The Mundane Reality of Mourning in The Last of Us Part II

This post contains major spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.

The enormity of The Last of Us Part II is inescapable.

It is a game that is trying so much, with such wildly varying effectiveness depending on who you speak to, that the reactions to it are still pouring out – almost a month after release. Long form writing, tweets, message board posts, video essays and more; praise, condemnation, commentary on its themes, backlash, backlash to the backlash, examining its politics, praise of its LGBTQ representation, criticism of its LGBTQ representation. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, whether they loved it or hated it.

Despite its almost overwhelming scope, and ponderous themes about human nature, love, hate, and everything in between — one of the most memorable scenes in the game’s 25 hour runtime is also one of its simplest.

The story of Part II is set in motion by the violent murder of Joel – the player-controlled character of the first game. The flawed-but-still-beloved protagonist of 2013’s The Last of Us suffers a reckoning that was certainly to be expected, but was nonetheless still very shocking.

Joel Death
Joel’s death at the hands of Abby is grisly, and has already earned itself a reputation as one of the most controversial scenes in a game this generation — if not ever.

One of the most well-developed, and thoroughly fascinating figures in the last few years of games, Joel’s story from beginning to end is one that will be mulled over for some time to come – although his brutal finale is not what I’m writing about today.

In fact, as someone who got a lump in his throat more than a few times during the first entry of this series (that farm house scene? Come on!) I was shocked at how muted I felt during the scene in question. It was certainly powerful, with the one-of-a-kind Ashley Johnson giving her all as Ellie to truly sell the devastation — but there was an inevitability to it. Joel was surely doomed if there was to be a sequel to The Last of Us – I struggle to imagine a sequel where this didn’t happen.

Shortly afterwards, when the dust has settled, and the thumping, anxiety-inducing score has dissipated — there is a scene that is much, much quieter, but all the more relatable and devastating as a result.

Ellie joel's grave

Ellie tends to Joel’s grave — the state-of-the-art animation illustrates her calm expression but trembling lower lip, as she fidgets with the dirt. From here, she and her girlfriend Dina walk to Joel’s nearby house, where Ellie wants to retrieve something.

In a game that deals so much in death and how we process it, often in such spectacular and ugly ways, this is the scene that feels the most real – and the moment where the death of this beloved character hit me the hardest.

Controlling Ellie, you walk past a mountain of flowers and notes, before stopping at the front door. Ellie’s hand trembles — an image invoked later in the story as she grapples with her own questionable actions in Seattle, and in the game’s reveal trailer that foretold its violent themes. But in this instance, she’s trembling before the daunting task of entering this solemn, silent house. It stirred up in me the very real feelings we have when dealing with death, and those aren’t really the video game ideas of vengeance and epic quests. It’s the mundane task of sorting through a loved ones’ possessions, dealing with whatever memories are tied to them, moving around their living space in a way you never did before — and the unfortunate realization that this might be the last time you ever do.

Ellie trembles

Upon entering, the house is a meticulously detailed area that you have can move around at your own pace. As is often the case in the quieter moments of Naughty Dog‘s games, there is no pressure to quickly observe the various trinkets and move on — you can meander around the halls as much as you like. There are a number of props that you can directly interact with, but even the non-interactive space is so thoroughly realized. It’s a lived-in home that isn’t cluttered with interactables to keep you busy. You can poke through Joel’s bookshelf or take a look at the various sculptures he seemingly crafted in his spare time — a hobby never directly referenced in either game; nor is it something that you have to see during this sequence — but it’s there. Because this scene represents this character’s life, and what he was like “off camera” (for lack of a better term) which is something the player rarely experiences — as the first game mostly sees Joel in motion with the plot; moving things forward, rather than hanging out, just living.

There are, as mentioned, items Ellie can directly interact with and comment on. She flicks through Joel’s closet, smelling his jacket for the last time. She picks up a framed picture of Joel and his late daughter — the poignancy of which is already obvious, but is furthered by the fact Ellie herself stole the picture from Joel’s brother. Finally, she retrieves his revolver, and his long-broken watch. A gift from his daughter on the day she died, that he kept with him until his own death 25 years later.

Joel watch
While not referenced directly in dialog, a handful of moments in 2013’s The Last of Us see Joel fidget or glance at his watch — typically when reminded of his daughter.

These are things some of you reading this may have already had to do in life. Unfortunately, it’s something most of us will have to do at some point. Boxing up someone’s clothes. Flicking through the old photo albums. Admiring the clutter that you had no fondness for just a week ago. What do I do with this? Do I take it? Should I give it to someone else? Do I even want it? Is it too sad? Should I just throw this out?

It’s one of the realest, most affecting illustrations of mourning I have ever seen in the video game medium — a medium that so often treats death as something to be loudly reacted to. A loud swelling of music, falling to one’s doom, dramatic monologues.

Ultimately, the strength of The Last of Us series will always be its characters and the intense (at times to a fault) connection the fans feel to them. And as grandiose and elaborate as much of its writing is, it’s these quieter, realer moments that truly make that connection possible.

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