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We finally understand the story of the The Last of Us

Neil Druckmann was working on The Last of Us when he was in college. In a way, anyway. At the time, he had this idea that he just couldn't get out of his head: a game where a grizzled survivor — sometimes a police officer, other times a criminal — worked to protect a young girl — perhaps mute — in a world filled with flesh-eating creatures. Over time, this idea metamorphosed into the story of Joel, a grizzled survivor with a dubious history, and Ellie, who is anything but mute. 

When Druckmann put the finishing touches on The Last of Us as the game's creative director, he had cut his teeth on many games while working at Naughty Dog, a developer owned by Sony. The Last of Us, however, had a significantly different tone than any Uncharted or Jax game. Would it be too dark? Would players get the story that had been stewing in Druckmann's head for years? 

The Last of Us has been called one of the greatest video games of its generation. A huge part of that achievement was owed to the intensely compelling, and sometimes heartbreaking, narrative that Druckmann wove. He has earned no shortage of awards for his well-rendered story of survival, fungi, and father-daughter bonding.

Here, we've laid out that entire story for you. It's often pretty bleak, but it's also brilliant.

The Last of Us begins on Sept. 27, 2013

The story of The Last of Us starts around the same time that the game was released. One September night in 2013, we meet our protagonist, Joel. He's an ordinary, if a little rough around the edges, Texan raising a daughter all on his own. Sarah is sweet, gifting him with a new watch after Joel had to work all day on his birthday. This was one of the last moments of peace that Joel would ever have, because the apocalypse was coming. And soon. 

The Cordyceps Brain Infection, a parasitic fungus, infected and destroyed approximately 60% of the world's population. Those infected became mindless, bent on spreading the fungus further by attacking any living thing. Joel was forced to kill his neighbor in self-defense. He and his brother Tommy loaded Sarah into the truck and sought safety, but roads and cities were in chaos. After a car accident and a mad dash through overrun streets, Joel and Sarah make it to the highway where the military — and therefore safety — should have been. Instead, a panicked soldier is ordered to open fire on them. Joel is unable to save Sarah, his baby girl.

American Dreams brings the story forward into 2032

The four-part comic series American Dreams tells us that Ellie was born six years after the world was ravaged by CBI. All alone she is shipped to the Boston Quarantine Zone. It's not exactly a warm welcome for a 13-year-old — her Walkman is stolen within her first ten minutes there. The thief in question is Riley, an older girl with a penchant for trouble, just like Ellie. She takes Ellie to an abandoned mall where Ellie learns how to ride a horse of all things. 

Riley is something of a dreamer, thinking of the future while Ellie is enamored with the past: namely all the video games in the arcade she'll never get to play. An explosion shakes their reverie as the military and the Fireflies, a revolutionary force, clash. Riley thinks that the Fireflies are pretty cool, and she and Ellie throw a few smoke bombs at the military to help them escape. This just draws attention to themselves, and they are soon captured by the Fireflies. This is how she meets Marlene, who we know from the game as the "queen" Firefly. She has a switchblade and a note, both from Ellie's mother, who she was friends with.

Ellie is, well, left behind in Left Behind

In the expansion adventure Left Behind, Ellie and Riley get into an argument and part ways. When Riley disappears from school, Ellie assumes that she was killed. Riley proves that she's alive and well when she suddenly appears in Ellie's room, scaring the snot out of Ellie. It turns out that Riley joined the Fireflies, while Ellie was drafted into the military. The two head over to the mall for old time's sake, and while rooting around there, are able to restore some of the building's power. 

They take some selfies in a photobooth and briefly ride a carousel before the good times are over: Riley admits that she's being transferred to another Firefly hideout. They have one last jam session, putting Ellie's Walkman on the mall's audio system. Ellie asks Riley not to leave. Riley drops her Firefly pendant. They kiss. 

Then the Runners come. The Infected, attracted by the sound of music, attack them. They both are bitten: a death sentence. Together, they wait to die, but Ellie lives. She is immune, a miracle that Marlene sees as a possible cure. Ellie is all for finding a cure: she's wracked with survivor's guilt over Riley and thus submits herself to whatever plans Marlene has.

2033: three weeks later for Ellie, 20 years later for Joel

In 2033, 20 years after the night he lost his daughter, Joel has become a different person. In those decades, Joel did whatever it took to survive, even if that meant hurting innocent people. As we learn, Joel is actually and unfortunately adept at the brutal skills of torture and killing. Out in the wild, he and Tommy lived as hunters, kill or be killed. After smuggling themselves into the Boston Quarantine Zone, Tommy decided that he couldn't live that way anymore and joined the Fireflies, much to Joel's ire. 

In his brother's absence, Joel took up smuggling with a woman named Tess. They sneak illegal supplies and people around the military, killing those who get in their way. One such unfortunate man was Robert, a fellow smuggler who double-crossed them, selling a promised cache of guns to the Fireflies instead of them. They torture this information out of him before killing him. Before they can go to the Fireflies, the Fireflies come to them. "Queen" of the Fireflies, Marlene, has a deal for them: smuggle something to the city's capitol building, and they can have their guns, with interest. The pair reluctantly agree.

