This blog post contains massive spoilers for 2014’s “The Last of Us Remastered,” including the ending of the game. It does not contain any spoilers for “The Last of Us 2” because I haven’t played it yet.
What does survival cost? How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our species? Is the value of a life inherent, or is it based on some value we assign to it? It’s not a new question, especially for a story told in the zombie apocalypse setting, but never before has it been asked in such contextual depth and answered with such profane directness.
“The Last of Us” follows Joel, a cynical smuggler in his late 40s, and Ellie, a 14-year-old girl with a miraculous immunity to the fungal infection that turns most into murderous zombie pawns. Joel is tasked with delivering Ellie to The Fireflies, a group of rebels researching a cure for the fungal plague, a journey that takes them from Boston, MA to Salt Lake City, UT. Upon completing the mission, Joel learns that divining a cure from Ellie’s natural resistance means an invasive brain surgery from which she wouldn’t recover. He’s resigned with two options: let the girl die for a vaccine or save her. In doing so, doom humanity to the continuation of the plague on the cusp of being cured.
The cost of loss is a recurring theme throughout the game. Along the journey, Ellie slowly helps Joel process his own young daughter’s death at the hands of the military 20 years prior to the bulk of the game’s story. The weight of his daughter’s death weighs so heavily on Joel that he’s become apathetic to the loss of others. Despite struggling alongside him through the trials they face, Joel views Ellie as innocent and naive. He believes that as a child, she couldn’t possibly understand the decisions that he makes to protect her or the decisions that he’s made in the past to stay alive. He doesn’t even give her a gun until she's forced to scramble for a tossed handgun to save Joel from drowning in the hands of a scavenger. Despite his unwillingness to trust her with the power to decide who lives or dies, Ellie doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger and, unexpectedly, doesn’t dwell much on taking her first of many lives.
While most games coyly ignore the player characters’ actual death toll, The Last of Us wants you to face that cost. With controller in hand and a mission to get from point A to point B, it’s easy to see the game’s variety of human enemies as obstacles to shoot, stab or strangle your way through. The game's survival mechanics make ammunition hard to come by. Being outnumbered in a gunfight is usually an assured death sentence — a mechanic that means the most successful fights are the ones where your enemy never has a chance. Joel and Ellie rack up quite a body count, often breaking into an opposing fortification unseen and leaving behind no trace aside from a trail of corpses. It’s easy to take death for granted as a game mechanic until towards the end of the story, a dialogue exchange between Ellie and one such enemy temporarily flips the perspective.
After fighting alongside the man against hordes of zombies, he reveals to Ellie that he’s the leader of the same group of bandits the dynamic duo have been at odds with. “This winter has been especially cruel,” he says. “A few weeks back, I ah, sent a group of men out [to a] nearby town to look for food. Only a few came back. They said that the others had been slaughtered… by a crazy man. And get this, a crazy man traveling with a little girl.” From that moment on, I began to notice a lot more of the dialogue exchanged between the bandits before continuing to take them out one at a time. They were terrified. Often sent out to search for the monstrous crazy man, they didn’t even want to run into him. Their search was one of survival, and Joel’s legacy wasn’t one of a hero but of a monster who hides in the shadows.
For the first time, every kill began to add a bit of weight to my shoulders. But nothing prepared me for the gut-punch of the game’s final level. Even after the flipped perspective, there was some level of justification to be found in Joel’s mission to deliver Ellie to the people who could cure the plague that forced upon humanity the extreme conditions that scapegoat the responsibility of Joel’s death toll. But after learning the cure would cost Ellie’s life, Joel decides that it was finally one life too many.
