In the end, both The Last of Us and its (fantastic) new downloadable expansion Left Behind had a lot to say about life, loss, and why we fight to survive. But they said those things in slightly different ways.
Spoilers follow for both The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Left Behind.
The ending of The Last of Us was great mostly because it was less interested in mindblowing twists or surprise deaths and more interested in the characters we'd spent all this time getting to know. What did it mean for Joel to lie to Ellie, and what did it mean for Ellie to accept it?
When Ellie tells Joel the story of Riley's death and says that all this time she's been waiting her turn, Joel replies by saying:
"None of that is on you. I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you…no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for."
Riley makes a similar speech at the end of Left Behind, after she and Ellie have been bitten.
"The way I see it," Riley says, "we've got two ways out. Option one, we take the easy way out." She gestures to her pistol. "It's quick and painless. I'm not a fan of option one. Two - we fight."
"Fight for what?" Ellie asks. They're doomed. It's just a matter of time.
"There are a million ways we should've died before today, and a million ways we can die before tomorrow. But we fight, for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether it's two minutes or two days, we don't give that up. I don't want to give that up. My vote: let's just wait it out. You know, we can… be all poetic and just lose our minds together."
Riley and Joel express a similar sentiment—that it's the people we care about who help us to survive. But they do so in revealingly different ways. Last week I spoke with The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann about those scenes, and he told me he'd realized that the two speeches illuminate the differences between the two characters and how they view the world.
"I was thinking about that speech this morning," Druckmann said. "[Riley] uses a lot of similar language to what Joel uses at the end of the main game. But really, it's kind of the opposite message of what Joel says. I didn't realize it at the time writing it, I didn't realize it until this morning. Joel has kind of a more selfish take on it, which is, you find things or people you really care about because it gives you the fuel to survive. Where Riley says the opposite of that, which is you fight and survive so that you can be close to the people you really care about. It's two sides of the same coin, I guess."
Left Behind was never going to fundamentally change the way The Last of Us ended, but in exploring Riley's character and her relationship with Ellie, it shed a different light on Joel's words at the end of the main game. Joel and Riley really are two sides of the same coin: On the one side we have Joel, a damaged man who, after losing everything, found something in Ellie worth surviving for, even if it meant he had to lie to her to keep her. And on the other side we have Riley, a young girl who, even when doomed to a horrible death, cared enough about Ellie to choose to spend as many final moments with her as possible.
Poor Riley. I wish you'd made it.
Bottom image from The Last of Us: American Dreams.