[Promoted from our Community Manager’s inbox, here’s another fantastic Guest Writer! This piece comes from community member, Lindsey Weedston. Lindsey has been living and gaming around Seattle, WA for as long as she can remember. Along the way she picked up writing, criticizing people on the Internet, and worshiping at the feet of the Great and Powerful BioWare. She is not affiliated with BioWare in any way. You can email her [email protected], follow her on Twitter, and find her on LinkedIn.]
I think we can all agree that The Last of Us was generally well-received. It got high marks from most reviewers and received several awards for both writing and gameplay. However, I’ve heard several of my friends complain about the ending – specifically that they thought it didn’t fit the theme of the game or Joel’s character. Many people seem to think that it didn’t make sense.
Now, the last thing I want to do is to tell anyone that how they feel about a piece of art is wrong. But here we go.
If you’re approaching The Last of Us with the assumption that the main theme of the game is that of a redemption narrative, it makes sense that you would be disappointed in the ending. After all, most people would probably consider Joel’s decision to lie to Ellie in the end to be morally wrong, since he’s likely dooming the entire human race to save a single girl. It’s an undeniably selfish decision – at least on the surface.
And it’s also understandable that many gamers would assume that The Last of Us is driven by the ol’ redemption narrative. After all, there’s a long list of games that use redemption as a plot device to motivate the jaded, scowling white guy to the end. Exhibit A: The entire God of War franchise.
It’s also true that there is a definite redemptive theme at work in The Last of Us. However, I believe that Naughty Dog used this as a red herring. The game leads you to think this, what with the girl dying at the beginning and then a very similar girl coming under Joel’s care – the narrative seems to follow a rather predictable formula.
But something changes.
The first hint of a deviation from the redemption narrative appears early, when Sarah is killed. She isn’t killed by the obvious enemy. An infected doesn’t get her. She’s killed by a human.
Later, the shift in theme is subtle. It begins where you don’t expect it – not in cut scenes or dialogue, but within the gameplay. At first, the zombies are terrifying. They’re creepy and violent and gruesome, and it gets worse each time a new type in introduced. Hostile humans are still a threat, but they’re just humans.
But as time goes on, the infected become as predictable as a video game’s supposed theme. You can count on them to rush you if they detect you. They don’t notice one another and won’t become alert if they come across a fellow infected’s corpse. It’s easy to lure them into a big group and set them all on fire. They can’t drive vehicles with mounted guns. Slowly, as the game progresses, the sections with the humans become more threatening than the sections with the infected. You almost don’t notice, until the worst happens.
Joel becomes critically injured. And it happens not while he’s running from infected, but from people. Later, although avoiding and fighting infected with Ellie is more intense and difficult than with Joel, the really horrifying threat is not from the undead.
This is when it hit me. I hadn’t noticed the subtle shift in the threat level between the two types of enemies – my relief in discovering a group of infected rather than humans – until it was right in my face. No matter how dangerous the infected were, they weren’t cruel. They weren’t sick. They weren’t the ones who were revolting and horrifying. The infected no longer made my skin crawl and my palms sweat.
It was the humans who did that to me.
Escaping from the humans with Ellie was by far the most stressful part of the game for me. I had to stop halfway through to go do responsible adult things, but the entire time I was distracted and anxious. I was literally on edge until I could get back to the game and get to a point where I knew that Ellie was safe from the monster. And the monster was not a zombie. The real monster was a man.
The theme of “the real monster is man” can be found in classics like King Kong, as well as iconic games like Silent Hill 2, where the monsters only exist because of the evil and torment found within the humans who are drawn to the town. And I believe it’s the main theme of The Last of Us. The evidence is in Joel’s decision at the end of the game.
Joel resists the idea of Ellie replacing Sarah through much of the game, but by the end it’s clear that Ellie has indeed become a surrogate daughter to Joel. This is where the redemption theme comes into play (since a story can have multiple themes), as Joel obviously wants to make up for his failure to save his daughter by saving Ellie. But, as is evident to my disappointed friends, his redemption is tainted when he goes against Ellie’s wishes in the end. He lies to her face, telling her that she cannot save humanity, denying her the agency which is what Ellie really wants – she spends the entire game trying to convince Joel to treat her as an adult. He denies her the choice to do as she wants with her own life. And in doing this, denies all of humanity of its future.
Is this a selfish act? Did Joel only do this because he couldn’t stand the idea of Ellie being taken from him as Sarah was?
Methinks it’s not that simple. Thinking again of the opening sequence of the game, Sarah is not taken by infected. She’s killed by a human who was trying to protect the human race by eliminating possible infected. At the end, humans want to kill Ellie in order to save the human race from total destruction. This comes after years of Joel running with gangs of humans who, metaphorically speaking, eat other humans to stay alive and strong, who fight and kill other humans for smuggled goods. It’s important to note that the goods being fought over at the beginning of the real game are firearms (likely for the killing of fellow humans as much as they are for killing infected).
Then, suddenly, Joel has the option to redeem himself for all his selfishness and for his initial failure by escorting a girl all over the country in order to save all of humanity. But after witnessing again and again the selfishness of human beings, from cannibal gangs that hunt them to the pedophile that torments and nearly kills Ellie, something changes. When he finds out that the girl who he’s come to think of as another daughter is condemned once again by humans who want to kill her for their own survival, maybe it’s not selfishness that compels him to stab a doctor to save her.
Maybe he’s decided that the infected aren’t the real monsters after all.
Because although the infected have caused him plenty of pain, they’re no more than animals. They act out of instinct to survive. They have no capacity for cruelty. They don’t hurt their own. So when Joel is given the option to redeem himself by sacrificing the one person he loves – his reason for living – in order to save humanity, he leaves it. He decides that the people who killed his daughter, locked up its fellow humans in ghettos to live at the whims of those issuing the rations, and caused Ellie far more pain than any infected ever could – they don’t deserve a second chance.
When you approach the end of The Last of Us with this in mind, Joel’s decision makes perfect sense, and it’s completely within his character. His faith in the human race died with Sarah, and though the strength and selflessness of people like Tess and Henry and Ellie might have restored that faith, it dies again when he finds out what his fellow humans intend to do to Ellie. Joel doesn’t want redemption. He wants to preserve what he sees as being the true last of humanity – to save Ellie from the real monsters. To let her live a halfway decent life, as Sarah should have, and let nature take its course.
Naughty Dog’s brilliance is evident in how well they use gameplay to make their point. Chris and Danielle of Polygon discussed how they intentionally create a dissonance in the minds of players when they’re forced to do the opposite of what they’ve come to expect from video games. They’re forced to deny the noble path because the story is not theirs – the story belongs to Joel and Ellie’s creators. Therefore it’s perfectly understandable that gamers would experience feelings of anger and disgust and general discomfort at the ending of The Last of Us, bother because they were fooled into expecting a redemption narrative and sternly reminded that they don’t get to choose the final outcome, nor the revelation of the game’s true theme.
Once you realize that, it’s a lot easier to appreciate the ending, even if you still don’t like it.