Relive the Best Moments from The Last of Us
Before we begin, I would like to ask that you DO NOT post any spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II in the comments. Please and thank you!
It’s been a tumultuous road for the Naughty Dog sequel The Last of Us: Part II. The game has experienced not one but two push backs of the initial release date as well as some major leaks but the release date is finally almost upon us. With the sequel (hopefully) being released on June 19th, it seems like a perfect time to revisit the original. The Last of Us was one of the most successful games of 2013. It received critical acclaim, won multiple awards and cemented itself as one of the best games of the decade. There is a lot to admire about the game so in this list, we will be counting down the top 10 moments from The Last of Us and the accompanying DLC, Left Behind.
Spoiler Warning for both The Last of Us and the Left Behind DLC.
10. Riley and Ellie Get Bitten
The first entry in this list is actually from the DLC- Left Behind– which focuses on Ellie and her best friend Riley in the time before she met Joel. The DLC goes back and forth between Ellie in the past with Riley and Ellie in the present as she nurses a wounded Joel in the winter section of the game. Throughout the DLC, we get to see Ellie in a different manner than how we see her in the main game. She is more carefree and desperate to see the world despite the dangers that exploration presents. Riley takes Ellie to an abandoned mall where they have some fun: posing in photo booths, playing arcade games and dancing to music. It is here where we get to see Ellie truly act like a young teenager. Throughout the main game she is forced to grow up far too quickly in order to survive. Here we see her laugh, smile and goof around more than ever before. She even experiences her first kiss and crush with Riley in typical teenage fashion. It is a chance to see her as the child that she really is. However- as is to be expected- it doesn’t last.
Ellie and Riley are chased by a group of infected and both end up getting bitten. The two of them decide to wait out the infection and “lose their minds together”. Those who have played the main game will know that Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps virus- a fictional virus based on a real life parasitic fungus- which spread across the world in the universe of The Last of Us. This immunity makes Ellie incredibly special. Riley- like everyone else- is not immune. The DLC concludes as they decide to let the infection take them but we do not get to see Ellie’s realization that she is not going to turn, nor do we see how she copes with Riley becoming infected. Yet, we know that is what happens and that it has a lasting effect on Ellie. During the main game, Ellie mentions Riley to Joel as the first special person she lost. Riley was both her best friend and her first love and not only did Ellie have to watch her die, she had to deal with the guilt of knowing that somehow she was still alive while Riley was gone. Riley and Ellie’s bite is a memorable moment as it serves as a key event in Ellie’s narrative and character development. It is not only the moment that led to the discovery of her immunity, but also her first experience of love and loss. Ellie’s character would be forever changed following this moment.
9. Joel and Ellie’s Car Banter
This next moment is not bombastic or action driven. It is a nice and simple scene of human interaction that perfectly demonstrates the growing relationship between protagonists Joel and Ellie. After finishing the level of the game set in a suburban area, Joel and Ellie are able to obtain a car. As they drive through the rain, Ellie shows Joel a comic book that she took from Bill- a survivor in the suburban area who helped them out- as well as a music mixtape and a rather specific men’s entertainment magazine. Ellie’s sheepish admittance to Joel’s stern and fatherly questioning of her obtaining these items shows just how far they have come since their initial meeting. Their relationship is transforming into that of a father/daughter pairing . This is a welcome development for the characters, considering Joel still struggling with the loss of his daughter at the beginning of the outbreak and Ellie being an orphan. Though only short and sweet, this moment stuck out to me as a realistic depiction of a father and daughter. The scene emphasises the fact that despite their apocalyptic surroundings, these are still just people looking for some human connection in a world gone mad.
