Why I didn’t expect the ending of The Last of Us

I didn’t write a review for The Last of Us, though I have several friends who reviewed it for various outlets. Here at GameZone, Matt Liebl had that honor. (Check out his full review.) This means that a lot of my friends had finished the game before it even came out.

So when I finally finished the game three weeks or so after it had launched, I felt like I was incredibly late to the party. I had been reading the comments my friends were posting on various social media for weeks, and I had actually read quite a bit about the game’s ending without actually spoiling anything.

Now, I feel strongly that the ending to this game is something you should experience for yourself in the context of the game’s story, so I’m going to give you fair warning: The rest of this article will be completely stuffed with spoilers. If you haven’t finished The Last of Us yet, I would highly recommend clicking away. In fact, I wrote a piece about Capcom’s DuckTales remake that you might enjoy, so go click on that.

For those who are still with me, let’s carry on.

Our Protagonist, Joel

I was constantly reading those “The Last of Us has the perfect ending, and it doesn’t need a sequel” comments before I had finished the game, and that fact radically altered my expectations. So during my first playthrough, I made all sorts of predictions about how this thing was going to end. For example, after Joel found himself impaled by that metal rod during the college scene, I didn’t expect him to survive.

And then I started suspecting this weird Shakespearean twist. After Ellie was kidnapped by the cannibals and Joel goes off to rescue her, I half expected Ellie to accidentally murder Joel, not realizing it was him until it was too late. It would have been an interesting plot twist, one that underscored the game’s theme of how the basic human drive for survival warps the characters morally. Joel had prepared Ellie for survival. He had put her into situations, though not always intentionally, where she was forced to kill or be killed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the survivor Joel had created ultimately used all those skills to bring him down?

Of course, I can’t say I was surprised when the game revealed that Ellie had to die for the Fireflies to extract the cure. That seems like a pretty standard trope, right? The theme of sacrificing oneself for someone or something else has been around as long as storytelling itself. But what came after was completely unexpected.

Joel goes on a rampage and murders dozens of Fireflies, including Marlene and the surgeons in the operating room (depending on the player’s choice, actually. I left one of the surgeons alive.) He rescues Ellie one last time, cradling her in his arms and calling her “baby girl.” Of course, this brings us back to the game’s intro, where Joel’s daughter was killed, and we’re seeing this emotional wall break down in a character who had spent the entire game erecting these sorts of barricades around his feelings.

Joel and Ellie

Ultimately, Joel robs humanity of its cure in order to protect one girl, and then he lies to Ellie about it. While this corresponds with natural human instinct, it goes against all the expectations we have of storytelling.

And that’s what’s great about it. It’s subtle, but it flips our preconceived notions on their heads. We should have expected a cynical ending based on the things we’d seen through the course of the game, but we’ve been trained by a lifetime of consuming basic storytelling formulas to not expect that particular ending.

How disturbed we are by Joel’s actions will vary from person to person. Was Joel ultimately justified in his decision? The Last of Us never gives us a clear answer, and it doesn’t need to. It instead lets us make up our own mind about it, and that means we’re actually encouraged to put some measure of thought into the game’s themes.

Joel and Marlene

It's hard to surprise gamers these days. We sometimes feel like we've seen it all, like there's nothing left to consume but somewhat new mixes of the same old storytelling ingredients. I obviously can't speak for all of the players, but The Last of Us managed to surprise at least me, and I would certainly call that an accomplishment.

Good on you, Naughty Dog.