Discovering & Dissecting The Last of Us Way Too Late

When The Last of Us came out in 2013 it was only vaguely on my radar. I didn’t follow the game industry very closely at that point in my life and I didn’t own a PS3. I caught a glimpse of the opening minutes on YouTube and I remember being impressed. It seemed very next-gen. The lifelike character animations in conjunction with the slick cinematography of its cutscenes made me feel like I was looking at the future of gaming- a kind of “game of tomorrow”. It piqued my curiosity because every game I had seen before that was undoubtedly a game in how it presented itself, whereas this wanted to blur the lines as much as possible so that it felt like a movie.

 

Backseat Gaming Impressions

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I wouldn’t find out how the opening cutscene ended until two years later however, when I watched my roommate play the remastered version on his new PS4. For me, the most interesting part of any apocalypse story is “day one”, where we see the world change for the first time. The appeal is tantamount to that of a disaster movie where you see an equilibrium that resembles your own descend into chaos from the perspective on the ground. And it’s this mundane, familiar perspective that makes the prologue so effective. We don’t begin with the President getting an emergency briefing or a scientist making a horrifying discovery- we begin with a dad and his daughter slumped on the couch with the light of the TV screen flashing across their faces. It’s important that it takes place both in the interior of a house and at night. For Sarah and Joel- and indeed for us- this is an environment that is instantly recognizable as a safe space. And it is endlessly compelling to see the way the apocalypse reaches into their home and disrupts their cozy, routine lives, because that’s the scenario the average player can most easily identify with. It’s the one that causes us the most fear, being caught in a state of comfort and drowsiness by forces beyond your understanding.

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The tension then builds steadily. A missed call. A voice message. A strange explosion in the distance. It reminded me of a found-footage horror film I saw as a teenager called Cloverfield, because you get this narrow understanding of what’s going on that gradually widens in parallel to that of the protagonist’s own understanding of the situation. We don’t know what caused the explosion but we’re worried, and I like the way the outbreak is infused with this sense of confusion. We see Sarah going from telling jokes to being paralyzed with fear in minutes of game-time. She goes from being Sarah- with all the wit and sass that makes her unique- to just being a scared kid. The crisis erodes her personality, reflecting the way all of us are stripped down to base survival instincts when confronted with a fight-or-flight scenario. When we control Joel carrying her through the streets, she’s completely silent, her head tucked against his chest, and you just think “I will do anything to keep this child alive. Nothing else matters right now”. Even though the sequence is heavily scripted and linear like the rest of the game, I was immersed to the point where I thought we had to do everything in our power to save Sarah. I was right there, in the moment, running through the Texas night without a plan, just trying to survive as long as possible. I could feel the heat of smoldering cars, that sense of “Don’t turn around, just keep running” as a threat I didn’t have time to understand ravaged people all around me.

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When I saw Sarah get murdered in cold blood by a soldier, I was heartbroken- and I’d only known these characters five minutes. I think this is down to the quality of the game’s presentation. I was also surprised- I thought the game was going to be about Joel and Sarah traveling through the fungal apocalypse. At that point I picked up the game’s box and noticed that the girl on the front cover had dark hair. It was someone else. 

The narrative jumps forward 20 years and it was only then, when the game-proper began, that my view of it became less gilded. I find this happens with a lot of things- after seeing a fragment of it that particularly impresses you, the whole can never live up to the perfect fragment. I’d enjoyed that prologue so much that the game could only disappoint me from there. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or that I suddenly thought it wasn’t good. It’s just that my excitement was tempered as I took on a more critical eye and noticed for the first time its imperfections. As next-gen as it was on the surface, both the story and the gameplay quickly felt very familiar.

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While this new world set in a dystopian military safe-zone was very interesting, the 20-year time jump left me dizzy at first. I tried to calculate the age of the protagonist in my head because he looked to be at least 30 in the prologue. Once we met Ellie for the first time and the business of escorting her through the ruins of Boston got into full swing, my focus came back and I was fully-invested in the narrative. 

