The Last of Us: A Narrative Analysis by Abdul Banglee
This is an analysis I submitted for the narrative contest for GDC 2017. I wasn't selected as a winner however, I still think it was a good exercise for me to participate in to improve my analysis skills and I'd like to showcase my work to the world.
Game Narrative Review ==================== Your name: Abdul Banglee Your school: University of California, Santa Cruz Your email: email@example.com Month/Year you submitted this review: December 2016 ==================== Game Title: The Last of Us Platform: PS3, PS4 Genre: Action/Survival/Horror/Adventure Release Date: June 14, 2013 Developer: Naughty Dog, Inc. Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Association Game Writer/Creative Director/Narrative Designer: Neil Druckmann
The Last of Us is a third-person survival horror adventure game that takes place twenty years after the outbreak of a parasitic fungal infection called the Cordyceps fungus. In this setting, most of all humanity has been wiped out by the infection and only a small number of non-infected humans remain. The storyline focuses on the development of the two protagonists, Joel and Ellie, as they cross the United States in hopes of finding a cure for the fungus and saving humanity while facing many arduous difficulties ranging from infected hordes to other survivor groups. The Last of Us tells its narrative through the use of in-game dialogue, collectibles, letters, notes, and cutscenes to engage players in order to help understand the universe Joel and Ellie live in.
The Last of Us mixes gameplay elements of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series with the mood ofCormac McCarthy’s novel entitled The Road to achieve its own unique survival atmosphere. Similar to The Road, The Last of Us deals with two characters in a post-apocalyptic world who try to find a way to survive in harsh environments. While Joel and Ellie are not actually related unlike the father and the son in The Road, their relationship gradually develops into a father-daughter one as the storyline progresses. In a developed dystopia, Joel and Ellie are two characters that came together to form a unique bond despite enduring many of the horrors their universe has brought them.
Joel: Joel is a father in his late forties who lost his daughter during the outbreak of the infection. He is the main playable protagonist. His occupation before the infection was a carpenter and after it he is a black-market smuggler who deals in contraband.  After losing his daughter and experiencing twenty years of primitive survival, Joel understands how primitive the world is and loses his trust in everything. Because of his knowledge, he lost most of his morals and cannot come together to put faith in anything. His personality is tough and unforgiving. He’s experienced so many losses and tragedies that he hardly ever shows a loving side and is always grim. His motivation to survive is only fueled by the desire to simply exist. Joel can be seen as the definition of an anti-hero in the sense that he travels with Ellie to find the cure for the goodness of humanity, however he does not hesitate to kill people in the process and also ultimately changes his decision and saves Ellie for his own selfish reason. Identifying Traits: Male, Middle-aged, average height, muscular build, dark hair, slight Southern accent, hazel eyes, facial hair
“I struggled for a long time with survivin’, and no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” -Joel to Ellie
Ellie: Ellie is a fourteen-year-old girl who was born six years after the outbreak of the infection. She is the playable co-protagonist. Although, the storyline does not explain how, Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps fungus and her body holds the key to engineering a cure. Ellie lost her parents when she was younger and lived within a Quarantine Zone in Boston, MA her whole life. While she knows very little about the outside world, she is both childlike and stern. She is optimistic at times despite experiencing many horrors, however she will not hesitate to take a realistic perspective on her situations and the universe she lives in. Despite her age, she is very aware of what’s going on and knows how to take care of herself. Her biggest fear is ending up alone. Identifying traits: Female, short, young, red hair, ponytail, green eyes, normal American accent.
“Everyone I’ve ever cared for has either DIED or LEFT me. Everyone fucking except for you! So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else because the truth is I would just be more scared!” -Ellie to Joel
Tess: Tess is an ex-romantic partner of Joel. She helps assist Joel with smuggling and other contraband. Tess can be seen as a emotional stabilizing figure for Joel due to their previous emotional connection. Tess is bitten by an infected creature (the actual biting not shown in any gameplay/cutscene) and persuades and motivates Joel to take Ellie across the country to find the cure.