Marlene and Ellie

The precious cargo that Marlene needs moved is actually Ellie — who promptly attacks Joel with her mother's switchblade. Marlene and Tess suss out the details of the deal while Joel babysits, taking a nap and noting that Ellie is pretty shifty about why Marlene needs her to go to the capitol so badly. They head out that night and are found by a military patrol. Ellie panics when they try to check if they're infected, forcing them to kill the soldiers. It turns out Ellie panicked because she has a big bite mark on her arm. Yikes. 

This makes the smuggler's job harder. Running from patrols, they have to take a much more dangerous route, one scattered with Clickers — horrifying, blind Infected — and other obstacles. Ellie tells them that her bite is three weeks old: she's immune. Joel doesn't buy it, but Tess believes. She refuses to abandon the job.

Just Joel and Ellie

Upon entering the capitol building, all that hope that Tess had fizzles. The Firefly extraction team is dead and the military, howling for their blood, is on the way. Worst of all, Tess has been bit. Comparing her bite — red and festering — to Ellie's makes Joel give some thought to the idea that Ellie is truly immune. Tess demands that Joel take Ellie to Tommy; surely his Firefly connections can help get Ellie to where she needs to be. That's her (final) hope anyway. 

Joel is resistant, and so is Ellie, but time runs out. Refusing to succumb to the infection, Tess goes out fighting, holding off the military while Joel and Ellie escaped. They make it out of the city and head to a town packed with booby-traps made by the ultra-paranoid Bill. Bill owes Joel a favor; they're going to need a car to make it out to Wyoming, where Tommy is. Easier said than done, especially when navigating an infested town filled with explosives and just one precious car battery.

Pittsburgh is the pits in The Last of Us

After acquiring a truck and saying a not-so-fond farewell to Bill, Joel and Ellie head to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh welcomes them with an injured man clutching his stomach and begging for help. Joel knows every trick in the book and, much to Ellie's horror, leans on the accelerator. They crash into the man, who hadn't actually been injured before the pick up slammed into him. Joel recognizes that the city is run by hunters who have no mercy. 

A stealth mission through and through, Joel and Ellie do a whole lot of sneaking around, avoiding the locals. "Tourists" like them are hunted down and killed by the gang, who are outfitted with a tank of a Humvee. All this skulking around gives Ellie and Joel some time to bond, namely by Ellie reading bad jokes out of a joke book. What do you get when Joel is nearly drowned by a hunter? Ellie's first kill. This one isn't that funny, according to Joel. He yells at Ellie for saving his butt rather than thanking her. She's shaken, and once Joel is calm, he gives her a gun "for emergencies only." Emergencies, as it turns out, happen a lot in the apocalypse.

Meeting and missing Henry and Sam

That Humvee? It's got some serious firepower. Joel and Ellie manage to get off the streets and into an apartment, but they are not alone. In the apartment is another survival duo, Henry and Sam. Joel nearly kills Henry, but Ellie notices Sam, Henry's 13-year-old brother, with a gun. They were waiting for nightfall, when the gang guarding the bridge out of town would be reduced down to a skeleton crew. They're also looking for Fireflies, so they team up to make a break for a radio tower outside of the city. 

That Humvee is very determined to gun them down for good. They find (relative) safety in the sewers before the unlikely band are forced into the suburbs, where a sniper and that dang Humvee make their chances look slim. But hey, they make it to the radio tower. Unfortunately, there isn't anyone waiting there for Henry and Sam. Even more unfortunately, when morning dawns, Ellie is horrified to find that Sam has turned, bitten the night before. Henry puts him down with a bullet to the head, but he can't cope without his little brother. He kills himself right then and there.

Fall, 2033: Tommy's dam

Joel and Ellie continue on, heading westward toward Wyoming. They find a hydroelectric dam and a friendly face. Despite parting on bad terms, Tommy welcomes Joel with open arms, introducing him to his new wife and the leader of the settlement, Maria. The settlement is pretty swank, with horses and soon electricity, thanks to some tinkering with the dam. 

Joel tries to foist Ellie off on Tommy, given his Firefly connections. No one really wants this, least of all Ellie, who commandeers a horse and runs off. When he finds her, they fight, Joel enraged when Ellie dares to bring up Sarah. In the end, however, Joel doesn't want to leave Ellie. Together, they continue ever westward on horseback. This time, the destination is a Firefly research base at the University of Eastern Colorado. As their miraculous luck would have it, this base has been abandoned too. Now it's just filled with Infected. Oh, and there are also some bandits to contend with. Usually this is nothing that Joel can't handle, but he takes a bad fall. Really bad. He ends up stabbed through the torso, leaving Ellie to figure out what to do.

Winter, 2033: Ellie does what she has to

Ellie is small, but mighty. She manages to get Joel to safety and stitch up his wounds. But there's not much she can do about infection without medicine. Weeks pass, and Ellie has Joel holed up in a resort cabin in Colorado. She manages to kill a buck for food, but she then runs into a pair of men. They try to placate her, but she is (rightfully) mistrustful. She says she'll trade her kill for medicine, which leaves her alone with one of the men, David, while the other goes to find the penicillin. 

