WARNING: Major spoilers for THE LAST OF US … and some emotional stuff, if you can handle it!

THE LAST OF US (TLOU), developed by Naughty Dog and released in 2013, is a critically acclaimed third-person, action-adventure survival horror game. Set in 2033, TLOU follows main characters Joel and Ellie on their quest to provide a cure for the Cordyceps virus that has ravaged mankind for twenty years.

In those twenty years, the democratic government is replaced with a military one with martial law in effect. Survivors are subject to quarantine zones that supposedly keep them safe from those infected with Cordyceps. However, individuals who still want a lawful government form a paramilitary group called the Fireflies that seek to restore balance and order to the world. Part of the restoration calls for curing humanity of the Cordyceps infection. And this is where Joel comes in. It’s his job to deliver Ellie, known as the “cure for mankind,” to the Fireflies.

A Narrative About Life and Family

TLOU giraffe symbolism
Ellie (left) petting a giraffe, a recurring motif of how life is still beautiful in this game.

On paper, TLOU looks like another zombie apocalypse driven survival horror game, but it’s more than that. It’s also about living life and overcoming struggles as a family with a beautifully crafted narrative centered around Joel and Ellie. Both characters struggle to come to terms with each other not just as survivors, but as family members who depend on each other. As such, they have to help each other overcome struggles that may hinder their journey. It is this aspect that makes TLOU such a beautiful and great game.

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The narrative is crafted like a movie. You get to experience beautiful and emotional moments as Joel and Ellie battle not only the infected and other hostile survivors but also their own emotions. The journey is a breathtaking one as well. Not everything is horrible in the zombie apocalypse as the game presents moments where life is still precious. A particular scene where Joel and Ellie encounter a tower of giraffes is a good example. They can help you forget that TLOU is a survival horror game in the first place.

Nonetheless, the game’s narrative focus on Joel and Ellie is a good representation of just how important a family and its values are. As such, I’ll be mainly covering their journey and how the two form an inseparable paternal bond to highlight this. But first, let’s get to know a bit more about our important duo.

Getting Familiar With the Characters

Joel

TLOU Joel

There are only two words to describe this Texan in his 40s: ruthless and cynical. However, Joel was not always like this. In TLOU’s prologue, set twenty years prior, he loses his daughter Sarah as they flee from the outbreak. Due to this, he has become rather cold and emotionally distant from others in the ensuing twenty years. His only friend is his trusted smuggling partner Tess and possibly his brother Tommy, who helped him and Sarah escape in the prologue. He was once a hunter, hostile survivors that kill anyone for supplies and food, with Tommy.

Due to a falling out, Joel — during the main events of TLOU — now works as a black market smuggler with Tess in Boston. The game sees both of them trying to smuggle out Ellie to the Fireflies for a supply of firearms. That’s how Joel and Ellie are acquainted. He and Ellie don’t see eye to eye early on, but eventually, Joel warms up to her as the story progresses. It’s thanks to meeting Ellie that he’s able to live with meaning again. Also, he’s a very capable fighter considering he’s an ex-hunter.

Ellie

TLOU Ellie

This fourteen-year-old survivor is special and quite mature for her age, often using expletives to make a point or showing how adult-like she can be. For example, in TLOU’s winter chapter, she nurses a severely wounded Joel back to health by fending off threats and fetching supplies. Although she can be “mature,” she is also quite the lonely girl having grown up as an orphan in the Cordyceps infected world. This may attribute to her maturity as she had to take care of herself, but without anyone to form relationships with, she suffers from monophobia, the fear of being alone.

Because of this, she becomes sad whenever people close to her leave or die — all the more why she grows fond of Joel. And like Joel, she also loses someone important: her best friend Riley, who perishes from an infected attack in the LEFT BEHIND prequel. Ellie is also bitten but miraculously survives as her “bite” didn’t infect her. This prompts her to develop survivor’s guilt and contributes to her loneliness. However, her “bite” is also what makes her special as the Fireflies want her to create a vaccine. As such, Ellie believes she can make a difference as the “cure for mankind.” She doesn’t want Riley’s death to go to waste. Along the journey, Joel shows her that she isn’t alone.

Living With Survivor’s Guilt

Riley, left, with Ellie in LEFT BEHIND’s aftermath. She is the first to contribute to Ellie’s survivor’s guilt.

Now that you know a bit more about the two main characters, let’s get started how important Joel and Ellie’s bond is. One of the major aspects in TLOU is learning how to cope with losses. This is the greatest challenge for them because both have lost someone special and important to them. This section highlights crucial characters and how their deaths have affected Joel and Ellie.

