The Last of Us is a third-person action-adventure game, set in a post-apocalyptic world where a deadly parasitic fungus (Cordyceps unilateralis) that infects the brains of ants suddenly adapts to humans and causes a large portion of the human race to turn into monsters, (also referred to as 'the infected' or 'clickers'), leaving the remaining survivors to turn to whatever asset they can to stay alive in this world now overrun by anarchy and desolation.
The player takes the role of Joel (voiced by Troy Baker) and, with the help of 14-year-old orphan girl Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson), must try to survive at all costs, fending off both the infected and other desperate human survivors. Supplies and ammunition are scarce and the player will have to constantly evaluate the risk of searching for these supplies in the environment and risking unwanted and taxing confrontations.
There is speculation that the game takes place in the same universe as the Uncharted series, due to a hidden newspaper headline in Uncharted 3's first level that vaguely refers to a deadly fungus that scientists are still "struggling to understand".
The Last of Us was first teased to the public some time before the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards, when Sony posted a live-action teaser trailer made up of a montage of riots and panic spreading across the world, solemnly narrated by the voice of a man (now acknowledged as Joel) recalling subtle appreciation for mundane, day-to-day activities, only to end with stating that they were now "all gone". It also contained a short segment from a BBC Planet documentary about ants becoming infected with a type of fungus called the Cordyceps unilateralis. It was during the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards that Sony then officially announced The Last of Us via an 'in-engine' trailer. The trailer introduced the main protagonists, Joel and Ellie, and announced that Naughty Dog was developing it.
Originally The Last of Us was conceived by Neil Druckmann for a University project starring a police officer, based partly on the Hartigan character--even including the heart condition--from Frank Miller's Sin City franchise. This character would also have to defend a little girl amidst a zombie crisis. Players were to switch control between the police officer and the little girl whenever the officer's heart condition would act up, not entirely unlike how it was in The Last of Us.
The idea was ultimately scrapped, but Druckmann still wanted to carry on with the themes and concepts established with his original idea, but planned to express it via a comic book title 'The Turning' instead. This time, however, the police officer character was now a criminal. He pitched his idea for a six-issue story arc, though it was turned down by the publishers.
Now working at Naughty Dog, Druckmann still very much wanted to tell a story involving the same character relationships--most importantly involving a protector that must inevitably be protected by the younger character--and themes, and upon finishing work on Uncharted 2, he would brainstorm with fellow Naughty Dog developer and The Last of Us co-director Bruce Straley.
Their first draft was called 'Mankind', and differed from The Last of Us in that the infection, while still the same Cordyceps unilateralis fungus, would only infect females. Furthermore, Ellie was to be a mute, though the story itself was still largely the same. Nonetheless, the idea of only females getting infected was scrapped due to disagreements with female Naughty Dog employees; Druckmann himself stated that it was a ''misogynistic idea''.
Come 2010, the game's title was settled as The Last of Us, though the story was noticeably different. Tess, recognized in the main game as a supporting character, was to be the primary antagonist. The ending especially differed greatly, as it featured Joel being beaten and tortured by Tess, while she is ultimately killed by Ellie -- which was to be her first ever kill. Druckmann thought that this draft lacked the character development they were trying to achieve, and that Joel in particular settled into the father-figure role too quickly.
The general relationship between Joel and Ellie was inspired, in part, by Ico. The reliance Ico and Yorda show towards each other in particular is what originated the idea of having a game featuring two simultaneous protagonists; two characters who cannot overcome the many perils they are to face on their own. As part of corporate mandate, however, Naughty Dog has 'officially' claimed that they were inspired by a set of sequences in their own Uncharted 2, in which Nathan Drake and his Tibetan guide Tenzin attempt to explore a large ice-encrusted cave. Initially, they wanted to develop this concept with a new Jak & Daxter game. Instead of carrying the same, original tone as the series' PS2 iterations, however, Naughty Dog planned on moving it out of its cartoon-ish origins and into a more realistic aesthetic; Jak was intended to be an actual human being, and Daxter was intended to function much like an ordinary weasel -- most notably lacking the ability to talk. This idea was put on the drawing board for the time being, and instead The Last of Us came to fruition.
