Artifacts of the Past in The Last of Us

I recently purchased The Last of Us as a small reward to myself for finishing my undergrad. I had already beaten the game last summer after borrowing the game from my friend but I couldn’t resist playing it again.


I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Trevor Owens while writing for Play the Past this past year and his work at the site is consistently excellent. One piece that always gets excellent traffic even several years later is his “The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3.” In this piece he displays how artifacts in the game allow the player to reconstruct the fictional past of Fallout 3.

This same type of gameplay is included in The Last of Us. Joel and Ellie’s adventure through Boston, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Salt Lake City and other cities contains numerous artifacts. These artifacts are diverse and include diaries, lists, voice recorders, maps and many more. Some serve the purpose of gameplay by giving the player safe combinations or locations of enemies. However, most merely provide some insight into the events of the outbreak.

The back story to The Last of Us is never explicitly stated. The game begins in the present with the outbreak of a new fungal virus. After the game’s prologue chapter, the remainder of the game takes place 20 years after the outbreak. The game’s opening credits in between this provides some clues as to what happens in the interim. The United States government responds to the outbreak with a dissolution of government and implementation of martial law. A rogue civil group called The Fireflies fight against the military in an attempt to return the world to order.

One of the first locations that the player visits after leaving Boston is Pittsburgh where Joel and Ellie are attacked by a group of militants that have taken over the city. As the pair moves through the city, they find clues as to how this group of “hunters,” as they are called in the game, came to control Pittsburgh.

These clues paint the picture of how these group of survivors became sick and tired of the military hoarding food and decided to take back the city for themselves. Graffiti on walls and notes (as seen below) show the desperation and frustration that took hold of these people before finally reaching their breaking point and fighting back.

Grafitti found in Pittsburgh
Grafitti found in Pittsburgh
A note written, presumably, by a soldier after being attacked by rebels
A note written, presumably, by a soldier after being attacked by rebels

Near the end of their time spent in Pittsburgh Joel and Ellie come across a former firing line with 4 dead military soldier still slumped over from their execution. This begins the painting of a darker picture of the hunters, which is culminated by the following note. After taking the city, a small contingency of the group hunted down a group of “tourists” and looted them for supplies. The leader of these people then proclaimed that this practice should continue. A pair of individuals who protested this were killed and so the rest of the group followed their lead.

The "Trial" artifact
The “Trial” artifact

The Last of Us uses these artifacts as a storytelling device. Explaining how far humanity will go in order to survive. Joel and Ellie act as archeologists, uncovering the past in this dark and uncertain world.

The Last of Us ultimately tells the tale of Joel and Ellie and their struggle but it also contains deeper stories of humanity’s fall in a post-apocalyptic world. These stories are not mandatory in order to complete the game but unlike the treasures of the Uncharted series (also a Naughty Dog creation), they truly add to the experience and make The Last of Us a truly special experience.

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