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Tess’ Sacrifice

Tess, Joel’s smuggling friend who shares his philosophy of ruthless survival, is a major turning point character for the narrative. She was destined to die so that Joel and Elie can continue their mission to find the Fireflies. Her and Joel’s mission was supposed to simple: deliver Ellie to the Fireflies at D.C.’s Capitol Building. Upon the discovery that all Firefly members were wiped out by military soldiers, Tess had to make a choice. However, that choice was already made for her because she was also bitten in a prior infected scuffle. So, she makes the sacrifice to buy time for Joel and Ellie to escape by confronting the same soldiers at the Capitol Building.

TLOU Tess Infection
Tess compares her condition with Ellie’s “bite” for Joel to understand.

Her death was the first major turning point because it showed how important Ellie’s role in developing a cure is and it takes its toll on both characters. Tess’ death contributed more to Ellie’s survivor’s guilt. Ellie blames herself for Tess’ death because Tess declaration about how much more important her survival is. To Joel, his partner’s death had a bigger impact because Tess entrusted him with delivering Ellie to the Fireflies. Thus, Joel had no choice but to comply because he doesn’t want Tess to die in vain.

This is the first part of the game that shows Joel caring about someone else. However, Tess’ death puts more of a strain on our main characters’ familial relationship. Because of Ellie’s “bite,” he blames Ellie for his partner’s death.

The Boy That Feared Becoming Them

Somewhere in Joel and Ellie’s journey to find Tommy, they encounter another friendly pair of like-minded survivors in the hunter-controlled city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These new allies, Henry and Sam, are brothers traveling west to join the Fireflies’ cause. They join Joel and Ellie because of this common thread. The party has to escape Pittsburgh first because of the dangers posed by hunters. They fight valiantly and escape to a city suburb to take refuge. However, like Tess, Sam gets infected. He succumbs to the virus and is shot dead by Henry, who commits suicide after.

Sam, left, questioning if infected are still people.

Sam is another character whose death afflicts Ellie’s survivor’s guilt. He is about the same age as Ellie and also grows up in the post-apocalyptic world. Both these factors made it easy for him to befriend Ellie and speak his mind around her.

One night, Sam confides to Ellie that he fears the infected and becoming one of them. He questions if they are still human. Here, in this conversation, we also learn of Ellie’s fear of loneliness. This is both sad and ironic as Sam turns the next morning, which results in his and Henry’s death. In a way, Sam tried to subtly communicate to Ellie that he’s infected. However, his death only added to the list of victims that will forever affect Ellie. Additionally, she keeps the toy robot that Sam was fond of to serve as a memento of him.

Losing His Pride and Joy

There’s no doubt that Joel’s daughter, Sarah, meant a lot to him. She was the sole reason Joel’s life had any meaning to begin with. The prologue shows how close the two were as Sarah gives her dad a watch for his birthday. However, as mentioned before, Joel becomes the harsh and indifferent person he is because of his daughter’s death.

TLOU joel and sarah
Before it all, there was a young and happy Joel with his daughter Sarah.

Even after twenty years, Sarah’s death haunts him. As a result, Joel becomes emotionally unavailable and seems to be unable to cope or accept the deaths of his companions. But it is evident later in TLOU that he still cares about Sarah, 20 years later, as he continues to wear the watch she gave him. The irony is that the watch is broken, alluding to his  birthday and the day his world crumbled. His loss is a crucial theme later in the game when Ellie confronts him about her and during the game’s final chapter and epilogue.

Establishing Trust

Living with survivor’s guilt sucks and, as you’ve read, numerous characters have contributed to the main pair’s emotional plight. However, one thing’s for sure: it has allowed Joel and Ellie to keep moving on despite not trusting each other completely. The game shows several important scenes of establishing and maintaining trust between the pair. They’ll need it, especially Joel, to overcome loss and start bonding together.

Acknowledging Responsibility and First Firearm

TLOU Ellie Rifle
Joel telling Ellie to make every shot count.

When it comes to trust, two scenes come to mind. One is the truck pushing scene and the other is the hunting rifle scene (one of my favorites). Both highlight Ellie’s maturity and how responsible she can be. The truck scene displays Ellie’s knowledge of push starting a vehicle, which our pair needs to travel out west to seek out Tommy. This scene takes place shortly after Tess’ death and after Joel seeks out Bill, an old friend of his and Tess’. Together, with Joel and Bill shoving the truck while Ellie controls the clutch, they attempt to start it. They succeed while fending off infected. This proves Ellie can be responsible, which garners trust.

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The other scene that shows Ellie further gaining Joel’s trust is the Pittsburgh rifle scene, which takes place before the duo meets Henry and Sam. A major thing to note is that prior to this scene, Ellie kills her first enemy with Joel’s pistol. If she hadn’t, the hunter would’ve drowned Joel. Although Ellie saved his life, Joel is reluctant to thank her until the rifle scene’s start. This scene is particularly intense as Joel has to take out a large group of hunters. However, with Ellie backing him up as a sniper, it makes things easier. In the end, Ellie proves she is further trustworthy and Joel finally gives her a firearm.

