Backloggery Beatdown: The Last of Us

The potential for deeply flawed endings that ruin an otherwise excellent game is one of the key reasons why I find completing a game an absolute prerequisite for writing a review, deadlines be darned.
In the history of video games, I cannot recall a series of games more notorious than the Mass Effect trilogy. Its rise and fall in popularity is the stuff of legend, and the grievances enumerated through game journalism and criticism are throng. I longed for the M35 Mako to make its return after ME1, feeling that exploring random planets was the most prominent “RPG” mechanic in the game, yet it was scrapped along with the ungainly inventory management and epic sensation of the all-encompassing plot. Alternatively, ME2 would favor deep character development over plot development; nothing meaningful happened in that episode besides a fusillade of introductions to allies and nemeses. ME3 was supposed to bring forth the epic conclusion to the space opera, but the vast majority of the gaming industry knows how that turned out. It provided us with conclusions concerning the war between the Geth and the Quarians, the fate of the Krogan and the Genophage, and the solution to the galaxy’s defense against the reapers—the latter made available in three flavors of RGB. It is unfortunate that for all of that world universe building, the writers of the series decided to give fans the middle-finger for every choice that we had made for the past 75+ hours of gameplay through three games (that is, if they only played every game once like I did) with that ending. Sure, EA/Bioware revamped the ending and followed-up ME3 with a couple reportedly decent DLC packages, but I was not about to be fooled twice; I would not turn the other cheek. The original ME3 ending and the conclusion to the trilogy will forever be known as quite possibly the worst ever, especially after considering the amount of effort that fans had invested into the series.
Regrettably, as far as awful endings are concerned, The Last of Us might be a contender for second place.

I dropped Liara like a tavern wench once Tali became a romance option. I was pleased greatly when she did not turn out looking like Nyreen or Eve after her much-anticipated facial reveal. That pleasure turned into disappointment once internet detectives uncovered the fact that her face came from a stock photo.

SPOILER WARNING: For those unfamiliar with the Backloggery Beatdown series, these are not reviews, but instead clairvoyant appraisals of gaming. This series assumes that readers have already played the game, and are interested in further reflection. Readers can find our official GUG review of The Last of Us here
Also, CONTENT WARNING: Headshots ahoy!
Granted, the time investment required to complete The Last of Us is considerably less than what is necessary to complete any one of the Mass Effect games. Nevertheless, Joel’s betrayal of the entire human race’s surviving members through his irrationally paternal attachment to Ellie wholesale negates what Naughty Dog accomplishes in terms of his anemic character development, let alone the player’s experience playing through TLOU. Thus, the ME3 comparison is appropriate.
Before I go further, I would like to define my terms by differentiating between a “bad” ending and an “awful” one. A “bad” ending is simply an ending that is the result of poor play or the consequential outcome of a series of flawed choices made over the course of a game. Examples of games with “bad” endings include Comix Zone, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Heavy Rain. In the first, one can play perfectly throughout and still get the bad ending simply by failing to defeat the final boss in a timely fashion, a skill check which measures whether or not the player has actually become a master of Kung Fung or the kind of player who exploits enemy weaknesses through spam; the bad ending(s) in the second game can be avoided with intentionally thorough exploration; in the third game, a bad ending comes through a combination of sucking at QTEs or decisions up to ten hours prior to the finale, making it one of the most dynamic titles I’ve played this side of The Witcher series. In contrast, an “awful” ending cannot be remedied by beating a boss faster, finding the secret Holy Glasses, or discerning between ambiguous options for the “best” choice.
Determining what makes an “awful” ending is certainly more subjective than determining what makes a “bad” one. I argue that an awful ending is an (un)intentional manifestation, compounding its unpleasantness. I have explained above why ME3‘s ending is awful. Below, I do the same for TLOU.
Does Ellie buy the lie

She’s looking like when I told my kids from the jump that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny were not real.

