In the world of The Last of Us, where power grids are down and vine-covered, broken buildings are all that remind us of a once thriving civilization, ruthlessness is what prevails.
But as nature spills over cement, you can see beauty in the world. "It all looked lovely and managed to be gentle and brutal at the same time."
My behind-closed-doors demonstration at E3 kicked the level off with Joel and Ellie looking for a way to climb up the hotel they'd just slipped into. Ellie is helpful, or as Naughty Dog creators describe her: "capable." She didn't start out that way, though. It was because of actor Ashley Johnson's impulses to fight off her attackers during mocap sessions that led the team to change her behavior. Now she not only points out ladders and finds resources around each map, but she'll struggle against enemies and help Joel out of tight encounters with her butterfly knife.
While the duo are scavenging for supplies and searching for a way up, soft, ambient light spills in through the windows casting subtle shadows. Birds chirp in the distance. Looking out at nature's leafy green decorations and listening to all this is peaceful. It's beautiful, really.
And then suddenly Joel hears men talking. Tension builds, music like thunder sounds, and Joel and Ellie hurriedly rush behind an AC unit on the roof of the building they're now on. Joel is breathing heavier, and the pitch in Ellie's voice heightens. The Last of Us is all at once beautiful and frightful, and it's my favorite part about the world.
We've seen this part of the game before, but with a more direct, head-on approach. This time our gameplay guides take a sneakier route, maneuvering around the men to have Joel choke one out in an empty room. The camera closes in on Joel's face as he's gritting his teeth and his victim is desperately clutching at the arm around his throat. It takes effort and tact to kill someone in The Last of Us, and the game forces you to play these brutal struggles out in close-camera views, really driving the experience in. Killing someone in The Last of Us carries weight more than most games.
Joel and Ellie move on and hide behind a corner when they see three people approaching, one with a gun and one with a lead pipe. Joel sees a brick on the floor. I'm wondering if he's going to throw it for distraction like he did earlier with an empty bottle, but I know it's only going to end covered in blood. As the man with the lead pipe approaches, Joel cracks the brick on his head. He smashes it in a few times for good measure. Every hit resonates with the sound of his skull crushing inward.
The now-dead man's companion shoots out at Joel. It's realistically loud, and Ellie covers her ears while crouching behind a corner. His shot misses, but Joel gets his in. Two down, one to go. You can hear panicked foot steps in the distance. Sounds are important in The Last of Us, both alerting you to where your enemies are and creating tension that you can feel, even just while watching all this play out.
The last man crafts a molotov (which Joel can also do) and throws, but misses. With nothing left in his hands, you can see his desperation as he charges at Joel. Joel shoots his leg. The man struggles to get up. Joel shoots his head. A pool of blood forms and Ellie is taken aback. "I know," says Joel. And they move on.
Not all encounters will be this hostile. But the group of hunters that derailed Joel and Ellie from their journey in a car are only interested in what supplies they can scavenge off of them. The life of a 14-year-old girl is of little value to this clan.
Joel and Ellie can take a breath now. They scoot towards an elevator shaft and climb on top. Ellie slams the hatch shut, and you can hear the cables reverberating in the shaft. Every sound effect in this game is deliberate. It adds to both the tension and atmosphere. I'm sitting on the metaphorical edge of my seat and wondering if this is strictly an environmental add-on or if there's danger ahead. Joel boosts Ellie up to a landing above. The cables continue their vibrations. Just as he's about to climb up to join her, the cables give way and both Joel and the elevator fall to a watery drop.
"Are you okay?" Joel calls out to Ellie. "No! You scared the shit out of me!" It's obvious that parts of The Last of Us will find you separated from Ellie, making your way back to her. Our demo ends here.
The Last of Us was the best game I saw personally at E3. Naughty Dog looks to be taking great lengths to create compelling characters—a post-apocalyptic-born brave girl, and a damaged father figure—with strong companionship. It looks beautiful and it sounds frightful. And I haven't even met the parasitic enemies yet.