What would you do in a post-apocalyptic world? Many forms of media have attempted to explain this, yet none of it stood out to me. However, one video game in particular has taken the cake while also being one of the most compelling stories that I’ve ever experienced. The Last of Us, released on June 14th of 2013, has been one of the top leading PlayStation Only video games due to its amazing graphics, rich characters, compelling story, and how it answers some questions about a post-apocalyptic life. Without causing any harm to anyone, I will be talking about massive spoilers for the game. Naughty Dog, the developers behind the game, wanted to tell a story that didn’t center on the spectacle of the undead or kills, rather, they wanted to focus on the characters and how these characters developed over the year the story took place in.
To understand the story, we must begin at the development of The Last of Us. Beginning in 2009 under the name of Project Thing, or T1 for simplicity’s sake. After Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was released, T1 was put into pre-production. Neil Druckmann was put in charge of directing the project to completion. The story behind the game was that the story was to be much like the classic horror film Night of the Living Dead and with gameplay that is much like Ico (2001) and a character that was based off of the character named John Hartigan (Sin City, 1991-2001). With a character based around a Hartigan-esque character, you can see what Druckmann wanted for his main character. Originally, the character was going to be a cop protecting a young girl. However, due to a heart condition, you, (as the player) would switch between the two protagonists. The Infected, the enemies that the characters constantly fight, were originally going to be only women, but later was changed due to some kind of outcry, saying that it seemed sexist that only the player would only be killing females.
With that in mind, Joel was created. Now, he wasn’t the Joel that you play as throughout the game, but a premature version of the character. However, we’ll focus on how became the Joel we know today.
In the beginning of the game, you play as Joel’s daughter, Sarah. We don’t know much about Joel or Sarah’s familial past, other than that she is his biological daughter. The game starts on Joel’s birthday. Sarah is waiting up for her dad, and gives him a watch when he gets back home from his job. A few hours later, Sarah is woken up by a phone call from her uncle, saying that Tommy needs to talk to Joel before being abruptly cut off. Sarah then goes looking for her father. Obviously, you as Sarah know that something is wrong as you can watch a news report about the events happening at the same time as this girl is looking for her dad. Soon after, she finds him and we are first introduced to the Infected. Cue a few different scenes of the father daughter duo finding the uncle (Tommy) and driving. When you start to play again, Joel is carrying Sarah, who now has a broken leg. I should mention that this is the first time you play as Joel, as this will come into play later. At the end of this extremely cold open to The Last of Us, you can do nothing but watch what unfolds on your screen.
A soldier is standing guard sort of in a clearing to a makeshift quarantine zone, and Joel and Sarah come across him. He orders them to stop moving, and contacts his higher ups to confirm what he should do. He says that there is a little girl. As the player, you don’t fully realize what’s about to happen until it’s right in your face. The soldier aims his gun, and opens fire. Joel goes down, but is still alive. The soldier didn’t have a choice but to defend those who were confirmed not infected, but they were orders he was forced to follow. A shot rings out, and the soldier is dead from Tommy’s handgun where the brothers reunite briefly, and then it’s shown that Sarah had shot. Again, you can’t do anything. You have to sit and watch as this 12 year old girl’s eyes fade from life into death. You watch as her father holds her corpse and then the game cuts to black. A rising score swells up and reveals the title of the game, The Last of Us.
That’s just the opening scene of this piece of art, and it already shows who Joel will become, a father who lost his daughter and became a monster. Much of this game centers around his mentality, and the player can sympathize with him. It makes you realize that this isn’t a game in the same sense as Call of Duty or even Minecraft. This game makes you feel what the characters feel. It makes you live in their steps. From the first time you meet Joel to the very last scene he has with Ellie, you feel his emotions. But, what are those emotions?
Joel’s emotions, and by extension mental stability, aren’t in the best conditions due to his past. From the initial outbreak to the events that transpired in the 20 year time jump that is extremely present due to the decay of the human world and nature coming back to take over the planet. He’s been a smuggler, a murderer, an outlaw, a vagrant, and many more professions that are commonly associated with a post-apocalyptic setting. He feels angry, lost, broken, and most of all- he wants his daughter back. What man wouldn’t after an event like the death of a family member, much less a child? Joel wanted nothing more than to just give up being human, becoming a real monster. When Tommy and Joel reunite during the Fall chapters, Tommy mentions how he only had nightmares from their time before he left.
However, that changed when he met Ellie early on in the story. At first, he was extremely apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be? 20 years had gone by, and Joel didn’t want to think of having a family. It’s hard for the broken man to even want to try and exist in a world full of evil, be they real monsters or just horrid people. The Fireflies, who Joel goes to for Ellie, aren’t directly horrible, they just want to use Ellie’s natural immunity to fix humanity. Joel becomes extremely attached to Ellie, going as far as to call her “baby girl,” which is what he called his daughter, Sarah.
But, what does that mean? In many eyes, including mine, it means that Joel has moved on. It’s almost like he’s restarting with Ellie, living the life that he so desperately wanted. It’s natural to want to start over. But, is it that easy?
