Of all the apocalypses that we've lived out in games and movies, none has been so disgusting as the one in The Last of Us. In it, the American population has been destroyed by an eerie (real-life) tropical fungus called cordyceps, which grows inside the body and turns people into shrieking, chomping, feral monsters. "Clickers" as they're called by survivors, are blinded by the fungal growths sprouting from their eyes, and track people down using sound, bouncing their "clicks" off of nearby walls in a similar way to bats.
They're accompanied by "Runners", people who have been more recently infected and still have their eyesight. As the name suggests, Runners are somewhat more agile, and can scurry over tables and down corridors to hunt prey down more rapidly. They're weaker, though, and a lot easier to sneak up on than their overgrown counterparts.
Together, these might be the most repulsive, most visually terrifying enemies ever put into a videogame. Clickers especially, with their misshapen fungal bodies and horrible, horrible screaming are an unnerving presence before they've even found you, lurching around abandoned buildings in groups of five or six, clicking, wretching and pulsing. They just look so...itchy, kind of sore and flaky and scabby.
The first time you come across a dead one in the Outskirts level, it's slouched against a corridor, growing onto the wall. Joel, the battered survivor you play as, has to tread over to the thing and literally peel it off the wallpaper, fungus and skin tearing away from it like a fleshy, picked mushroom. It's absolutely revolting and in-keeping with the game's squalid, jungly aesthetic.
20 years have passed since the cordyceps first crawled down people's lungs and America has fallen apart. Skyscrapers have collapsed or toppled against each other, cars sit rusted in the middle of cracked roads and nature, very much your worst enemy in The Last of Us, has started to reclaim the landscape. Like the Clickers and the Runners, the whole look of The Last of Us feels damp and icky.
Everything has plants and mould growing out of it; creeping through an abandoned office space, you find an armchair, rotted and covered in ivy vines. Things like this really turn your stomach, the bizarre mix of natural and man-made somehow bypassing the thinking part of your brain and going straight for your gag reflex.
It's like those disgusting scenes in Akira where Tetsuo has electric circuits growing out his veins; it just looks wrong.
But beautiful, also. Even in the relatively short demo Sony is flaunting right now, there is more than one occasion where Joel finds himself above the city skyline, looking over this weird, attractive mix of green and grey. In fact, even the Clickers have a kind of visual magnetism; they're absolutely stomach churning, but you can't help but stare and stare and stare at their grotesque, dried up heads.
And it's scary - just so, so scary. Clickers are an enormous threat, firstly because you feel like you'd do anything just to avoid hearing their screech, but also because they'll kill you in seconds. One bite and you're a goner - the game just cuts to black and restarts. Taking on more than one Clicker at a time is generally a bad move, and you need to sneak, beating creatures quickly to death with an old pipe or silently knifing them with a taped-together shiv if you're going to survive.
Or just stalk past them entirely. One particularly terrifying sequence sees you and five Clickers locked in a subway station with the lights off. Down on ammo (bullets are in very trim supply) and lacking the gaffer tape and scissor blades needed to craft a knife, your best hope is to chuck a bottle into a corner and then lurch by the Clickers as they stream toward it. But by God if it won't be the tensest few minutes of your game-playing life.
The sound these things make is enough to get up your heart-rate, but the knowledge that just one of them could overpower you easily, and that you've got nothing, really, to protect yourself with, will have you silently praying to make it to the door. You want to get away from the Clickers; The Last of Us absolutely nails horror.
Because it's not just you you've got to look out for - it's Ellie, a 15-year-old girl who's got no experience surviving outside the quarantined safe-zone. Having that second person there ups the stakes; ups the tension. The Last of Us is toying with the same feelings of powerlessness as games like Amnesia or Slender, but whereas those two absolve you of responsibility by giving you no choice but to run and hide, in The Last of Us, you sometimes have to face the monsters and the game is much more frightening for it.
The amount of weaponry you're given and the number of Clickers you have to deal with always teeters on the edge, whereby you have just enough bullets to take them on if you're very careful. But one slip and you're fungus. It makes for this brilliant tension between your fight and flight impulses, and creates this crushing terror whenever you realise that this group of Clickers can't be snuck around.
And it's so perfectly understated. The dialogue between Ellie, Joel and Joel's girlfriend Tess is terse and pragmatic, but also strained and tired. There's an emotional backbone to the game's script, but it never - so far at least - beats you round the head with characterisation or melodrama. It's akin to the game's visual work, which is subtly interesting and pervasively sad, but not in a heightened way, not in a way you'd notice if you just glanced over it.
The violence, too, is often quick and cold and brutal, as you bury yourself behind an upturned desk, wait for a Clicker to come twitching by and jam a pair of scissors into its ear before it can screech for help. There's no music, only the muffled clicks of far-away monsters and the gentle tapping of rain. It's a thin layer of foley artistry that perfectly underscores the quiet drama and quick flashes of nastiness.
You can really smell The Last of Us - the puckered flesh of the Clickers; the damp grass in the walls; Joel, Ellie and Tess's sweat; the old rain on their clothes. It's a vibrant, evocative game that engages emotions long neglected by videogames: Fear, vulnerability and panic.
It's been pushed back now until June, to give director Neil Druckmann and the rest of the Naughty Dog team space to tweak and polish it. But here's hoping they don't change much, because based on what's been shown so far, The Last of Us is going to be a wonderful computer game.
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