Cut to the December of 2016, to the Sony event when the teaser of The Last of Us II was revealed, bringing back a barrage of emotions. I have to admit, when I first saw the firefly logo; Ellie, strumming the guitar, and singing; and Joel, walking up on her, calling her ‘kiddo’ as he does, with Gustavo Santaolalla’s pitch perfect score in the background, I welled up a little. I don’t expect a lot of you to understand that emotion, but for those who have played the game and endured it in all its brutality and mindnumbing, heartbreaking, yet absolutely beautiful storytelling, I know we stand in solidarity. It is not difficult to guess what I did next: played the first part again, for days at end.
I have never considered ‘The Last of Us’ as merely a game. For me, it is an extended film, one of the best I have watched, that requires me to lift my controller every now and then to reveal what happens next. Needless to say if my rant hasn’t already brought that out to the front, ‘The Last of Us’ is singularly the best game I have played till date, and while I really hope the second part changes that, the original will always have a special, special place in my heart for what it made me feel the first time I played it. Again, it’s an emotion not many of you would resonate with, but for those who do, there’s lots to read on and reminisce.
The ‘The Last of Us’ is a survivor cum horror cum action game set in the distant future, wherein the outbreak of a mutated fungus ‘cordyceps’ that causes humans to become aggressive, braindead creatures (referred to simply as ‘the infected in the film, akin to zombies) has caused close to half the population being decimated, and the remaining population remains quarantined in safe zones governed by militia. Entire cities are abandoned and cordoned off, and ration card, weapon, food, and resource smuggling is rampant. The protagonist Joel is one such smuggler, but his story started twenty years ago on the night of the actual outbreak, when his entire world was turned upside down.
The game actually starts off in 2013. Joel is shown living a solitary life with his daughter Sara, and a passive, rather tranquil existence, one that is shaken by the outbreak of the fungi. All hell breaks loose as people break into the streets and flee for their safety, not actually knowing what caused the turmoil or how, and this state of confusion and haste is wonderfully depicted in the game, the players feel the sense of urgency in the situation. Not showing the origin of the outbreak, in my opinion, was a smart move on the makers’ part. The players remain as oblivious as the characters, even though their lives are completely transformed following the incident, and that makes the proceedings in the game all the more thrilling.
In the ensuing chaos, Sara is shot dead by a soldier, and she passes away in Joel’s arms even as he pleads her not to go, demolishing your heart in the process. This one scene establishes brilliantly what many a villain have tried establishing about the society’s good guy act: they are shed at the first sign of real trouble. The soldier was ordered to shoot down Joel and Sara, even without completely knowing whether they were infected or not. The soldier shows some conscience, but proceeds on receiving the order all the same, which broke my heart a little.
In the present day, Joel wakes up and goes on a mission to retrieve a weapons cache from a dealer, who is killed by Joel’s partner, Tess, after knowing he traded the cache with the Fireflies, a militia group who is rebelling and has taken up arms against the system. Marlene, the head of the fireflies offers them the cache back, doubled in return for having a girl, Ellie smuggled out of the city. The two agree, and discover that the reason she is being smuggled is that she didn’t turn into one of the infected despite having been bitten three weeks ago. The hope for a cure rekindles and Tess, having been bitten as they made their way through groups of the infected, sacrifices herself believing in the greater good when the three finally make their way to the firefly meeting point that turns out to be an ambush.
With the help of an old aide, Bill, Joel is able to get his hands on a working vehicle, from where he decides to drive to pursue his brother Tommy, a former firefly to enquire known whereabouts of the Fireflies. Their car is attacked on the way by a group of bandits, and the duo band with brothers Sam and Henry, fellow survivors. During their escape, Sam is revealed to have been bitten by an infected, who starts to turn following a rather jovial night of intimate conversations with Ellie, one of the more tender, human bits of the game. As Sam tries to attack Ellie, he is shot dead by his brother Henry who then commits suicide out of horror in an extremely powerful, heartbreaking scene, as the screen cuts to black.
The weather and terrain changes and gives way to a more sombre, neutral hue as the fall sets in and Joel and Ellie proceed to Tommy’s fortified settlement near a dam in Wyoming, who operates there with his wife Maria and a group of other men. After fighting off another group of bandits, Joel decides to leave Ellie with Tommy and end his journey. Ellie resents, and reveals that she would feel much safer with Joel, having come this far because of him, which is a key moment in their developing relationship. Joel then agrees to take her to the University of Eastern Colorado, where the Fireflies have seemingly relocated to. Upon reaching there, the duo realise that the Fireflies have fled to a hospital in Utah, but not before being attacked by a group of bandits. In the ensuing brawl and escape, Joel is mortally wounded, and is rescued by Ellie on horse.
