“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we’re talking about a game that I just made my way through – The Last of Us!
I’m late to the party on this one so my apologies, but I’ve got to talk about this one. You see I just finished it this morning, alone in those hours most believe don’t exist (did you know there’s a four in the morning?). I don’t play games like most people, the massive and open-world expansiveness being overwhelming with me when I prefer a story and characters that progress in sequence. The last bit of gaming story to really sink into my bloodstream was Bioshock Infinite, and that was six years ago. The Last of Us brought me back to the gaming community after a long absence in a very unexpected way.
People have been talking to me about this one for years, telling me how much I’d love it. The game dropped a mere three months after my beloved Bioshock Infinite, and I was still buried in that one as I tried to complete it (I accomplished that particular goal by the way). I figured it was your standard zombie story, survivors and immunity and possible cures with sadness sprinkled throughout. That’s certainly what it looked like, but it also came with a significant amount of what I determined was cheese. The battered old man learning to care about life again because of a sweet kid is a pretty standard story, one that’s tired and boring to me at this point. I was surprised and absolutely heartbroken to find so much more than that.
You see Ellie isn’t just a sweet kid and Joel isn’t just an older, broken man. They’re the definition of those archetypes.
I need to talk about moments because this is a story defined by the small ones. The gameplay is intense, frightening, and excellent. Don’t let me make this sound like it’s not fun to play because it is, but what’s layered into that is something far more interesting and it’s how two people become a unit. Joel, reeling from the death of his daughter even twenty years later, is a shell of a human being. He’s unable to form any true relationships with anyone and he can’t make himself open up any further than survival instincts. Ellie, meanwhile, is quietly dealing with the death of her best friend and an inexplicable immunity to the virus that’s devastated the world. Still standard, but they eventually have moments that weave together their shared trauma. Three of them have absolutely stellar payoffs.
I think for me the first one is the death of Sam and Henry. Same is around Ellie’s age, traveling with his older brother Henry. The two link up with our heroes and survive together for a while, everyone developing respect and even little hints of friendship. Sam is bitten but he hides it. Ellie sneaks him a toy he wanted from a store they passed through, defying Henry’s wish to only carry what they need because she wants to make the kid happy. When he turns overnight and Henry is forced to kill him (followed quickly by his own suicide out of overwhelming grief) it made that sweet little moment between Ellie and Sam that much more impactful. Joel has already begun to feel protective of her, but this moment cements an underlying theme. He has begun to feel that link, that fatherly affection, and doesn’t want to talk about it. Ellie sees him as the only rock left in her life, someone to lean on, and this parallel to the brotherly bond is interesting. I had already begun to feel that they might react the same way to losing each other. Joel didn’t kill himself after losing his daughter, but he died internally and has become a zombie that just staggers forward content to stay upright.
The next moment that hit me was in the burning restaurant. Ellie has killed at this point to keep Joel alive, the man barely able to breathe and stuck recovering from a wound in a basement. She’s run into some cannibals that want to recruit her, but after viciously rejecting their offer and escaping they’ve decided she’s next on the menu. Killing their leader, David, is an odd act for her because it displays how little she actually needs Joel, instead just wanting him there. He shows up right after she’s killed the man (it’s brutal, holy hell it’s so brutal), and hugs her to him. He addresses her the same way he did his daughter and that’s the moment they become a little family. Neither of them are whole people, but they meet in the middle as one of them loses part of what makes her human while the other recovers some of his own humanity. It’s an ugly moment, but there’s an inherent sweetness that addresses the loss of true innocence alongside trauma recovery.
These are amazing moments, but there’s one more that I have to talk about and it’s my absolute favorite. At this point, the two are fully engaged in a father-daughter relationship, and this seems to feel like a peak. Ellie runs off through a broken-down building in Salt Lake City, Joel following and wondering what she wants to show him. They round a corner and find a giraffe sticking its head through a broken wall, eating the leaves. The two pet it and it’s a cute moment, but the one that follows shattered me. When it walks away they head outside and we are treated to a beautiful view of the overgrown jungle of a city as an entire herd of giraffes wander an overgrown park, grazing. They lean against the railing and just take it in, enjoying a moment of peace before the final conflict. For some reason this was so beautiful to me that I just burst into tears, unsure of what all I was even feeling. I took a screenshot. It’s the background on my PS4 right now.
The finale of the story is equally as emotional, horrendous and beautiful in its implications and execution, but they mean nothing without these seeds planted throughout the arcs. By the time you complete the game it all makes sense, Joel’s terrible decision works because no matter what kind of positive outcome he destroys you feel it, that emotional connection that he just can’t sacrifice.
I love this game. I hate that I put it off for so long but I’m glad I finally dove in and experienced it. This was something completely new and beautiful, despite hitting familiar beats. If you’ve been putting it off quit that, get on it. If you’ve played it before…maybe it’s time to check it out again, re-experience the highs and lows all over again.