In the recent trailer for The Last of Us TV show, one of the game’s most subtly iconic images is kept in live-action form. In a brief shot from the official teaser for the HBO series, thunder and lightning crackle, illuminating a pair of crumbling skyscrapers. One of the towers is still standing. The other is bent over, prevented from falling by the other.
The leaning towers are the image of The Last of Us that has stuck with me the most over the years. In the context of the game, we see these twin structures from the safety of the Quarantine Zone, and they continue to loom large as Joel and Tess lead Ellie out of Boston under the cover of darkness. Near the end of the level, the trio sneak through the leaning skyscraper.
It’s not uncommon for Naughty Dog games to include raised and visually prominent objects in the distance. It’s a fairly common video game technique, borrowed from theme park design, called “weenies”. A weenie is something intentionally placed to draw your eyes somewhere and therefore impact your game. It’s a place you can see from afar and want to visit – think Hyrule Castle in Breath of the Wild or at a synchronization point in Assassin’s Creed 2. These landmarks guide the player, subconsciously, to where the developer wants them to be. go.
These skyscrapers fulfill this function. They’re never out of sight for long during this part of the game, and all of your play gets you there. But, as their presence on the non-interactive TLOU show illustrates, they also do other things. It’s a striking and functional image, but it also serves to reinforce the game’s key themes.
By the time you see the leaning towers, Ellie has to rely on Joel. She’s a smart and capable child, but without his help, she won’t be able to survive her trip out of Boston. She certainly couldn’t make it to the Fireflies. Even with Joel’s help, her journey is loaded and difficult. Like the falling tower, she has to lean on him for much of the game, though both struggle to adjust to this dynamic.
But in the Winter section of the game, their relationship is reversed. Joel is hurt and sick, and Ellie has to take care of him. She becomes independent, learning to hunt for herself, keep them both safe and warm, and do everything without being discovered by any of the dangerous humans or infected who also inhabit the area. She is the skyscraper standing firm; Joel is now the one leaning on her.
Of course, none of the skyscrapers are in good condition. One is standing and the other is leaning, but both collapse after the government bombed them in an effort to rid the city of infected people two decades before. The windows are blown out and vegetation has grown on the concrete shell. Likewise, Joel is a monument of the time that has passed. He’s gotten older and meaner and more hardened since the first outbreaks. Ellie doesn’t remember a time before the outbreak at all, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t formed from it.
Going back to The Last of Us now, it’s easier than ever to see me in symbolism. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived two and a half years of a global pandemic. You may feel like deep down you haven’t really changed. But I know I’m angrier and sadder than I was in 2019. I know seeing death on such a scale and expecting it to continue has affected me. I know that sometimes I’ve been standing tall. And, sometimes, I don’t.
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