“Well, guess what? We’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time.”-Tess
Marlene: Marlene is the leader of the Fireflies, a rebel group that opposes the martial law imposed within Quarantine Zones. Before Ellie’s mother died, Marlene agreed to take care of Ellie. Marlene is the character that asks Joel and Tess to smuggle Ellie out of Boston, in exchange for weapons which were wrongfully acquired by the Fireflies. At the end of the game, Marlene becomes the final antagonist, attempting to kill Ellie in order to engineer a vaccine against the infection.
“When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light. Believe in the Fireflies.”-Marlene
The game can be separated into five sections: Prologue, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. Each of these sections encompasses different narrative storytelling techniques and each one attempts to impart emotion in its own way.
Prologue: The prologue begins with Sarah, Joel’s biological daughter, who wakes up on the eve of the outbreak in her empty home. Confused, she walks around and eventually finds a panicked Joel looking for his pistol. He shoots his neighbor who is affected from the infection. Joel and Sarah eventually get into a car driven by Joel’s younger brother Tommy who attempts to flee the city. That plan did not work out so well as they were involved in a car crash. Sarah injures her leg and Joel has to carry her for the rest of the prologue while they escape on foot. Upon reaching the city’s outer limits, the group separates, leaving Tommy to help fend off an infected horde to help Joel and Sarah escape. They both find a military soldier who opens fire at them, injuring both Joel and Sarah. Luckily, Tommy comes back to save them, but not only to find out it was too late and Sarah dies of her injuries.
This section sets the tone for the entire game. The fact that the player begins playing the game as a small and young character shows how cruel and unforgiving the world is. When Sarah walks around her home, the player is forced to feel extremely vulnerable and dependent on Joel to keep her safe. When Sarah is injured, the gameplay switches to control Joel, who emotionally feels a little stronger to control, however the vulnerability aspect is still there because Joel has both of his arms occupied to keep Sarah safe. This character-switch gives the player the feeling that Joel is the stronger player in all of this. During this narrative-driven character switch, the player has to run away from hordes of infected while the level design depicts the chaos emerging from this catastrophe as explosions, fires, hordes of infected, and death is seen around every corner. The death of Sarah is especially important because despite all the efforts to get everyone out of the city and into safety, the player is left with failure. This failure sets the tone for the whole game because it shows that The Last of Us is not going to be a game where the narrative is sugar-coated and it will be happy for the most part. No. This prologue hints that the storyline is going to be filled with moments that play around with the player’s feelings and it hints that the universe of The Last of Us is going to be depressing and somber.
Summer: Set twenty years after the outbreak and death of Sarah, Joel wakes up from his nightmare (alluding to the prologue) to find Tess coming back from an encounter with a group of thugs. Joel and Tess eventually find Marlene, who tells them to smuggle Ellie out of the city in exchange for some weapons that originally belonged to them. They agree and take Ellie out of the city. In this process, Joel and Tess learn about Ellie’s immune condition. They find out that they are about to be ambushed by the military, and Tess persuades Joel to take Ellie out to wherever she needs to be taken because she believes a cure exists within Ellie. She buys the two some time to escape. She is successful but dies in the process. Joel and Ellie eventually escape to Lincoln, MA where they attempt to find a car to help travel faster. They meet an old friend of Joel’s named Bill who does help them get the car they need. Joel and Ellie head out to Pittsburgh, PA where the pair run into a group called the hunters who destroy their car. The two battle out against them and run into a pair of survivor brothers named Henry and Sam. The two pairs team up and take refuge in a radio tower outside the city. The younger brother Sam, who was bitten by an infected, turns overnight. He attacks Ellie in the morning and Henry, who shoots him, eventually shoots himself after immediately experiencing the grief and weight of what he’s just done.