The Last of Us was developed by a second team of Naughty Dog employees, as a result of the co-presidents deciding that each person's individual potential would be fully realized if they weren't as compressed just for the sake of developing a single game, Evan Wells particularly crediting the talent that they each respectively hold. Christophe Balestra tweeted that the game had been in development for at least two years as of the announcement alongside Uncharted 3, which marked the first time that Naughty Dog had split into multiple teams and had worked on more than one project at a time.
Ending the Sony Press Conference for the Electronic Entertainment Expo was the first publicly released gameplay demo for The Last of Us. It introduced a combat scenario to the audience, showing firsthand the tools of the trade Joel and Ellie must use to attempt to defend themselves from a small group of bandits, known as the 'hunters'. It was particularly adamant in showing the viewer the brutality and impulsive nature of the melee fights, as well as how the bandits would coordinate and respond based on Joel's current situation and amount of bullets he had.
It ended on an especially grim note, just after Joel executes a Hunter close-range with a shotgun while he begs for mercy.
The Last of Us' combat primarily revolves around melee and crafting. The weapons in the game will be degradable, and the projectiles will mostly be crude instruments such as bricks. While firearms can be procured, ammunition is incredibly scarce, making every bullet count. Naughty Dog assured that The Last of Us would never result in the player running through the environment carelessly blind-firing an automatic rifle or pistol. Health doesn't regenerate, forcing the player to play much more conservatively than they might in other, more forgiving circumstances. The emphasis on player fragility helps accentuate the pressure of trying to survive in such a harsh world.
The player takes up the role of Joel, while their partner Ellie (computer-controlled) stays at Joel’s side for a large portion of the game. While cooperative play will be absent from the game, Naughty Dog has stated that The Last of Us will not be ''one big escort mission.'' Instead, Ellie will act as a supportive ally rather than a frail victim: she can call out enemies for Joel and help from afar by throwing objects such as bricks. Ellie can die, but she can protect herself to some degree by using weapons or cunning to escape danger. In addition, it has also been hinted that she will assist the player in solving certain puzzles and/or situations which only she can help complete, although this has yet to elaborated upon.
The player will be forced to contend against both the infected and other humans (e.g. scavengers or bandits), although not every NPC they meet will be instantaneously hostile towards them. Each enemy type will have very distinct AI patterns, the humans being particularly competent: they can work together by relaying critical information to one another, flee, dynamically change their tactics based upon whether Joel has a gun or a melee weapon, and, if they know they're beat, surrender. Overall, the enemy AI is meant to be highly adaptable, offering up multiple dynamic variables for the player in regard to their choice of action and how enemies react to those choices. Naughty Dog has coined their specific AI programming the ''Balance of Power'.
The game also contains an inventory management and item combination system. At any time, Joel can access his backpack to combine or use items, such as a Molotov cocktail or med-kit. However, because, for instance, the same items used to craft a Molotov cocktail are the very ones you could also use to construct a med-kit and vice versa, the player is put in a position in which they must determine whether or not the type of item they wish to craft (offensive vs. defensive) is more valuable than the other in their current situation, further offering the player choice in how they tackle different scenarios.
Also unlike Uncharted, players can interact with items in the environment for the sake of background story rather than mere progression. For instance, when players see a movie poster, they can choose to interact with it or not. Items the player can interact with become highlighted and the player receives a button prompt.
The Last of Us stars Joel, a 50-something man who is one of the only few remaining people left in the world, after a parasitic fungus began infecting its population; during the very early stages of the outbreak, 20 years before the main game begins, Joel's daughter Sarah is killed amidst the chaos.
