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Could The Last of Us have been better with an alternate ending?

by Ethan Powers on July 4, 2013


the-last-of-us-ending

(Warning: Major Plot Spoilers Below) – So you’re unhappy with the way The Last of Us ended. You’re part of the minority opinion that was underwhelmed by its extremely understated resolution. You probably wanted to see some evolutionary stage 4 infected gargantuan jump out onto the highway as you drove off from the Firefly lab, prompting a desperate boss battle of epic proportions. Perhaps you wanted to see some sort of monumental sacrifice, or a sentimental send-off of one of the protagonists. You invested lots of time and emotion into the game and got a one word response in return followed by a cut to black.

Most of all, you may have wanted the ending you thought was coming all along: Ellie would become the necessary, if not altogether heartbreaking savior and sacrifice needed to bring mankind back to normality. It’s your opinion, and it isn’t wrong. You feel misled, cheated, shortchanged. Who could blame you? As gamers, we’ve been ingrained to expect excess. The sales statistics prove it year after year as the chart toppers are un-coincidentally the bloodiest, most explosion-packed games on the market. By context, one would expect a remarkably gory game like The Last of Us to have an equally remarkable ending that concludes as such.

But it doesn’t come. There’s no intense final battle with a stage 4 infected gargantuan, no cathartic sentiment, and there is no major sacrifice to be made (In other words, humanity is doomed). There’s an unfettered lie, and an acceptance of it. It’s quite possible that many sat with controller in-hand expecting gameplay to continue and for the narrative to move forward – a kind of “That’s it?” type of moment.

There’s been some negative reaction to the subtle ending of The Last of Us

If this describes your immediate reaction, and you’ve expressed that reaction to others, then by now you’ve probably been bludgeoned over the head about your despicable tastes and about how your petty brain cannot appreciate the beauty through subtlety achieved by Naughty Dog with such an ending. For as much negative reaction toward The Last of Us’ ending I’ve seen on forums and message boards across the Internet, I’ve seen twice as much elitist snobbery toward those who find it not to be a masterpiece. While I’m certainly not here to discredit the opinion of you naysayers who believe Joel is nothing more than a selfish ass whose actions condemned us all, I will attempt to respectfully explain why I did in fact find the ending to be an expertly crafted conclusion to a game deserving of the PS3’s “swan song” title and one which ends this console generation in a fashion worthy of remembrance.

We are given very little background or context to the characters in The Last of Us. In fact, the narrative itself begins in medias res. We’re shown a brief cinematic between father and daughter, establishing that the two have a close, personal relationship. Then we wake up as Sarah while all hell is breaking loose. Frantic phone calls are being made, basic services are breaking down, and massive explosions seen out of Joel’s bedroom window indicating that the danger is not far off. Joel rushes back into the house bloody and panicked, and from there the journey begins. It’s this framing of the narrative that sets the game’s theme and tone – that it is not about an epidemic infection nor is it about humanity’s destruction, but it is rather a personalized account of tragedy, loss, and how one copes with them.

Few games with as little context as The Last of Us gives would be able to captivate gamers and keep them engaged on the characters’ lives and potential outcomes. Yet the way in which Naughty Dog unfolds the narrative, giving us each character’s backstory at an incremental and methodical level forces us to make opinions that may or may not be entirely accurate. Each of the characters’ histories is shrouded to some extent. We know little about the family life of Joel prior to Sarah’s death, and even less about Ellie’s. We know the character motivations of Marlene, but not the depth of her relationship with Ellie’s mother. Naughty Dog gives us the vague outline in which to view these characters, and allows our minds to form the gestalt.

Through Tommy and Joel’s dialogue, we know that the two perhaps did terrible things in order to survive. Throughout The Last of Us, Joel stands as a symbolic representation of an ideology at the heart of the game’s story. Amidst an environment of people ready to believe in the best of mankind, who are willing to trust through faith and without evidence, Joel is the unrelenting pessimist and the outward cynic even prior to Sarah’s death. When Joel, Tommy and Sarah attempt to leave town in their car at the start of the game, they come across a small family walking alongside the road. Both Tommy and Sarah express interest in helping them, but Joel emphatically insists they keep driving. Similarly, when Joel is driving with Ellie into an abandoned town, they are greeted by a seemingly wounded man in need of help. While Ellie states her desire to get out and help, Joel knows it is a bandit trap. Later on, Ellie asks him how he knew, and Joel states that he “used to be one of them.”