As I watched my friend play, I began to abandon any worries about ruining the game for myself. I decided that The Last of Us was more fun to watch than to play. The stealth sections with the Clickers looked exceedingly stressful, and I figured I wasn’t cut out for it. I didn’t particularly like the look of the combat mechanics and the idea of carefully managing your resources- especially ammo. But it made for quite a fun game to watch, because I had enough of a sense of the stress to feel thrilled by it but enough distance not to be overwhelmed. It’s the only time I’ve ever watched someone play a game from start to finish. I felt I was a part of the experience, and The Last of Us provides for some great backseat gaming moments.

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It’s been said that the story and the gameplay of The Last of Us are completely walled off from one another and the game is really two experiences that the player alternates between. While I think the two aren’t quite as divorced as they ostensibly seem, this is mostly the case. During the cutscenes, it was just like when my friend and I watched Breaking Bad together in college. And during the gameplay sections, it was like my friend were a boxer and I was one of the guys in his corner with an ice pack and a gauze pad. It’s interesting to me that I didn’t just pay attention to the cutscenes. You would think that with a game like this, with its cinematic story moments broken up by long traversal sections, that someone as impatient as myself would find something else to do while my friend completed those gameplay sequences. On the contrary, I was engaged the whole way through, giving suggestions or pointing out things my friend missed. My favorite memory of his playthrough was the boss fight with David in the burning restaurant. My friend had lost sight of David and I could feel the tension of thinking that he could be just around the nearest corner. It brought back memories of hide-and-seek from my school days. 

“Where is he?” my friend asked. 

I squinted at the screen for a few seconds and jumped out of my skin when I noticed David’s manically-grinning face peeking over the hotplate counter that divides the kitchen from the bar. 

“Shit! He’s literally right there!” I screamed. 

“Oh my God!” my friend yelled, as David grinning right at Ellie in plain sight started running for the door brandishing his machete. The timing couldn’t have been more effective- it was like the enemy was waiting for us- the real-life player, not Ellie- to notice him before he started pursuing us. The terror of his crazy expression, suggesting that he was enjoying this game of cat and mouse, again brought back strong memories for me- this time of recurring nightmares I had as a child. Usually I was being chased and would wake up the moment I was caught, and as fun as it is to reflect upon now, these episodes caused me some genuine anguish when I was little. It was the juxtaposition between sinister intentions and the playful, childlike behavior of the threat that scared me so much.

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I enjoyed the playthrough as much for these shared moments of excitable commentary as I did for the game’s story, and once my friend beat the game, I stopped thinking about it. I didn’t go deeper into the universe or the narrative themes. I forgot all about it for years- until a trailer emerged for The Last of Us Part 2 at the Paris Games Week in October 2017.

 

Rediscovering TLOU through the leaks for TLOUp2

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This trailer wasn’t the announcement of the sequel, nor the first instance of its marketing. But it was the moment it came to my attention- in no small part due to the controversy surrounding it. The trailer was criticized for supposedly fetishizing violence against women. Commentators argued that, although the violence was perpetrated by a woman against another woman, it nonetheless made a thrilling spectacle out of women being tortured. 

I decided to watch the trailer for myself. The main reason this upset people, I thought, came back to what was undoubtedly the biggest strength of the first game- it’s presentation. It wasn’t so much the fact that a woman was getting hurt that shocked people, as it was a woman getting hurt in such realistic detail. Just as the previous game did in 2013, The Last of Us Part 2 promised to push the limits of photorealistic graphics. As I watched the trailer, I was both in awe of how good it looked and repulsed by what I was seeing. I didn’t feel thrilled as the critics alleged. Perhaps some people did- the Ted Bundy types maybe- but hopefully most viewers felt the way I did. I was deeply uncomfortable- in fact I could feel my stomach turn when Yara’s arm broke, but I think that’s how Naughty Dog wanted me to feel. It sets the tone for the game- the world of The Last of Us has only gotten crueler and more brutal since we last saw it. You know exactly what kind of story you’re in for when you see that trailer. And if it’s not your thing, that’s fine. Neither game in this franchise is for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that The Last of Us Part 2 looks too miserable for you to enjoy. If that’s the case, then the trailer has sorta done its job from a consumer perspective.

