clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How The Last of Us became ‘the greatest story that has ever been told in video games’

As Naughty Dog’s lauded franchise makes the leap to HBO, a look back at how the stars aligned in the first place

Ellie holds up her rifle in an abandoned building but looks at camera in The Last of Us Part 1 on PS5
The Last of Us Part 1 (2022)
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Last of Us launched in 2013 on PlayStation 3 as a prestige narrative experience. The game was developed by Naughty Dog, a studio that had been crucial in setting the standard for story-centric games that emulated a traditional Hollywood format. Its Uncharted games mimicked the spectacle of adventure films by way of Nathan Drake, an Indiana Jones type with the luck of John McClane. But The Last of Us saw the studio pivot from blockbuster action into a genre that dominated the early 2000s — the dystopia — and in the process brought the quality of prestige TV drama to video games. The game was so perfectly timed to the moment, its reach has become inescapable ever since.

The Last of Us and its various iterations have held dominance over the game industry for nearly a decade, and now it’s poised to do the same in the world that inspired it. The release of HBO’s The Last of Us series is imminent, and early reviews are making claims to it being one of the best video game adaptations so far. Craig Mazin, one of the key creatives on the project, said recently to Empire in no uncertain terms that The Last of Us is “the greatest story that has ever been told in video games.” Broadly, his opinion echoes many of the major reviews upon the game’s release: IGN gave it a perfect 10 and labeled it a masterpiece; GameSpot called it a “singular adventure”; and Game Informer ended its review with a staccato “you won’t forget it.”

For Mazin, that opinion seems to be based in a certain relationship to characters and their existence in a zombie-infested wasteland. He called the game’s story “grounded” and noted that “it really made you feel” before stating that he’s played games since 1977 and never experienced anything like The Last of Us. This is a familiar kind of argument for those of us who have tracked the relationship between traditional film culture and game culture over the years. In 2004, Steven Spielberg claimed that a sign of the games medium’s maturity will be “when someone confesses that they cried at Level 17.” Controversially, and to the ire of many game players, Roger Ebert doubled down many times about the relationship of games to true emotional experience, writing in 2010 that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”

It’s clear that we’ve lived long enough to cry at Level 17, and many people, including someone with a substantial development deal with a major network, have decided that the greatest video game story ever told could make for a great television show.

But what, exactly, makes The Last of Us stand out for so many, including Mazin?

Joel leans over in a still from The Last of Us Part 1, captured on PS5
Joel in The Last of Us Part 1 (2022), a PlayStation 5 remake of the original 2013 PlayStation 3 game.
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Last of Us, the game, introduces players to Joel, the survivor of a fungal plague that has decimated the world and created thin enclaves of humanity that try to defend themselves against the “infected” — humans who have been corrupted by a mutated Cordyceps strain that turns them into attack-ready monsters. The game opens with the death of Joel’s daughter, then depicts him many years later as he is unwillingly tasked with taking care of Ellie, a young girl who is immune to the fungus. They travel across the United States together in search of the Fireflies, an organization that claims to be working on a cure for the plague. Along the way, they encounter other survivors, murderers, and a huge number of infected that they have to stealth, chop, and shoot their way through. The arc of the game brings Joel, who has made his way in life simply as a survivor, back to an emotionally full human, and sets up Ellie to mature from a girl into a young adult. Eventually, they form a father-daughter relationship, which turns in the final hours of the game thanks to a strikingly ambivalent but endlessly debatable conclusion.

When The Last of Us originally launched in 2013, the relationship between its story and how its emotional arc was communicated through gameplay was a significant element in many major reviews. Polygon’s own review pointed out that the game’s stealth sections and wobbly gunplay generated a tension that set The Last of Us apart from other third-person action games, noting that the rhythm of avoiding enemies or clumsily fighting them lent a context to the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Game Informer made similar claims, extending it to scarcity of resources in the world — the game asked players to scrounge for the supplies to make critical items that would allow them to face the challenges that, once overcome, delivered the next major story beat. As game co-director and show co-creator Neil Druckmann once said himself, “A lot of the storytelling happens on the joystick.”

While action games with heavy story elements have tended to follow the gameplay-to-story-segment-to-gameplay rhythm since the 1990s, with franchises like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto generating discourse around whether you skip the cutscenes, the blockbuster games of the early 2000s that came before The Last of Us laid tracks that Naughty Dog could follow to determine best and worst practices. The Halo, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed franchises had all largely made their names with innovative gameplay and directly delivered, easily segmented storytelling. Along with Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted games, an entire media industry was condensing around spectacular, expensive, heavily promoted action games that claimed to deliver both serious, mature stories and compelling gameplay.

