The Last Of Us (2013)

The concept of the Hero’s Journey (also called the Monomyth) has served as a narrative framework for many generations. First codified by Joseph Campbell in 1949, the 17 stages of The Hero’s Journey usually surround the events of one or more characters that go through an adventure, face a set of crises, and return home changed or transformed. While sometimes seen as clichéd, such stories captivate the human mind and we almost always seem invariably drawn to such plots. The structure is seen throughout Hollywood blockbusters and New York Times bestsellers. In the realm of interactive narratives, it is not uncommon to see the Hero’s Journey being used as the backbone for the narrative of a game to rest upon. This structure inherently allows for better player immersion and as such, is preferred by game developers when creating narrative-heavy gameplay. By allowing the player to be a part of the journey in parallel to the main character, the monomyth becomes better at providing the player with a sense of completion and satisfaction when the narrative is resolved at the end of the game.

For my analysis, I would be looking at what is arguably considered the best game to be released on the Playstation 3 platform – The Last of Us developed by Naughty Dog, Inc. Seeing as to how this analysis is centered on the narrative of the game, it is my duty to inform that there will be plenty of plot spoilers ahead.

last of us


The Last of Us is rather unique for a game its scale as it tries not to switch the player out to tell the story from other characters’ points of view. For most of the game, the player takes control of Joel and is told the story from his point. It focuses primarily on his narrative, and his character development as the lead protagonist. When we begin mapping the plot of The Last of Us onto the monomyth structure, it becomes evident why this format allows for much better immersion, involvement and sympathy from players. Although more contemporary interpretations and stages have been suggested by the likes of Phil Cousineau and Christopher Vogler, my analysis will be made using the 17 stages originally described by Campbell. His version allows for the freedom of dismissing or ignoring some stages altogether, as they might not necessarily fit into the arc of the narrative.

This post ended up being an in-depth analysis and break down of the plot. As such, my views are indicated in italics from this point onward. The narrative, in a condensed form, is presented at the start of each section for contextual purposes. If you are familiar with the plot of this game, you may skip the summary to only read my views. The plot summary is referenced from The Last Of Us Wiki.

o. The Exposition (Prologue)

The game does a fantastic job of drawing the player in, setting the stage in the most dramatic way possible. The plot opens with Joel and his daughter Sarah living in suburban Austin in Texas. The tale opens with a heartwarming gesture by Sarah, giving Joel a wristwatch for his birthday. This sets up the father-daughter relationship between the two and shows the player how the two truly care for each other. Joel puts Sarah to bed after receiving the gift. The story then moves to Sarah being awoken in the middle of the night by a frantic call from her uncle Tommy. He is looking for Joel and there seems to be a big commotion in the city. Sarah turns on the TV to see a reporter talking about a recent outbreak of an infection in the country. A gas explosion at the location then cuts the feed of the report. Sarah is able to see this explosion from her house in the distance. At this point Joel bursts into the house, telling her that something is going on in the city. Joel and Sarah’s neighbor breaks through their glass door and tries to attack them. After repeated warnings Joel is forced to kill the neighbor. Tommy arrives and the group begin their drive out of the town. The talk about how people in the city have “lost their minds” because of the infection. Although this section is dialogue heavy, the discussion between the characters helps to paint them in great detail. We begin to grasp what kind of people they are and how they view things.

Eventually, the group reach a traffic pile-up with hoards of infected surrounding them. They ditch the vehicle and continue their journey on foot. As they continue to run, the group is pursued by Infected and Tommy is split from the group. Joel and Sarah continue to run. The Infected almost catch up when, a soldier shoots and kills the infected, saving them. However, the soldier is then ordered to kill the group, most likely to prevent any risk of infection, despite Joel’s pleas. The soldier reluctantly opens fire and Joel jumps for cover, dropping Sarah in the ensuing confusion. Tommy shows up in time to shoot the soldier in the head, however the brothers realize that Sarah has already been mortally wounded in the abdomen. Joel does his best to stop the bleeding, but is eventually forced to witness the death of his daughter as she succumbs to her wounds.

This initial opening is very powerful in setting up the character of Joel for the rest of the story. Him dealing with the loss of his daughter comes up frequently throughout the remainder of the plot and serves to anchor the narrative to the tentpoles of the monomyth. It also provides the player with privileged information to Joel’s psyche as a person. Other than these establishing factors, the prologue cannot be considered as part of the hero’s journey. These events serve to shape the character and his world. The narrative could be told without explicitly subjecting the player to the exposition. But the feelings and emotional response elicited from playing this section of the narrative hold great power and value in making the rest of the story more tangible and visceral.