The tone of this season exposes what happens inside and outside of a quarantine zone. Inside, there are fewer encounters of the infected but more encounters with survivor groups. Groups who initially tried to prevent being killed by the infection have now ended up killing each other. Outside the walls, the horrors of the infection are shown as the characters try to sneak away from the infected as well as the military and hunters. The characters learn more about the outside world, especially Ellie who has never seen any of this before. Since the player is controlling Joel now, there are several examples where Joel is seen as the head of the group and is depended on by Tess and Ellie to clear a group of an infected horde. In Lincoln, we can see the weak and untrustworthy relationship between Ellie and Joel as he believes Ellie cannot be trusted with a weapon and does not give her one while in Bill’s armory. This trust is later tested in Pittsburgh where Joel is engaged in a QTE with an enemy and Ellie barely arrives in time to save him, shooting the enemy in the head with the gun Joel was trying to reach. He later decides in the next battle sequence that Ellie can be trusted with a rifle and allows her to use it to clear out some enemies. Joel decides to let her keep a pistol on her from now on. This is executed well by Naughty Dog because they accomplished two things: 1) They progressed the gameplay experience by giving Ellie something to fight enemies with rather than just a switchblade. 2) They progressed the relationship between the two protagonists by allowing Joel to put some trust in Ellie with a weapon. While Joel hardly puts his trust in others, Ellie has an easier time. When she first met Sam, she almost instantly befriended him. When Sam is denied to take a toy with him by his older brother Henry from an abandoned toy store, Ellie slyly picks up that same toy for him when absolutely no one is looking at her, especially the player having their back turned with the third-person camera. When Sam and Henry both die in front of Joel, it reminds him that he could’ve shot himself after the death of Sarah and not experience any of the apocalypse. The fact that he didn’t commit suicide shows that he hasn’t lost everything; He still has his brother Tommy to go back to unlike Henry, who states that the group he is rendezvousing with is unlikely going to arrive and and Sam is now dead. The summer season introduces the true survival aspect as the player has to scavenge for supplies to craft medkits and offensive weapons to help combat against enemies. Because The Last of Us fits into the survival genre, resources are scarce and the player must use their weapons sparingly which ties back to the theme of survivability in an apocalyptic world. The harder the difficulty of the game, the harder it is to find those resources. Along with with difficulty of finding resources, harder game difficulties enable the enemy AI programmed to be act realistically and deal double damage compared to easier difficulties.
Fall: Joel and Ellie, once again alone together, find themselves entering Jackson county to find Joel’s brother, Tommy who holds control of a hydro-electric dam and establishing a small society there with the help of his wife, Maria. While they are there, they are attacked by a group of bandits. Ellie runs away as she is scared to be protected by another person other than Joel, even temporarily. She escapes into an abandoned house to where Joel and Tommy follow her and bring her back. The two eventually gather some supplies, and head off to the University of Eastern Colorado where it’s believed that the Fireflies are located. Upon realizing they are not there, Joel and Ellie get attacked by a group of survivors. Joel falls from a ledge and gets impaled in the stomach by a rusty metal rod. Ellie tries her best to carry him out of there while fighting more bandits. They eventually escape, but Joel is knocked unconscious from his injuries.
The real character development between Joel and Ellie’s relationship begins to take place in this season. When Joel arrives in the dam to find his brother, Tommy shows him a picture of Joel and Sarah at a soccer game before the apocalypse through the use of an input-driven action within gameplay. This (along with many other instances within the storyline) reminds Joel of his daughter. When Joel confronts Ellie in the abandoned house, a cutscene occurs where Ellie is upset that Joel tried to leave her with Tommy without her knowledge, stating that she would only be more scared to be placed under someone else’s care because everyone in her life has died or left her, except for Joel. All this time, Joel has been trying to find a way to get rid of her in fear of growing attached to her as a substitute for Sarah but this scene gives him a reason to stay with her. He’s an important figure in her life. Ellie says, “I’m not her, you know”, implying that she is not Sarah. Joel becomes extremely sensitive, forcefully requesting her to drop the topic. Ellie understands that she is a representation of Joel’s deceased daughter and that the thought of her dying would break Joel emotionally and psychologically, however she tries to reassure him that she will not end up like her. He replies saying, “You’re right. You’re not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain’t your dad and we are going our separate ways.” Joel attempts to create distance with her, but deep down he understands Ellie’s fear of ending up alone. This scene alone is one of the most emotional cutscenes in the game. When Joel becomes injured at the University, the player is left with a very weak Joel attempting to escape while fighting off enemies. The player is left feeling a huge sense of vulnerability as the leader and muscle of the pair is severely injured. It’s only going downhill from here because Ellie surely can only fend off so many enemies. During this sequence, a huge deal of frustration is occurring with the player and the character. The player has very limited control of what Joel can do and that is to just move in a linear direction and shoot. He can’t look for supplies; he can’t heal himself. The majority of this piece of the narrative is told by Ellie.
