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Friday, June 12, 2020

The Top 10 Greatest Moments in ‘The Last of Us’

Placing fairly high in our top 25 games of the decade, The Last of Us also happens to be my own pick for the #1 spot. I adore every facet of Naughty Dog’s stunning magnum opus, from the refined writing, to the assured direction, terrific performances, evocative sound design, haunting environments, and visceral combat. 

Suffice it to say, my giddy fanaticism made it quite difficult for me to narrow down this list of the title’s highlights. I was so spoilt for choice that the gut-wrenching prologue doesn’t even get a look-in and I would consider that to be among the most gripping hooks in entertainment history! Anyway, the point is I love Joel and Ellie’s story so much that I could feasibly compile a top 100 celebration without resorting to any filler entries. Luckily for you, I concentrated on a digestible ten instead. 

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the greatest moments in TLOU. Oh, and in case it wasn’t apparent, major spoilers lie ahead.

10) Navigating the Subway

Hearing that signature echolocation reverberate through the halls is a freaky bit of foreshadowing. 

The closest that TLOU ever comes to overt horror territory is this sequence wherein you traverse a network of poorly lit subway tunnels on the outskirts of Boston. To give you a general overview of what’s in store, this oppressively dark portion of the game is bustling with the standard breed of infected (A.K.A: runners), alongside a few inconveniently placed clickers that can rip your throat open with a single bite. 

Stealth is, therefore, the key to emerging from this treacherous labyrinth in one piece, as you figure out how to strategically pick off the monsters without notifying the wider group of your presence. To accomplish this, you’ll need to make use of Joel’s heightened listening skills, divide the horde up with throwable distractions, and map out your route carefully so that you don’t get backed into a corner. After all, the slightest miscalculation here – be it a badly timed advance, a loud noise, or an overlooked threat – will alert every last infected in the area. And from there, things will get very hectic indeed.

Bear in mind you haven’t got your hands on a shotgun yet, so any direct confrontation with the tougher enemies is highly discouraged. The only viable course of action at this stage is to remain perfectly silent and avoid detection from the clickers’ ultrasensitive hearing. By setting out these clever rules of engagement, Naughty Dog generates a theoretically endless supply of dynamic, Quiet Place-esque scenarios, in which taking a mere step can feel like a tremendous risk. Nerve-wracking stuff.

9) Getting the Cold Shoulder from Ellie 

A rare occurrence of an NPC being unresponsive that is actually a deliberate design choice. 

While the cinematics tend to attract the lion’s share of glory and acclaim, it would be a shame to neglect the more interactive methods that Naughty Dog employ with their storytelling, because some of them are rather ingenious. Among the subtler instances of this are the quick environmental trials that break up combat encounters. Requiring cooperation between the two protagonists, these undemanding puzzles have you performing straightforward tasks like combining your strength to move dumpsters, repurposing wooden planks as makeshift bridges, and using rafts to help Ellie cross bodies of water. 

On the surface, they’re indistinguishable from the bog-standard obstacles that you would find in any given ‘’buddy’’ shooter (like Army of Two, Gears of War or Resident Evil 5) and they hardly put a strain on your mental faculties either. They do serve an additional function though, by illustrating the bond that you are cultivating with your A.I partner. You see, the first few times that you give Ellie a boost to access a higher level (so that she can pass down an unreachable object), Joel will explain the minutiae of the plan so that she knows exactly what to do. As time goes on, however, and the duo becomes more in synch, this ritual becomes almost second nature, and the need for verbal communication is phased out. It soon gets to the point where you don’t even have to input button prompts anymore, as Ellie will actively look for solutions herself.

That is until your expectations are subverted near the climax of the game, when an unspoken rift is opening between the pair. In an especially telling exchange here, you notice a ladder hanging over a ledge and press the triangle button to call Ellie over, so that you can go through the obligatory leg-up routine. But in an unprecedented move, she does not comply with your instruction right away and you are forced to press the button a second time to get her attention. 

