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The Last of Us helped me make it out of the worst of the pandemic

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulJan 14, 2023 | 12:00

The Last of Us helped me make it out of the worst of the pandemic

Before HBO's The Last of Us is here, here's a retrospective on how Naughty Dogs award-winning videogame of the same name got me through the most depressive months of the Covid lockdown.

The horror-adventure game was developed by Naughty Dog and helmed by its creative director Neil Druckmann, was released by Sony Computer Entertainment as a PlayStation exclusive in 2013. 

The post-apocalyptic video game follows the story of the outbreak of a zombie virus in the United States. Twenty years later, civilisation has been decimated by the infection. Survivors live in totalitarian quarantine zones, independent settlements, and nomadic groups, leaving buildings and houses deserted. 

Here’s a taste of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us:

Having picked up the rights to adapting the videogame over three years ago, HBO’s The Last of Us is reportedly the most expensive Canadian television production ever. Druckmann himself was recruited to write and produce the series under HBO alongside Craig Mazin, the Emmy-winning writer for HBO’s Chernobyl with Pedro Pascal, of The Mandalorian fame and Bella Ramsey, from Game of Thrones as the lead stars.

Here’s a trailer for the series:

We are now mere days from the series’s release - something that felt like a distant, unattainable reality back during lockdown in the worst of the pandemic. 

But before we get to experience the incredible world of The Last of Us, here’s how the beautiful videogame got me through bleakest moments of lockdown.

By May 2020, I had probably seen more sunrises in the last two months than I ever had in the last 20 years of my life. It felt as if even if we managed to shield ourselves from the virus, we were at the risk of turning into some weird, lockdown-induced insomniacs. Sleepless nights and long daytime slumbers.

Prior to the lockdown, rumours of a prolonged worldwide quarantine had me quickly examining the great possibilities that lay ahead. All I could think of at the time was how I could use the time at my disposal to completely absorb the plethora of films, videogames and television as possible. The prospects for this mass consumption of media were thrilling and the first week of lockdown reflected the very same excitement. This was, of course, knowing and acknowledging the privilege that allowed me to think this way.

In what seemed a fitting way to begin a global pandemic-induced quarantine, out slid the disk case of an old friend. As I sat in restless anticipation, the loading screen on my TV turned pitch black. I found myself staring back at myself as tiny specks of shiny gold materialised and floated across the screen.The display finally segued into a main menu, a familiar setting. 

A window, slightly ajar, in a ramshackled old house. A breeze gently unsettling the torn, white curtains as overgrown weeds made their way through the window sill inside the room. Sunlight drenched the darkness of the room and the first few notes of Gustavo Santaolalla's enchanting score took form on the strings of a Ronroco. A wave of nostalgia washed over me, getting me a bit giddy. "Press Start Button" read the screen. My fingers, like those of all gamers, with a mind of their own, reached for the same button on my controller, instinctively. And once again, began an incredible journey. 

The Last of Us, widely considered the greatest videogame of all time (and my favourite game of all time), has never failed to provide solace when most needed. It's curious how a videogame that drops us in the middle of the very same environment that has kept us cooped up at home all these months, gives us some sort of comfort. It's this strange dichotomy of hope and despair, light against the dark, and serenity against anxiety that makes the game the perfect escape. 

If The Last of Us went for a more realistic user experience, the missions would include binge watching, playing videogames, and staring aimlessly out of the window. These few years since, one thing's for certain. We must promise each other that years from now, we are going to tell our kids we survived a zombie apocalypse in 2020.

My apartment complex, like the many others around it, sealed itself off from the outside world as soon as the lockdown was imposed. One among the many little fortified communities that raised their drawbridges at the first sign of threat. For the handful of us friends on the inside who were bored senseless and wanted to get some air, we went for walks in the evening inside the complex premises. 

On occasion we would don our protective masks and venture outside in search of possible provisions. The outside world seemed like the only accurate representation of quarantine as portrayed in pop culture. Soulless streets, not even the exception of a stray in sight. The air was fresh, clear, and crisp, and the roads hidden under fallen leaves.

As we walked under the clear, starry sky in a city where a single star sighting is considered a rarity, I couldn't help but marvel at the effect humankind's absence had on our planet. An absence that was more imperative than ever before. However, these pleasant thoughts were more often than not quickly replaced with fear and suspicion. Much like the world I’d escape to within the confines of my home, was the world outside the confines of my home. Beautiful, melancholic, but fraught with latent danger.

The next few days went by like a breeze. In an attempt to finally make amends to my severely hampered sleep schedule, I decided to stay my sleep for an entire day. The very same morning also happened to be the hours in which I concluded the story worth seven years of my emotional investment. Although, simply calling the experience emotional wouldn’t do justice in what the game does to you. The emotions have always been plentiful and continuous, something that Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann have always excelled at.

It was unbelievably disorienting to see the sun in all its glory bathe my surroundings in the wee hours of that morning. Hours that I had not witnessed for months. Having completed The Last of Us (again) it finally started to feel like I might endure and survive.

And as I sat dreaming of an overgrown world, a world of green, of desolation, danger and despair, but also one of tranquility, of hope and of kindness; the all-to-familiar strings of the Ronroco pluck through my mind for another goodbye. 

The worst feeling however, was knowing that there would be no more (even though its long-anticipated sequel was to drop the very next month). What I’d once felt all those years ago, the intensity of those irreplicable emotions; what I was feeling in the most somber few months of my life during the lockdown - they were sentiments that I’d probably never feel again. It felt as if this small part of me had at long last, broken off and flown away with the wind.

Had I known that today, these couple years since, I would be days away from reliving those livid experiences all over again, perhaps the charm behind the inimitable videogame would have lost its novelty. Or perhaps it would have revitalised me with a new sense of hope.

All I know today is that HBO’s The Last of Us is carrying a gargantuan burden of expectations from millions of fans and admirers much like myself. Diving back into a story that has meant so much for us now feels exhilarating and daunting.

Those of whom have been previously unacquainted with the remarkable experience you are about to embark on, brace yourselves. You have no idea what loss is.

HBO’s The Last of Us premieres in India on January 16, 2023 on Disney+ Hotstar.

Last updated: January 14, 2023 | 12:00
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