More Games Need Endings Like The Last of Us
Warning! We’re discussing the ending of The Last of Us in here, and there are MASSIVE SPOILERS!
If there’s anything game developers seem especially bad at, it’s endings.
Maybe it’s because endings are left to the last moment; maybe they’re phoned in because they’re not as important as multiplayer and explosions; maybe it’s that a sequel-driven industry means it’s best to leave things open-ended. Whatever the case, it seems as though for every decently conceived, well-written ending a video game story has, there are five or so that fail to satisfyingly conclude its narrative. It’s hard to forget the bad taste of endings to multi-game sagas like Mass Effect, Gears of War or Assassin’s Creed, or the utter throw-aways like the conclusion of RAGE, the super-short wrap-ups of Far Cry 3, or the original ending of Fallout 3.
The Last of Us, as a game primarily about telling a story, does some things right and some things wrong. Despite all the praise it has received, as a post-apocalyptic zombie story, it’s pretty boilerplate. There’s no shortage of angry-white-man-killing-stuff-to-survive stories out there, even those that involve those angry men eventually softening thanks to the companionship of a kid. Most of the plot points and twists of The Last of Us are fully visible at around 10 miles away, and even though people have praised the game’s depictions of women, it’s not exactly making giant leaps far as gender issues. Meanwhile, the game’s protagonists, Joel and Ellie, are phenomenally well-created characters, and the dialog that concerns them, as well as the simple growth of their relationship, are often outstanding.
Also firmly in the positive column for The Last of Us: its phenomenal, perfectly attuned ending.
It’s rare that a game can land on exactly the right note and not shy away from it. It’s easy to argue that The Last of Us concerns a lot of the same characteristics and themes as plenty of other games — angry dude, after being traumatized, shuts off from the world and then slowly gets his humanity back because of his relationship with (other character here). That’s basically Video Game Story No. 1. Where The Last of Us gets things right, then, is in staying true to the characters it creates in Joel and Ellie, instead of trying to force some catharsis on those characters that doesn’t sync up with who they are.
Let’s consider who Joel is throughout the course of The Last of Us. Despite coming to love Ellie as a daughter — the arc of the entire story — Joel is a pretty horrifically bad dude. The Last of Us starts with him helping partner Tess more or less “get even” (in mob terms) with Robert, a guy who screwed the pair of smugglers on a job and made off with some merchandise. That’s a transgression Joel and Ellie can’t let pass, and Joel unceremoniously kills a number of Robert’s henchmen before the pair tortures and executes the boss.
Joel has no qualms with killing folks throughout the story, regardless of who they are or how much they deserve it. Without Ellie’s intervention, it’s likely he would have killed fellow survivor Henry after he left Joel and Ellie to escape the hunters’ Humvee on their own in Pittsburgh. And he kills all manner of other survivors throughout the course of the story. Yes, they’re often hostile (almost to the point of comedy — after 20 of your fellow hunters have been killed off by one dude, would you continue hunting him? How about when the number is closer to 200?), but let’s make no bones: Joel is a murderer. And he proves it over and over again.
The final moments of The Last of Us could have gone very differently. Joel goes fighting his way through the hospital to save Ellie from the brain surgery that will end her life — itself a plot contrivance that doesn’t do a great job of matching up with what one would consider real science or research, but whatever — and he already knows full well that this is the wrong call. This is not the call Ellie would make herself. Ellie would opt to sacrifice herself for the benefit of humanity.