Back when Sony first got into the gaming business, they wanted a Mario- or Sonic-type mascot, and so they hired a tiny little developer called Naughty Dog and put them to work on what eventually became Crash Bandicoot.
It was a relative success, moving millions of units over numerous iterations, but the marsupial never became iconic as intended. Still, Sony bought Naughty Dog outright and the studio nailed their next series, Jak and Daxter, a buddy-comedy platforming trilogy, albeit one that became progressively darker as it proceeded. However, it remained a cartoon in both aesthetic and attitude; therefore it was a pretty big leap when the studio became Sony's crown jewel with the Uncharted series. But even that didn't prepare gamers for their latest leap forward with The Last of Us.
There has been no shortage of post-apocalyptic games of late, and no small number of those have been overrun by zombies. So why is The Last of Us being hailed as a near-perfect masterpiece?
It's the story, stupid, and the characters and performances, too.
Despite weak narratives and paint-by-numbers protagonists forever excused in the name of fun gameplay, Naughty Dog's post-Uncharted effort makes its emotionally resonant, character-driven story its raison d'être.
It's not the first, of course, and in fact, The Last of Us sounds strikingly similar on its surface to 2012's game-of-the-year, The Walking Dead, right up to both games' "protect the young girl from post-apocalyptic zombies" conceit.
Given its lengthy development time, The Last of Us's central relationship between middle-aged Texan arms smuggler Joel and 14-year-old Ellie (brilliantly voiced and motion-captured by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson) can hardly be considered a carbon copy of Walking Dead's Lee and Clementine. But both games use this emotional connection to create unusually transcendent gaming experiences that make steering a linear story feel as groundbreaking as the go-anywhere sandbox structure of open-world gaming once did.
There's also the fact that The Walking Dead was more of a choose-your-own-adventure interactive comic book, complete with hand-drawn-style art and point-and-click gameplay, while The Last of Us aims for epic with its triple-A production values and survival-horror mechanics, including stealth and limited supplies.
And technically, The Last of Us's well-built world is populated by humans-turned-fungal-infected-monsters, not zombies, but that's splitting hairs. (Though the game gets extra creepy points because its fungal villain, the real-world Cordyceps, actually does infect insects and spiders, make them go crazy and then sprout out of their bodies to disperse spores that infect other insects or spiders.)
Also, aside from the intro, the game's set 20 years deep into Armageddon, and the resignation rather than shock over the state of the world provides an unusual twist, as does the sight of nature overtaking civilization.
The world, at this point, is mostly populated by monsters, with survivors largely living in quarantine zones patrolled by a fascist military or out in the wilds with the insurgent Fireflies or evil bandits. Joel makes his living as an arms smuggler in Boston until a series of events leads him to smuggle Ellie instead, as the two go on a road trip across the country, taking the gamer through a variety of urban and rural set pieces.
The Last of Us is, as you might imagine, an overwhelmingly grim game. There's killing, a great deal of it, but not in a flippant Nathan Drake way. And ultimately it's about much more than that. It succeeds because beneath its fully realized, death-filled dystopia there is that undercurrent of emotion, mastery of storytelling and digital acting that doesn't just put a cap on this generation of games, it throws down the gauntlet for the next. (Naughty Dog/Sony)