We Are Not Heroes: The History of The Last of Us

Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us

Flash back to June 2020, we are mid pandemic and everyone is clamouring for not just movies to watch but new books, games and television to occupy their time. Renowned game company Naughty Dog after initially pushing back the release of their much anticipated sequel to The Last of Us, finally released what they expected to be their heartfelt goodbye to the PS4 only for their discussion of grief, revenge and forgiveness to be marred by an internet community out to chastise it for it’s plot. Long story short, it was a bad time to be a Last of Us fan. When it was released I was tempted to write a review but in the end I wanted to wait until the vitriolic discussions of the few had dissipated and calmer heads prevailed. By the time that happened, the window for that review had passed, mainly because it was no longer a topic of discussion and because I had since put down the controller and moved on to other games and films. However recently decent films are becoming harder to come by outside of Netflix and Amazon and the bevy of streaming services because of financial constraints which has pushed me back towards gaming, specifically The Last of Us Part 2. However this won’t be the average review because, nobody cares at this point, most of all me. Instead it will be a look at the backlash, the history behind it, why I think it didn’t make a whole lot of sense and also some much needed context in regards to a game series that has been trying to elevate a medium all too often denigrated as being less than.

While it might seem obvious to most that this article will contain spoilers for the events in The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2, especially considering they have been out for 7 years and 9 months respectively, I think it needs stating just in case. So here it is in condescendingly oversized letters for those in the back of the room.

Spoiler Alert

Going Out In Style

While most of the internet was set on fire following the release of Part 2 on the 19th June, the real kindling to this issue was weeks prior with anticipation at an all time high for a game hoped for since the release of the first game. Around a month before the release, plot details and promotional material for the game leaked online effectively ruining major moments of the 2nd game for a large proportion of fans. Many had been hoping for a game similar to the first, a road movie through an overgrown America that was more about togetherness than it was about the desolate world they belonged to. Instead audiences were let in on the secret early that this was a revenge story, one that for a large proportion of it avoided the core characters of the first game, instead handing things off to an entirely new cast of characters while seemingly forgetting about the original crew. This choice in storytelling, without the context of the actual game, riled fans up, especially when that bombshell was followed up by a bigger one, that surrogate father figure and survivor Joel, the main playable character of the first game would be brutally murdered in the early hours of your playthrough. It was understandably a lot to take in, and the game hadn’t even come out. Naughty Dog didn’t respond to the leak head on and instead brought their release forward, all but confirming the content released was legitimate. The fuse was set, it just needed to be lit.

Then came June 19th. Reviews were coming out praising Naughty Dog’s latest but the audience scores on sites like Metacritic and early Youtube reviews from fans were extremely negative. Reviews posted within hours of the games release slated the storytelling for two very specific reasons, the death of Joel and new lead Ellie’s relationship with fellow survivor and new addition Dina. The latter argument, while abhorrent and utterly sexist, was easy to see as such, a low blow that if taken seriously would hinder any kind of legitimate criticism of the game. However the dramatic choice to kill off a main character felt like an acceptable reason to take fault with the storytelling. That is, if you actually finished the game. The Last of Us Part 2 took me over 30 hours to complete the first time I played it, cutscenes included, some reviews were surfacing the morning of release. Not only had players not reached the end, they hadn’t even made it into the main game with the prologue taking close to 3 hours itself. The rage and hatred of the game had spewed out into the real world and the games creators, actors and programmers were the target of abuse for creating something that has since been titled Game of The Year. The question then became, why was this one plot point the cause of such division. While many pointed to simple reasons for this, the real answer in part I think will remain unanswered. However it is impossible to put it down to just one issue, one point of contension. It felt deeper than that despite a wealth of angry fans stating otherwise. Not only is part of the answer hidden in the development history of The Last of Us but in Naughty Dog’s history as well.

