Some time before The Last Of Us was released in 2013 I received a small, squeezable brick in the post from Sony Computer Entertainment. It was about the size of a deck of cards and textured like a stress toy, and it had "The Last Of Us" printed on one side, with a smiley face on the other. A happy brick.
The brick remains one of the oddest pieces of promotional material I've ever been sent, although with hindsight there are worse emblems for Naughty Dog's serious, desaturated tale of survival in post-civilisation America. John Lanchester, writing about games, noted that "Respectability is a terrible thing for any art form", and with its Oscar-winning composer, its shelf of BAFTAs, and its zombies that are too sophisticated to be called zombies, The Last Of Us comes perilously close. You wouldn't know from its face, but this brick is caught in the middle of a tug-of-war over this respectability, at once a sign of how resistant the game and its grim setting are to celebration and trivialisation, but also, actually, the perfect symbol of The Last Of Us' lean simplicity. The game is cold and hard, compact and brutal.
The Last Of Us was a summing up of sorts. It arrived in June 2013, less than six months before the launch of PS4, a late-generation victory lap for Naughty Dog after the studio had delivered three breathless, brickless Uncharteds. Here, though, was something else, not so much a break from matinee adventuring as a dark inversion - The Last Of Us takes the invincible third-person combat of Nathan Drake's extended power fantasy and turns it into a 15-hour prison-yard murder, the same levering reticule and cover mechanics transmuted into a gasping, sweaty ordeal. It is a game about powerlessness and fear, one that declines to spare us the mundane details of scavenging and survival. It's a game about opening drawers and cupboards, about making bandages with bourbon and rags. It's a game about the irreducible usefulness of bricks.
Throwing a brick at the back of someone's head and stabbing them in the neck might not seem a very celebratory way to end a console generation, but this is a celebration. The Last Of Us is a triumphant recalibration of video game reality - not that there hadn't been serious games before, or games in which violence was taken seriously, but in the pivot from the nonchalantly piled bodies of Uncharted to the held-breath ammo counting of The Last Of Us Naughty Dog forced some kind of reckoning. Nathan Drake is a fun guy, and it was as though, with the current cycle of hardware mastered, the studio set out to prove that mainstream audiences could be made excited by the prospect of having as little fun as possible. It is a zombie game in spite of itself, a shooter with starving guns that often bring ruin on the hand that fires them, and an action game which generates no feeling so much as it does relief.
It's not so much that The Last Of Us is down on fun, so much as it takes it from unusual places. One key joy of the game is, secretly, the exquisite, unmentionable beauty of the world without us. While Naughty Dog have long listed the BBC's Planet Earth segment on the cordyceps fungus and jungle ants as a founding influence, the game gets much more than a hip disease from Attenborough's show. The programme's spiralling close-ups on insectoid corpses decorated with profane and intricate fungal structures feel fascinatingly forbidden, a minute look at a world away from humans. This is a model for The Last Of Us' America - a world reclaiming itself from us, our proudest concrete impositions green-carpeted and crumbling, the mess of our civilisation like a game waiting to be tidied away. Yes, this is a world marked by abrupt and extraordinary violence, but sometimes also overwhelming peace. The last stage of the clicker infection is an ornate, flowering human body grown into the walls and floors of its surroundings. It's a captivating horror, and it's so perfectly still.
For all that, of course, The Last Of Us is about people. When we talk about the game's seriousness or respectability, what we're really discussing is its attempt to bring some kind of emotional realism to a familiar gaming scenario in which characters typically react with inhuman bravado. It's the end of the world, and they feel like shooting stuff. Joel and Ellie, though, are frail and scared in all the ways we'd expect. The Last Of Us revels in an icy, immediate mortality that forces the people inside it to consider what's truly meaningful.
It is, in other words, the video game version of a love story. The first note I made when starting this piece was: "Write a retrospective of TLOU which isn't about No Country For Old Men, City Of Thieves, Ico, the tank level in Uncharted 2, or The Road," and I have come this far before failing. Because at the heart of The Last Of Us are all these things, the very same things directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley have been talking about since the game was announced and which, it turns out, are unavoidable even with the benefit of hindsight. Having parlayed their love of Ico's almost wordless central relationship into the unexpectedly warm bond between Nathan Drake and his Sherpa companion Tenzin in Uncharted 2, Druckmann and Straley sought a setting for a fuller working out of this co-dependent dynamic. They found stories of scarcity and people living lean and limited lives, and basically what I'm saying is it's impossible to describe Ellie and Joel's mode of living without thinking of the Coen brothers adapting Cormac McCarthy, or quoting McCarthy himself.
"...he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it."
The Road is a template for The Last Of Us, as a lyrical litany of suffering and the old American notion of a journey as a desperate stretch for freedom (McCarthy's characters are set simply on the sea, while Joel and Ellie retrace the great drive to the West). They are both also almost unblinkingly sad. OK - I do take pleasure in some small things. There is the elevating surprise of the freed giraffes, and the comfort of the dusty plink my brick makes as it collides with the backs of heads. But in general it chills to the point that our emotional particles can no longer move. Much better - and, I think, more honest - is the additional story of Left Behind, the smartly crafted DLC which folds an elided period of the main game's narrative (Ellie tending to a wounded Joel) into a flashback sequence featuring Ellie and her friend, Riley. Here the girls make time to play, a dizzying rush of colour and creativity and love, and their relationship seems like a fuller answer to a problem the main game grasped at with its ending - that there must be something beyond survival for it's own sake in order to make life meaningful.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Last Of Us' ending, though, is its finality. Games are a sophisticated mix of technology and design which often benefit from iteration and second, or even third, chances. Sequels are expected even if, in other cultural contexts, they are not quite respectable. And this is the tension inherent in looking forward to more of The Last Of Us. The things of central importance at the close of the game are small motions behind the eyes of Joel and Ellie - his refusal to exist alone, her cautious acceptance of the lie that her sacrifice is not necessary. The fate of the world and the salvation of mankind melt away here, and so what would be the basis of a follow-up? To defeat a fungus? To return to characters currently resting at a point of wonderful ambiguity?
No, we don't need another Last Of Us. But of course I'd play the hell out of one - and this is, of course, the point at which I'm happy to celebrate gaming's not-quite-respectability. Naughty Dog will make a sequel to The Last Of Us that the game's setting does not warrant and its characters do not need, and I will play it to feel the splendid weight of the brick and to exist for a while longer in that world that is pleased to be rid of me. I can't wait - it's going to be so little fun!
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