It Was the Last of Us, It Was the Best of Us
Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.
For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:
The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.
OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:
WARNING! WARNING! HUGE
HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.
Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.
And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.
In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.
I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.
There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.
In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.
And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.
Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.