I. departure

1 . The Call to Adventure

The main meat of the narrative occurs 20 years after the events of the prologue. The story continues with Joel and a new character, Tess, living in a heavily-policed quarantine zone in Boston. The two make a living as smugglers, getting people items and weapons through the quarantine zone’s walls. A local weapons dealer, owes the duo a shipment and decides to default on their agreement. In an attempt to get what their owed, the duo seek the dealer out. After a short pursuit, the dealer is caught and reveals to Joel and Tess that he gave the guns he owed them to the Fireflies (a terrorist organization), to whom he was also in debt. Tess kills the dealer and the two decide what to do about getting their weapons back. The leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, then happens to run into Joel and Tess. She offers to return their weapons to them in exchange for smuggling a cargo to the Boston Capitol Building. The cargo is a 14 year old girl named Ellie. Joel hesitates at first, but agrees to the job after Marlene shows Tess the guns, and they leave later that night.

The Call to Adventure here “begins in a situation of normality”. Joel is a smuggler after all, and moving someone or something undetected is part of what he does. However Joel “heads off into the unknown “as there is no clear indication of why he has to smuggle this girl or what her value is to the Fireflies. He is doing this as a means to getting his weapons back. Although Joel initially hesitates, this is not a refusal of the call, but rather, a reflection of his character. Joel has learnt to trust no one but himself in this harsh world and him being put in a position outside his comfort zone (to help the Fireflies) is a perfectly reasonable excuse to be hesitant. 

For the player, this chapter also marks the beginning of their “adventure” in playing the game. They are just as clueless as Joel with regards to the mission. The player is allowed to develop a bond with the character as they are slowly immersed into the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us.

2 . The Refusal

Joel, Tess, and Ellie head outside the wall to begin their journey to the Capitol Building. When they reach the outside of the wall, they are captured by two soldiers who scan them. A nervous Ellie attacks a soldier as he scans her, and Tess and Joel are forced to kill them. It is revealed that Ellie is infected, but the bite mark on her arm has been present for three weeks, while infection and turning into a Runner normally takes two days at most. Joel doesn’t believe it, frustrated that Marlene had set them up. Ellie explains that her immunity could lead to a cure. Joel is against completing the mission while Tess seems hopeful at the thought of a cure. Joel tries to dissuade her from the mission, reminding her of the Infected and hostile survivors. Tess understands but is reluctant to change her mind. Tess and Ellie begin to walk to the Capitol Building, leaving Joel to follow.

Unlike his previous hesitation, The Refusal Joel exhibits in this scenario is a refusal to heed The Call to adventure any further. Joel is clearly making a stand, choosing to abandon the mission in favor of his survival, sticking to the world he has come to know. Being around someone bitten by an Infected is clearly a threat to his way of life these past twenty years and he wants nothing to do with it. His eventual acceptance of the danger he is about to embark on is what puts him past this refusal, marking the next stage of the narrative. The refusal is also a good point in a narrative to display internal conflict within a character, allowing them to explore and exhibit their moral compass to the audience. As a player, you can’t help but feel pulled into the predicament that Joel is placed under.

3. Supernatural Aid

A wave of Infected chase Joel, Tess, and Ellie into a building. It turns out to be a museum still containing a number of exhibits. Tess and Ellie crawl through an opening that collapses, leaving Joel alone as Clickers appear. He makes his way through the museum to find a Runner attacking a door. Inside he finds Tess and Ellie in trouble, as a number of Infected are attacking the two. After struggling against a Runner, Tess sounds panicked when she says, “I’m fine.” They clear the area of Infected and continue to the roof.

Luck is used throughout the narrative as a supernatural force that keeps the characters alive. Joel constantly alludes to luck being the reason as to why they are alive. He is also heard throughout the game uttering lines such as “One day, our luck’s gonna run out…” This shows how the characters are subconsciously guided by the notion that luck will ‘look-out for them’ and keep them protected.

