The Last of Us took longer to spread the Good Game Virus to me than to most of its fans. Though I had played (and loved) Naughty Dog's first three Uncharted games, when I got to The Last of Us in 2016, it held me at arm's length for a bit. It was one of the first things I played after graduating from college, putting an end to four years of ignoring every game except Super Smash Bros., a few 3D Zeldas, and briefly — for a Pokemon-themed floor event that I organized — Pokemon Stadium.
Four years may not seem like much, but The Last of Us was an indication to me that new genres had crept into the mainstream while I was stationed at the other end of my patrol route. Though it wasn't a survival game, its incorporation of crafting as a central mechanic confounded me at first. I've rarely felt more like an old man than I did, then, struggling to grok a mechanic that, now, I understand intuitively. When people complained about crafting being in every game, I was ready to join the chorus.
I was somewhat into its story but, as I've written previously, the stakes of Tess and Joel's quest to find Robert felt hastily sketched. Who is Robert? Why are we hunting him down? What exactly is Joel's relationship to Tess? These questions held me back from fully investing in the game narratively, and I was having a hard time embracing its gameplay.
But, then, you get to Bill's town, where the game swiftly turned around for me. You could even say, my perception of the game… turned upside down woah can he say that!? The first major area that Joel and Ellie reach after leaving Tess, Bill's town is a key part of the early game, and it pushes the pair closer together by putting them in close proximity with a true misanthrope.
Bill has completely isolated himself, rigging a whole village with explosive wires and other traps so that no one can get close to him. He tells Joel that he was close to someone once, but that the relationship ended up hurting him. He warns Joel that he should avoid getting close to anyone. Later on, you find Bill's partner having hung himself in one of the abandoned buildings in town, with a note nearby telling Bill that he hated his guts. Joel has pushed everyone away following the death of his daughter 20 years earlier, but Bill's life provides a powerful testimony to the dangers of cutting yourself off from human connection.
This was the moment when the game's narrative (and gameplay) began to ensnare me. As Ellie and Joel search for Bill, they enter a room where a rope trap is waiting. It springs into action, lifting Joel off the ground just as our perspective flips to match Joel’s. Hanging by his ankle, Joel must protect himself and Ellie from a wave of infected that heard the clattering and begin stampeding toward the warehouse.
Though ammo has been scarce until now, Ellie seems able to find an unlimited amount of bullets hidden around this building. If you can get past that, the upside down shooting gallery is a wonderful example of Naughty Dog's ability to find the spectacularly cinematic, even in a world that is significantly more grounded than the glittering vistas of the Uncharted series. The Last of Us manages to pump as much adrenaline into your veins by turning a person upside down as Uncharted did by doing the same to a cruise ship.
As you hang, you have to manage the infected the same way you would on the ground. Clickers don't care about your feelings, which means that, despite finding yourself in a bit of a predicament, you still need to shoot them in the head before they get too close. And, if any of the infected get a hold of Ellie, you have a limited window to blast them off.
It's an exciting sequence and, if you shoot straight, it's over quickly. Ellie cuts the rope, Joel falls to the ground, and Bill shows up to escort you to safety. Many games are content to build out a core loop and repeat it until the credits roll. Naughty Dog, meanwhile, devoted the resources to something this brief, knowing it could be a game changer for the right player. It certainly was for me.
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