As you may have guessed, we love single-player games. We share our love every day through the work that we do, but the pace of this industry means that we rarely get the opportunity to stop and look back.
Join us this week as we celebrate the best that single-player gaming has to offer as part of Single-Player Appreciation Week.
Modern gaming follows a trend that seeks player retention over an elongated period of time. Regardless of single-player or multiplayer qualities, the video game industry has shifted its focus to creating experiences that continuously sap a player’s time and money. A few exceptions exist, however. Not all titles are made with the intention of maintaining a player’s attention, yet, over time these titles unintentionally craft experiences that make players want to revisit them. Instead of gamifying a player’s time through repetition and grind, certain titles let their narratives speak for themselves. The quality of a game can often judge how much time it deserves from its audience. Players, will then, honor those titles with praise and relevancy.
The Last of Us is not demanding of your time, yet is worth every second of it. Much like its reclusive narrative, the title avoids relying on flashy set-pieces and over-the-top plot points, allowing the characters to carry most of (if not all) the weight. The Last of Us is like the Uncharted series in this respect, as it focuses primarily on character development instead of environmental eye candy. Although an argument can be made on how Uncharted’s various environments can tell a story, it is through the eyes of Nathan Drake and crew that players experience a grand adventure unlike any other. The Last of Us continues this trend, as it explores an unattractive husk of America, left over after a viral outbreak through the eyes of a man who is running away from his past and a child whose future is bleak.
The dichotomy of Joel and Ellie serves as one of many focal points within The Last of Us’s narrative. From their individual introductions, it becomes immediately apparent that the two personalities are at odds with one another. Joel’s fatherly demeanor swiftly fades away as he watches the one thing in life that matters the most to him, Sarah, get taken from him, resulting in a more closed-minded individual who only cares about their own survival above all else. The instantaneous shift in personality is made known to players once the 20-year time skip concludes, as Joel is preparing for another smugglers run and operating outside of the law. At this point in his life, Joel places survival before anything else, and he is willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure he remains as far away from the bottom of the food chain as possible.
Ellie’s introduction is similar, yet different. While post-outbreak Joel is introduced selfishly caring about his own survival, Ellie is shown to put the lives of others before herself. Her protective nature for those she cares about is evident from the first encounter between the two protagonists. Joel, who enters the room with an injured Marlene, is instantly fought off by a frenzied Ellie who thinks he is the one that harmed her. This introduction forces Ellie to be more hesitant around Joel at first, later allowing herself to open up and care for him the more time they spend together. Ellie’s young and naïve attitude is what makes her character too good for this world. She genuinely cares for others’ wellbeing and safety, in a world that does not deserve such consideration or adoration.
The character portrayals of Joel and Ellie, by actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, exceed a level of quality that is unrivaled to this day. Every stutter, breath, and tear shed by the characters is felt by all audience members, creating an experience so vivid that it is almost indistinguishable from our day-to-day lives. The reason why The Last of Us deserves an annual playthrough is to remind the player what it means to feel. As previously mentioned, many modern AAA experiences rely on grand spectacle to generate audience attention and retention. The Last of Us chooses a simpler route, instead providing an experience that is grounded and real. In a world where bigger can often equate to better, The Last of Us prefers an opposing stance: less is more.
Most of the audio cues in The Last of Us are simplistic and subtle. When loading into the game, the menu will acknowledge the player’s choice only by providing a small, flat tone; foreshadowing the dim and depressing atmosphere that awaits. The Last of Us is not a colorful experience either. The title prefers a more monotone color pallet, further enhancing the ambiance of dread and despair. When walking through the streets of Pittsburgh or an abandoned subway tunnel, the player feels every ounce of weight contained in the atmosphere. Even though Joel and Ellie are out of danger and have a moment’s respite, the depressing life that befell society haunts them and, subsequently, the player at every turn. The atmosphere that surrounds the world of The Last of Us is another example of how a game can draw you in with desire yet leave you with feelings of fear and anxiety.
Much of the game’s tone is, again, heavily reliant on the characters within that setting. Every character in The Last of Us is portrayed with the highest of quality, elevating their performances to nearly life-like standards. Joel and Ellie do not feel like characters in a video game, rather, their own individuals with agency and pasts. To this day, the divisive ending contained within The Last of Us continues to speak volumes, as its underlying message is often missed by players new and old. Joel’s decision to lie to Ellie about the events that occurred at the Firefly base symbolizes that his agency is of his own. The player’s lack of opinion and control over those moments, despite participating in the narrative throughout the entire game, is Naughty Dog’s reinforcement that Joel is his own person, capable of making his own decisions.
Joel’s past is carried with him wherever he goes. For most of the game, he suffers from the sins of his past, including the loss of his daughter, leaving behind barely any humanity. After Sarah’s death on the night of the outbreak, Joel blocked any emotions that would allow him to formulate a bond with others. With Ellie’s introduction, players get to see the old Joel slowly resurface and fight for control from the post-outbreak, broken husk of a man. Many scenes in the game remind players of Joel’s moral alignment, with one in particular following an ambush of Joel and Ellie by Hunters when entering Pittsburgh. After dispatching the Hunters, Ellie finds a room full of decaying bodies and a checklist of their belongings. She expresses disgust at how people could do such a thing, breathing a sigh of relief as they could have been next on that list. Joel replies with another reference of doing what is necessary to survive, to which Ellie responds with an inquiry of Joel’s participation in the killing of innocents prior to their meeting. His answer, a subtle grunt, indicates his acknowledgment of the horrific deeds in his past, and how they allowed him to be standing there in that moment. Joel is not a good person, and at no point does the game try to convince you otherwise.
Ellie provides a perspective of someone who has only ever known chaos. As the player, we sympathize with Joel and his decisions because we know how society functioned and lived before the outbreak. Ellie’s innocence, or lack of it, stems from her ignorance to what came before. Players thus connect with Ellie in ways that others cannot. Through Joel’s teachings and company, the player participates in Ellie’s parental upbringing. Due to being on her own and surviving for most of her life, Ellie’s 14-year-old persona is similar to that of a 40-year-old. The way she talks, and acts are all indicative of a life and maturity much higher than natural. Being forced to grow up in a post-world society removes one’s ability to have a childhood and enjoy the benefits of being young. The fact that Ellie is forced to mature at a younger age thus allows players to sympathize with her for the life that was stolen from her.
The Last of Us provides compelling characters and a narrative that tightens its grip without letting go. The game never asks players to feel sorry for what has happened to that society or those who inhabit it, yet somehow, we do. The world of The Last of Us is without heroes, instead encouraging the morally grey. Those who remain may have good intentions but have all blurred the lines of good and evil in the name of survival. This is Joel’s lesson to Ellie throughout the game, and Naughty Dog’s message to players alike. With brothers and sisters turning against one another for clothing and rations, to survive one must let emotions die, and with it, part of their humanity as well. This is what Joel had to do to recover after the death of Sarah, and why players see him as a different person after 20 years. Joel’s divisive decision at the end suddenly becomes a little clearer now. In a world too far gone, is society worth saving?