The Last of Us is a brilliant game. It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest video games of all time, telling a story of love, grief, and the devastatingly thin line between violence and compassion, all set against the backdrop of a ruined United States. Also, for some reason, there are zombies.
The Last of Us doesn’t need to be a zombie game. Nothing in the story suggests that zombies are somehow an important and unique evil. The main antagonists are human — it’s not a zombie that kills Joel’s daughter during the devastating opening sequence, it’s a man. The cult of cannibals that kidnaps Ellie and attempts to murder Joel is not made up of Clickers or Runners, it’s made up of people. The real villains of The Last of Us are human beings, which leaves one wondering: what use are the zombies?
For the most part, the zombies are simply annoying. In gameplay, they’re not very scary, and most of them are either blind or close enough that it doesn’t matter. They only take a few shots to go down. Run-ins with zombies aren’t fun, exciting, or thrilling the way encounters with human enemies are. So where gameplay is concerned, zombies remain uninteresting and unimportant.
Ellie’s immunity is the closest The Last of Us comes to narratively justifying its zombies. Early in the game, Joel is tasked with bringing Ellie to a ragtag crew of rebels called the Fireflies, where she will be used to produce a vaccine to cure the disease that has taken the world by storm. Ellie is the only person who can contribute to this vaccine because she’s the only one who can’t be infected. This is the driving factor behind most of the game, but, strangely, it doesn’t matter all that much.
It matters that Ellie is important — Joel needs a reason to take her across the country — but it doesn’t matter very much why she’s important. She’s immune to infection, which seems awfully relevant, until one considers the fact that Joel (by virtue of being the protagonist) is, for all intents and purposes, immune too. The game literally won’t let him be infected. He can have his neck torn out by a zombie, but he’ll never turn. Only a few characters actually become infected over the course of The Last of Us. Their infections are never treated with all that much importance, though.
The tragedy never comes from watching a character lose control of their body and mind, it comes from watching them die, and far more tragic events in the game stem from murders at the hands of other human beings. That’s because The Last of Us isn’t actually a story about zombies. It’s a story about social unrest, in which zombies are largely an afterthought. More than anything, they’re a lazy inciting incident that lays the groundwork for an interesting setting. They could just as easily be swapped out for a nuclear bomb, rabid dogs, or any other disease. The only reason they’re zombies is that zombies were big in 2013.
Follow-ups to The Last of Us have made at least some effort to force zombies to mean something. Left Behind, the game’s first and only DLC spends half its runtime on Ellie’s relationship with Riley, a girlfriend from the early days of the apocalypse. Left Behind does, in fact, feature a truly tragic infection — one that informs Ellie’s character and her relationship with her own immunity throughout The Last of Us. It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but it also makes up all of one minute in a post-launch DLC, and it’s mentioned exactly once in the main game. Once more, the zombies of The Last of Us and the impact they have on the lives of its human characters are treated as fundamentally unimportant — liner notes in a larger story that has almost nothing to do with zombies.
The Last of Us Part II addresses the gameplay issues with zombies by tying them into human encounters. In the sequel, zombies can be pitted against human survivors, distracting both parties while the player sneaks through uninterrupted. It’s an exciting addition to the moment-to-moment gameplay, but unfortunately, Part II is a one-step-forward, two-steps-back affair. Zombies have become an even less important element of the story here. The game is far more concerned with Ellie’s quest for vengeance against Abby and the politics of two warring communities. By this point, even Ellie’s immunity, the one thing which made zombies necessary in the first game, has become completely irrelevant. It’s a game about people, and it finds very little time for anything else.
The Last of Us isn’t going anywhere, and, 13 years later, the zombies are here to stay. The franchise has backed itself into that particular corner. One can only hope that if and when Part III arrives, it will find something more interesting to do with its monstrous antagonists.