It’s a very minor speedbump that will probably go unnoticed by most players, but it speaks volumes about how the characters are slowly drifting apart. The awkwardness is further accentuated by how this hiccup is not relegated to an isolated cutscene and is undermining your regular interactions with the world. You feel uneasy because (just like Joel) you’re experiencing how things aren’t quite the same anymore. All in all, it’s a wonderful case study in how developers can use the language of videogames to convey an idea wordlessly and it is all the stronger for it.

8) Suburban Sniper 

Making the duel feel even more organic, the gunman will yell specific taunts that relate to your behavior and current location. 

After forging a temporary alliance with two brothers, named Henry and Sam, our protagonists are chased out of Pittsburgh by a colony of murderous bandits. Fleeing into a suburban district, it seems like they’re in the clear when suddenly an elusive marksman begins taking pot-shots at them with a high-caliber rifle. Recognizing that they are hopelessly pinned down, Joel implores his fellow survivors to stay put while he maneuvers through the neighborhood in order to outflank the sniper. 

The gimmick with this particular section is that it’s relatively open-ended and non-linear. You have multiple paths to choose from: whether you’re weaving between cover spots on the streets; gradually progressing through the houses (which are themselves sheltering enemies); or hopping picket fences. Irrespective of which option you pick, you’ll be in for a high-stakes showdown that fosters a one-on-one rivalry you don’t get anywhere else in the game.

Speaking of which, you will come to resent this irksome opponent and the vulnerability that he makes you feel every time you poke your head around a corner. On the flip side, it is this oppressive dynamic that makes your eventual revenge all the sweeter, as you finally storm the crow’s nest and turn the tables on your nemesis once and for all. Indeed, getting to decommission this exasperating deadeye, and then use his weapon against his friends, is a supremely gratifying role reversal. 

7)’What Are You So Afraid Of?’’ 

An exemplary showcase of cutting-edge tech and showstopping acting. 

In the making of documentary ‘’Grounded’’, Brandon Scott (who plays Henry) expounds upon the virtues of performance-capture. Likening the process to theatre-in-the-round, he claims that ‘’you can do anything from any angle and even the smallest, most subtle [movement]’’ will still be registered. For my money, it’s this ability to preserve near-imperceptible gestures – and then translate them over to finished character model – that renders the cutscenes of TLOU so uniquely enthralling. 

Now I’m not going to pretend that the game pioneered the use of this technology in the medium because that would be demonstrably untrue. Nevertheless, I would maintain that what was achieved by Naughty Dog here has yet to be surpassed by anyone else, despite the fact that garbing actors in funny-looking leotards and optic sensors has since become fairly commonplace. There’s just something incredibly raw about the way the cast interact, as if they were going off-script on a whim. They convincingly talk over each other, restart their sentences mid-flow, and sprinkle fillers into every other line of dialogue like real people. 

If you want a deeper insight into how they workshopped these believable scenes, then Grounded is essential viewing. However, if you would prefer to look at the finished product, then I’d recommend the cinematic in which Ellie accuses Joel of trying to leave her. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson inflect this argument with so many lifelike details that could only come from talented performers bouncing off each other in the heat of the moment. For instance, there’s the way that Joel avoids eye-contact when he’s on the defensive, the slight creasing of Ellie’s brow when she is anxious, and the improvised shove that she gives her non-committal protector after getting flustered. These authentic (and largely adlibbed) flourishes make the difference between the stilted back-and-forths you might find in other AAA releases and the electrifying drama that TLOU is so cherished for. Of course, the phenomenal writing doesn’t hurt either.

6) Caught in a Trap

Not only do you have to recalibrate your eyes for the inverted perspective, but you’ve also got to contend with limited movement controls and a swaying aiming reticule. 

One of Naughty Dog’s defining characteristics is that they know how to put together a damn impressive set-piece. Although this reputation for spectacle is certainly warranted, there’s no denying that it mainly stems from the Uncharted franchise, which has managed to continually out-do itself with each successive installment. Delivering classic adventure serial thrills, they essentially allow you to roleplay as a blockbuster movie hero, in the mold of Indiana Jones or Ethan Hunt.

