Joel and Ellie move through a dilapidated America, diverging in age and taste and weariness, but funneled together by the remnants of the human race, infected and reduced to thralls of a mysterious fungus. Naughty Dog's meticulous artists have created a rich world and destroyed it in a swipe that has left just enough of civilization standing. Enough to make it familiar, but not enough to hint at redemption. And this is where someone in a suit would say, "Yes, you've got this gloomy game about the end of the world, about human brutality reaching its zenith ... but how do you make it fun?"
So much has been written about the touching, convincing relationship between Joel and Ellie – which is Naughty Dog's greatest character writing to date – that it's easy to forget The Last of Us is fun, albeit in a peculiar way. It's essentially a challenging stealth game, stripped of gadgets and GPS overlays and the very world, until you're just a man, crouching behind detritus with a brick in his hand and a lump in his throat. The savagery of Joel beating a rival to death is unflinchingly portrayed – as most video game violence it – but it feels earned not just by you, a scrappy player squeezing every last option from the environment, but by The Last of Us as a piece of storytelling. There are many violent games, but few are about violence, and even fewer make you doubt and detest your success.
There are some moments where Naughty Dog wavers, where its intent is betrayed by the need of an action scene or a forced failure – even if you snuck through an area with the utmost caution – but The Last of Us makes an overwhelming comeback in its second half. The grueling journey is at its most elegant in the end, where stealth, disgust, panic, resourcefulness and heart combine into a major, polished game that does not need you to lower your expectations. The Last of Us avoids the kitsch quicksand that has claimed many a "cinematic" game, becoming both a story and a riveting test of survival.
You should also play it if you like giraffes.
Joystiq is highlighting its 10 favorite games of 2013 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups. The list so far:
- The Last of Us
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
- Super Mario 3D World
- Tomb Raider
- Gone Home
- Device 6
- Saints Row 4
- The Stanley Parable
- Fire Emblem: Awakening