Why The Last of Us could be the greatest survival game ever made

Jack Bromley looks at new E3 footage of The Last Of Us, the upcoming survival horror title from the developers of Uncharted. Can offering a more realistic experience make for a scarier game?

Taking place twenty years after a pandemic ravaged the population, The Last of Us follows the story of Joel: an average survivor hired to smuggle 14 year-old Ellie from a military-run quarantine camp. Rather a generic zombie game, right? On the surface, yes, but its true depth and individuality is all in the execution.

The current market is plagued with post-apocalyptic survival games, a horde of indistinct titles with no real life. There is the occasional special release with a greater sense of humanity than its mindless companions, though even those fail to suspend my disbelief. Many try, and many succeed in the small details, only to stumble at the finish.

Take Dead Island, for example – one of my personal favourite games of last year – its debut trailer tugged at the heartstrings of gamers, filling us with hope for a game tackling the emotional struggle of a real zombie apocalypse. In many areas it did, creating a sense of threat, terror and the feeling that each thoughtlessly killed zombie was once a person, with a past. A family.

But it fell in a handful of other elements: the player characters particularly – a hotel attendee, a rapper, an ex-baseball player, and an ex-cop were all – excluding the latter – unnaturally skilled in the dispatching of zombies. Swinging blades in perfect strokes, sharpshooting and loading guns without previous experience, and being able to create any blueprint and improve the weapons they carry. Either these people have one diverse range of hobbies, or American schools have a worryingly different curriculum to Britain.

Despite all of that, Dead Island captures humanity’s end in all its gory reality, and is one of the few titles in the genre which come incredibly close to achieving a believable apocalypse. But from the short gameplay we’ve seen, The Last of Us might have its sights set on that title.

Combat, of course, plays a huge part in the survival of our two characters, but they are clearly unsure and inefficient. In other games, this is a character trait barely visible in combat, but in The Last of Us even minor aspects like animation and reaction to pain all add to the believability of these two average folk struggling to survive. Joel’s movements clearly showcase his inexpertise; shuffling clumsily behind cover and clinging to it almost fearfully. He holds on to his weapons like he’s terrified of losing their protection, and when Joel tries to strangle an enemy threat, he clearly has no idea what he’s doing but is so desperately determined to stop his captive escaping. Even with the pain of a headbutt to the face, Joel just refuses to give in and let go. The kill – each kill – matters so much to him.

The enemies come across as desperate and needy as Joel, cautiously keeping together, looking out for one another despite their hostility. They’re just doing the necessary for survival, keeping alive at any cost. An innocent explorer is little more than essential goods to them, but they never stop feeling like people. Frightened, dangerous people, but undeniably human.

Taking a human shield in the demo is an intensely powerful scene, and the captured man’s fight is visibly hard for Joel. He just wants to live and, like Joel, is doing whatever he must. Human shields have realistically fought back before, like the biting of hands in Gears of War, but this is a hostage fighting for his life. He’s putting all of his energy into breaking loose, and it’s clear he isn’t wanting to let go of life just yet. All Joel can do is hold tight and awkwardly press the pistol to his head, hoping his victim’s companions won’t gun him down. And they don’t – because these aren’t just acting like simple AI; these are friends.

Similarly, Joel and Ellie show a genuine, almost familial affection for one another, and Ellie becomes visibly concerned when Joel is hurt. His injury results in Ellie immediately yelling in a fit of worry, emotionally realised by some stellar voice acting. Joel is quick on reassurance, more concerned with Ellie’s peace of mind than his own well-being. At other times, Ellie would call warnings, again audibly panicked for her unlikely friend. These interactions, though minimal, are so powerful. Neither is willing to admit their own vulnerability, always convinced the other is in need of their protection against the strange, harsh world they’ve found themselves in. Forced together, they’ve formed a lasting bond which is touching and relatable in equal measure.

The atmosphere of The Last of Us is achieved through a collection of minor details, but when thrown together even a short gameplay demo is one of the more realistic videogame experiences I’ve ever seen. Joel pulling his bag off his back to explore his limited inventory, and not being able to pause the game whilst managing it, all adds to the gritty realism and absorption of you as a player.

Survival games should induce fear, panic and desperation, not only in the character, but in the player too. We ought to feel immersed in the situation, and connect with the novice, average-guy character we’re playing. One who needs to be the unlikely hero in order to survive. While many attempts have been made, there’s never been anything truly like how The Last of Us looks to portray realism.

The Last of Us is a game to watch. Not only is it coming from veteran developers, Naughty Dog, but it has the potential to give a new sense of visceral reality in videogames, and possibly usher in a new breed of survival horror.