Uncharted Territory

Although existing as a company since 1989, it wasn’t until their acquisition by Sony in 2001 that they truly began developing the brand and style of storytelling we now know to be quintessential Naughty Dog. With the release of Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog hadn’t begun developing the kind of interactive movies and immersive story based games of the Uncharted series or The Last of Us but the roots were firmly planted in the Jak and Daxter series. While fantastical and closer to a platformer, Naughty Dog began experimenting with the kind of heroic duo’s from 80s adventure films, the comedic and bonded pair that will see through any adventure. It was light hearted, humorous but most of all, fun. By 2007, the company was ready to move on from Jak and Daxter and they begun development of the first Uncharted game and took their first step into making their games more like the films that inspired them. Basing itself around swashbuckling adventurer Nathan Drake and his paramour Elena, the dynamic duo here emulated Harrison Ford and Karen Allen or more specifically Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood. Despite the more run and gun orientated gameplay, Uncharted remained light hearted in tone while progressing the Naughty Dog ethos into detail orientated realistic storytelling with a fantastical twist.

You might wonder what any of this has to do with The Last of Us as up until now all I seem to be doing is recounting how Naughty Dog grew as a company. In 2009 production for the first Last of Us game began concurrently to production on the 3rd Uncharted game. Taking everything learnt over the first two Nathan Drake adventures, Naughty Dog switched tones to something darker. Not only is Uncharted 3 a more grown up adventure while still retaining the fantastical elements but The Last of Us was a full blown post apocalyptic nightmare, a world devolved into baser level human instincts of survival. The story at its core though still adhered to the Naughty Dog ethos of human, realistic storytelling. After years with Jak and Daxter and the jovial joking of career adventurer Nathan Drake, a game where you weren’t waiting for the next punchline was entirely new to the company and the players. By 2013 it was clear that the gambit had payed off and players had bonded with survivors Ellie and Joel, perhaps too much. The dark tone meshed with the tried and tested dynamic duo storytelling of yesteryear to create a game that hit the high water mark of the medium. Naughty Dog went on to make Uncharted 4 following their success, a game touted as the end of Nathan Drake’s adventures and fans were intrigued with how they would write out a beloved character. Naughty Dog hadn’t had to retire a character before, instead just moving onto the next project. Released in 2016, Uncharted 4 ended in a joyful flourish and a tender love letter to a beloved character. It is hidden in this game that part of the problem lies. Not only did Naughty Dog set themselves up with the success of Uncharted 4 but they set a precedent they gleefully subverted. The ceremony afforded main character and central hero Nathan Drake here was vastly different to the one Joel received four years later. It seemed to most that this main character was put on the chopping block as a simple plot device, with little pomp or circumstance payed to a hero deserving in some. The problem with that is this is The Last of Us and Joel wasn’t the hero of this story. There are no heroes in The Last of Us. No matter how far back you look, it doesn’t mean much without looking at the world created in 2013 and the true story of Joel and Ellie.

The Last of Us

The Story So Far

Set 20 years after the collapse of the world we know due to a mysterious fungus that begins turning humans into mindless monsters, the Last of Us subverted the normal zombie tropes while using the same rules and conventions to build a world of constant danger. It was a first for Naughty Dog, with prior enemies being very human but almost laughably evil, making the running and gunning an easy going distraction almost. Here every monster was once someone, good or bad, it didn’t matter they just didn’t exist and did at the same time. The Last of Us lived in a world where we were desensitised and felt everything in equal measure. Instead of opening in the ruins of the world, the game opened in the initial days of the outbreak as protagonist Joel tried to escape his Texas neighbourhood with his daughter Sarah and brother Tommy. As the world went to hell before his eyes and people turned into animals, it became clear the real enemy became humanity and the people who hadn’t succumbed, forced to do horrible things to survive. This is hammered home in the opening moments when Sarah is gunned down by a nameless, faceless soldier just following orders. The holocaust analogies aside, it is a harrowing opening sequence that serves its purpose in draining you of optimism, in the hope that over the course of the game it will return.

