Widely-regarded as a standout game, The Last of Us is also perhaps an over-examined one. Which makes it remarkable that so little of the chin-stroking has been about the role of the landscape and environments - I mean beyond the breathtakingly beautiful platitudes, into how the game uses them as a creative and story- telling tool. This is not 'environmental storytelling' as that term is commonly used, but a deeper integration between landscape design and the game's wider themes and storytelling goals. With a landscape designer’s eye, we can see how Naughty Dog's environments complement, reinforce, foreshadow and very often make the game's key moments.
The landscapes of The Last of Us are broadly, and accurately, described as ‘post-apocalyptic’, but there is much more to it than that. As well as being a beautiful and 'realistic ' depiction of a post-apocalyptic world, all of its chosen features have greater meaning and symbolism within the game's overall arc. The environment is so integral to what the game's trying to achieve that in one sense it is the story - and Joel and Ellie’s journey is projected onto it, their progress is measured by it, and sometimes the future is foretold by it.
The Last of Us is divided into seasons, such is the intrinsic connection between landscape and game, which seems an obvious structure to borrow for analysing it.
Following the moving prologue – the first link between environment and theme, taking place at night, when humans are most afraid and aware of danger – the game 'proper' begins in summer, and is our first glance at the world 20 years on from a crippling pandemic. The outbreak has enabled nature to loosen its shackles and this is evident as Joel navigates the quarantine zone, but only lightly: this first landscape is a manmade, urban environment, a place that is obviously gritty and dirty, with boarded up windows, moss - covered paths and climbing plants covering walls, but still inhabited and functioning for humans. This is the first look at how a landscape is portraying more than just itself, in how it reflects man itself hanging on against the disease and its effects.
Further away from the quarantine zone there is lush foliage with white wildflowers, high-climbing vines and ivies, and clear and sunny skies – positive and aesthetically pleasing aspects which perhaps indicates that all is not totally lost in the world. But this is tempered by the fact that the same plants show nature’s firm grip on what once belonged to man: the crumbling houses and overgrown buildings give a strong indication of what's to be found from here on out, and the fact that this landscape belongs to nature.
Man’s loosening grip on the world, and nature, is made even more apparent as Joel, Ellie and Tess set off from their safe house to brave the dangers beyond the quarantine zone in the eerie darkness of the night: the buildings are at best dilapidated and at worst, have completely succumbed to the pressures of nature and neglect; the pleasant plants have nearly all vanished; and it is raining heavily. These aspects combine to environmentally set up the first terrifying encounters with clickers and the trek through the buildings.
The rain is noticeable as an example of pathetic fallacy, a narrative construct where stories use weather to foretell events, future twists in the narrative and hint at character’s fortunes. Rain is a popular choice in this respect as it is miserable and prohibitive. In this case, the rain foretells the difficulty posed to the three characters of escaping the army, the treacherous journey through the buildings, the gripping first confrontations with clickers and perhaps Tess’s fate.
As an addendum to this, it is worth noting that as they eventually exit the buildings, the three survivors are greeted by a moody but pleasant sunrise, clear weather, and summer foliage – mirroring the ostensible serenity they now experience following their testing escape route.
As Joel and Ellie travel to and through Bill’s Town and the Pittsburgh suburbs, and the pace of the game and its story picks up, the environment and landscape maintains the trait of widespread landscape reclamation by nature, but it starts to have a much stronger relationship with the narrative and the characters. Particularly in the natural, nearly-wooded landscape just before the town, the summer setting provides healthy, growing foliage, which mirrors beautifully the beginning of the journey and of course, the growing of the relationship between Joel and Ellie. The sunshine lasts for an eternity, creating a bright, calm environment that, combined with the landscape and horticultural beauty depicted, matches the positivity and light-heartedness that is in Ellie, who is still, for now, innocent and somewhat optimistic and positive (she enjoys walking through the woods for the first time and seeing animals in the wild, for example). The sunshine’s persistence also alludes to the pair’s hope in overcoming their imminent struggles: their journey will, and must, endure, just like the summer sun.
After the dramatic escape from the sewer tunnels and remainder of the suburbs, and the sad but compelling conclusion to Sam and Henry’s storyline, autumn’s mild, and all too familiar, doggedly-persistent rain drenches the protagonists. But, despite the negative of the rainfall, there is lush foliage surrounding them. The dense green is occasionally interrupted by colourful woodland plants, t he thick woods covering the hills are a pleasant setting after the run-down suburbs, and the occasional pops of colour provided by some plant species add interest and visual moments of cheer. The peaceful wooded landscape feels like an escape, an environmental sigh of relief after the drama of the suburbs and briefly suspends the frantic story and events.
The beautiful green landscape is not entirely enjoyable, however, due to the relentless rain. Here, once again, the use of rain is a storytelling aide, another pathetic fallacy. This time, the rain does not indicate an immediate danger or difficult obstacle, but is perhaps a longer look ahead to future troubles. It is an interesting juxtaposition with the pleasantness of the surroundings: the lushness and vibrant landscape providing positivity and beauty; the persistent rain providing a warning look to the future.
The landscape remains pleasantly verdant until the university; once again back in an environment crafted by man. However, it is interesting to note that before this, despite the emotional argument between Joel and Ellie which sets up a potentially big falling out between them, the sun remains out and the landscape remains stunning - a reflection of Joel’s mind and attitude starting to come around to Ellie more, and the relationship taking on new strength.
