Let's Talk About: The ending of The Last of Us

Let's Talk About... is an opinion series in which two members of Polygon's editorial team discuss an important game or topic. In this piece, Senior Reviewer Danielle Riendeau and Editor-at-Large Chris Plante discuss the ending of The Last of Us, along with the game's take on gender and the truth about the game's protagonist, Joel. Spoilers ahead.

Danielle: Okay, okay, so the ending — did it piss you off in the final hour that you/Joel did what you did? I have been dying to talk to people about this game.

Chris: Which "ending" are you referring to?

A number of our colleagues have expressed frustration with having to "shoot the doctors" that are operating on Ellie. (I use scare quotes, because Joel will alternatively stab the lead doctor if you approach him.) I think shooting the doctors is a necessary moment in the player's relationship with the game, and couldn't simply have been another non-interactive violent cut scene. By the plot's climax, the game's designers needed to emphasize that the wants of Joel and the wants of the player are not the same. Sure, you're guiding Joel's external actions, but you have no control of his internal thinking. Forcing you to shoot the doctors — to externalize what's happening inside of Joel's brain — is the writer shouting, "Shame on you for assuming you are this man." It's a smart twist on our expectations from having played hundreds of faceless, characterless heroes in action games.

A couple weekends back, I attended a lecture by Susan O'Connor — she was a writer on Tomb Raider and BioShock — and she made a really apt point about player agency, that I will surely butcher by paraphrasing: To tell a great story in a AAA game, the player can't be the hero.

Shame on you for assuming you're this man

I like to think of the player as the driver on a road trip and the hero as the person riding shotgun. The player can steer the action, but ultimately the hero thinks and behaves on his own. And the player and hero are having a conversation, reacting and responding to one another, over the course of the journey.

I believe that if the player has complete control of the story — and I'm talking exclusively about big, cinematic games — then the writer has no control. Forcing the player to shoot the doctor is an elegant way of explaining this via action. You're a participant in the story, but it is not your story to tell.

The moment is powerful and absolutely necessary for Joel's final lie to work. And the lie, wow, it's perfect. Because we expect this man to change. We misread him, because we think the empathic Joel in the cut scenes is different than the psychopathic Joel we play as. We've been trained to do that by the lion's share of action games.

When Ellie gives Joel the photo of his dead daughter, we think we're witnessing growth, Joel is finally moving on, but what we're really seeing, in hindsight, is Joel completing the projection of his old daughter onto his new one, that Joel is digging deeper into his emotional pit.

It's a horror story, right? In the end, Joel's taken this young girl hostage and turned her into his dead child.

How about you? How did you read the ending? Also, if you are up for it, how would you feel about me posting this conversation as an opinion piece?

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Danielle: Oh, I think the final hour is brilliant. I'm referring to shooting basically everyone in the final section: the soldiers, the doctor and eventually Joel's killing Marlene (in a cutscene, outside of your "agency" — but in reality, you have no agency in the entire scenario). There was a utilitarian "moral choice" that was made for you by the Fireflies (to kill Ellie to save the world), and you/Joel cannot accept that. I was literally yelling at the screen while playing. I wanted to save the world. I wanted Joel to stop killing everyone who was trying to save the world and find some compromise. I really wanted to save Ellie and simply threaten the doctor at the end, who was clearly no physical threat to me. To yell "you can have a blood sample, but you can't have the girl!"

But I'm so, so happy that the game didn't let me.

So I agree with you wholeheartedly, especially regarding the idea of player agency vs. the writer's story. But my god, it made me mad as a player. Because I'm so conditioned to make the "heroic" choices in games — the "save the little sister, save the village, Jesus-or-Hitler" binary choice that we always make fun of as gamers. I was expecting to have that choice, and the fact that I didn't actually shocked me. It's TLOU's boldest, brashest move, and it works so well.