As a skeptic invested in The Last of Us’s beautifully woven story, I was prepared for a twist at the end. I expected it to be revealed that The Fireflies had some kind of dark ulterior motive or that a betrayal of some sort would flip the story on its head. The truth was worse. The game goes out of its way to make it clear that The Fireflies, particularly their leader, Marlene, fully understand the weight of the decision to kill Ellie to save humanity. A voice memo found in an office at the hospital reveals that Marlene has not only raised Ellie for longer than Joel, but she sees Ellie as a sort of stepdaughter and may have even had a romantic relationship with the girl’s mother. When a risk-averse logic proposes that The Fireflies should kill Joel outright, it’s Marlene who objected — saying in the recording, “They asked me to kill the smuggler. I’m not about to kill the one man in this facility that might understand the weight of this choice. Maybe he can forgive me.”
Ostensibly, Marlene makes the right choice. Extrapolate the situation out of the game into simpler terms and consider a trolley hurtling down a track towards a lone person strapped to the rails. Joel has the choice to pull a lever diverting the trolley, but doing so would instead send it full speed into the rest of humanity, strapped to a parallel rail. Maybe it’s a personal fault of Marlene seeking absolution for setting the trolley on the more logical path that leaves room for what happens next.
While being marched out of the hospital by an armed guard, a brutal cutscene prompts Joel to disarm and kill his escort. This final level places a desperate Joel in position to fight his way through The Fireflies militia to reach Ellie, who is being prepped for the lethal surgery. The level being the last means that it’s no longer necessary to conserve ammunition for later challenges. The game makes that apparent by readily giving the player access to their first fully automatic weapon and plentiful rounds to spew at anyone who stands between Joel and Ellie. However, in my hopeful heart, I made my best effort to sneak through the lab desperately avoiding conflict — even resetting the level several times when forced to break stealth and go guns hot. In the end, it wouldn’t matter.
Upon finally reaching the operating room, a lone surgeon grabs a scalpel off the table and stands between Joel and Ellie, lying unconscious on the operating table. He declares that he can’t let Joel take what might be the one chance to set the world right. It’s almost laughable how much time I spent looking for a brick, bottle, or another non-lethal way to disable the doctor. As the player, I saw a man who dared to join a resistance group dedicated to humanity’s survival and not to the potential to fill a power vacuum, a man smart enough and with the proper training to research and develop a cure, a man willing to die with hope he could make the world a better place. Joel saw an idiot who brought a knife to a gunfight.
“The Last of Us” could have delivered this scene in a cinematic. It would have been epic on some level. Joel blockades the hallway, bursts into the room, shoots the surgeon without any hesitation and scoops Ellie off the table — but the action of pulling the trigger yourself leaves no room for brushing off the decision. As Joel escapes the hospital with Ellie in his arms, the scene cements his desire to rewrite his daughter's death 20 years earlier by mirroring the same desperate flight from the start of the game that resulted in his daughter being cut down by gunfire.
When left with the question, “Did Joel do the right thing?” I’m drawn to the final dialogue exchange between him and Ellie right before credits rolled. Joel had lied to Ellie about The Fireflies, saying that it turned out there was no hope for a cure. I think he still viewed her as a child. He believed that she wouldn’t understand the weight of the decision. But as they finally set their sites on a place they might be able to call home, she stops him and goes into a monologue about the loss she’s experienced and the guilt of surviving when she’s seen so many others die. Joel responds, “I’ve struggled for a long time with surviving. No matter what, you find something to fight for.”
With the weight of Joel’s death toll on my mind, I consider what it is that he’s fought for. At one point, it was base survival. Right and wrong aside, he killed to avoid being killed. When a higher purpose was given to him, he fought for the dream of ending the apocalypse — a dream that he quite likely shot between the eyes and left lying on an operating floor.
In the end, did he fight to save Ellie, or did he fight to avoid repeating the pain of his own loss? Throughout the game, Joel acts like Ellie doesn’t understand the complexity of his survival decisions. Still, I think he acknowledges her maturity in this final moment, and that’s why he doesn’t tell her the truth. A child who feared death would cling to life no matter the cost, but Joel knows that Ellie would understand what giving her life could have meant for the world if given the option. It would be easy to condemn Joel’s actions from where I’m sitting, but if “The Last of Us” teaches anything, it’s the complexity of valuing life and the unseen weight of its absence.