20 years later, Joel is a seasoned survivor, well into middle age and completely focused on how to make it to the next day. Over the course of this new day, he finds himself smuggling 15 year old survivor Ellie across the border of the quarantine zone he has found himself hunkered down in(,) with fellow survivor Tess(,)for a shipment of guns. The reasons are vague, Joel doesn’t really care, its not quite routine but its a job. When the three are ambushed Joel and Tess discover the girl has been bitten but hasn’t turned, a possible sign of the world changing for the better, a turn of events beautifully realised in an added DLC to the game. A glimpse of hope in a rotten world. We know she represents more than that to Joel but at this point that fact evades him. It’s not long after this that Tess gets infected protecting Ellie and kills herself to guard their escape from the city. The two of them find themselves alone with just each other for company, protection and reassurance.

Set over a year, the two meet other survivors and have to suffer through further heartbreak as we the audience were subjected to everything from the death of another child to Joel almost dying from an injury he sustains looking for rebels he is supposedly delivering Ellie to, the supposed good guys, The Fireflies. Joel must contend with a broken relationship with long lost brother Tommy, Ellie finds herself captured and subjected to abuses from a group of cannibalistic survivors without Joel to protect her. Naughty Dog and main creative lead Neil Druckman put players and its lead characters through the ringer with the assumption that they would come to a happy conclusion at the end. Not only does do the dangers and seasonal chapters of the game bond these two people together, it links both to the world of The Last of Us. By the end of the game, when Joel and Ellie finally arrive at the Firefly hospital with the cure in sight and Joel and Ellie’s happy ending just around the corner, the game pulls the rug out from under us. For a cure, Ellie has to die. This is too much for Joel as he rampages through Firefly after Firefly, people just trying to do the right thing for humanity, to get to the operating room where Ellie lies unconscious. Killing swathes of Fireflies and the main surgeon and escaping with Ellie, Joel takes her back to a safe haven with Tommy and other survivors but the lingering questions of what happened at the hospital plague Ellie. This forces Joel to lie to her to keep his own secret and more importantly to protect her from herself. It isn’t a happy ending but it does feel like the hopeful one Naughty Dog allude to from the beginning of the game and one that seems in keeping with the kind of endings Naughty Dog games adhered to up to this point. Behind it though is a lingering mistrust, a feeling that something isn’t quite right. Its a perfect ending to an almost perfect story. It feels complete but houses a darker story to be told yet to come. Is it such a surprise that that is exactly what audiences got?

Endings Are Hard For Everyone.

Ellie looking out over rain soaked Seattle

Opening four years after the events of the first game, Ellie and Joel have found safe harbour and a community in a protected area in Jackson with Tommy and a group of likeminded survivors. Ellie is on the cusp of beginning a new relationship with fellow survivor Dina, she has a good friend in stalwart Jesse but her and Joel aren’t talking. When Joel goes missing along with Tommy, the three set out to find him. Meanwhile new character Abby finds herself up in the hills surrounding Jackson looking for someone when she is ambushed by a horde of infected only to be rescued by Joel and Tommy. When they finally reach the safety of Abby’s group that is when this picture of newfound domesticity crumbles as Abby shoots Joel and beats Tommy unconcious with the help of her friends. It’s a shock as you wonder how Joel is going to make it out of the basement he finds himself being tortured in. It only gets worse when Ellie arrives and is forced to watch Abby suddenly kill Joel with a golf club. Welcome to the prologue of Part 2.