When Joel gathers himself to complete the mission, he has fully committed himself to the quest. For better or worse, Joel has bought into the idea that there might be hope after all. The revelation of Ellie being immune to an Infected’s bite resembles Campbell definition of the magical helper or a guide revealing themselves to the hero. Ellie represents a hope for all of humanity, a light in the dark 20 years that Joel has spent living without his daughter. In a way, the bite on Ellie’s arm becomes a talisman of sorts, becoming a symbol that provides Joel with a reason to push on with his quest. 

From the players’ point of view, the audience now have an objective to look forward to. They have now been made the custodian of humanity’s last hope, and it is their duty to guide Ellie to safety as best they can.

4. Crossing the Threshold

Joel, Tess, and Ellie reach the Capitol Building, but find a dead Firefly near the perimeter. As they enter the building, they find that all the Fireflies are dead and Joel and Tess argue about what to do next. Tess frantically searches the body for a map or directions to the lab that Ellie was going to. Joel argues that they are taking this too far, that they should just go home. Tess then reveals that she was bitten. She shows Joel her wound and remarks that it is already worse than Ellie’s wound, although she was only bitten an hour ago, while Ellie’s is three weeks old. Tess asks Joel to take Ellie to Tommy because he will know where the Firefly lab is located. Joel protests, but Tess asks him to do it for her. She says, “There’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me.” Before Joel can answer, the military shows up and Tess sacrifices herself to give Joel and Ellie some time to escape into the subway station outside the Capitol Building. They pass through the subway, encountering several flooded sections before leaving Boston behind for good.

Joel once again exhibits a form of Refusal in this part of the narrative. However, circumstances lead him to stand firm on his resolve of completing the mission. His obligations to Tess and their relationship creates the final push that puts him over the edge on being committed to bringing Ellie to the Fireflies. Her sacrifice will mean nothing if this mission is not completed. The Supernatural Aid shows itself again when Tess compares her wound with that of Ellie’s, proving to Joel once and for all that Ellie may in fact be immune. Joel eventually accepts his fate and mission when he leaves Boston behind for good. He is now “venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm” where everything is new and unexplored. This is the point at which we can say, the adventure has truly begun.

Players will also now realize that they have reached a significant point in the game where the narrative takes a turn. The character that the gamer is playing as is now leaving behind the safety and familiarity of everything they once knew. 

5. The Belly of The Whale

Joel and Ellie head into the woods on the outskirts of the town of Lincoln. Ellie enjoys her first encounter with nature since she has never left the Boston Quarantine Zone before. They come up to an old water tower and work their way into the town, where Joel’s friend Bill lives. They see a column of smoke in the distance and decide to head in that direction. Joel warns Ellie that Bill is a good guy, but is completely paranoid and dislikes strangers. They find that the town is filled with Bill’s traps, barricades, and homemade bombs to keep the Infected from getting too close to his safehouses. They make their way through the back alleys until they reach a garage, where Joel is caught in one of Bill’s traps, resulting in him hanging upside down while Ellie attempts to cut him free as he shoots the Infected that rush in their direction. Just as Joel is about to be bitten, Bill shows up and leads them to an abandoned laundromat where they battle more infected before escaping into a bar.

Ellie experiencing life outside of the Quarantine Zone for the first time allows Joel an opportunity to empathize with the teenager. This narrative device also provides Joel with an opportunity to fully realize that they have indeed left everything behind. At this point, the character is fully committed into his mission. The traps and barricades that the duo encounter also serve as a contrast to the previous environment of soldiers and guards, heightening this change of worlds.

This change in gameplay style and environment also permeates into the player, forcing them to grapple with the crossing of the threshold and being thrown into a completely new environment. Being trapped upside down and almost bitten is a great way for the players to realize the gravity of the situation and truly appreciate how far they are from the safety of the quarantine zone that they came from.


6. The Road of Trials

As they rush into the bar, Bill is distrustful and angry at them for setting off his traps and attracting so many Infected to the area. He owes Joel a favor, who asks him for a car to get to his brother Tommy in Wyoming. Bill reluctantly agrees, but says that there are no functioning cars in town, only parts in a school filled with Infected. The three reach the school and kill the runners surrounding it, before hiding from more Infected by climbing through a window near where the military truck crashed into the school.

A wave of Infected close in on them and they run into the school to escape, and after Bill realizes the car battery in the military truck is gone, he, Joel, and Ellie work their way through the school and escape into a nearby home. There, they find Bill’s old partner, Frank, who had committed suicide after being bitten so he wouldn’t turn. They find a truck in the garage with Bill’s battery in it, and a note from Frank. Joel and Bill prepare to push the car down the nearby hill to start it. Ellie drives until Bill orders her to stop once they have escaped the infected. Bill then parts ways with Joel and Ellie. Before letting them leave, Bill confirms with Joel that they’re square—no more favors to owe.

