Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Naughty Dog’s Evolution and The Last of Us

In 2013, Naughty Dog, a significant studio establishing the standard for story-driven games modeled after traditional Hollywood storytelling, developed and released The Last of Us on the PlayStation 3 as a high-caliber narrative experience. The Uncharted game followed the style of adventure movies starring Nathan Drake, a character reminiscent of Indiana Jones. However, The Last of Us marked Naughty Dog’s shift from action-packed blockbusters to a genre that held dominance in the early 2000s. Through this evolution, they brought the precise quality found in TV series to video games. The game’s timeline was meticulously set, ushering in inevitable changes ever since.

The Last of Us and its different editions have been the prevailing force in the gaming sector for nearly ten years. They are prepared to replicate this success in the universe that inspired them. With the introduction of HBO’s The Last of Us series and its early reviews affirming it as one of the best adaptations of a video game so far, the game solidifies its position as one of the most exceptional stories ever communicated through the medium of video games. It mirrors the sentiments expressed in numerous prominent reviews following the game’s launch.

The foundation of The Last of Us rests on a distinct interaction between characters and their presence in a desert overrun by zombies. The game’s storyline is firmly rooted, delving into the correlation between video game culture and classical cinema throughout the years. Without a doubt, we can identify viewpoints similar to those expressed by Roger Ebert, who consistently stressed that games lack a sincere emotional encounter, and it is unlikely that any contemporary video gamer can sustain interest long enough to view the medium as an artistic form.

Transcending Basic Story Elements

It is evident that numerous people, including someone with significant connections in the entertainment industry, have decided that The Last of Us, hailed as the finest video game story ever, has the potential to become an exceptional television series. At first glance, The Last of Us narrates a tale featuring zombies, a father, and a girl under the guardianship of a paternal figure. Nevertheless, the game takes on a broader viewpoint in comprehending how the story is conveyed beyond basic understanding. Consequently, the game conveys its message through symbolism, narrative, and thematic elements.

In The Last of Us, Joel Miller and Ellie Williams arrive at the Capitol building after escaping from the military with the unfortunate loss of Tess Servopoulos. The story begins with an introduction that presents a prologue set two decades earlier during the initial outbreak. Although justifying the prologue might be challenging, as it requires the audience, players, and viewers to invest their initial moments in the story by witnessing events that take place in a disconnected time or setting, often involving characters who do not reappear, The Last of Us makes the correct choice. Constructing the backdrop of the post-apocalyptic world following the outbreak focuses on establishing an emotional narrative, particularly highlighting Joel’s grief over his daughter’s death. The prologue in The Last of Us indicates that players already comprehend the emotional significance behind Joel’s decision to care for a young girl with freckles. It is essential for understanding Joel’s cynical survival mindset and what Ellie symbolizes to him—past trauma and failures. He is just beginning to see this as another opportunity for fatherhood, regardless of the impracticality of shielding Joel’s traumatic history from the player.

A Poignant Perspective

On a deeper level, this sets a context that enhances our engagement with the subsequent main story, and it is most effectively conveyed by immersing us in real-time gameplay rather than being presented through a later cutscene or narration. Neil Druckmann chose to primarily write it from the perspective of his daughter, Sarah Miller, intended to make us feel more exposed in this turbulent and shadowy world. The outcome is successful. We wake up at night with everything trembling; there are unsettling news reports and enjoyable moments when distant explosions occur, and the game compels us to retreat. The boundary between the cutscene and the character and the dissonance and alignment between our actions as players and the characters’ actions in the cutscene becomes indistinct.

Nonetheless, what is particularly intriguing is that adopting the viewpoint of a deceased child makes the shift to playing Joel more seamless. Consequently, we imbue him with a fatherly sentiment, and players find themselves in the same emotional stance as Joel—witnessing the death of a child. It has the potential to affect anyone profoundly, and it implies that Joel is not a blank slate when we commence playing as him two decades later. Druckmann initiates a symbolic connection between Sarah and Ellie, underscoring the evolution of Ellie and Joel’s relationship. Sarah gives Joel a new wristwatch right at the outset of the game.

