In the most popular video game of 2013, mankind's fate is decided at a fictional Catholic hospital across the street from the Salt Lake LDS Temple.
"The Last of Us," a Playstation-only release, sees the morally ambiguous Joel and sassy young Ellie embark on a cinematic journey across a post-pandemic U.S., where zombies and ruthless survivalists have reduced civilization to a handful of dystopian quarantine zones.
Widely described as a revolutionary video game, it has sold more than 3.4 million units since its release in mid-June, and its 95 rating on Metacritic.com is higher than any other video game released from the beginning of 2012 until now.
So what does a zombie apocalypse have to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Nothing. "It made sense for the geography of the story, that this is the place that they would end up on an east-to-west journey," says Nate Wells, lead environment artist for "The Last of Us" developer Naughty Dog. "There was a theme of pilgrimage, and for the scene that Joel and Ellie share, we needed a very powerful shot."
Creative director Neil Druckmann thought the Salt Lake City skyline would provide a dramatic backdrop for the game's major characters to reconnect after Ellie's near-death at the hands of a cannibalistic town leader in Colorado. The pair arrive in Salt Lake at Exit 308 on Interstate 80 East, heading toward a bus station that Wells says was inspired by a building in Ogden it seems part Union Station, part Ogden Intermodal Center. After making their way to the roof of the abandoned station, Ellie perks up at the sight of a herd of giraffes frolicking on an abandoned baseball field as the spires of the LDS Temple loom in the distance.
"I think it's actually the most beautiful moment in the game," Wells said. "It was really important. [It's] a moment where those two characters are regaining a sense of hope after the winter."
In development, the level was dubbed "Wild Animals," with the idea that electric fences at Hogle Zoo would have long since lost their charge and exotic beasts large and small would roam the city freely. But gamers often try to shoot at animals, creating interplay that developers weren't keen to develop, so they settled for the giraffes.
"It was a really nice thing," says Andrew Patton, owner of Ogden's Game Vault, which has sold out of the game multiple times. "It showed that life in this wasteland isn't completely gone. It's not all destroyed."
After meeting Salt Lake's spotted survivors, Joel and Ellie head to a fictional underground tunnel and are taken by a group of rogue cure-seekers to St. Mary's, a Catholic hospital. Developers debated the likelihood of a Catholic hospital existing on prime downtown SLC real estate, but they wanted to have a cross on the hospital logo to enhance the theme of salvation.
Taylor Jorgenson was more than a little excited to hear that "The Last of Us" would take place in Salt Lake.
"When I found out, I had a little squeal of joy," he said. Jorgenson, an assistant manager at Game Changerz in South Salt Lake, follows the video-game industry fervently and hadn't heard much hype about the game until gaming website IGN gave it 10 stars, its highest possible score.
"At that moment, I was like, 'I have to get this game,' " he said. The lowest score he saw in reviews was 9.2.
After playing it, Jorgenson said he was enthralled by the game's storyline: "It's not my favorite video game ever, but it was one of my favorite movies of all time."
Some of the Salt Lake City details resemble the real thing such as the decals on police and fire vehicles while others are born out of game artists' imaginations. For instance, Naughty Dog artist Brian Beppu is a huge hockey fan and dressed up a bus stop with a "Utah Snakes" poster.
Jorgenson is surprised how few people come into his store who know that "The Last of Us" depicts Utah's capital. He can remember only one other video game that portrays Salt Lake City, "Homefront," which had a trailer that included shots of the city and a mission in a part of rural Utah that wasn't as recognizable.
Patton and Jorgenson agreed that Utahns who haven't played it are missing out on not just the novelty of a game in Salt Lake City, but outstanding gameplay.
"To more than one customer, I said this would be worth buying a PS3 for if you didn't have one," Patton said.