How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us


Warning: This article has spoilers about the game and show versions of “The Last of Us.”

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>
The Last of Us Poster

The Last of Us pushed boundaries, whether that was in its diversity or simply in its willingness to nudge players to deal with the extremities of anguish. Brilliant acting and gorgeous graphics aside, its music and soundtrack delivered the tension and anxiety it needed to bring. 

For those who aren’t familiar, TLoU is a post-apocalyptic action-adventure gaming franchise written by Neil Druckmann and developed by video game company Naughty Dog. In Part 1, players control Joel, a smuggler tasked with escorting Ellie, a teenage girl, across a United States ravaged by a fungal pandemic. The two must navigate through hostile humans and infected enemies while forming a bond and uncovering the truth behind the outbreak. 

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>

Flesh-eating monsters aside, it explores the heartwarming and heartbreaking conditions during times of hardship while also showcasing mankind’s tenacity to fight tooth and nail to protect ourselves and those we love. Seeing that this game has now been adapted into a show on HBO, there are changes to be expected. However, one thing remains constant.

From game to series, award-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla was invited by Neil Druckmann to bring TLoU to life with his music. He’s well known for producing music for films such as The Book of Life, Babel, and Brokeback Mountain, just to name a few. He’s a particularly deep person who embodies the passionate artistic spark evident in his music. He created a brilliant soundtrack for both games and is now working on the music for TLoU’s’ TV show adaptation.

TLoU‘s music is a vital piece of the game’s emotional impact. The directors molded the game around Santaolalla’s compositions, giving the sequences a more organic feel. To convey a feeling of danger and serenity, he notably used a string-dominated arsenal while also challenging himself by using obscure instruments. The score perfectly complements the game’s intense action sequences while adding a somber undercurrent to the game’s brief moments of reflection and character development.

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>

The best example is the “All Gone” song series. Santaolalla used the same song at various points throughout the game but changed the tempo and instruments, completely rewriting what the song represents. It’s also clear that instruments are associated with characters, such as Joel and the guitar, while Ellie (and Sarah) are associated with the violin.

All Gone (with no second title) 

This feels like the theme song of the new world. The cracks and skips in the music were an intentional choice by Santaolalla to represent the decrepit world the player is about to venture into. The track seems broken, as it’s a poignant reminder of decayed buildings and an even more decayed society.


last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>
The Last of Us Loading Screen


All Gone (The Outside)

The song is played when Ellie, Joel, and Tess leave the quarantine zone for the first time. The swooping, deep stings in the background offer the song a sense of unsettling and looming threat, which is appropriate for a hostile environment. The main theme of the “All Gone” series is loss, but the way the song is put together also makes it feel like a journey.

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>
In the photo (from left to right): Ellie, Joel, and Tess


All Gone (Alone) 

The violin, symbolizing Ellie in this song, takes the lead. Ellie’s concern over Joel’s health is expressed in the song, which has a melancholy tone. Although the guitar is present in this song, it is much less prominent than Ellie’s violin, and its notes continue to be weak and erratic. The guitar stands in for Joel’s health; in earlier renditions of the songs, a lifeless, vulnerable figure that closely resembled Joel himself served as the guitar.

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>
In the photo: Joel is injured as Ellie takes care of him

All Gone (Aftermath) 

The first time the player comes across this song is after Joel finds out that Sarah has been shot in the early moments of the game and series. 

The violin enters first; its rising, foreboding introduction foreshadows her impending death. When Sarah dies, her violin stops playing, and Joel’s guitar takes over.  The second time this song is brought up in the game is when Joel and Emily are having their little fight in the ranch house. The majority of their argument is without music. But as soon as Ellie mentions Sarah for the first time, the player starts to hear the song once again. However, this time the player only gets Joel’s guitar, and there is no violin.  The player can clearly see that we are supposed to draw a connection between the two events because the same song that was played during Sarah’s death is played again. 

One thing the absence of the violin stands for is Sarah’s absence. She has been deceased for twenty years. Joel has allowed the wound to heal by letting it scar over because he doesn’t want to relive that experience. It might be an indication that Ellie isn’t seen as  a daughter by Joel, at least not at that precise moment.

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>

All Gone (No Escape) 

The game’s climax occurs when Joel is carrying Ellie in his arms and attempting to flee the hospital to get her to safety. The scoring in the game begins to feel familiar. The first twenty seconds or so of the songs are a carbon copy of those last moments with Sarah, note for note. The rest of the song is bleak, played over dreary situations, but the most important thing to note here is that the violins did not end abruptly, as Sarah’s did when she died. They kept playing because Ellie was the only survivor of the “daughter” group. Because her life did not end, her violin continues to play. With a carbon-copy rehash of Sarah’s death melody playing over Ellie’s scene, it’s clear that Ellie has fully assumed the role of Joel’s daughter.

last of us, <b>How music influences storytelling: The Last of Us</b>
Joel holding an unconscious Ellie (left), Joel holding his daughter Sarah (right)

Five versions of the same song with the same melody have an overarching theme of loss, but Santaolalla gave each song its own life and meaning with a few simple changes. His work in The Last of Us is incredibly nuanced, showcasing that music has the wonderful ability to mean different things to different individuals at the same time. 

It can be an affirmation of perceptions or experiences, a form of emotional escapism, or a variety of complex psychological principles, as well as preying on the listener’s subconscious expectations. The soundtrack’s songs elicit incredible emotion with effortless simplicity. The music, when combined with the gameplay, creates an experience that sells both anxiety and tranquility, and these sentiments are still apparent in the game’s HBO adaptation. 

Must Read