[Obligatory spoiler warning for the ending of The Last of Us]
This is a blog I wanted to write--and tried to write--on and off in various forms over the past two years. With the news that, indeed, The Last of Us Part II is happening, I decided to try again and write about some thoughts I've had about one of my favorite videogame endings of all time.
Although The Last of Us is one of my favorite videogames ever, it is also one of the games that felt like the conversation around it got away from me. This was around the time where I was visiting a more mainstream, by the numbers videogame website for most of my commentary on games and before I dived head first into this whole Giant Bomb Dot Com thing. A lot of the people who played the game over there loved the game like I did and had their expected big Spoilercast that covered all of Joel and Ellie's adventure, including, of course, the ending and that final conversation. But their takeaway was more focused on something I didn't quite anticipate. They talked about how, "Joel is a monster!" And, "Joel is the bad guy; I was the bad guy!" They debated about whether or not Joel did the right thing when he chose to save Ellie, and asked questions like, "If you were in Joel's position, would you have sacrificed Ellie to save the world?" This eventually lead to talk along the lines of, "Well, we don't really know if they could have found a cure by dissecting Ellie's brain or what the distribution network was like to pass along the cure to everyone, so it's not like Joel alone doomed the world or anything". To me, this feels like one of the last things Naughty Dog wanted players to walk away with thinking as the credits rolled.
Outside of the games coverage I consumed, there was also the fact that it felt like I was the only person I knew who played The Last of Us. At the time, I wasn't reading any message board discussions on pretty much any topic, so I was outside of any of the conversations that must have taken place around the summer of 2013. As for people I knew in real life, I didn't know anybody who actually finished the game. The regular people I talked to about games either, 1) never heard of it, 2) were excited for the game based on how good the Uncharted series was, but never played it, 3) played and liked the game, but never finished it, or 4) tried playing it, but didn't like it enough to finish it.
In comparison, 2013 was also the year of BioShock Infinite--which quickly turned into that year's game with the big, crazy ass ending that everybody had to talk to somebody about--and Grand Theft Auto V--unquestionably the biggest game of the year, that also had a few unexpected twists with its ending that was worth talking about as well. For those two games in particular, I found no shortage of conversations about how those games turned out. Hell, I've had multiple hour long conversations about BioShock Infinite's last thirty minutes alone.
However, what I really wanted to talk about at the time was that final conversation in The Last of Us. Not that it felt like I had a grand revelation that nobody else in the world had thought about, but I still felt I didn't have an avenue to discuss what interested me in particular about the ending. While I don't want to diminish the conversations and questions people had about the state of the world at large after Joel saves Ellie's life, I overall don't think this is the most interesting conversation about The Last of Us and its ending and in some way distracts from some of the other stuff that's going on. In particular, these types of conversations put emphasis on Joel and his actions, and detracts from Ellie and her state of mind.
The big spoiler about The Last of Us to me wasn't how both Joel and Ellie actually made it out alive (Surely this is one of those games where one of them had to die, right?). Instead, it was how Ellie is actually the main character of The Last of Us. On paper, yes, the title of protagonist easily belongs to Joel, since you play as him more and he has more screen time. Still, as the game progresses, there is a shift from Joel to Ellie, between how Ellie becomes more sociable with Joel, to how they start to form their connection, to how for the last parts of the game you take control over Ellie. The most noteworthy example of this is with the last scene in the game, where the game changes perspectives from Joel--who just killed a bunch of Fireflies, in order to flee with her--to Ellie--who has awoken, still phased over everything that has happened to her over the past few months, and still very much alive.
Ellie walks through the woods, following Joel, as he talks about their future and him reminiscing about his daughter, Sarah. The last action you as the player has to perform is look up at Joel and reach out to him, so he can pull you up onto a ledge. At this point, the game goes into Ellie's past, which is one of the few times this happens throughout the entire game. The only other instance of this is when you are able to explore Ellie's inventory to find the letter from her mother and Riley's Firefly pendant. The ending is the first and only time in the core game where she mentions Riley and when she was bitten. How she is missing her best friend and how she is "Still waiting for my turn" to die. At this point, we get to what I think is the crux of the final act of the game, where Ellie asks Joel to swear what he said about the Fireflies was true; that they have given up finding a cure and there were plenty of other people who were immune, just like her, out there. To me, The Last of Us is all about the lie Joel tells Ellie. It is a game that develops two characters who actively don't want anything to do with each other, to being reluctantly together, to being pretty much all they have left in the world.
