Less than an hour into "The Last of Us," I steered my character, Joel, toward a female riot cop.
She was standing guard in front of some off-limits building in a near-future Boston ghost town. Fungal plague has boiled civilization down to a few of these quarantine zones, where survivalist tension festers thicker than the vegetation in the streets.
The first time I stepped too close, she bludgeoned me to the ground with a rehearsed warning. The second, she shot me in the head.
As end-of-the-world scenarios go, this one is pretty harsh.
Another trigger-happy soldier guns down Joel's daughter in the prologue to Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us," a PlayStation 3 exclusive that makes high art of plunging humanity straight into hell. She, however, stays dead — and it haunts Joel 20 years later, when the main body of the game takes place. Now an emotionally aloof middle-aged smuggler, he's tasked with escorting the young Ellie on a cross-country trip through green freeways, looted suburbs and skyscrapers bombed into modern art formations.
This journey stands to be the best video game of 2013 — because of what it does and what it doesn't do.
The most remarkable thing "The Last of Us" does is absorb you in a simple story driven as much by life-or-death drama as raw human character. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice Joel and Ellie with real heart, and Naughty Dog's animators achieve every tilted eyebrow and desperate stare the actors' words demand.
Tying it all together, Neil Druckmann's script is thick with pragmatism and urgency. There's no place in his post-apocalypse for the clunky exposition and bad poetry that weighs down most video game writing. Joel says not a syllable more than he has to, and Ellie curses her troubles with the kind of casual overuse you'd expect from a scared 14-year-old.
When it comes to cinematic storytelling, "The Last of Us" may just be the most impressive game of all time, let alone 2013. And its greatest success in this regard is Joel and Ellie's growth as each escapes and inflicts death with increasing regularity. Ellie's world-weariness and Joel's buried heartache are not simple descriptors, they're dynamic properties that Naughty Dog never stops moving, sometimes masterfully, in captivating new directions.
Of course, there's also a video game here. Though Naughty Dog falls short of finding the perfectly symbiotic fusion of play and story that made fellow post-apocalyptic title "The Walking Dead" the best game of 2012, the Sony studio still delivers a ferocious action odyssey.
Joel and Ellie's road across America is clotted with rigors, and most would like to eat, stab or shoot their faces off. Savage bandit hunters and take-no-prisoners U.S. military form the human opposition. They take murderous turns at you with the infected: runners who swarm from all directions, and blind Clickers and fungi-bombing Bloaters that can both kill you with one bite.
That's not to say Joel can withstand many punches, gunshots or other punishment. Between his low resiliency, an inventory system that never becomes second-nature and real-time healing and item-crafting, every second of action in "The Last of Us" is crucial to survival and should be budgeted strategically. Charging into battle with no plan never, ever works. But if you can't figure out how to get the jump on that one Clicker, or if you're just stubborn and refuse to learn your lesson, Naughty Dog spaces quick-loading checkpoints tightly throughout the game.
Don't count on waltzing through the game's 15 hours with one go-to instrument of death, either. Though Joel's arsenal is wide, the ammunition for it is scarce. Assiduous scavenging should keep his supplies abundant enough for the next encounter, but you'll often be prodded outside your combat comfort zone, be it baseball bats, stealth takedowns or molotov cocktails.
Each attack twists action game conventions in its own fun way. Joel only wins fistfights when you read an enemy's movements and respond with predictive rhythm, pushing a button one right time rather than many wrong times. Taking down humans and infected stealthily also requires locking your eyes on them, as they patrol and turn their heads in erratic patterns. Firearms, meanwhile, aim more unsteadily than most games, with little assistance from Naughty Dog.
The studio balances out all these offensive obstacles in straightforward fashion: They throw fewer enemies at you. Most encounters span four to six. That does add up over 15 hours, though, so Joel and Ellie's body count comes back to bite them in a rare instance of a game's story acknowledging its spree-killing play.
However you approach it, Naughty Dog's action nurtures a strange but satisfying impulse: Not to conquer, but to survive. Rather than a game to be played — or perfected — "The Last of Us" feels like an experience to be gutted out. You don't care about the bullets you might have saved or the punches you might have avoided, you just care that Joel and Ellie are moving on.
For all the things "The Last of Us" does differently than other games, or not at all, it still succumbs to some feature tokenism. There's meaningless trinkets to grab in the single-player campaign, and, yes, team deathmatch multiplayer mode. It supplants the usual leveling system for a more narrative faction warfare arc, but ultimately appeals little.
It's through Joel and Ellie's journey alone that "The Last of Us" stands alone, atop not only this year's crop of games, but with the medium's finest stories.