(Written June 2020)
In a strange turn of events, I (a film journalist) have watched only two films in quarantine. It surprised even myself that I haven’t turned to the movies at this time, but instead, video games. One game I revisited, in particular, felt like a warm blanket — familiar and easy to sink into. That game is The Last of Us.
Released by Playstation royalty Naughty Dog in 2013, The Last of Us tells the story of a horrific pandemic that ravages America, infecting victims with a Cordyceps fungus that coats the brain. Those infected become runners, clickers, bloaters, and other horrific zombie-like creatures. But amidst all the horror hides a beautiful relationship that the player watches grow over the roughly 14-hour runtime. 20 years since the outbreak and the death of his daughter Sarah, gruff and stubborn Joel is tasked with delivering 14-year-old Ellie to the Fireflies, a rebellion group that’s still searching for a cure. In the game’s notorious prologue, you witness Sarah’s death, and just how helpless Joel feels to stop it. As you play as Joel throughout the game, he feels almost heavy with grief, completely closed off to everyone, and most certainly to Ellie.
As they reluctantly journey to their destination, the pair form a relationship that feels as real as anything. They hate each other at first, they just want to get from A to B with as little conversation as possible. But by the end of it, Joel has found his second chance to save a daughter.
Aside from the stunning exploration of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, and the sprawling journey across a post-apocalyptic America, The Last of Us also offered something bold. In the expansion Left Behind, Naughty Dog revealed Ellie was a lesbian, and they let her fall in love. Suffice to say the fanboys weren’t happy, but this kind of representation was welcomed by many in the gaming community. In The Last of Us Part II, which I will be waiting patiently at the door for all day tomorrow, five years have passed and Ellie is 19 and in love again. It feels incredible that we can say the most anticipated game of all time has a lesbian lead. Not only that, but her love interest Dina is bisexual. A word I’m trying to come to terms with as I navigate my own sexual identity, a journey The Last of Us has helped with hugely.
The Last of Us Part II is brutal, bloody, vengeful, and hateful. While that may not sound particularly comforting right now, Ellie and Joel have become so real to me in the countless times I’ve replayed their adventures, that the world feels like a second home. In one particular scene, Ellie finds an old diary and is shocked at what she reads. “Is this really all they had to worry about?” she says, “…boys? movies? Which skirt goes with which skirt?” I love this scene dearly. I find that each time I revisit it, it’s as though I’m woken up. Trivial things shouldn’t matter as much as people, and in The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel learn together just how much you need people. Like Henry needed Sam, Ellie needed Riley, and all the other tangled connections we make as we try to endure and survive.
In the heartbreaking finale, Joel discovers that, to obtain a cure, Ellie would have to die in surgery. Instead of letting Ellie save the world, he instead chooses to save Ellie, and subsequently lies to her about it. He tells her that there were other kids with the cure, she wasn’t needed after all. She doubts him for a second, and then says simply “okay” before the credits roll. A perfect ending. We are left wondering if Joel was right to save her, whether he was right to rob her of that choice. But we also sympathise with him, having survived the journey we have been on with both characters, surely we would have done the same?
Alongside excellent gameplay, exceptional performances, representation and moral ambiguity — amidst all its pain and darkness, The Last of Us offered me hope. When I first played the game at 16, I’d never connected to anything like this before. At that moment, video games meant Batman, Lego Star Wars and Mortal Kombat, never anything like this. I saw myself in Ellie for the first time in a game, a scrappy know-it-all coming of age amidst a world she didn’t fully understand. For all its loss and devastation, The Last of Us is a tale of resilience and connection, and a reminder that “no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.”