Shades of Gray – Morality in The Last of Us

Anyone reading this no doubt already knows that The Last of Us is dark. What makes it dark? Is it the brutal, unflinching violence? Is it the oppressive tone? Is it the monsters? Yes, all of these things are true… but what really makes it dark are the choices the characters make in the narrative and, by extension, the choices I made while playing the game. But first, be warned: many spoilers ahead.

The Last of Us begins in way that I’ve never seen any game have the courage to do: A child dies on screen. Yes, in Mass Effect 3, a child is seen running to a ship and the ship is blown out of the air, but you don’t actually see the child die. You know he did because you saw him get on the ship and then you see the ship get destroyed but again, you don’t see it. In The Last of Us we are privy to the sight of Joel’s young daughter Sarah helplessly cling to breath and life after she is shot by a soldier given orders to kill. It’s an incredibly powerful moment that sets a clear tone that no one is safe in the world of The Last of Us.

Hope for the Hopeless

While violence and brutality is explicit in The Last of Us, character motivations are much more subtle and revealed over time. The dystopian world left in the wake of the cordycep fungal outbreak that turned humans into monsters have turned man into savages bent only on survival of the fittest. And the fittest often have guns.

20 years after Sarah’s death in his arms, Joel now resides in Boston. Right away we get the sense that Joel has done what it takes to survive. Never once while playing did I think that Joel would sneak pass enemies because he wanted to spare lives. In this new world – with every encounter is a clear case of “him or me” for everyone – it was because it was the best way to survive. And if violence did ensue, it was messy and brutal just like the world he now lives in.

His relationship with his “partner in crime” Tess seems to be intimate, if not affectionate. Clearly there is a closeness and even caring, but the way the two interact with each other shows that both are closed off emotionally due to years of hard living, fighting for survival, and, in Joel’s specific case, loss.

Negotiating for information isn’t done with cash, as money is all but worthless in this ruined future. Instead, Tess uses “ration cards” as her bartering tool. Again, this detail shows how far the world has fallen. Food and items are rationed off and, much like prisoners making deals for cigarettes, here Tess demonstrates how this world works.

Tess is also the first to show her willingness to kill or be killed. Much like Han Solo shooting Greedo first, Tess shoots a thug in the face merely for being in the way. Once her and Joel reach Robert, the man they wish to speak with, Tess shoots him in the face as well because he tried to have her killed knowing she would come for him after he had double-crossed her. Tess is immediately established as not only a character of no nonsense, but also as an avatar for how humans now interact with each other. She wasn’t pushed to her limits; she was just pushed. It’s a very bleak world, with little hope to be found.

That is until hope manifests both metaphorically and physically. Hope’s name is Ellie. Ellie, though born into this horrible world, represents salvation in the form of a bite from one from the infected that she hasn’t turned from. She’s immune. This immunity shows Tess that the world may have a chance and yet Joel remains indifferent. He dismisses the uninfected bite as anything but hope. He’s that far gone and closed off that he clings to nothing except what he knows: survival.

Survival is the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstance. But why do we survive? It’s a question I don’t intend to answer here, but in the case of the characters it seems that everyone has a reason. Everyone seems to be trying to make the best of a terrible situation. Everyone, except Joel. It’s never clear what Joel is surviving for beyond pure human instinct to do so.

When he confronts his brother Tommy about taking Ellie to the Fireflies for him, the tension between him and his brother comes to a head when Joel says, “I kept you alive” and Tommy replies, “It wasn’t worth it.” At one point, after almost being killed by some hunters for merely passing through their territory, Joel makes allusions to the fact that he was once a hunter. The Last of Us, once again, shows us how depraved humanity has become in the wake of this pandemic.

The devil you know

The player is never actually given any hard binary choices like those in Mass Effect or countless other games where morality is weighed as good and bad. In The Last of Us choice comes down to gameplay and how each area is approached. Stealth is often seen as preferable not for the sake of sparing lives, but rather sparing weapon and resources. Often times the stealth route doesn’t go as well as hoped and fighting is inevitable. The way Naughty Dog chose to animated Joel during these moments, especially during melee situations, showed very well how brutal Joel could be if the situation called for it.

