My Favorite Piece Of Gaming Symbolism Is The Leaning Tower In The Last Of Us

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In the recent trailer for The Last of Us TV show, one of the game’s most subtly iconic images is preserved in live-action form. In a brief shot in the official teaser for the HBO series, thunder and lightning crackle, illuminating a pair of crumbling skyscrapers. One of the towers is still standing tall. The other is leaning over, kept from falling by the other.


The leaning towers is the image from The Last of Us that has stuck with me most over the years. In the context of the game, we see these twin structures from the safety of the quarantine zone, and they continue to loom as Joel and Tess lead Ellie out of Boston under the cover of darkness. Toward the end of the level, the trio stealthily make their way through the leaning skyscraper.

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It isn’t unusual for Naughty Dog games to include elevated, visually prominent objects in the distance. That’s a fairly common video game technique, borrowed from theme park design, called ‘weenies’. A weenie is something intentionally placed to draw your eyes somewhere and, as a result, impact your play. It’s a place you can see from a long way off and that you want to visit — think Hyrule Castle in Breath of the Wild or a sync point in Assassin’s Creed 2. These landmarks guide the player, subconsciously, to the place the developer wants them to go.

These skyscrapers serve this function. They’re never out of sight for long during this section of the game, and all of your play is leading you to them. But, as their presence in the non-interactive TLOU show illustrates, they’re also doing something else. It’s a striking and functional image, but it also serves to reinforce the game’s key themes.

At the point that you see the leaning towers, Ellie needs to rely on Joel. She’s a smart, capable kid, but without his help she won’t be able to survive her journey out of Boston. She certainly wouldn’t be able to make it to the Fireflies. Even with Joel’s help, her journey is fraught and difficult. Like the falling tower, she needs to lean on him through much of the game, though both of them have trouble adjusting to this dynamic.

But in the game’s Winter section, their relationship is reversed. Joel is injured and sick, and Ellie must take care of him. She becomes independent, learning to hunt for herself, to keep them both sheltered and warm, and to do it all without being discovered by any of the dangerous humans or Infected who also inhabit the area. She’s the skyscraper standing firm; Joel is now the one leaning on her.

Of course, neither of the skyscrapers is in good shape. One is standing and one is leaning, but both are falling apart after the government bombed them in an attempt to clear the city of infected two decades before. The windows are blown out and vegetation has grown on the concrete carapace. Similarly, Joel is a monument to the time that has passed. He has gotten older and meaner and more hardened since the initial outbreaks. Ellie doesn’t remember a time before the outbreak at all, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been formed by it.

Returning to The Last of Us now, it’s easier than ever to see myself in the symbolism. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived two-and-a-half years of a global pandemic. You may feel like, deep down, you haven’t really changed. But I know that I’m angrier and sadder than I was in 2019. I know that seeing death on this massive a scale and being expected to keep going has marked me. I know that, at times, I’ve been the tower standing tall. And, at times, I have not.

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