I wanted to save the world

As for the lie at the end, I actually found it sad rather than scary or creepy. Sad, because I perceived there to be real love between the two, and the acknowledgement earlier on that Ellie is not Joel's daughter Sarah, despite the obvious surrogate relationship. And sad because I knew, somehow, that the truth would get out someday, that Joel would betray his lie and Ellie would never forgive him. The emotional realism was such (for me) that I imagined this relationship going on far longer than the game's scope.

But I almost felt worse for Marlene — I saw her as "me" as I usually play games. The heroic figure who tries to do the "right" and utilitarian thing. To save the world even when it means sacrificing something you love. The usual escapist/power fantasy that appeals to me so much in games. That Joel killed her — and why he did — was so brilliantly (brutally) handled.

It makes Joel the anti-Drake, and good lord, I loved it.

Oh, and yes, please do publish this as an opinion piece if you'd like!

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Chris: There was some hoopla over the NYTimes' review, which was critical of the game's use of gender. How do you think the game handled gender?

Danielle: Actually, it's funny. Arne Meyer, the Community Strategist at Naughty Dog, asked me to be on a PAX panel about gender in games with other Naughty Dog people inspired by that very article (this will be my very first PAX panel, I must be growing up!)

So, I totally have thoughts on this.

I thought the presentation of gender in the game was better — and possibly the least insulting, which is honestly saying something — than any other set in a crazy, violent, post-apocalyptic world in recent memory. It's still very much a male-centered game, and the NYT piece correctly points out that this is a story from the Joel/male/father point of view, rather than from Ellie's point of view. I think this should be Ellie's story as much as Joel's, but as is, The Last of Us is almost entirely Joel's story. This was disappointing, but the game's overall treatment of women made this easier to swallow.

Female characters in the game are presented as realistically tough (since they are survivors), and equal counterparts to the males, just as physically and emotionally strong, sometimes more so. This is particularly obvious with Marlene and Tess.

But Ellie is the best part. It would have been easy to paint a teenage girl as a needy, useless character who requires protection, but she's a better shot than Joel and tougher, emotionally, than he is. As I read the story, she knew (or she at least suspected) that she was going to die if she went to the Firefly facility, and she went willingly. Joel was the one who couldn't make the sacrifice, who couldn't let her die.

The ending makes Joel the anti-Drake

Supporting this are the segments where you play as Ellie, protecting and providing for Joel while he lies in a basement, injured and near-death. This is such a complete and refreshing subversion of the typical male/female roles. She is literally hunting for food and making deals to get him medicine. That almost makes up for the fact that she needs to be rescued from the burning building later on.

Also related to gender, Naughty Dog did a great job in the game's treatment of its queer character, Bill, which really struck me while playing. Here is a nice, subtle treatment of a character whose sexuality is a complete non-issue in the context of the game, and even gruff, macho, Texas-drawling Joel is understanding of Bill's raw deal in love. It's a small thing, but it made me like the game even more for it.

Oh yes, and I'm curious, what did you think of the treatment of Joel's mental state — or perhaps, his psychosis? Something I wondered as I played through the game was whether Joel is more or less damaged than those around him. The scenes with his brother seemed to indicate that he is perhaps more disturbed than most others (or at least, most others that live in relatively stable environments like the settlement or the "safe" zones).

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Chris: I believe Joel is a sociopath, but my opinion of him didn't solidify until the final scene. Thank goodness, because I think sociopaths tend to be terrible protagonists.

As humans, we love to watch people change, or specifically, mature and grow. Sociopaths don't change, they don't grow, they just stay sociopaths. They are driven by their own wants and needs, and so they are predictable. Predictability kills drama.

Because I played as Joel, and I (perhaps wrongly) saw myself in him, the reveal of his psychosis was all the more devastating. I thought I was watching a story of growth, but really, The Last of Us is a tale of a man divorced from reality, determined to raise the dead.