Not without incident (an attack by the Infected, go figure), Ellie is able to get the antibiotics to Joel scott free. But that night, Ellie is rudely awakened to find that David sent men to track her down, and they're more interested in killing her out of vengeance for the bandits at the university than bringing her back alive as David ordered. Escaping them, Ellie runs right into David who knocks her unconscious. Here's the bad news: David is creepy. Even worse, he's a cannibal. Even worse than that, he seems to have a thing for Ellie. She breaks one of his groping fingers. You go, girl.

Winter, 2033: Joel does what he has to

Thanks to the medicine, Joel is weak, but far better than the feverish mess he was before. Waking alone, he finds men outside looking for Ellie. Joel does what Joel unfortunately does best: he hunts them down, killing all but two. Those unlucky survivors are subjected to some torture until they fess up to where Ellie is. They die bloody, and Joel heads off to the cannibal settlement where he finds some people parts, fearing for the worst. 

Ellie is a fighter. She saved herself from David's butcher block by biting him and claiming to be infected, making his partner hesitate long enough so that Ellie could stick a knife in his throat. David is angry, and still a huge creep when he traps Ellie in a restaurant, flames from an overturned lantern sending smoke everywhere. In the end, it's kill or be killed. David nearly strangles her to death, but Ellie get ahold of his machete, giving him a ... new haircut, we'll say. Joel finds her hunched over David's corpse, bashing it again and again until she falls crying into Joel's arms. He consoles her, calling her "baby girl."

Spring, 2034: the giraffes of The Last of Us

Joel is back on his feet and back in action. Without their horse (another victim of the cannibals), they have to hoof it on foot to Salt Lake City, where the Fireflies have supposedly relocated. Ellie is fairly traumatized by what she went through that winter, quiet and withdrawn. She brightens upon seeing a herd of wild giraffes. Yes, you read that right. Their ancestors were likely zoo animals. Seeing Ellie happy, acting her age, Joel offers to take her back to Tommy's settlement, where she can have a semblance of a normal life. However, after all they've been through, Ellie is keen to finish their mission. 

The city is overrun with Infected, and they hop from bus to bus in a flooded tunnel to escape. Ellie can make big jumps — Joel congratulates her — but still can't swim. She nearly drowns as a bus sinks beneath the water. Joel pulls her out, but while he is administering CPR, they are found by the Fireflies. And they aren't interested in listening to Joel as he begs for them to let him save Ellie. They knock him unconscious.

The cure is deadly

Joel wakes up to find that he's in a hospital, the remains of one anyway. Queen Marlene is there, but Ellie is missing. Joel asks to see her, but Marlene says that he can't. Ellie is being prepped for surgery. The doctors have discovered that the Cordyceps fungus is mutated inside her and that removing it will allow them to reverse engineer a vaccine. Marlene is so happy, there are tears in her eyes: a vaccine to cure the world!

But wait. The fungus grows in the brain, right? Marlene lets the silence hang as Joel realizes that a cure is a death sentence for Ellie. Marlene orders another Firefly to march him out of the hospital, but Joel isn't going to let Ellie go without a fight. He kills his escort and many more Fireflies on the way to the operating room, where he finds Ellie on the operating table. He kills the head surgeon and takes Ellie, making a run for the elevator to the parking garage.

Joel's decision and Ellie's guilt

Marlene is waiting for him there with a gun. She pleads with Joel to think of the greater good; after all, how long will Ellie last in this world, anyway? She tells him that he's being selfish, but Joel is unwilling to let Ellie die. Ultimately, he chooses Ellie over a cure for humanity. He shoots Marlene in the stomach before loading Ellie into a truck. He returns to Marlene, bleeding out onto the pavement. She begs for her life, but Joel says (perhaps correctly) that she'd just come after Ellie. He kills her. 

When Ellie wakes up, they're on their way out of the city. Joel claims that there are dozens of immune people, but that they've had no success. Joel says that they have stopped looking for a cure. So much for a light in the darkness. They go back to their new home at Tommy's settlement, and on the outskirts, Ellie tells Joel about Riley and the survivor's guilt she carries everyday. She demands that Joel swear to her that everything he said about the Fireflies was true. Joel swears.

One Night Live and the end of The Last of Us

The Last of Us: One Night Live was a one-night (surprise, surprise) live event that served as an epilogue and alternate ending to Ellie and Joel's story. Ellie and Joel have settled into the most normal you can get in a post-apocalyptic world: Ellie's room has posters and stuffed animals, the same as any teenager's room might. Joel stops by after a patrol, startling Ellie. 

It's clear that there's some serious tension between them. Ellie may have caught wise to Joel's lie. She stonewalls him, saying she has work to do and can't do kid stuff like have water gun fights. Joel goes so far as to try telling a joke to lighten the mood, but what really gets through to Ellie is his guitar. Joel, brutal killer and survivor, has a lovely singing voice. Thanks to this tender moment, the tension is gone, and that father-daughter bond is back. Joel leaves the guitar with Ellie, promising to teach her how to play.