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.

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23 Comments on More Games Need Endings Like The Last of Us

Mccrackelz

On July 5, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Damn skippy. Not to dig up a beaten dead horse (me3), but this is how you earn a difficult, left field ending. All your possible questions are answered without any exposition…or a holographic small child.

fethski

On July 5, 2013 at 7:18 pm

I don’t think Ellie’s loyalties do lie with the rest of the species. I think Ellie’s whole reason for tracking down the the Fireflies had more to do with survivor’s guilt, as it indicated she had in her speech at the end, more than it had to do with saving the human race. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have made that choice in different circumstances, but in my opinion guilt was the over-riding factor for everything she did in game.

As for the hospital section we have no indication that Ellie ever regained conciousness between the time she almost drowned to the time she woke up in the car. Nor do we have any indication that Ellie knew that life ending surgery would be required to potentially create a vaccine. That being said I have no doubt Ellie would have agreed to the surgery, but not because it’s the “right” thing to do, but because she has survivor’s guilt and believes she should have been dead long before.

Now let’s talk about the closing moments of the game when Ellie makes Joel swear he told her the truth about what happened at the hospital. Ellie knows that Joel lied to her she just doesn’t know to what degree though. Let’s remember that earlier in the game Joel says something along the lines of the only way to make it through each day is to find something to hold onto and to fight for it everyday. She found that in him and he found that in her; the father/daughter relationship he lost in the beginning of the game and the relationship she may have never had. In my opinion the reason she makes him swear that what he said about the hospital is true was that so she could attempt to start living without the guilt.

Is Joel some kind of monster? Maybe, it just depends on your perspective. When the world and most everyone in it went to hell it took him down with it. In his mind most people are ty and there are some you can tolerate and get along with and I don’t blame it for it. Was what he did at the hospital selfish? I’ll agree with that sentiment to a degree, but again the world turned him into the person he was in the game. And though I’m not going to do it you could blame Ellie for Joel’s actions at the end of the game. She’s the reason he began to care again.

Robyn

On July 5, 2013 at 10:01 pm

I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from with this notion that the world is doomed at the end of the Last of Us. The game ends with Joel and Ellie going to live in a new settlement with electricity and agriculture, whilst Ellie herself is immune to the virus, demonstrating the possibility of humanity overcoming this.

Joel’s decision to save Ellie is certainly a tough one, but is it really more heroic to sacrifice a child to save the world?

Kevin

On July 6, 2013 at 12:23 am

@Robyn: Jackson is one settlement. Ellie is one girl.

The entire game hints at the part that humanity is pretty much screwed, if it weren’t, you’d see less Runners.

Gman

On July 6, 2013 at 6:28 am

@Kevin: yes you see runners and yes the infection will continue to be a threat, but the one thing that is clear from your entire journey is that the single biggest continuing threat; the cause of the greatest number of deaths are other people.

The infection has already done its worst; as with any disease it was at its most deadly when there were large population centres in which it could spread. Yes, Jackson is one settlement, but there is nothing to say that in other places people have not built similar communities. We already know that there are other communities around; the fireflies have their’s, David’s community (as ed up as it was), the hunters you ran into (as violent as they had become)…humanity has not ended and the infected are not the threat they once were.

In a way Robert’s community represents a real future for humanity: you get the impression that these people have not settled for simply scavenging for supplies and killing others for theirs…they have built a community around being self-sufficient. They have returned to farming and the like. They have to be aware of the threat of the infected but they have adapted to the new reality and will continue to go on.

The fireflies and the remnants of the government are two groups locked in a war that has become utterly irrelevant.

There is no necessity in that world that says that humanity is a dying species.

R.J.

On July 6, 2013 at 9:25 am

I liked how this game ended. The decision Joel made isn’t the one I would have made, but it fit his character precisely and I was not surprised beyond the initial, “Oh wow, I’m doing this” when the final chapter starts. I can see where Joel was coming from with 20 years of knowing that doing terrible things keeps you alive, and that even with a cure, society probably can’t go back to what it once was, at least not for a long time. Joel is no hero, and the game never really tried to make him one, so it seemed fitting that even after Ellie’s “It can’t be for nothing” speech, that Joel would take her away. Even bad guys can have people they love, and so not risking Ellie’s life on the chance of a cure is exactly the move Joel, as a character, should have made.

martint

On July 6, 2013 at 12:07 pm

This is one of the better gaming articles I’ve read in recent times, stumbles upon it as well. I really hope, although it’s my biggest fear, that Naughty Dog don’t make a sequel (sony registrated the last of us 2 AND 3 as trademarks, for what that is worth?) Hats of to you for the article!

