Breaking Down The Last Of Us Ending; An Emotional Affair

Here’s the warning: SPOILER ALERT!!  The title should give it away, but if you haven’t completed the game, DO SO!

And on that note, last warning!

Last Of Us


So that was a whirlwind of emotions wasn’t it?

To recap, Joel and Ellie finally reach the Fireflies after ploughing through hell and back for the best part of a year for a vaccine cure for the Cordyceps virus that mutates humans into Infected nutters.

Things take a turn for the worst, and it’s soon discovered that Ellie will need to be sacrificed so doctors can reverse engineer a cure for the mutation, which can only be attempted by taking out her brain.  Joel can’t face that thought, proceeding to go on a mass killing spree before saving Ellie whilst destroying humankind’s chance of a cure.

To further add to the anguish, he emphatically lies about the events that occurred whilst Ellie was unconscious.  He remarks that the Fireflies have given up for a cure, there’s plenty more like her and that they’re heading for Tommy’s place where he can call home.

Last of Us Ellie

Ellie is clearly disillusioned her immunity could not help and makes Joel swear what he said was the truth.  Joel swears it to be true. She acknowledges it, “Okay”. And the credits roll.

It’s a rather tragic, bleak ending that leaves little hope for the future; one which completely turns everything on its head.  There’s no epic final battle, no glorious moment of victory and much is left wide open and incomplete.

But in some ways it completes their characters.  Joel can finally overcome the grief suffered at the loss of his daughter.  Ellie finally has someone she can lean on in life, seemingly accepting (but perhaps not believing) Joel’s final lie.

It’s quite surreal in some ways; their personal battles have both been conquered, especially Joel’s, yet at the price of a hopeless future for generations to come.

However, the game stayed true to its roots through the whole adventure.  It was never about saving the world, but their personal growth and relationship that forms between them.

Last of Us

Joel, being the pessimistic guy following his daughter’s death, lives just to survive and knows that his survival and that of the people he holds dear trumps that of a questionable but glorious potential cure.

He remains cynical practically throughout their journey; citing the number of people who died undergoing tests, his argument with Tess; even offering Ellie the chance to turn back and go home, so close to the end with the hospital in view.

Ellie meanwhile believes she has a role as a potential life-saver for humans towards the end, convinced something will come of their struggles.

The close bond developed from her being considered just cargo to a substitute for his daughter, sparking gives his outburst.  Let’s be honest, it was an incredibly selfish act and I doubt he would have even considered the magnitude of it all, given his personal losses and cynicism.

In theory, saving the world is all well and good but losing loved ones feels much more real.  It’s easy to criticise from afar but I’m sure if you put yourself in similar shoes, I’m pretty sure you’d be feeling the same.

One part of the finale which seemed quite artificial was the Fireflies misjudgement of the whole situation, led by Marlene.  They knock him out as he’s trying to save her and later, tell him Ellie is being prepared for surgery and have him march out without saying any goodbyes.

Personally, I would have thought given how well Marlene knew Ellie and of Joel’s previous probably violent smuggling dealings, she would not have been so rash with his treatment and the events that panned out.  Her voice recordings perhaps suggest her deteriorating mental condition could have played a crucial role.  She is clearly guilt-ridden about letting Ellie die with her permission, saying she just wants it to be over.  Her main concerns were with Ellie and not Joel, underestimating their relationship and treating Joel as the same smuggler she saw him as the last time they met.

Something snaps within Joel and clearly the thought of losing someone he considered a daughter and who was practically family die, without intervention, is too much.  Much of it can be put down to instinct.

He had no qualms murdering the doctor and then escaping with Ellie.  There’s no guarantee that the cure would have been successful, no agreement from Ellie she wished to die like this and Joel feels the injustice.

Last of Us

Remember, Joel has never wanted to be the hero at all.  His character shrouded was deliberately shrouded in grey throughout; playing hero and murderer simultaneously and stuck in a place where morality doesn’t really exist.  Context is everything and Joel can seemingly bear this on his conscious, having killed for personal gain and survival before.

Which brings us onto the second part of the ending, that lie.  I think on a personal level, most people can understand why (looking past the hundreds of innocents killed…), if not agree, with what Joel done to save Ellie.  The final lie, swearing that all he said was true, is more difficult to comprehend.  After all they’ve been through, she should know the truth surely?

But remember, context is everything.  What we might consider as disturbing is completely different in this world.  Much like David, who was a cannibal, lived to survive.  The Hunters, despite being heartless, followed a similar routine of kill or be killed.

Sure, he loved Ellie, but morality has little place within him.  If he can live with the guilt of dashing humankind’s hopes and murdering a bunch of innocents, then telling a lie to a loved one to protect both her feelings of guilt and himself from probably a fractured future relationship is quite plausible.

