Grieving in ‘The Last of Us’

Back in 2013, Naughty Dog released what would eventually become their most critically acclaimed title to date, The Last of Us. Like many gamers, I sat on my couch and played through it. Tears came and left, love for two grumpy characters formed in my heart. By the end, I screamed as Joel lied to Ellie over what had happened. I was invested in this world. For seven years, I waited for the game’s sequel, seeking every little piece of footage that Naughty Dog released, reading theories and making my own in my head. Then at the stroke of midnight on June 19, 2020, I once again sat on my couch and played. I watched and made my way through it as none of those theories came to life, nothing I thought would happen did. All of a sudden, I found myself in front of a game that forced me to look at it differently and go on a journey that was hard and difficult. As I played through it, I found myself enjoying and hating my time, but never did I expect the game to give me such a gut punch by the end, where just like Ellie I sat and cried while I watched Abby and Lev leave on their boat.

But why do we identify with these characters so much? Why do we play these two games and get so invested in it that one death can create such displeasure in the fanbase and we end up completely divided? The truth is simple really. Even if the games take place in a zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us is all about the humans that inhabited the world and their emotions. It’s about the journey of two broken individuals who must confront their demons to move forward. Joel’s death might have created a division but it was imperative to explore Ellie’s character and reflect on the journey Joel had to go through. Because on the surface The Last of Us seems to be about love and anger, but it is so much more complex. I would even argue that those emotions aren’t the main themes of the games. They are simply reactions to what The Last of Us is all about. Before anything else, The Last of Us is about grief.

The Last of Us begins with Sarah’s death, we watch as Joel loses the most important person in his life and there is nothing we can do to stop it. We see him break down and hold his little girl in his arms completely unable to help. It’s at that moment that the title card appears, leaving us in tears and mourning as the credits roll. A voice-over explains the development of the disease and the fall of our world, but as we listen, we can’t forget what we just experienced, Sarah’s death stays with us. As the credits play, twenty-years have passed, but as Joel reappears on our screen, we are still mourning Sarah, but so is Joel. Joel is stuck in time, just like his broken watch, living in his past and thoughts, refusing to move on and accepting that his daughter is gone for good. As we explore the world, Joel slowly opens up to Ellie and us, and we discover a broken man who left behind his old life not only to survive this world but to also survive his thoughts. Because Joel has never moved on from Sarah, stuck in his rut, in his depression and refusing any help. Only Tess gets close enough to help and even then, it is clear that he holds her at distance, never letting himself feel the love he felt for Sarah, too scared to open himself up again. Because he knows that the moment he lets himself feel again, he will get hurt again. This world is not safe and death is the only sure thing. Joel’s refusal to let himself feel again is what drives his entire character.

As the seasons pass, Joel and Ellie’s relationship evolves. We mourn Sarah and open our hearts to Ellie, just like Joel does. Both Joel and Ellie are broken and being with each other helps them heal. It is why when Ellie runs away after he tries to drop her off with Tommy, Joel goes after her and we happily help him to do so. When he changes his mind and continues his journey with her, we can’t help but be happy, because just like Joel, we love Ellie. For the first time, Joel lets himself get closer to someone. He is ready to do anything for her. Joel’s mourning is only done when he starts healing. He leaves behind his old life and baggage for the first time, becoming a father again in a sense. But when Joel finally gets Ellie to the Fireflies and learns what will happen to her, he is right back where he started. Holding his little girl in his arms as she dies. But this time, he can do something, he can save her. And so he does, and this time, unlike with Sarah, we get to play through it and save Ellie. It’s raw, emotional and when you finally get to the surgery room, you don’t hesitate to kill everyone to protect Ellie. Because just like Joel, you have mourned Sarah and now want to save Ellie. What we don’t know is that in the process, Joel has just sealed his fate. He might have got what he wanted and not lost a daughter for the second time, but his action will one day come back and haunt him.