I fully understand that Naughty Dog wanted to achieve something that boldly contrasts with the conclusion of the Uncharted games or most American films; the studio aimed for an ending that is as heartbreaking as is the world that it had imagined. However during this process, Naughty Dog also undermines its own creation through the imbrication of tropes. Ellie is the black sheep to Joel’s survivalist lone wolf impulses, but over the course of the last four hours out of fifteen (in real-time; a season or two in-game time) she rapidly evolves in his eyes from a burden to a second chance at fatherhood while on a personal level, she herself matures from the unplayable, somewhat useless encumbrance—for there is no such thing as a “good escort mechanic” in a video game, and this is exacerbated in TLOU when one must suspend disbelief as Ellie or some other party member is “hiding” conspicuously when enemies should see and grab them during stealth segments—to the unsteady heroine who comes of age by enduring abandonment, assassination attempts, and abductions; the latter of these includes both her encounter with David and also the ambiguous hostage situation that she may or may not be aware of depending on the player’s interpretation of her response to how Joel answers her question concerning his transparency right before the credits roll. In other words, the motivation for Joel’s savagely macabre rampage through the Fireflies’ home base to save Ellie betrays what had been previously established about his character from the beginning. 
Yes, I did pay attention to how the banter between Joel and Ellie flourishes as the game progresses, culminating with the exchange of Sarah’s photo from one to the other. In fact, I find their chitchat to be as integral to immersion as the interaction between party members in Baldur’s Gate 2. That is the highest compliment that I am capable of offering the writing and voice acting of any game. The problem is that not enough of it happens, and some of it is optional—I actually missed a couple opportunities because I was too busy scoping the environment rather than paying attention to Ellie talking about her dreams. Should their embrace after Ellie butchers David in the inferno be considered the moment or one of several instances (such as co-witnessing the deaths of Henry and Sam—and yo, if we throw in Riley, why do all the black people gotta die?) where they solidify their relationship? Sure, I will give Naughty Dog credit in that it was successful in demonstrating that Joel is at times capable of responding to other humans as if he himself is civilized. Notwithstanding, let me remind the doubters:
Joel Executes Marlene

This scene is Naughty Dog’s method of reminding gamers that Joel is a stone-cold murderous alpha male.  Protective father? Ain’t fit for the job.

Speaking of Sarah’s photograph, let’s back up to just after the introduction. We are told that Joel has been out there for 20 years after his daughter’s death doing only God knows what before TLOU brings us to the present, introducing us to Tess and the true Joel. The colloquial reference to a gun as “protection” is one of humanity’s greatest paradoxes. Clothes are protection. A bullet-proof vest is protection. A force field is protection. Guns are for assault. Too many TLOU fans of fans forget: Tess and Joel are not in the business of benevolence, but in the business of survival, which means that legalism and morality are only secondary priorities if they exist at all. They are notorious in the underground crime circuits smuggling whatever they salvage or loot on the black market, including goods that are almost as valuable as food: guns. 
The entire pre-Ellie sequence effectively establishes just how cunning and ruthless Joel and Tess are by leading players through their elaborate passages designed to evade the military’s checkpoints. This initial quest also highlights Tess’ brutal tactics. After participating in a minor act of genocide by dispatching (or for skillful players, evading; however if TLOU were real, they’d all be dead) Robert’s goons, they apprehend him after Tess kags him up with a nearby steel pipe. She asks the questions, and after a curb stomp and some involuntary arm socket contortion thanks to Joel, Robert squawks that he sold their (doubly-stolen, I’m sure) weapons to the fireflies. Tess then executes him with some lead to the head.
Tess Kills Robert

I swear I have seen this elsewhere in TLOU…hmmm…character of comparably ambiguous moral character begging for their life and gets a bullet to the brain. OH YEAH, THE ENDING!

