The ending is coming. Can you see it? To me, it looks an awful lot like a finish line, but to you it might appear to be a light at the end of a tunnel, a runway cleared for landing, or pool full of jelly beans. Whatever it is, you can see it, and it lets you know that you’re almost done. It’s a little bit reassuring and a bit reluctance-inducing all at once. We’ve been on this road for a while, but at this point, we’re so intimately familiar with it, stopping the journey seems cold. Unbearable.
Being able to see the end, though, and knowing it exists are two vastly different things in terms of psychology. Most things we can logically assume will, at some point, stop. They run their natural course and then slowly fade away. With the exception of the worldwide desire to purchase and consume Coca-Cola products, a sudden and poignant cliff face appears, a drop-off in existence, one that we slowly inch towards until we tip over the edge and go over forever.
We know this exists, this line in the sand between existing and not. It’s a fact of life. But seeing it rouses a drastically contrasting feeling within us. It’s something I was thinking about when I went back to play the final few hours of The Last of Us again. A friend of mine had recently finished it and wanted to discuss it, but I’d long forgotten many of the finer details of the story and the turn it takes in terms of gameplay. So I went back just before it was very clear the game was on its downward slope, readying itself to dump you out into your jelly beans.
Spoiler Warning: I will be talking about the last section of gameplay of The Last of Us. I’ll leave the very last story bits untouched, but that’s simply because I don’t think they’re necessary in this discussion. So stop reading or stop caring about spoilers or save this for later or whatever it is you do when you encounter a spoiler. Maybe cook up some churros? Man, I really like churros.
I started right at the beginning of Spring when Joel and Ellie are walking down the highway around Salt Lake City. It’s a stark contrast with what occurred moments before during Winter when Joel grabbed Ellie after she killed that super creepy David dude at the lakeside resort, but it feels somewhat comforting as well. Joel is back in what appears to be fine health and Ellie is, well, distant.
At this point, you kind of suspect that the ending is approaching, and rather rapidly at that. You’re coming up on a full year in terms of story timeline, so it kind of makes sense that for a game that would divide itself up into seasons, you would wrap it up after you’ve seen all four. You’ve found every weapon according to your filled-in upgrade display. The number of upgrades you desire has finally fallen below the number of upgrades you can buy and you’ve stopped seeing new things.
The types of enemy encounters have varied somewhat consistently since the beginning of the game. Infected will rush you or Clickers will stumble around and you have to maneuver around them or you’ll hide and take out armed humans, but they’ll almost always be put in new or interesting configurations. In one particular encounter in Salt Lake City, you are in an underground tunnel, and it appears as if they’ve done nothing but put you at the start of an area and filled the space you need to navigate with everything you’ve seen yet. Including Bloaters! Before, you’d just seen them in isolated situations. Now there are multiple Bloaters in a single environment. Less different and more of the same? It kind of tickles the “this is it” sense of your gamer brain.
In terms of story, Joel has had a revelatory moment of changing wholeheartedly in his perception of Ellie, calling her “baby girl” as he picks her up from the burning winter cabin and now openly engaging her in personal conversation. For a heavily themed and bleak narrative like this, it’s obviously all downhill from here. Ellie is aware of—or at least suspicious of—something that Joel either doesn’t know or is choosing to ignore, which can really only end poorly for both of them.
And I don’t know about you, but for this much of the game, I’ve never dipped below a certain threshold of supplies. I’ve always been fully stocked on health kits and other craftable items like bombs and shivs and consistently had to leave supplies lying about in the world untouched. Ammo has never been a problem as only once do I recall ever being absolutely empty on any particular weapon. I’ve been hording for the entire game out of fear for the next encounter being insurmountable lest I come stocked and ready to rock.
So when Joel gets knocked out trying to save a drowning Ellie and wakes up with Marlene and the Fireflies, you truly know that this is the beginning of the end. We just went through an entire downtown area reinforcing the notion that we’ve seen all the game has to show us in terms of mechanics, systems, and inventory. Narratively, we’re finally back with the person who first gave us the impetus for this gargantuan journey and with the group of people that can solve our and the world’s problems. Either they are going to take Ellie and tell us they can use whatever made her immune to save humanity or that they can’t do anything with her. Either way, this is it.
Then, when things get hostile, you are Joel on your own. This happens so rarely in the game, but every time it does, something huge comes out of it. In this case, he is killing the very group that saved him and Ellie and means to save the world. There’s only so much forgiving people can do, and I don’t think shooting and choking dozens of dudes fits within that quota.
And you are given a new weapon, the assault rifle. As you pick it up, you realize that there was no slot for this at any workbench for upgrades. It appears this is a weapon to simply pick up and use, and use it you do. The encounters in the hospital seem especially geared towards firefights instead of sneaking around. You are presented with ample hallways with cover that can handily operate as chokepoints against the Fireflies. Pin them up in the hall and then shoot them as they come out.
I was burning through ammo and just taking shots for the sake of getting a kill, two things I never did in the rest of the game. Missing shots wasn’t that big of a deal since these dudes were dropping ammo like crazy and this thing could hold almost 100 rounds. And if I had a good bead on a guy’s head, I would stand out of cover just to make sure I got the shot, even if I was getting peppered while I was doing it. Health kits were in abundance if you wandered the floors of the hospital. Everything was pushing you to play this game like you hadn’t played it for the past 12 hours.
And it’s wonderful in that sense. You finally get to let loose not because certain elements of the level design nudge you in that direction, but because you know this is the end. This is the last charge you have to make and everything you’ve been holding back can come out. For 12 hours, I never took a shot unless I knew it was going to be in the head and it would be a killing blow. I never used my melee weapon unless I had to defend myself against Clickers. All of my Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs and smoke bombs went unused because paranoia told me that the next room was full of things that I could only take down with a Molotov or a bomb.
But now it was all I could do to get to Ellie faster. The fact that the narrative and mechanical impetus for slowly revealing to the player that this is the final segment of the game (or at least believe that it is) is masterful in its dovetail. The meld together and you come to only one solid conclusion: that you must use everything at your disposal to rescue Ellie (or rather “rescue,” but that’s for another narrative-focused time) as quickly as possible. The Last of Us may not be a game that forces ticking clocks on you as a player, but the narrative push to see this through and the desire to make sure your young ward is still alive are what makes you want to go faster. And knowing that you have nothing to lose by blowing through your stockpile of post-apocalyptic wares facilitates that.
The confluence of factors that indicated the approaching end in The Last of Us made me appreciate how finality affects us. It, for the most part, pushes us to do new things, drives us to be new people. That’s why we like to fantasize about what we would do with our last day on Earth. When a game manages to ask that same question and make our answer meaningful, it’s striking, just as it was striking in The Last of Us. It was my last day—my last moments—with that game. What would I do with it? Apparently nothing involving jelly beans.