Winter: In this season, Ellie is out in the wilderness hunting for food in the cold snow. She kills a buck but also runs into David, a leader of the cannibalist group that attacked her and Joel back at the University. Ellie trades her game with David for medicine and heads back to Joel who is knocked unconscious inside the basement of a home in an abandoned neighborhood. The cannibals track Ellie back to her home. In an attempt to protect Joel, she runs off with her horse given by Tommy to lure the group away. She eventually gets caught by David and is imprisoned in a cage. She manages to escape and engage in a fight with him. In the meantime, Joel wakes up and attempts to go find Ellie. Injured and still not fully recovered, Joel manages to capture two of the cannibals and torture them to find out her location. He eventually finds her impetuously hacking David in the face repeatedly with a machete. Ellie, faced with trauma, is immediately consoled by Joel who says, “Oh baby girl…. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
In this season, the game narratively gives the player control of Ellie. When the player plays as Joel, players feel strong but if he died, they would believe they can no longer get Ellie to the Fireflies to find the cure. This time however, they play as Ellie where if she were to die, the weight of all humanity is on the player’s shoulder because Ellie is the cure, therefore playing as Ellie forces the player to feel super vulnerable. Even during gameplay, Ellie does not have all the character upgrades that the player invested in Joel; Ellie can’t hear enemies farther like Joel. She can’t heal faster like him. She can’t craft faster like him. She can’t slyly stealth kill like him. With all of these abilities taken away from the player, this forces them to meticulously plan out all their moves and play like a true survivor. This narratively forceful switch between characters was necessary for the growth and character development for Ellie and the fact that she manages to both take care of Joel and take down David on her own truly shows that she can take care of herself and be independent. During the final few frames of this season, Joel says “baby girl.” Normally, Joel would never say something like unless it was her actual daughter. Because he says this, it shows that the development between the two character have become stronger than what we’ve seen. Joel is one step closer to replacing Sarah with Ellie.
Spring: In the last season, we see Joel and Ellie finally reach Salt Lake City. The two pass a few cars and bridges to help get closer to the hospital they’re trying to find. Ellie is noticeably unresponsive to some of the things Joel says. The two eventually find a herd of giraffes feeding on the vegetation in the setting. They pause, pet the giraffes and Joel tells Ellie that they don’t need to continue to find the Fireflies. However, she is determined to reach the end because she believes none of them have endure so much difficulty for nothing. They eventually find the Fireflies along with Marlene, who tells Joel that Ellie is being prepped for surgery to create a vaccine, except she has to die in the process. Joel, disagreeing with Marlene’s decision, decides to go on a rampage to save Ellie. After battling against many Firefly soldiers, Joel carries her out and into a parking lot into a car, but not before killing Marlene who attempted to prevent their escape. The two eventually travel back to Jackson County to live with Tommy. Upon arrival, Ellie asks Joel whether he was telling the truth to her about the Fireflies no longer finding a cure for the infection, in which he lied saying, “I swear.”
In the beginning of this last season, we can see from Ellie’s non-responsiveness that she is psychologically affected by her encounter with David. Her encounter with the giraffe shows the little excitement in humanity left. In this specific scene, the atmosphere of the narrative is actually positive for once, with serene music in the background along with a peaceful environment with just Joel, Ellie, and the giraffes. At one moment in this sequence, Joel and Ellie head to a rooftop where they lean on the edge and soak in all the scenery. The game allows the player to stay there in that position indefinitely until the player decides to move. This specific scene alone narratively shows that among all the chaos, mayhem, havoc, and turmoil Joel and Ellie have witnessed in almost one year, not all of the world is horrible. A small sliver of humanity exists in the universe regardless of how much negativity there is. The player feels a small bit of relief and positivity before going back into the usual depressing and dismal mood this game has been displaying for all of the narrative. There is no other part in the narrative that offers that much of a calm atmospheric mood than this giraffe scene. While the narrative of the whole game is linearly-driven, the ending is strangely linear as well because this potentially could’ve been a moment where the player decides whether he wanted to keep Ellie alive or not, however the game doesn’t do that; Joel automatically makes that decision for them to save Ellie instead. This is purposefully done to show the characterization of Joel and to show how selfish he is to save one girl and screw over the remainder of the human race. But this is the beauty of the open-ended ending given by the developers: Is Joel really a bad guy for denying the cure to mankind? Or is he doing something any parent would do and save the person he loves most? He manages to kill so many soldiers to get to Ellie, yet before he escapes with her, Marlene gives him more chance to “still do the right thing.” He still decides to save Ellie because through twenty years of experience in a degrading universe, Joel understands that no one can be trusted; This includes the Fireflies, the military, other survivor groups etc.. He believes that the world will still end up screwing everything up somehow therefore the world will not do any better with a vaccine. At the very end of the storyline, before the two reach Tommy’s, Joel lies to Ellie even with saying “I swear” which shows that the attachment that Joel has made with her is so strong that he is willing to lie to her for the sake of his own benefit, and he believes his outlook on civilization is good evidence for doing that. A final closeup shot of Ellie’s face shows the doubt and uncertainty in her eyes, hinting that she might know that he’s lying because she knows about Sarah’s death and traveled with him for a year. The game then cuts to black as the game ends and the player is left with an empty space in their heart.