// Martin

Kevin

On July 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm

@Gman: If the Infection’s damage was slowing down there would be less Runners, as they are the earliest stage in the Infection’s growth and last somewhere under a year before progressing into Stalkers and Clickers, but they are the most prominent of the Infected you run into showing that people are still being caught by it and pretty often at that.

Yes there are other communities, but they all differ from Jackson in that they all pretty much rely on scavenging and murdering other survivors. Excepting, maybe, the Fireflies who’s crusade to see the military kicked out of power has done nothing but kill tons of people, usually their own. Outside of Boston, there is not a single Quarantine Zone that we run into or hear of that hasn’t fallen apart due to uprising or abandonment. The hunters and David’s group only further drop the numbers as they rely on encountering other people to keep themselves in a sustainable position.

Even Jackson, all it requires is one person getting infected and keeping it quiet for everything to go the way of a QZ.

There’s no saying that humanity can’t jump back from that but at current they are very much on the edge of things.

michael

On July 6, 2013 at 7:33 pm

LMAO. Not to be negative about this, but sometimes peoples high expectations about a game they have been waiting for for years blinds them for giving any type of negativity for the game. Might I add that this does not go for only games but T.V. shows and movies as well. The beginning was the best part of the entire game and the end ended with a dumb deceitful cliffhanger in which they both lie to each other.

This is my opinion on how the game should have ended. The infection mutates and the air become not breathable and only those immune will not be affected. With that Joel should have turned and forced Ellie to kill him. The reason being that it switches the perspective of how the game started. Kind of poetic. In all the game disappointed me.

Tiresome

On July 7, 2013 at 2:53 am

I stopped reading at ‘gender issues.’ Yawn.

Eh?

On July 7, 2013 at 2:56 am

What do you mean there’s no room for a sequel? They both survived and you can be sure the fireflies will want to take their vengeance or will look elsewhere for a suitable brain for the vaccine. There’s MASSIVE room for a sequel. If you want to see a game with absolutely no scope for another story, play Enslaved. THAT’S final. The Last of Us, conversely, seems to have been set up almost deliberately for potential sequels.

Wesker1984

On July 7, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Also i’ve heard that The Last of Us series could center on the life of Ellie as she grow up in possible sequels. Maybe in The Last of Us 3 the main character will be a full grown Ellie with a new sidekick as her comrade after the death of Joel.

John Brunton

On July 9, 2013 at 11:46 pm

Opinions aside, Naughty Dog left the game off in a way that DLC or a sequel can conclude.

Phil Hornshaw

On July 10, 2013 at 12:00 am

Gotta disagree with those of you who think the game is left wide-open for sequels. There are more ways to reach a conclusion for a story than to kill everyone off. In the case of The Last of Us, thematically, the story is told; revisiting it further, post-conclusion, would only weaken the story as Naughty Dog has told it. That’s what’s so great about this ending — its ambiguity in its characters is important to what the story is trying to say, and that’s how it delivers its message. “The Last of Us 2: What Happened to Joel and Ellie” would merely ruin all the best parts of the story Naughty Dog has already told, and I’d argue that, in the post-apocalyptic world of the game as we know it, there’s not much left out there in terms of stories to tell that would be meaningfully different from the one we’ve already heard. The Last of Us itself stick so close to established zombie tropes that it shows how thin the premise has become.

So for my part — and feel free to disagree, obviously — Naughty Dog concluded the game just as it meant to, and it meant for the game to be a real conclusion. We’re not supposed to know what Ellie does when Joel lies. We’re not supposed to know if it’s the end of their relationship or if she just chooses to be ignorant. What we do know is that Joel has chosen to doom the world, at least as much as he knows of it, and to take the weight of that decision out of the equation by somehow going, “oh, but these OTHER guys have a cure,” or something like that, just makes the great story we’ve already seen meaningless. Thematically, Naughty Dog closed the book, and I for one am very glad it did so.

Clunge Sponge

On July 10, 2013 at 2:34 am

Of course you disagree, Phil – you’re the one who said it was closed. It’s difficult to admit when you’re wrong.

