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What “The Last Of Us” Taught Me: An In-Depth Analysis of Naughty Dog’s Smash Hit Game

“To the edge of the universe and back, endure and survive…”

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Well, folks, I did it. After months of pestering from avid gamer friends, a few cans of red bull, and an embarrassingly long Youtube playlist of tutorials, I finally finished playing “The Last Of Us.” I know, I know, the game has been out for five years, and, to this day, people continue to rave about just how amazing the story is. Indeed, the uproar of praise has been so loud that I sold my Nintendo DS just to scrape together enough money to purchase a PS4, alongside a copy of The Last Of Us: Remastered. Now that I’ve walked through every little level and optional dialogue, I think it’s safe to say my opinion on the game: goodness, does the game truly live up to its critical acclaim. There are so, so many things that make The Last Of Us so great; from the development of the relationship between the two main characters to the individual character development of either of them to the nitty-gritty details that make the characters absolutely come to life. It’s the way these characters establish their personalities, how they execute them, how they take form before our eyes as real, raw people who don’t fit our current model of society. The Last Of Us is a story not just about a zombie apocalypse, but something so much more — something so much more frightening. It’s a story about the human emotions: good versus evil, hope in hopeless places. Sure, the world might be ending, and there are zombies everywhere, and in any other universe, the focus would be put on escaping death, disease and worse. Instead, this game by far focuses more on humanity, on vulnerability, than anything else.

Where to begin? Let’s start with a brief summary for those who need a refresher: The Last Of Us is a third-person action-adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic world where the zombie epidemic has taken full reign. People are constantly being bitten and turned into mindless half-alive carcasses while others are struggling to merely survive without the help of a sufficient government. Indeed, the government in this post-apocalyptic America is more concerned with stealing rations for themselves than actually doing any good. In short, the only real basic plot line that prevents this game from sounding like just another episode of The Walking Dead lies within the dilemma between main character Joel and the rebel group known as the Fireflies. We learn from the prologue that Joel has been through a lot with the zombie epidemic, from not only losing his life as he knows it but also losing his daughter. The fact that his daughter is killed at the hands of a government shooter (for no good reason, I might add) should fuel Joel’s desire to overthrow the government and thus he should fit in with the Fireflies. However, as he has grown to be a cold, emotionless man, he prefers to stay out of politics and focus more on simply staying alive any way he can — which means, mostly, getting money. Money, meaning guns for protection, ammo, food, clothes, etc. The leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, proposes an offer to Joel and his partner in crime, Tess: smuggle a young girl across the country to the Capitol of the Fireflies. We don’t learn right away the exact reason why this young girl is so important, but for the payment of ammunition, Joel and Tess take on the challenge.

Now for the more in-depth plot details. Throughout nearly all fourteen years of her life, Ellie has experienced nothing but strict rules and unbelievable physical training under America’s government-run military schools. That is, up until about a year ago, when she met Marlene, leader of the Fireflies. We learn that Marlene was friends with Ellie’s mom, and so she agrees to take the girl under her wing after the apocalypse worsens to the point that schools become a thing of the past. The Fireflies, of course, are public enemy number one, a main target of the government. Thus, the face of the rebel group, Marlene herself cannot take Ellie westward, never mind to the capitol of the Fireflies. Of course, we’re still left with the question as to why Ellie is so important — why she has to be smuggled to the capitol. That is, until about a third of the way into Joel, Tess, and Ellie’s journey. Caught by a few government soldiers, the three characters are handcuffed and tested for any possible infection from being bitten or otherwise touched by a zombie. Joel and Tess come up clean,  but right as one soldier is about to discover Ellie’s status, Ellie quickly swipes the soldier with a knife, allowing Joel and Tess to break from the other guards and kill them all before any retaliation can commence. As Ellie exclaims how sick she feels for killing a soldier, Tess picks up the device that the soldier used to check Ellie’s infection status. “Joel, you gotta see this,” She yells in frustration, throwing the device to him. It is then that the two adults discover Ellie is indeed infected. At least, that’s what the device claims. However, it is quickly revealed that Ellie’s bite wound is three weeks old, meaning she should have turned to a zombified carcass ages ago. Indeed, young Ellie is the only hope for humanity: the only person immune to the zombie virus. She needs to travel to the Fireflies capitol not for Marlene’s benefit, but the benefit of society as a whole. At the capitol, doctors and surgeons can develop a cure for the virus by sampling Ellie’s immune biological traits. If successful, the zombie virus will finally come to an end.

