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In The Hotel Level, The Last Of Us Hits Its Peak

The Last of Us is a brilliant game from its opening moments when the Cordyceps outbreak begins, to its closing moments when Joel decides to not do anything about the whole Cordyceps outbreak thing. While there are narrative moments that cement its masterpiece status — the ending is still unparalleled in its gut-punch ambiguity, the start of Winter is a huge surprise, Left Behind is heartbreaking, ect. — there's one level where narrative and game design come together perfectly. Among a bunch of good gameplay sections, the Hotel level stands alone. It's the jewel in The Last of Us' crown.

This chapter starts soon after Joel and Ellie are ambushed by a group of Hunters, leading them deeper into the city where they follow a pair of Hunters into a decrepit and desolate abandoned hotel. They work their way through, taking out Hunters as they go until they eventually reach an elevator. While attempting to climb through it, Joel successfully boosts Ellie to the next floor. But the elevator collapses under their weight and Joel falls to the basement. It's pitch black, flooded, and filled with infected.

Now, for the first time since they teamed up, Joel and Ellie are separated. I remember feeling that separation acutely when I first played the game on the PS3. This was the moment when I realized that TLOU had fully gotten its hooks into me. The ludonarrative harmony was complete; Joel and Ellie were alone and I felt alone, too.

What follows is one of the most memorable sections in the game. With no way to contact Ellie (other than yelling up the elevator shaft which isn't a great idea when your enemies use echolocation), Joel has to navigate his way through the basement and find an exit. What he finds is a door operated by key card and, wouldn’t you know it, the power is off, so he can't unlock it. To restore the power, Joel needs to turn a generator back on. But doing so will alert all manner of Runners, Clickers, and one big Bloater to his presence. This kicks off a pretty perilous section of gameplay during which the infected endlessly swarm you. Playing through it this time, I exhausted my supply of nail bombs, molotov cocktails, and shotgun shells in the struggle. And, if the game is working for you, the feeling of danger is compounded by the emotional connection between the characters. You don’t just need to survive because it’s a game and survival is your basic objective. You need to survive so that Ellie doesn't have to be alone.

After getting the power back on, sliding the key through a newly activated card reader, and climbing multiple sets of stairs, Joel has almost made it back when he’s attacked by one of the Hunters, who begins drowning him in a pool of water. When it looks like it’s all over for Joel, a shot rings out, the Hunter slumps over, and Ellie is holding a smoking gun. Surprisingly (to Ellie at least) Joel isn’t happy about it, and chastises her for moving from the spot where he left her. Ellie calls bullshit, as she should.

As they finish their trek through the hotel, Ellie is angry and monosyllabic when Joel tries to talk to her. When they exit the hotel, they see a large group of hunters patrolling the courtyard and shops below. In a concession that isn't quite an apology, Joel hands Ellie his rifle, and asks her to cover him from above. Then, he drops down and into the most memorable stealth section in the game. Every inch of this sneaky arena is seared into my brain — mostly because I died a bunch while playing it the first time. But the design is memorable, too, with ample perches from which Joel can throw molotov cocktails at unsuspecting enemies below. As the player, you have the high ground, but enemies can easily see you above them if you don't move quickly. After Joel takes them all out, he hands Ellie a pistol, saying she should have a weapon more suitable for her size.

This section takes everything that makes The Last of Us special and distills it into a few hours of gaming. We see Joel and Ellie acting on the deeper fears that drive them throughout the game — Joel, of getting close to someone again; Ellie, of being alone — and the arc of their relationship in this section reflects them each dealing with those fears. We get great stealth throughout as Joel takes out the Hunters, and the pinnacle of the game's stealth-action at the end. And, we get a perfect twining of gameplay and narrative in the section when Joel and Ellie are separated. It's as good as The Last of Us gets.

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