Joel and Ellie make it to Pittsburgh but the main road to the Fort Duquesne Bridge is blocked by rubble and derelict cars. Joel decides to go through the city rather than back up and detour around. While driving through the city Joel and Ellie see a person stumble into the middle of the street, begging for help. Ellie wants to stop and help, but Joel sees through the act and tries to speed past. The person, who had feigned his injuries, pulls out a gun and more men come out of hiding. One of them throws a brick at the truck, damaging the windshield. The Hunters push a bus into Joel’s truck, causing them to crash into a hardware store where they are forced to confront the Hunters. After eliminating the ambush group, the duo pass through their hideout and make their way to a long-abandoned military checkpoint.

As Ellie and Joel make their way to the bridge, they are found by the rest of the Hunters and chased in a Humvee. Blocked by the rubble and the large hole on the bridge, Joel prepares to make a last stand against the Humvee, but Ellie bravely jumps into the Allegheny River below, forcing Joel to follow. Joel reaches Ellie before she drowns, but the current slams the pair into a large rock and knocks them out…

(abridged for brevity)

As seen above, Joel, alongside Ellie, goes through a series of trials and tribulations in getting to the next part of their mission. The pair face a series of challenges that they need to complete in order to progress further down their journey. For the player, this is presented as a chain of quests that need to be completed in order to get to the next part of the level. There is a level of challenge and frustration that is built into this part of the game that mimics the struggles of the in-game character. For the sake of brevity, the remaining “trials” will be skipped. However, suffice to say that the player ends up encountering three main chapters of ‘trials’ similar to Campbell’s series of tests that “often occur in threes”.

Joel is also seen failing one of these tests, in which a pair of survivors end up losing their lives. Ellie and Joel encounter two brothers in one of the stages. Joel is momentarily made the guardian of the younger boy, Sam, when the group is forced to split. However, Joel is unable to look after the boy and Sam gets bitten by an Infected. Eventually, Sam turns and his elder brother, Henry, is forced to kill him. Unable to live with his decision, Henry blames Joel and promptly takes his own life with the gun.

7. Meeting with the Goddess (Child)

In Wyoming, months after Henry and Sam’s deaths, Joel tells Ellie about his brother Tommy joining and quitting the Fireflies, and how they got separated on bad terms. They go past a dam, and encounter a small grave with a teddy bear on it, that makes Ellie think about Sam and his robot toy. Joel refuses to talk about it, and tell her to just move on with her life. They eventually reach the closed gate of a power plant, and are held at gunpoint by several people. Tommy is among them, and greets his brother with a hug. He introduces them to Maria, his wife, who along with her father is in charge of a nearby self-sustained settlement of people, and are using the power plant for electricity. Ellie talks to Maria about how she learned to ride a horse after noticing one outside of the plant, prompting Joel to ask her who taught her. As he shows Joel around, Tommy says he went back to Texas a few months back, and tries to give Joel a picture of him and Sarah together he found at his house, but Joel refuses.

The time spent with Ellie, both on the road and being her guardian all this time, has allowed Joel to develop paternal feelings for her. He sees his daughter Sarah in Ellie and his psyche begins to be slightly altered. There is a sense of an “all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love” that a father has for his daughter and we see this developing between Ellie and Joel. At this point, Joel is also being confronted with his failure in saving Sarah 20 years ago and saving Sam a few months ago. He begins having doubts about his ability to protect Ellie and grant her safe passage to the Fireflies.

8. Woman as Temptress (Failure and Self-Doubt)

In private, Joel tells Tommy about Ellie’s immunity and asks him to bring her to the Fireflies, which Tommy refuses, since he is now responsible for all the people of his community. Angered, Joel shoves him and calls him ungrateful for all the years he kept the two alive, but Tommy replies that he “got nothing but nightmares from those years”. As he says this, the plant is attacked by bandits, forcing Joel to help Tommy fight them. After eliminating the bandits, Tommy (seeing Joel and Ellie interact) agrees to take her, but Ellie, suspecting that Joel is going to leave her, steals one of their horses and runs off into the woods.

