Grief, Despair & Hope
One of the strongest elements of The Last Of Us comes from its profoundly moving story revolving around despair and grief, clinging to those fragmented remnants of hope in the wake of overwhelming bleakness. From the iconic moments Ellie and Joel encounter a pair of giraffes or the shocking and emotional climax to Ellie’s encounter with David, the story is mired with obstacles for our protagonists to overcome and all of this ends on a suitably ambiguous note ready for the next chapter.
The basic outline of the story revolves around an outbreak ravaging the United States, as a fungal infection turns its human hosts into aggressive creatures known as the Infected. The advanced stages of this mutation known as Cordyceps turn its infected human hosts into something far more dangerous and disgusting over time, with the advanced stages seeing fungal heads sprouting and new, dangerous forms known as Clickers. With seemingly little hope left, humanity stands on a knife-edge between survival and destruction.
In the heart of Austin, Texas you begin the story by controlling Sarah, Joel’s daughter, as the infection spreads and you’re forced to flee with Joel and his brother Tommy. Unfortunately Sarah is shot in the process and her death weighs heavy over Joel for much of his life. So much so that 20 years pass and we begin our tale by controlling him.
A slow walk through the city sees us witness the devastation this infection has caused first-hand. Survivors live in heavily quarantine zones under strict martial law and a clear divide between them and a rival militia organisation known as The Fireflies looms heavy over the city and much of the country. Graffiti confirms as much on the walls, and as you walk through the town you run into your partner Tess and learn Joel works as a smugger. Together, they hunt down a black-market dealer known as Robert in a bid to recover a stolen weapons cache. Before Tess kills him, Robert reveals that he traded the cache with the Fireflies, leading to them killing him in cold blood.
Upon meeting the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, she promises to double their cache in return for smuggling a teenage girl named Ellie out the city and into a safe house in Massachusetts outside the quarantine zone. Joel, Tess, and Ellie sneak out in the night but after an encounter with a government patrol, discover Ellie is infected. Only, given how quickly this spreads and the fact Ellie was infected three weeks earlier, her immunity may mean she holds the key to a cure.
The trio make their way to the safe house after fighting through hordes of the infected but find that the Fireflies there have been killed. Unfortunately in the previous skirmishes Tess has been bitten by an infected and, believing Ellie may hold the cure to their survival, sacrifices herself against pursuing soldiers so they can escape. Torn over what to do next, Joel decides to find Tommy, a former Firefly, in the hope that he can locate the remaining Fireflies.
Before we get there though, Joel wanders into a booby-trapped town aptly named “Bill’s Town”. There, he meets a smuggler and survivalist who owes Joel a favor but is clearly bitter and twisted after years of living alone. Eventually they gain his trust and acquire a vehicle to leave the neighborhood. Driving into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Joel and Ellie are ambushed by bandits as a truck smashes into the side of their car and prompts them to scramble out the wreckage and fight for their life.
As they navigate through the city they team up with two brothers, Henry and Sam, who help them escape. Unfortunately, during the mission Sam is bitten by an infected but hides it from the group. As his infection takes hold, Sam attacks Ellie forcing Henry to shoot him. Unable to continue living after losing the one thing keeping him going in life, he immediately commits suicide to save living with the guilt and grief.
We then jump forward a season to the fall as Joel and Ellie finally find Tommy in Jackson County, Wyoming. He has a pretty decent set-up too and has a fortified settlement near a hydroelectric dam with his wife Maria. Joel makes a decision and feels Ellie would fare better with him. Knowing his past and what happened with Sarah, Ellie confronts Joel and after a heated confrontation at an abandoned cabin, he agrees to let her stay by his side.
After a fight at the dam, Tommy helps the duo find their way to another Firefly settlement at the University of Eastern Colorado. When they get there, the pair find the university abandoned but soon learn that the Fireflies have moved to a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. On their way out, an overwhelming number of bandits attack them and despite managing to thwart most of them, Joel falls and finds himself impaled in the process of escaping. With you now controlling Ellie, you struggle to bring Joel to safety.
During the winter, we shift perspectives again and play as Ellie as she and Joel find shelter in the mountains. Joel teeters on the fine line between life and death, relying on Ellie to care for him. While out hunting a deer Ellie encounters David and James; scavengers willing to trade medicine for food. Although initially appearing friendly, things take a turn for the worst when Ellie discovers David happens to be part of that same group of bandits who attacked her at the university. To her horror, she also finds out they’re actually cannibals too.
Ellie manages to lead David’s group away from Joel, fighting and evading them, but it’s no good as she’s eventually captured. Refusing to join him and his cannibals, Ellie eventually escapes after killing James but David corners her in a burning restaurant leading to an iconic boss fight. With things looking bleak, Ellie eventually overcomes David and stabs him repeatedly, sobbing uncontrollably as she does. Thankfully, Joel arrives and holds her in his arms, calling her “Baby girl” which is a throwback to what he called Sarah all those years ago.
In the spring, Joel and Ellie arrive in Salt Lake City and after a particularly beautiful segment involving giraffes (which symbolize peace and individuality) are eventually captured by a Firefly patrol. In the hospital, Marlene tells Joel that Ellie is being prepared for surgery in the hope of producing a vaccine for the infection. In order to do so, the Fireflies must remove the infected portion of Ellie’s brain which will kill her.
Faced with an impossible choice, and unwilling to let Ellie die, Joel battles his way to the operating room and carries the unconscious Ellie to the parking garage. Marlene confronts him but shoots her in cold blood to prevent the Fireflies pursuing them. On the drive out the city, Ellie wakes up as Joel claims that the Fireflies have found many other immune people but were unable to create a cure. This is, of course, a lie but one that’s been told to keep Ellie from danger.
On the outskirts of Tommy’s settlement, Ellie expresses her guilt at surviving the whole ordeal. After some back and forth, Joel swears his story about the Fireflies is true, which is where the story ends.
In terms of story content, The Last Of Us dropped back in 2013 and its story clearly strikes a chord with a lot of people. The characters of Joel and Ellie are both flawed and have a good amount of depth and the contrast between Ellie and Joel’s deceased daughter Sarah are stark and reflected by the way he painfully rejects her early on. As the story develops, Joel becomes more attached to this girl and their bond is ultimately what makes the story so profound and powerfully moving.
The idea of splitting the story up into seasons not only works to serve as chapter breaks, it also allows for a different supporting character(s) to show how they’ve survived and it’s this differing method of survival that reflects so poignantly against Joel and Ellie’s journey. Harry and Sam unable to live together is a foreshadowed bond that Joel and Ellie share late on while Bill’s isolation and bitterness is a reflection of what will happen to Joel if he continues down his destructive path.
Ultimately though, the story does an excellent job reinforcing all the big themes of the game and it’s this that makes The Last Of Us such an enjoyable title that stands the test of time narratively. The ending certainly leaves the door open for its sequel but whether it can match this story or not, remains to be seen.