Still, this watch is pierced by a bullet when the very same weapon kills her. Subsequently, Ellie gazes at the broken watch symbolically, representing moments forever frozen in time, intertwined with Joel’s recollection of Sarah’s demise. Following this, Joel mistakenly believes Ellie’s age to be 14, the age Sarah was when she died. Hence, there exist rather direct parallels between them.

Empathy and Emotional Resonance in Dialogue

In numerous critiques and analyses, Ellie is an exceptional exemplar of a video game companion. She is remarkably engaging, human, and extraordinary on a narrative plane. In truth, the dialogues spanning the game are superb. Despite their seemingly commonplace nature, they have become her distinctive feature. She exudes empathy, spotlighting moments amid rainfall that resonate as incredibly poignant. Regardless, what is profoundly captivating is that all instances of tension or conflict between Ellie and the player are provoked by Joel’s easily provoked disposition or pessimism rather than originating from her. The dialogue throughout the game is superb. Despite their seemingly commonplace nature, they have become her distinctive feature. She exudes empathy, underlining this particularly heartwarming moment amid the rainfall.

On the gameplay front, Ellie calls out when enemies approach from behind. She maintains a decent pace, often alleviating the frustration associated with companion characters. She also avoids frequently being placed in the damsel-in-distress position, avoiding situations like being restrained or immobilized. She consistently proves an asset rather than a hindrance. These aspects make it challenging not to develop an affinity for her and to genuinely care for and rely on her from the outset, both within the narrative and gameplay contexts.

There are instances when they have just extricated themselves from intense situations, and Ellie comments that they are adept at handling such scenarios. Subsequently, Joel responds that it is a matter of luck and that this luck will eventually run out. It serves as the starting point for the emergence of a character foil as the two characters are placed in contrast. This contrast emphasizes each character’s weaknesses and strengths in the narrative. They act as mirrors, highlighting the weaknesses and strengths of one another, with Ellie being an optimist who has not predominantly lived a survivalist life like Joel, who seems to be somewhat despondent at the outset of the story.

Seeds of Change and Growth for Joel

It marks just the beginning, but it could indicate growth for Joel as he starts adopting a more hopeful outlook akin to Ellie’s and learns to place greater trust in the good intentions of others. Similarly, Ellie might grow weary as she witnesses the horrors of the world that Joel has experienced. In the second part of the game, Ellie acquires her first weapon. It also marks the point where Joel starts to look after Ellie on his own after Tess’s death and discovers the dead Fireflies. They continue to build upon the contrasting dynamic established at the story’s beginning, which starts with an ambush. Ellie encourages them to help an injured man, but Joel quickly realizes it is a trap.

Once again, this emphasizes Joel’s dark experiences and Ellie’s innocence and lack of worldly knowledge. However, the ambush climaxes when Ellie kills someone, signifying the loss of innocence and naivety. Ellie’s killing to protect Joel is a part of her entry into his bleak and more violent world. In a way, she matures and gains some independence. On the other hand, Joel also changes, showing more paternal tendencies and returning to a more optimistic mindset that had faded after his daughter’s death. When they set out to find Bill, she starts by saying she does not know where they are headed and must follow his lead.

It initially emerges when she becomes frustrated with him. Still young, she does not want him to mess things up. Nonetheless, she defends Ellie from Bill’s actions as they face challenging situations together, including confronting groups of zombies. Underneath, his focus shifts towards protecting her more than before, a subtle transformation. Nonetheless, this paternal inclination becomes more apparent as motivations evolve. It culminates in him genuinely encouraging her. Instead of seeing her as a burden, he acknowledges her efforts. He did not do it and likely would not have considered it prior to their journey. This evolution feels completely natural, built upon their solid relationship. It underscores their vulnerabilities, strengths, and age differences.

Father-Daughter Dynamics and Subtle Gestures

In a sense, they adopt certain traits from each other. Naturally, this allows Druckmann to tap into the emotions being projected. A simple example is observing Ellie and Joel driving together—Ellie reading stolen comics and watching adult films in the back seat while Joel listens to old, fatherly music. This image speaks volumes about their father-daughter dynamic, mainly when he listens to her complaints about being unable to finish a book and advises her against watching adult films, a rather fatherly perspective. Our recollection of their journey’s progression enables us to see a part of ourselves in Ellie and our parents in Joel, or perhaps even ourselves in Joel.

