Reactions to the reveal of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us remake were decidedly mixed. Some were impressed by the remake’s completely rebuilt visuals, others were irked by changes to some of the character designs, and many were flabbergasted by the fact that a remake of a 2013 game is selling for the retail price of $70. Those arguments will continue to play out, but the one thing that remains hard to argue against is just how groundbreaking The Last of Us was and how it raised the bar for video game storytelling.
Indeed, The Last of Us wasted no time declaring its intentions to change the landscape of video game storytelling thanks to the power of the game’s immersive, thrilling, emotionally traumatizing prologue. That unforgettable intro sets the tone for the rest of the game in ways both subtle and spectacular. Each tense scene in that sequence builds in a fiery crescendo toward the hushed, devastating final moments. It plays out like a short film, though The Last of Us puts you at the dead center of the story in a way that no movie ever could.
Without a doubt, the most brilliant thing about that prologue is how it forces the player to take direct control of Joel’s daughter, Sarah. We learn in that opening cinematic that she’s daughter-of-the-year material, waiting on the couch for her dad to come home from work late in the night to give him a nice watch for his birthday. As the night progresses and we see the horrors of the outbreak unfold from her perspective, we come to understand that she’s brave and compassionate to boot. She never panics or complains despite the horrific circumstances, and when Joel implores Tommy to drive past the family flagging them down for help on the side of the road, Sarah says with a sigh, “We shoulda helped them…” It’s a clear expression of compassion that will soon become rarer and more valuable as the game plays out.
All of these little moments we spend with Sarah are crucial to making the knockout punch that comes at the end of the prologue as powerful as it is. If we had started The Last of Us as Joel, Sarah’s death at the end of the game’s prologue would have still been a tragedy. The loss of a child always is. Yet, if we were in Joel’s shoes from the start, we wouldn’t have seen the world through Sarah’s eyes and gotten to know her first-hand. Putting us in control of Sarah and then ripping her away for good makes the story that follows as tragic and personal as it can possibly be.
Before we get too caught up in the ways that the prologue foreshadows what is to come, it’s important to recognize the power of the many little details that make those intro scenes so immersive. Consider, for instance, the design of Joel and Sarah’s house. From the broken-in leather couch, to the tiled kitchen floor and the clutter around the office, their house looks like a lived-in, uncannily mundane home you might find in any suburb across the country. It’s so mundane, in fact, that you kind of have to take a step back to appreciate the role it plays.
That seemingly simple house gives the game world a palpable sense of scale. When Sarah watches an explosion happen on a live newscast and then sees the same explosion light up the night sky when she turns to look out of the upstairs window, it embeds us in the game world and makes us feel like we’re in a real place as opposed to a series of designed environments. We don’t know exactly what the threat is yet, but we know that it’s real and we know it’s all too close to this place of comfort and love that is quickly becoming compromised.
The journey is important, too. We start in Sarah’s bedroom, explore the house, and drive into town, all through Sarah’s eyes and without any cuts or load screens. This was an impressive technical feat at the time (this is a PS3 game we’re talking about), but again, what’s really meaningful here is that we’re spending that time as Sarah. We get the chance to really know her, or, at the very least, this idea of who she was that Joel clearly holds onto for the rest of the game.
What would compel a man to single-handedly doom the world? That’s the question that The Last of Us‘ incredible ending forces us to confront, and it’s the question the prologue is meant to help answer. In the larger scope of the story, Joel losing Sarah informs everything he (and, by extension, we as the player) are about to do. As Joel grows closer to Ellie, his desperation to not lose her like he lost Sarah ultimately drives him to sell the world to save Ellie’s life (or rather, keep her in his life). Her sacrifice was the key to halting the fungal outbreak, but he just couldn’t let her go, even if it meant sacrificing the lives of others.
Joel is a man, not a monster. He’s clearly capable of love and is a dutiful father, to say the least. But he makes so many unethical, selfish decisions throughout the story that it becomes difficult to defend him as a good person. It’s easy to understand or even sympathize with his actions, but it’s far more difficult to justify them. The revelation that slowly emerges on his journey with Ellie is that he is, for lack of a better term, one of the villains of the story. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who experienced the game’s intro and carries the pain of Joel’s loss just as he does.
But remember at the beginning of the game when he, Tommy, and Sarah drove by that pleading family on the side of the road even though they had room in the car? Maybe that’s the moment when the game was trying to tell us that, on some level, Joel has been that man all along. Maybe it’s not all he is, and maybe that’s not the best part of him, but it’s a part of him that would end up making a crucial decision. It’s those little, haunting touches that make The Last of Us’s prologue an exceptional piece of standalone storytelling, a perfect example of foreshadowing, and one of the best video game intros ever.