With news of a PS5 remake in the works and an HBO series set to debut in 2023, ten years after the game's release, I recently revisited one of my favorite games: The Last of Us.
Set in a post-apocalyptic America in the wake of a widespread Cordyceps mutation, The Last of Us follows Joel as he is tasked with bringing a teenage girl named Ellie to a militia group known as The Fireflies. Ellie is immune to the infection, and she may just hold the key to finding a cure.
While facing off against zombie-like creatures consumed by the fungus and the living willing to eliminate anyone standing in the way of survival makes for an intense setup and moments of fear, The Last of Us is also a journey of emotions.
In the opening sequence, Joel's daughter is shot as they are trying to flee the city, which makes it difficult for him to connect with Ellie. Meanwhile, Ellie is still grappling with her newly discovered immunity and survivor's guilt. As shown in the Left Behind DLC, Ellie and her friend Riley were bitten at the same time, and both had accepted death; only Riley succumbed to the infection. As Ellie says in the game's finale, "[Riley] was the first to die," with many more losses since.
There's a bit of distrust between Joel and Ellie initially, but as they learn to rely on each other and grow closer, a father-daughter bond begins to form. It's small, tender moments scattered throughout the game that the relationship between this duo is established and what makes The Last of Us so endearing to this day. Ellie happening across a joke book. Joel promising that he will teach her how to play the guitar someday.
And of course, the giraffe scene.
Following a bleak winter in which Joel had been on the brink of death after being shot and Ellie being taken by a cannibalistic group and her fight to escape, the spring chapter finds Joel and Ellie reaching the remains of Salt Lake City. At this point, Ellie is still reeling from the trauma of killing her captor. She doesn't engage in banter with Joel and is standoffish, and just on her guard more than ever. This girl believed to be the hope for the future has become so hardened.
It's a disheartening change both Joel and the player sense.
As they explore their new surroundings, something catches Ellie's eye and she darts off with the most excitement we've seen all game. Joel follows, and he, too, sees the herd of giraffes wandering through the city's ruins.
One approaches a cluster of leaves near Joel and Ellie, and that's where the magic happens.
Following Joel's lead, Ellie reaches out and pets the giraffe for a moment before it returns to the herd.
The giraffe scene is brief, but it's one of the most powerful in The Last of Us.
Ellie's sheer joy in this moment is the most child-like she has been throughout the game, and it's a reminder that she is still just a kid even though she's been born into this world of violence and fighting to survive.
But it's also a reminder that life goes on.
In nearly every location in The Last of Us, nature has reclaimed its space. Dilapidated buildings are covered in greenery. Grass breaks through the pavement. Water weaves its way through former highways. Wildlife endures. Even in this never-ending cycle of hardship, violence, and struggling to simply make it through the day, there can be beauty.
Life finds a way.
The Last of Us can teach writers a lot about the importance of slowing down in the story. When your characters are constantly on the move and are always on their guard, moments wherein they (and the reader) can stop and take a breath end up few and far between. Exploration of deeper emotions and reflections can fall to the wayside. However, it's often in these quieter scenes that a lot of character development occurs and where relationship dynamics develop. Joel and Ellie's bond is partially grown from depending on each other to survive when enemies burst from the shadows, but it's also grown from the gentler times. The joke books. The promise of guitar lessons.
This also goes for real life, too.
In this day and age, where we as a society are still grappling with the effects of a pandemic and feel more divided than ever, those glimmers of hope are vital. Little moments of peace and calm amid chaos. A chance to take a deep breath and let go of everything else, if only for a moment.
Finding those tender spaces and spots of comfort.
Finding your giraffe.