The Last of Us, irrespective of its quality, sits in a weird place. It was a fresh IP from a storied developer, coming to us a full six months after the combined launches of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One and, subsequently, the perceived start of the next generation. It left many that would have played it lingering on the fiscal vacuum of new consoles and others lamenting another take on the zombie shtick.
It even got ignored by those in the industry recovering—and even actively enduring—the onslaught of launch titles smeared across a liberal interpretation of a “window.” Speaking with a lot of people and discussing their yearly top 10 lists, The Last of Us was often left off simply because they didn’t play it. It certainly didn’t help that its official launch in North America was the day after the close of last year’s E3.
Yeah, last year’s E3. The Last of Us Remastered has released for the PlayStation 4 barely a year after its original debut on the PlayStation 3. It seems a bit odd to rerelease a game so soon after its first launch (the ending is still considered a spoiler, for cry out loud), perhaps setting a terrible bar for repackaged game collections as quick cash-in opportunities, but precisely because of all the aforementioned reasons a shameful slew of folk skipped it the first time around, this is a fantastic time for this move.
It’s also a fantastic time to come back and see if you remember that game for everything that it was and not something you’d skewed into a rose-tinted wish as you look back. It doesn’t take a lot for psychological biases to take hold, memories reinforcing themselves as highlight both the good and the bad in some sort of grotesquely growing harmonic frequencies. Even after writing so god damn much about the game already, I wanted to see whether I was victim of my own mental sabotage.
Immediately, I’m overcome with the sensation that I’d just never even bothered to notice something so substantial in lieu of talking at length about the game’s narrative, but The Last of Us is so awfully…rich. Specifically in its environments, it’s like a heavy stew of thick and varied flavors that are distinct and bold that it all feels so fantastically cohesive that the individuality is skimmed over.
Coming across repeated elements is such a rarity. While the cities feel oddly alive after nature has reclaimed the man-ravaged land has been littered with concrete monstrosities, it also feels incredibly lived-in because of the universally remarkable cardinality of set dressings. It would have been easy assume that every wall would just be another half vine, half brick texture, but even the serpentine foliage slithers in particular ways.
Chairs, dressers, cars, graffiti, signage, and so much more help place you in regional locales and not just within a specific level of the game. And it makes every little interaction between the characters immensely more meaningful because you have this wholly unique visage to stow away in your memory. This especially comes through in the Left Behind DLC that comes packaged with The Last of Us Remastered.
And considering how many people skipped the main game, it’s not surprising that even more never got around to playing this fantastic bit of DLC. It adds colorful literality to a lot of assumptions and oblique references made in the main story between Joel and Ellie, choosing instead to focus on Ellie’s life before she ever met with her eventual protector and companion.
There’s one particular scene where Ellie and her friend Riley come across a Halloween store in a mall. Each aisle of the store is crammed full of things you simply won’t ever see again. There’s no reason for these pumpkin heads and werewolf masks to ever pop up again, and if they did, it would just be out of place. But each one is seemingly placed with purpose and care, as if there was store stocking logic and narrative impetus behind why each item is where it is.
The interactions are so expertly written, as well. With such a beautiful economy of words that flows stiltedly parallel to the broken world around them, we learn so much about Ellie and why she becomes the person she is when she finally meets Joel. It paints such a succinct and painfully vivid picture of the tragedy of growing up without knowing a world before the Cordyceps outbreak.
Even beyond that, it’s also a heartbreaking depiction. Not necessarily because it’s so overtly sad that these kids never knew a carefree childhood but because it renders their nature as so pure. There really is no room for grey areas in this post-apocalyptic world, so you either land on being a good person or a bad person, though levels of innocence, acceptance, and compliance all still fall on a spectrum. You either kill and take advantage of others or you don’t as even dealing with the dirty underground still doesn’t make you a bad person—just a survivor.
And because of this, what we get from Ellie and Riley is a purity of spirit that comes from a life where there is no time for the dangerously easy and explosive little lies of our own daily lives. Those that come from the world that we know that is full of superficiality and first world problems, they’ve hardened by the time we meet Ellie. But for those born into this world, they are a perpetually open wound. No time to patch up, just time to watch everyone around you bleed out.
If not for the richness of the palette supporting The Last of Us and Left Behind, none of this would have the stickiness it has. Our brains are like ships looking for a dock, looking for something to anchor to in the storm of the everyday blur of just living. With the delectably unique and flavorful sets of the game, we find our port. We come bearing potent words painted across an infected, heartbreaking, hopeful, and sometimes inspiring canvas.