I'm going to start this by tipping my Game of the Year hand early. And I will be honest, I will probably be discussing some spoilers, so consider yourselves warned. I finished The Last of Us about three weeks after it was released. I wanted to try and drag it out as long as I could, but the threat of spoilers made that increasingly difficult as time marched on. Friends and Co - Workers had beaten it in two to three day dashes to the finish line, the story leading them on an inexorable march forward. My roommate beat it within days of it's release. The first weekend I barely managed to scrape the surface of the Human / Pseudo Fungal Human relationships. I Had escaped the city with Ellie and Tess in tow, and had come upon the first real serious encounter with the "zombies" in an abandoned office building. I died very quickly, restarted, then died again. So, I wrapped it up for the day, instead going to the 1st birthday party of my best friend's daughter. I wouldn't touch the game again for almost a week, resolute in the avoidance of discussions or spoilers revolving around the game.
My second weekend found me playing through a bit more, making it through the encounter with Bill, followed with Ellie and Joel's ambush in the next city by the Hunters. I stopped playing, instead choosing to go do something with friends, or perhaps just making myself dinner. The following week at work, my supervisor began to tell me how I needed to finish the game, as the ending took all the greatness of the game and bumped it up to eleven. He didn't spoil anything, and through our conversation, I began to realize I felt a little disconnected from the experience he had gained. He felt invested in what happened in the game. He felt like he was emotionally affected by the events that transpire by the end of the game. I felt that the lack of ammo made no sense when I killed a guy who was shooting at me for hours, only to discover he had no ammo on him, but could kill six zombies in a row and find shotgun ammo on all of them. I told him " I feel the game wants to be a game when it benefits it, but wants to be more when it hinders you." I found myself listening stealthily as Joel, only to turn a corner and get jumped at a preset monster closet like encounter. I felt the game did everything it could to slow me down in the name of art, while moving itself along on the preset points of a video game. I almost resented his joy at completing the game.
I knew the game was suppose to be something amazing, and in not beating it, I was removing myself from the conversations about the game that were starting to spring up around me all the time. I figured I could beat it, but I didn't know how long it would take, as I had yet to join the emotional roller coaster everyone was promising me. So on the Saturday morning of my third week, I sat down and started playing again. Less than an hour into playing, I found myself finishing off a group of Hunters, and checking around for supplies when Ellie told Joel a joke. "Baker's trade bread recipes on a kneed to know basis." Then she began to tell him more. At the final joke, something about being addicted to soap, I chuckle, just as Joel does in the game. And suddenly I am in. The desire to find these strange interactions begin to drive me forward. I begin to search even harder to find these moments, the interactions between Ellie and Joel that add a little more depth to them.
I finished it that night, the second half of the game moving me deeper into a relationship between these two fictional characters. By the time the final chapter starts, I am emotionally invested. I want Joel and Ellie to be happy together. She needs a parent, a real strong father figure who can look out for her. He needs his daughter, or someone who is a close proximity to her, and he has that in Ellie. And even though I am really on board now, I still feel that the game is just that, a game. I keep seeing Joel bump up against the edges of this fictional world he is living in. Ellie has just saved his life, and in the end his. And as the final chapter starts, there is something seriously different going on. The final chapter is moody and dark, and Ellie is seeming distant, preoccupied with something else. Something she is unwilling to discuss. We make our way through a series of rooms in an abandoned bus terminal, and suddenly, Giraffes. A herd of them, moving across in the distance. I click the appropriate button, ad another interaction between Joel and Ellie begins. And after it is over, nothing happens. Neither of the characters makes a move to walk away from the scene. So I just watch, waiting until the final giraffe disappears from view. And still nothing. And suddenly I am filled with dread. I don't know why, but I know someone is going to die. One of these two characters is going to cease to exist in the next couple of hours. So I sit longer, and in the silence of the moment, I make my peace with what is going to happen. Everyone I know has reached this great moment, and they all love it. I refuse to allow myself to talk myself out of finishing this. So I continue. And the next few hours are rough. Really rough. And when the game ends, with one word spoken y one of the characters I was sure was going to die, I find myself just staring at the screen. And suddenly, none of it mattered. The game mechanics, the forced immersions, even the great interactions between characters. Nothing matters, as the feeling of joy I felt at two amazing characters is swept away by a heavy feeling of hopelessness. And in that moment I saw what everyone was talking about.