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I followed the development of the sequel and I was impressed by the graphics in the gameplay demos; much like its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 looked to be a kind of swansong for its console generation, neither current-gen nor next-gen, but a bridge between the two. I’ve heard the term “post-gen” used to describe the games, in that they were both made with a next-gen sensibility. Despite my interest in its development, I had zero intentions of buying the game for myself. I tend to be very reticent about getting into new things- whether it’s a TV show or a video game. It’s like I’m too lazy to give it a try unless it seems tailor made for my ideal tastes. I didn’t think Doom or God of War would be for me, but I took a chance on them long after they released and ended up loving them. Perhaps The Last of Us franchise could be the same, but the fact that I’d already seen the story of the first game and thought the combat would be too stressful for me to enjoy meant that I wouldn’t consider getting the sequel day one. And on that note, AAA games are expensive. I think that’s part of the reason I can be so resistant to trying new games upon release, even if the assorted marketing has me curious. I already knew going into 2020 that I was going to preorder Doom Eternal and Ghost of Tsushima, and it seemed like I didn’t have any excitement to spare for anything else. By comparison, The Last of Us Part 2 seemed uninteresting; undoubtedly well put together, but a game that was not really needed.

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But then…the leaks came out. And the leaks pretty much changed everything for me. In contrast to when the first game released in 2013, I now like to keep up with industry news as much as possible. Even if I’m not interested in playing a certain game myself, I still like to follow the discussion around it. I watched Angry Joe’s video on The Last of Us Part 2 leaks and given that I’d already decided it was a game I wasn’t getting, I exposed myself to the spoilers so I could understand the discussion. And it was only when I learned the plot details that I suddenly became seriously interested in buying the game. It’s strange, because I was annoyed that I spoiled it for myself, yet it took the spoilers to get me interested in purchasing it. 

This game sounded ambitious to me, and in an industry saturated with bland, committee-designed knock-offs that aimed at being as inoffensive as possible, this seemed like a breath of fresh air. It was about time developers started challenging the morality of the player and introducing them to more complex ideas. And yet, the very things that made the game appealing to me were causing Angry Joe and other commentators like him to foam at the mouth with indignation. A hate train the likes of which I’ve never seen had left the station, months before the game’s summertime release. No one seemed willing to give the game a chance and wait until they played it before forming an opinion. You’d expect this lack of professionalism from ordinary consumers, but it was disappointing to see YouTubers purporting to be “critics” acting so petulantly. None of the criticisms had any kind of nuance to them; they were simply reciting a plot detail and then screaming “bad writing!” without any explanation in between. These guys would be shat out of any Literature or Philosophy class with all but the least amount of fucks to give. It made me realize that YouTube has zero quality control whatsoever, and that it’s easier to get views from unhinged outrage than it is structured analysis.

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I was curious about the game, but I was still unsure about whether I would like it. It sounded good from the leaks, but I didn’t have the context of playing it myself. Maybe it was going to be a letdown, but the ideas being explored were intriguing enough to make me want to give it a go. I tried to ignore all the people screaming about “SJW agendas” (presumably these folks didn’t get enough hugs growing up) but everywhere I looked on the internet people were gearing up to hate the game upon release, context be damned. And it’s their right to be stupid of course, but what bothered me was the way they targeted and shamed people for daring to suggest the game looked somewhat alright. 