The eerie calm of winter begins to set in, as Joel is still recovering and being tended to by Ellie. The segment begins with Ellie going off for hunting and food scavenging, when she runs into a man, David and his comrades. They appear to be well meaning at first, offering to trade food for medicines. After a run in with a horde of the infected, David turns hostile towards Ellie and reveals that it was his group that the duo slaughtered at the University. He lets Ellie go momentarily, but follows her back to their hideout, and following initial evasive attempts, Ellie is captured while the gang is steered away from Joel owing to Ellie’s efforts. David wishes to offer Ellie another chance by joining his group, citing she has heart. Ellie refutes, killing off one of his comrades in the process and hiding in a restaurant, with a furious David on her tail.
Meanwhile, Joel, now partially recovered sets out to find Ellie, and after some brutal questioning and combat, manages to locate her at the restaurant she is trapped at. He reaches there in time to see her viciously slashing David’s face with a machete and stops and comforts her, before she breaks into tears and Joel embraces her, calms her down and calls her ‘baby girl’. This key event marks Joel’s submission into the mutual relationship these two find themselves in.
The oncoming of spring is marked with more colours, and a lighter tone as the duo share a tender moment atop a terrace where they spot a group of giraffes passing. That changes soon after as they proceed to the hospital and after a face-off with a group of the infected, Ellie almost drowns. The two are rescued by patrolling Fireflies, and are reunited with Marlene. Upon regaining consciousness, Joel is informed that Ellie is being prepped for surgery, that the doctors have found a way to isolate the affected part of her brain and reverse engineer a vaccine. However, that would also mean Ellie would die in the process and Joel is severely unaccepting of that. He fights his way through dozens of Fireflies to reach Ellie, who is already into the operation procedure and is heavily sedated. Joel carries an unconscious Ellie out, and proceeds to the parking, attempting to save her. There, he encounters Marlene, who tries to be his voice of reason and attempts to convince him to let go for the greater good of humanity. Joel doesn’t back down and shoots Marlene, who bleeds profusely on the floor, then shoots her in the face, killing her, fearing that she’d come after Ellie if spared.
Upon regaining consciousness, Ellie enquires and is told by Joel as they are driving out of the city that the fireflies found many others like her, and after several attempts had stopped looking for a cure. Upon reaching Tommy’s settlement, the duo argue as Ellie is overcome with guilt at being the only one who survived out of her group. Joel comforts her, and swears what he told her about the Fireflies was true.
Now there are reasons why out there it is hailed as one of the best games ever created. I am a first-hand believer. Through presenting a dystopian world and characters therein for whom the only motive is survival and everyone is faced with difficult choices, you get to experience, in person, what these outcomes are. Sometimes devastating, sometimes satisfying, always thrilling. An unusual despair hangs over the game and its proceedings, and I will agree that I was put off by the increasingly grim tone more than once. But, it’s all part of the hair rousing experiences this game promises. The animation and production team do a brilliant job in maintaining the perfect locations, with perfect surroundings, a perfect score, and just the perfect lighting to breathe light into a forsaken dystopian landscape, scary and beautiful at the same time. I doubt if I have used perfect so many times consecutively in the same line, but this game can have it all, and more. ‘The Last of Us’ terrifies you, scares you, breaks you, tests you, thrills you, and fills you up with emotions you rarely have felt while playing a game. Five years on, I don’t think a review was wanted. It was needed.
Ellie and Joel’s relationship
The fragile yet tender relationship shared by the two is what lies at the core of the game. It is the driver for most of what these characters do, and it couldn’t have been done better. Joel and Ellie are both survivors: survivors of the outbreak and survivors of great personal losses each one of them has endured, and unsurprisingly, that has made them hardened and cynical. However, as journeys go, we get to see both of them grow to like each other and get attached to each other in their own ways. Their conversational tone is poles apart from when they started and concluded their journey. Thankfully for us, it is easy to chart the shift through three very important, landmark moments in the game’s narrative.
