The Last of Us is one of my favourite franchises of all time. Yes, yes, you all know I love it for the characters, emotion, world and so on. But before Joel and Ellie had wriggled their way into my heart, there was something more immediately noticeable about The Last of Us: how it dealt with sound.
All games handle sound in some way or another. The grim gargle of a zombie, the rat-a-tat-tat of a heavy machine gun, the synth-swipe of a sword or the swelling of a score at just the right moment. Yet The Last of Us, and its subsequent sequel were among those few games that sold their settings, characters, and world through the minutia of audio detail that easily made it more real than any high-tier graphics ever could – oxymoronically slapping me across the face with its subtlety.
Take the opening of the game, for example. After a sweet late night birthday gift, Joel’s daughter Sarah awakes upon an abrupt and cut-off phone call. Tired and dressed in her pajamas, Sarah sleepily shuffles her way through the house in search of Joel, and that quiet sound of feet rubbing along a carpet, for me, immediately placed me in this tired late-night household.
This isn’t how a post-apocalyptic game is supposed to start. Sure, we get explosions, the the infamous undead shrieks and the occasional gunshot. But as The Last of Us wraps up its prologue it isn’t the distant wails of ambulances, or whirs of helicopters that stand out, it is the quiet, heartbreaking cries of a young girl dying.
Those shuffling feet and inescapable cries weren’t the last instance where I felt a sense of setting, or a realization of character either. The Last of Us is chalked full of subtle audio details and excellently balances those between the soundscape of non-specific human resonance and lightly traumatizing violent details. We feel Joel’s reluctance through the begrudged exhales through the nostrils. We sense the brutality of this world as the light crisping of a nearby burning corpse, creeps into out awareness. The Last Of Us may be your stereotypical apocalyptic set up, but one of the many places in which it succeeds, is by placing emphasis on those often forgotten sects of audio.
And the reason I think this is so effective is because it is so familiar. Just like how David the android imitates breath in Prometheus to make his human co-workers feel more comfortable, the inclusion of small human noises creates a comforting ambience – almost like ASMR, if you were into that sort of thing.
Naughty Dog were smart enough to fill up their soundscape with the everyday sounds. The tinny echo of an empty room, the breathing of its characters, the constant buzz of insects in a forest. These are sounds we may not pay attention to, but we subconsciously recognize them. Ok, maybe not the crisping bodies…
However, too often games stick with the big sounds. Explosions, gunshots, roars, and revs. They can be immersive and wholly effective in their own way – I mean don’t think I didn’t get excited by the bombastic sounds of Battlefield 2042’s trailer – but by The Last of Us’ aversion to leaning into any semblance of loud or big, they managed to create something that felt far more real.
With those little pockets of subtle audio familiarity, we can begin to see ourselves in these characters and world and story. I can place myself in a forest just outside of Bill’s Town, because I have been surrounded by the buzzing hue of nature. I can empathize with Joel’s struggle because I have let out those tired sighs myself. Building an empathetic audio baseline then allows those more cliched apocalyptic sounds such as clickers, bloaters and cracks of a shotgun to remain rooted and relatable.
And all of this without mentioning the indescribably brilliant score by Gustavo Santaolalla. By sticking to the subtle mantra of its sound design, Gustavo’s score eases its way into the player’s conscious, by finely balancing when it, a non-diegetic sound, takes the spotlight away from the sound design, a diegetic sound. And even as the score begins to pick up in those emotionally riveting moments, it only does so to enhance what the player is already feeling, instead of indicating how they are supposed to feel.
Subtlety is truly the anchor word of the sound design in The Last of Us, and that continues through every fibre of its being. Even as we wander through Seattle in the incredible Part II, a far-off storm isn’t trying to be intimidating or impending. It’s just natural. Muffled by distance. But nothing more than a storm that you may see every day. The Last of Us is a gaming world I have returned to more times that most. And while at the forefront, it is the characters, story and world that originally entice me in each time, I believe it is the audio design that enables its replay-ability. With each playthrough the graphics may seems slightly older, or the gameplay wandering its way into stilted territory. However, the second The Last of Us murmurs a single decibel, I am transported right back to that faithful night, sleepily shuffling my way through a hallway, unknowingly at end of the world.