As the old saying goes, "Video games beget more video games." Successful video games beget sequels. And The Last of Us seems by any available measure to be a successful video game. That being said, I hope it doesn't get a sequel.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE LAST OF US. The spoiler train is leaving the station. Y'all have been warned.
The ending of The Last of Us was a bit astonishing, wasn't it? Not because it was so epic or cathartic or whatever other vague term you want to use; it knocked me out simply because it was an Ending, with a capital "E." It took the entire 14+ hour story and wrapped it up with a conclusion that fit with everything that had preceded it.
Joel spent the better part of a year with Ellie, and the two of them came to depend upon, trust, and eventually love one another as family. In the end, Joel, who had already lost one daughter, couldn't let himself lose another. He did something awful: he sacrificed humanity's last known hope for a cure just so that he wouldn't have to lose Sarah all over again. And then he did something worse: After all those months building trust, he lied to Ellie about it.
And Ellie knew, didn't she? It was left ambiguous (three cheers for ambiguity in video games!), but in that final scene, when she told that story about her friend dying, her doubts about Joel's hastily assembled story… Ellie knew. And she let Joel lie to her, and decided that it was okay.
Would she have felt that way if she'd known the extent of what he'd done to "save" her? If she knew he'd murdered half the Fireflies, walked into her operating room and gunned down maybe the last remaining brain surgeon on earth? That he'd maimed and tortured, that he'd murdered Marlene, her longtime protector and surrogate mother, in cold blood? Could she forgive him for all that? I don't know. What questions for a game to leave us asking!
(This video is from a roundtable conversation I recently had with Revision 3's Adam Sessler and Zac Minor about The Last of Us. Starting at around 26:00, we talk about the ending.)
It sure wasn't a satisfying ending; there was no intense final boss battle, no emotional goodbye, and no great sacrifice. In many ways, it was the opposite of the more traditional (though no less worthy or affecting) ending we saw in Telltale's The Walking Dead game. None of the more predictable "zombie endings" that people had guessed came to pass: Joel didn't die, he wasn't forced to kill Ellie, nor was she forced to kill him. Despite the fact that the game was built on so many zombie-movie tropes and clichés, its ending avoided all of them.
In fact, the ending earned a lot of the tropes that came before it. In particular, the "woman in a refrigerator" from the beginning of the game. It's a cliché as old as video games to start with a woman dying, thereby giving the male protagonist his motivation for the rest of the story. But in this case, the game earned it. The moment when Joel lost Sarah, when he called her "baby girl" and held her as she died… that one moment contained Joel and Ellie's entire narrative, from their first meeting (that glance down at his watch!) to their reunion at the end of winter ("I'm here, baby girl, it's me") all the way to Joel's final, irredeemable lie.
That's it. The story came full circle. It ended.
So when I say I don't want a sequel, that's what I'm talking about—I don't feel like I need to return to this particular post-apocalyptic world. I don't need to hear any more stories from it. I don't need to see what Joel and Ellie get up to now that they're safe at Joel's brother's wilderness retreat. I certainly don't need to fight off another clicker, or make my way through another hunter camp.
I felt much the same way about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a game to which The Last of Us bears more than a passing semblance. Here's what I wrote about that game:
Does Enslaved really need an additional chapter? Would we really have gotten more out of watching Monkey and Trip travel across another series of post-apocalyptic wastelands, meet another couple of scavengers, explore their complicated relationship further? I'm not so sure. Enslaved stands pretty well on its own.
Furthermore, without spoiling anything, I found it refreshing that Enslaved had an actual ending. It raised all sorts of questions, and it was anything but some weak cliffhanger leading into a presumed sequel.
Replace Enslaved with The Last of Us and I might as well be talking about the newer game.
Of course, that doesn't mean that we won't get a sequel. Nothing in videogamedom can be so critically successful without at least prompting discussion of more, more, more. And, necessary or no, I wouldn't put it past Naughty Dog to put together something fantastic for a sequel. (Title suggestion: The Last of Us 2: Turns Out There Were More of Us Than We Initially Thought.)
Of course, that doesn't mean that we won't *get* a sequel. Nothing in videogamedom can be so critically successful without at least prompting discussion of more, more, more.
I'll feel even better when I see what they do with the single-player DLC, which Sony says isn't just cut content, but all new stuff. (Maybe it'll trace the story of Marlene as she makes her way across the country? Or perhaps Tommy's adventures sometime in the 20 years after the fall? Or maybe we'll get to see how Henry and Sam came to be trapped in Pittsburgh? Or something starring Tess? Hell, I'd gladly play DLC starring any of the main narrative's supporting cast.)
Speaking with the PlayStation blog, The Last of Us writer and creative director Neil Druckmann had this to say:
I think the world is ripe for more stories, but as far as the journey Joel and Ellie goes on [sic] it ends with this game. We were very conscious that we didn’t want to leave this story dangling. If we never do a sequel we’re okay with it, because we told the story we needed to tell.
If you follow games at all, you know that "ripe for more stories" means "if this game makes money, we'll happily make more of them." And when Druckmann says Joel and Ellie's journey ends with this game, that could be read a number of ways. Their journey is over, after all. But I highly doubt they won't feature in a sequel in some way or another.
So, okay, let's assume we're gonna get a sequel. The worst thing Naughty Dog could do would be to have the two main characters set off again, this time looking for some other thing, crossing through some other part of America in a journey that mirrors the first game. Though given how good these guys are at telling stories, I highly doubt they'd to that.
The best thing Naughty Dog could do would be to make Ellie the star of the sequel. In my review, I wrote, "The Last of Us isn't Joel's game; it's Ellie's." I still think that, given that she was the character I most cared for and felt the most connected to. But it's hard to argue with Chris Suellentrop at The New York Times when he observes:
The Last of Us aspires to be an interactive, mixed-company version of “The Road,” in this case the story of the relationship between an older man and a 14-year-old girl as they try to survive in an oppressive and deadly wasteland. Almost throughout, however, it is actually the story of Joel, the older man. This is another video game by men, for men and about men.
And yet even if we accept that conclusion, I'd argue that The Last of Us is a very good video game by men, for men and about men. Furthermore, it's noteworthy in how it shrugs off several video game storytelling conventions, among them the need for a heroic protagonist and a satisfying, unambiguous ending. How fine would it be for a sequel to up the ante and shrug off more conventions, to lose the male-centric, Daddening of Games bent of the first game and let us tell Ellie's story?
Maybe it's five years later, and a 19-year-old Ellie is beginning to make her way in the world. Maybe she learns of Joel's lies and sets off on her own, or maybe…
Okay, okay, ha. Look at me, getting all excited about a possible sequel to a game I don't even think needs one. And I really don't. It's so rare for a game to have the conviction to end without providing all the answers, to leave us unsure how to feel about what we just saw and, more vitally to the medium at hand, what we just did. To let us sit with it. To make us stew.
We get too much resolution in video games these days, and could do with a bit less surety. From beginning to end, The Last of Us is confidently ambiguous in a way almost unprecedented in big-budget video games. That, not its gorgeous visuals, well-designed combat or slick cutscenes, is its most laudable achievement.
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