The Last of Us Ending

These small yet significant indications cement why the ending works wonderfully as is, without sacrifice and without Ellie restoring humanity. Joel is by no means a hero. He is an ordinary man shaped by requirement, doing what is necessary in order to survive. His initial attachment to Ellie is not out of some yearning to replace what was lost, it’s a relationship born out of circumstance. Marlene on the other hand, represents the polar opposite of Joel’s worldview. Her cause, while detrimental to Joel and Ellie, is undoubtedly righteous. Marlene is the noblest of all of the game’s characters when you consider her motivations and ambitions. She holds a relationship and connection with Ellie perhaps greater than Joel does. She looked Ellie’s mother in her eyes and promised her protection and then acted as a surrogate mother would. Yet even given this perspective, Marlene still chooses to sacrifice this girl whom she cared and looked after, all for the good of humanity. “This isn’t about me, or even her. There is no other choice here,” she tells Joel. Kill one, save a million. That’s the philosophy that drives her actions forward. For Marlene, the emphasis is placed on the benefit of the species. For Joel, it is placed on the benefit of the self.

The ending of The Last of Us bluntly presents a microcosm of the human condition. Joel is not a hero. He is a survivor of catastrophic tragedy, as is Ellie. He has suffered through the greatest loss that can befall a parent while Ellie has steadily watched every person she’s cared for die off. They’ve both experienced the worst side of humanity – robbery, murder, sexual assault – and have rode on. Joel believes he owes nothing to this appalling, insensitive world, and as a result, he gives it nothing in return. He sees what is perhaps its last hope and drives off with it in the hope that a life with Ellie will give his personal existence hope and meaning. Is it a selfish, egocentric decision? Absolutely. But it is not an unrealistic one. It is the same choice that the majority of the human population would make given the same set of circumstances.

Joel’s decision to spurn mankind in order to make his own life more appealing presents us with a theme that states that the paradigm of humanity exists individually, not collectively. The ending is not a victory for humanity, it’s a victory for the individual, for one personalized account of the catastrophe amidst countless others who will not be so lucky. It’s not by coincidence that the trusting or faithful characters – Sarah, Tess, Ellie – either die or need to be saved by the distrusting skeptic in Joel. In the world of The Last of Us, individual survival is always of greater importance than heroic gallantry to save others. Joel’s actions to keep Ellie alive present us with a prime example of ethical hedonism. He saves Ellie from being a potential cure to a global epidemic that will kill millions in order to gain the most out of his own life.

The Last of Us does not feature your typical victory for humanity

The scene in which Joel and Ellie interact with the giraffes stands out for another reason other than being a heartwarming moment between father-figure and daughter-figure. The scene’s beauty emanates from what it shows and ultimately represents, which is the world returning to a state in which the problems of man do not plague it. There are no car horns, no pollution, no racial or prejudicial discrimination nor hypocritical political dealings. We see nature in its equilibrium and the magnificent stillness that results when we aren’t around. If our true selves indeed are revealed during our last moments, The Last of Us begs the question given the game’s displays of humanity’s dark side: Do we really deserve a cure? The ending to The Last of Us will always be most effective when Ellie is kept alive, and when humanity is left doomed.

The relationship of Joel and Ellie is deliberately left uncertain and open for interpretation. Does Ellie know Joel is lying? Does she want to know the truth? Her body language implies that she knows, at the very least, that there’s an omission of detail. After Joel swears, she breaks eye contact with him and looks down, as if she’s trying to convince herself that what she is hearing is genuine. Joel lies to protect her from a truth she may not be able to handle or may never forgive him for, and Ellie accepts it as valid because it’s a truth she may never want to come to terms with. The two individuals survive, while the collective suffers from it. Naughty Dog presents a theme and follows through with its implementation to the very end. The game could not have ended more impeccably.

It is fitting that The Last of Us ends on a lie. There’s a significant portion of gamers who believed (or still may believe) that they’d be playing through a generic zombie shooter. What they actually played through was anything but one. The game breaks our preconceived notions of what a Triple-A game is capable of delivering, and goes further by breaking our expectations within the game itself. So humanity will continue to survive, albeit on a much lesser scale. The raping and pillaging of bandit tribes across the country will resume, and the individual will do what is necessary in order to prolong his or her existence regardless of how horrid the livid conditions are. So don’t be pissed that the game didn’t end the way you imagined or wanted. Rather, be joyful that a video game is initiating these kinds of existential discussions in the first place.

