Still Playing: The Last Of Us – in praise of Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic setting

The Last Of Us 4

The thing about an apocalypse is that, for the survivors at least, it’s never truly the end of the world. But that would perhaps be a mercy for the characters in The Last Of Us, given the circumstances in which they routinely find themselves. Most live in the quarantine zones that have sprung up in the vicinity of major US cities following the outbreak – typically on their perimeters, since officials attempted to neutralise the contagion’s spread and wipe out the infected in crowded urban centres via bombing campaigns.

Not content to simply wait around for his daily food ration and to do the mandatory labour detail that the military has imposed to maintain his zone’s infrastructure, Joel has become a black-marketeer, smuggling in goods from outside. People are desperate and malnourished. The game doesn’t have to tell you this, it simply lets you stumble upon a barbecue grill lined with rodent carcasses.

Joel’s smuggling activities resemble the familiar trope of a prison inmate working connections to secure contraband for fellow inmates. Despite the presumably righteous motivations for erecting the quarantine zones by FEDRA – the Federal Disaster Relief Agency, an obvious doppelganger for the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the measures taken to keep the populace safe have resulted in city-sized ghettoes hemmed in by towering concrete walls and military personnel serving the function of prison guards. The daily food rations and mandatory labour detail make the comparison feel even more apt.

In one particular quarantine zone you encounter in a later chapter, the combination of extensive urban flooding and FEDRA’s reactionary measures evokes the horror of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in such a palpable way that it cuts almost too close to the bone. The bottom floor of a bookstore has been cleared to make room for makeshift cubicles and what looks like a mix between an airport security queue and a cattle pen. These quarantine zones expose the murky distinction between safe haven and incarceration. Ever visited a zoo and wondered what it feels like to be an endangered animal living in captivity because its habitat has been destroyed? You’ll know after playing The Last Of Us.

The boon for players is that stories set in jails typically culminate in a jailbreak. Without spoiling the circumstances surrounding their meeting and the significance of their journey, Joel finds himself responsible for smuggling Ellie out of Boston to a neighbouring outpost so that he can deliver her to a revolutionary group called The Fireflies. There’s a pleasing symmetry to their name, in that the flies you hear buzzing prior to the menu screen signify death and rot, whereas fireflies become tiny beacons that illuminate the dark, however faintly. Unlike their insect mascot, however, this group packs a mean sting, embracing armed revolt as a grim necessity.

Just in the image of the firefly, The Last Of Us teems with symbolism, but never of the ham-fisted sort. One of the levels sees Joel and Ellie creeping through a Boston museum full of paintings and artefacts related to America’s founding, echoing not just the revolutionary ambitions of The Fireflies but also the messy gestation of a new society, which America is in the process of experiencing all over again. The broken watch on Joel’s wrist speaks to the sense in which the passage of time loses all meaning in the wake of a pivotal trauma.

The Last Of Us also remedies Uncharted’s collectibles problem, which punctured that series’ fantasy with the most shameless of videogame contrivances: sprinkling priceless treasures about on the ground in plain sight. Collectible artefacts in Naughty Dog’s newest game serve a vital narrative function. Since most of the environments you encounter lie in ruin or have long since been abandoned, there’s room for the game to sate your curiosity with fresh insights into the horrific events that unfolded before you arrived.

For example, while travelling through a network of sewers, we discovered the remains of what appeared to have been a self-sustaining community at one point. We found plastic barrels and pipes used for rain collection, and portable toilets with detailed sanitation instructions posted on the wall beside them. There were booby traps to warn of intruders. It was obvious a number of families with small children had taken shelter here. There were makeshift nurseries with toys, playmats, and whiteboards displaying a handwritten alphabet. When we left the sewer, we thought we’d left behind that disturbing scene. Only minutes later, we realised the houses we were in the process of looting belonged to the very people who’d fled to the sewers we’d just left. We found letters they’d written. It turns out that Naughty Dog can do environmental storytelling as skilfully as it can do the tightly scripted sort.

Naughty Dog doesn’t shy away from inviting moral quandaries either, humanising enemies (the human ones anyway) in a manner that Uncharted studiously avoided. While hiding behind cover before one encounter, we could hear two enemies conversing about the infected threat. “You get bit?” asks one. “Not today. You?” the other replies. “Not today,” says the first with a laboured sigh. It’s an important reminder that the people inhabiting a game world – even the enemies you are about to shoot in the head – can make a place feel sympathetic and real if their creators can imbue them with depth and emotional complexity.