But there are many factors as to why The Last of Us ascended to the level of masterpiece for so many. One was Naughty Dog’s willingness to lean into cinematic language. Each narrative piece in The Last of Us leveraged the hardware of the PS3 to render strongly animated human beings having realistic reactions to the world around them. The sweeping cameras or the evocative cuts to elements in the world that pepper most other blockbuster games were abandoned for small spaces and close-ups. In narrative theory, we call this focalization, a fancy word for sticking close to the thoughts and feelings of the characters we’re seeing the world through and with. The Last of Us is an intensely focalized game. The narrative techniques centered on this too, delivering purposefully complicated characters whose actions were angled not only at the challenges in front of them but toward a broader set of emotional concerns. This is maybe not surprising, given that The Last of Us’ developers credit fiction guru Robert McKee’s highly programmatic textbook Story with some of the basic structural assumptions made about player investment in story and action.

Troy Baker in a motion capture suit performing an emotional scene as Joel in Last of Us Part 1
Troy Baker performs as Joel in The Last of Us Part 1.
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The game’s drama also benefits from performances centered in tightly directed motion-capture sequences. Watching some of the more poignant scenes with the graphics stripped away, as seen in the official Last of Us making-of documentary Grounded, demonstrates how much the physical and voice acting performances of the actors drive the emotions that are depicted in the game. It’s clear that Naughty Dog knew what it had, given that one of the earliest promotional pieces for the game was an evocative vocal performance from Troy Baker, the actor who plays Joel, talking wistfully about the world gone away. It pulls a person in purely on performance in a gesture that’s more familiar to theatrical trailers. A promotional website for a video game — then and now — is more likely to have a weird 3D render of a gun than a gestural voice-over. In 2013, these were notable, and stuck out against the marketing for other narrative-centric games that remained more traditionally science fiction, like Gears of War, or more tied to the tactical-badass genre, like Call of Duty.

These tones didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Much in the way that adventure films were appropriated for the Uncharted franchise, The Last of Us intensified, and more deeply mined, a series of massively popular artistic references from other media. The video of Baker speaking over stock footage was not the only thing posted on the early official website for the game — there was also a 14-second clip lifted from a section of the BBC’s massively popular Planet Earth nature documentary that demonstrated the effects of the Cordyceps fungus on ants, an idea that provided the baseline concept for The Last of Us’ infected enemies. In that way, the core idea of the game was ripped from the headlines in the way that science fiction texts have always done, giving the game a sense of familiarity for many players and a plausible explanatory concept.

The other references are maybe more obvious, even if they are slightly more broad. Zombie media had built-in popularity across the early 2000s, with early standouts in film being 2002’s 28 Days Later and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake. The popular 2003 book The Zombie Survival Guide, written in a matter-of-fact tone about the “real” things someone should do about zombies should the problem arise, provided some conceptual backbone for a disparate array of multimedia works. By 2010, an entire zombie phenomenon had slowly crept its way into American media culture, even infecting genres far beyond its horror roots — just look at the virality of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the Bill Murray murder simulator Zombieland. 2010’s The Walking Dead show on AMC, which ran until 2022, took the zombie concept seriously and heaped on a hefty helping of melodrama. Leaning into some of the aspects that had made Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a popular, Oprah-approved bestseller half a decade earlier, The Walking Dead defined a template of charged violence, acceptable zombie gore, and parental relationships that continues to be deployed in a relatively unaltered form today. These resonances are so strongly felt in The Last of Us that Kirk Hamilton’s review for Kotaku summarized these last two paragraphs succinctly by saying that the game is “built on the skeleton of so many post-apocalyptic stories before it” and that it “embraces the tropes of zombie fiction” to the hilt.

Joel aims his shotgun at a fungus zombie in The Last of Us Remastered on PS4
The Last of Us Remastered (PS4)
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

An additional context that has to be noted here is the notion of “prestige TV,” sometimes talked about as the golden age of TV, which generally just means the increased budgets and aspirations of television during the early 2000s and carrying into today. Shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad aimed at telling different kinds of stories than TV shows had in the past, made possible both by bigger budgets and the increased expansion of cable, as well as the kind of language and violence that had become acceptable for TV. These shows tended to focus on glowering men who waffled in and out of antihero status, and who were often terrible to the people around them. They were also filmed in styles that had been underexplored on television, becoming the mascots for “serious” TV work and generally consuming the entire TV drama space, and they often deployed a kind of stoic whiteness up against a broader, racialized public they were in conflict with (a thematic element that The Last of Us also unfortunately inherited).

This is all to say: The Last of Us didn’t come out of nowhere. It is not some kind of unique object that sprung fully formed from the head of a team of geniuses. Instead, it rode a wave of culture and influences that allowed its innovations and key executions to be received and embraced by a broader culture primed to enjoy its gameplay and to understand its thematic moves.

An additional way of thinking about this is through another massive narrative success in games, one that has also had a substantial impact on the design of games and their narratives for a full decade: 2012’s The Walking Dead, developed by Telltale Games. It shared a number of themes about family and maturity with The Last of Us, and it asked similar questions of the player about the ethical use of violence and how one might act at the end of the world. Its resonance with the zombie genre, while also pulling on the out-of-favor adventure game genre, meant that it had a narrative and mechanical novelty that drew many players in.

