[This is the final article in a three-part series titled The Last of Us Turns One, which celebrates the week of the game’s one-year anniversary. You can check out the previous parts here and here. Spoilers for the main campaign and Left Behind DLC are imminent.]
Well, here we are. The final part of a little feature series that I’ve dedicated to the one-year anniversary of The Last of Us and my own personal love letter to the game. I’m not going to tell you why this game is good and why you should buy it if you haven’t already. There are plenty of raving reviews, blog posts, and videocasts out there that do a far better job of that than I can. Instead, I’m going to tell you exactly what this game means to me and how it has changed me for the better.
From the game’s debut trailer at 2011’s VGAs to the lead-up in the months right before the official launch, I knew I was in for a treat. I knew The Last of Us was going to be a game that I would enjoy and talk about for a whole week straight but I also expected it to be a title that I’d forget as soon as the next major release came out. What I didn’t anticipate was the number of times I would replay this game afterwards and my endless ramblings over The Last of Us that bordered on obsessive.
Before I started writing this little love letter to The Last of Us, I did a couple of extensive Google searches to see what the game meant to other people who had experienced it. I’ve noticed that lots of people seem to connect with Joel and some are able to respect the decisions he’s made while others believe that he really becomes the true villain of the story. Grant Voegtle’s 34-minute critical analysis video was my favorite search result, though. He explains that Joel’s actions were that of a father who had lost too much and would do anything to prevent that from happening again. Voegtle also makes mention of how his greatest takeaway from The Last of Us was that the game made him want a daughter. The Last of Us paints a wonderful picture of a parent-child relationship built on mutual trust and unconditional love, and it’s no surprise that our connection to Ellie would make it easy for us to understand why Joel did the things he did.
After playing through the entire game and getting to know Ellie on a personal level, I can safely say that if I were in Joel’s shoes, I would’ve done the exact same things he did. I would’ve shot the doctors and got rid of Marlene. I would have done anything to prevent Ellie from dying, humanity be damned.
However, my connection with Joel never went further than our mutual love for Ellie. I can respect Joel’s actions and I can understand his rationale behind them, but he’s not the character that I truly felt in-sync with. No. My true connection is with Ellie, the gangly 14 year-old struggling to find her place in a broken world. Take away the infected and the pedophile who tries to kill her, and you’ve got a teenage girl who’s just like the rest of us. She falls in love, she latches on emotionally to people she cares about, and she strives to protect those who are precious to her as best as she can.
I didn’t realize all of this immediately, of course. I mean I knew I liked Ellie’s spunk, and I was extremely drawn to her character but I didn’t know exactly why until a certain point in the main campaign.
That point is in the fall chapter of the game where the pair finally finds Tommy and we learn of Joel’s intentions to leave her with him. Ellie, being the smart girl that she is, realizes this and expresses her frustration at Joel by stealing a horse and running away, almost like a rebellious teen who leaves home as a way of getting a parent’s attention. When Joel finally catches up to her, Ellie tries to convince him not to leave her by telling him just how important their newfound relationship was to her. This all ends really badly when Joel throws down the gauntlet and says that he “sure as hell ain’t [her] dad”.
This exchange sounded a lot like an argument that might take place between a kid and a parent who doesn’t want to fight for her custody because of some important reason. Ellie was clearly trying to earn Joel’s approval here, as well as in other parts of the game, and this is something that all teenagers can identify with. After all, who’s never yearned for the love and affirmation of their own parents? Ellie’s internal struggle with Joel was something that I could relate to and this made me see just how vulnerably human she was.