8. Playing as Ellie/ Ellie Saves Joel
This is another part of the game that represents an important element in Ellie’s character development. When Ellie and Joel go in search of a rebel militia group known as the Fireflies, they find themselves at a university where they are ambushed by bandits. Joel is severely wounded in this attack and in the next section of the game- the month of winter- the player is now controlling Ellie. Ellie scrounges for supplies in a desperate bid to keep both Joel and herself alive in the harsh cold. She encounters a group who seem willing to trade supplies, but more on them later. From a technical perspective, suddenly switching to a new character can be a little jarring. However, Naughty Dog go about it in a way that makes sense from a narrative perspective. Joel has been teaching Ellie throughout their journey so by the time winter comes around, she has learned a lot from him. Joel acts as Ellie’s mentor as he prepares her to survive. Ellie is different in terms of gameplay due to her age, size and strength in comparison to Joel. She can fight when she has to but stealth is essential in order to get through her levels. Changing the playable character also means changing the way that you play, keeping the gameplay from feeling stale. In terms of character, Ellie is only fourteen in the first game and, as such, having to provide for herself would be difficult enough. She also takes it upon herself to care for Joel, healing his wounds and keeping him warm during the winter whilst also scavenging for food and other supplies. Much like her experience with Riley, caring for Joel is a turning point for Ellie (this is also due to one event during this time in particular that I will get back to later) and she matures significantly because of it.
7. Joel and Ellie’s Confrontation
During the course of the game, Joel and Ellie are in search of the Fireflies- that previously mentioned rebel militia- who Joel agreed to smuggle Ellie to in order to see if her immunity can lead to a cure. They seek out Joel’s brother Tommy as he is a former Firefly who may know where the group can be found. They eventually find Tommy living in a protected settlement and Joel decides that Ellie would be better off to stay there. Upon realising his plan, Ellie runs away to an abandoned house. When Joel eventually catches up with her, Ellie confronts his wanting to leave her there. What follows is a heated discussion between the two that not only demonstrates the fleshed out realism of their characters but also highlights the brilliant acting from the performers Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.
By this point, Joel and Ellie have been travelling for a while together and Ellie feels comfortable with him. The fear she has from the idea of being taken away from him is tangible in this scene thanks to a believable bond between the two and Johnson’s convincing portrayal of an angry yet frightened child. Joel is also starting to feel more protective of Ellie, evident in his cold attitude towards her gradually dissolving. However, it becomes clear that Joel is frightened of becoming close to anyone else due to the losses he has suffered. Ellie even brings up his daughter Sarah to him. Baker’s performance as Joel shines here as he perfectly conveys frustration, repressed feelings of failure and agonising loss with only a few lines. It is a subtle and nuanced performance that rivals that of any film or television actor. This moment is worthy of inclusion for two particular reasons. It both develops the story and the characters very well while also showcasing the talents of Baker and Johnson due to the emotional depth of their performance.
6. Sam Turns/Henry’s Suicide
After entering Pittsburgh, Ellie and Joel are ambushed and meet two other survivors: brothers Sam and Henry. The four of them form a group and make their way out of the city to get away from the ambush, who have also separated Sam and Henry from their group. Sam and Ellie are close in age while Joel and Henry are both in the position of mentor and protector of their young wards. Just when the group starts to form a bond, Sam realizes he has been bitten but does not tell anyone. Upon checking on him in the morning, Ellie is attacked by a now infected Sam. Although he is initially in shock, Henry is the one to save Ellie by shooting Sam. Just to add to the heartbreak of the scene, Henry then shoots himself in the head. Horrible right? While I am only placing this moment at number 6, I still found it one of the most tragic parts of the game. The performances are once again fantastic from Baker and Johnson as well as from Brandon Scott and Nadji Jeter, who play Henry and Sam respectively. Scott portrays Henry’s shock and grief incredibly well and his delivery of the line “This is all your fault” as he aims his gun at Joel is all the more heart-breaking when you realize that he isn’t talking to Joel at all. He is talking to himself. It also explains his next split second decision to take his own life. He is clearly unable to cope with his guilt or the thought of surviving without Sam.
Baker is also in top form here in terms of his motion capture performance. Joel is visibly shaken when Henry takes his own life, jumping at the sudden shot and trembling. It is moments like this that make the game feel more real. The characters reactions and choices feel very natural, no matter how upsetting they may be. What makes this all the more emotional is a conversation that Sam has the night before with Ellie. Sam knows he is bitten and is going to turn, but Ellie does not. He asks her whether she thinks there is a heaven or whether the infected can still retain part of who they once were. Ellie is honest with Sam, saying that she would like to think so but probably not for both questions. Sam is just a child- around the same age as Ellie- so knowing that these would be his last thoughts before the infection slowly consumed him is tragic. Once again, this moment shows that Naughty Dog excels when it comes to moments that reflect true human nature. The sudden and devastating way in which circumstances can change is also depicted brilliantly here, making this scene one of the most memorable from the game.