The final straw for me was when I was watching another of my favorite YouTubers streaming Resident Evil 4, and someone in the live chat asked him if he was going to cover The Last of Us Part 2 on his channel. He was immediately set upon by people telling him that the game was a disgrace and that anyone looking forward to it was a “shill”. He replied that just because a game features a protagonist that happens to be gay, that doesn’t mean the game is shoving an agenda down the player’s throat. For some reason this really upset people in the chat, and the guy was told he was “stupid”, “a fucking leftist”, “a beta male cuck”, and “a retard”. I couldn’t understand why people were so angry, not just at a mere video game, but at other people for being open to the idea that it might not be shit. One guy in particular was unrelenting in the way he bullied this guy for looking forward to it, and when I checked out his channel I noticed that his other subscriptions included Ben Shapiro. Of course it did. I realized then that the hate for The Last of Us Part 2 wasn’t really about the game at all. The game was just the latest excuse for these people to crawl out from their damp caves to spread their bigoted rhetoric. Don’t even try to engage or entertain these people- they’re too far gone. As Karl Popper once said, a truly tolerant society can’t function if tolerance is extended to the intolerant.

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The release date for Part 2 drew closer, and remembering how much I ended up loving Doom and God of War, I took a chance on The Last of Us franchise. I’d downloaded the first game for free last year as part of the monthly games you get with Playstation Plus, so I had nothing to lose really. To my dismay, I remembered a lot more than I thought I would, to the point that I could remember where to go during semi-linear stealth sections. I was hoping that it wouldn’t come back to me so that I could experience it as fresh as possible, but it goes to show that I must have been concentrating quite hard during my backseat gaming experience in 2015.

 

My Review

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At first I didn’t like the feel of the combat. Compared to other shooters I found it hard to hit enemies and whenever I missed I got extra frustrated because ammo is a scarce resource- particularly in the first third of the game. However, I understood that I wasn’t playing Doom. This isn’t supposed to be a power fantasy; it’s trying to capture the tension and desperation of a rugged, survivalist post-apocalypse. There’s little ammo and so every bullet feels precious. You have to spend time scavenging to give yourself the best chance, and when you find just a couple bullets in a desk drawer you feel a relief that reflects that of the protagonist. Another way the gameplay works to immerse you into the world is by making you craft items in real time instead of via a pause menu. Things like bandages, once crafted, then take time to be applied, and those precious few seconds could mean the difference between life and death, forcing you to time it right. The game constantly puts you into high-risk scenarios, making you think strategically about time, movement, and space. Unlike Doom, you can’t just switch between weapons in an instant. Here you have to agonizingly use a real-time drop-down menu to equip what you want, encouraging you to use the environment to your advantage. Checking the routes the enemies are taking and calculating how long you can delay them reaching you by positioning yourself in a certain spot is a clever way of getting you to think about the relationship between speed and geometry.

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Aside from the human encounters, there are also the sections where you have to navigate your way through hordes of Infected, and the game alternates between the two in order to prevent fatigue. The Infected are, from a functional standpoint, zombies. They’re only original in a superficial sense, but they are nonetheless visually distinct enough to seem more interesting than the heaps of other zombie games out there. I kinda wish more gameplay could have been based around the spores, because the passages where you don your mask and crawl through dark, claustrophobic areas with people infected for so long they’ve turned into giant mushrooms fused into the walls were really atmospheric. But they are only there for world-building reasons, and Joel equips and unequips his mask automatically. In some ways the Clickers are a metaphor for the whole game. Instead of pursuing the idea of a spore-based apocalypse in greater depth, they have them transmit the spores via bites so as to make them recognizable as a zombie enemy type. But the design of these eyeless monstrosities is nevertheless striking, from their giant cauliflower-heads to their haunting dolphin-like barks. The echolocation mechanic makes them interesting but still familiar, and that to me is The Last of Us in a nutshell. The game uses old storytelling tropes, but they’re tropes executed to perfection.

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It’s not the story that makes The Last of Us special- it’s the way it tells that story. It takes a setting that’s been overdone and reworks it so effectually that it feels fresh. The plot itself is very simple- it’s the journey of these two characters, Joel and Ellie, and what they come to mean to one another. Everything else is just context. It was never about finding a cure to save the world. Ellie’s immunity remains a mystery. The reason why the Fireflies have to kill her to manufacture a vaccine also doesn’t matter. The science isn’t explained because Ellie’s immunity is just the plot device used to justify the road trip. And as we find out, the destination isn’t important- it’s all about the experience of the two characters traveling together. The plot remains thin throughout the game- the bulk of the trip has nothing to do with the cure. The various enemy factions, such as the Cannibals in Silver Lake and the Hunters in Pittsburgh, have no connection to the overarching mission. What we remember most vividly are the little character moments- Ellie looking at Bill’s magazines in the car, Joel giving her a gun of her own, Joel opening up about Sarah. It just goes to show that a complex plot isn’t necessarily needed to tell a powerful story. The Last of Us is simple, but that simplicity is in many ways its greatest strength.

