WARNING! THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US!
Consider yourself warned.
The ending to The Last of Us sucked. I don’t mean it sucked in the sense that it was poorly executed, or didn’t fit within the context of the story. I mean it sucked in the sense that after going through such a harrowing journey, it was a total and complete gut punch. As I watched the credits roll, I felt hollow and uncomfortable. I was even a little angry. Angry that the end was so ambiguous, angry that Naughty Dog had chosen this path to take, but mostly angry with Joel for the actions he took to save Ellie and, in turn, damn humanity. As I had time to reflect however, it dawned on me how significant this moment was for storytelling in video games.
I’m going to assume if you’re reading this article that you are already familiar with The Last of Us and how it ends. (If you’re not, what are you doing here? Go play the game!) When I walked into that operating room and watched Joel point his gun at the doctors preparing to operate on Ellie, I stopped and waited for an on screen prompt to tell me how to get out of this situation. I was sure there had to be a choice; an option that could allow me to save Ellie without killing the doctors. But this was the only way out. And so I shot all three doctors, and took off with Ellie.
Nothing in the sixteen hours I spent playing The Last of Us told me I would be able to make a choice at this moment. And yet, I stopped and I waited, as I know other gamers did. I didn’t want Ellie to die just as much as Joel didn’t, but I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice all of humanity to do so. This wasn’t a story like Mass Effect, however, where the gamer an developer create the story together. This was firmly Joel and Ellie’s story, and we were participating in it, not controlling it. Joel, as a character, had reached a point where protecting Ellie was his paramount concern, and narratively speaking, there was no other choice he could make.
Part of the reason I was angry with the ending was because Joel and Ellie had been through a truly hellish journey, and I wanted to see them get a happy ending. I felt like after dealing with clickers, bandits, betrayal, suicide, cannibalism, and even potential sexual assault, I felt like they earned the right to walk off into the sunset. In fact, I felt like humanity itself had earned that right.
It’s the reason you don’t mind when Harry Potter or Frodo have happy endings: because they have gone through enough conflict to narratively warrant an end to their journey where everything works out for the best. Neil Druckmann could have easily had them “draw some blood” from Ellie and had the world cured, and that would have been that. It’s because that ending would have been easy that I respect his decision so much to go the other way. The Last of Us isn’t about happy endings, it’s about survival.
Neil Druckmann and his team should be commended for the work they did on The Last of Us, but especially the ending. They could have given us a choice. They could have gone the easy route and created a happy ending. They didn’t. They knew that would be dishonest to the characters, the story, and ultimately the audience. The story was the paramount concern for this “game”, and I can’t wait to see more developers take this approach.