Breaking Down the Ending of The Last of Us
According to a Metacritic poll released at the beginning of 2020, The Last of Us was voted to be the game of the decade.2 Although this vote does not speak for the games industry or gamers as a whole, it was still considered to be a very significant achievement and many news outlets reported on the results.
Hearing this news did not surprise me. While I am fairly new to The Last of Us, having first played it around the time the poll results were released, it is no secret that many consider the game to be a masterpiece. It makes sense that it would come out on top. This got me thinking about why this game resonates with such a large audience. After replaying the game a few times in preparation for this issue, I found that I grew to love this game more and more with each playthrough. If you’ve read through most of this issue, you will see the various elements that make this game so remarkable. But what truly makes the game stand out is the ending.
Before diving into an analysis, I want to recap what exactly is going on in this end sequence.
The end of The Last of Us begins with Joel waking up in a hospital room after being knocked out by some Firefly soldiers. The last time he saw Ellie, he was trying to revive her after she had passed out underwater from being unable to swim. With Joel is Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies. He hasn’t seen her since early in the game, back in Boston, and it is a relief to see a familiar face. When he asks if Ellie is okay, Marlene provides good news.
Joel wishes to see Ellie but Marlene stops him, telling him he does not have to worry about her anymore. When Joel rebukes her suggestion, Marlene finally comes out with the truth about what is going on. She tells Joel that Ellie is being prepped for surgery. They are ready to study her brain in hopes to create a vaccine. The only catch is that in order for them to do this, Ellie must die.
The realization is sudden and Joel immediately questions it. Marlene, however, is firm about her decision. When Joel shows signs that he wants to stop this from happening, Marlene assigns a guard to escort him out of the hospital. Joel complies for a short while before seeing his backpack and catching the soldier off guard, taking his gun. He asks him where the operating room is. When the guard is slow to respond, Joel shoots him in the stomach twice before the man finally answers. As his body sinks to the floor, Joel shoots him in the head. Alerted to the gunshots, soldiers can be heard coming toward him to respond to the situation.
Joel makes his way to the top floor where the guard said the operating room was located. He fights off hordes of Fireflies to make it to the surgical unit (it should be noted that the player is not required to kill the Firefly soldiers, so this part of the game is largely open to how the player handles things. The player can choose to kill all of the Fireflies or run past them stealthily). During this climb, Joel can also find some voice recordings from Marlene mulling over her decision to sacrifice Ellie for the cause. It is clear she loves her, but wants to do the right thing.
Once in the operating room, Joel kills the doctor and unhooks Ellie from the surgery table. As Fireflies move in to stop him, Joel evades gunshots and carries Ellie’s limp body to the elevator. He takes it down to the parking garage. For good measure, he presses the emergency button so that no one can follow him down. Exiting the elevator, Joel finds they are not alone. Marlene is standing with a gun pointed at him. She attempts to reason with Joel and appeal to his better judgement.
Marlene: “You can’t save her. Even if you get her out of here, then what? How long before she’s torn to pieces by a pack of clickers? That is if she hasn’t been raped and murdered first.”
Joel: “That ain’t for you to decide.”
Marlene: “It’s what she’d want. And you know it. Look…you can still do the right thing here. She won’t feel anything.”
The scene cuts short and we see a shot of Joel driving toward the mountains. When Ellie wakes up in the back seat and asks what happened, Joel tells her that they found the Fireflies. He says it turns out there are a lot of people who are immune, like her, but it didn’t do a bit of good. He then says that they are giving up on finding a cure. At this news, Ellie turns her back to Joel and Joel says he is sorry.
Intercut with this scene is a continuation of Joel’s confrontation with Marlene in the parking garage. Joel seems to be questioning his decision to abduct Ellie. Marlene reaches for Ellie, but Joel shoots her. After putting Ellie in the back seat of an abandoned truck, he walks back to Marlene. She pleads for him to spare her life, but Joel reasons that she will only follow after Ellie before shooting her. The scene cuts to black.
We then open to a familiar landscape. Joel and Ellie have returned to Jackson, where Tommy lives. Ellie sits on the edge of the front car seat, staring reflectively at her bite mark and tracing it with her fingers. Clearly she is distraught, similar to the start of spring after her trauma with David. Joel, on the other hand, is in good spirits. As they make their way toward Tommy’s on foot, he reminisces on the hikes he and Sarah used to take together and suggests that she and Ellie would have been good friends. Ellie does not say much, only responding to Joel with short, one word answers.
As they approach a hill overlooking Tommy’s community, Ellie stops Joel and tells him about the night she was bitten. She explains that she was not alone but with her best friend, Riley, who was also bitten. Not knowing what to do, Riley says, “Let’s just wait it out. Y’know, we can be all poetic and just lose our minds together.” But despite this, Ellie is still waiting for her turn to die. Now, it isn’t just Riley who has died but Tess and then Sam. Joel interrupts her, saying none of their deaths are on her and that he struggled with survivor’s guilt for a long time too. As he speaks, his hand slowly grazes his broken watch and he glances down at it absently. Ellie cuts him off and makes him swear to her that what he said happened with the Fireflies is true.
Joel gives her a quizzical look before responding, “I swear.” Ellie, clearly torn between her belief that he has lied and the fact that he just swore he didn’t, nods and says, “Okay.” Queue the credits.