Both these scenes indicate that Joel finally develops some trust in Ellie as she has been struggling to get Joel to acknowledge her. Furthermore, now that Ellie has a firearm, she has established responsibility that she can protect both herself and Joel. However, both characters are still far from developing a paternal bond. These two scenes are just the start.

Reaching Tommy and Broken Trust

TLOU Tommy vs Joel
Tommy, left, argues with Joel over Ellie’s fate.

The next scene is an important one as it establishes the future paternal bond that Joel and Ellie will develop. Taking place after the events of Pittsburgh, the pair finally reaches Tommy‘s location in Jackson County, Wyoming. There, at a hydroelectric dam town, Joel confronts his brother about taking responsibility for Ellie and delivering her safely to the Fireflies. The only exception is Tommy’s cause is now with his family: his wife Maria and the townsfolk. Mired by their troubled past, the two argue.

At first, Tommy refuses to take Ellie but, after seeing Joel’s concern for her, he complies. Ellie, however, sees through Joel’s facade and runs away with one of Tommy’s horses. The brothers take chase and find Ellie at a nearby ranch house. It’s here that one of the most important scenes in the narrative plays out: Ellie and Joel’s emotional and heated argument. This is the second turning point of TLOU, one that establishes an understanding of trust. Joel is clearly breaking it by leaving the rest of the responsibility to his brother.

The Argument and Accepting Responsibility

The topic of the argument mainly focuses on acceptance and responsibility. Joel learns about Ellie’s survivor’s guilt and monophobia but dismisses it because she brings up Sarah, which greatly angers Joel. As I mentioned before, Sarah is crucial to understanding Joel’s acceptance and perception of Ellie. The argument also serves as the first part of Joel’s acceptance of his past. It’s clear Joel cares for Ellie’s well-being, and he doesn’t want her to end up like Sam. However, he fails to see just how much of a responsible “adult” Ellie can be (see previous sections). Even more, Joel denies being Ellie’s “father” and her being his “daughter” when Sarah is mentioned. This foreshadows the father-daughter bond that develops between the pair later in TLOU. What this argument establishes is that Joel needs to change.

Joel mulls over leaving Ellie behind and reconsiders his choice.

And change does happen. Ellie tells how she feels straight to Joel in an attempt to make Joel see how important he is to her, and vice versa. In the end, Joel realizes that leaving Ellie would hurt her more than he imagined. It looks like Ellie’s stubbornness made its point. The pair may have faced many dangers and even the death of loved ones, but the time spent together has to have had a deeper meaning. And this is it. Joel reconsiders and departs with Ellie to a university in Colorado to find the Firefly lab his brother mentions. Thus, trust is amended as Joel accepts Ellie into his life. The path for their paternal bond is becoming quite clear.

Forming Paternal Love And Beyond

Now that Joel finally understands Ellie’s fears and trusts her, we can now explore how their paternal bond fully develops in TLOU’s final two chapters: the winter arc and the Salt Lake City hospital scene. Both chapters are equally intense and emotional. I consider both to be the best parts of the game as it takes into account the best of Joel and Ellie’s actions. Before this, let’s talk about how the university part sets up an emotionally chilling winter arc.

The fictional University of Eastern Colorado.

Prior to the winter arc events, Joel and Ellie do reach the university. There, the two’s bond is stronger than before. Joel begins to be less critical and quiet by opening up himself more, even personally. For example, he tells Ellie that his childhood dream was being a singer in response to Ellie’s. He also often talks about old world things (fashion models, movies, etc.) that fascinate Ellie to no end. There isn’t much to the university part other than the bonding, the Fireflies’ relocation to Salt Lake City, Utah, and Joel’s severe injury during a fight with bandits. The injury scene further demonstrates how fearless and supportive Ellie continues to be for Joel.

The Bond Deepens and Traumatization

Although Joel’s injury puts him at risk of death, Ellie takes care of him partly in the winter arc and the majority of LEFT BEHIND. This shows how much she cares for him, now that it’s her turn to protect him as he did for her for the majority of TLOU. To her, Joel has become somewhat of a father figure by this point. She risks her life, in this arc as well as  in LEFT BEHIND, to prevent enemies from finding Joel while she looks for supplies.

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Speaking of Joel, his actions in this arc speak louder than words. Upon recovery, he tenaciously searches for Ellie. When he discovers she is captured by David and his cannibalistic men (same men he fought at the university), he goes to great lengths to save her. He even tortures and kills two cannibals to locate Ellie. When Joel finally finds an emotionally distraught Ellie (see end of video below), he comforts her rather than yell at her as he would before. Joel’s transformation and complete change of heart is astonishing to witness.

