It may be easy to forget now, but when the first Last of Us hit shelves in 2013, it sent gamers online into a frenzy. Praised for its wonderfully written dialogue and disarmingly human characters, it was a breath of fresh air in a medium chock full of cheesy cutscenes and over the top boss battles. Naughty Dog’s zombie opus finally brought something to video games that many stories had been sorely missing – plausibility.
While The Last Of Us was far from the first game to tug at players’ heartstrings, it did so in a non-melodramatic way, with characters written like they were actual people. This was the rare AAA blockbuster that dared to tell a more understated story, to have key moments of its narrative unfold via pained looks or even casual conversations during gameplay. It created characters that you felt like you knew. And that’s why that devastating ending hit so hard.
OK, If you somehow still haven’t played the original The Last Of Us, click away now, because we’re about to spoil a seven year old game...
The Last Of Us ending recap
In The Last Of Us, Joel’s mission is to accompany humanity's last hope, Ellie, across America, delivering her safely to a militia group attempting to save mankind called The Fireflies. The reason his quarry is so special, is because she appears to be the only human to ever survive a bite from the infected. Yet with Joel losing his own daughter a decade earlier, as his journey unfolds, he slowly begins to see Ellie as his second daughter – and a chance for redemption.
When Joel finally arrives at The Fireflies HQ, however, he is horrified to discover that the only way they can potentially save mankind is by dissecting Ellie’s brain. Despite their pleas and his once friend, Marlene urging him to think of the bigger picture, Joel murders them all in cold blood. Escaping with an unconscious and oblivious Ellie, Joel lies about the encounter, telling her that The Fireflies simply took her blood and couldn’t use it in their research.
It was a jaw-dropping moment, and one that still made this writer’s hair’s stand on end during a second playthrough over seven years later. But what did the voice of Joel himself, Troy Baker make of that heart-wrenching ending?
Troy Baker reflects on TLOU ending
Speaking exclusively to StealthOptional.com, Baker opened up about his personal feelings around that epic ending to the first Last Of Us game.
“I feel like everyone says Joel could have saved the world, that he had the opportunity to save the world, and in my opinion – he did save the world. Because that girl was his world - and if he couldn’t save her, there was no world worth saving.”
Baker pauses dramatically, “I think to me that speaks to – especially in a time like right now - that speaks to our humanity. If we’re not willing to do these things, then is humanity really worth saving?”
It’s a debate that has raged on through forums, YouTube video essays and a smattering of fan subreddits ever since. In fact, many players wondered why they weren’t given a choice in the matter, surely they should have decided Ellie’s fate? Yet for Baker, this was the only way that Joel ever would have responded.
“I feel that our ending is the most honest ending that we could have possibly come up with,” Baker replies. “I think the true moral dilemma was: Am I willing to kill an innocent? But in reality, Joel couldn’t save the world – but he could save that girl. And he’d be damned that if on his watch, another girl was going to die.”
Was Joel being selfish?
“Was it selfish? Absolutely, it was the most selfish act ever. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t beautiful… that it wasn’t honest.” For Baker, there was a bigger issue at stake here - what happened after Joel’s murderous rampage:
“Killing The Fireflies is not the moral aberration, the true aberration is that he lied to Ellie. That was the sin. He should have just been honest with her. I understand why, because he’s fearful.” Baker frowns before his tone changes into that familiar Southern drawl, “either way, I’m going to lose the girl, right?” Either I let the fireflies have her and they kill her and I lose her, or I tell her what I did.”
Fair point, Mr Joel. Still, now, it seems, Baker couldn’t be happier with how the first game wrapped up. Yet, when he first read the script, Baker admits that he was pretty nervous about how players would react.
“When we were getting ready to shoot [the ending], it was just around the time that Mass Effect 3 had their whole ‘never mind, this is the new ending’ thing, and I remember asking Neil [Druckmann creative director] ‘are you afraid that people are not going to like how it ends?’ and he simply said, ‘I don’t care if they love it or if they hate it, I just don’t want them to be ambivalent.’”
What about The Last Of Us Part 2?
This mantra must have stood Neil Druckmann in good stead following the divisive fan reaction to The Last Of Us Part II – because the internet certainly wasn’t ambivalent about the sequel.
While Naughty Dog’s long awaited continuation was undoubtedly a critical and commercial success, it didn’t stop an (incredibly vocal) minority from lashing out at the game and its creators, expressing their anger at this story being told from the perspective of a new female character, rather than the fan favourite they’d hoped for. Yet, no matter where you sat on Part II, much like the first game, it undoubtedly was built upon a foundation of bold creative choices – and once they were written, there was no going back for Neil and the team.
Unlike shooting a difficult scene for a film or TV show, Naughty Dog had to completely double down on their shocking finale – they couldn’t just quickly film an alternative ending and hedge their bets. Once you’ve committed to a plot line in video games, bringing that to life is a massively time-consuming process. In the eyes of Troy Baker, it's that kind of ballsy commitment to his artistic vision that makes Neil Druckmann such a unique creative force:
“The amount of courage that it took [For Neil] to not only put himself in that place, but also to genuinely mean it…. to send out those scenes, then shoot those scenes, then render those scenes and do all the multiple thousands of steps that it takes to get that idea from conception to disc. Just to follow through on that conviction….. it speaks so much to his character.”
A timeless debate
“The fact that seven years on, we are still having this debate about whether or not it was the right decision... we are still asking, ‘Is Joel a good guy, is Joel a bad guy? What was ‘Ellie feeling when Joel tells her that lie? What does her ‘OK’ mean?’ It’s something that people seemingly never stop debating, and to me, that is the true mark of an amazing story.”
While thanks to the sequel, we now know more about how Joel’s devastating decision affected not only Ellie, but the wider world around them, Baker admits that he still enjoys reading some of the old fan theories around the ending of the original.
“Somebody came up with a – Neil, of course, disagrees with this - fascinating take on it. That Ellie knew the entire time what the fireflies were going to do. She knew that she was going to die and that’s why she just wanted to have one last good run.”
“She chose to learn about the past instead. Is this what girls used to think about? Tell me about ice cream? In other words, it was her asking, ‘What am I saving? What is my life going to save?’ ‘Tell me about video games – all of that ‘– and that’s what Joel robbed her of. That to me was one of the most fascinating takes on this, that was the real transgression – he didn’t save her life, he robbed her death of meaning. Man, I could do a class on this!” Baker says with a laugh.
That’s a class we’d love to see. Yet with a highly anticipated Last Of Us HBO adaptation soon coming to our screens, there is no doubt that Joel and Ellie’s story impact on pop culture will only grow. Who knows, maybe in future philosophy classes, students won’t just study the trolley problem - they’ll also have to write a thesis on the classic philosophical quandary ‘the Joel and Ellie dilemma’.