At this point, Joel gives in to his fears and self-doubt, trying to offload the burden of ferrying Ellie to the Fireflies to his brother Tommy. In this instance, the temptress in not a woman, but rather, the ‘easy path’ that Joel could conceivably take to complete the mission. Although Joel may not necessarily be doing the right thing, his motives are in fact noble. He no longer seems himself fit to be the custodian of someone as important as Ellie, the fate of all mankind. This leads him to come to the conclusion that he must find someone better than him to ensure Ellie’s safe passage. Tommy then, becomes the physical manifestation of the temptress, offering to relieve Joel’s burden after witnessing the genuine fatherly affection and care that Joel shows to Ellie.

When playing this level, the player cannot help but feel gut-wrenched at the thought of Joel leaving Ellie. At the same time, it also opens up a pivotal character development point to the audience, allowing us to witness the development and transformation of Joel’s moral compass. He is no longer the same man that once made a living smuggling objects within the safety of the Boston Quarantine Zone.

9. Atonement with the Father (A Deceased Daughter)

After fighting more bandits, Joel and Tommy track her down to an abandoned ranch house, where Ellie confronts him about dumping her on Tommy. She brings up Sarah, saying that she is not his daughter and they are doing fine together, which just seems to confirm his decision. More bandits arrive at the ranch house and the brothers manage to kill them all. However, as they are heading back, Joel has a change of heart and decides to go with her himself. Tommy informs them that the Fireflies are in the Science Building of the University of Eastern Colorado, and Joel bids him goodbye.

This chapter marks the point where Joel begins to confront with his demons. The loss of his daughter that had haunted him for the past 20 years and his self-doubt have caught up with him. The picture of Sarah that Tommy wanted to give Joel served as a reminder to the player that Joel still feels very much responsible for the death of his daughter. This feeling of loss and responsibility is echoed by Ellie, when she confronts Joel about Sarah. She lets Joel know and tries to assure him that what happened to Sarah will not happen to Ellie. Ellie isn’t her. Yet, we see Joel react negatively to this at first. He realizes that even though he has developed paternal feelings for Ellie, she will never replace his daughter and he will never be able to rewind and undo the death of his daughter. This makes him lash against Ellie saying that he’s not her dad. The constant emotional tug-of-war that goes between the two characters serves as a platform for Joel’s character to deal with his grief. This loss has held so much power over his life and he has much difficulty letting go of it, and accepting it. In Campbell’s words: “He beholds the face of the [daughter], understands—and the two are atoned.” Joel is now at peace with his loss of Sarah.

10. Apotheosis

As they enter the Science Building, they realize that the Fireflies had left in a hurry. Listening to a scientist’s recorder, they learn that the Fireflies have gone to Salt Lake City, Utah, to continue their research. As soon as they discover this, a group of looters ambush them. Joel and Ellie make their way through the building, killing their attackers as they go. Joel is caught by surprise by one of them, when they burst through a door he opened. They struggle briefly, before Joel punches him — the looter, however, drags Joel down with him, and they both fall off the balcony. The looter dies on impact, but Joel is impaled by a piece of rebar sticking up from the ground. Ellie is forced to protect the both of them, as Joel is incapacitated by pain, and extreme blood loss. They manage to exit the building and, after Ellie shoots a looter who attempts to steal Callus, ride away from the university. Suddenly, Joel slumps and falls off the horse, passing out.

The Apotheosis is often characterized by the someone dying a physical death. In the case of The Last Of Us, the lead character Joel is severely injured towards the end of the Chapter. It is insinuated that Joel does not survive his injuries. According to Campbell, “A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.” In the game, we see this exact idea playing out in the following chapter. Joel survives his wounds but he has to be cared for by Ellie. The game cuts forward to a point in winter where Joel had reached a significant point in his recovery. He is far from fully healed and in fact, is still suffering. However, the period of rest and recuperation in between the end of this chapter and the start of the next reflects Campbell’s ideas. This plot point also allows us to view the narrative from Ellie’s point of view for a while. It provides an opportunity for the player to watch Ellie’s affection and sympathy towards Joel and how much he means to her. 

In the interest of time, I will skip the next chapter of the gameplay as the narrative is mostly concerned with Ellie caring for Joel and being in charge of their survival. This chapter is the only one that breaks its focus away from Joel, further lending credence to The Apotheosis. Playing as Ellie means the gamer gets a break from Joel as well.