Yet whilst that series is expressly centered around white-knuckle pyrotechnics, TLOU is far more intimately scaled. Hence why a frenetic action beat, like the desert caravan pursuit in Drake’s Deception, would feel so wildly inappropriate here. Given the TLOU’s bid for prestige drama status, it can’t permit itself to indulge in the same daredevil escapades that made Nathan Drake a household name. Instead, its action must be considerably reigned-in, focusing on down and dirty encounters, tactical thinking, and judicious resource management, as opposed to reckless running-and-gunning. 

That being said, it does occasionally deviate from all the vanilla cover shooting to offer up something a little special. A good example of this is when Joel gets his leg ensnared in a booby trap that hoists him up to the ceiling and leaves him suspended in mid-air. Dangling helplessly in an upside-down position, your job here is to protect Ellie from an oncoming wave of infected whilst she tries to sever the mechanism’s counterweight.

Filled with exquisite near misses, it’s a remarkably intense sequence that tests you on everything from your reflexes, to your firearm prowess and your ability to prioritize threats. Being restricted to a six-shooter means that you also need to make allowances for constant reloading, which adds another enjoyable wrinkle into the proceedings. The best part though is that it remains wholly consistent with the title’s realistic vibe. A set-piece in Uncharted will typically involve the presence of a small army, implausible acrobatics, and a bombardment of explosions, but TLOU manages to pull off something just as memorable without going anywhere near as overblown.

5) ‘’Can’t Deny That View’’

A staple of YouTuber react videos everywhere, it’s impossible to forget the first time you saw these majestic creatures. 

Born into a world that has already been crippled by a deadly pandemic, when we meet Ellie she has spent her whole life in the company of death. Her immunity to the Cordyceps virus has caused her to outlive countless loves ones, she’s witnessed things no child should ever have to see, and an unimaginable burden has been thrust squarely on her shoulders. As such, when she is exploring the bedroom of a pre-outbreak teenager, she can’t even fathom how privileged their existence was: how trivial their problems were in comparison to hers; and how they could anticipate the future with a sense of hope, rather than despair.

On the plus side, her bleak circumstances have at least given her the capacity to appreciate things that others would take for granted, such as the charms of tacky garden gnomes, the appeal of dusty old record shops, and the prettiness of firefly bugs dancing in the forest. In other words, because Ellie has grown so accustomed to the ugliness that surrounds her on a daily basis, she makes a conscious effort to hold onto beauty. And this attitude pays off big time when she gets the opportunity to pet a living, breathing giraffe!

Overcome with awe, she dashes up to the rooftops whereupon she observes a tower of the animals nonchalantly roaming the streets of Salt Lake City, as if it were their natural habitat all along. Like Ellie, you can’t help but be entranced by this picture of natural splendor, where lush greenery has overrun all manmade structures, and wildlife is unafraid to be out in the open. Complementing this image of restful tranquility is Gustavo Santaolalla’s calming score, which tops the entire thing off magnificently. What else can we say except, to quote Ellie: ‘’so fucking cool’’?

4) Chilling in the Mall

As many of us are figuring out right now, people need to find whatever joy they can in difficult times, lest they go insane.  

For all the child death, wanton acts of cruelty, and dog-eat-dog morality at the core of TLOU, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s totally without warmth or compassion. That nobody has ever felt an iota of happiness in this terrible world. 

Well take it from someone who’s endured The Walking Dead through its ups and many, many downs; having characters locked in a perennial state of angst does not make for compelling drama. On the contrary, there needs to be light to offset the dark, otherwise, you’re saddled with a bunch of unlikable misery guts who just mope around all the time. 

