An Ode to the Museum Scene in The Last of Us Part II

Seattle Day 1. The Birthday Gift. (Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Playstation.)
Seattle Day 1. The Birthday Gift. (Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Playstation.)

Weeks later, I’m still completely stunned by it.

Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Playstation.

I’m sitting there playing The Last of Us Part II, and a few hours into the game it flashes back. Not too far. The scene still takes place after the events of the first game. But Joel is taking Ellie through the woods to give her a surprise for her birthday. Eventually, they come across a museum — the Wyoming Museum of Science and History, which has has been completely covered and hidden by the woods.

Now, in video games, especially violent, action-based ones where you kill zombies, a discovery like this is a recipe for disaster. You just know this building is filled with the undead and you’re probably going to have to crush them under some dinosaur bones or something. Stress levels are high. New locations always mean chaos. But not here. The Last of Us Part II doesn’t just give the player a breather from all that terror, it delivers a dose of wonder akin to watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.

After being greeted by a massive T-rex statue outside, Joel and Ellie proceed to walk around the museum and actually explore it. The ground floor is all about dinosaurs and, just like a regular museum, you can read about or view as many, or as few, exhibits as you want. It’s interesting. It’s educational. It’s a legitimately relaxing afternoon out and a rare dose of normality.

Then you go upstairs.

Upstairs there are still no zombies or humans to kill. Instead, it’s an exhibit about space travel. Again, you can look at as much or as little as you like but it’s hard to ignore that big capsule in the middle of the floor. Ellie tries to get in but Joel tells Ellie to pick a helmet. We’ve been thinking all along that the museum was her present, but Joel goes a step further. He hands her a tape with audio of an actual space launch.

Pure bliss. (Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Playstation.)

What you have to remember here is Ellie is still a small child and all she knows is this world of death and destruction. She’s never seen dinosaurs. She’s never seen a space launch. This is all new and fascinating to her. So, as Ellie puts on headphones, The Last of Us Part II leaves reality, she closes her eyes and we enter her imagination. The lighting turns cinematic as the game almost becomes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the helmet glows with all the lights her mind can muster. The music swells, the controller rumbles, and we’re all blasting off into space, right in the middle of this awful world.

This scene isn’t just a serene, emotional moment between Joel and Ellie; for the player, it taps into a whole new set of emotions you haven’t been using. The Last of Us games are about fear and survival. In 2020, we don’t have zombies everywhere, but fear and survival are certainly relatable emotions. So it’s lovely that for a moment, both us and Ellie can escape that reality and just…fly away.

After the spaceship, things quickly get back to normal. Zombies. Guns. Etc. And yet, the time in the museum doesn’t leave you. The whole chapter, called “The Birthday Gift,” takes maybe 30 minutes to complete depending on how much you explore. It’s barely 2% of the entire game, and yet it’s a magical, unforgettable sequence, one that feels less like a video game and more like a work of art.

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