These elements effectively cultivate empathy for the characters, making us more inclined to believe in the dynamics they develop. Furthermore, an exceptional detail is Ellie’s tendency to whistle and hum. She does this spontaneously, without any apparent reason or prior discussion. For some reason, this seemingly insignificant habit adds a significant layer by allowing the character to exist beyond the boundaries of cutscenes. The developers left this space open to convey additional dimensions of the story. Despite the somewhat limited advancement in gameplay, there is an authentic sense that even during the game’s progression, they act and respond consistently with their personalities. It, in turn, reinforces the equilibrium between gameplay and narrative.

In various aspects, they also utilize weapons as multi-dimensional symbols within the storyline. The first instance involves the symbol of trust in their relationship. Initially, Joel refrains from letting her possess a weapon due to his mistrust, reflecting his secretive nature. In essence, Joel hesitates to grant her independence or the ability to take risks on her own, instead forcefully imposing his decisions on her. Once again, gameplay significantly complements the growth of their relationship. Players learn to depend on her when she provides medicine, takes down enemies, and helps untangle them from threats.

Encounter with Sam and Henry

Numerous events unfold when Joel and Ellie encounter Sam and Henry and journey to the distant Colorado district where the university is located. One notable aspect is the narrative structure divided into three acts, with the first part culminating in Tess’s death and the second concluding with Sam’s demise. Throughout the game’s segments, the environment serves as a storyteller, particularly highlighting the underground community that suffered devastation some time ago. There is a distinct and authentic feeling that people inhabited this space before the tragedy and infection struck. Small details like stumbling upon notes expressing hope upon encountering traders instead of threats contribute to this atmosphere. Even though Ellie and Joel scarcely comment on the location, we can deduce much by observing, engaging, and traversing through it. Heavy exposition is absent, yet emotions and character development are richly conveyed. It is not just a fleeting glimpse of the backdrop. Regardless, it is a fleeting insight into Joel’s world—a character transitioning from civilization to desolation, grappling with hope much like the inhabitants of this place appear to possess.

Environmental storytelling and pacing are at the core of the narrative’s rhythm and progression. The sense of place within this world is impressively well-crafted. The viewer consistently spots distant objectives that gradually draw nearer, whether the Capitol building, bridges, or radio towers. However, a distinctive detail emerges here: the scarcity of randomly placed enemies, a common feature in certain games, particularly those with a zombie theme. In The Last of Us, zombies cluster in small groups within predominantly abandoned areas. It fosters a sensation of inhabiting an abandoned rather than overrun world, allowing moments of tranquility and levity. The strategic positioning of zombies is deliberate, often accompanied by contextual narratives explaining their presence. As a result, the game consistently reflects this in low and high-tension environmental scenarios as the storyline unfolds through these instances. The outcome is a harmonious balance between suspenseful moments and narrative-driven gameplay.

Sam and Henry as Reflective Characters

From another perspective, Sam and Henry serve as reflections. Both allow Ellie and Joel to nurture distinct bonds, offering us glimpses into different aspects of each character. With Sam, Ellie’s more cheerful side emerges, a facet often suppressed when she is around Joel, affording us a window into what she is missing in this grim reality. Nonetheless, the crux lies in how Druckmann employs these characters to expose Joel’s shortcomings. A pivotal moment arrives when Henry prevents Sam from taking a toy from an abandoned store. Due to their survival-oriented mindset, Ellie and Sam cannot truly experience a carefree childhood. It compels Joel to reevaluate his rapport with Ellie, recognizing that his all-encompassing survival mindset hinders her maturation.

Naturally, Sam meets his demise, and Henry is forced to end his life. Essentially, this conforms to the conventions of typical zombie narratives. Regardless, this technique is exploited to heighten the poignancy of the moment, prefaced by a touching interaction between Ellie and Sam wherein she presents him with a desired toy, symbolizing their fleeting innocence. Only youngsters can facilitate genuine growth in their peers. This harmonization of distress and delight renders the horror more potent, sidestepping the pitfall of relentless despondency throughout the game. Consequently, preceding a character’s demise, they are often shown cherishing their final moments with their companions, intensifying the anguish of their loss.