That’s the ultimate goal, anyway. But in The Last Of Us, goals are often set without any real fruition. Hopes are set only to come stumbling down. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what makes this game so great in itself. It’s our expectations shattered, our emotions toyed with, our favorite characters destroyed completely or rebuilt entirely. These ideas are so clearly demonstrated in the relationship between Ellie and Joel. Specifically, in the beginning of their journey, Joel is merely a cold, heartless man. Ellie tries so desperately to crack a joke here and there, to lighten the mood, but all Joel does is respond with ‘hmphs’, one-worded answers and, at some points, “knock it off’s”. He demonstrates clear annoyance at Ellie, coupled with almost a sense of dislike or even hatred. The interesting thing about this dislike for Ellie is that it can be traced back to the beginning of Joel’s journey throughout the apocalypse. For one thing, Joel certainly doesn’t want to open himself up to a relationship where emotions can be riled. The world at this time is no place for emotions; it’s disappointing and depressing. For one thing, the government has grown corrupt and unhelpful. Instead of maintaining rations and aiding the suffering stuck in ratty, old quarantine zones, government soldiers shoot and kill anyone-regardless of their infected status-in non-quarantine zones simply to steal supplies and clothing from the deceased. If that doesn’t scream hope, let’s not forget what they did to Joel’s daughter. In the prequel to the actual story, Joel and his daughter Sarah make it to the quarantine zone and are met with one single soldier. The soldier doesn’t want to shoot them, as he knows for certain they aren’t infected, yet he does as his commander demands, shooting and killing Joel’s daughter (before he can shoot Joel, Joel’s brother manages to arrive just in time and shoot the soldier). This brings us to our last point: of course, Joel doesn’t want to open himself up to Ellie, a 14-year-old girl. Ellie, with her motor mouth and tomboyish attitude.  See any parallels? Ellie is a stunning shadow of Joel’s daughter, a constant reminder that Sarah is dead and gone and it’s all because of this goddamn zombie apocalypse. When he lost his daughter, Joel closed himself off to emotion. He became the cold man we see following the game’s prequel. He’ll be damned if he lets Ellie change that.

But of course, Ellie does change that- and that’s a key element which makes this game so great. I believe the first major turning point in the relationship between Ellie and Joel is when the pair encounters Joel’s younger brother, Tommy, in their journey to the Fireflies’ Capitol. Basically, Tommy has men, guns, food, and just about anything else you can think of that may aid Ellie and Joel against zombies or government soldiers. Initially, Joel asks Tommy (an ex-Firefly) to deliver Ellie to the capitol. When he denies this offer, the two brothers grow enraged with each other. The situation is meant to end there, but Tommy reconsiders his answer after Joel helps him fend off a few raiders. However, when Ellie hears that Joel wanted to merely “drop her off” and leave her with Tommy to be delivered to the Fireflies, she runs away, hurt. She ended up hiding out in Tommy’s ranch, and there’s a special dialogue that occurs between Ellie and Joel once they reunite.

“Ellie: ‘Everyone I have cared for 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.’ 
Joel: ‘You’re right…you’re not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain’t your dad. And we are going our separate ways.'”

Now, initially, this conversation may dwindle any hope of Ellie and Joel beginning a real friendship. Ellie says nothing more on the topic, accepting her fate. That is until Joel, Ellie and Tommy are about to return on horseback to Tommy’s fortress. Joel tells Ellie to dismount her horse and leave it with Tommy, that he has changed his mind and wants to bring Ellie himself to the capitol, rather than have Tommy do it. His change of heart was so deafening, I’m fairly certain 80% of players teared up at it. Joel changed his mind because he realized how much his presence meant to Ellie. And sure, he wants to be selfish and keep himself isolated from Ellie as much as he can, because the girl reminds him of his deceased daughter, but also in a sense, this is the very exact reason he does the complete opposite. He opens himself up to Ellie because this is his only chance for him to have some inkling of how it would have been with Sarah had she survived. In addition, he knows Sarah would have wanted him to stay with Ellie. This scene is so important because it’s when Ellie and Joel finally make the decision to get closer to one another, strengthening their bond that will last through the end of the game and the sequel.