Say Something
  • NathGamer

    I thought the ending was perfect for the game. It makes you think about humanity, and what you would have done in the same situation.

    I wouldn’t have changed it.

  • Alex Dahl

    Same as Nath said, woudn’t have changed it. I didn’t even notice that Joel was actually an antagonist (from my perspective) until I saw that last cutscene. Great story, great ending. Makes me want to see more of these two even though I know that won’t happen.

    • Mark Danger Hopps

      You know it won’t happen? I thought the end left it wide open for a sequel

      • PSuser

        The ending was set up so they could make a sequel should they choose to do but also closed enough to leave as a stand alone title.

      • Alex Dahl

        Naughty Dog said that the world of Last of Us is wide open in terms of new storylines, but that the Joel and Ellie story IS over.

        • Mark Danger Hopps

          ah i did not know that, i still wouldn’t believe it totally, if they do make another the last of us i’d bet big on joel and ellie being included even if it was just a cameo, wouldn’t surprise me if it was a playable one either judging by the the last of us

        • Underworld

          I thought I read that ND clarified that what they meant by that was that that particular story of Joel and Ellie was over. But another story involving them is a possibility, if they found one worth telling. I might be wrong, but I’m sure they did.

  • Facts First

    I personally think that The Last of Us is the most overrated game of the year Joe and Ella are two of the worst characters in games and the story should be more like left 4 dead or day z.

    • PSuser

      You need to own a PS3 to be able to experience The Last of Us in all it’s glory and beauty. Don’t try be a douchebag, you would be calling it one of the best games ever made if it was an Xbox exclusive or even available on Xbox.

      • Facts First

        I own ps3 and the last of us. you dont get to tell me my opinion. I don’t like it and I think it was a waste of $$

        • Mark Danger Hopps

          you lie all of the time, i do not believe for 1 second you have played the last of us, you also think it should have a story like dayz LOL

          seriously, play some games and i may respect your opinion until then keep the uniformed opinions to yourself

    • Mark Danger Hopps

      the story should be more like dayz? you say things some times that show how little you know about gaming. Dayz is a Mod, its story is non existent.

    • Alex Dahl

      You fail at trolling, hardcore like.

  • Tony Stark

    Just another average TPS ZOMBIES GAME. Done in 10 hours and back to Gamestop to the bargin bin. MEH.

  • PSuser

    This is honestly without a doubt, the most incredible game I have ever played. From the characters, the setting, the sound, the voice acting, the graphics, the gameplay and of course the story telling, Naughty Dog didn’t just hit a home run, they didn’t just hit a grand slam, they won the world series by hitting a grand slam.

    The ending of this was perfect. I could see how they can make sequels to it but if I could choose to, I would leave it as a stand alone but I can also trust Naughty Dog to make a truly great sequel if they so choose to do.

    In his situation, after all he has done, after all he has lost and given up. Could you say you wouldn’t have done the same as Joel.

    GOTY 2013.

  • Mark Danger Hopps

    Great game and great ending, maybe a little short for my liking but with such a tight story to be expected.

    i’d of personally gave it 9 out of 10, easily the most cinematic game i’ve ever played but not much in the way of replay value unless you want to see the fantastic story play out again

    • Underworld

      Short? I think it took me like 20hrs, at least. I explore everything though.

      I absolutely love the game, and I thought the ending was perfect. Never been so captivated or loved the characters so much in any game before. Almost cried twice.
      I was happy Ellie didn’t die. It should be her choice to decide whether to sacrifice herself. Not Marlene’s.

      • Mark Danger Hopps

        yeah i definitely thought it was a short lived experience (took about 15 hours for me i think) with not much in the way of replay value or exploration.

        Like i said though I understand that because its a linear filmic experience and not a huge open world RPG or something like that.

  • jacobsfavorite

    Excellent article, very well said. I finished the game several days ago and I still can’t get it out of my mind. I loved the ending but only after sitting there shocked for a moment and then digesting exactly what just happened…lol! I had a feeling that either Joel or Ellie was going to die before even playing the game so I’m glad that neither one died even if Joel had to do what he did and lied to Ellie about it. I would’ve done the same. I think what one of the devs said about the game is perfect: “In the end the journey was all for nothing, but it was for everything”.

