What I was looking for in the ending of The Last of Us

Last of Us

Please note that the following article contains spoilers for the ending of The Last of Us. Don’t worry: there will another warning before this happens.

Spoilers aside, this is in part a revisit to an article I wrote back in June 2012 on the now-defunct badgercommander.net site.

Given the age of the original article, those who have played the game may be amused by how much of what I wanted married with what actually happened in the game.

What I was looking for in The Last of Us

I was somewhat looking forward to The Last of Us, a cinematic post-apocalyptic experience from Naughty Dog. They’re a studio which may not be good at mechanics but are certainly good at mood and storytelling.

Given this I was disappointed to read this piece on Shacknews and moreso when I saw this E3 demo.

Uncharted on Hardcore was not what I wanted. What I wanted was a post-apocalyptic game that forces thoughtful navigation through terrain, not a pop and shoot ride with a limited bullet count. Also, I was under the impression that this was to be an undead game whereas everything now indicates to the contrary.

It now looks like I am going to have to rely on I Am Alive and the upcoming Deadlight for the kind of experience I was looking for.

At the same time as I got to thinking about what I truly wanted from a game like this, I started worrying about the relationship between the two protagonists in The Last of Us and how the developer is going to make us care about their relationship. Getting people to care about something in a game is tough to do; for every Far Cry 2 success there is a Mass Effect 3 failure.

So what did I want from The Last of Us?

Truth is… I wanted an undead game.

Most games focus on the aftermath of a zombie/infected outbreak. I wanted something similar to the opening of the Dawn of the Dead remake, following it through to encountering the Mall.

The main character would be a family person, with a spouse and one kid. The game would open with them waking up in the morning.  Depending on the verbs to be used throughout the game I’d want it to be introduced in a mundane fashion. Looking over at the clock is used to explain use of the right analog stick/Mouse; turning the clock off explains which button or key is used to interact with objects. This could be expanded: if there is shooting mechanism with an iron-sight or over the shoulder cam then this could be shown through taking a picture of the character’s child (first day at school, a birthday or something similar). If there is a crouching feature, this could be demonstrated when the character ties their shoelaces just before running – another potential mechanic – for the bus. A cover mechanic could be used in a game of hide and seek… but maybe I am just pushing this too much.

The whole time this is happening the environment would be telling a story that the player could easily miss or ignore: a television playing in the living room reporting problems on the street, strangers randomly bumping into the protagonist as they race for their bus, and people discussing events while the protagonist is in their workplace going through their motions.

Then the outbreak would occur.

All of the actions demonstrated within the tutorial would then be repeated but with more sinister connotations: climbing over debris, running from chasers, picking up a weapon and then being forced to kill.

I am fascinated by the idea of a companion and how you would go about endearing a player to an NPC; you wouldn’t want them to be as helpless as Yorda, nor a crutch like Elika in the Prince of Persia reboot, nor overpowered like the teammates in Gears of War 3.

A simple introduction wherein the player rescues the companion following which the tables turn and the player finds themselves on the receiving end of help would be my preferred method of setting up the interactions between the player and the companion. How this would work I am not sure. Would they be equals in terms of their capabilities? Personally I would rather there were more of a Knight’s Contract vibe to it but with a more robust supporting character. But how to endear the player to them? I mean, one player’s Agro is another player’s Navi.

That is the 1 million pound question.

Mechanically it has to go further than just needing them to open doors for you. Narratively it would be good to tie their dependency into association, a father or mother figure for a daughter or son. It would have to be done slowly in terms of development, progressing past the tutorial with the bond not being a simple ‘hey, here you go, you now like this person.’

The ending of the intro would be the main character trying to track down their family with the help of their companion. The protagonist returns to their home to find their spouse dead, eaten by their offspring.

I reckon that would be a suitably traumatic opening for a game.


It is amazing how much of what I wanted is actually incorporated into The Last of Us. Sure, it was still Uncharted on Hardcore but the way that Naughty Dog introduced the game and the subsequent development of Ellie and Joel’s relationship is better than I could have imagined.

Despite some of the game’s limitations mechanically, a lot of what the story was attempting was effective.

That is, until I hit the ending.