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It’s fitting that the game ends with you carrying Ellie the way you carried Sarah at the beginning. The Last of Us is all about Joel’s sense of fatherhood and how Ellie awakens a part of his humanity that seemed lost. This is Joel’s story- not the player’s. It’s an important distinction, because it is worth noting that you’re not meant to project yourself onto the protagonist. This is an experience that seeks to bridge the gap between gaming and cinema, using the interactivity of the former to make you feel closer to the character. One of my favorite gaming YouTubers, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, likened this to acting. The game wants you to feel what Joel feels as intensely as possible, putting you in his shoes in a way that the passivity of movies cannot. I’ve seen some fans try to justify Joel’s actions at the end by saying “Well we didn’t know for sure that the vaccine would work” or “The Fireflies would have used the vaccine to exert their power over others” but this is missing the point. You’re not meant to justify his actions. You’re meant to understand it as a tragedy made inevitable by the circumstances leading up to it.

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Tragedy as a genre is so effective because it’s usually foreshadowed from the outset, more often than not taking the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Joel murders the Fireflies, he isn’t thinking about Ellie and what she would want for herself. He strips her of her agency, albeit out of love. It’s not about right or wrong; it’s about how love can drive you to do something terrible- which isn’t how you would typically expect a father-daughter narrative to end. Usually parental love is portrayed as an unambiguous good. After Sarah died, Joel didn’t allow himself to love so as not to suffer loss again. Little by little, Ellie erodes the unsentimental, gruff façade Joel has erected around himself the past 20 years. He likes being a dad again. And when faced with the prospect of losing that part of himself, he refuses to let that happen. In many ways, saving Ellie is a selfish act, and still one made out of love. The tragedy is that in trying to save his new self, he has to revert to who he was at the beginning of the game, to shed the very humanity Ellie has elicited from him by calling upon all the ruthlessness of the past 20 years- the willing suspension of his own conscience. The tragedy is that when Joel bursts into the operating room, he doesn’t see Ellie lying there. He sees Sarah. His guilt over failing as a father 20 years ago- as represented by the broken watch on his wrist- necessitates what happens next. He can’t fail again. That’s the tragedy. In his mind he has no choice. You’re not meant to agree with or justify what he does, but simply to understand that his experiences drove him to this decision. He can’t lose Sarah twice.

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And by that same token, you can’t really criticize the Fireflies either. Their intentions are equally noble. From their perspective, this is their last chance to save the world. Whether it would have worked or not doesn’t matter. You’re simply meant to understand the state of mind that informs both parties and how their competing desperation makes the resulting bloodbath tragically inevitable. Tragedy as a genre would not exist without inevitability. And it’s fitting for a brutal post-apocalyptic world, because both Joel and the Fireflies can attribute their desperation to the way this new world has beat them down. The Fireflies, as we are made to understand throughout the game, are hanging on by a thread. They represent the last, dwindling embers of the world as it was. Once they disappear, the apocalypse is officially the new normal, and the idea of order is determined by a new status quo. Chaos can no longer be considered chaos, because the old world as a reference point is lost with the Fireflies. Disequilibrium becomes the new equilibrium. The present no longer defined in relation to the past.