The Last of Us explored Joel’s grief, ending with him doing the one thing Ellie wouldn’t want him to do, The Last of Us Part 2 explores the other side of the coin. Ellie suffered as much as Joel in her life, seeing death more than anyone should and having the fate of the world on her shoulders. So by the end, when Joel lies to her, she knows that it is just that, a lie. By the second game, Ellie isn’t a child anymore, she’s an adult that has to live with the trauma of the first game. She might try to live a normal life but everything she does is done with the idea of keeping the fact that she is immune a secret. The bond between her and Joel might be broken but he is still the only father figure she has ever had. So when Jessie arrives and tells her that Joel is missing, nothing will stop her to find him, why she screams for him to get up as Abby beats him, why she goes to Seattle and, eventually, why she stops herself on that beach.

Grief can take many forms, if Joel’s response to it is to be stuck in it, living in the world far from everyone and not getting attached, Ellie’s response is one of her time. A child of the apocalypse, where all she has known is violence and death. Her first love died in front of her while she survived and then the only father figure she has ever had dies in front of her while she survives. Broken, she responded the only way she knows how. Getting swept with anger and refusing to move on. The only source of comfort in all of this is Dina and even then, that is all too complicated. When she does move on, finally accepting that Joel wouldn’t want this for her, that she has to move on with her life, she has destroyed everything in her life. Dina is gone, leaving behind the memories of Ellie all in one spot, frozen in time just like Joel’s watch was. It’s only then that Ellie walks away, leaving Joel’s guitar in the house that she once lived in, leaving behind her past and Joel. For the first time since his death moving forward and accepting finally that there was nothing, she could do to bring Joel back. It isn’t until she does all of that, that we finally see that Ellie was able to do what Joel wasn’t. She let go of him for good and kept the little bit of humanity she had left in her.

In the first game, Ellie tells Sam that the one thing she is scared of is to end up alone. And yet, by the end, her biggest fear is her reality. There are theories as to where Ellie went after leaving the farm, some believe she goes in isolation, in penance for her actions, others back to Jackson hoping to find Dina and JJ there, but the truth is that none of that matters. Because Ellie is finally free for the first time, finally able to look towards the future and not the past. Her mom is gone, Riley is gone, Marlene is gone, Joel is gone but she is still there. She does what Joel never did, moving on with her life, her past might catch up to her at some point just like Joel’s did but at least she won’t be living in the past.

Violence in video games is nothing new, but The Last of Us Part 2 finds a way to incorporate it differently. We are with Ellie as we take this journey and have to deal with our grief, just like in the first game. The main difference is that Ellie’s emotions are incorporated in the gameplay. If with Joel violence was just a means to an end, with Ellie, it’s something else entirely. At points, we kill because she simply sees it as her only option and with time, killing becomes natural, we don’t question it, we just do and just like Ellie, we want revenge for Joel. We might not always control her actions, but we welcome them. When Ellie stands over Nora, lights flashing as an alarm blares, we are forced to press square and witness Ellie fall down the rabbit hole. The camera never leaves her face, we witness this girl we fell in love with breaking in front of her, and our action is what makes it happen. But Ellie wants this, she believes this is what is needed to get what she wants. We are Ellie at that moment, pressing as Ellie loses herself and becomes what Joel never wanted her to be.

Grief makes you do things you will not be proud of. Losing someone you love can break you and you will never be the same. After Sarah, it is clear that Joel became someone different. After Joel, the Ellie we knew disappeared. Grief changes you and The Last of Us doesn’t shy away from it. After Joel’s fate was revealed, many fans of the game reacted in anger, some going too far even. But the thing is, our reaction to anger is the same as Ellie’s. As we play as Ellie and kill everyone in our path to avenge Joel, we never feel guilt, only anger. We are Ellie at that moment, our grief being reflected on screen. And that is what this series does the best. If in the first game we mourned Sarah with Joel, in the second one we mourn Joel with Ellie. We find ourselves becoming those characters, reflecting our own emotions in them and by the end, we love them.

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