Revisiting The Last of Us

I just wrapped up playing through The Last of Us for the eighth time. I really should not be surprised with myself. When I replayed it last year, I told myself that’d be my last time playing before The Last of Us Part II. At the time it was just eight months before the sequel would have been released before its unfortunate and indefinite delay due to COVID-19. I thought that was close enough for it to be fresh, but enough space for both games to breath.

Then I got a 4K TV and decided to replay the Uncharted series.

Then I got the platinum trophy in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.

Then I started work on my history of Naughty Dog during the PS4 era — Chasing the Stick.

Well, might as well replay the game with Abby and go for the platinum trophy.

Having wrapped up my eighth time beating the game’s campaign, I wanted to write about revisiting the game. By the time The Last of Us Part II releases, it will have been seven years since the original released on PS3. How has the PS3 swan song aged? How has my take on the game changed with time? How does the game feel knowing the sequel is coming soon(ish)?

I reviewed the game back on June 22, 2013. That’s just eight days after its release. That review was my third review I wrote for my blog at the time. I was so proud of it that I even shared it with my video game history professor. The only comment/critique I remember of his was my use of Jesus’ name when quoting Ellie. He said to avoid mentioning religion.

My review has a very “shout it from the rooftops” approach. I was a very different writer at the age of 19. I had just graduated high school. My take on the game is pretty standard: It is a masterpiece, now let me convince you. I definitely lacked any form of subtly and nuance. I beat my reader over the head with how great the game was.

One bit that did stand out to me now is how in the first paragraph I emphasized being “actively involved” in the game’s world, unlike books or film. That take would become the heart of Chasing the Stick.

When it comes to actually playing it, I am surprised to discover something new each time. Even with back-to-back playthroughs, I found new item drops or pathways. Part of this is influenced by pushing myself to take routes and approaches I haven’t before, so those discoveries are natural. I’m a player of habit: Once I find a route that works, I stick with it. This time around, I decided to shake up my route. I still tried to play stealth first, but I’d go left instead of right and so on.

This plan to take the path less traveled (by my past self), has opened my eyes do how dense the environments are. Trash, plants, vehicles, corpses don’t just litter the world: they pack it in. While piles of clothes may be reused throughout, smaller uniquely individual (or scarcely used) assets are sprinkled in the world. This allows players to fill in the narrative blanks like a doleful edition of Mad Libs.

Game Director Bruce Straley actually talked about this in an interview with Jason Killingsworth.

It’s that collision of the familiar and unfamiliar that gets me interested in little backstories. You can put the pieces together when you can see the water’s not high right now but you can see the water line at a different level and you can see something cast up on the hillside once the water line receded. And then you’re like, there’s a story here, I can see somebody has dragged a bag of goods and supplies, and they’ve sifted through it. And you realise somebody’s been here. These little stories and vignettes piece together experiences you don’t get to witness. But Hitchcock proved that it’s almost better not to see it because it lets you fill out the greater story. It’s fun to play with.

The game world is equally rich with stories players fill in and with deliberate stories built by Naughty Dog. The narrative collectibles are an example I love. It helps tell the world’s story in a way similar to one of Cory Barlog’s goals with God of War.

Kratos’ new story was told in “one shot.” The narrative never cuts away to see what other people are up to or how the circumstances came to be. Kratos and Atreus are the player’s agent to the story/world. Cory wanted to tell the story of the past by having characters talk and reflect instead of showing the player through a flashback.

The Last of Us does this too. We never cut away from Joel and Ellie for someone else. The closest we get is in the Winter portion of the game when you play as both Joel and Ellie. Besides the conversations between the two protagonists, collectibles color in the history of this new world. Ish’s story is a popular focal point as it uses the environment of a level and the collectible notes to tell a full story in the sewers and suburbs. It’ll be interesting to see how The Last of Us Part II shifts from this since it has been hinted that we may play in alternate periods of time; not unlike the Left Behind DLC.

I found myself genuinely surprised at how much dialogue between Ellie and Joel wasn’t “optional,” in the collectible sense. They talk to build their relationship in the player’s eyes. I enjoy the pacing their relationship has. It goes in tandem with the journey itself to find the Fireflies. On the other end of the conversational spectrum, I am also surprised at how some of the optional conversations are not guaranteed scripted! Their chat next to the backdrop after Joel nearly dies in the hotel should be heard by all players, just saying. I imagine picking and choosing what to have player hear and optionally miss was a difficult, delicate, and deliberate balance.

The ending is another element that is brought up constantly in regards to the sequel. Back in June 2013, people were vehemently picking one of two sides. With an official sequel ostensively done as of this writing, the ending has to be looked at under an entirely different light. I’ve always been on the side of what Joel did was right and a sequel doesn’t change his actions, but now the consequences-both good and bad-will be presumably explored. I’ve also always read the scene as Ellie knows Joel is lying. She’s too smart to buy it. The subtext is where the meat lies. She knows and still gives an “okay.” Joel doesn’t hesitate to lie. She hesitates for 12 seconds with the okay. Up until now, fans got to essentially decide what it all meant. Now, Naughty Dog will tell us.

Combat in The Last of Us has always been a favorite of mine. Stealth oriented with an gruesomely intimate flare. This time around I noticed how environmentally interactive the melee combat is. I did a lot of punching this time around. Joel slams enemies against cars, walls, tables, and telephone polls. His executions cycle through a set of hits, but I was surprised at just how many surfaces Joel kills against with blood splatters sticking to the surface and everything.

This carries into the multiplayer as well. I love the suspense that comes in a good round of Factions. With prob strats by my side this time, I am trying to get the two multiplayer trophies that have eluded my trophy level for so long. I got this.

Now just for a few smaller bullet point thoughts:

  • I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sounds the Clickers and Runners make. The moaning is eerily creates sympathy while the clicks are spine tingling.
  • Interrogation is my favorite mode in Factions. It’s like a mash up of tug-o-war and capture the flag. It feels incredibly balanced.
  • The game feels much emptier when rushing. I needed to start a third run for the “For Emergencies Only” trophy. I had to make it half way through Bill’s Town to get the parts and guns I needed to upgrade. Maybe it’s because I know all the collectibles and conversations I skipped, but it felt like a much emptier run. I didn’t feel like this when playing certain parts for Uncharted Platinums. Maybe it’s due to Uncharted being more of a romp.

The Last of Us is one of PlayStation’s crown jewels. It seems to have handled its first seven years with grace. Game still looks great, especially in 2160p HDR. I wonder how it’ll age in another seven years. I wonder how the HBO series will make the game age. I wonder how I’ll feel about both games eight days after The Last of Us Part II releases. Until then, endue and survive!