Even after the savage rampages of the first game, Joel’s suspect decisions and his murderous tendencies, watching this happen is hard, a shattering shot in the arm that drags the game into the doldrums of despair. It isn’t a choice made lightly. What follows is Ellie’s journey to Seattle, the city Abby calls home, on a revenge trip that she and those around her all too frequently call justice. Over the course of three days she treks across the city hunting the 8 people with Joel that night, culminating in her doing things that Joel would never have contemplated even in his darkest moments in The Last of Us. Haunted by flashbacks of happier times with Joel in the four years prior and what tore them apart, Ellie trudges on. Murdering Abby’s ex-boyfriend Owen and his pregnant girlfriend Mel finally breaks Ellie out of her tunnel vision of vengeance. It is an unsatisfying ending to her story but one that feels right, Ellie has finally found herself and her friends again, brought back to humanity by Dina, Jesse and Tommy. That is when Abby finds them. Instead of giving us the showdown Ellie has been seeking for three blood soaked days the game cuts back four years to show a teenage Abby, just a few years older than Ellie at the time in relative security living with her protected family, The Fireflies.

Abby with her father Jerry

We are introduced to her father Jerry, shown the early love filled days of her relationship with Owen before Ellie and Joel arrive just like she did in Jackson. Turns out Jerry is the doctor looking to cure humanity, the one who wants to kill Ellie to save mankind. However we all know how that turned out. When Abbie reaches the operating room Ellie is gone and her father lies dead on the floor, a victim of Joel’s ‘righteous’ rage. Joel killed Abby’s father. Its a simple twist, a logical one but one that once again hits the right notes. The game then does yet another hard reset, opening back on day one of Ellie’s time in Seattle, instead from Abby’s perspective, a completely separate tale of survival and change. As Ellie is killing her friends one by one, Abby is waging a war with her ‘people’, the aptly titled Wolves against a cult known as Seraphites, known to her as Scars. When she comes across two seraphite teenagers, Lev and Yara being hunted by their own people she finds herself in their debt when they save her life. With Yara seriously wounded, she tries to help them for reasons unknown even to Abby.

This consumes her three days as she finds out Lev was cast out because he is a transgender child, ostracised for shaving his head. Yara just wanted to protect her brother. Abby and Lev find common ground as Abby comes to the understanding that her actions, her desire to save these two kids is entirely spurred on by what she did to Joel and the guilt from years of fighting people she failed to understand. Joel was just one step too far, much like Mel was for Ellie. After days worth of fighting to ‘save her soul’, Abby turns against her trigger happy wolves to protect Lev, after failing to save Yara. It’s a tragic conclusion to her story that truly connects you to her plight. However, then comes the moment Abby’s story merges with Ellie’s as she finds Owen and Mel’s bodies and clues to Ellie’s location. The ensuing showdown leaves Jesse dead and Tommy seriously wounded while forcing you to play as Abby whilst you hunt Ellie through an abandoned theatre to enact the same revenge Ellie has been after this whole time, only for Lev to beg her to be lenient at the last minute. She leaves Ellie, Dina and Tommy bleeding but alive, showing mercy, learning from her previous mistakes and fleeing Seattle.

Months later Ellie is living in seeming domestic bliss on a secluded farm with Dina and her newly born child (from her past relationship with Jesse), still haunted by the events of Seattle and the basement she found Joel in. What feels like a tempting ending, an unsatisfactory but unifying conclusion is broken when in the dead of night Ellie decides to regress back to her original mission, to make Abby pay. This isn’t justice anymore, this is revenge pure and simple and Ellie is the bad guy. Arriving in California after tracking her across the country, Ellie finds Abby, a slave hung out to die in a camp full of savage survivors using fellow humans like tools, not people. Its a stark visual as Abby and Ellie are separated from the worst of the worst, showing that despite their poor decisions they still have the ability to make a choice, good or bad. They are still people. Their final fight although inevitable doesn’t have to end in tragedy. Ellie proceeds to beat Abby into a bloody pulp before drowning her in the sea waters they find themselves at. However suddenly Ellie changes her mind, relenting and showing the same mercy Abby afforded her and Dina. Both women are far from friends but a small ounce of forgiveness is afforded each other.

