All Things End: The Last of Us and the PlayStation 3

Games Features The Last of Us

The most sublime moment in Uncharted 2 sneaks up on the player after hours of headshots and explosions. The irreverent explorer Nathan Drake collapses in the snow after barely escaping a train dangling off the side of a Tibetan mountain. He awakes in a pastoral Tibetan village, slowly touring the town with a friendly Sherpa named Tenzin. The sun is shining, Drake pals around with the neighborhood kids, and Tenzin’s warm but stern demeanor is immediately endearing. Drake and Tenzin don’t share a language, but they quickly forge a deep bond through the universal tongue of saving each others’ lives. Tenzin isn’t Drake’s lover or mentor, but their momentary relationship is as memorable as the ones Drake shares with his partner Elena and his father figure Sully.

That scene was the seed for The Last of Us, the latest game from Uncharted’s developer Naughty Dog. Drake and Tenzin “don’t speak the same language and, as a result, their relationship is built entirely through gameplay,” explains The Last of Us’ lead designer, Jacob Minkoff. “Tenzin is Drake’s equal, and they have to work together to progress through the adventure. That was really interesting to us, and we thought it would be exciting to do an entire game like that—a game where the player and a non-playable character build up a relationship whose arc covers the entire span of the game.”

The Last of Us forgoes romance or the camaraderie of dangerous men. The heart of Naughty Dog’s latest epic beats with the reluctant father-daughter dynamic of a graying smuggler named Joel and the feisty teenager Ellie. As they journey across a dying America their partnership grows from distrust to respect to something approximating love. It might be a predictable path, but through smart writing and their typically fantastic voice-acting Naughty Dog imbues it with genuine emotion and pathos.

“Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the next step up from the relationships we’ve explored before,” Minkoff says. “It’s deeper, it has more twists and turns. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s easily the most complex emotional relationship we’ve ever featured in one of our games.”

Although Joel is the only playable character, The Last of Us can be read as a coming-of-age story for Ellie. Unlike Joel, who was a grown man when the infection that felled the world broke out, Ellie’s entire life has been lived under the constant threat of being eaten by human monsters. Despite the brutal setting she’s lived a fairly sheltered life. She’s never really experienced nature up close, and on their journey Joel introduces her not just to survival techniques and the duplicity of their fellow man but also to brief glimpses of how the world used to be.

You can’t play as Ellie, but she isn’t entirely passive, and definitely isn’t some kind of living package that needs to be protected. She can react to enemies, alert Joel to their approach, and even distract them with bricks or bottles. Imagine a slightly more active version of Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth. According to Minkoff, that grew directly out of Naughty Dog’s mission to expand on that relationship between Tenzin and Drake. “As Joel and Ellie’s relationship progresses, Joel will teach Ellie various survival skills, making her more and more capable in gameplay,” he explains. “Eventually, she will be so skilled that it will be hard to imagine surviving The Last of Us without her.”

If Uncharted was a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard, two fairly light-hearted but immensely entertaining and popular films, The Last of Us is more like The Road or True Grit. (The Walking Dead seems like the comparison Minkoff anticipates, as he sounds slightly defensive in pointing out that space marines and high fantasy are as common in games as zombies.) It’s a character-driven exploration of how humans react to disastrous circumstances, and Nathan Drake’s wise-cracks just wouldn’t fit.

As Minkoff explains, “The tone and realism of The Last of Us are integral to the story we are telling. It’s all about the choices that people make when put under the pressure of surviving in a brutal world every day. The characters make difficult, heart-wrenching choices and do things that might seem immoral if the player wasn’t so completely invested in the brutality of the world and the difficulty of surviving in it.”

The Last of Us isn’t just the story of a young woman and an old scoundrel struggling to survive the apocalypse, though. It’s also the last PlayStation 3 game from the studio whose games most define the system. Even the harshest critics who look askance at Uncharted’s whole-hearted embrace of wanton slaughter and gunplay realize that Naughty Dog’s homage to adventure serials and ’80s action films are among the slickest and best-produced games of the last few years. The Last of Us continues that tradition, but with a statelier and more serious demeanor.

With The Last of Us Naughty Dog says farewell to the hardware with which they became one of the most celebrated developers in the industry. Minkoff admits that it’s a bittersweet moment. “New hardware is always a mixed blessing,” he says. “Yes, we’ve finally tapped the PS3 out completely and we’re ready for something with more power. Yet, at the same time, we’ve grown very comfortable with the PS3. We know its ins and outs so well, and that makes it intimidating to jump onto new hardware that we don’t know at all.

“We’re excited about the PS4, but we know it will have its own, new challenges—as all hardware does. It’s going to take us quite a while to become as comfortable with it as we are with the PS3, but the vastly greater power makes up for the unknown.”

Naughty Dog has other priorities before announcing their first PlayStation 4 project, though. According to Minkoff, next on their docket is “Sleep. And nervously watching Metacritic. Then, perhaps, some alcohol.” Hopefully they’ll be drinking that alcohol, and not using it to make Molotovs and disinfect wounds like the damned survivors of The Last of Us.

Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and the games critic for the Boston Herald.

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