the windows and David draws a gun to save Ellie. This is the first reason David is brilliant, he carries two guns; the first he gladly handed over to Ellie to give her the sense of power, but he isn’t stupid. In this post apocalyptic world you can’t trust anyone, but he wants to trust this 14-year-old girl, he protects her and through the course of a long battle with the enemies she relaxes around him. They sit at a campfire and discuss how much luck played a part in their survival, David philosophised:
“You see, I believe that everything happens for a reason.”
Slowly but surely over the next few minutes the brilliant reveal is made, the men who Ellie and Joel took out at the university were part of his group, just out looking for food. The reveal that Ellie and Joel are the monsters that they think they are hunting is fascinating. Instantly you question your role, as the player, in what has come out. Ellie realising she may be screwed goes on the attack, only to find David’s cohort James has a gun trained on her, rather than seek revenge David lets Ellie go, showing compassion and intelligence. He brushes off what has happened attributing it to her just being a kid.
Ellie get’s back to an ill Joel before seeing David’s group of survivors haven’t taken kindly to him letting her go and start searching for her. To save this child’s life David finds her first and knocks her unconscious and takes her prisoner. Locked in a cage with no chance of escape David explains that he is just trying to help her, he can explain to the others that she is only a child and knows no better. Ellie being a petulant child refuses to eat the food he provides and breaks his finger. David tries again and again to reach this child and help her but she wont accept. It’s hinted, and then rather explicitly said, that David and his group have resorted to human flesh during this winter to avoid starvation. The broken finger is the final straw and David decides to end Ellie. Up until this point David has the calm voice of an uncle, there’s no anger at the accusations or hostility being thrown his way. He tries to reach out and support a young girl he found in the woods alone in the midst of winter, his only flaw, at this stage, is that he picked the wrong girl to try to look out for.
Winter lasts for a couple of hours for the player, and in that time we see a man go from a caring potential new father figure to someone who has been push too far. Winter ends with Ellie in a burning restaurant being hunted by David, she’s broken the man, he tries to brutally murder her and when she’s incapacitated he kicks and strangles her. Remember this is a 14-year-old girl, a girl that he saved a number of times just hours earlier, he wanted her to be set free, when that didn’t work he tries to get her included in his band of survivors and at no point does Ellie do anything to help her cause.
David’s arc is real, the actions of a man already on the edge because of the world around him being tormented and abused by a 14-year-old girl with an attitude problem. His portrayal is nailed by an actor I usually have issues with, but seeing his name in the final credits I had to think to myself ‘Bravo Nolan North’. There are many parts of the story where there was shock or tension, but none affected me quite like Winter and David’s descent into madness at the hand of the player and the game’s ‘hero’.
I was saying at the start of this piece that the story could have done with a heavy-handed edit. The entire arc with Bill in the town o’ traps could have been cut in my opinion, it was only interesting for a tiny bit of character development, but on the most part it was redundant. There were other characters that were met along the way but none stuck with me like David.
David’s introduction was after a particular strong story telling moment, Joel was presumed dead or dying and all hope had fallen in the story just a short time previously. David was an example of me getting sucked in to the game, you’re encouraged to kill all people and not question it, David started as a real person, concerned for the safety of this young girl alone in the woods, protecting her when things went south. I know by the end he was a psychopath but for the longest part I was loving the character and his philosophy, he had the story and emotional arc that many people would go through in that scenario, he is the most real character in a cast of believable avatars.