To be strictly reductionist, The Last of Us is a staple zombie apocalypse game (complete with the requisite gunplay, gore, and tight-corners fighting), but its superbly tense plot and cavernous characterization caused a stir. Linear storytelling in games has almost become risky in recent years, not so much because writing has gone downhill but because there are some astonishing non-linear choices on the market (*cough cough*, Witcher 3) – but there are still a few worthy examples of more traditional approaches, such as this one. I’ll probably never play the game myself, but I can safely say that watching the cinematic cutscenes is worth a few hours of your time.
It’s still a little surprising that this soundtrack took the high road of melancholic contemplation. This maneuver exists in zombie stories but seems to still be in the minority. Gustavo Santaolalla might be one of the hippest minimalist composers you’ve never heard of. You won’t find much in the way of jarring or jagged moments here. Guitars and artful synth touches overwhelmingly take front and center. When a few string solos finally appear, they actually feel appropriate rather than obligatory. There are a few moments of programmed beats, but even these are somewhat interesting, and rhythms are mostly established and maintained by guitars.
The arrangements in general are desperately sparse where instrumentation is concerned, but the range of effects and layering are varied enough that it’s difficult to actually find thematic repetitions or blatant cues. The overall style often hints at country and bluegrass (with plenty of plucks and juicy slides to prove it), yet it doesn’t quite feel like a copy of someone else’s ideas.
For me, the most striking aspect is the quiet determination throughout. The majority of songs on this album are in minor keys, but it’s difficult to actually get depressed listening to it. This fare might not latch onto your jugular after one listen (distinct melody isn’t a driving force here), but this soundtrack is still a slick and smart move for anyone who wants some ambient thinking music. Yes, it is what some people would call “background noise,” but that’s exactly what some of us want and need. There are times when sledgehammer orchestrations – no matter how meticulous and admirable – are exhausting instead of helpful. If you find yourself in that position, consider this album instead.