For those of you having reached the end of The Last of Us, by the fact your reading this, the beauty of Naughty Dog’s story will have made its mark; a beauty that is as dark as it is as resonating. As with all works worthy of reflection, there are two frames. One focusing on the characters as they are and as they exist in the work, and their symbolic identities. That is to question, “what do these characters, their actions and beliefs mean for me?” Both are equally important when we experience a great story, and we realise that we are being told something important, but don’t exactly know what it is we are being told.
If you feel in any way dissatisfied with the ending that The Last of Us gave you, it is a reaction that Naughty Dog has strived for. Naughty Dog has taken great lengths to deliver a story that should be remembered. The ending is wonderfully mastered, heavy on the interaction between the pair, laced with immense meaning. It is in this final scene where we see The Last of Us cement itself as a story worthy of our reflection, but I’ll return to that later.
Ellie, the deuteragonist of the work is seemingly introduced to us as a Deux ex Machina - Initially I felt her immunity as central to the plot. In reality, Naughty Dog walks right past those kitsch elements. The Last Of Us becomes a plot equal to any great piece of literature on loss, or ‘angst’ in its full Kierkegaardian meaning. By moving away from a story of grand schemes in humanity, Naughty Dog focuses on a paradigm rich in its content – the infinite interaction between human beings. Many a story wishing to cash in on emotional captivation focuses on returning abnormality to normality. The Last of Us could so easily have gone down that path and given us a story where Ellie becomes the key to reasserting the past upon the present. This has been done, done many times, and done poorly.
The story is strong in its own right in exploring how and why Ellie and Joel interact the way they do. When both characters recognise their mutual interdependence as early as the Ellie-as-overwatch sequence, the story begins its exploration of angst. When I use such a term, I use it in the way that it was first used from its Danish origins. The emotion, perhaps the rarest and most powerful, where you feel infinitesimally hollow. It is an important emotion in governing both characters, particularly Joel. That is not to say that Ellie does not have her fair share of loss, yet her eyes and personality betray a strength far greater than Joel’s.
Joel’s experience shows us that the things that cause angst are never truly reconciled, it is only time which weathers its effect on us. Does Naughty Dog have something to say about this? I think so. It’s a matter of perspective. The depressiveness of angst is inherently scene within our world as negative – something that is abnormal and to be corrected. The Last of Us highlights that this isn’t the case. Both Joel and Ellie embark on a journey, asking, “who am I?”, as do we all. Despite the events that both have been through, both characters are doubly different from those which set out at the beginning. I think this is why, at the least, angst is not a negative emotion.
Despite the fact that we have an acute interaction with the relationship between Joel and Ellie, we do not, nor can we, effect its outcomes. We are intrinsically outsiders to their emotions. This is seen most powerfully after David, the cannibal, is killed. We here their initial words together, but then silence. This is, perhaps, Naughty Dog’s insistence that we can never truly attempt to understand the path that both these characters walk on. We can see that it was made of asphalt, methinks cracked in many places with weed growing in between, but we never get to look up and see where it’s going.
The most resonating statement in the story is Joel’s statement of meaning by association. Joel’s only ability to “survive” is through fighting for something, or someone. It is a statement chilling in its nihilism. Joel evidently spent 20 years surviving after Sahara’s death through creating meaning in things of which we do not know, by design and by practice. The “what” is not important. There are many things I could attempt to say, but I want to focus on how Joel can create meaning from Ellie. Sahara’s death is clearly something of great unease for Joel, not just in those moments in which Ellie is present, or Sahara is in some way referenced. Joel’s watch, perhaps more aptly named Sahara’s watch, serves as salient recognition that Joel in the 20 years post Sahara’s death experiences every moment in recognition of the meaning that Sahara gave to Joel, and that was lost.
I return to my earlier notion of why I thought Ellie’s immunity as kitsch and cliché. I originally thought it would have been far more interesting to see why, and indeed, if, Joel would track across the country, had Ellie not been immune; if she was instead a daughter of someone important or some other agent. I think this is irrelevant. That is to say, regardless of why Joel had to initially ‘smuggle’ Ellie, the pair would have ended up overlooking the town near the dam at the conclusion; Ellie ending the conversation with “yeah”. In part, it is the notion of mutual interdependence I touched on earlier. Both have experienced loss en masse; for Joel his associated meaning with Tess is broken early on. Ellie is dependent on Joel as we see when Ellie reveals that Joel is the only one to not leave Ellie. Joel focuses all his energy on Ellie as he reveals in the final scene. Yet why is this manifested between Ellie and Joel, and not any of the characters that interact?