What I was looking for in the ending of The Last of Us

Right, if you weren’t already aware of it from the title above, there are now going to be complete spoilers for the ending of The Last of Us.

Joel and Ellie reach their destination but Ellie almost drowns in the process and Joel is rendered unconscious. He wakes up to find himself in a hospital outpost with the rebel faction that Joel was supposed to deliver Ellie to surrounding him. It’s explained to Joel that Ellie is unconscious and about to undergo a procedure that will kill her but will likely result in them discovering a cure for the disease. In a cutscene, Joel is being walked out of the hospital at gun point when he attacks the guard and then, in gameplay, you gun your way through 40 armed guards to get to the operating room where Ellie is being held.

You then have the option to either kill the doctor threatening you with a scapel and rescue Ellie, or kill all three of the staff in the operating room and rescue Ellie.

After a ‘push forward to continue gameplay’ section, Joel eventually reaches a car parking lot and another cutscene triggers in which he is confronted by the leader of the rebel group. Pleading for him to stop, Joel guns her down, gets into a car and drives off.

Still in a cutscene, Ellie wakes up in the back of the car. Joel explains to her that there were more people like her operated on by the rebel group and that they’d not found a cure, so he’d taken her and headed back to a safe place.

At this point, you control Ellie and follow Joel along a mountain path towards his brother’s encampment, the game attempting to portray this shift of perspective mechanically and also emotionally.

The game reverts to a cutscene in which Ellie confronts Joel. In it, she explains all the loss that she has witnessed and how she believed she would be part of the solution. She then demands that Joel be honest with her, tell her the truth – confirm what he told her before. He glances about a little nervously, then replies that it is all true. She responds with a complicated ‘okay’.

It’s a great moment, with the emotions on display being genuinely affecting.

I get what Naughty Dog were trying to do; there’s an unrepentent sense of nihilism throughout. As an audience, we are supposed to feel helpless in watching this man descend to the very lowest point he could possibly go, before then descending further and undermining anything he may have held dear.

The problem is that the game doesn’t really earn it.

Every turn and twist in that final debacle is clearly Joel’s story; you, as the player, are relegated to the audience. Whether you agree with Joel’s actions from the hopsital onwards are irrelevant because there is no real agency in your actions. You can choose how these people die, but that’s it. As the player, it’s easy to distance yourself from the atrocity as you are not actually performing these actions. Instead, you can easily reason that it’s Joel who’s committing to these actions and that you are no more than a puppet in the game’s whims.

This cheapens the denouement. Sure, it’s beautifully rendered and acted, but you are now in the realm of a film or book. These more passive experiences allow you to relate to characters that you may have nothing in common with, but using this form of narrative is at odds with what games can do.

For example, Spec Ops: The Line has multiple endings with each ‘right’ choice – player actions which extend the game length or would be considered the right choice in another title simply descending the protagonist and the player further into despair. It is delicious in that sense, as it’s counter-intuitive to the player; that doing nothing is more positive (but not all that positive) than taking action is something we are not trained to appreciate.

So, I propose an alternate ending to The Last of Us.

Or, rather: endings.

As Joel is being escorted by the guard after waking up in the rebel base a button prompt would appear, indicating that pressing it will take the guard out. If the player does nothing, they’ve got their first ending.

It cuts to several years later, the infection has been curtailed, people are starting to rebuild the country. Joel sits in a bar drinking. The camera zooms in on his face, his eyes are deadened, sunken into the sockets of his skull, his entire visage is haggard and he has clearly lost some weight. He mechanically drinks until the glass is empty. A bartender approaches him and asks if he wants another. He nonchalantly looks at the bartender; you can see that the smile on his face is bitter. He replies ‘Sure, why not?’. At that point, you cue credits.

The second ending would be triggered if the player presses the button to take out the guard. Then you, as the player, must indulge in murdering a group of men that, ideologically, are in a better moral position than the protagonist.

The turning point is when you realise that maybe killing a bunch of medics might not be the way to go. It would not be indicated anywhere, but you would be able to simply walk out of the operating room (anecdotally, a lot of players I know tried to do this). In this scenario, Joel is gunned down by the remaining rebels, the game cutting to black to the sound of gunfire. The game ends there, with no explanation on what happened next.

Then there would be the final, original ending from the game, with the player sinking right into the emotional mire with Joel.