Toward the end of the game, in the springtime, Joel and Ellie finally arrive in Salt Lake City where the Fireflies have their base. While navigating the city, they come across a group of wandering giraffes. What makes the moment special is that it comes as a stark contrast to the events and tone of the rest of the game. By the time this scene comes around, Joel and Ellie have witnessed so much violence, death and pain. Joel is resigned to his life of violence where he must kill or be killed whereas Ellie has lost most of her innocent wonder due to her harrowing experiences. She is noticeably quieter and less responsive to Joel at the beginning of the chapter but she is rejuvenated by her interaction with the giraffes.
The giraffes symbolize the remnants of the world before. Despite life as we know it coming to an end because of the virus, somehow these animals managed to survive and flourish in the post-apocalyptic city streets. Their presence is a strong suggestion that there is hope for the future and a chance for humanity to survive. It also abides by a strong theme that runs through The Last of Us: that of nature reclaiming the land. It has been twenty years since the Cordyceps outbreak and so throughout the game the landscapes are filled with lush, overgrowing greenery. Plants and animals are taking back the planet due to the decline of humanity and this is emphasized more so by the giraffes. However, they don’t merely represent the loss of humans. Their hopeful nature perks Ellie up and she becomes a little more engaged after this. I believe this is a truly special moment in the game, which is kind of funny when you think about it. If you were to show it to someone who had little or no knowledge of the game they would probably wonder why we are getting emotional over a random giraffe! Naughty Dog really know how to pull out the feels in unexpected places.
4. Joel’s Decision
When Joel and Ellie finally encounter the Fireflies, things have not exactly gone to plan. Ellie almost drowns when they are on their way to the abandoned hospital where the Fireflies are based. She is unconscious by the time Joel gets her to them. Marlene- the Firefly who has a connection with Ellie and asked Joel to smuggle her to them in the first place- explains that they need to perform surgery as they believe that they can create a cure for the virus from the infected part of Ellie’s brain. As is expected, this would kill Ellie. Marlene and the Fireflies are willing to give Ellie’s life to have a chance to save humanity. With Ellie unconscious, she is unable to make this decision for herself. Joel decides to make the decision for her. He refuses to allow the Fireflies to kill Ellie and so he goes on a rampage. The player takes control of Joel as he storms the Fireflies facility, killing anyone who gets in his way. These are not bad people. These are people who are fighting to give humanity a chance against the Cordyceps virus. I vividly remember feeling extremely uncomfortable having to do this in my first play through. As much as I didn’t want Ellie to die, I also didn’t want to be gunning down people purely for my own agenda. There is even an opportunity to murder the surgeon who is about to operate on Ellie with a scalpel. The violence feels genuinely unsettling and I can’t recall feeling so strongly about what I was actually doing during a video game before.
Joel carries Ellie out of the building but bumps into Marlene in the underground parking lot. She attempts to reason with him but he has no mercy. Marlene is the only connection Ellie had to her mother (the two were friends) and Joel shoots her point blank in the head without much thought. Joel’s moral ambiguities are obvious throughout but it is here where they are most volatile. His heart is in a good place. He has come to love Ellie like a daughter and he is not willing to lose another child. He is a man who will do anything for those he loves which is admirable. But at the same time, his rage and regret over his inability to save his daughter all those years ago blinds him to the reality of the situation. He does not care that Ellie is the key to a cure or that millions of lives could be saved for her sacrifice. He does not even care what Ellie herself would want, likely because deep down he knows what her choice would be.
Despite your personal preferences or feelings in regards to this, the game forces you down this path as Joel remains stalwart, refusing to budge or see anything other than his own needs. He needs to know that he didn’t allow two little girls to die and so he will sacrifice the world to do so. No matter whether you agree with Joel’s decision or not, there is no denying that it was not his choice to make. This moment is exceedingly powerful as it highlights the ambiguity of such a moral dilemma whilst staying true to the characters and narrative.