You see, contrast makes the sad parts actually feel sad and stops the grim tone from becoming monotonous. This is something that Naughty Dog clearly understands, as they sensibly balance out every misfortune they throw your way with a positive display of human tenderness. One such highlight can be found in the Left Behind expansion, which serves as an extended flashback to the last evening that Ellie spent with her friend Riley. 

Living out the universal fantasy of taking over a shopping mall after closing time, they have free reign to do whatever they want and you get to share in all the hijinks. You can challenge each other to throw bricks at abandoned showroom cars, model different Halloween masks, goof around in the photo booth, or declare an aggressive super-soaker war. All of which makes for a nice change of pace from the usual violence and dread, letting the kids be kids in a world that otherwise demands they grow up too fast. That you get to actively participate in this night of halcyon fun helps you establish a deeper connection with Riley as well, which in turn makes the heartbreak to come all the more devastating.

3) Winter Has Come

In addition to keeping us in suspense over Joel’s fate, this section lets you spend time in Ellie’s shoes and find out how she has evolved in the interim. 

One of the smartest decisions Neil Druckmann made when writing the TLOU was to condense everything into neat seasonal segments. Whilst the complete journey unfolds over the span of roughly ten months, we’re only given brief glimpses of that timeframe by checking in at particularly noteworthy intervals. When you tally it all up, you’ve basically got a cumulative week made up of a few days in Summer, a stretch in the Autumn, a breathless Winter morning, and a Springtime afternoon. 

Which is honestly all you really needed to piece the narrative together. Much like in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we can infer that the characters are covering a lot more ground than we’re privy to, and we can do that without having to experience the full mileage of their trek. Druckmann knows precisely what is important for us to see and where plot points are best left to our imaginations. In fact, some of the finest storytelling actually takes place in the gaps between chapters.

This is perhaps best exemplified by the abrupt transition between Fall and Winter. The last thing we see before this audacious time jump is Joel being impaled on a piece of exposed rebar. Losing blood at an alarming rate, the hemorrhaging eventually becomes so severe that he winds up collapsing from his horse onto a hard-tarmac surface. We then hear Ellie’s desperate pleas for him to stay conscious and a sharp cut to black leaves us with absolutely no resolution whatsoever. 

After a while of being left in this excruciating ambiguity, a title card pops up on screen informing us that Winter has finally arrived. There’s a corresponding change in scenery, everything goes eerily silent, and Joel is nowhere to be seen. Into the new snowy landscape, an adorable rabbit emerges from its burrow, hops around for a bit, twitches its nose, and is then suddenly pierced by a dexterous arrowhead. As the camera unflinchingly dwells on the lifeless bunny corpse, we get the message loud and clear: ‘’Welcome to Winter’’. It’s harsh, it’s unfeeling and it shows no remorse. 

Now more than ever, we’re beginning to seriously worry about Joel. Yet rather than providing us with immediate answers to our burning questions, the game leaves us to stew in uncertainty for the duration of a protracted hunting session. Here, we guide Ellie (who is revealed to be our mysterious archer/cuteness slayer) through a frosty woodland as she stalks a wounded deer. There’s no combat, no puzzle solving, no dialogue. Just quiet introspection. And when you are in dire need of closure, there’s nothing more unbearable than that.

In short, it’s a very economical way of demonstrating that things have changed, and it paves the way for what is arguably the peak the whole game. 

2) ‘’This Make You All Nostalgic?’’

A welcome dose of levity can go a long way if handled properly.

If I were to pinpoint the exact juncture at which TLOU truly started to click for me – and where I legitimately began to wonder if it was joining the ranks of my all-time favorites – it wouldn’t be one of the obvious tearjerking scenes. Instead, it would be this unassuming chat that occurs when our protagonists leave Bill’s settlement in a newly restored pickup truck. 

The discussion here revolves around the various items that Ellie has pilfered and stored in her trusty backpack, with notable focal points including: what cassette tape should accompany the drive; the dissatisfying nature of comic-book cliff-hangers; and the adult magazines that Bill has been hoarding in his safehouse. With no crucial developments or earth-shattering revelations, it allows for some much-needed down-time wherein the characters shoot the breeze and act like everyday folk. 