The ending is just about the most blatantly open ending possible. Sequels are all but inevitable. Accept it.

Kevin

On July 10, 2013 at 3:58 am

I’d agree that sequels are inevitable, but I’d also agree that the story of Joel and Ellie hit its conclusion.

Sequels don’t have to be about the same two people y’know.

Phil Hornshaw

On July 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm

@Clunge Sponge, @Kevin

You guys are going to have to do more to convince me than just say “there will be sequels because there will be sequels.” :)

Just because everyone wasn’t hit by a train at the end of the game doesn’t mean the ending is necessarily left open, nor does having questions left unanswered mean they must be answered. That’s kind of the point to the ending, as I see it.

Also, I wonder what other stories would be worth telling in the world of The Last of Us? We’ve seen scrounging for survival, we’ve seen kinda trying to hang on and make it work, we’ve seen losing humanity for the sake of staying alive… What do you guys think is left to say there?

Anyway, I’ll admit that I wrote this before Sony released the 3.4 million sales info, which doesn’t bode well for a sequel not happening. Hoping

folklore

On July 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm

@Phil
There is always the story from the infected point of view.

MPSewell

On July 13, 2013 at 4:37 am

People actually think this is open for a sequel? Maybe they’ll tell the story of Ish and their failures at surviving. Maybe they’ll show other survivors having terrible lives in a post-apocalyptic hell. But they will never touch on Joel and Ellie again. The story closed with about as much finality as you could possibly have in any story, ever.

Suggesting this is “wide open” for a sequel means you didn’t get the point of the story, the ending, or of storytelling in general. Just because you want a sequel, doesn’t mean that one is going to come.

It’s over. Deal with it.

Fire

On July 13, 2013 at 5:15 am

@MPSewell: Gonna have to do better than just saying “you didn’t get the point of the story.” Many of the comments suggesting a sequel as at the very least possible have shown quite clearly that they understood the story and the ramifications of what happened. You, on the other hand, haven’t even acknowledged any of the events.

And no, we don’t have to “deal with it” when there’s been no confirmation one way or the other from the developers. I frankly don’t want to see a sequel but it’s ridiculous to suggest it can’t be done. If anything, your comment just indicates that you personally don’t want to see it continue rather than being based on any actual reasoning.

The ending IS open and will continue to be until such a time when Naughty Dog states that it’s finished. Deal with that.

Russ

On July 14, 2013 at 12:49 pm

The ends never justify the means. Collectivist ideas such as the individual is property to be used as the majority desires are immoral. Ellie is not a slave or piece of meat to be used as the collective decides. Such beliefs lead to Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, and ever other tyrant who thinks other people’s lives belong to them. Ellie fully expected to live after helping the Fireflies. She told Joel she would go wherever he wanted after this was over (getting a vaccine). She never signed on to be murdered. Plus, she is a 14 year old minor. Despite all she’s endured, she is not mature enough to make a decision to be murdered by the Fireflies. Joel was most certainly not a villain, he killed those who threatened to kill him, and he made precisely the only moral choice when he saved Ellie. To agree to her murder would have been a heinous decision. It says a lot about the beliefs of those who were eager to see Ellie murdered and to laud such a sick decision.

Andrew

On July 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Everyone who says that Ellie would have choosen to die if she was given the choice….how can you be so sure?

Yes she says she things that indicate she wants to help find a cure a save humanity and imply survivors guilt. But she also says ALOT of things that show she doesn’t want to die. (Her and Joel talk repeatedly about what they are going to do when their trip is all over). She also says that her biggest fear is ending up alone. so i have a hard time believing she would choose to die, alone. Further more she knows how much she means to Joel and knows about his daughter. im sure she is aware how much it would crush him to basically lose the one person he cares for, again. I don’t think she would do that to him. Not to mention the fact that clearly he means a lot to her as well.

Its obviously just my opinion but there is no doubt in my mind that if ellie was given the choice between dying to try and find a cure or escaping and living with Joel she would choose the latter.

Swcloud99

On August 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I think the point of the ending is to have you wonder.
Did Ellie believe Joel?
If she didn’t, how did she react?
Did she go back?
Did she stay with him?
What choice would she have made if she had known?

It’s open but not for sequels. At least not with these characters, and not without taking a lot of the punch away.