That’s why Joel’s ‘death’ isn’t the messianic sacrifice it would ordinarily be. That’s why playing as Ellie isn’t about how Joel’s selfless care has empowered her to complete the quest without him. Both of those ideas are hackneyed; and let’s face it, Joel isn’t that selfless. The Last of Us is smarter and more real than that. Joel’s impalement does occur while protecting Ellie, but it’s a clumsy accident. And even months after he’s put out of the action, Ellie is still weak as diluted water.
Sacrifice doesn’t magically fix anything. It just makes things harder. But separating the characters during the end of the ‘Winter’ phase does serve one very important purpose. It makes both of them, through the player’s reaction to their separation and eventual fight to reunite, realise just how important they’ve become to each other. It’s not about their long-term quest to save humanity. It’s about their immediate quest to save each other.
That’s why the ending matters. That’s why the ending, although sure to be divisive, is brilliant, perfect, and the only way the game could end. Joel’s decision to sacrifice humanity in order to keep Ellie in his life--going so far as to murder those who would save the world--is an unexpected one. Jarring, even. And it remains ambiguous and enigmatic until the credits roll.
He could be seen as saving her. He could be seen as screwing her out of her accepted and doubtless noble purpose in life. He could be seen as paternal or he could be seen as selfish. All of these interpretations are entirely correct, and none of them are exclusive from one another. They don’t need to be. Because it’s only when Joel ultimately does what he does, and when Ellie--knowing that he’s lying to her--accepts that, that the true meaning of the game’s title becomes clear.
It isn’t The Last of the World, or The Last of Humanity. It’s The Last of Us. That’s a word with much more personal, individual, unique significance. It doesn’t denote a species or a society. It denotes closeness, sharing, and family. ‘Us’ is Joel and Ellie. ‘Us’ is Joel and Sarah, and previously his (presumed) ex-wife. ‘Us’ is every other family and group of friends in the world, and the shared joys, relationships and losses that exist between them. Joel has already lost one ‘us’. He’s not going to lose another. Selfish he may seem on a global level, but to save the world you don’t need to save every human being on it. To save an entire world you only need to save the way of life of a single family within it. So he does.
You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.