3. Ellie Kills David
For this moment, we need to go back to the winter period of the game when Joel is seriously injured and Ellie is caring for him. As previously mentioned, Ellie encounters another group led by a man called David- played by the always excellent Nolan North- while hunting and at first he seems reasonable enough and willing to trade. As is to be expected, this is definitely not the case. Ellie discovers that David’s group are violent cannibals who are willing to do anything to survive. This particular moment comes when Ellie is involved in a game of cat and mouse with David. Armed only with a small knife (or a brick or bottle that can be found scattered around), the player must stealthily sneak around an abandoned restaurant and try and sneak up behind David to stab him. Whilst doing so, David makes unnerving comments to Ellie such as “Run, little rabbit, run” when he spots her. North’s performance is perfectly creepy but still realistic. He isn’t your typical, over the top video game villain. He is the kind of bad guy that actually exists in the real world, making him all the more frightening. A fire breaks out in the restaurant and David has locked all the doors, intensifying the confrontation. Eventually, David overpowers Ellie and climbs on top of her, stating that she “has no idea what he is capable of”. Ellie manages to grab hold of his machete and slashes him in the face with it. She then proceeds to hit him in the face with it over and over again, crying as she does so. Blood spurts into her face as her emotions overwhelm her, her rage and fear manifesting into a bloody and violent act. Joel- who has since awakened and managed to track Ellie down- appears in time to stop Ellie’s attack and to comfort her. He hugs her and refers to her as “baby girl”, the same term of endearment he used for his daughter Sarah as she died.
There is a lot admire about this scene. Ellie’s reaction is a perfect representation of an emotional explosion. She was mere moments from David doing something terrible to her, whether it was killing her, maiming her or something else sinister. She attempts to say this to Joel but breaks down crying as she does so. It is easy to forget that Ellie is only 14 – still a child. In her short life, she has been born into a world ravaged by a deadly virus, she has been treated as cargo, physically and mentally abused and witnessed numerous deaths. She has experienced the absolute worst of humanity and more. Her reaction here captures the expected breakdown of a child who has been through so much. This scene also shows the development of Joel and his feelings toward Ellie. As I mentioned, Ellie was previously regarded by Joel and Tess as “cargo” as it was their duty to smuggle her across the country to the Fireflies. This scene shows how far Joel has come since then. He now treats Ellie in exactly the same way that he did his own daughter. The difference is that this time, he is able to save Ellie where he could not save Sarah. Their relationship is now even closer to father and daughter. This is also an important scene as it leads to Joel’s overprotective attitude to Ellie which in turn leads to the events with the Fireflies. Yet again, this moment is a great demonstration of real human emotions and relationships.
2. The End/Joel Lies to Ellie
The ending of the game sees Joel and Ellie returning to Tommy’s settlement and deciding to stay put there. While Joel seems to be in a much better place than he was at the beginning of the game, Ellie is noticeably troubled. She tells Joel about Riley and their plan to turn infected together after their bites. Ellie tells Joel that she is still “waiting for her turn”. She lists Riley with Tess and Sam as deaths that affected her while Joel tries to explain that he too dealt with survivor’s guilt for a long time and that no matter what, there is always something to keep on living and fighting for. Ellie then hits Joel with a big question: she asks him to swear to her that everything he told her about the Fireflies is true. We know that Joel has lied to Ellie about absolutely everything but he looks her square in the face and swears that he was telling the truth. We see Ellie considering this answer before simply saying “Okay”. This is where the game ends. It is such a simple conclusion to the narrative but it is extraordinarily effective and feels a bit like a punch to the gut. We know that Joel is lying and- by the expression on her face- we can see that Ellie does not believe him or at least has doubts. Joel’s actions were understandable but still inexcusable and their relationship would likely be torn apart if Ellie were to find out the truth. But the simple and resolute “okay” from Ellie feels like she is resigning herself to taking Joel’s word, even if she doesn’t quite believe it.
There is no happy ending, nor is there a grandiose ending with some kind of lesson to be learned. There is only a conversation between two characters that have struggled, suffered and changed as people to get to where they are. Two characters who have done and seen terrible things, but have found a new family in one another. Two characters who would surely come undone if the truth were to be exposed. It is a humble ending, but the questions and thought provoking nature of it make it one of the best and most memorable moments from the game.