Climax of the Second Act

The narrative delves into its somber depths during the climax of the second act, as they arrive at Joel’s brother Tommy Miller’s encampment, harboring hopes of discovering the Fireflies’ whereabouts. At this juncture, two particularly gloomy segments arise. First, Ellie expresses her desire to discuss Sam’s death, but Joel firmly instructs her to leave the inanimate robot at Sam’s gravesite. Dual narrative threads characterize this scene. One traces Joel’s struggle to absolve himself from the loss of his daughter two decades earlier. At the same time, the other chronicles Ellie’s battle against adopting Joel’s disposition of detachment, skepticism, and desolation. These threads are intertwined due to the clash between these two characters arising from inner conflicts.

At the nadir of the storyline, Joel’s perspective takes precedence. The apex of this conflict is reached in the subsequent segment, wherein Joel rebuffs the photograph of Sarah and reproaches Ellie with a tinge of frustration, proclaiming that he is not her father. This pivotal juncture represents the characters’ darkest moments, particularly for Joel. His words stem from an inability to see beyond the layers of deception. Joel shoulders the guilt for his daughter Sarah’s demise two decades ago, rendering him unable to forgive himself. Consequently, Joel staunchly advocates for moving forward, avoiding delving into his grief while distancing himself from perceiving Ellie as a surrogate daughter figure.

As the shadowed chapters culminate, the third act commences with Joel retracting his prior sentiments and leading Ellie toward the Fireflies’ location himself. A subtle undercurrent is discernible in this moment, wherein Joel remains a man of few words, as consistently evidenced throughout the game. He appears disinclined to offer an explicit apology or reversal of his earlier statement. Instead, he chooses actions to communicate his intentions, prioritizing deeds over words. Ellie’s comprehension of his unspoken purpose is a poignant testament to the core of their relationship. Druckmann refrains from relying on verbal expression to convey this sentiment, at least for the time being, as the character’s actions are not solely intended for the audience’s understanding, a tendency often observed in other narratives.


In addition to characters such as Joel, Ellie, Tess, Tommy, Sam, and Henry, each with unique backgrounds and characteristics, David (another antagonist in The Last of Us) stands out as a character with genuine intentions towards Ellie. He exchanges food for penicillin, and his refusal to believe it, to believe in the goodness of others, is a sign of his character’s stance and how Joel’s somewhat pessimistic or gradually hardened outlook on life has transformed him for the worse. This dynamic is about Ellie revitalizing hope and emotions in him and his resistance to becoming like her.

Initially, Ellie responds aggressively, much like Joel, quick to distrust, shooting first and questioning later. Essentially, The Last of Us is more than a typical zombie story. It delves into character analysis rather than solely relying on the zombie premise. It is why the story’s antagonists during the narrative shifts are human, not zombies. These moments parallel the earlier scenes involving Sam and Henry, where Joel triggers violence and nearly kills first. The absence of humanity and trust that Ellie initially challenges as a character is apparent. Regardless, Ellie’s lack of trust damages her relationships with potential allies in this shattered world.

When Sam and Henry challenge Joel’s inhumanity, Ellie, now more independent, faces a similar challenge she must endure. The story underscores David’s underlying good intentions, even after she massacres many of his comrades, branding them cannibals, an illogical assertion. Thus, The Last of Us explores how humanity blinds us and how it can be lost from us.

Narrative Fusion

Subsequently, David is revealed to be malevolent, bearing cannibalistic and sexual undertones in every aspect. Suddenly, we are absolved of guilt for killing them, including Ellie. It suggests that Joel’s distrustful mindset is the correct perspective, while Ellie’s belief in others’ humanity is flawed. Rather than interrogating these viewpoints as they did with Joel, they inadvertently reinforce Ellie’s stance. It could have powerfully explored how Joel’s viewpoint has corroded Ellie, criticizing our ease in disregarding others’ humanity. Nevertheless, it is essentially an appeal to the humanity that can slip away from us. It blurs the idea of choosing humanity, whereas it could have been effective if Ellie’s trauma stemmed from realizing she killed an innocent person, uncovering the weaknesses in Joel’s worldview.

