More Games Need Endings Like The Last of Us
Ellie shows time and again that her loyalties lie with the rest of the species, rather than with herself. She’s Joel’s conscience throughout the course of the story, and she pines not only for the world that has been lost, but for a world in which people who loved each other could be together and in which kids like Henry’s brother Sam could grow up without fear. She shows uncommon strength of character as she tries to help others to work through this world; Ellie carries with her an incredible optimism.
That her character embodies such optimism and strength is the reason her encounter with David, leader of the cannibalistic hunters, in the Winter portion of the game, is so powerful and poignant. Even after the battle, Ellie is visibly shaken, and in many ways her innocence has been fractured beyond repair. What she’s seen and done haunts her, unlike Joel’s reactions to his own actions. She’s ready for penance; she’s ready to end this nightmare of a world so that others don’t have to go through what she did.
But that’s not how things go, because Joel is, at heart, a selfish character. We might never know what Joel would have been like without the loss of his daughter, Sarah, but we do know that he survives this apocalypse for the next 20 years because he is ruthless and uncompromising. That attitude drove off his brother, who opted for a peaceful, positive life helping people rather than Joel’s survival-for-survival’s sake existence.
Joel and Ellie are fundamentally at odds with one another, but the game’s story is one of their bond, which meaningfully transcends their opposite worldviews. And when Joel saves Ellie at the end of the game, he lies to her because he knows this. The world Ellie hopes to save no longer exists in Joel’s eyes, and maybe in the eyes of Naughty Dog as well. Twenty years after the end of the world, most of the people left are like Joel; they’re the kinds of people we encounter throughout the tale. They’re murderers, rapists, cannibals, and thieves. They’re selfish and self-serving. Even the Fireflies aren’t really good guys when the thing they want most is within their reach, and most other characters are morally ambiguous at best. Maybe that world isn’t worth saving.
Despite The Last of Us’ tired zombie-story morality (maybe we are the real monsters!), it gets one thing in those final moments extremely right: This is not Joel’s redemption story. All too often, games bring their angry, violent men just trying to survive back from the brink, and re-instill them with humanity. The arc of the story becomes about these guys being forced to realize Maybe It’s Not So Bad, maybe Life Can Be Good, maybe Love is Real, maybe There’s Still Hope. Maybe Being a Hero is Better Than, Uh, Not.
Joel finds no redemption; he is the epitome of a loss of hope. He’s the ultimate survivor. He’s worse than David, the hunters, the Fireflies and Firefly leader Marlene taken together. And that reality makes his relationship with Ellie all the more interesting, exciting and powerful. You can see the realization in Ellie’s eyes after Joel’s final line.
You don’t have to worry about The Last of Us leaving room for a sequel; it doesn’t. You don’t have to worry about it being ambiguous; it’s not. It’s the perfect conclusion to the story of these characters and the people they’ve become through the course of knowing each other — Ellie more world-wary but finally loved, Joel willing to love but still more than willing to lie and kill. Just like those guns Joel and Tess go after at the beginning of the story, Ellie is a part of him, something with which he’s not willing to part, and he’ll do whatever is necessary to protect it, or get even with anyone who threatens it.
It’s all in the title. This is The Last of Us — Naughty Dog is serious about that. No help is coming. People like Joel are all that’s left, and all that will be left, when the ultimate end inevitably comes. Joel would rather spend those last days of the human race with his adopted daughter than without her. He’s a bad enough guy to doom the world — just like everyone else. You are not the hero of The Last of Us; there isn’t one.
That’s a dark, harsh reality for any story, especially a video game story, to hold to without flinching. Games need more storytelling like that.