Make no mistake about it! Tess is the alpha female, and she leads Joel by the short and curlies. She’s got leverage over Joel by being one of the only surviving females on Earth. Friends with benefits. Let’s squash the speculation that Joel and Tess are not an item by paying attention to all the context clues, from Bill saying that they were inseparable to the cutscene where Tess reveals that she has been bitten and she tells Joel, “there must be enough between us that you feel some obligation to me.” What most want is a smoking gun like a kiss or a hug. This is post-apocalypse. Ain’t nobody got time for that; affection is weakness. Still, reproduction is one of the three primal characteristics of a human.

Fellow geeks: the rules of one’s personal space dictate that if under any condition, the chin is held in this way, the friend zone has been surpassed. If they were not an item, Joel could just hold her by the top of her head. C’mon, son!

Indeed, Tess holds power over Joel to the point where he fulfills the mission out of obligation to her, even after she is bitten. What was that mission again? Ah yes! Smuggle Ellie to the Fireflies in exchange for a massive cache of guns.  Up until Tess’ last stand, Ellie is considered little more than cargo with a mouth that the two adults reluctantly endure. It is at this point in the game when the narrative shifts from stellar writing to inattentive to its own details. Tess dies in a suicide-by-Repressive State Apparatus in order to give Joel and Ellie time to escape, hoping that Ellie’s deliverance to the Fireflies might bear a cure. Joel’s fulfillment of this dying wish is in honor of Tess because he is both her thug and boy-toy; he is supposed to merely tolerate Ellie, whom he blames for Tess’ death because after all, the chances of Tess being bitten within a quarantine zone were slim, yet the mission to acquire guns from the Fireflies became as imperative if not surpassing the desire to survive in misery. Perhaps the fact that Joel’s backpack exhibits the properties of Doctor Who’s TARDIS in that he can keep a flamethrower and shotgun inside of it while his rifle stays at his side undermines the urgency of acquiring weapons. 
I’m being facetious; gameplay elements such as a black hole backpack or visibly invisible characters negatively impact the immersion factor, but not the plot—well, these elements should not impact the plot, and I am not sure if TLOU complies. In contrast, inconsistencies with the finer details does just that, corrupting the viability of the story. While the writers of TLOU had forgotten about the promise of a gun cache, those paying attention do not not. After twenty years of living the savage lands exemplified through the game’s initial exposition with Tess, l’m supposed to believe that Joel developed an unstable and irrationally compassionate heart for Ellie over the course of a single year? I am unconvinced, which is why the ending is awful

**Feel free to make requests for me to play through games on my Backloggery for future articles in the comments. You can also hit me up on Twitter @MauricePogue83.**

Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.


  1. Grant on May 14, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    Hey Maurice!
    I just have to say, I love seeing multiple sides to an argument. I also love hearing others opinions; especially pertaining to games that are almost universally applauded. I do have to say, I loved the Last of Us. I thought its narrative was unrivaled, and the gameplay was not distracting. One of my favorite games of all time.
    As for the ending, I thought that the weight of his decision is what makes it an ending. Lets look back, over the course of the game. In the beginning, Tess and Joel are pretty bad people. They steal, they kill, they smuggle, all in the name of making money (or ration cards, currency, you get it.) When Marlene wants them to take Ellie, Tess makes the statement “she’s just a package”, or something of the like. They clearly don’t sympathize with the fact that she is a little girl.
    Fast forward, and Tess dies, and Joel is left to take Ellie to the Fireflies alone. As you stated in your article, this is because Tess requested it, and he does in fact feel obligated in some way to finish it for her. I also believe there is an element of the fact that there is nothing else to really do. Bringing her back would be pointless, and almost equally time consuming. He also has little to go back for. Regardless, he sets off with Ellie alone.
    Throughout the rest of the game, leading up to the conclusion, you see a relationship blossom. The hardened and taciturn Joel begins to regain his father-like qualities, and Ellie opens up to Joel, and they gain a bond like that of a father and daughter. There relationship, even if you refute it, is the core of the game. It is the catalyst for the events, and force that keeps the story going. From the point where he deems her worthy to wield a gun, his conversation with her about his desired singing career, and the point, aforementioned, when he saves her from David, the relationship has progressed. I fail to see why this building is unbelievable for a callous man to change. There is a build, and no one is immune to change; regardless of their past.
    As for the conclusion itself, I feel that it is supposed to leave you with a mild feeling of emptiness. The game doesn’t have a lot of overwhelmingly happy moments, excluding the giraffe scene. But there are still two sides to it: Joel would have to give up Ellie to save a human race he isn’t too fond of, remember he always talked about how the whole cure thing was his brother’s cause; or, he can save the one person he actually loves in the modern hellscape they still call Earth. I think that the ending was well done, and didn’t include the typical post-apocalyptic protagonists-dies-in-the-end cliche.
    As I began with, I respect your opinion, but I felt that this article does little to represent the whole truth, and, even if you had trouble excepting that Joel could care for Ellie as much as he does in a year, it isn’t an instantaneous progression, nor does he like her immediately. There is a build.
    With Respect,