  • njb

    Last Of Us is up their with the greats. Games like this transcend pathetic stuff like Fanboyism & Trolls. If you have the opportunity to play Last Of US you wont be disapointed.

    I almost enjoyed it more than MGS4, and that is no small feat.

  • Rifo

    I Love the games ending as is, but I always wonder how much more emotionally powerful it would have been had Joel been killed after carrying Ellie out of the operating room (I actually ran into the Fireflies the first time got shot in the face and thought that was the actual ending). It would have been so sad to see him die and then question yourself as to why you’re even sympathizing for him when he was preventing the rescue of mankind lets say…

  • John Fox

    This game is perfect. My old grandma who’s never played a game in her life save for meybe bowling and tennis on the wii was enthralled by the intro and couldn’t stop watching it because of how brilliant it is.

  • JustADude

    Dammit some think Ellie shoulda died. I say after all the bonding, Joel, or anyone in his place, for that matter, would not abandon Ellie to die, no matter the cost of it. Neither would Ellie, if it was Joel to be saved.
    After something close to 13 hours of playing as the two characters, I’ve really grown to care about their bond as well as their fate, and I believe this goes for over 90% of the fellas who’ve played this game.

    This ending reminded me of what Ellie said about the comics. Great, despite the one terrible part, the “to be continued”. And though – thank God – TLoU didn’t end at a cliffhanger, it didn’t take one, as it already let me and, I believe, the majority of the ones who played it, all waiting to know what’s next for Joel and Ellie. It just felt like that TV show or movie, that really hits you, and that you miss when it’s over, makes you want to imagine sequels and makes you desire to welcome back the characters for future adventures. That “that’s it?” feeling at the ending, that’s what shows how much you’ve grown to care for the characters and the game. You just hate to have to let it go like that, that you google for future DLCs, sequels, play the game again, just to relieve the experience you loved so much..

    Wow, got carried away there… Well Naughty Dog deserves it, anyways…I’d risk sayin this was maybe the best game (certainly best story) I’ve played…What touched me the most were the cutscenes, from the dramatic death of Sarah, or from Ellie saving Joel upon being drowned (both times), to the silly talks and bonding moments, the game just captivated me.

    Perfect. Fucking. Ending.

    BTW 10/10

  • deamonsatwar

    i loved the ending but i think that if they did do the alternate ending it would have had a much greater play-again value, i would play it onece through for one ending then i would play again just for the other ending i still wish they would have let you have that choice in whether to save humanity or doom it although i still love the ending even if it was a bit flat

    • Michael Stenlund

      Exactly. The more and more I think about the game ending, the more I think it was intended to end as linear as a movie.

  • Michael Stenlund

    Thank you very much for writing this. I googled “Unhappy with The last of us ending” without the quotes and this page came up as the first find. I am one of the most disappointed people reading your article about the ending. As a world citizen (that means a person trying to help the world regardless of race / religion / beliefs / politics) I found that the cure with Ellie, even though her human life would go away in the process, she would end up as a sacrifice where most likely a cure for the entire planet could be found. Naughtydog.. Loved your game, but the ending is the worst of any game i have played to date. This now goes from my top ten games to 11th place. You would see a very sad face if you were to look at me while I’m writing this. Hoping the first DLC continuation will be good, I’m going to play it next.

  • Jon Manilenio

    Excellent game! I enjoyed this more than MGS4. Brilliantly crafted, beautiful story, I felt like I was in that world and I reveled in it. In my opinion, Joel did the right thing. I don’t think there was any chance of getting a vaccine or cure given the conditions, plus the main fact that they didn’t give Ellie a chance to determine herself if she wanted to be sacrificed for the small chance of finding a vaccine or cure. Oh, and let’s not forget they wouldn’t even let Joel see Ellie. Even if Marlene had noble intentions, that doesn’t excuse her for making the decision for Ellie, and for forcing it on Joel, as well. This way, Ellie can still do a little bit more of growing up, enjoying her life a little bit more. Then when she’s all grown up, and still immune, Joel can tell her what really went down that day. Then she herself can make the decision to give her life up as a sacrifice to humanity, if she so chooses.

    I think I’ll play again and try to shoot them dogs and monkeys just to see if I can.

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