Sarah’s presence (driven by Ellie) towards Joel: The strongest element of the storyline is Sarah’s presence driven by Ellie towards Joel. An example of this would be the beginning of the game, where Ellie points out the broken watch Joel wears which was given to him as a birthday gift by Sarah shown in the prologue. Another example would be how Ellie points out a movie poster in Pittsburgh and Joel saying how he’s seen that movie before the outbreak, to which Ellie asks with whom and Joel replies, “I don’t know” which is definitely implying Sarah. A third and final example would be in the last season where Ellie hands Joel a photo of him and Sarah at a soccer game to which he admits, “Well, no matter how hard you try. I guess you can’t escape your past.” Among all of these instances, the player sympathizes with Joel with his hardship that always haunts him.
The use of optional, input-driven narrative to tell core storyline: While the storytelling within The Last of Us is executed beautifully, the feature of input-driven narrative causes some players to lose out on a lot of the story. During gameplay, the player gets to have these optional conversations with Ellie at certain moments in the game. These conversations can be activated by pressing the triangle button on the controller. The idea that pressing a button to tell optional core narrative causes the player to miss out on the narrative effect the developers are aiming for. What if I didn’t see the icon that allowed me to have this optional conversation? What would happen if I was playing the game the first time and didn’t initiate the optional conversation? At the movie poster scene in Pittsburgh, I have to press triangle to tell Ellie about seeing that movie with Sarah. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve never have received that emotional effect. Similarly, to the last chapter where Ellie hands Joel the photo of Sarah, that was also an input-driven narrative moment where the player has to press a button to receive it. I’m not trying to say that all players will miss this action or that without this optional conversation the storyline will be incomplete, but what I am saying is that players have the chance of missing key narrative moments.
Use of same song during Sarah’s death and carrying Ellie out of hospital: The highlight of this game would have to be the cutscene of Sarah’s death and the ending gameplay sequence of the hospital where Joel carries Ellie out. In both of these scenes, the song that plays in the background is called All gone by Gustavo Santaolalla. This goes to show that Sarah and Ellie are both the same characters to Joel, but represented in different bodies with different personalities. With this very selective choice of music in only these two scenes, the narrative design gives players the feeling of reflecting back to the beginning of the game and seeing how far Joel has come only to remind him that this time he is saving Ellie so that he can emotionally save Sarah and cathartically bring closure to his life.
IGN’s Colin Moriarty reviewed The Last of Us and gave it a 10/10 stating that Naughty Dog has scored a homerun with this game: “But this homerun didn’t just hobble over the outfield wall. It cleared the bleachers, left the park. It soared into the parking lot and landed with a loud clunk on someone’s windshield. The Last of Us is that good, that significantly better than a vast majority of the games on the market, cementing itself as perhaps the Playstation 3’s single best experience, but as further proof Naughty Dog is the best developer in gaming.” 
The Last of Us received overwhelmingly positive reviews from other websites such as Game Informer which gave The Last of Us a 9.5 out of 10.
