It’s early on a Saturday afternoon as I sit on the sofa, head in my hands. Bright sunlight streams through the windows as a soft breeze rustles the blinds. The TV emits a series of soulful, melancholy guitar chords as a series of credits rolls past the screen, but I remain silent, my mind a blur of thoughts .
I have a lot to process…
Several weeks before this moment, it’d been almost two decades since I’d been involved in the gaming industry when a particular story finally broke my resolve. A story that was almost a decade old by the time I came to it, yet still commanded waves of popularity years after its release.
A story of survival and hope.
A story of humanity and, well, zombies
It was also a story that also held an unexpected lesson for me.
It was the fungus-fuelled, post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Last of Us.
*** Warning – Spoilers ***
For those unfamiliar with the story, there’s little to distinguish it from standard post-apocalyptic fare at a glance. There’s the usual news of an outbreak, followed by scenes of violence and unrest. Chaos reigns for a time, then the world grows quiet until, finally, we are greeted by survivors amidst the scraps of civilisation as zombies threaten them from the sidelines.
The Last of Us follows many of these hallmarks, it’s true. Where the series stands out from its peers, however, is its unwavering focus on the dynamics of a single relationship.
Told in two parts, the first part follows the story of single father Joel, who loses his teenage daughter during the first moments of the outbreak. A broken man and hardened survivor some two decades on, we watch as he reluctantly accepts the task of taking a young girl Ellie to a hospital across the country in the hopes of using her immunity to create a vaccine. Through a series of perils, what starts out as a distant and emotionally closed-off relationship steadily grows into one of trust and hope. So much so that – when it’s revealed that creating a cure would kill Ellie in the process – it’s not without sympathy that we watch Joel rescue an unconscious Ellie from an array of armed forces determined to stop him, killing the members of the surgical team in the process.
Roll credits, or so we might hope.
Several years after the event, the daughter of the surgeon that Joel killed enacts her own revenge on him, sparking a journey of vengeance that sees an older Ellie trace his killer’s steps to a post-apocalyptic Seattle. What starts as a straightforward quest for vengeance soon evolves into a much deeper story of warring factions, faith, hope, and… possibly redemption. But there are no Hollywood endings, no deus ex-machinas or last-minute escapes in this part. The violence is close and intimate, no one is immune from its effects, and we see and feel every moment.
On the one hand, it’s easy to talk about the story’s themes of vengeance. After all, they play a core role in each and every scene. However, the emotion I came to grips with on the sofa that afternoon was a completely different one.
It was loss.
In a way, this, too, is a theme that runs through both parts of the story. With each broken building we cut through, each body we pass in the streets, and each handwritten note we discover, it’s impossible not to come away without feeling sadness at the future that could have been. But, where it remains a part of the ever-present atmosphere in part one, it’s part two of the story that elevates this emotion from ever-present atmosphere to main focus. Both Ellie and her antagonist face multiple decision points that can – and do – result in the death of a friend, the destruction of a friendship, or the loss of something important throughout their arcs. There are many of them, and they’re gruelling, self-inflicted moments where we as the player are acutely aware of just what the characters stand to lose if they move on as much as we are the pain they face today.
Push on into danger and risk losing more, or abandon the cause and remain unfulfilled?
Hold on to the scraps of happiness achieved, or strive for something more?
Thankfully, my life is nowhere near as dramatic as the characters (touch wood), and yet, there’s something in these moments that connected with me. I might not have had to survive a zombie outbreak or escape from groups of scavengers (once again, very much ‘touch wood’), but I have experienced the death of a family member or friend, and other, more subtle moments as well. A change of career or country, or a sudden event or decision that could change my life forever.
And each time, it’s the same thing that ties them together.
It’s the afternoon sun reflecting off the surface of a river.
It’s the group of friends gathered at the same place and time across the world.
It’s the smell of the ocean, or the casual walk down the street to a favourite restaurant a mere stone’s throw away.
Things that were so accessible at one point, but once a decision is made, may never come again.
And so it is with Ellie.
Towards the end of the game, we’re treated to a scene that’s as heartbreaking as it is touching. It’s a cold winter’s evening, and we watch as Ellie approaches Joel on a porch in the town they’ve come to live in. In the years since her rescue, Ellie’s growing doubt over the true nature of her survival leads her into confrontation with Joel, culminating in a moment where she finally discovers the truth.
As she approaches, we expect the conversation to go one direction, and one direction only.
As expected, Ellie begins a speech of heartfelt emotion. One of hurt and anger at Joel’s actions, which she sees as robbing her of an important purpose. The pain on Joel’s face is real, and we expect him to capitulate maybe, to express some understanding for her emotions. Instead, he doubles down and says he’d do the exact same thing all over again if given the chance.
A moment of silence follows, nothing but flakes of snow drifting in the air between them.
“I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that,” says Ellie.
But then –
“But I would like to try.”
“I’d like that,” says Joel.
And the next day, he’s gone.
I’m not the best at appreciating the little things sometimes. Fate knows, I’ve had my fair share of regrets at not doing certain things, saying certain things when the time presented itself. I always seem to swell with emotion when the time to say goodbye comes, and wish for one more day.
But if this story’s shown me one thing, it’s that these moments aren’t something I need build up to or reflect on when they’re gone.
They’re all around me.
I only have to see.