Dread is a powerful thing. When strong enough it can control our every action or even lead to complete shutdown and inaction. My first time playing Naughty Dog’s seminal masterpiece, The Last of Us, four years ago was filled with an ever growing sense of dread and despair. This world was no longer safe for humankind and especially the young child you’re trying to protect, who may just be mankind’s last chance for survival. Every alley crossed and home searched was just another opportunity for an emotional hammer to be dropped on you until you were completely devastated. I didn’t know what was coming, but I knew it wouldn’t be kind. Each time that end of the world banjo music started so did my goosebumps.
Thanks to its appearance as one of the Playstation Plus free games of October I decided to begin my third and likely not final playthrough of my favorite game of all-time to prepare myself for its sequel coming out early next year and to destroy myself emotionally. Despite knowing every tragedy and gut punch headed my way, I discovered that the third time through was filled with a new sense of dread stemming from feeling completely helpless to prevent my beloved characters from going through Hell.
Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead
The overpowering dread began almost immediately. It was so strong that I even debated not starting up the game again. Because I knew that about 20 minutes after I did one of the most powerful and emotionally resonant openings would gut me completely. Time and again, Naughty Dog has proven itself adept at delivering brilliant sequences that make you feel like you’re playing a movie in their Uncharted series, but the amazing development team took it to an entirely new level with The Last of Us. You don’t start your journey as the game’s main character, Joel. Instead, you get to watch the zombie apocalypse unfold as his adorable 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, casting a shadow that looms over her bedroom as large as the tragedy the world is suddenly enveloped in. Everything seems all the more uncertain and scary while guiding the vulnerable girl around, and I felt a sense of awe staring through the back of the window of the family car as we attempted to make our escape. But I knew this wonder wouldn’t last because I knew the car ride was destined to end abruptly with our vehicle overturned and us running for our lives. From there, the game switches to Joel as he carries his now injured daughter to what will be her final destination. Part of me was hoping a zombie would grab us and force a restart to prolong the inevitable. Even typing this, the feels hit because I know that twenty minutes in to every playthrough of The Last of Us will end with Sarah’s death at the hands of a soldier, who is in over his head. Joel’s world will be shattered and for a brief time, so will mine, especially with the added weight of a daughter of my own being on her way shortly. Just once, can’t they let me save Sarah? Apparently not, as the gaming gods would much rather me be in tears in my chair.
After stepping away from the game for the rest of the evening, my dread is briefly replaced with hope. I know that in the next few hours my path will cross that of Ellie, the greatest foul-mouthed teens ever to appear in a video game. The next hour and a half or so is merely filler demonstrating how terrible the world and our protagonist have become before my second chance at protecting someone truly worth saving can begin.
The dread returns as soon as Ellie joins our party of lost souls. I know the destruction of innocence she’s about to undergo, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I merely have to make sure I shepherd her through to the other side. She’s not just the last hope for humanity as a potentially immune person, she’s also Joel’s final hope for making his life mean something and correcting the loss and mistakes of his past. There’s no turning back or ending the game now; I have an inescapable duty to fulfill, and we embark on our journey to the meet the Firefly scientists who are searching for a cure.
In Pittsburgh, the dread comes from a new source – a hotel door. After being separated from Ellie and falling down an elevator shaft, I need to do everything in my power to make my way back to her, and that includes opening this damned door. With the power out to the door’s card reader, I have no choice but to power up a nearby generator. The only problem is generators make noise, and, having experienced this twice before, I know that noise is going to bring a whole host of infected included the most deadly variety, a bloater, with it. So, I do everything in my power to postpone opening that door. I scour each room over and over again making sure I’ve picked ever last drawer clean of supplies. I even take a break to post about not wanting to open the door on Twitter, but, alas, if I ever hope to see Ellie again, I’m going to have to turn the god-forsaken thing on. I pull the cord once and begin to breathe heavily. Two more pulls to go before power is restored and the nightmare unfolds before me. I yank the string again and resign myself to my fate. With the final press of the triangle button the mess of infected including one very angry bloater are upon me as are several unceremonious deaths. Eventually, I decide to craft as many explosives as possible and am freed from this anxiety inducing moment only to be even closer to another far worse one.