Each blossoming step takes the player down Joel’s path both narratively and mechanically. The player is so used to following what the game says that, when they are punished for it, the first thing they will try and do is to ‘win’. They will try to game the ending only to discover that there it only gets marginally better with each inaction. The message would be clear and still in line with Naughty Dog’s vision: life in this world is only shades of misery.

It would also mean that the player would be forced to commit the worst of the crimes willingly to get the ending where both protagonists live, and the game would make the player own the cost of that. The lack of hope would be reinforced by the mechanics and the subversion of the player’s desire to always win would hammer it home.

This is what games can do. By making a player active in this, it is possible to experience things in a way that films, books, photographs simply cannot. Someone needs to pick up this gauntlet (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a good start) if we are to see storytelling in games grow.


17 responses to “What I was looking for in the ending of The Last of Us”

  1. Gregg B Avatar

    Whoa. Not read this yet, but talk about coincimental: I only finished The Last of Us last night. I’m still stewing on the experience but I look forward to reading this later.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      Ultimately, I liked the ending as a passive experience, but as a video game ending it bothered me at how easy it was to disengage from it. There you go, saved yourself 2000 words.

  2. Gregg B Avatar

    I totally understand your sentiments here AJ, and interestingly I wondered whether you could actually do those things in the game. For instance, the only reason I knew I couldn’t not be escorted out the building by the guard was that it was a cut-scene so what was going to happen was going to happen. When I got into the operating theatre I actually tried backing out of the door as well. I’d just gunned down — or more accurately — torched, bludgeoned and throttled nearly every Firefly in the building and yeah, the surgeons were too much. They were all too much.

    That fleeting hope that I might have some sway on what happens truly fizzled out around there. I loved the game and the boldness of the ending, which is why I wonder whether I’d want to have the capacity to change it, but I also wonder how it would have fared with a few real choices in there, like in Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead (so I hear). I’d like to have seen ways of your stealth and shooting prowess, scavenging and resourcefulness playing into some of those choices too. Perhaps if you’d got a spare medkit you could save a dying character or if you’d acquired enough Firefly pendants, or specific ones, certain Firefly members would react differently to you. Or what about being able to give some of your weapons to other survivors? I finished the game armed to the teeth and having never used the flamethrower, despite upgrading it! Or missing entire set-pieces if you managed to sneak through certain encounters. I dunno. The gameplay is very much separate to the narrative but there’s no ludonarrative dissonance thanks to the circumstances, that is, scavenging and brutally killing people is par for the course in a post-apocalyptic world. In Bioshock Infinite and Uncharted it felt a bit clumsy.

    The big question for me is: does The Last of Us need to be a game? I found my limited interaction or agency very involving despite it merely being busybody work (solid and mostly enjoyable busybody work) and a way of pushing the story along. I think the expectation or even hope of being able to influence the outcome of the game is perhaps what makes the ending so powerful, cruel, unreal and perverse. A bit like Immortal Defence I suppose. This isn’t your story, it’s the characters’. Brandon wrote an article about this on Tap some time ago: http://tap-repeatedly.com/2011/10/its-not-all-abo… — well worth a read.

    But still: I don’t like the idea of my actions being in a vacuum; it’s kind of why I play games. But The Last of Us was great so… bah, I don’t know. I suppose I should be happy I can appreciate both.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      Thanks for the lengthy reply on this. and I have to agree that I also walked out of the room with the surgeons in it looking for another option.

      I totally agree that there was no dissonance, the savagery of Joel in several of the cutscenes is totally in line with the violence that you met out to people in the gameplay. The concept around survival – the need to scavenge and merge items also played into the world too. What didn't was the clear delineation between combat and exploration moments that dulled the edge of a very edgy game in terms of the stress of imminent attack. Something the first Bioshock did amazingly well.

      The level of interacitvity you are suggesting goes beyond what I think Naughty Dog are capable of but all of them are very appealing. It is why I like State of Decay so much and rate it above The Last of Us in every way (even if my second play through exposes a lot of the frame work for what it is) except visual presentation.

