Joel’s “final decision” in The Last of Us (thoughts)

Posted: October 29, 2013 in Video Games
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This is a follow-up post to the podcast I helped record on The Last of Us, for PlayStation 3. I gave a similar argument in that episode, but I wanted to try and articulate thoughts a little more clearly. This post addresses the ending of The Last of Us, and so will obviously contain MAJOR SPOILERS:

Joel

I’ve been thinking about this game a lot since I completed it a few days ago. Sure I could nitpick elements of the gameplay, but in my opinion, it contains far and away the most powerful and emotionally complex narrative I’ve experienced in a game (Half-Life 2 notwithstanding). Like most people, I think the Winter chapter is the high-point of the game, and it takes gamers to a really dark and uncharted space (no pun intended). Conversely, a lot of people seemed disappointed with the final act, especially Joel’s decision to rescue Ellie, wipe out the last of the Firefly’s, and possibly rob humanity of its only chance of survival. The final piece of dialogue was also pretty ambiguous, and I’m sure gamers will dissect its meaning for years to come. However, what I wanted to talk about is why I think Joel made the right decision, to save Ellie (relatively speaking of course – the murder of the worlds last brain surgeon was pretty rough).

A lot of people interpret Joel’s decision as some psychologically unhinged grasp to save his daughter. Even though he never speaks of her, Sarah’s death hangs heavy on Joel’s thoughts, and on the gamers. The best part of Joel died with her, and since then has done some pretty horrible things to survive (as alluded to in his conversations with Tommy and Ellie). He probably has nightmares of Sarah’s death, and perhaps dreams of how he might have saved her. In a way, saving Ellie is a way of playing out that fantasy, and maybe redeeming himself of all the awful things he has done in the past 20 years. And there is something poetic about that. However, I (the player) also wanted to save Ellie, not just because I think it will redeem Joel, but because I have grown to love her as a person (that sound weird, I know, but such is the power of this game’s character development). Throughout this game, I have experienced the remnants of our species, the sick, twisted, desperate animals that now compose humanity. And Ellie is worth more than all of them combined (except for a few individuals, like Tess and Tommy).

I think what I find most interesting about these kinds of post-apocalyptic stories is their dissection of humanity. When you strip away the structure of society—the laws, the authorities, the economy, the institutions—you’re left with the unfiltered human nature, something that is closer to an animal (and often crueler) than we’d like to think. But the idea of “humanity” is more than biology. Humans are a species, yes, and this game depicts how we act once we’ve rejoined the “food chain”. And it’s not pretty. But humanity is something higher (perhaps relating to empathy), and after 20 years, most people have lost it. Joel certainly has, and I would argue the fireflies have too.

And here’s why I think Joel made the right decision to rescue Ellie from the fireflies, and take her to Tommy’s dam: Humanity cannot be resurrected by murdering an innocent girl. Maybe the fireflies could have developed a vaccine (or maybe they couldn’t), but then the human species would be reborn from a poisoned womb, re-concieved in the horror and murder of a young girl. Ellie is more important than the fireflies, or Joel, or the military, or the hunters, or any of these warring factions that have survived humanity’s downfall. To quote McCarthy’s The Road, she carries the flame inside her. You can’t reignite humanity by snuffing out one of its last fires.

Tommy’s dam holds a far greater promise for humanity than the fireflies. They are decent people, with knowledge of agriculture and hydrology. Let Ellie live there and be a kid. Let her make friends, and be part of a community, and help rebuild. Let them insulate themselves from the outside world, and keep the last embers of humanity alive. In a few more decades, when all of the warring factions of the old world have devoured each other, and the infected have starved to death, and nature has reclaimed the cities of men… then they can emerge from their dam, and begin again. /SPOILERS

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