This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us Part II is a violent, brutal, and harrowing game that explores the heavy themes of trauma, regret, and the endless cycle of violence that stems from an obsession with revenge. But amidst this downward spiral into the depravity of humanity are glimpses of peace and light One of these moments that hits hardest is the flashback to three years prior to the main events of the game, when Joel takes Ellie on a surprise trip for her birthday. This half-hour respite in a museum nestled in the gorgeous woods of Wyoming draws parallels with the powerful and now-iconic giraffe scene from the original. But it also surpasses that scene by offering a true glimpse of the kind of lives these people could’ve had if they weren’t born into such troubled circumstances.
This flashback comes on the heels of a pretty heavy series of events. Dina has learned that Ellie is immune to the infection, and likewise, Ellie has discovered that Dina is pregnant. The pair find shelter in an abandoned theater in Downtown Seattle and decide to hunker down and weather the storm. The revelations have made things tense between the two of them, so Ellie goes off on her own to explore the theater. She stumbles on a guitar, which is one of those totems that act as a reminder of her time with Joel. She begins to strum the chords of Pearl Jam’s “Future Days,” a song that Joel taught her near the beginning of the game.
This triggers a flashback to three years prior, where Ellie is struggling to play that very same song on a guitar. Her frustration is obvious. “Ugh, I suck,” she says as Joel walks up to her. He warmly replies, “Nah, you just need to build up your calluses, that’s all.” If that’s not a lesson in how to survive this world, I don’t know what is.
It’s Ellie’s birthday, and Joel has a surprise for her. As the pair walk deeper into the woods, Joel playfully pushes Ellie into a river. It’s here that we as the player realize that Ellie is now a fully capable swimmer, which most certainly wasn’t the case in the original game. That had led to an abundance of bland puzzles that forced you to find a wooden pallet and use it to guide her across stretches of water. A lot of folks, myself included, considered this to be one of the weakest elements of the original game, so having Naughty Dog actively address it like this was an appreciated touch.
As they press on, Ellie makes all sorts of guesses on what the surprise might be, including a convertible, a brand new DVD collection, and even a dinosaur. Turns out that last one is right, as the pair find a giant Tyrannosaurus rex statue in front of the Wyoming Museum of Science and History. Ellie swells with awe and excitement, probably the happiest we’ve ever seen her, and it’s a stark contrast to the unfathomable lows she experiences throughout the sequel.
The trip through the museum unfolds like an interactive tour. You can run ahead, but taking the time to explore each exhibit yields fantastic little moments. For example, Joel shares some of the dinosaur knowledge that he clearly learned from watching Jurassic Park. Later on, he shares a bit he learned from its sequel, The Lost World. Ellie asks, “Did you see that in a movie too?” Joel replies, “Actually yeah, but a different one. See, there was a sequel. But it wasn’t as good.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t smile at this line.
The entire scene is filled with playful interactions that are entirely optional but well worth seeking out. Forcing Joel to wear a dumb hat (a nice nod back to the time Ellie and Riley spent in the Halloween store in Left Behind) and Ellie showing off how much she knows about space are two particularly sweet ones. As you approach the space section, Joel even comments about how much his daughter Sarah loved museums and how many they used to visit all across Texas. His openness and honesty shows just how much he and Ellie have bonded since they first met in the original game, where even the mere mention of Sarah would cause him to erupt.
The scene culminates with Ellie putting on a space helmet, climbing into the capsule, and listening to a recording of a shuttle launch. As the camera lingers on her face and the world around her transforms, the power of imagination takes hold of her. For this brief moment, there are no clickers, no warring factions, and no questions regarding whether or not Joel was telling the truth back in Salt Lake City. There’s only the infinite wonder of space. When she figuratively comes back to Earth and Joel quietly says, “Happy birthday, kiddo,” it’s an absolute gut punch back to reality.
The final part of this flashback takes a decidedly darker turn. Ellie makes her way into another part of the museum, but this time the wonder and curiosity is replaced with dread. There are various messages scribbled out on the walls, starting with “I killed for them” and only getting darker from there. You find more of these confessions, like, “The four soldiers at the gate. The last one cried,” and “The people in the van… we locked them in and doused it with gas.” You finally discover the remains of a body with a note, presumably the person who wrote these messages. The note ends with the line, “I don’t want to be in this world anymore. I can’t look at the person I’ve become.” Ominous foreshadowing of many of the game’s major themes.
The threat of danger in this area dissipates when it turns out that the noise Ellie is following was only a boar that got loose inside the museum. When she finally reunites with Joel, they notice a final piece of graffiti — the Fireflies symbol, with the world “LIARS” written below it. This pairing is ultimately at the heart of not only Joel and Ellie’s falling out, but the catalyst for Abby’s actions that send both her and Ellie into their entwined spirals of vengeance. The flashback ends here, and we’re back to the abandoned theater in Seattle.
Though Joel and Ellie don’t get to spend a lot of time together in The Last of Us Part II, this flashback makes every second count, showing how Joel could have been just another doting father and Ellie a worry-free and stellar school student. Its beautiful design, wonderful writing filled with memorable character moments, and thematic resonance all combine to create a scene that’s at least as powerful as the encounter with giraffes near the end of the original game.