11. The Ultimate Boon

In the Spring, we see Joel and Ellie entering Salt Lake City, Utah, where they’re supposed to meet the Fireflies in St. Mary’s Hospital.They make their way through an underground tunnel, filled with infected, and after going past them, they reach a flooded area. As they try to navigate it by staying on top of a number of abandoned vehicles, a bus collapses, making them go underwater. Ellie is knocked out as they are dragged by the violent current and is about to drown, but Joel grabs her and brings to the surface. Not breathing, he tries to perform CPR on her, as a Firefly soldier appears, ordering him to stand down. He ignores him, and is subsequently knocked unconscious.

Joel wakes up in a hospital bed to find Marlene welcoming him to the Fireflies. After apologizing for the bump on the head, Marlene asks how Joel and Ellie managed to find the Fireflies, to which Joel responds that Ellie “fought like hell” to get here. Joel asks to see Ellie but Marlene denies him, saying that she is being prepped for surgery as they speak. Marlene reveals that the Cordyceps in Ellie’s brain has somehow mutated according to the doctors, hence why she is immune.

After all the struggles and tribulations they had to face, Joel finally managed to deliver Ellie safely into the hands of the Fireflies. Joel was able to achieve the goal of the quest that he had set out on back in Boston. “In many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself”. In the case of this narrative, the boon is the possible cure of the infection to save humanity itself. Joel becomes part of the effort to restore humankind to its previous glory. For the player, this feels like the completion of the initial goal that was set for the players – To deliver Ellie to the Fireflies.

III. return

12. Refusal of the Return

Studying the brain would allow the doctors to reverse-engineer a vaccine, though since the fungus grows all over the brain, Joel figures out that Ellie would be killed. Foreseeing this, and knowing that Joel had formed a close bond with Ellie in the past year to the point that he would not allow the surgery to proceed, Marlene orders Ethan to march Joel out of the hospital and kill him if he tries anything. Marlene leaves, and Joel, after seeing his backpack, disarms and tortures Ethan to tell him where the operating room is. Finding out that it is on the top floor, Joel kills him.

“Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.” Knowing that in order to find a cure, Ellie must be killed, Joel immediately regrets bringing her to the Fireflies. The bond that Joel shares with Ellie prevents him from seeing any harm befall her. Furthermore, it matters not to Joel that the cure for the infection is not found if it means killing Ellie. While some may argue that this is selfish on the part of Joel, his Refusal to return to a solitary life of smuggling is actually driven by his care and concern towards Ellie. Joel is given another shot at caring for and raising and daughter, and he does not want to lose this opportunity. He is refusing to return to his old way of life, having come to terms with Sarah’s death and having undergone a transformation as a person.

13. The Magic Flight

Alerted to the gunshots, the Fireflies find Ethan’s corpse and proceeded to search for and attempt to kill Joel. He evades them and blocks off the West Wing access. On the top floor, Joel finds several recordings, one being the head surgeon’s assessment of Ellie’s immunity and two others recording Marlene’s indecision and reluctance to kill the child she promised to look after. Joel eventually finds the surgery room as more Fireflies guarded the hallway leading to the operating room. After killing them, Joel bursts into the operating room, where the doctors were surprised to find him. The head surgeon tries to prevent Joel from taking an unconscious Ellie by blocking his way but is killed by Joel.He then carries Ellie away as more Fireflies close in on him. Joel manages to get to the elevator and reach the parking garage but is confronted by Marlene.

Imbued by a new purpose to save Ellie and guided by his paternal instincts, Joel does the one thing that makes the most sense to him. Joel finds Ellie and begins his mission to bring her to safety. Although there is nothing ‘magical’ per se to this flight, it is a grand escape after all. Joel is ready to give up everything they had endured to get here, all the sacrifices made, if it means saving Ellie. She is the only thing that matters to him in the moment.

Players of the game also feel this intensity of anger and emotions as they play Joel’s character. Being made a proxy of Joel, the gamer has to content with Joel’s emotions and state of mind. At this juncture, we can begin to see how the Hero’s Journey model is extremely effective in eliciting emotions and allows a grander sense of immersion into the headspace of the player. By virtue of the fact that the player is also the hero, the narrative is able to affect the player on a more personal level.