1. The Outbreak/ Sarah’s Death
When it comes to opening a video game, there is no doubt that developers have a challenge on their hands. They need to engage the player and leave them wanting more whilst also effectively introducing them to the world they have created. The Last of Us does just that and more. We get to experience the Outbreak of the Cordyceps virus through the eyes of a child: Joel’s daughter Sarah. The game opens with Sarah gifting a watch to her father for his birthday and already, we are introduced to an element that is used throughout the game as an important symbol for Joel. Joel puts Sarah to bed when she falls asleep and she is awoken by a phone call from Joel’s brother Tommy. When the phone goes dead, the player takes control of Sarah as she wanders her house looking for Joel. As Sarah gets more frightened, the way she moves as you control her changes. She walks faster and seems more hunched and tense. This is a nice, subtle touch demonstrating the effort that Naughty Dog put into getting all the little details right. They also add in atmospheric elements that point to the impending disaster that Sarah sees and hears as she searches for Joel. These include a newspaper with headlines about hospital admissions, a worrying news report on the television when Sarah enters Joel’s bedroom, sirens heard in the distance and the bark of a dog that is suddenly cut off with a pained shriek (Rest in Peace doggo). Little additions such as these really help to build the suspense and escalate the tension. I remember being on the edge of my seat as I played it the first time. It didn’t matter that I knew what was coming. It is the execution that truly counts and Naughty Dog hits it out of the park.
The situation escalates quickly and dramatically when Joel comes in the house talking of sick neighbours, one of which crashes through the door and becomes the first infected we encounter. Sarah and Joel leave with Tommy in an attempt to escape but with the roads blocked with traffic, the infected quickly begin to overwhelm the city. As Sarah, you sit in the back of the car and just watch as the world goes to hell. You pass burning buildings, stranded families and screaming people until another car ploughs into the side of your vehicle. Sarah’s leg is broken and so the player takes control of Joel as he runs through the streets with Tommy while carrying Sarah. This is later reflected in the hospital escape scene where Joel carries an unconscious Ellie through the hospital in a desperate bid to save her life. Despite all the carnage they witness, they make it to the highway where they encounter a soldier. Joel pleads with him but after an uncomfortable radio conversation, he raises his weapon and shoots. Joel is left unharmed but Sarah is fatally wounded. As she cries in pain, Joel attempts to apply pressure to her wounds but he is unsuccessful. He holds her as she dies. The emotion is painfully palpable. It would take a hardened soul not to feel something during this scene. Of course the death of a child in any medium can be effective but Naughty Dog managed to create a fleshed out and likeable child character in less than 20 minutes, one that we actually care about. The acting in this scene is also brilliant, making it all the more harrowing to watch. Troy Baker’s heartfelt performance as Joel as he hugs his dying daughter is possibly one of the best performances in gaming while Hana Hayes, as Sarah, gives a very believable performance for such a young actress. I have refrained from mentioning Gustavo Santaolalla’s iconic score in this article- I would happily go on an even longer rant than I already have about its brilliance- but it needs mentioning here. The sombre guitar track that plays is haunting. Music can sometimes be a hindrance to scenes such as this but Santaolalla creates a piece that only adds to the solemn horror of the moment.
It is a combination of elements that make this opening so powerful and the most memorable moment from The Last of Us. The whole section is about 15 minutes long and yet it is comparable (or arguably better) to other more mainstream media forms such as film or television. In those 15 minutes the story is set up, the basic controls (not including combat) have been taught and the protagonist has an established past. It is fast paced but not rushed, cinematic but still interactive and emotionally brutal but not in an exaggerated manner. Narratively, the opening is crucial, not only as an establishing scene for the virus that ends the world, but also as a disaster that shapes Joel as a character. His reactions, behaviours and relationships in the game all stem from this loss of his daughter. To do all of this in 15 minutes is truly an incredible feat from Naughty Dog. All of these reasons- plus the fantastic acting, music and atmosphere- are what make the opening scene and Sarah’s death the most memorable moment from The Last of Us.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading and apologies for my lengthy rambling! I hope you have enjoyed my list. To have a look at the behind the scenes footage of my top pick for the best moment from The Last of Us, check out the video below.