Joel doesn’t want her to try and be the hero again, which would inevitably lead her back to the Fireflies to make things right, leaving him in the process.  Back to square one for Joel.

It’s not especially clear at the end, but Ellie looked to have grasped the reality that Joel was lying.  It seems pretty illogical that a girl, who was shown as inquisitive and pretty intelligent, would miss a gaping plot hole as big as that.

Her story about her friend dying, her uneasiness in the aftermath – she knew something had gone wrong somewhere.  And once he swore that his words were true, she knew she would just have to accept it.  Joel had always told her what to do and she had grown to rely on him, so why would it be any different now?  Joel was always careful to not put Ellie in harm’s way and she probably accepted she didn’t want to know the true events.

So as previously mentioned, their personal battles are completed – they’ve shown to both rely on one another.  Joel’s final shoot-out shows he considers her family but Ellie’s subtle acceptance of the lie shows she puts her full trust into Joel.

Last of us

It’s beautifully poignant and one of the most gripping story-led games of the modern era, almost certainly surpassing Bioshock 3’s ending.  I appreciated the game keeping that ultra-realistic, sombre tone, straying away from the Zombie clichés that would have taken the gloss off an enthralling story.

The ending isn’t satisfying, but it makes sense within this unfamiliar world.  It’s pulls hard on the emotional strings throughout and delivers a sucker punch that leaves you both relived Ellie is alive and uneasy you’ve killed any hope left.

For such a masterful game with a truly absorbing ending, Naughty Dogs must be applauded. It’s not often such a big-budget game can deliver on all fronts the way they did.  And as this gen consoles draws to a close, The Last of Us will remain a modern, mind-blowing classic that really shows that video games are learning to tell their stories well.


6 responses to “Breaking Down The Last Of Us Ending; An Emotional Affair

  1. Nice review of a classic gaming conclusion. I think that Ellie clearly knows that Joel lied to her but wants to believe him so lets it go. Joel lies to her to keep her safe but also surely knows that she isn’t a stupid girl and will know that they are unlikely to put you in a surgery gown and then decide they don’t want to operate all of a sudden.

    Further on the conclusion, I loved how instead of the “zombie” (I know they aren’t really zombies but they sort of are) massive final battle the last chapter of the Last of Us was actually a struggle against man showing that they are the real enemy of the story. Very well done.

    • Thanks for the praise! I thought at the time that the lie wasn’t really well thought out. I’m not sure Naughty Dog meant for it to be so obvious just to highlight the point…who knows!

      And yeah, it’s the subtle things like you mention that really sets it apart. I love the line, ‘endure and survive’ that is kept referring to, because that’s exactly what man had fallen to. Kill or be killed. Exactly how Joel was portrayed as throughout the game. It’s really clever how it all keeps true to its roots throughout, like I mentioned.

      On a side-note, do you think it’s a perfect 10/10? I’ve seen quite a few from other gaming websites but noticed an 8/10 from Gamespot, surprisingly.

      • I think it’s the best game of this generation and could be the start of a change in how games are produced.

        Is there such a thing as a 10/10? I don’t know the answer but the Last of Us will go down as an all time classic.

        As far as the Gamespot thing goes, 8/10 is a disgrace to give a game of this quality. I’m sure if it was an across console title or a 360 exclusive hey would have gave it a 10. Where as I think Polygon (who gave it a 7.5) did so for publicity. If you think about it in a different way a 7.5/8 is an above average game but not special but after playing the Last of Us you know it’s special.

        • It’s funny in a way that it’s not really innovative in terms of gameplay and such – I mean, “Zombie” and stealth games have been done to death, but it’s definitely a different beast from anything I’ve experienced.

          With regards to Gamespot, I thought it was very harsh. I don’t think they thought much of the supporting cast, which is absolutely farcical because all the characters had a lot of depth to them. Admittedly I could understand a 9/10 because there’s a couple of technical issues and in my experience, the enemy AI can suddenly just turn to useless at times (Ellie walks right past them and they don’t notice) but apart from that, there’s not a lot else to criticise!

        • I could’ve understood (not necessarily agreed with) a 9/10 but an 8 is a slap in the face to a game of this quality.

          I agree with your Ellie comment, I hated when I was being super quiet next to clickers and she was running about everywhere making loads of noise, but then if they reacted to that I’d be super pissed because I had done nothing wrong. It is hard to get that balance between the two.

        • Sorry for the late reply! Yeah, those mechanics definitely need sorting – considering you’re meant to be protecting her , it pretty much ruins the immersion. Other times I noticed the complete opposite though, that she’d literally be right in front of hunters especially and they wouldn’t notice her at all. Oh well, can’t get everything right!!

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