A young girl wakes in the middle of the night, hears an explosion and tries to find her father. After some searching, he appears, loads a gun and tells her they have to leave.

You’ll hear a lot of praise for the first 20 minutes of The Last of Us — with good reason. It is a roller coaster, taking you through the beginning of the end of the world. Developers Naughty Dog, are known for being assured storytellers willing to give players a Spielbergian thrill.

But unlike most blockbuster games, The Last of Us does not just coast on the momentum of explosions. The game slows down and carefully, reveals what it’s world is all about, a world built on brutal survival.

The game then jumps ahead 20 years. The few survivors must protect themselves against a fungus that turns people into non-stop killing machines. The authoritarian regimes that defend the cities are safer, but at what cost?

Joel is living in the husk of Boston, a quarantined zone where he does what he needs to to get by. He is eventually paired with Ellie, a 14-year-old girl who's been infected, but hasn't turned into a savage monster. His mission is to take her to a resistance group developing a cure.

A lot of the game is spent dealing with threats. Bullets are scarce, making a missed shot sting even harder. Items scattered around the environment can be MacGyver'd into smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails. Or you can stay low and silently kill you enemies. A mix and match of tactics is usually needed, and it gives the illusion of getting through by the skin of your teeth. When violence does occur, it is brutal and nasty, sometimes unnecessarily so.

A lot happens in the game's quiet moments. In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, feral dogs walk the streets. Every house has an empty room that clearly belonged to a child. In the underground sewers there are hints that people tried to carve out a life after the end. A lot of the game involves scavenging for supplies, and noticing the staggering amount of detail put into the environment. Each room is telling a small story, and by the end you’ve taken in many tableaus of loss. Even the dialogue between Ellie and Joel has an undercurrent of sadness. All these motifs play off the central relationship between Joel, who lost his daughter, and Ellie, who has never known a different world.  

Games about fatherhood are getting more common. Developers who joined the industry in their twenties are now approaching mid-life with mortgages, partners and daughters. Games like Bioshock Infinite don't really know what they want to say about this relationship. Other games, like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us try to ask what fatherhood — the gender imbalance for developers being what it is — is really about.

Both games are about men taking responsibility for surrogate daughters. The Walking Dead is about teaching them to survive in the world, and, depending on your actions, teaching them to trust or to be wary of other people. There is no such opportunity for optimism in The Last of Us. There is a darker strain of fatherhood here. Ellie goes from burden to helper as the game progresses, emulating Joel's actions and attitudes. She can sneak around and distract guards and shoot if it comes down to it, just like Joel. Joel doesn't teach Ellie to outgrow him. He teaches her how to survive like he does. The game's writing is too smart to bring it up bluntly, but still asks an important question: In this world, is it worth it to survive?

Rating: 4/5
Designer: Bruce Straley
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PS3

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