Spoiler Warning: Like my statistical review of The Games of Thrones novels, the following post contains massive spoilers for the Playstation 3 game, The Last of Us. By all means at your disposal, play the game first and then come back to read the article. You have been warned.
The Last of Us is a remarkable game. Playing the game over the course of a few weeks resulted in some anxiety and nightmares as I replayed a few of the creepy-as-hell sequences and brutality of dying repeatedly while trying to fall asleep. For example, nothing can quite prepare you for quietly creeping past a host of Clickers in a dark room – or that first time a Bloater rips your face open in shockingly-close detail. While the game travels well-established mechanics of cover-based combat and stealth in yet another post-apocalyptic setting, it is the acting, characters, and story that set the The Last of Us apart from titles with similar gameplay. The journey of Joel and Ellie is riveting, and the conclusion to their story is unlike any experience I’ve had with a videogame in the 20-plus years I’ve been an avid consumer of such entertainment.
After completing the game, I scanned around for other reactions to the game, which I had previously avoided for fear of spoilers. Some of the commentary was surprising. A discussion of the game by Polygon used the following terms to describe Joel at various points in their commentary: sociopath, psychosis, disturbed, and spook. Meanwhile, the New York Times commented that “Joel grows over the course of the game into an admirably complicated protagonist” between paragraphs that blast the game for its handling of gender roles. The later is I comment I disagree with slightly, but my thoughts about Joel are more in line with the Times’ take on him.
By the end of the game, I felt completely immersed in Joel’s experience of the world. I empathized with him. The following is my attempt to justify the actions of Joel at the end of the game – and rationalize why my thoughts were completely in line with his actions when I/he burst through the operating room to find Ellie about to be killed.
Shaping Behavior and Creating Transference
The Last of Us does a beautiful job of establishing character motivations and shaping the player’s behavior. The player is immediately introduced to Joel and his daughter, Sarah; it is established that they have a loving relationship and he is trying to provide for her to the best of his ability. The first playable moment in the game is when the player takes control of Sarah. A frenzied call wakes her up and the player must guide her around a house filled with unsettling shadows and a sense of dread that something has gone terribly wrong in the outside world. Joel frantically rushes into the house, shoots an infected neighbor who attempts to kill him, and then rushes out of town with his brother and Sarah.
For the next 10 minutes, the game is primarily a flowing sequence of cutscenes interspersed with brief moments of action in the form of fleeing infected humans. The culmination is when Joel is carrying Sarah to safety in a field and is stopped by a solider in the military that receives orders to kill them. The soldier fires at Joel and Sarah and they fall to the ground. As the soldier closes in to ensure they are dead – Joel’s brother shoots the soldier and rescues Joel. Joel recovers to find Sarah mortally wounded and she dies in his arms.
And that is how the game starts.
As the game flashes forward 20 years, Joel is living in a shoddy, quarantined city operating as a smuggler with a female partner, Tess. While walking through the city, one of the first scenes the player witnesses is soldiers holding three people at gunpoint and executing one of them on a sidewalk. The message the game gives the player early is that no authority is to be trusted.
Over the course of the game, Joel must pass legions of humanoid enemies in the form of soldiers, criminals, cannibals, militia – and, oh yes – a variety of infected zombie-like humans. While there are options at times to bypass enemies through stealth, Joel is required to kill or otherwise incapacitate hundreds of humanoid enemies. Throughout the hours of gameplay, there are only a few humanoid characters that are spared. A really interesting commentary by PopMatters details the manipulation of the player:
. . . here is a scenario that comes up all the time throughout the game. Joel is hunched down in hiding. Peering around a corner, he sees a man with a machine gun searching. You know, of course, that he’s searching for you. Joel has caused him and his people a lot of problems and killed a lot of his associates. But it is kill or be killed. “It’s him or me,” as Joel tells Ellie in Pittsburgh. There’s no way around the situation. You push forward, still crouched down. You tentatively take one step after another. Finally, he’s within range, his back still to you. Joel attacks, puts his arm around the man’s neck, and slowly squeezes. He spits and gargles as his last breath leaves him in a few tense, stomach-turning seconds. The man with the machine gun is now lying at your feet. It was him or me. The kill was justified. Then you bring the camera around and see the man’s partner watching from behind a column. You stay crouched and begin to make your way over to him. It’s him or me.
This situation will be repeated hundreds of times throughout the game. Maybe you won’t be sneaking. Maybe you’ll be in a shootout arming yourself with your last two shotgun shells, a Molotov cocktail in reserve if there is a group of them. Maybe you aren’t playing Joel and are playing as Ellie instead. Maybe it isn’t a soldier or a hunter or a cannibal but one of the infected. The moment-to-moment narrative is the same. You stalk, you kill, and it is justified. Each kill is always justified and always ends in the same way.
The Last of Us shapes the player’s behavior and interpretation of the world by repeating the above sequence over, and over, and over again. The player is reinforced for surviving these encounters with humanoids by getting to view another sequence in Joel’s life as he interacts with the world, communicates with his trusted partner, Tess, and develops a bond with a new character, Ellie.
