(Spoiler Warning) According to creative director Neil Druckmann, the game's ending was originally meant to strike a different emotional chord.
Warning: The following contains severe spoilers for The Last of Us. Do not read this article unless you've played the game.
The Last of Us may stand the test of time as one of the first games that had the guts to go truly and utterly dark. Whereas other games will bounce back and forth between notes of silly and serious, there are few moments of levity in the game. Rather, it embraces a tone of ever intensifying desolation. Things never get better, they only get worse.
The climax of the game's bleakness is easily its ending. Joel learns that Ellie, who is immune to the pandemic that has ravaged the world, needs to have her brain removed so scientists can reverse engineer a cure. Unable to resolve himself to the loss of the young woman he's come to view as a daughter, he instead fights his way through a hospital filled with people who's only crime is trying to save the world. He saves Ellie, dooming humanity in the process. The game then ends with Joel lying to a suspicious Ellie about what transpired while she was knocked out for the surgery.
However, according to Neil Druckmann, creative director for The Last of Us, Naughty Dog had originally intended the game to end on a more hopeful note. "We knew Joel would lie to Ellie, but she believed the lie, one hundred percent," said Druckmann. "There wasn't any doubt there, and they would be arriving in Tommy's town, and you kind of get the idea that everything's gonna be fine and dandy." Despite having these plans in place, Druckmann and his team eventually found themselves moving toward the darker ending the game would run with. "As we got closer and closer to shooting that scene, it stopped feeling honest...She had such a good bullshit detector that it didn't feel like she would buy it. Or at least not buy it so easily. And then the scene kind of grew out of that, that there would be a kind of final challenge."
While many were left somewhat mired by the moral ambiguity of the game's ending, we honestly can't imagine it any other way. Even so, in an industry where such story moments are rare, one can only imagine it must have been a struggle to choose such an ending and then maintain the courage to run with it.