Time is perhaps another lesson Naughty Dog has for us. Directly relating to that question I just posed, I recall the notion of angst and time as I highlighted earlier. The relationship develops over months – much of it happens when we are not observers. Note the time between Autumn – Winter, Winter – Spring.
We of course, cannot ignore the fact that Ellie resembles Sahara in age, and perhaps personality. This is important if we interpret Joel’s memories of Sahara. Does Joel remember Sahara in eternal recurrence of her 13 year of self? Hence, does Ellie enter as if that passage of time – 20 years, has not occurred (as a continuity of Sahara)? These all contribute to the immensity in which Joel derives meaning from Ellie.
“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” *
One of the most important ideas that literature, and indeed, The Last of Us can teach us, is that human beings readily defy minimalism and classification. Whenever a story attempts to distinguish between those seminal forces of “good and evil”, it denies the complexities of the personalities we and others embody. We can distinguish neither Joel nor Ellie as good or evil because they are neither, and thus, believable humans. I don’t think anyone would dispute that notion. The intentional resemblance of the penultimate sequence with the first sequence with Joel and Sahara shows us that Joel has learnt lessons – hard lessons. Yet there is a sympathetic response because you have to empathise with the journey Joel has been on.
I think Joel’s actions are quite important in sending us a message if we remember his want for meaning through fighting for someone. It is this ability for Joel to switch from incredible malice to suffrage which makes the rejection of good and evil so salient in The Last of Us. The idea of the ‘uncanny valley’, where we intrinsically reject faces and personalities when they are near human doesn’t hold when we consider the humanity of these characters.
The Last of Us touches on a very important belief held in very high regard by us all. The notion of sacrifice, and greater good is one solemnly perpetrated by the Fireflies at the concluding sentiments of the game. “one death, to prevent many deaths” to put it succinctly. I want to carefully (but no doubt in practice, poorly) craft the argument that Naughty Dog presents against this. It is perhaps one of the greatest fallacies perpetrated by seemingly “good” personalities. I want to show you how Naughty Dog can at the very least, give you room for doubt on this idea, if not reject it. If we assume that this argument is based on the ideology that all humans are equal, then such a premise is violated if the Fireflies consider killing Ellie. That is, she is equal, yet killing her makes her unequal, thus rejection premise of equality. If they did not believe this assumed premise, then their initial reason for attempting to find a cure is flawed, because they attempt to reconstruct society as it was (the only distinction being whether or not immunity to the infection is prevalent), which, in the normative, assumes this premise. The foundation for a resurrected society would be the death of someone created unequal in the name of equality.
The ending is an important moment for both Ellie and Joel (obviously). It is the ‘why?’ of which I am concerned. Joel in his capacity to lie to Ellie to deliberately attempt to change Ellie’s will. In my eyes, this changes the notion of interdependence of which I have discussed earlier.
As a final comment, there has been discussion a plenty of Joel’s unwillingness to let Ellie go (let us for sake of argument, assume that Ellie was happy to aid the Fireflies). To put his own feelings aside for the betterment of all. I think that this idea doesn’t really assess what, by creating a cure, will be replaced by the world that we experience in The Last of Us. Throughout human history, humanity has been predated upon by its natural environment. I am not of course, suggesting that the natural environment has some sought of agency. Examples are too many to enumerate, but this premise is not unfounded. The only key difference, then, between the society before the infection and post infection, is the belief that there is difference between the two times; a ‘constructed’ ideology that norms once set in stone no longer apply – this is the key issue. It is not finding a cure to predation from nature as the Fireflies would have us believe. Ellie’s sacrifice would be nonsensical unless it provisioned for some change in this constructed ideology.
We are all in a cave watching shadows by a small fire. Only time will bring us out of the cave, and let us see the sun.
This quote is entirely not my own, nor do I claim it to be of my own. I do not include the author because at heart, I believe a writer should not become an ideology. I want the quote read as it is, but for who it was written by. This is a mistake committed by so many.