Finding Ellie again means initiating a series of events that will forever strip her of her childhood. As I pull myself out of the basement, I see a ladder in the distance, and I know what it means when I pull it down. Doing so will cause me to be attacked by surprise, and it will cause Ellie to take her first life to save me. I pause the game, take a sip of whiskey and walk away for a second. Ellie deserves another moment or two of being a kid after all. The action begins again and Ellie’s whole world changes. Like Joel, I find myself mad, not thankful for her actions. We failed her and forced her to do something unspeakable that in a just world she never would have had to do. With a heavy heart, we continue our journey and get the hell out of Pittsburgh.
Our exit is not without its share of additional casualties as our tickets out of town, two brothers named Sam and Henry, are not long for this cruel world. Again, I know it’s coming, and the tragic circumstances have been etched in my brain for four years now, but it still absolutely floors me when we have to abruptly and prematurely say good-bye. The journey, however, must continue. The fate of the world, or really, this one amazing girl depends on it.
Onward we move, on a collision course toward our next tragedy. Joel and Ellie have finally settled in to their father-daughter dynamic they’ll spend the rest of the game and their lives in, and that only further ups the dread quotient. Eventually, we find ourselves on the campus of the fictional University of Eastern Colorado Big Horns, and the mini college tour fantasy playing out in my head can’t last because I know soon Ellie will be forced to fend for herself while Joel is relegated to the sidelines with a life threatening injury. Again, I place an even heavier focus on scavenging for supplies and checking rooms multiple times to postpone the inevitable. Fortunately, this dread is somewhat undeserved. Our time together has strengthened her, and Ellie is ready to handle this. She’s ready to return the love that you the player feel for her.
As the sequence begins, so does one of the more beautiful moments of the game that serves as a perfect foil to the despair, providing hope but also making those feelings of dread hit even harder. You find yourself in control of Ellie hunting for food to bring back to Joel surrounded by a gorgeous snowfall. Things naturally go downhill from here as Ellie encounters the worst of the infected and of the remnants of humanity leading to one of the most tense boss encounters in a game, but eventually the pair is reunited and back at full strength for the game’s powerful coda.
Again, the dread is counterbalanced with unimaginable beauty and hope as Ellie finds herself dumbfounded by encountering giraffes out if the wild, showing just how enchanting the world can still be. This moment fully represents everything that is perfect about The Last of Us. It remains my favorite moment in gaming to this day and is the quintessential demonstration of the emotional highs a game can reach.
Naturally, this brief enchantment is quickly undercut by more trepidation compliments of a truly gut-wrenching near drowning culminating in the ultimate moment of dread. As I awake in the hospital, having finally reached the Fireflies and my goal, I know exactly what Marlene, the Firefly’s leader, is going to tell me. She’s going to say that in order to try to derive a cure from the miraculously immune Ellie, the surgery will kill her, and I will be forced to fight my way through an entire hospital to stop this from happening. With the fate of the world potentially in my hands, it doesn’t matter. All that is worth even the slightest of damns is the well-being of our beloved Ellie. Unlike previous levels where I’ve just been a man slowly taking down enemies to survive, I now find myself as a full on force of destruction. There’s an even greater animalistic quality to the violence now, and I’m no longer myself but rather fully possessed by what I have imagined the inner workings of Joel to be as I mow down the well armed security forces of the Fireflies en route to the hospital’s surgical wing. At last I reach the surgery door, and once again I pause. I know there’s no turning back. Much like at the game’s beginning many hours ago, the shadows again loom large and fill me with unease. I can see oversized, exaggerated versions of the surgeons prepping Ellie for her end. In order to save Ellie, I have to damn the rest of humanity and those poor surgeons in the process, but for the third time in my life, I do it anyway. I’ll let the guilt come later. For now all that matters is the girl.
As my heart sinks further and further, we escape, and I lie to Ellie about what happened telling her there was nothing the doctors could do to use her for a cure. At last we reach salvation, and much like the beginning of the game, I find myself in control of my daughter character. Her shoulders are drooping further with each movement, and there is no joy for reaching the journey’s conclusion. There are only questions and concern. She asks one last time for Joel to swear to her that what he said about the fireflies were true. My heart skips a beat, and we lie again, just like we have the two other times, and the credits roll. Ellie demanded it can’t all be for nothing, but was it? Joel has the rest of his virtual life to ponder just that, and I have the rest of the weekend to feel emotionally drained.
That insane emotional wallop that The Last of Us still packs when all the secrets are already known is part of what makes it, in my opinion, the greatest game ever. Both utterly beautiful and gutting at the same time, there’s nothing quite like it. Every step forward weighed down by an ever-growing sense of dread should have forced me to turn off the console and go do something happier, but for the third time I found myself unable to turn away. I’m already dreading the sequel. I can’t wait.