Naughty Dog has become known for their narrative-driven cinematic experiences in recent years, moving from developing challenging platformers with cartoon-esque art styles to a more serious, direct approach to video games. You could claim that Naughty Dog are essentially attempting to push the medium in a way that doesn’t just waste a few hours a day and provide some happiness amidst the terrors of reality, but a widespread of emotion purely through writing.
The studio have become a staple in the industry for creating games that are not entirely gameplay-focused, but provide a comfortable amount of challenges and action as the characters we are surrounded by attempt to draw a conclusion, however, it is not drawing a conclusion that really makes a narrative special; now I’m not referring to cliffhangers (seriously, fuck cliffhangers), I’m referring to ending a narrative on a comfortable conclusion that doesn’t make you question what happens next, but allows you to decide for yourself, and that ultimately leads to a much stronger narrative and gives the player a stronger feeling of compassion towards the characters we saw go through Hell. Warning: Spoilers lie ahead.
The Last of Us ended perfectly. The entire story was just one huge guilt trip for Joel, and that is evident from the beginning, when we see his daughter, Sarah, die during the outbreak. We see Joel as a bitter asshole for a lengthy part of the game, as he feels he doesn’t want anything to do with Sarah, or the world. He simply does not care anymore, he just wants to do what he has to do and go back home and reminisce. Ellie, on the other hand, is a young girl that is kind of oblivious to the fact that she may hold the cure and be able to turn the world back to one that she never actually saw before the outbreak. Joel doesn’t really care if she is or isn’t the cure.
As the story progresses, we see the personalities of Joel and Ellie completely change; Joel is starting to see his daughter in Ellie, and having seen how awful the world is, Ellie is dedicated to getting herself to the Fireflies at whatever cost. Now this is where the game explores emotion in narrative over gameplay. Joel starts to open up to Ellie, he mentions all the fun and exciting fatherly activities he aims to do with her once everything is over, although Ellie just kind of blows them off as she is fixated on saving the world.
Now pushing towards the end of the game, we discover that Ellie may very well be the cure, but has a strong chance of dying during the process of obtaining it. Joel refuses to accept this, resulting in him going full psychopath and murdering a plethora of Fireflies in their lab to ‘save’ her. In the end, Ellie questions the events that took place at the lab, and we see Joel directly lie to her, claiming there simply was no cure, even when she asks him to look into her eyes and swear it to her. We, the player, the person who knows the truth, are left to find an answer to what happened next to both Joel and Ellie. Did they grow up happily together? Did Ellie ever find out about Joel’s lie? Did they even survive another month? It’s up to you.
The Last of Us isn’t a game about survival during a zombie apocalypse or finding a cure to save the world. It’s an exploratory narrative on loss and the lengths some people are willing to go to in order to suppress the past and seek happiness. A sequel will most likely ruin the raw emotion we felt leading up to that conclusion.
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