Why The Last of Us Is a Postapocalyptic Horror Masterpiece

Where does The Last of Us stand among the postapocalyptic genre? It's a masterpiece.

This is the world after the end. The desert. The man looks down at the child, the dirty face and sad eyes, tired. Silence. Only yesterday — more bodies. Bad men waiting in the expanse of the wasteland. Monsters crawling out of the fires. They’re ready to steal, to kill. Eat. The man must protect the child. If only for a little while longer. 

It’s a constant struggle for the man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, who is slowly dying while travelling to a distant shore with his son. All around them are signs of a dying Earth: burning forests, dried-up lakes, a scorched sky, the decaying remains of humans spread across the road. And winter is coming. The man must take his son to the mythical beach at the end of the road so that they can last out the winter and the cannibals that are right on their heels.

Cited as one of The Last of Us‘ main inspirations, The Road‘s preoccupation with life after death is an important one to that novel’s success. The father/son relationship gives the book its emotional center (the book will have you in tears by the end), but it’s the journey to the beach that lends this intimate book the epic feel of a postapocalyptic masterpiece. Often it feels like these two travellers are the last hope for goodness in the world. In a less subtle way, The Last of Us presents us with characters that might be humanity’s last hope for the cure to the chaos that’s spread all around them in the aftermath of a deadly epidemic.

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Things look grim for Joel and Ellie, the protagonists of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s award-winning game that took the industry by storm. Hailed as the best game of last-gen consoles, many have pointed out that if there was an Oscar for best video game, The Last of Us would’ve absolutely won it. 

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Although it’s an action-packed postapocalyptic adventure full of puzzles and platforming, mixed with Romeroesque social commentary, The Last of Us‘ family drama sensibilities border on the literary. Not that a family under fire in a postapocalyptic world is a new feat for video game narratives. (See: Telltale’s The Walking Dead‘s perfect execution of family pains amidst the apocalypse, and Fallout 3‘s powerful father/son narrative) But it’s Joel and Ellie who entered the video game scene to seal the deal.  

Before the game begins (or during the events of The Last of Us: Left Behind), Ellie is bitten by an infected but does not turn. Ellie’s the only human — on “record” anyways — that is immune to the virus. This makes her the most important human left on Earth, and precious cargo for Joel. 

As The Last of Us won award after award, Naughty Dog’s back aching from all the congratulatory pats, there stood grim-faced Joel, with the gravitas of voice actor Troy Baker, still looking down at poor, hopeful Ellie, his infection-immune ward. These two characters had just delivered the game-defining moment: Joel had lied to Ellie about the success of their journey and she had pretended to believe him.


In a subtle moment that spoke tons — and really, you have to admire just how far voice acting and facial animations have come since the dawn of video game narrative — Joel and Ellie gave us the quiet, yet powerful climax players deserved. Joel would protect Ellie not only from physical harm, but from the truth that might break her spirit. 

Perhaps the only difference between Ellie and the boy from The Road is that she’s nowhere near as naive as Joel believes her to be. Knowingly, she allows Joel to have this one victory. For once, he kept someone safe from the ugliness of the world.

And Joel means well, after all. Losing your spirit in the postapocalyptic wasteland is much more dangerous than a clan of cannibals or a horde of zombies. Giving up means that you surrender to your fate, that there is nothing left to go home to. And that’s a conflict that, although presented as a personal arc, takes place on a much grander scale. It’s not the bomb or the zombies or the virus that kills off humanity. People always survive the end of the world in fiction. But giving up hope, accepting the fact that there will never be anything good on this Earth again, that’s the real death.

Many of the most famous works of postapocalyptic fiction have an overwhelming preoccupation with death. Big purveyors of postapocalyptic fun like The Walking Dead might be at the forefront of the misery porn — you know, where you watch/read something because you have to see who’s going to die next (or the all-too-popular “how are they going to get out of this one”). 

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The Last of Us seems to be about something completely different. It’s not as preoccupied with death as it is with life. From the start of the game, the postapocalyptic world is full of green — the cities, the towns, the entire United States has seemingly become one big forest amidst the chaos. There are giraffes walking around on a university campus, vines that wrap themselves around the tallest skyscrapers, and waterfalls were there weren’t any twenty years before.

For all the death caused by the Cordyceps fungus — a virus that turns humans into zombie-like monsters with fungal mutations — there is a lushness to the world that had been lost in the wake of mankind’s expansion. Now it’s returned, and there’s no denying that seed of life is what causes much of the tension in the game’s story. Has human life finally outgrown its purpose, as the world renewed proves that it can move on without it? Do we deserve a second chance?

You see a convergence between man and nature, as they clash over and over throughout the game. Large sections of exploration and platforming cue the beautiful scenery, as the characters rediscover the world outside of the confines of the militaristic Boston Quarantine. 

One section of the game, Ellie’s hunting sequence, is pivotal in telling this story. Joel is trying to recover from almost-fatal wounds in an abandoned garage, and Ellie is forced to venture out on her own and hunt for food in the middle of winter. One gets the sense of man’s renewed connection to the earth, as Ellie slowly learns how to hunt. On the surface, this is still the fight for survival. If the survivors don’t find something to eat, they’re going to die. But in a deeper sense, after the food chain has turned 180 degrees in the other direction (nature is noshing on human flesh quite regularly), it seems to signify a newfound respect for nature and man’s decision to live in accordance to the new rules.

Ellie symbolizes mankind’s refusal to die. Instead, it adapts and continues to live. But the journey is as much about Ellie and Joel finding their place in the world as it is about delivering the “cure” to a lab.

The protagonists of postapocalyptic fiction are faced with this dilemma. The outcome of their struggle, their journey to the place where they can make things good again, represents the survival of an entire species. To continue to believe in the good amidst all the bad is what keeps humanity going.

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You can pretty much tell how I interpreted the ending of The Last of Us, in which the father/daughter duo allow each other to continue living a lie (I’ll argue that Joel got the worst of that exchange, as he absolutely wants to believe that he’s finally protected someone from all the bad, while ironically, Ellie, who is at least forty years younger than Joel, has seen too much to really believe the lie).

If Joel and Ellie represent the whole, then humanity will continue to believe in groups like the Fireflies (the closest thing to the “good guys” in the game), who boldly promise to find a cure to the virus while they continue to terrorize the remaining survivors. The truth is there is no good side. There’s only survival. But in order to survive, someone has to carry the hope.

Someone has to carry the fire.