Joel makes a life changing choice at the end of The Last of Us.
Great Moments in Gaming is a column wherein we look back at some of the great gaming moments that have made a significant impact on our view of this medium and how we have come to understand it. This week, in celebration of the release of The Last of Us 2, we’re looking back at Joel’s shocking choice at the end of the first game.
The Last of Us is home to one of the most emotionally harrowing openings this side of Up. The loss of Joel’s daughter to a harsh military order after she and Joel had survived a myriad of explosions and attacks from infected is the ultimate in cruel twists of fate. It is this sense of horrific irony which informs the ending of the game as well.
Of course, the bulk of the plot of The Last of Us concerns Joel’s journey to get Ellie to the safety of a Firefly encampment on the other side of the country. Due to her immunity to the cordyceps infection, Ellie is vital to the group’s efforts to search for a cure and save what’s left of humanity.
Though Joel and Ellie do finally make it to the Fireflies at the end of the game, the price of a cure turns out to be more than Joel is willing to pay. Marlene, the leader of the group, reveals that Ellie’s brain will have to be removed and studied in order to synthesize a cure. This is where Joel makes his choice.
While Joel makes his objections to the idea clear from the start, Marlene has no idea how far Joel is willing to go to stop her. The scene begins with Joel executing the man sent to escort him off the base, but not before brutally extracting the information on where Ellie is being prepped for surgery.
What follows is a morally gray gauntlet of one group of Fireflies after another, with Joel murdering every single person who gets in his way. This onslaught continues until Joel finally reaches the operating room. Here, he executes even the doctors charged with performing the operation before scooping up Ellie and making a run for it.
The way this section mirrors the beginning of the game cannot be overstated and, though players may feel conflicted about participating in Joel’s choice of his surrogate daughter’s life over the fate of humanity, this dichotomy clearly demonstrates why, for Joel, it is the only choice he could have made.
As the alarms begin to sound around you, and sirens blare an insidious cry, Joel must run through the halls of the hospital in search of a future for him and his adopted daughter. With Gustavo Santaolalla’s resonant score emanating from beneath it, this scene emerges as the best moment in The Last of Us, as the player cannot help but identify with Joel and hope for his success despite all of the terrible things he’s done.
This all culminates in Joel’s final shocking act of violence, against Marlene, the person who hired him for the job to begin with. Even as she lowers her weapon and begs Joel to reconsider, he guns her down mercilessly. “You’d only come after her.”
And since The Last of Us 2 seems to have a large enemy force after Joel specifically from the outset of the game, one can’t help but wonder if they are after him as a result of what he did to the Fireflies at the end of the first game. While we can’t say for sure (we’re feverishly making our way through it at the moment just like you) the suspicion cannot be ignored, especially when you consider Joel’s lie to Ellie before the end credits roll.
Regardless of how Joel’s choice affects the narrative of the sequel, though, the moment in which he makes it remains the standout moment in a game full of standout moments, and perfectly encapsulates why The Last of Us is seen as a modern classic in gaming.