It’s a spectacular death and it is, in fact, a death. Tess is not coming back.
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If you stick around, there’s a lot to unpack about Tess’s end in Episode 2, “Infected,” which unfolds as epically as it does in the 2013 video game version of The Last of Us. The differences, however, come before and after the death, giving Tess’s final moments in the game even more narrative weight.
Let’s start with show.
Having taken the escort mission in exchange for a car battery, Joel and Tess bring Ellie to the rendezvous point outside the QZ. Everything goes to hell. Tess is bitten. She decides for a suicide by zombie to buy Joel and Ellie more time.
One important thing to note. Tess’s reaction to the bite—her insistence that Joel see the difference between her physical response and Ellie’s—helps convince Joel that Ellie is the real deal. Her being a hope for mankind will help motivate Joel to protect her.
But this is not necessarily a conclusion that Tess needs to impart on Joel. And this is where the character relationship between the two becomes somewhat tenuous in the series.
There’s a sense in which Joel doesn’t need Tess. His motivations exist outside of their relationship. His goal is—and has always been—to find Tommy. One feels as though Tess acts only as temporary support to this mission; Joel will go west with or without Tess. (Bringing along Ellie doesn’t seem like that much of a sacrifice.)
Making Tess’s final moments impactful is also difficult for another reason. Her death was projected through most of the marketing; we know the series will involve the cross-country voyage of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey)—it will be a duo, not a trio. Even in the video game, this is something of an issue, and since we never play as Tess (while we do play as Sarah), there’s never any reason to think she will live. Her death also occurs during a cutscene, and so is not the responsibility of the player; the player never makes a choice that would make Tess’s death their fault.
In the series, we do get scenes where Tess is alone, giving her character some moments of subjectivity outside of Joel. But even here, she feels peripheral, only a narrative tool to bring Ellie and Joel together.
The game, however, gives Tess’s presence more impact and her death more narrative weight.
Does Tess die in The Last of Us video game?
Yes. But not so inconsequentially. Unlike the series, the game complicates the relationship between Joel and Tommy. Joel has not spent any time trying to find Tommy; his goal is not reaching his brother, but simply staying alive. (This means doing terrible shit and committing grievous acts.) In the game, when Joel and Tess agree to transport Ellie, it isn’t for a car battery in the hopes of reaching Tommy. They take the deal in exchange for guns. They want the Fireflies’ supply. Nothing else.
The show likely added the Tommy motivation to both smooth out Joel’s rough edges and also give him a more straightforward reason to take Ellie west.
Joel’s reason in the game: Tess.
Tess is the one who convinces Joel to take the mission, and it’s Tess’s death that motivates Joel to go west with Ellie; he’s simply completing her final request.
The difference in Tess’s final moments are, therefore, significant. While in the series, her death does help Joel recognize Ellie’s immunity, his motivation for going west doesn’t change. Tommy is still there. Bringing Ellie along is just a nuisance.
But in the game, it is Tess who convinces Joel to take Ellie. Joel would have just gone back to the QZ had this request not been made. (Or Tess not died.) Joel agrees to take Ellie partly due to his guilt over Tess’s death and his loyalty to her. If her final wish, this woman he cares about, is to take Ellie, then that’s what he will do. The decision is less motivated by brotherly rescue than by guilt, shame, and affection for Tess. Tommy still becomes an objective, but he’s never the inciting motivation. Simply put: Joel doesn’t protect Ellie unless Tess dies.
In the series, this counterfactual is never apparent. Regardless of Tess’s fate, Joel at least has a reason to continue west: Tommy.
It may not seem like a big change given that the death plays out pretty much the same way in both mediums—a bite, a decision, an epic explosion. But the motivation is different, and the entire reason for beginning the journey has now shifted.
Joshua St Clair is an Assistant Editor at Men’s Health Magazine.
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