Our next and probably most important moment between Ellie and Joel is when Joel nearly dies from falling onto a rebar. Ellie has to care for Joel throughout the harsh winter, stitching him up and covering him in a sleeping bag. They take refuge in an abandoned warehouse, Joel constantly shivering and barely able to speak and Ellie being forced to go outside and hunt for food. Every day, she prays that she won’t come back from hunting to find Joel’s unmoving body. That is until Ellie encounters David when she’s out hunting. Let’s just say David makes it seem like he’s an innocent, starving villager who could really, really use some of that deer Ellie just killed. Ellie says she’ll give him the deer in exchange for some antibiotics from David’s village. The agreement is made. All should be well. Then David is revealed to be a villain, as he is part of a raider gang- most of whom were shot and killed by Ellie and Joel when they were running through the University of Eastern Colorado. Before they can shoot her, Ellie gets the antibiotics and manages to reach her hideout without David and his gang finding her. She gives the antibiotics to Joel but quickly realizes she’ll have to fight David and his gang all by herself in order to defend the hideout. She only manages to kill a few men before she’s captured by David. Ellie soon realizes she’s dead meat. No- literally, dead meat, because David and his gang are indeed cannibals. Ellie’s pinned down, with David preparing to drill into her before she manages to miraculously escape- that is, running through a maze from David until she’s eventually found. It’s here where Ellie truly thinks she may die, with David on top of her, threatening to do unspeakable things…But thankfully, Ellie manages to grab her knife and stab David, over and over and over again before Joel (guess the antibiotics worked their magic) comes running in and tackles her in a bear hug. Ellie cries, muttering “He tried to-” and all Joel says is, “Oh, baby girl. It’s okay now, it’s okay now.” They stay there hugging for a while, Ellie crying and Joel trying to calm her down. I think it’s pretty clear as to why this scene is so important, but to break it down: This is where Joel’s feelings regarding Ellie are revealed. By calling her ‘baby girl’ and hugging her, it’s clear that Joel has grown so close to Ellie, grown so much to care for her, that she’s worth as much to him as his deceased daughter, Sarah. And that, my friends, means the most in this game. This companionship, this faux father-daughter bond. It’s here where the characters are unbelievably human, and that is so, so beautiful and refreshing in a game hoarded by brain-eating zombies and criminals.

There is, of course, one final scene that we should discuss when analyzing what makes The Last Of Us so great: the ending. To fast forward a bit, Joel and Ellie make it to the Fireflies’ capitol, albeit they’re knocked out upon arrival. When Joel wakes up, the first person he lays his eyes on is an armed Firefly soldier, followed by Marlene, the tried and true leader of the rebel group (who’ve we met once before). Marlene informs Joel that Ellie is being prepped for surgery, and thanks him for delivering the girl safely to the capitol. This is our happy ending, right-? Wait a minute, did Marlene just say Ellie’s being prepped for surgery? Joel asks this very same question, to which Marlene explains, “The doctors tell me the cordyceps, the growth inside her, has somehow mutated. It’s why she’s immune. Once they remove it they’ll be able to reverse engineer a vaccine.” Joel says that the growth grows all over the brain. Marlene nods, says, “It does…” Instantly, Joel realizes what this means, and he grows hot with anger. He defies Marlene, threatens her, but Marlene simply orders the guard to follow him on his way out. Before she leaves, she tells the guard, “If he tries anything, kill him.” But we all know Joel is a master at snaking his way out of life-threatening situations, and so he manages to kill the soldier and sneak his way to the operating room. It’s here where every player’s heart stops. Ellie is there on the operating table, with a few surgeons surrounding her. We don’t know if Ellie has already been operated on, if she’s already dead or if she’s about to die. No one wants to shoot the surgeon, but the game forces us to. And so Joel kills the surgeon, scoops up an unconscious Ellie in his arms, and thankfully escapes the Fireflies before being met with one last obstacle: Marlene. With a pistol in her hands, she begs Joel to reconsider taking Ellie. After all, Ellie is the key to a vaccine, the key to saving mankind. Ellie would want to die a hero, wouldn’t she? She’d want to stop the apocalypse. But at this point, Joel doesn’t care. It’s here where we learn that Joel doesn’t care about saving the world, about preventing countless deaths and restoring mankind. If saving the world means losing Ellie, he’d rather let the world wither away at the hands of zombies- because all Joel has is Ellie. Ellie, indeed, is his whole world. And so with that, Joel shoots Marlene, places Ellie in the back of his car, and drives off to Tommy’s, praying the entire ride that Ellie wakes up. (Ellie does, in fact, wake up.)

Throughout the entire game, Joel and Ellie’s bond gradually strengthened. At first it was barely alive, Joel being too afraid to show his emotions- to be human. But Ellie showed him that she, too, is scared, scared of losing more people, scared of dying. The most frightening thing to be in this world is not a brain-eating zombie or a starving victim of the corrupt government, but rather, the scariest thing is to be human. The scariest way to live is normally- to show emotions, to use emotions, to simply feel. And that, overall, is what makes The Last Of Us so great. In a video game that has an overarching theme of zombies and destruction, the main focus is solely on humanity, on being human- something that, truly, was unprecedented until the release of this game. The Last Of Us taught me that interacting with your emotions can be the most terrifying thing in the world, even if you face a daily threat of death. But emotions, being human, is vital to surviving. If you don’t interact with your emotions, death will become a luxury. That, indeed, is what makes this game so impactful.

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Written by Mikayla Connolly

Mikayla is a high school student from New Jersey. She adores reading, writing, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and binge-watching The Office. In her free time, she works for a nonprofit and listens to her favorite bands, Paramore and Daughtry. Oh, and she really loves her dad.