There is obviously a lot to unpack here. Naughty Dog spared no expense when it came to providing the player with an intense conclusion to this game. The final scenes of The Last of Us present us with several moments of ambiguity and subtleness. No character is good or bad, nor are there any easy answers to the questions being presented.
One of the central conflicts going on here is between Joel and Marlene – to let Ellie die for the possibility of a cure, or allow her to live. It is the trolley problem: do you sacrifice one to save the many or sacrifice many to save the one? The thought experiment is one of ethics. Both Marlene and Joel love Ellie, but Marlene believes in acting for the good of humanity. She believes it is more moral to take action to kill one person to save many, rather than to let many die but not directly harm anyone. Even though it is painful for her, she believes that this is the right thing to do.
When Joel confronts her in the parking lot, Marlene’s persuasion to let Ellie die because of the horrors that lie outside (the infected, rape, murder) is vulgar yet true. But Joel’s response to her caution is that this isn’t her choice to make. This is a valid point and one that could be easily overlooked by the player. Throughout all of this, Ellie is never allowed to give her consent. While it is probable that she would have sacrificed herself to find a cure for humanity, the fact is that the question is never offered. Ellie is unconscious when the Fireflies find her. Instead of waking her up, they prep her for surgery. By removing Ellie’s autonomy from the situation, it becomes morally unethical to operate on her. And yet, it is the right thing to do, right?
Joel may make the argument that the final decision is not for Marlene to make, but the same logic can be turned against his own choices. He can’t make the decision that she should live. Joel does not want to lose Ellie. Over the course of almost a year, she has become a surrogate daughter to him. Unable to deal with the grief of losing his daughter 20 years prior, Joel refuses to lose someone else. In many ways, his choice to remove Ellie from the operating room is understandable. It makes sense. But like Marlene, it is not his decision to make.
In the process of “rescuing” Ellie, Joel proceeds to kill dozens of Fireflies. We have seen Joel kill dozens of people before in the name of survival, but this has gone past that. Though he is still fighting to survive, it is in service of a selfish cause. Rather than deal with more grief, Joel will resort to killing and removing the possibility that a cure can be discovered. It is easier for him to do that than confront his loss.
The connections between these scenes and the start of the game are stark. At no point has the game been more clear about Joel’s relationship with Ellie. Just as the start of the game shows Joel carrying a wounded Sarah through swarms of infected, desperate to survive, so does the end of the game show Joel carrying an unconscious Ellie while evading Firefly soldiers, desperate to survive. Joel is the protector of the vulnerable, though a very different sort of protector at the start of the game than at the end. He couldn’t save Sarah, but he can save Ellie. He is unconcerned about the ethical dilemma going on. Joel is not rescuing Ellie for the fact that she didn’t get to make her own decision. His intentions are purely selfish and for his own wellbeing. After all, Joel has never been one for the cause. Time and time again we’ve seen this in the game. Joel has a distaste for the Fireflies and their cause, scoffing at Tess when she says they should transport Ellie for the sole reason of hoping for a cure. It was Tommy who joined the Fireflies, not Joel. Joel has never been in this for anyone but himself. As far as he is concerned, bad things happen and there is nothing you can do about it.
All of this culminates in the moment when Ellie wakes up in the backseat of the truck and Joel lies to her. Right away it is clear that Ellie is disappointed by his words, though what isn’t clear is whether she is disappointed because she believes him or because she doesn’t. It should be pointed out that Ellie is still wearing her hospital gown. If Joel’s story were to be believed, it wouldn’t make much sense that they dressed Ellie up for surgery when they had also given up on looking for a cure. Perhaps Ellie recognizes this.
Not one to let things lay dormant and untouched like Joel, Ellie decides to talk about what happened as they approach Jackson. At her inquiry, Joel once again lies. He swears that what he told her was the truth and she has no choice but to believe him.
These last three words are the most powerful part of the ending. They convey just what they need to, no more and no less. This is what sets The Last of Us apart from other games of its genre. Where many action games, and to a certain extent games in general, would feature over explanations and long winded ending sequences, Naughty Dog opts for simplicity. There doesn’t need to be a final boss or grandiose moment to hit the player on the head. Just these three words sum up the messiness of what happened.
In many ways, there is a lot of ambiguity to the ending. We don’t truly know what Ellie is thinking. There are no answers as to where their relationship goes from here. Where there was once a strong bond are now questions and underlying doubt. But more importantly, the game does not try to deal with what happened. It is all left up to interpretation for the player. This is a powerful tool in storytelling because it requires the player to use their imagination. Naughty Dog isn’t telling us what is right and what is wrong but simply presenting what happened in the story. The player gets to determine what to make of it all.
The Last of Us does not tie itself up nicely because the truth is, it couldn’t. Our characters are living in a horrific pandemic that turns humans into literal zombies. Had this story ended with our characters learning a lesson and staring off into the sunset, the end would feel disingenuous. Ending things nicely would not be true to the source material.
The pandemic still persists with no cure in sight. Joel and Ellie’s relationship has been tested and broken, perhaps permanently. The future is unknown and that is the best way the story could have ended.
- Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2013.
- Dietz, Jason. 2020. “Metacritic Users Pick the Best of 2019 (and the Decade).” Metacritic. January 9, 2020. https://www.metacritic.com/feature/user-poll-results-best-of-2019?ref=hp.