Why the opening of The Last of Us is so very effective

Up until recently, I was probably one of only a handful of owners of both the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 4 who hadn’t played The Last of Us. As a long-term gamer and steadfast fan of narrative-driven video games, I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get around to playing what is widely hailed as one of the best games of the decade. It probably goes without saying, but I’m very glad that I eventually did.

Unfortunately, I could not claim to have had no prior knowledge of The Last of Us before playing it for the first time. As a video game journalist and general fan, it was inevitable that I had some exposure. I did, however, manage to stoically avoid narrative and, for the most part, gameplay spoilers.

One particular aspect of The Last of Us that seems to draw special praise, and live long in the memories of players, is the opening section of the game. I therefore thought it may be interesting to look in depth at how the opening section of the game is so memorable, and how it effectively sets up the player for the rest of the game to follow.

Needless to say, if you haven’t yet played The Last of Us, you certainly shouldn’t read this article. There are major spoilers ahead that you should definitely experience for yourself for maximum impact.

The opening of The Last of Us has the distinct feeling of a classic calm-before-the-storm scene, where we are sparsely introduced to the characters of Joel and Sarah, and encouraged to use our imagination and our intuition to fill in the gaps. For example, the opening scene with Sarah on the sofa late at night, with Joel arriving noisily discussing what we take to be work matters, conveys a somewhat dysfunctional family without the support of a mother figure. That Sarah deeply loves her father is apparent, however, as evidenced by the touching birthday present and card in her room.

tlou joel sara sofa

Creative director and writer Neil Druckmann was evidently confident that, provided the player is open to engaging with the story, the sparse story-telling will translate into an immersive, thought-provoking experience. Windows into the escalating situation, such as the newspaper article in the bathroom telling of a mysterious infection, and the explosion in the city, viewed through Joel’s bedroom window, alludes to chaos without ramming it down the player’s throat. We view everything unadulterated through Sarah’s eyes, and so share in her confusion. Her rising panic is entirely believable as she searches for her father. Subconsciously, we are already forming an emotional attachment to Sarah in her time of fear, which makes the subsequent events all the more affecting.

When the deranged neighbour bursts through the French doors and is killed by a desperate, already-bloodied Joel, the shocking event marks the purposefully abrupt transition from slow-paced, uneasy calm to tense survival. The step-change in tone is the starting point of an utterly compelling crescendo of desperate protective instincts and escalating atrocities that culminate in a terrible climax.

Again in an understated manner, the scale of the crisis is expanded during the car ride with Joel and Tommy, as we look upon crashed cars and burning houses. Throughout, the believable dialogue and excellent voice acting keeps us engaged with the unfolding events, and both keen to and fearful of finding out what’s in store for the trio.

Notably, Naughty Dog doesn’t hold back with subjecting the player to shocking scenes. We watch helplessly as people are torn apart by the enraged beings, whose horrific transformations we assume are due to the mysterious infection. Indeed, a feeling of helplessness pervades the entirety of the opening section. The clever design decision has been made to greatly limit the control you have over the playable characters to just simple movement and the occasional prompted button press. Without the choice that you are afforded later in the game as to how you approach a situation, there truly is a sense that you are privy to a very small, personal struggle for survival in a landscape of horrific carnage. Further, the limitation heightens the sense of panic and helplessness.

When the car crashes, player control is transferred to Joel. Sensibly, the Naughty Dog designers do not seek to begin a tutorial for the game mechanics at this point. Instead, cradling an injured Sarah protectively in his arms, Joel’s focus is simply on getting his daughter to safety. The player is caught up in this pure, virtuous motive and, with nothing to detract from it, the bond between the player and the trio strengthens. Of course, our attachment is greatest to the focal characters that we have controlled in some capacity – Joel and Sarah. With all of the narrative focus channelled into making us empathise with the devoted father and daughter, whilst painting a vivid picture of the horrors of the progressive infection, we become deeply emotionally invested in the characters.

It should be pointed out that although control is intentionally limited, the majority of the opening section is interactive. In this way, we are not mere passengers in Joel and Sarah’s story, but are made to feel responsible for their welfare. The only occasions when cutscenes play out are for transitionary scenes or when the designers want us to feel completely out of control. The most notable instance of the latter is, of course, the infamous, climactic final cutscene.

tlou joel and sara

I don’t think there is any need to describe the heart-wrenching moments before the credits roll, because if you have played The Last of Us it will surely still be etched in your memory, such is the tragic poignancy. The over-arching reason why the scene of Sarah’s death is so impactful is because everything that has occurred in the opening section up to that point has been building to that moment. The loving relationship between father and daughter has been established, and the propensity for mankind to panic when faced with unknown fears has been demonstrated. We have been in control of both Joel and Sarah. We are their guardians, but there is nothing that we can do to save Sarah.

What’s more, we fully expect Joel and Sarah to escape the city. We have led them agonisingly close to safety when the soldier intervenes so unexpectedly, and there is nothing that we can do during that agonising cutscene. All we can do is watch as Joel nobly tries, but ultimately fails, to protect his daughter, and then as he cradles her desperately in his arms as her life ebbs away. The camera lingers on them for long enough to make us feel not just deeply saddened, but uncomfortable that we are witnessing such as personal tragedy.

When Joel’s heart-wrenching pleas to God and his daughter are abruptly replaced by the simple words ‘The Last of Us’, the player is left in no doubt as to the unflinchingly harsh nature of the game, and the soul-changing backstory that will underpin Joel’s struggles through the remainder. Still shell-shocked, all we can do is listen to the audio broadcasts and announcements that contrast so starkly with the very personal preceding tale.

The opening section of The Last of Us must surely stand as one of the most memorable and impactful openings in video game history. The masterfully restrained exposition, deeply emotional narrative focus, believable dialogue expertly delivered and astute levels of player control all combine to form an experience that successfully bonds the player to Joel and Sarah in the brief run time. When Sarah is wrenched from Joel, and from us, all of our emotional attachment is transferred to Joel. We are left desperate to discover not just what state the world will be in after the infection has taken hold, but what emotional state Joel is in. That is surely the mark of a superlative video game opening.

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