14. Rescue from Without

Marlene attempts to reason with him, asking how long Ellie can live safely without being killed by Clickers or raped and murdered by hunters. Joel disregards this saying that it is not Marlene’s choice to decide but unsure if it is what Ellie wants. Marlene allows him to live if he gives Ellie back to the Fireflies and slowly puts down her gun as a sign of trust while walking towards him. Joel hesitates for a few moments, before he shoots her with a hidden pistol. After he places Ellie in a car he walks back to Marlene, who pleads him to let her go but Joel kills her stating “you’d just come after her”.

This section of the narrative concerns more with Ellie being the one rescued as opposed to Joel. Upon a second look however, we can see that Joel is in fact, the agent of rescue. He facilitates Ellie’s return to everyday life and in the process, ensures his own return as well. 

15. Crossing of the Return Threshold

As Joel drives out of the city, Ellie wakes up, wondering what had happened. Joel answers that they’d found the Fireflies. He goes on to say that there were dozens of people who were immune like Ellie and the Fireflies were unable to develop a vaccine from them, to the point that they’ve stopped looking for a cure. Ellie sadly rests up while Joel takes them back home and apologizes.

While Campbell’s definition alludes to the hero returning to the location he departed from, in the Last of Us, the return is more symbolic. It refers to the return to normal life in a post-apocalyptic world; back to living with a group of survivors in some form of society. “The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world.” When we view Joel’s return with that statement in mind, we begin to see how it makes sense. Joel, by embarking on this journey, had learnt to live with the loss of his daughter. He has accepted that loss and moved on. He had also accepted the opportunity presented to him to raise a daughter again in the form of Ellie. These lessons are the wisdom that Joel has gained and is able to integrate into his life.

For the gamer, this crossing provides closure. This narrative device serves to explicitly show the character development of Joel and how far he has come as a person. The player has witnessed the full gamut of emotional and moral conflicts experienced by Joel and how they have helped to shape him into the person he is at this point of the narrative.

16. Master of Two Worlds

Joel and Ellie continue in the car, driving towards Tommy’s settlement. The road gets blocked and Joel and Ellie exit the vehicle and start walking in the woods. Joel remarks that Ellie and Sarah would have been great friends because the two are very similar.

As the narrative draws to a close, we finally see Joel being able to talk about his daughter once again. The fact that he brings Sarah up to Ellie and compares the two of them shows an acceptance on the part of Joel that he sees Ellie as a surrogate for Sarah. Him being able to have a conversation with Ellie about how the two would have been great friends because of their similarities shows that Joel is now comfortable and competent in dealing with his inner struggles. He is also able to balance this with the outer struggles of adjusting back into normalcy and accepting Ellie as a part of his life now. 

17. Freedom to Live

Once they get in view of the settlement Ellie admits she has survivors guilt for Riley’s, Tess’ and Sam’s deaths and asks Joel if what happened in the hospital was true and for him to swear to her. Joel lies, concluding “I swear.” The cutscene then ends with the camera capturing Ellie’s face blandly responding “Okay” to Joel.

The ending of The Last of Us to me, is just as powerful as it’s beginning. By having Joel lie to Ellie, the narrative closes with the audience wondering if Joel had changed at all. After all, one could assume that he lies to Ellie to hide his selfish motivations of having another shot at raising a daughter. However upon digging deeper we begin the realize that the lie, and its acceptance, is what allows the characters to put the past behind them and live the lives with a fresh start. For better or worse, the lie gives these characters the freedom to live. They can start anew in Tommy’s settlement without the burden of ‘Humanities Last Hope’ dragging them down. 


In conclusion, we can see that the Hero’s Journey is a pretty powerful narrative framework that allows for much emotional and narrative immersion. By design, games make the playable character a hero. By using the monomyth as its backbone, the game allows the player to experience the story in parallel to it’s main character. The gamer is provided more opportunities to empathize and connect with the character on a personal level. The bond that the characters develop with each other in the game in turn have a greater impact on the player. This allows for the interactive narrative to have a more visceral reaction from its audience.

In doing this analysis, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how well the story mapped onto the framework. I did not expect all 17 stages to be present in the game but an in-depth analysis proved otherwise. Granted, there were some sections where the main antagonizing feature of the narrative was replaced with something else to facilitate the plot. This got me thinking quite deeply about the potential of exploiting this framework to create more impressionable and personal narratives in my future interactive works.

Author: Kapi

Kapilan Naidu is a multimedia artist, designer, data-junkie, sometimes DJ and bedroom producer.

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