In Search of Truth: Part 3 – The Last of Us

In my last feature, I told you that this one would be on The Last of Us and I told you to keep Mark Meltzer in mind. Some keener fans of The Last of Us might have already figured out why but, for those of you who haven’t, it was because this feature is about a short series of notes in the sewers following part of the story of a man called Ish.

I wanted you to keep Meltzer’s implementation into Bioshock 2 in mind as this is quite similar in that it is very much the opposite. You see, Ish didn’t come from a prelude to the game like Meltzer did, he was a part of the game. The fans didn’t know of him before playing, but he was very much intentionally included as part of the creators’ vision for the story. Instead, what ended up happening is that he became a fan favorite after the game’s release and, rather than prompting the developers to take action, it got fans asking for more and resulted in the false hopes of an Ish DLC thrown into the air.

That DLC never came. Even I was waiting for it, despite not having been too interested in Ish’s storyline at the time. I just wanted more from The Last of Us as I consider it, for all its emotional and cathartic value, to be my favorite game of all time. Even above Bioshock and Metal Gear. I was certainly intrigued by the idea of Naughty Dog’s use of notes as a means for storytelling and bridging the twenty-year gap to build the world of their game. It wouldn’t be until five years later when I played through Bioshock: The Collection that I would encounter Mark Meltzer and truly come to appreciate what all of this meant.

Wait, what is an Ish?

Ish is the name of a character in The Last of Us who does not appear in the main game. He is only referenced in a series of notes through which his subplot unfolds. To clear things up for people who didn’t play the game, he has no relevance to the main plot of the game, nor to the characters. He only really matters as a part of the larger world and for passionate players to indulge with a deeper layer of the narrative of Neil Druckmann’s masterpiece. As such, don’t worry if you don’t know too much about the game or if you’re worried about spoilers. No major spoilers follow for the main game, only for Ish’s notes.

Ish is first mentioned after Joel, Ellie, Henry and Sam escape Pittsburgh together. In an old boat you find the first note, implying that Ish has been at sea and has come ashore alone. The note is brief and humorous, but already we learn of Ish’s situation and are intrigued, arguably endeared, by his story. Not to mention that, right off the bat, Naughty Dog does a fantastic job of using unconventional narrative devices such as this note to flesh out the game’s setting and give backstory to its environment. We’ve seen this before, particularly in the Uncharted games, with old pirates’ journals and letters. This note isn’t about one corpse or piece of treasure though, it’s the start of a much grander story.

The next note sees Ish surviving in the sewers. We learn that, while he can stay alive, he prefers a more passive existence, as hinted at by his time at sea. Against a vast, beautiful yet ruined landscape, Ish seems insignificant. Just another drop of blood in a wide sea of tragedy. But Naughty Dog carefully brings his story to life within the world they have created, and do so with such meticulous care that its effects are devastating truth incarnate. You see, in a pile of junk just before you find Ish’s third note, there is a discarded pink doll.

Why does it all matter?

This series of features is about scoping in on the nuances left behind by video game designers. I like to avoid being too direct about each and every detail I discuss to let you, reader, interpret them as I did and find how video game storytelling could potentially stand up to literature on some fronts. With Ish’s notes, however, I think there’s no question. Clearly, this is some of Naughty Dog’s more ambitious easter eggs and the keener player will be all for it. I called this series In Search of Truth: The Hidden Lore in Video Games because the truth here is simple: this is a world in which you can’t help but get bloody, even if it is against human instinct to do so. What The Last of Us teaches in both the main game and the excellent supplement of these notes is that you’ll have to kill or die to protect the ones you love.

Ish’s third note further enforces that he is a good man and starts to slowly bring gravity to the harsh truth of the clue that Naughty Dog dropped in that pile of junk. He mentions a group with whom he traded some supplies and then parted, drawing attention to the kids. In the note, he considers bringing those decent people and their scared kids to this sewer labyrinth he inhabits and ultimately resolves to go out and search for them. Still wading through the sewers, the player is left to dwell on the cliff-hanger at the end of the third note and begin to ponder what might have happened, given the often missable clues scattered around. One of these clues being a sign laying down the rules: “Make sure doors are locked. Ask for the password if you don’t know the visitor. No shouting and noisy play. Run to hiding spot when you hear the alarm.”

At first, these might seem like a good sign or a faint hint of optimism showing that he did find and take in the others. But, painted up on that wall in blood red, they’re also deeply unsettling, foreshadowing what danger and tragedy could befall these kids. The subsequent notes as well as the rooms in the sewer, stocked full of toys, whiteboards and letter tiles, speak volumes about the group’s growth and the compassion of Ish and the other adults, seeing as all those things must have been brought there by them from the surface.

This all gathers to a head as you pass through the play castle doors and are encountered by a group of infected. The fate of these people is pretty clear and Ellie’s punchline says it all: “Well, at least we know what happened to these people.” This tragic tale highlights the cruelty of the new world and underscores the game’s themes of family and love, while Ellie’s remark shows you what it means to have grown up after the world ended.

An Ish that can’t be scratched

Fans fell in love with Ish, his notes and everything about his subplot. Rightly so, I might add. This left them all but begging for a DLC focusing on Ish’s arrival on the beach, his time in the sewers and the growth of his small subterranean community. They cheered as Naughty Dog execs hinted at the possibility of this idea coming to fruition. Alas, it never did come. I must admit, I would have loved that DLC and would not have been adverse to it in any way. However, it would almost certainly have fallen short where Left Behind managed to add depth to the story. Both DLC ideas come from the same general basis. Left Behind is based on a story we were told in the main game, one about Ellie and her best friend and how they got bitten. Ish’s DLC would have fleshed out the story we piece together as we walk through the sewers.

Neither actually brings anything new to the table. Rather, they’re both deeper explorations of a story we already know. With Left Behind, however, Naughty Dog crafted an intertwined narrative that both gave emotional gravity to the backstory we already knew and added new content to bridge the gap between the Autumn and Winter segments of the game. Not only was the DLC fun and engaging, but its overlapping storylines worked as a brilliant exploration of Ellie’s character, diving into her values and emotions. An Ish DLC would have still been good, but it wouldn’t have brought anything quite as fresh or valuable to the table. Naughty Dog has already revealed their truth in the notes. The world is a dark place, but worth fighting for.