      I read that piece that Brandon wrote a long time and I can see where he is coming from but completely disagree with the article. What is exactly wrong with The Last of Us is that it holds Joel's story above making the player own some of his tragedy. At that point The Last of Us might as well just be a film and not a game, I did not find the busybody work enough to sustain the running time and would have happily watched this as film or four part mini-series instead.

      Part of my proposed change to the end(ings) is to pull the player into that world and into the game. Make the player experience the character's desperation rather than just witness it. I don't think that any of the endings really sully the overall message (yes, I understand that it is me playing armchair director) and would play into the player's own desperation to see a better outcome and to have the game shut them down at every point, just like Joel. You the player, experience it, rather than just do and see.

      I am glad that The Last of Us exists in terms of story telling(except for the character arc for the NPCs in Winter) but I just don't like games falling back on this form of 'story telling as a reward for performing a task'.

      1. Gregg B Avatar

        Yeah, I found myself creeping around a lot, when, in reality, you were never really surprise attacked. Whether it was a quick cut-scene, the music changing, audible shouting/screaming, Ellie or Joel pointing enemies out, or just plain old seeing plenty of waist high cover: it was obvious when things were going to hot up. I think you’re absolutely right to call out that divide; it was too conspicuous. “Oh, spores, that means a zombie section is next…” I think I would have shit myself had there been a few stray zombies roaming around, perhaps silently. I remember seeing that early poster artifact showing the different types of zombies and creeping out at the thought of those ‘stalker’ variants that hide and ambush you. As it happens, I’d been killing loads of them for a good chunk of the game before realising what they were — such was their (in)ability to hide and ambush me. Had those things been outliers, hiding in corners of the world, perhaps pursuing you, exploring and scavenging would have been a very tense affair.

        I really want to play State of Decay but I only have a PS3 and PC.

        As the game drew to a close, I think after winter, I was getting a bit tired of the same kinds of encounters. To go from horse riding, hunting deer and surviving as Ellie, back to dispatching dudes again was a bit of let down. I’m glad it didn’t last much longer to be honest. What was your issue with the NPC character arc in winter out of interest? I had issues with David and his henchmen being aware of and tolerating his ‘urges’.

        I think the ability to walk around and gawp at things, sneaking, scavenging, killing and being killed added to the overall feeling of the world and game, even if it could technically function as a series, film or book. xtal over at Tap said it would probably work better as a book with it being such a slow burning experience and I do agree with him. But I’d miss the musical draw of the game. As a film or series I’d miss those interactive sections, however slight and ultimately inconsequential they are. I’ve a muddled bunch of feelings about The Last of Us really. I think the relative distance we have as players makes any already obvious decisions to make more obvious so that punch to the gut ending would only be seen by players who didn’t really give a shit. That, and a last minute choice would kind of fly in the face of Joel’s motivations. Or perhaps the surgeons final stand would make him see his folly? I dunno. By wrenching that choice from us, Joel’s character becomes even more broken than we would have allowed it as disconnected players. If we’d chosen to shoot Marlene and lie to Ellie it would have made us look like assholes but the onus is very much on Joel which is why the character shift at the end is so telling and works so well — he’s a monster, but one we kind of understand. Perhaps that could have been us choosing to save Ellie against all reason? I don’t usually think like this you know. Usually I’d be with you but The Last of Us has provoked a different line of thought in me which is really interesting.

        1. badgercommander Avatar

          I will write something longer when I have the time at lunch tomorrow.

          The point I did not like about the NPCs in winter is the way that, for one of the first times, I really started identifying with a human antagonist and then the developers went: 'Nope, they are bad people. Also,that guy, the one you have bonded with, he is the worst'

          It felt like the game was forcing my hand to hate them so ended up rather despondent to the whole thing.

          1. badgercommander Avatar

            Did you notice that if you melee killed the last guy in an area, Joel would perform a different type of finishing move? It annoyed the hell out of me.

            Have to go and book an installation of home internet but both threads are fascinating – glad I have actually finished Bioshock.


  3. Amanda Lange Avatar

    I wrote a little about this ending too, at the time.

    Spoilers for those still reading. http://second-truth.blogspot.com/2013/07/about-th

    Short answer: I really liked it. I would propose no change.

    But I have this working theory that wanting to save the world is actually kind of a gendered thing. I eventually intend to back this up with data.