The Walking Dead was a critical touchstone in a broader wave of what was termed the “dadification” of games. This move, which has seen some late entries like 2022’s God of War Ragnarök, put fathers and their relationships to children at the center of game narratives. Less a coherent genre than a thematic movement within games developed and released in the 2010s, dadification remains a shorthand for paternal feelings being the driving motivator of characters we are meant to identify with, and that has perhaps never been more strongly committed to than in The Last of Us. The game famously opens with the death of Joel’s daughter, and the remainder of story is about the developing surrogate daughter relationship that he has with his ward and cargo Ellie (a reading mentioned often by the developers themselves in The Official The Last of Us Podcast.) As game developer and critic Mattie Brice noted shortly after release, this killing of Joel’s daughter in the prologue of the game in order to explain him as a character operates as “a dad’s version of fridging a girlfriend at the beginning of a game,” referring to a common narrative technique of aligning us with men by harming the women in their lives.

A final piece of the puzzle in explaining the phenomenon of The Last of Us, and its continued legacy as a substantial achievement in game narrative, has to do with money made and spent. Naughty Dog is a subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment, and the games that Naughty Dog makes are part of a small core set of developers like Sony Santa Monica and Guerrilla Games, which make products that act as a kind of front-of-house for demonstrating Sony’s serious chops as a curator of mature stories and prestige titles. The Last of Us is one of the keystone franchises that represents the publisher’s artistic sensibilities. Only two years later, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s then-president, Shawn Layden, was pitching the “power of narrative” as a crucial lens through which to see player and audience investment in video game products.

Even after its release, The Last of Us never stopped commanding attention thanks to Sony and Naughty Dog’s stewardship of the franchise. The original game launched in the summer of 2013; the short (but critical) expansion Left Behind followed early in 2014; and later that same year, The Last of Us Remastered appeared on PlayStation 4. Although it was six years until the sequel was released, the game remained a part of the PlayStation family and was consistently promoted from 2016’s sequel tease onward. The remake of the original game that was released in 2022, followed by the television show this year, demonstrates a substantial financial and promotional push from the broader corporate apparatus even as damning reports of crunch culture focused on Naughty Dog appeared in the media.

A bloodied and tired Ellie looks off-camera in The Last of Us Part 2
The Last of Us Part 2
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

While Sony and Naughty Dog have done their part to sustain conversation about this series for the past decade, a substantial part of that maintenance has been done by fans who are interested in discussing the ideas behind the games. “How do you interpret the end of The Last of Us?” is a perennial topic for fans and game critics alike, and debating interpretations of the game makes up a substantial amount of the words written about it.

The tenor of these conversations changed after the release of The Last of Us Part 2, especially as fans became more invested in the development of the game following the 2017 departure from Naughty Dog of Bruce Straley, the co-director of The Last of Us. Fans began to openly debate who on the creative team was most responsible for the final direction The Last of Us, creating elaborate explanations of how the treatment of co-director Neil Druckmann as an auteur did a disservice to the broader efforts of the team. This was present in Naughty Dog’s promotion as well, given that the first mention of Straley in the official podcast doesn’t come until 40 minutes into the first episode — as an aside to explain something a combat designer is discussing, and after Troy Baker calls Druckmann the greatest director he has ever worked with. Druckmann’s position as the face of The Last of Us Part 2 created a situation where he was a direct target of harassment for those with a political grievance against the project, a situation only made more complicated by the sequel’s structural borrowing from real-world geopolitics. The investment in Druckmann as the creative force behind the project, and his movement into a key member of the television show’s creative team, suggests that these conversations will follow the IP.

A cynical take on The Last of Us’ sustained popularity over the past 10 years, and its status as a great game narrative, is that it hit the market with just the right genre tropes and the right amount of capital expenditure to hammer itself into the public mind. That success was cannily followed up on by a company who could understand the value of a prestige IP with an auteur at the helm, and now we have a very expensive TV show that will push the IP even further into the public consciousness.

That’s a hard view, and I take a softer approach: With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog approached prestige video game development in a way where the process of capturing performances, writing the plot beats and dialogue, and designing the world were all subordinated under very traditional cinematic forms. This decision made the game stand out, and more importantly, made it stand out legibly as a story of hard truths and rough roads. It is no mistake that Craig Mazin, who (paired with John August on their Screenwriting 101 Scriptnotes podcast) is well on his way to having the wide-ranging prestige of a guru like Robert McKee, highlights The Last of Us as the greatest video game story. It is packaged, visually and conceptually, in the televisual frameworks that he is deeply familiar with and which he has his own hand in promoting as serious works of art.

The Last of Us porting from important game to prestige TV drama is a maneuver that allows more people to engage with, and maybe seek out, the original game. At the same time, it can be seen as a way of developing the IP beyond the bounds of console games, especially as mobile games continue their global dominance of the games industry, and redefining the position of prestige narrative titles that you play on a big machine that sits near a television. While The Last of Us was born as a digital game, it could have a more expansive life, and afterlife, being the thing that it originally mimicked.