During Joel’s recovery, Ellie escapes, fights, and kills David — the vile cannibalistic leader who kept her as a pet and tries to kill her. Joel arrives in the nick of time to stop Ellie from further mutilating David’s body. This is the first time we see Ellie so distraught because of the trauma David caused her during her imprisonment and their fight. It’s also implied that David tried to rape her. In the aftermath, Joel calls Ellie his “baby girl,” the same endearment he used for Sarah. This proves that Joel has indeed become a protective father and sees Ellie as more than a survivor. She’s now his daughter.

The Final Push and Moving On

After the intense and emotional winter arc of TLOU, where are our two main characters have shown how much they’ve bonded, spring has come. Joel and Ellie are back on their feet and finally reach Salt Lake City. Here, Joel is a completely changed man. He’s shown to be more caring and open with Ellie, stating that he’ll even teach her guitar once the journey is over. The difference is that Ellie has become distant due to the lingering traumatization from winter. Although she’s been headstrong most of the time, David’s actions succeeded in leaving an emotional scar that proves life is more horrible than what she’s faced so far.

However, not all life in a zombie apocalypse is bad because this chapter also introduces that giraffe scene I mentioned earlier. Seeing the beauty of such an animal, with help from Joel, snaps Ellie back into reality. This tells her that life in the apocalypse does have meaning. Joel tells her that they can turn back, but Ellie intends to finish what they’ve started. As they move on, Ellie also gives Joel the photo of him and Sarah, the same photo Tommy tried to give to him before. Joel accepts it this time, finally acknowledging his daughter’s death. This is an optional conversation with Ellie, but regardless, it shows Joel’s acceptance of his past. You can see how strong the bond between him and Ellie is now.

The End — Fireflies and Joel’s Selfishness

Despite the beautiful moment of life, the two still have to traverse through an infected-filled tunnel and a flooded area before reaching the Firefly hospital. And as usual, karma strikes. Ellie “drowns” saving Joel trapped in a submerged bus. He tries to perform CPR, but is subsequently knocked out by a soldier. When Joel comes to, he is greeted by none other than Marlene, the Firefly queen. He learns from her that they were the ones to have luckily found them. Marlene also informs Joel that Ellie survived and is prepped for surgery.

The bad news, however, is that to create a vaccine, the Fireflies will have to extract the Cordyceps growth from her brain, potentially killing her. You can guess how Joel feels about that. Once again, it’s time to save Ellie by fighting the people who were supposed to save mankind. It goes to show you the irony of this game. Joel fights his way to the operating room to save Ellie, going as far to even killing Marlene. He kills her so that she won’t come after Ellie in the future. Joel escapes via vehicle with an unconscious Ellie and heads back to his brother’s town.

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In the end, their bond remains strong as Joel mentions Sarah one last time, saying that Ellie and her would’ve been great buds. Regarding the Fireflies, however, he lies to Ellie that there are others like her and without much success, they stopped looking for a cure (wow Joel). This prompts Ellie to question Joel during TLOU’s final scene as they hike to Tommy’s settlement. Sensing doubt in Ellie as she mentions those that died, including Riley, Joel swears everything he’s said is true to alleviate Ellie’s guilt. Whether or not Ellie believes him, she accepts Joel’s words as truth and the two head on to Tommy’s.

The End that Isn’t the End

I swear I’m the best dad.

It’s not a great epilogue, but it’s redeemable if you’ve followed how endearing Joel and Ellie are. When I first played TLOU, I wasn’t too fond of Joel as a character other than his badass survival skill. However, he grew on me as he started to bond with his newfound daughter Ellie. So, even though he sacrificed mankind’s cure to save himself from further spiraling down into depression, I believe it was a good choice. The game is about family after all!

It just goes to show you that, just like Ellie and Joel, we humans are vulnerable creatures after all. We may not live in a zombie apocalypse, but in times of need, we really should depend on our families to get us through emotional times. The various scenarios highlighted may not be the best representation of actual real life, but the themes of overcoming loss and survival are. Furthermore, I’m almost like Ellie in terms of being lonely as I grew up shy. However, having witnessed how responsible and hardheaded she can be, this character encouraged me to face my own fears. Her responsibility and bond to Joel further exemplify this. I couldn’t thank either character enough.

In the end, TLOU may show us the brutality of the world, especially with the loss of loved ones. Nevertheless, we must bond together as a family, like Joel and Ellie, to overcome life’s emotional hurdles. That is the message of THE LAST OF US. Together we are strong. If you’re curious about the two’s relationship after TLOU, you can check out the video below.

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