Philip Kollar from Polygon gave the PS3 version of The Last of Us a 7.5 out of 10 and the Remastered PS4 version an 8 out of 10: “The Last of Us mines the same post-apocalyptic scenario as dozens of other games, but its approach is starkly its own. It paints a vision of a near-future that is cold, heartless and, in many cases, downright evil. It's not a fun place to be, and likewise, the game isn't really a fun thing to play.”  “The player gets to witness the relationship between Joel and Ellie evolve in a really natural way. I think it leads to some incredibly powerful moments because you’ve spent so much time with these two characters. It’s the kind of narrative building that I’ve come to expect from Naughty Dog, but it’s done especially well in The Last of Us.” 
Lesson 1: Balanced use of telling narrative through cutscenes/gameplay In many games, one-hundred percent of the narrative is told within cutscenes. The Last of Us balances that narrative out with in-game dialogue as well. The following chart shows eight examples of emotionally-driven narrative moments that are cutscenes and gameplay.
-Sarah’s death (Prologue)
-Death of Henry and Sam (Summer)
-Ellie and Joel in the abandoned house in Jackson County (Fall)
-Traumatized Ellie after killing David (Winter)
-Ellie guiding injured Joel out of theUniversity (Fall)
-Ellie petting the giraffe (Spring)
-Ellie giving Joel the photo of Sarah(Spring)
-Joel carrying Ellie out of the hospital (Spring)
This chart shows the equal number of emotion-intensive cutscenes and gameplay moments. The narrative isn’t told by one or the other, but both. This chart does not account for cutscenes such as the death of Robert because those are not emotion-intensive narrative moments. This should be a neutral lesson to future game developers that not all (or the majority of) a game’s story has to be told through dedicated cutscenes.
Lesson 2: Change of player control from Joel to Ellie as a narrative experiment Normally, switching characters can be redundant, boring, and unnecessary; This could be seen as an unsuccessful aspect of Grand Theft Auto V. However, Naughty Dog manages to do it only when it’s needed so that it doesn’t feel forced. In the prologue, the narratively-driven character switch only happens because Sarah’s foot is injured and it forces to switch to Joel. Another example would be a narratively-driven character switch to Ellie only because Joel is injured and unconscious during the winter season. By appropriately controlling character switching using narrative, the player achieves the proper emotions accompanied by playing that character; playing as Joel makes the player feel strong. Playing as Ellie/Sarah makes you feel fragile and vulnerable. Establishing two different character play styles helps to diversify gameplay and the method of storytelling.
Lesson 3: The benefit of establishing an open-ended ending Many games try to create an ending to get one concrete message across to the player. This leaves the player to have one and only one opinion on the ending of that game. Some games (like inFamous) even try to give the player the ability to choose what kind of ending they want, but it still boils down to one interpretation of each option. The Last of Us manages to give one ending with multiple interpretations: 1) Joel saved Ellie for his own selfish reasons. 2) Joel believes a vaccine won’t help humanity because he’s experienced primitive civilizations for two decades and sacrificing a young girl won’t help. 3) Ellie didn’t get to choose whether she wanted to sacrifice herself for humanity therefore she deserves to live. This is just to name a few. The possibilities are endless. This is a narrative technique well done because the player can choose their own interpretation of the ending long after the game has finished, but they can also look back on it and see it from a different perspective from other players who also finished the game. This helps players open up a discussion on websites and forums. There are dozens of videos on YouTube by players who explain their theories and interpretations of the ending and all of them are different from each other.
The Last of Us is one of very few games that have a grounded storyline that is told by different narrative-driven techniques ranging from story-driven character switches to tell narrative from different perspectives to finding documents and other collectibles in gameplay that tell the narrative about the universe Joel and Ellie live in. While there is a huge emphasis on graphic design, the core narrative experience of The Last of Us is the deep character development between the two protagonists who started off as antagonistic strangers and gradually developed into a virtually father-daughter relationship. The biggest emphasis Naughty Dog has placed on is the emotional engagement the narrative brings to the players that immerses them in a surreal universe that is complex yet understandable which simulates how a society or civilization would survive and thrive long after the outbreak of a disaster.
References:  http://www.thelastofus.playstation.com/characters.html  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GBXuE6jcl4  http://www.polygon.com/2013/6/5/4396286/the-last-of-us-review  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGQqsF0Tb1Q