Why The Last of Us is a Game About Love

The Last of Us received critical acclaim, both in its original PS3 release and when it was remastered for the PS4 – and for good reason. The Last of Us is a brutal story filled with death and violence. It won countless game of the year awards, sold incredibly well and warranted Naughty Dog to start work on a sequel, The Last of Us Part II. Still, with all the warmth surrounding the quality of The Last of Us, many would be hard-pressed to describe it as a game about love.

At last year’s PSX, director Neil Druckmann said little about the upcoming game, but he did leave a big thematic clue: The Last of Us was about love, but The Last of Us Part II will be about hate. This comment left many fans scratching their heads. How in the world was The Last of Us about love when there’s so much darkness in that game? How could its sequel possibly be any darker? The announcement trailer for Part II gave us some insight, as it has one of the original game’s protagonists, Ellie, in a run-down house surrounded by dead bodies. She looks up at the other protagonist, Joel, and says “I’m gonna find, and I’m gonna kill, every. Last. One of them.” Who “they” are isn’t clear, but they have a sight on their heads in Part II. Fans were even more shocked when Naughty Dog showed off a second disarmingly violent trailer at this year’s Paris Games Week. Opinions about its depictions of violence aside, this trailer made something clear – this game really is about hate.

Here are the two trailers, back to back:

Neil Druckmann’s statement about Part II being about hate made sense by the time the second trailer came around. Still, even by comparison, The Last of Us doesn’t immediately seem to be about love. But if you dig a little deeper, that assertion couldn’t be truer. Even through its violence and despair, love is at the core of The Last of Us – almost blatantly so. It just needs to be looked at in the right light.

A Father’s Love

The Last of Us begins with an unassuming scene about Joel, a young single-father, and his daughter Sarah. Events quickly unfold, and the pair (along with Joel’s brother, Tommy) take off in a truck as a fungal infection known as cordyceps begins to turn regular people into zombie-like monsters across the world. This prologue ends with Sarah dying in Joel’s arms – a tear-jerking scene, and one of the most memorable openings of any game in recent memory.

Flash-forward to 20 years later, and Joel has become hardened, able to kill others so long as it helps him survive. He is tasked with smuggling a 14-year-old girl named Ellie out of the highly militarized quarantine zone in Boston, but soon discovers that she’s somehow immune to the fungus that has all but destroyed humanity. Joel’s partner, Tess, convinces him to help take Ellie further towards her goal of Salt Lake City, Utah, where a resistance group known as the Fireflies are headquartered. Though Joel and Ellie’s relationship is fraught with friction at first, over the course of their journey they learn more about each other and begin to care for each other deeply. Joel saves Ellie’s life, and Ellie saves his, and by the time the duo reaches Salt Lake City, Ellie effectively becomes a surrogate daughter – filling the void that the loss of Sarah created 20 years prior.

This relationship, one between father and daughter, is the absolute emotional epicenter of The Last of Us. Joel grows to love Ellie so fiercely, that once he discovers the Fireflies will have to kill her in order to find a cure for the cordyceps infection, he murders every single person in his way to save her. Armed soldiers, defenseless doctors, the Firefly leader herself – he would rather destroy them all than lose another daughter. As destructive and horrific as that climax might have been, it’s love at its best and its worst.

A Love for Humanity

Ellie, however, doesn’t necessarily see his actions in the same light. Though she was asleep during this brutal series of events, she knows Joel is lying to her when he tells her there were other kids that were going to undergo the surgery to save what’s left of humanity. In the final scene of the game, which is perhaps its most poignant moment, Ellie asks Joel point-blank if what he told her about not being necessary to find a cure for cordyceps is the truth. She says, “Swear to me that everything that you said about the Fireflies is true.” And he replies, “I swear.”

Ellie decides to accept this answer, though it’s doubtful she truly believes him. Again, this father-daughter relationship is in full-force by the end of the game, and though she knows he is lying, she more likely than not understands why he took her away – however, she’s probably not aware of how many people he murdered to save her. Joel now openly speaks to Ellie about Sarah, making this connection between the two more apparent than ever. Perhaps this is the line of thought that brings Ellie to question Joel directly.