After leaving Tommy to head to the university, they almost literally ride off on horseback into the sunset – perhaps things are turning around for Joel and Ellie. But upon arriving at the university, things look, and feel, different. Not only does the derelict, partially nature-reclaimed, manmade landscape make a return, which is a strong reminder of danger and peril, but the first foliage visible is of autumn colour and, essentially, dying. While the colours are incredibly pleasing, the connection between the dying, ever more sparse foliage and the events of the end of the chapter is distinct. There is something incredibly meaningful in Joel falling to a critical injury, landing on and being surrounded by dead foliage – an element of the landscape directly mirroring and foretelling a character’s fate, dire situation and immediate future.
As the chapter concludes, it is telling that winter, in the form of the first snows, arrives at the very moment of Joel’s life-threatening injury, and their subsequent, panicked exit on horseback from the university. The landscape is changing wholesale, and the days are getting shorter – the landscape saying that it looks bleak for Joel. This is a great example of the setting becoming the story, mirroring Joel’s fortunes as the autumn sun sets on him, fate unknown and winger coming.
Still recovering from the shock of Joel’s incident, winter’s landscape appears and ushers in the next chapter. Playing to the popular stereotype that landscapes look even more beautiful when covered in snow, this is no exception. The landscape that Ellie pursues the buck in, however, is still and deathly quiet. Aside from the imposing pine trees, any foliage poking out of the snow is dying or dead, indicating dormancy at best, death at worst.
On top of this, the stillness, simplicity, and the noticeably uphill nature of the landscape strongly mirrors and represents Ellie’s loneliness, isolation and individual challenges. With Joel presumably walking a fine line between life and death somewhere else, she must now act on her own, taking on the challenges of survival without the support of her more experienced companion. The landscape reflects this feeling of vulnerability and exposure, a cold and indifferent place at the mercy of the natural elements. This is heightened by the fact that, up to a point, there are no manmade features in the landscape – it is purely natural for the first time, establishing distance between Ellie and everything recognisable and familiar to her.
The landscape becomes more varied during Ellie’s trials with, and escape from, David’s group, and the heavy snow on the ground and the blizzard of the chapter’s end do a great job of mirroring both her and Joel’s confusion and hazardous attempts to get to one another. As Joel finally recovers and Ellie is on the verge of escape, the landscape’s conditions get in the way, making it incredibly hard for them to find the safety of each other’s company and protection.
Soon after Ellie’s dramatic confrontation with David, the scene turns to Spring and immediately there is green again: lush foliage and plants growing back make for a pleasing return. Some of the foliage frames a wall carving of a buck, which catches Ellie’s attention, making her dwell on what has just been, but now in a pleasant and green environment, reunited with Joel once again. Otherwise, the landscape is a much more positive affair, with the verdant green plants back in growth, smothering cars, roads and buildings once again.
This positivity reflects Joel’s recovery back to full health, who highlights this himself as he happily comments on the weather. But at this stage it's also reflecting their journey, a sense of reaching their goal. The plants’ regrowth complements the rejuvenation of Joel’s spirit, as he accepts his past and the loss he suffered: his manner seems far more optimistic. Ellie is the same, especially after the excitement of seeing the giraffes, and she shows a renewed positivity about meeting the fireflies at the hospital and achieving what they set out to do – helping to create a vaccine to fight the pandemic. How things take a turn here: the climax of the pair’s journey and Ellie’s seeming fate plays out inside a dimly lit, grimy and rundown hospital –an apt environment reflecting the narrative as Joel battles towards Ellie.
Finally, driving into the sunset in a vibrant landscape, Joel and Ellie leave the grim hospital behind, and find themselves in a mountainous landscape that epitomises the idea of escape. Here, a small but pleasant exchange occurs as they set off on foot to the settlement: Joel and Ellie briefly discuss the landscape. Although Ellie is a little lost in her thoughts, the exchange is not one they have been able to have before. It seems that only now can they pause for a moment and appreciate their surroundings – a pleasant view of the environment which will, presumably, be their home, of sorts.
A vibrant landscape reward s the characters after an intense and draining journey, something they can at last enjoy after all they have endured. It evokes a similar look and feeling as the early environment near Bill’s Town, but it is a different landscape with new elements and characteristics (such as its topography, tree species and plants of different habits) - much like Joel and Ellie, who have been indelibly changed by their experiences and actions.
One Year Later...
The landscapes of The Last of Us are not only an aesthetic element providing context and a pleasant backdrop, but a more intrinsic part of the design - reflecting and amplifying events and moods, foretelling story curves and framing the story's whole arc. The Last of Us thinks of its landscapes as an extra design tool, and so successfully uses them to project the themes and story and character development to the player, and mirror the player's feelings alike.
With a broad brush, it could be said that the story of The Last of Us is so dark that the natural landscape, where it can, is the aspect providing the light. It does provide this contrast to the darkness, but by giving them this extra depth, landscapes give the whole game an added dimension, imbuing its other qualities with meaning and importance. With The Last of Us: Part II coming soon (ish), it is exciting to see how this particular use of landscape will change or improve - and indeed there are many other titles, such as Fromsoft's Souls series, that use more fantastical landscapes for different narrative ends.
Landscape design deserves attention beyond merely remarking upon a sunset being beautiful. It can be one of a game's most important aspects and, as T he Last of Us so wonderfully shows, landscapes with meaning end up meaning so much more.