Now, Joel is a smuggler, and his latest job is to help escort the 14 year old girl Ellie to the Fireflies'--a rebel organisation that opposes the Government regime--base of operations by the request of the Firefly leader Marlene, as Ellie is immune to the disease and her blood is thusly believed to be the key for creating a cure for the infection.
The two encounter many allies along their travels, though all of whom will either die or stay behind once they've done all they can do. Initially Joel is working alongside his smuggling partner Tess, though she is bitten by an infected and then decides to sacrifice herself to stall the pursuing Government authorities. Next there was Bill, an old friend of Joel and Tess who branched off on his own and lived alone in a small deserted town. He aids the two in getting across, but then retreats back to his safe haven.
Finally there is Henry and Sam, two brothers who were initially apart of a larger group, but broke apart and where attempting to reunite with whomever's left at the nearby radio station. They travel alongside Joel and Ellie, as the four fight their way through not only infected, but also 'Hunters' -- a human faction akin to bandits that kill and steal from whomever enters within their territory.
The four finally manage to reach the radio station, however the younger brother Sam was bitten earlier and turns overnight. He attacks Ellie, forcing Joel to react, but not before he is held at gunpoint by Henry. After much pleading from Joel, Henry kills his little brother, but only before he quickly pulls the gun on himself and commits suicide.
Joel and Ellie continue their travels until reaching a dam. Inside is a small settlement, lead by Joel's own brother and ex-Firefly Tommy. While there, Joel plans to hand Ellie over to Tommy, as he believes because of his prior connections will have a better chance in getting her to safety.
Ellie, distraught at the idea of being abandoned after the two have begun to establish a strong father-daughter bond, takes off from the base by horse. Joel and Tommy are eventually able to catch her, and Joel then decides to carry on the duty of escorting Ellie.
The two finally reach an abandoned hospital--the Firefly base--only they arrive to find it deserted, with audio logs explaining that they had to move on from the area. With a new location set, the two begin to carry on their journey, only they are ambushed by Hunters on their way out. The two fight their way through to the exit, however Joel is severely wounded after falling being forced to fall from the first floor and landing on a small pipe, puncturing his stomach. Ellie is then forced to tend to his wounds, after setting up base in an abandoned house, and look for medicine.
Ellie hunts deer for food, but her hunting is soon cut short as she encounters two men. They appear friendly at first, as the older man David sends the other to collect the medicine Ellie requires. She still expresses distrust of David, though the two are inevitably forced to work together to defend against a horde of infected. Ellie sets aside her suspicions and the two are able to ward the infected off.
However, as the two make camp, David reveals that he is the leader of the pack of Hunters that attacked them at the hospital earlier. Ellie quickly escapes, despite David still handing her the medicine, and quickly returns back to Joel.
David sends his men to follow her, however, forcing Ellie to ride away on horseback in an attempt to keep them away from Joel. After riding a fair distance, Ellie silently kills her way through the pack of Hunters, but only before she is eventually caught by David.
Now trapped within a butcher's shop, David inadvertently reveals that his group have resorted to cannibalism. However, his intended use for Ellie is not for food, but is instead sexual in nature. After Ellie rejects David's attempts to courting her into his group, he instead decides to kill her for food. While lying on a butcher's table, she bites David and quickly exclaims that she's infected. Amidst the confusion, she is able to escape.
Elsewhere, Joel has recovered, and upon realizing Ellie has gone missing, he then kills his way through the remaining Hunters at the house, and even succumbs to torturing (and ultimately killing) two of them in order to gain information of her whereabouts.
Ellie is soon cornered in a restaurant with David, after he sets fire to the exit to stop her from leaving. Nonetheless, Ellie is able to use her cunning and her honed skills in stealth to stab David -- only before she then proceeds to butcher him with his own machete. Joel, noticing the fire, arrives just after and tries to calm Ellie.
Once again the two near upon their destination. Along the way they encounter a tower of giraffes, as they both share a serene moment while watching the gentle creatures walk by amidst the sunny backdrop. However, further along their travels, Joel and Ellie are inadvertently thrown underwater by a crumbling underground bridge. Joel is able to quickly reach Ellie, who cannot swim, and begins to resuscitate her. She doesn't appear to be waking up, and to make matters worse a couple of armed men arrive and knock Joel out.