(As a side note, I'm not sure if I've ever told anybody this, but there are moments throughout The Last of Us when their relationship develops that has always triggered an emotional reaction from me. The best example of this is the ranch scene. Every single time I see anything from this scene, I either get teary eyed or I straight up start crying. I'm not the sappiest person out there, but this scene always gets me in a way pretty much no other form of media has done so before or after.)
The Last of Us gradually builds up Joel and Ellie's relationship, but ends with it hanging up in the air. It shows how Joel is willing to give anything to save Ellie, but ends with Ellie reluctant and talking about how important Riley was to her, and how she is gone without her. (While The Last of Us: Left Behind offers a deeper glimpse to their relationship in addition to being an incredible supplemental story, it is not required to grasp how important Riley was to her) It shows Joel trying to smooth things over with Ellie who openly distrusts him.
There is pretty much nothing in The Last of Us that makes it a "feel good" game, but it is one that nevertheless had heart. There's Tess's goodbye to Joel; there are moments like the ranch scene; and yes, even the part with those damn giraffes. It is a game that continued to grow on me, and ends with a lot of that uncertain. In 2013, long before we knew that there would be a sequel to The Last of Us, let alone one featuring Joel and Ellie again, all I could think about was how their relationship would come to an end, because of what Joel did. In my head, I never pictured Ellie seeking revenge or actively hating Joel or anything. I imagined her walking back with Joel and both of them living back at Tommy's dam and continuing to live with the fact that the she is alone in the world. How pretty much everyone she has cared for died and all she has is some kinda selfish guy.
One last thing I want to mention is the Savage Starlight comic books, which are essentially The Last of Us's "Tales of the Black Freighter". While you find them throughout the story out of order, each comic correlates to what is happening in the story at the time. For those of you are not familiar with these comics, here are a few examples:
Joel and Ellie fighting against the scavengers and escaping from Pittsburgh:
Daniela and Captain Ryan have been thrown into the Arena, where the hungry eyes of the Travelers watch as they are forced to fight to the death. Will she put aside her feelings for the captain to fight for her own survival?
Joel and Ellie first encountering David's group at the University, which leads to the big conflict during the Winter chapter:
After their improbable escape from the Arena, Daniela and Ryan are now the two most wanted humans in the solar system. Their newfound infamy has attracted the attention of a mysterious organization called the Last Watch.
Following scarce and cryptic clues, the trail to the Last Watch has led them to Saturn's tiny and misshapen seventh moon: Hyperion.
In the game's final scene, the player only controls Ellie for about a minute and all there really is to do is follow Joel up the hill. The only other thing the player can interact with is finding Savage Starlight's last comic book--both in terms of it being the last collectible in the game and the final numbered comic in the series. The description of this book directly references whether or not Joel's secret will be revealed and the graver importance this will have once the truth is out there:
The Travelers have been crippled... for now. Daniela's daring plan, and her seemingly miraculous escape back home, has made her a galvanizing figurehead to the Last Watch. Captain Ryan's "sacrifice" has made him a martyr, an illusion Daniela won't dispel. But how long can she keep what really happened a secret?
I think there are a couple of different ways to interpret Ellie's last line of dialogue. Maybe she knows Joel is lying, but can live with it. Maybe she is pretending to be Ok with it, but in reality she isn't. It is believable that Joel and Ellie will continue to live together. And at the end of the day, Ellie is a strong and independent character who can process and deal with how Joel lied to her in a half a dozen different ways. Still, I played through The Last of Us to completion a total of four times, and every time I get to the ending, I feel empty. All I can picture is how Ellie's trust in Joel is broken or how this could be the beginning of their unraveled relationship. How they could get back to Tommy's and never really talking to each other. Or how one of them could some day take off and leave the other behind.
The final conversation between Joel and Ellie and the uncertain future they have is probably one of the uneasiest ways The Last of Us could have ended for me. It is far from the obvious choice of either killing off one or both characters, and has made me reexamined and thought about this game over and over in ways I never anticipated. I wished for the best of both of them over the course of the game and it refused it end that way. And for all of those reasons, I absolutely love that ending and think it makes a great game even greater. This ending is just one of the reasons why I consider The Last of Us to be one of the pinnacles of videogame storytelling.
Finally writing my thoughts on a now three and a half year old game is kind of weird, especially in light of today's announcement. Some day we will know what is next in store for Ellie and Joel. There will be a point where we will know exactly what troubles come next for them, where they will go, and how their lives together will change. And I sure as hell bet there will be some sort of follow up to Joel's lie and/or that conversation (And even if there isn't, that's probably Ok too). Personally, I can't wait to see it all for myself.