  2. Tim on May 11, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    I also disagree very strongly. Joel was a monster before he met Ellie. Some of the dialogue between Joel and Tommy indicate that. Even when Joel and Ellie were first talking, when they ran into those people in pittsburg, saying he’s been on both sides or that ambush. Joel is capable of some horrific stuff. And as the game progressed, he gained a deep love for Ellie. One that replaced that grief in his heart of Sarah. Ellie is the one thing that Joel fights for now. That is something he even told Ellie in the final scene. Joel’s monster wasn’t erased, but only suppressed, showing a softer exterior for Ellie. He loved her so much, as displayed throughout the game, that he would do anything to keep her safe. Ellie and Joel’s character arcs intertwined and switched. Ellie had to learn to become the caregiver when He was unable to provide. And Joel became the one that needed tend to. Ellie learned that the world is truly dark and that there is hardly any “light” in it anymore; With the exception of the occasional giraffe or firefly. Joel learned that there is still a chance for fatherhood, a chance to care for someone. That it’s okay to open yourself up to another person, something Bill advised against. And Joel wasn’t about to lose his “light”. Not after he fought so hard for it. He’s not going to lose his daughter again. That’s what makes the ending so perfect. It’s real. And that final “Okay” was heartbreaking. Ellie really knew he was lying. But she also cared for him dearly. That’s why it’s perfect.

    • Maurice Pogue on May 11, 2015 at 8:34 pm

      Hi Tim, Thanks for the response.

      I don’t disagree whether or not Ellie knew he was lying nor her deep desire to care for him. I mention that that is up for interpretation. At the same time, she’s absolutely terrified of him even if she does care for him. Moving forward from the ending is arguably a case of Stockholm syndrome

      She tells Joel a short story of what we (may) have witnessed in the DLC concerning how she witnessed all her friends die. Ellie has survivor’s guilt, and was willing to die too as Marlene told Joel. “It is what she would want.” But, of course, Joel is a brute; Tess, the brains of the duo, was already dead.

  3. Kody Johnson on May 10, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    I very much disagree. The fireflies had come into contact with immune people before and they had become human experiments. Joel had no indication that ellie would become anything more than an experiment. I think he was completely justified.

    • Maurice Pogue on May 11, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      Hi Kody. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Check out this YouTube clip of the recording found in the Fireflies’ hospital:

      I agree that there were other experiments, but Ellie is unique. Never before seen. One of a kind. Perhaps in the sequel (if it ever happens), there may be more, but for all intents and purposes, Ellie is the only one.

      Tim’s comment below is one reading among the popular opinions concerning why the ending of the game is so powerful. It would have less gravity if dooming the entire human race were not a consequence of his desire to have another chance at life with “surrogate Sarah.”

      He choose to be selfish, which is why he is still the monster.

      • Kody Johnson on May 14, 2015 at 9:52 pm

        I can respect that! Also, super cool you are in mobile. I am a pensacola native myself.

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