He wakes inside a hospital, greeted by Marlene, and quickly realizes he made it to the Firefly base. Though currently alive, Ellie is not with him. Marlene explains to Joel that in order for them to extract the necessary samples to create a cure, Ellie must die in the process due to the infection residing within the brain.
Joel refuses to let them kill Ellie, and fights his way through a swath of Firefly soldiers until he reaches the surgery room. Upon there, he kills the head surgeon and takes Ellie in his arms, rushing through the corridors until he reaches the elevator. He heads down to the car park to find himself at gun point by Marlene, who pleads Joel to give Ellie back. Due to hiding a gun while simultaneously still holding onto Ellie, Joel is able to fire a round into Marlene before she can react. Now bleeding profusely on the floor, Marlene begs for her life, but Joel refuses claiming ''You'd only come after her'', and shoots Marlene point-blank in the head.
Ellie soon wakes up in Joel's car. Asking what had happened, Joel lies to her, stating that no cure exists, and that the Fireflies had already tried with other individuals who were immune and it didn't work. Ellie, both clearly confused and disappointed, appears to accepts this for the truth.
Joel and Ellie are now continuing to live whatever life they can amidst the post-apocalypse. Though while climbing through a series of woods up, Ellie stops Joel and asks him once again if what he said about the Fireflies was true. Joel swears that it was the truth; Ellie then lamely replies in response with a simple ''Okay''.
The Last of Us' was lauded for its intentionally ambiguous and mature ending, leaving it open to interpretation as to how Ellie would carry on from there regarding her relationship with Joel. About whether she'll continue to play happy families, or if she would instead attempt to move on elsewhere away from Joel. The Last of Us co-director Neil Druckmann's own interpretation was,
It's Ellie waking up for the first time and realizing that she can't rely on him anymore. She knows that she has to leave him, and make her own decisions and her own mistakes.
Ellen Page controversy
After the game was released, Canadian actress Ellen Page expressed irritation after finding out that the character of Ellie, while voiced and mo-caped by Ashley Johnson, was inspired by her -- and accused Naughty Dog of ''ripping off'' her likeness. Though initially it was much more noticeable, Ellie's design was changed across development to temper the comparisons. It wasn't long after before Ellen Page considered the matter dropped.
Funnily enough, Ellen Page herself stars in another Playstation 3 exclusive game called Beyond: Two Souls.
The Last of Us' DLC story, Left Behind, revealed that the character of Ellie is possibly gay, or at least bisexual. On the very same day of the DLC's release--Valentines Day--Ellen Page announced to the world that she is in fact gay.
Exclusive to US regions, the Survival Edition includes:
- The Art of The Last of Us: A full-sized 170-page hardcover art book from Dark Horse.
- The Last of Us: American Dreams #1: The first issue in a series of comic books that dives deeper into Ellie's backstory, by Dark Horse.
- The Steelbook edition of the game: Showcasing artwork of Ellie on one side and Joel on the other side of the cover.
- The 'Sights & Sounds DLC pack': Includes the Official Game Soundtrack, a PS3 Dynamic Theme and PSN Avatars Winter Joel & Ellie.
Post-Pandemic Edition (Exclusive to GameStop)
Also exclusive to US regions, the Post-Pandemic edition is a higher tier version that includes all of the aforementioned additions, along with:
- A 12" Premium Statue of Joel and Ellie by Project Triforce
- 'Survival DLC Pack'. The Survival DLC Pack includes Multiplayer Bonuses including bonus XP, a Melee Booster, in-game currency and customisable character items, and bonus Joel and Ellie skins unlocked by completing the single-player campaign.
Exclusive to European regions, there exist two varying editions that offer up the same amount of content as the US editions, but each has its own theme specifically centred on one of the two protagonists of the game.