Ellie returns to the farm but Dina has gone and she is left with her regrets, her memories of a father she misses and the things she lost along the way in the pointless hunt for so called ‘justice’. Much like the ending of the first game, it’s a complete ending, one of new beginnings through total loss. It’s the opposite of the Hollywood action films Uncharted played to, its a deeply troubling finale that feels justly wrong. It’s the true ending of the dark tale Joel promised us with his lie from the first game and one I wholeheartedly support, even though plenty of fans don’t. Here is why.

Denial Through to Acceptance

Naughty Dog aren’t the first publishers to play to the grandiose storytelling of modern cinema. Games like the first Halo played to operatic science fiction action films well before Naughty Dog even started designing Uncharted, with Halo 2 more specifically leaning into the larger elements of that genre. The Last of Us and its sequel however understand that the conventions of a survival horror movie carry over into a survival horror game and one of the main tenets of survival horror is how easily death comes to its characters. As a series, you might get attached to the idea that The Last of Us is Joel and Ellie’s story of family but this is a series that is tied to the hardships and closeted emotions that come with a post apocalyptic world. In the first game, Joel is waking up emotions that lay dormant for 20 years through this journey across America. These emotions however prove to be his undoing, the choices he makes feeling them lead to his murder and push the story on. His place in the 2nd game is just as important as in the first, he just isn’t physically in it. Spiritually however, he actually serves a huge role, not only in Ellie’s story but also in Abby’s. Abby’s journey in the 2nd game is essentially a mirror of Joel’s in the first. Joel is Abby and Abby is Joel. It’s a dichotomy that is hard to swallow at first but equally hard to ignore once you spot it. Survival horror is scored with death and there is no series more versed in killing its characters (besides The Walking Dead) as The Last of Us, it’s just in our minds we had put an invisible flak jacket around Joel and Ellie.

What is special about this series however is how it uses death. In the first game it used it to encourage sympathy, to ingratiate us with Ellie and Joel. Trauma encourages empathy and well before the end of the game it has served that purpose and then some. In fact Ellie bonds with Joel by saving his life and killing her first person. It’s a big moment recounted in the 2nd game as just part of life. Part 2 however uses death differently. It places each character, Ellie, Abby, Owen or Tommy in the five stages of grief and shows how they react differently to the death of one man. The anger Ellie feels is merely the 2nd stage of something Naughty Dog and specifically the writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross want us to be as deep into as the characters. When the leak happened, fans got a taste of stage 1, the denial that this was the path Naughty Dog were taking us down. Then came release day and the anger of stage 2. Stage 3, bargaining had avid fans wishing for a different version of a game they waited years for, they would do anything to play that game. Then the darker the game got and the more Ellie killed, the more the depression of stage 4 set in. It isn’t until 30 hours into the game that finally the acceptance comes, the slight uplift of stage 5 and the full story we expected and ultimately got, even if we didn’t think we would at the beginning.

Abby on the other hand runs this spectrum but instead grieving the death of who she used to be, a story painfully explored in arguably the better half of Part 2’s story. Death is synonymous with survival horror but instead of using the five stages here for someone who has died, its to signify something that has been lost. It’s hard to explain how extensive the storytelling is here and to ignore it because of blind rage is a true shame. That isn’t to say that Part 2 is without its faults but to quibble over pacing issues and some slightly incomplete character work for a few side characters isn’t the point of this article. This isn’t a review, its a history and one that is linked to a fan discourse that despite its toxicity amongst certain communities is well worth discussing. The Last of Us is a series all about emotions and how bad things can close you off to them and it feels right that the game encouraged this level of spite for telling a story in keeping with the world it lives in. For 30 hours I was shocked, I was angry, I wanted to go back to easier times and the relative safety of the first game, but pushing through that sadness was what made the second game so different and narratively better than its predecessor, and in the end that feeling of forgiveness and acceptance felt that much richer because it was earnt. I don’t know if a third game is coming, it may not make sense from a story standpoint but from this gamer, it would be pretty hard to top this duo of games.

TSR

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