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The Last of Us: a story about connection

In March 2020, I, like many of us, found myself with a bit more time on my hands. In the freshly-formed bubble of the pandemic, right at that uncanny time that you could walk to Tesco and pass literally nobody else in the street (unheard of in London, where it felt like even the pigeons were working from home), it seemed to me that the moment was ripe to play The Last of Us Part I on PS4, for the first time.

As my Whatsapp messages at the time will attest, at first it was almost reassuring to be virtually experiencing a ‘worse pandemic’ than the one we were living through in reality – at least we had no zombies (or, ‘Infected’) to contend with, just yet. I played The Last of Us Part I in spring 2020, and then The Last of Us Part II in the summer. In January 2023, I tuned in to watch the new HBO TV series, The Last of Us. All three are both brutal and stunning.

The title ‘The Last of Us’ points not only to the people that remain after the pandemic, but also to what it is of humanity that remains within those people. Characters do both awful and noble things, and are forced to make decisions that bring them to question their relationship with their humanity. Amid the big, difficult moments, there are smaller ones, too - playing music, reading comics, and sharing stories, where they can. They try to build in meaning and structure to their new world, with schools, jobs, currency, ruling factions, and competing ideologies contesting the best way forward. But perhaps the most potent piece of humanity that persists through all this is the need to connect to others.

In our COVID pandemic, we all experienced the pernicious effect of disconnection. We had to stay away from the people we love because we couldn’t be sure that we wouldn’t get them or ourselves sick - but maintaining that distance significantly affected our health, too. The impact we all felt showed us how necessary connection is – and we see that need mirrored in the universe of The Last of Us, even though for these characters, being close to the wrong person at the wrong time means death. Across the series, we’re told the stories of Joel and Tommy, Ellie and Riley, Sam and Henry, and Bill and Frank – all of whom take great personal risks to prioritise their relationships to each other above all else. In the HBO television show, even when Melanie Lynskey’s character Kathleen is literally about to be mauled to death by very persistent Infected, she chooses to turn towards her connection to her brother, and to try to avenge his death instead of evading her own.

As Kathleen also exemplifies, personal connections always supersede the connections to groups and factions, which the characters of The Last of Us universe frequently go against, no matter their allegiance. The Last of Us Part I ends with Joel making the decision to choose a personal connection over all else, despite the significant consequences of doing so. The Last of Us Part II tragically shows Ellie doing the same. Part II was a revelatory game precisely because the narrative brought us as gamers into a relationship of connection with the characters in a totally unique way. This drastically influenced the choices we wanted to make in the game, creating a visceral emotional experience when we were unable to influence the inevitable, crushing, denouement.

Just as they are for the characters of The Last of Us universe, questions around meaningful connection are ever-present in the therapy room. We are no longer faced with mandatory seclusion in the way we were during our pandemic, but disconnection and loneliness can still be everyday experiences. There are several different factors that can influence this for us. As we see with the characters in The Last of Us universe, context plays a significant part in our ability to connect with others. Our past experiences of connection inform how we approach present and future connections: we develop foundational ideas about other people, ourselves, and what seems to successfully harmonise those two things together, and we take those blueprints out into the world with us. If Joel were in my therapy room, I’m sure we would talk about how the loss of his daughter and alienation from his brother impacted his feelings about getting close to Ellie. If I were speaking with Ellie, perhaps we’d spend time exploring how her experiences of being left by everyone she cared about influenced the depth of her connection to Joel, who didn’t leave.

Despite the fact that we are introduced to relationships from birth, finding the right fit of closeness and comfort with others can be a life-long endeavour, and skills we spend a lot of time investing in and practicing. Joel and Ellie’s stories across The Last of Us universe show us snapshots of them in a perpetual journey towards forming meaningful connections – and the doubts, fears, defences and hurdles that arise along the way. Even though it is something with which we all have our individual challenges, both our pandemic and the story of the fictional Cordyceps fungus outbreak showed that our need for and drive towards connection is the very first, and the very last, of us all.


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