Orson Welles can be a pretty depressing dude, and The Last of Us can be a pretty depressing game. There’s a quote, actually, from Welles that puts both in a succinct little package of words: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” But there is hope in these words; it’s about the moment. A successful life is simply about stringing together as many of these little moments as possible, though the actual act of wrangling in these wild horses may not be simple at all.
We’re lucky that in video games, these little refuges of the harsh storm of a daily life are specifically crafted just for us. Designers and writers and developers and actors and so many other people pour their lives into making these tiny bits of hope and happiness. They spend countless hours, sleepless nights on making sure you don’t feel alone in their virtual worlds.
In effect, they’re making digital funhouse mirrors. These reflections of life show to us a warped version of reality, an idyllic one that fits neatly into categories and slots into a whirring machine of spinning cogs and steaming pipes that does nothing more than makes us feel less alone. And The Last of Us is all about fighting that overbearing sensation, that paranoia that once the book closes on your life, it will be nothing more than a story bookended by loneliness.
The title itself is a reference to its dramatic themes, chief among them being the last of a society. Whether last to leave or last to die, you are the loneliest of them all despite, in terms of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungal maniacs, finding the greatest amount of success. You have, after all, outlived everyone else in the world, and yet you will die alone.
But there is a little touch in the game, a small effect that combats that overwhelmingly depressing notion. It is that moment of love and friendship that Welles talks about, the same one that creates the illusion of not being alone before having it shattered by heartbreaking tragedy. When you take cover, this minute affectation of character animation occurs that is endearing, encouraging, and altogether frustrating because you know it can’t last.
When you crouch down behind a broken wall or flipped desk or rusted car, Joel puts his hand up against it. It’s something he does when he walks closely to walls, too, much like Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake would do in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. In this case, it not only builds worldly interaction that supports narrative immersion but also is a realistic thing that someone would do when they are crouched down. Hand up, head down, and quiet all on the Cordyceps front as another Clicker meanders by.
Your ward, though, comes roadie running up to you and takes cover, too. Ellie will sidle up next to you and then slip in between you and the wall as you push out to accommodate her. The first time I saw this happen, my heart erupted with warmth. It was one of the most affecting things I’d yet seen in an already affecting game. And it’s such a trivial thing to happen otherwise, just a trifling animation throw in there for good measure. But it ends up being so much more.
And it’s not about protecting Ellie, though the father-daughter relationship that fosters would suggest Joel feels that way anyways. No, our 14-year-old bundle of attitude and aptitude is fully capable of taking care of herself (a wonderful break from the traditional damsel trope). This is a comforting motion. This is as close as you can get to a warming embrace or holding hands when you’re hiding and running for your life. It’s an interaction that tells you both that you’re okay because you’re both facing this together.
These small moments run rampant through the most powerful pairings in video games. These seemingly throwaway bits actually lay a foundation for things beyond the discrete narrative and the game’s base systems and mechanics. In Ico, the way you hold down the button to hold her hand crafts a physical relationship with a physical manifestation of wonderment. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, having Monkey pick up Trip reinforces the idea that his physicality and her technical prowess makes them each one half of a whole.
When Elizabeth throws a coin to Booker in BioShock Infinite, it puts in your head that she worries about you as much as you worry about her, that a platonic love is never far out of sight. Hell, even pressing a button to fist bump in Army of Two creates a similar facade of emotional dependency in a fictional world of bros being bros. Having you necessarily utilize a completely inanimate but impossibly charming Companion Cube in Portal to get you through doors and over gaps lays the foundation for feeling compassion for a box with a heart painted on it.
But they are all moments, moments that fade away and get lost like tears in the rain. They’re tiny bastions that stand up against the onslaught of shooting faces and smashing heads, moments that don’t tell you are not alone and instead remind you that you are creating your own isolation. Every step to the end of this tiring journey is just burning up these instances of solidarity (time, after all, is a nonrenewable resource). In Welles’ own words, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But when Ellie nudges you aside and shelters herself in your keep, all her faults and perfections that fit neatly alongside your own that make you hate and love her reminds you that, if only for a moment, you are not alone.