Post-apocalyptic settings and zombie enemies have cropped up in countless popular video games, not to mention books, films, and television shows. So it can be difficult to imagine how a newcomer could put a distinct stamp on the genre or offer an original experience for experienced gamers. In 2013, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us accomplished this feat. The game brought together motion capture technology, skilled voice acting, and layered storytelling to create an affective, character-centered journey of survival that some compared to Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road—impressing both players and industry critics with the emotional depths possible in this visually stunning game.
Though the game offered an online survival multiplayer, the single-player story campaign quickly became the standout feature. Inspired by the BBC documentary series Planet Earth—specifically a segment featuring ants infected by Cordyceps fungi—the game’s creative director Neil Druckmann imagined such an infection on a mass human scale. The opening sequence puts players into the first day of the spread, initially playing as young Sarah Miller and then her father Joel. Players guide Joel and his daughter as they escape the swarms of infected (former humans who have become zombies) only to be confronted with human violence: under orders, a military official tries to kill Joel and Sarah to prevent their escape despite them being uninfected. Sarah dies in Joel’s arms.
This opening sets the tone for the remainder of the game, which forwards the story twenty years into a dystopian present where the infection still rages, federal quarantine zones are ruled with iron fists, and rebel groups attempt to wrest power in the hopes of finding a cure. Players continue to guide Joel—now a weathered, morally-grey smuggler suffering from PTSD—towards a new objective, albeit against his better judgment: deliver a young Ellie Williams across the country to a research center owned by the Fireflies militia group in the hopes of developing a cure. Ellie, despite being bitten, is the only known person to be immune to the devasting effects of the infection. Battling surviving humans and hostile infected, players must journey as Joel and make uncomfortable, character-driven decisions that confront grief, loss, and traditional ideas about heroism and empathy.
To say The Last of Us was well-received is an understatement. Widely anticipated, the game became an international hit in 2013 with more than 200 publications naming it the game of the year. Critics highlighted the game’s story (including a queer storyline available through downloadable content), immersive ecological focus, and uncanny ability to create deep bonds between players (as Joel) and Ellie. Reviews noted the dynamic AI enemies and the artful way the game had players find weapons in the world they were exploring. The musical score, created by two-time Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla, earned wide praise, as did the voice acting, which earned multiple performance awards for the leads Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Winning a BAFTA for Best Game, Writers Guild of America Award for Writing, and ten D.I.C.E. awards, The Last of Us enjoyed success even amidst complaints about the game’s violence and length of play.
Despite debuting in 2013, the game remains popular. It was remastered in 2014 for the PS4 and fully remade and updated for the PS5 as The Last of Us Part I, which introduced greater accessibility options such as audio descriptive cutscenes. The Last of Us Part II debuted in 2020 to critical acclaim with a 2023 PC version and rumors of a part III buzzing. Tabletop game and comic book versions of the property illustrate the continued fascination with the game. The 2023 HBO adaptation starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in the lead roles expanded the game’s reach and popularity. Created with Naughty Dog’s involvement, the show garnered support from both critics and fans as one of the best video game adaptations ever made, with millions tuning in to see how Joel and Ellie survive.