Relatable exchanges like this are unfortunately rare in the AAA sphere, where storytelling is so often expected to be propulsive and to move things forward at a breakneck pace. By setting aside time for the leads to have an ordinary conversation though (one that’s exceedingly well scripted and charismatically performed), Naughty Dog gets you psychologically invested in a way that other titles simply cannot. 

Joel’s face lighting up with wistful reminiscence as a familiar tune blares over the radio, Ellie jokingly asking why the pages of a porno mag are stuck together: these touches make them feel like three-dimensional characters you can empathize with. It’s at this point that I realized just how much I was beginning to care about these guys and, from then onwards, I was compelled to see their adventure through to the end. Not for the sake of completion or trophies, but because I wanted to know how things were going to pan out for them. 

1) The Lie 

Ashley Johnson nails the ambiguity of this last shot.  

Treating Joel as though he is the clear-cut hero of TLOU is a pretty spectacular misreading. Even the most generous of interpretations ought to portray him as a deeply flawed and profoundly selfish individual, whilst the less forgiving amongst us could label him outwardly villainous. After all, hints of his darker side are dropped throughout the game, like when he’s torturing David’s men for information and then slaughters them once their purpose has been fulfilled. Likewise, there’s his chilling revelation that he can predict imminent bandit ambushes because he’s been on both sides of the equation before.

Make no mistake, being tragically bereaved of his child does nothing to absolve Joel of his misdeeds and you shouldn’t look the other way as he crosses virtually every conceivable line to keep Ellie alive. Or more accurately, to spare himself the pain of losing another daughter. Motivated by a ‘’got mine’’ instinct and willing to do whatever it takes to guarantee that he – and those in his tribe – come out on top, he’s no different from the other bad guys. It’s mere happenstance that he’s on the right team here.  

Some fans seem to think that his fatherly doting upon Ellie is a kind of saving grace, that it’s touching and represents positive moral growth. Yet it’s not a redemptive arc at all. It’s not about a man learning to open up his heart again, but about him displacing all his grief onto another person and then refusing to let them go. 

This enormous character defect comes to the fore in the extremely bold conclusion, in which our ‘’hero’’ withholds the truth from Ellie so that she will stick around. Upon successfully escorting his ward to the Fireflies, he discovers that they plan to study her Cordyceps immunity in order to synthesize a cure for the virus. There is a catch however, in that the surgical procedure required for this will be inevitably fatal to her. Unwilling to accept this trade-off, Joel goes berserk and massacres everyone in the base. 

When Ellie later rouses from the anesthesia, he covers up the atrocity by feeding her some B.S about how the Fireflies have already given up on a vaccine and turned them away. He then drives her out to a remote sanctuary, where he intends on living out the remainder of his days with a surrogate daughter to replace the one he lost. Before they arrive though, a suspicious Ellie gives Joel one last chance to be straight with her. Describing the overwhelming survivor’s guilt that she wrestles with every day, and how she would give anything to make the world right again, she puts him under oath and asks that he swears by the veracity of his story. He subsequently repeats the lie, the camera tracks into Ellie’s inscrutable expression, she says ‘’okay’’, and we cut to black. 

On my first playthrough, I couldn’t believe the sheer balls of this ending, but it’s the pitch-perfect note to leave us on, as we can’t be sure if her reaction translates to: ‘’I trust you’’ or if it’s more like: “fine, I see how it is’’. Regardless, the emotional aftertaste is very complex. On the one hand, you’re pleased that Ellie has emerged unscathed, but on the other, you feel dirty when reflecting upon the cost of this outcome. Ellie herself was robbed of her agency and those who gave up their lives to defend her – and the future she represented – have essentially died for nothing. Their sacrifices were ultimately negated by a man who just couldn’t handle the prospect of being alone anymore. 

I can’t think of another ending quite like it: a masterclass in leaving your audience with a suite of conflicting emotions. 


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