This last summer I first played Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, an action-adventure survival video game developed for the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) that features the tough and precocious 13-year old orphan named Ellie; and her companion Joel, a grizzled, violent and older bereaved parent of the daughter he lost.
Set in 2033, the story follows the unlikely pair’s emotional development – within themselves and between each other – as they doggedly drive, walk, and ride their way across what remains of the US, 20 years after a worldwide pandemic effectively exterminated 60% of the global population.
As they travel through collapsed cities and near-empty countryside, we learn what life is like in the wake of collapse; a world all but abandoned save few survivors, their infected predators, and the nature that has begun to reclaim it.
Along the way, the couple face horrific challenges, experience the worst of what’s left of a desperate humanity, experience both hope and despair, and are forced to make the most impossible of moral choices – that leave us, the players, questioning what we might do if faced with such gut-wrenching, value-searing dilemmas.
I’ve been playing video games since I was a little kid, and The Last of Us is, without any reservation whatsoever, the very best video game experience I have ever had.
I’m not alone. Wiki says:
The Last of Us received widespread critical acclaim for its writing, voice acting, sound design, level design, music and art direction. Its narrative was praised for its characterization, subtext, exploration of the human condition, and depiction of female and LGBT characters. Considered by many critics one of the greatest video games of all time, The Last of Us received over 200 “Game of the Year” awards and is the most awarded game in history.
My first play-through took 22 hours. Then, I played it twice again after the first sitting. In between and after, I read and watched nearly everything I could get my hands on to further understand the creative background of the developers, the back story leading to the game’s storyline, the experiences of the voice and motion-capture actors, and the critical and popular impact of this watershed moment in video games.
As the holidays fast approach, I’ve thought several times about playing it again. Today, I was reminded of another reason the “Last of Us” – and its downloadable content prequel “Left Behind” – are just so damn important.
I quote Anita Sarkeesian (vlogger behind Feminist Frequency – a blog and YouTube Channel that examines sexism in video games) and Carolyn Petit, from their article in Matter entitled “Five Feminist Moments in the History of Video Games”. For the other 4 moments, see the full article on Matter.
The entirety of this short follow-up to 2013’s The Last of Us is noteworthy for its focus on the complex, nuanced relationship between Ellie and her friend Riley. As you venture through an abandoned mall, the characters laugh and argue, have serious conversations and goof off. Finally, in a powerfully honest moment, they kiss. Female characters in games are frequently objects of desire, but they rarely get to express romantic impulses of their own. Left Behind is a lovely affirmation of queer sexuality and proof that big-budget, mainstream action games can tell stories that aren’t just about killing.
I might write more about The Last of Us and Left Behind in these pages. It, and its creators, have been such an inspirational influence on how I look at story, characterisation, themes and the unique and transformational power of the digital medium when one fully participates.