And the plot is the worst possible situation for a man like this: the quest to save the world gives Joel a perceived moral high ground to justify insane behavior. He kills hundreds of people and non-people (565 in my playthrough) to accomplish his goal. Halfway through, I was upset that the game required me to kill everyone to clear certain rooms. Having finished the game, I understand that requirement is in line with Joel's character.

I should have seen Joel's reveal coming: everyone who knows Joel well is terrified by something that happened in his past. His little brother is clearly the victim of physical abuse, and presumably emotional abuse, too. And then there's the fact that Joel has no trouble killing hundreds of people, something other characters are keenly aware of. He's a spook story, one that's made obvious when David's cohorts run from him — and this is when he's still recovering from a near fatal injury.

I believe Joel is a sociopath

We know Joel was a smuggler, that he'd sprung lethal traps on travelers, that he'd somehow traveled from Texas to Boston. In a world run by maniacal killers, what does it mean to be a marauding criminal?

The title could have been Joel Versus the World. After all, Joel wins in a knock-out, kidnapping Ellie, killing Marlene and leaving the Fireflies without a chance to find a cure. (Of course, it's more complicated than that. The rights of the individual versus the rights of the global is a philosophical pipe I'll gladly let others plunge.)

One other thing about the reveal of the "real Joel": the moment reminds me of the conclusion of Mad Men, season five. Okay, bear with me. For those who haven't seen it, Don Draper, the eternal philanderer, betrays months of emotional progress by returning to his wicked ways. That's when I stopped caring about Don, and while I still enjoy the show, I find my time with that character a chore. Season six was one reminder after the next that Don can't change.

I enjoyed the journey with Joel to uncover his true nature. But I hope for the next game, Ellie takes center stage. After all, she has the most potential to change: a young girl with a suicidal sense of purpose, a desire to do no less than save the world. I want to be alongside her when Joel's lie is made explicit.

On that note, I'd like to ask one last thing: where do you think the franchise goes from here? And do you think the ending was written explicitly for the franchise to continue?

I think it's funny to read the ending as a metaphor for AAA game development. The developers are Joel and the game is Ellie. Joel overcomes a long, daunting, life-sucking adventure to ultimately get Ellie to her end point. But when it comes to giving Ellie a clean ending, they can't. The developers can't let the game go. They need it to continue. So they cop out, they don't save the world, they get their sequel.

In a world run by maniacal killers, what does it mean to be a marauding criminal?

Or, to put it another way, Joel could have saved the world ... but would we really want him to? Maybe there's a little sociopath in all of us.

I don't think that's fair, because I think the ending's next to perfect. I think Naughty Dog told the story they wanted to tell. I just love that the game has enough to it, that I can overthink what it all means.

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Danielle: The most telling point for how much I liked the game — and how much it impacted me — is that I am still constantly thinking about "what happens next?"

Ellie is so bright and inquisitive that I have no doubt she will find out the lie. From there, what does she do? Does she try to go back to the Fireflies? Will Joel keep her at the commune in Wyoming, under lock and key, if needed? Naughty Dog has a clear path to a more domestic — and creepy — horror narrative to explore there. But it wouldn't be a third-person action game at that point ...

Another avenue to explore is Joel's influence on Ellie. Throughout the game, Ellie has to kill. often under horrific circumstances. She is almost killed and raped, and has to kill her would-be rapist with a machete. At what point does Ellie herself become a sociopath? At what point does a smart, kind (quick example: when she picks up the toy for the young boy they travel with for part of the game), empathetic person become a complete monster just to survive? And did that happen to Joel, or were there seeds of that in his past in the "normal" world?

I am still constantly thinking about "what happens next?

But yes, I would love to see Ellie take center stage no matter what path they take with the character. I think she's the best female character in a game in years, and she's young enough to be shaped in fascinating ways by her world and her desire to make it better.

As for creating a franchise, I suppose that's always a possibility. But I would personally love to see Naughty Dog take even more risks by exploring just how horrific the relationship can be, based on the ending reveal. I want to see Ellie defy Joel, and best him, and become her own woman, so to speak.

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