The first is when Ellie gives in to her feelings for Joel, when he wants to leave Ellie with Tommy and carry on, figuring she would have better chances of making it with him. No amount of rational explanation can convince her, as she now looks up to him as a protector and accepts that she’d be more comfortable and confident in undertaking the journey with Joel instead of anyone else. The thought that while she may have grown to care for him, he might just want to get rid of her devastates Ellie.
“Everyone I have cared about has either died or left me. Everyone — fucking except for you! So don’t tell me I would be safer with somebody else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.”
The second is Joel’s giving in, when he finds Ellie in the restaurant, brutally killing David. She is terrified, and in that moment of comforting her, Joel holds her tight as a sign of reassurance as she sobs uncontrollably, and calls her ‘baby girl’, a term of endearment he only used for Sara.
The third, again on Joel’s part, signifies complete submission for me. One has to ponder upon the magnitude of emotions even a fictional character like Joel goes through, carrying Ellie in his hands away from the operation theatre, similar to when he carried Sara helplessly after she was shot. “Come on, baby girl. I got you. I got you.” Whoever the hell is chopping onions in my room at midnight needs to stop. Right now.
Ellie and Joel share in each other’s grief and misfortunes. They find solace in each other as they start discovering the stories behind each other and decrypting why each was the way they were. For Joel, Ellie filled the void he had following the loss of Sara. For Ellie, Joel comes to be the father figure she yearned for in her life. She is a hell of a survivor, more than mature for her age because of the conditions she grew up in, but in her most vulnerable moments, she’d look to Joel. She derived strength from his protectiveness that in turn may have stemmed from his inability and helplessness at not having been able to save Sara. On the plus side, they do make a great fighting pair too, so there’s that.
The ending of ‘The Last of Us’ is sufficiently simple for anyone looking carefully, yet deeply complex for anyone wishing to delve into the psychological complexity behind Joel’s decision. Joel fights his way, kills, stabs, and shoots through any Firefly soldier who stood in his way to reach Ellie and rescue her, even killing Marlene in cold blood. Saving the world vs. saving the one person who mattered most in the here and now. Seemingly simple choice, except that more often than not, it’s not that simple.
Any morally straight person would expect Joel to back down and not interrupt the procedure, even if that meant losing Ellie in the process, since it would mean inching closer to fighting off the evil that has plagued the planet for two decades now. However, that is not the Joel we know. We know him as someone jaded and hardened by the blow of time and great personal losses. In a lot of ways, Ellie is his reckoning, his second chance at life, someone that added meaning to his days and existence. I will let one of the dialogues from Joel’s final conversation with Ellie shed some more light on this. Upon being overcome with survivor’s guilt, Ellie questions Joel, to which he has this to say. “I struggled for a long time with survivin’. And you— No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” Ellie is his ‘something to fight for’ here.
On the surface it might be because he had grown to deeply care for her, but there really is no straightforward explanation for Joel’s actions, and why he later lied to Ellie about the cure not being found. We all know that humans can be deceptively selfish; perhaps Joel was too. The answer doesn’t simply lie in a designated black and white area. There is a whole lot of greys in between them, and Joel acted on them. However, I don’t, for one second believe that your heart didn’t go out, atleast once, to Joel’s predicament and you didn’t, even if half-heartedly so, support his call to take Ellie away from it all. That, I believe, is the power wielded by the portrayal of their relationship, and that is the reason we’ve been looking for. Joel took Ellie from the hospital and lied to her for all the reasons that one part of you wanted him to. That’s what it means to be human.
Was there ever going to be a cure? If yes, was all of humanity going to be freed from the cordyceps fungal infection? What of the already infected?
I guess, all these questions don’t matter anymore. What mattered was the choice to be made by Joel in that tough hour that shaped the outcome of perhaps something larger than he could have imagined. In that, the cure or the vaccine becomes what we call a MacGuffin, a plot device that looms over the narrative of the game, yet is there merely to drive the plot forward. In this case, it is fostering the focal point of the plot: the relationship between Ellie and Joel.
While I won’t say that the ending was ambiguous at all, a strong case may be made for Ellie being completely aware that she was being lied to by Joel, judging from her look at the end. One of two things may happen after the credits rolled on the first part. She understood what Joel lied for and plays along, since she doesn’t want to lose Joel either. The second outcome being that she flips out, and starts resenting him for placing personal motives over what the mission was all along. All our speculations will be put to rest when the highly anticipated sequel comes out next year in June. While the trailer for the second part does show a grown Ellie in action, and a few more details are revealed, I am counting on Naughty Dog to blow my mind all over again.