Leading up to this final moment, Ellie tells the story of how she and her friend Riley were bitten by the Infected. She lived while Riley succumbed to the cordyceps and died, and she’s been struggling with that ever since. Then she quickly lists people they came across during their journey that died because of the cordyceps, including Tess, and a young boy named Sam. She’s fully aware that her death could have saved what was left of humanity. She has survivors guilt, sure, but she loved those who met their end before her, and she knows she could have stopped future deaths like that from happening. Her young and pure-hearted love for the human race was strong enough for her to sacrifice herself. The game’s finale shows her struggling between this general love, and her specific love for Joel, which makes this ambivalent ending all the more heartbreaking.

A Romantic Love

That story about Ellie and her friend Riley would become the game’s only piece of single-player DLC, The Last of Us: Left Behind. In this short (but oh so sweet) slice of a video game, Ellie and Riley break into an abandoned mall and explore what remains of a once care-free American culture, before the events of the main game take place. They take pictures in a photo booth, imagine playing arcade games and break open car windows with bricks. By the end of their adventure, they have to face reality: Riley can either stay in Boston simply to remain with Ellie, or she can leave to join the Fireflies with her sister. They play some music in a store, dance on a cabinet top and Ellie, though she knows she shouldn’t, asks her to stay. Riley agrees, and Ellie kisses her.

Though there’s been much debate about whether or not developers should force openly gay characters, or even a biracial couple, into a game, there’s no denying that this story about two girls who just begin to bud into women is anything but touching. In a world where reproduction is more important than ever, these two decide to express their love for one another. Unfortunately, just after this big moment, the Infected are drawn to their whereabouts because of the loud music. They run, but both end up bitten – a death sentence, as the infection begins to take hold in just one or two days. The two decide not to kill themselves, and instead fight the infection together.

Of course, Riley succumbs to her infection, but Ellie manages to develop an immunity that spurs the events of the main game. This loss of Ellie’s is character defining: her first love is taken away from her, because of her, and she happens to live on because of sheer chance. Left Behind also shows players some events that take place during the main game that weren’t originally shown. After Joel is impaled with an iron rod, Ellie becomes the player-controlled character, and desperately does everything she can to save his life. This intentionally mirrors her failure to save Riley, and further underscores the importance of her reaching the Fireflies so they can create a cure. Love towards her father character, her romantic love, and her love for humanity all intersect at this pivotal moment. With all of this in mind, if The Last of Us has any central theme, it’s surely love – despite the darkness.

An Impending Hatred

All of this leaves fans wondering exactly how The Last of Us Part II will revolve around hate. Five years have passed since the end of The Last of Us, and clearly Ellie is on a path for revenge. She’s bloodthirsty, incredibly angry and seemingly on an unstoppable rampage. How did this wonderfully sweet (though admittedly bad-ass and foul-mouthed) girl become this way? What do the women in the second trailer have to do with Ellie and Joel? Is Joel even alive?

The Last of Us Part II
There are lots of questions surrounding The Last of Us Part II, but it’s hard to imagine a game as bleak as the original succeeding on the emotional levels it did without its undercurrent of love traveling throughout the story. Nobody wants a rehash of what came before, so seeing this unrelenting rage and hatred will be an interesting journey, to say the least. Though Naughty Dog’s pedigree is undeniable, nobody expected The Last of Us to be quite as amazing as it was, and it feels like we’re at a point in time where we may be in doubt about its sequel’s level of quality.

How good it turns out remains to be seen, but it’s never smart to bet against Naughty Dog: their most recent outings, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy are nothing short of fantastic. We’ll know answers to all of the questions the trailers produced and more come its eventual release. Because gameplay footage hasn’t even been shown yet, it’s hard to determine a general release window for the game, but 2019 is a more likely candidate than next year. Until then, we have The Last of Us, Left Behind and their stories of love to hold us over. When the time comes, brace yourselves for a dark, violent and almost certainly hateful experience in The Last of Us Part II.