    1. Gregg B Avatar

      I really liked it too, and I look forward to your data on that theory, sounds interesting!

      Just read your piece on the ending and the first thing that went through my mind when Joel's told that Ellie's going to die from the operation was: "Bollocks. I don't want her to die, but so many have died getting here… and more will die if I try to save her… and more will die if I save her… and she wants to help… but Joel lost his daughter and… bollocks."

      I just realised too that I lumped you in the 'players that didn't really give a shit' category. Sorry about that! :D But yeah, a great ending in my book and the 'lie' seemed wholly appropriate too.

      1. Amanda Lange Avatar

        Oh, no, I very much did give a shit, but that was in the sense of, I put my foot on the gas here. Sometimes I feel as if I were the only person who did that.

    2. badgercommander Avatar

      See, that works if you were in that mind set, I wasn't.

      At this point we get into whether this is me failing at being the audience or the game failing at convincing me to be the person it wanted me to be.

      As it stands, I did like those final moments in the game. I just felt like I had been corralled into taking those steps. I can see why you might think that I would want to save the world but that isn't really the case, it is just that I didn't bond with Ellie in a way that made me feel obliged to 'save' her.

      The point of the suggested endings is really that each of them is completely unsatisfactory to the end user. In the first option the user doesn't save the world, the fireflies do, they merely didn't not save the world. It is their inaction that allowed people to do the right thing (there is a possible ending in Spec Ops that has similar connotations).

      Once you've barreled down the path of killing doctors and committed to that then I am totally fine with what happens after that.

      I wonder if this has anything to do with the way people played the game? I finished it in two sittings and was so tired by the point that you are killing Fireflies that the fight was sort of out of me.

      1. Gregg B Avatar
        Gregg B

        I don't think it's a problem with you, the audience, because so many people were made uneasy by it — I think it was meant to be provactive — and I don't think it's a problem with the game convincing us either because I think it did as much as it could have within a linear framework to make us understand Joel and Ellie's relationship and particularly Joel's situation.

        Possible Bioshock Infinite spoilers!!!
        I was far more 'comfortable' and could relate with Joel's actions far more than I could with some of Booker's which struck me as overkill, quite literally. Whether it was the cops early on or Comstock towards the end.
        END Possible Bioshock Infinite spoilers!!!

        Haha, I wanted to save the world and Ellie. Yeah. There was my cake and I wanted to eat it. I played the game over 6 or 7 sessions I think, over the space of a couple of weeks tops. I'm very slow and really take my time with games. As I said though, I was tiring of the encounters by the end. If anything, I wanted a forced mass shoot-out just to prevent me going into stealth mode. I think I used more ammo as Ellie than I did as Joel simply because Ellie wasn't so hot at killing people stealthily with her flick knife.

        1. badgercommander Avatar

          Someone on the internet linked this:

          It is a fascinating piece on empathy, that might explain some of the problems I had with The Last of Us.

  4. Gregg B Avatar

    Hmm, for some reason I can’t respond to Amanda or post this below so I’ve had to disable the Intense Debate script to get it to work (Disqus is a pain in the arse too):

    Haha, yes, it’s clear you very much did give a shit! I’ve got to say, I’m surprised to hear anyone was capable of powering through that sequence, busting firefly chops, with a clear conscience. Perhaps that says more about my connection with Joel or perhaps how tough the situation was? Or my gender? :-) I dunno. I felt so fucking sorry for him though and despite it all, I was glad that he got some piece of happiness after all that misery, even if it was to the detriment of everyone else.

    It seems to be very much a case of the id saving Ellie, bludgeoning the super-ego with a piece of 2 by 4 and strangle holding the ego into the closing moments of the game.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      A comment of yours had been held back for approval for some reason – not sure if that was the issue. I've approved it now.

      IntenseDebate is sadly far from a perfect system, but it (and Disqus) are a step up from WordPress's default commenting system. Or at least they were in December 2010…

  5. […] have done. Even in a game as flat and linear as The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) there have been calls for alternative choices at the end of the game. It is always difficult to patch in extra choices to serve player whims because they need to be […]

  6. […] and messed up pretty badly. Some people complained about the hospital scene at the very end (here for example), the obligation to pull the trigger on the doctor: they were asking for a choice, their choice, […]