Joel did something extremely selfish by keeping Ellie alive. He wanted to restart, to find a new beginning. What did this world do for Joel other than take everything from him? All Joel wanted was a daughter. Nothing more, nothing less. Joel is relatable, and unsurprisingly, so are many of the Non Playable Characters in The Last of Us. The storytelling is that good. You can understand every single emotion and every decision, all of it, because you can put yourself in Joel’s shoes. You become Joel, the hard-hearted and emotionally broken man. You see Ellie as annoying, as he did, but you come to love her. The player isn’t playing as Joel; the player BECOMES Joel. But, again, what does that mean?
In the universe of The Last of Us, many people resorted to their more animalistic instincts, their primal nature. It’s what people would do after a disaster such as the Outbreak. Hell, it’s even observed in 1954’s Lord of the Flies. But, the difference between these two stories is HOW humanity puts themselves back together. We see that through the eyes of Joel. Settlements, groups, cities, all of it. Joel’s brother, Tommy, is seen in a massive settlement during the Fall segment of the game. It’s also here that Joel nearly loses Ellie.
Ellie, hearing what Joel was opting to do instead of finishing his job, ran off. She was angry and felt she betrayed. Tommy and Joel look for her and when they find her, Joel goes up to speak with her. Joel enters the room of a possibly deceased occupant, and sees Ellie reading a diary. Ellie comments about how they worried about boys and what skirt went with which shirt. There is no score in this scene. Just these two incredible performances by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, respectively playing Joel and Ellie. The two then get into an argument, and Ellie says that they’re both disappointed with each other. All Ellie wants is the truth, that Joel wanted to get rid of her from the start. Joel tries to say that Tommy knows the area, but Ellie interrupts him. For the first time, Joel says that he doesn’t trust himself. The two keep arguing, and Ellie then mentions how she can’t get infected. Joel retorts by mentioning all of the close calls they’ve had. Joel is scared to get attached again. But, the straw that broke the camels’ back is when Ellie mentions Sarah. She starts by saying that she’s not her. Tommy’s wife talked about Sarah, and this angers Joel. His hardened exterior was broken. “You are treading on some mighty thin ice here…” is all Joel could say to her. You can hear it in his voice, the pain and suffering. The memories of his dead daughter. The two begin to argue once again, and it ends when Ellie says that everyone has either died or left her. Everyone except for Joel.
“You’re right,” Joel says, looking defeated. “You’re not my daughter. And I sure as hell ain’t your dad.” These lines always break my heart, because it shows that Joel views himself as a failure. Joel failed his daughter. He couldn’t save the one thing that kept him going. Joel refused to open back up like that. The emotional shock of losing one’s daughter can, and will, destroy you. Especially if she’s the only family that you have an extremely close bond with. This plays into the core of the story, as Joel does open up to Ellie and takes her as his surrogate daughter.
Joel’s entire journey through The Last of Us is one of redemption. It’s a story about love and family. This story opens up a lot about us. Even the musical score of this game conveys this. I do want to point out that Gustavo Santaolalla is a genius. The titular theme, titled “The Last of Us,” gives off the emotions of Joel. From starting out with a lone ronroco, then leading into more and more instruments until at the very end, the lone instrument is not alone anymore. It’s almost like the music was telling us the path that Joel was going on. From a weak start when the Outbreak happened to the ending of Joel getting his family back through Ellie. That’s the humanity in The Last of Us. That no matter what, love can unite, even in the most desperate of times. That’s what I believe the core meaning of this game is.
The Last of Us conveys the feeling of a world broken by tragedy and heartbreak, while also showing that there is still good left in the world. Joel, as our main character, is how we see the world unfold around us.
At the end of the game, when Joel and Ellie get to the Fireflies, he has come to love her as his own. In the aforementioned winter segment, he adopts Ellie then and there, after a cannibal tries to rape and murder her. So, it’s understandable that he doesn’t want to lose his daughter. Joel cuts everyone down in the hospital because he refuses to lose another child. Remember all the way back when I mentioned how the first time you play as Joel, you’re carrying your daughter? Yeah, that’s mirrored at the end of the game when Joel carries Ellie to safety. Joel lost his daughter to humanity, so he took humanity’s chance at a cure. Was it moral? No, what Joel did was absolutely wrong, but he did what any father would have done.
The last time you play, you are Ellie (once again mirroring the opening) as the father/daughter duo returns to Tommy’s settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. Ellie stops, and the two speak. Ellie talks about when she was bitten, about how her best friend was also there. Joel tells her that she has to keep finding something to fight for, so she makes him swear to her.
“Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the fireflies was true.”
Joel looks at Ellie, and lies through his teeth. What happened that day was that Joel took Ellie from the Fireflies. He killed the Fireflies. He killed Marlene, Ellie’s last connection to her mother. “I swear.”
Ellie knew that Joel lied, but still says, “okay.” Cut to black, then the story ends. You feel empty and hollow. The story Naughty Dog created with The Last of Us isn’t one that is necessarily a happy ending. That, “okay,” from Ellie was all it took for people to know that this story was different. That, in the world of The Last of Us, that we have to cherish each moment with those we loved, as it could be your last.
About the Author
Ethan Dowling is an upperclassmen at Clay High School who won The Crossings High School Writing Contest with his short non-fiction piece "Defining Joel’s Humanity: The Last of Us."