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What’s interesting is the few moments the game gives you control. As I said above, it’s not the player’s story. But you’re meant to feel Joel’s story in a way you couldn’t if you were watching a movie. It’s an intersection of mediums that aims to align the morality of the player with that of the protagonist in the hopes of getting you to question actions that feel like your own, but are somebody else’s. There’s no option to let Ellie die. You’d just have to stop playing and uninstall the game from your hard drive. And that’s what makes it powerful. A game with multiple, equally-valid endings can’t make any firm philosophical statement. You’re permitted slight agency during the giraffe scene, where you have to move your controller to advance the story, thereby allowing you to appreciate the spectacle as long as you want. The other moment you’re given agency is in the operating room. It’s fascinating to me that the game makes you kill the medical team yourself, in gameplay, rather than in a cutscene where you wouldn’t feel responsibility for it. There’s no instruction to kill them, but you have to murder these defenseless people in order to progress the story. At the time I hadn’t used my flamethrower all game, so I burned the surgeon guy to a crisp. I did feel a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t have time to focus on it because I had to get Ellie to safety. Ah well, I thought, that was just a generic NPC with no name. It’s not like he could have had a life of his own, or any family to mourn him…

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Overall I liked the game, but I did have some criticisms. The thing that bothered me most was that the apocalyptic wasteland seemed way too densely populated with generic bandits. You’d be lucky to run into anyone in rural Wyoming (the most sparsely populated state in the U.S) today, let alone a scenario in which the majority of the population have perished due to viral pandemic. I wanted the time spent at the dam to last several days, maybe even a week of in-universe time, because as soon as we meet Tommy we’re set upon by bandits. As soon as Tommy’s wife meets Ellie she tells her about Sarah, which I thought somewhat unbelievable. And then Ellie runs off and the way to finding her is littered with yet more generic bandits that presumably just shoot first and ask questions later. I liked the argument between Ellie and Joel, but it felt like the bandits were shoehorned in there “because it’s a video game” instead of being woven into the story organically. 

Similarly, I don’t understand why the Cannibals start shooting at Ellie and Joel at the university for seemingly no reason. I mean, yeah, they’re Cannibals, but The Last of Us has also shown that it wants to be a story with nuance, and it just seemed a little perplexing to me. Not in the least because the shot is taken at them from a difficult angle (several stories below) and the Cannibals don’t know at this point how many people they’re firing at or how armed they are. In some ways the things I didn’t like about The Last of Us were the same things I didn’t like about Red Dead Redemption 2, in that the nuanced storytelling is undercut by the gameplay obligations, which consist of endless waves of generic redshirts that seemingly self-identify as the villains and prioritize murdering you above all rational sense.

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The Last of Us has some very effective moments, both in gameplay and story. The shotgun packed a nice punch, but it was equally satisfying to avoid enemies altogether and take a creative approach to the semi-open environments. My favorite tool in the whole game was the nail bomb. At heart I was a demolitionist first and everything else came second to that. The part of the game I enjoyed the most was the time you spend with Henry and Sam, which includes the chapters “Escape the City”, “Sewers”, and “Suburbs”. This to me was the peak of the game. I didn’t like the slog through the hotel that came before it and I didn’t like the missed potential and messy storytelling that came after it with Tommy’s Dam, but those three chapters with Henry and Sam felt like a perfect balance of satisfying gameplay and nuanced writing. The standout character moments were Ellie jumping off the truck and saying “We stick together” as the Humvee bears down on them, Ellie jumping into the river moments later despite not being able to swim, and the scene where Ellie gives Sam the toy robot. As far as gameplay, I loved the environmental storytelling of the sewers, and the way the creeping dread contrasted nicely with the high-octane action of the Humvee encounter before it. This escalates slowly, starting out with puzzles and exploration. And unlike the damn hotel, we don’t stay in the sewers too long so as to become fatigued by its claustrophobic interior spaces. After fighting through the former inhabitants of the sewers, the pace slows down again and the tranquility of the suburbs provides some nice downtime, before once again ramping up to high-tension combat in a showdown with the Humvee. All in all, it’s just a well-structured, self-contained vignette of the apocalypse, featuring a variety of gameplay styles that provide a broad insight into the world Naughty Dog has created.

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That’s all I got to say about The Last of Us. If you liked my essay, be sure to check the coming weeks for my review of the sequel. Thanks for reading and stay safe. 

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