The Last of Us Remake is just over a month away, so of course I’ve started a Grounded playthrough of the original on PS5. It’s free, still looks and plays great, and tells the same story we all fell in love with back in 2013. I remember it like the back of my hand, keenly aware of each narrative beat and character moment found across Joel and Ellie’s post-apocalyptic journey. Despite that familiarity, it never fails to choke me up.
Naughty Dog filled the entire game with heartbreaking moments, but few hit harder than the opening prologue. The game is designed to make you feel like absolute shit, to resign yourself to a world that takes all hope away and refuses to hold back. You’re meant to feel uncomfortable and dejected as the end of civilization crashes down upon you, and Sarah’s gut-punch death does exactly that. Being able to play through her final moments is the macabre cherry-on-top, providing agency to a little girl as she’s torn away.
Fancier animations and improved character models might make Sarah’s death feel more graphic, but the emotional resonance is just as powerful in the original remaster. Before it all falls apart we catch a brief glimpse at Joel and Sarah’s relationship. It’s oddly distant, yet there’s an evident bond of love between them despite how they exist independently so much of the time. Sarah is much too young to be left home alone as Joel works, but he’s a single parent doing everything he can to provide for her. His daughter was raised this way, and doesn’t see the world in any other light. Much like Ellie’s upbringing in the apocalypse – it’s normality.
Sarah’s personality when she roams the house after Tommy’s phone call is so down to earth. The player can rush straight to the chaos that awaits, but more patient souls will pick up small objects like birthday cards and newspapers to soak up the ambience. A television in Joel’s bedroom is especially haunting as a news report teases the death unfolding outside, an explosion rocking the homestead as it takes place only a few miles away. It reminds me of when the monster first appeared in Cloverfield, and part of me wouldn’t be surprised if Naughty Dog took inspiration from it. Upon reaching the downstairs portion of the house the anxiety only ramps up further. An abandoned phone and soaring police sirens put Sarah on edge, a mood that meets its crescendo as Joel rushes in, covered in blood and breathing heavily as he reaches for an unloaded gun in his nightstand. It’s the beginning of the end.
Shattered glass litters the ground and wayward gunshots slay our first infected.Tommy appears and ushers Joel and Sarah into the city where we find the world falling to pieces Like everyone else their first instinct is to escape. Staying put might have been wiser, but protecting your loved ones causes you to act in sudden, irrational ways. The drive into town is haunting in its execution, defined by hushed dialogue and small moments of loss before it all explodes in our faces once again. The car accident switching our perspective to Joel for the first time is a stroke of genius, with Sarah’s life quite literally being placed in his hands as they run towards the dark unknown.
There isn’t even a set destination, just far away from the infected tearing everyone apart. I’ve always loved the first steps of an apocalypse more than the aftermath, fascinated by how human beings react when faced with unimaginable circumstances. We’ll kill if it guarantees saving those closest to us, or even leave people behind to secure our own safety. Anything can happen, and The Last of Us embraces that unpredictability in the most tragic manner possible. Sarah’s death isn’t drawn out and languished, it’s sudden.
One second she’s shot, and the next she’s fading as Joel scrambles to do everything he can to save her. It’s fruitless, and soon after he can do nothing but sob into the corpse of the only person he sought to protect. This failure stays with him. He pushed people away because he’s afraid to form bonds and lose them all over again. Ellie almost sacrifices herself for the greater good, and he does unspeakable things to ensure her survival, even if in the end he is only giving himself something to keep fighting for. A reason to keep going when the future holds nothing but misery. All this started with the loss of one little girl, and it still gets to me.
Neil Druckmann has said time and time again that this first game is all about love, but it’s also about moving on from loss, and no matter how hard you try, such memories will stay with you and inform the person you become. Joel becomes a monster, but it’s all in service of creating a better life for someone in a world far beyond saving.
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