Ellie enters the game as a character that Joel and Tess are asked to smuggle out of the city by Marlene, a member of a rebel group named The Fireflies. Joel and Tess later discover that Ellie is a such a valued individual because she has been infected for weeks but has not “turned” into one of the mindless husks that roam the planet. Tess eagerly clings to the notion that getting Ellie to a Firefly base where doctors and scientists can analyze her will lead to a cure. For some time, Joel’s loyalty to Tess and his desire for another “score” are the motivations for facing a dizzying array of challenges presented by humanoid enemies. Over time though, it becomes clear that Joel’s relationship with Ellie starts to mirror his previous relationship with his daughter, Sarah.
In psychological terms, this is labeled transference. During my training, transference was often discussed in light of how a patient might form feelings toward his or her counselor that mirror a relationship with another in their life. For example, a female patient might interpret her male therapist as another father figure – and thus her actions toward the therapist will closely parallel the actions she takes with her father. Transference happens for all of us, and it is not pathological most of the time. In The Last of Us, Joel clearly establishes a transference from Sarah to Ellie; he comes to love Ellie and values her life. His duty to protect Ellie, which was first grudgingly accepted to satisfy Tess’ dying wish, is slowly aligned to his fierce desire to personally survive. Ellie gives him a second chance to save his daughter, and his commitment to keeping her alive become paramount.
This bond between the two characters is only strengthened when the player later takes on the perspective of Ellie, whose primary goals are personal survival and saving Joel’s life. The characters’ motivations mirror each other, and it shapes the player’s experience of the couple and their world – nothing else matters except the two of them getting through to the next encounter. Their goal is to reach a safe destination, and the goal is never fully achieved by either character.
In Joel’s Defense
Joel’s primary motivation is survival, and this becomes the player’s goal. During every encounter, the player must consider, “How do I get through this room/area and stay alive?” The deaths of any number of humanoids does not matter. The climatic scene in the game occurs when Joel finally reaches the Fireflies, a rebel organization that is trying to find a cure for the infection that has plagued the planet. The Fireflies take control of Ellie and knock Joel out; when he wakes, the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, informs Joel that Ellie must die so they can engineer a vaccine. She states that Ellie has consented to this procedure, which will remove her brain and end her life.
Joel never hears directly from Ellie that she is willing to die, and it adds to the ambiguity of the climax of the game. Joel breaks free of his captures, and races to the operating room to interrupt the surgery that will end Ellie’s life and (possibly) result in a cure to save the planet from extinction. Since I never heard Ellie consent to the surgery and the explanation by Marlene was far from convincing to me, I wanted to hear from Ellie if this was a decision she wanted to make.
I wanted to save her.
So when Joel finally fights through tens of human Firefly soldiers and bursts into the operating room to find Ellie surrounded by doctors about to perform surgery on her – the choice was clear. In fractions of a second, the following dialogue went through my mind as I carried out the actions in the game:
How would Joel respond in this moment? He wouldn’t hesitate. Joel would kill the doctors, and carry Ellie to safety. I want to give Joel the opportunity to prolong Ellie’s story – and I want her to live too.
So without even trying to investigate another option when I walked into the operating room, I shot and killed the doctors. I did not wait to find out if I could walk further into the room to talk to them or use a stealth takedown to knock them out to keep them alive.
It was an interesting collision between Joel’s motivation and my action – and it surprised me after I did it. I’m not a violent man; never been in a fight in my life. But here I was, taking on the mentality of a character in a game and actively choosing to kill to protect my personal interests in keeping a young girl alive when (a) she may have been ready to make a noble sacrifice and (b) her sacrifice might literally save the world.
After playing through the game – and interacting with the “Us or Them” world for more than 15 hours – I can not blame Joel for his decision. His motivations are right in the title of the game. After Tess’ death, “The Last of Us” in Joel’s mind is Ellie and himself. No one else matters. Ellie is all he has left, and she has given him a second chance to protect and love a daughter.
Selfish? No doubt.
If Joel had a face-to-face conversation with Ellie with her explicitly stating that she was willing and wanting to die for the chance to provide a cure, then Joel’s endgame actions would feel like a larger betrayal of Ellie’s trust. But that conversation never happened, and his actions are somewhat justifiable in the context of the world portrayed in The Last of Us.
What Joel could or should have done can be debated. He could have given Ellie the chance to make the decision for herself. He could have told her the truth after the fact. He could have let Ellie die on the operating table and perhaps celebrated her selflessness by using his skills to help the Fireflies make her sacrifice meaningful. He could have ended his own life to check out of the world completely.
He did not.
Joel’s life was filled with nothing but misery and pain for 20 years. Can you blame him for stopping at nothing to keep his final connection to his deceased daughter alive? He kept Ellie alive because he could not live in a world where she no longer drew breath. The experience of empathizing with Joel during his journey across the country and merging with him in that final sequence was harrowing. After the credits rolled, I was thankful I could put down the controller and turn the game off.
And not live in Joel’s world.