Still, the way the cannibal segment unfolds from Ellie’s viewpoint is remarkable, an excellent fusion of narrative and gameplay. Ellie’s narrative revolves around maturity and autonomy, especially after Joel is incapacitated, compelling her to defend and lead. Her growing agency in the story mirrors the player’s control as we shift to her perspective, shaping gameplay and narrative. Subtle changes are also noticeable, like Ellie running ahead rather than trailing behind, as in the game’s beginning. Essentially, she becomes a proactive force in her story, orchestrating every element from our viewpoint.

One of the most compelling narrative moments follows the cannibal segment. Ellie becomes traumatized, and her immense horror as she kills David in the burning building is vividly portrayed. Conversely, this scene highlights Joel’s reluctance to confront trauma, his approach being to ignore it and press onward. The evident failure of this approach for Ellie resurfaces, underscoring its failure for Joel as well. The equilibrium between narrative and gameplay persists, but it is during the game’s final stages that Joel indeed undergoes development.

Potent Emotional Conclusion

When Ellie returns the photo of Sarah that Joel initially rejected, she states that no matter how hard he tries, she feels he cannot escape his past. It marks the first time Joel openly admits he has been unable to move on. Joel was deceiving himself when he first rejected the photo. He did not want it because wanting it meant feeling it. Here lies the beauty: Ellie literally and metaphorically restores the memory to him. Symbolically, as a surrogate daughter, Ellie teaches him that feeling safe and okay is valid.

From an emotional standpoint, the story’s conclusion is incredibly gripping and potent. Joel decides to rescue Ellie from the Fireflies, a group willing to sacrifice her for a vaccine, even addressing her as a “baby girl.” The narrative symmetry between the ending and the beginning is evident, where Joel escorts Ellie out in a manner reminiscent of his actions with Sarah at the outset. Emotionally, Joel can rekindle his feelings profoundly. However, both his and Ellie’s stories still need to be completed. The plot strongly leads to Joel openly confronting the trauma of losing his daughter, Sarah. As he witnesses how Ellie grapples with the fallout of the “moving on” mindset, experiencing loss with Sam, we uncover the loss of his friend prior to the story’s commencement.

Repeatedly, Ellie expresses her wish to address this sense of loss. Even so, Joel is resistant to engaging in this discussion. The logical culmination of their narrative, with Ellie impacting Joel, would be a candid conversation between them. Regardless, this does not indeed materialize. Towards the end, there is a brief moment when Ellie initiates a conversation about her friend. Joel responds, asserting he cannot hold himself responsible and acknowledging that survival can be a torment.

Subtle Symbolism

Nonetheless, they do not delve into it further. Joel still sidesteps the conversation he initiated, which was essential to showcase genuine growth. Consequently, Joel never fully processes his trauma, and Ellie is also denied the opportunity.

Regardless, a subtle detail arises when Joel interacts with his watch, symbolizing moments frozen in time that he carries with him whenever he talks about his guilt as a survivor and recollects Sarah. Rather than a neat resolution to Ellie and Joel’s story arc, this becomes a point of ongoing tension and unresolved conflict between them. Their tale must be neatly wrapped, and neither character has fully resolved their issues. There is still ample room for both Ellie and Joel to evolve. Nevertheless, the specific question posed by the game and explored within its context remains unanswered within the game.

Survivalist Mentality vs. Fatherly Figure

All this revolves around whether Joel imposes a survivalist mentality or views Ellie as a daughter figure. He cannot permit Ellie to mature. Initially, Joel is cautious of Sam’s optimistic and childlike tendencies, suppressing elements of her childhood, parallel to how Henry suppresses Sam’s desire for a toy without purpose. However, he fails to allow her to engage in a pivotal aspect of growing up, making her own decisions, especially when he regards her as his surrogate daughter. He deceives her about the Fireflies’ motives, asserting that they possess numerous immune individuals and have ceased seeking a cure.


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2 thoughts on “The Last of Us: a Narrative Analysis of Symbolism”
  1. Nice insights! Like ‘The Walking Dead’ (in it’s early years), I find HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ compelling because it’s truly character-driven, and the plot emerges from the changes the characters go through.

    1. Absolutely, HBO’s adaptations of The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are spot on and relevant in that they both excel at creating immersive experiences by focusing on character development and evolution. This emphasis on growing reactions and character to challenging circumstances is what gives stories authenticity and emotional weight. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

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