I bring this up because later in the game, after Joel has been wounded and awakens to find Ellie gone, he eventually takes two hunters captive to torture for Ellie’s whereabouts. In this scene, we see Joel acting a cold, brutal, and focused man. After torturing said hunters, he winds up breaking one of their necks and bashing the other’s skull in with a pipe. In these brief moments, we get a glimpse of how far Joel is willing to go for Ellie’s safety.

When Joel became wounded, Ellie takes the lead role and controlling her is left to the player. Like Joel, I too felt the need to go as far as I could for Ellie’s safety. After escaping, I navigated Ellie through a snowstorm, methodically stalking and killing every single hunter that came across my path. These men were the worst of humanity, far worse than the infected or clickers who were susceptible to the cordycep virus and their base desires. These men consciously chose to be the very worst they could be and through Ellie, I felt the need to take them down one by one, rationalizing that this is what Ellie would do. If not, they would surely do it again and again until the world or the virus took them. I was acting out the greater good here.

In the final confrontation with David, Ellie savagely and repeatedly hacks at him with his machete. It’s a brutal image to see, and one that I felt was wholly understandable in light of the events that lead to that moment.

Life goes on, or does it?

In the final act of the story, Ellie and Joel finally make their way to Salt Lake City. Ellie is left despondent after the previous act’s events. Joel can’t connect with her in any meaningful way, and it’s not until Ellie sees the giraffes that she snaps out of it. Hope, in the midst of all this misery, rears it’s head again and the effects are immediate and obvious; Ellie finally acknowledges everything they’ve done was for a reason, and the hope for resolution and saving the world gives her a reason to push on.

Unfortunately, that hope comes at a heavy price: her life. While sedated and being prepped for surgery, Joel is informed by Marlene that in order to reverse engineer a cure for the cordycep virus they need to remove it from Ellie’s brain, thus killing her in the process. Marlene rationalizes that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and she is willing to sacrifice Ellie, whom she has known since birth, to save mankind.

Joel, on the other hand, has no such aspirations. He chooses to save Ellie at the expense of curing humanity by killing anyone that stands in his way, including Marlene. When questioned about what has happened, Joel chooses to lie to Ellie as they drive away from Salt Lake City.

I’ve read and heard a lot of talk of how Joel’s actions in the final moments of the game make him the “bad guy,” but I don’t agree at all. Joel made the best decision he could make. Why would he sacrifice this special girl for humanity when he’s seen first hand what humanity is capable of? Killing Ellie may cure the disease, but it won’t immediately alter humanity’s lifestyle from the path that 20 years of survival has led them to live. He didn’t think it was worth it, and neither do I.

His final words in the game are, “I swear” when asked to swear that what he said was true. Ellie’s final words are, “OK.”

I feel the same way, Ellie. I feel the same way.

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0 thoughts on “Shades of Gray – Morality in The Last of Us

  1. For the sake of discussion, let me raise this question… Would Ellie’s sacrifice really be the key to saving humanity? How much would it have really changed the world? If put into the same situation, I would have chosen to take her away as well.

    Humanity is completely shattered. The path to creating a civilization akin to the one we are surrounded by now would be a tricky, slippery, and brutal path. Let’s say that the procedure happened, and the Fireflies really had a cure… How would they go about it? They would have the ability to save those who were born into that world, but would they share it? Would they be willing to part with it for humanity’s sake? We don’t know and we will never know, and it’s better that way. Power is a fickle thing, as it changes those who possess it.

    But with that, let’s explore the infected… There would be very little that could be done. Trying to administer the antidote to those who are turned would be near impossible, and so that would be ruled out. You could argue that there are still maybe millions around the world who haven’t been infected, but again, does it change anything? Would the fractured world be willing to share the cure? It’s apparent how savage people can be, and how easily somebody can take a life without hesitation.

    So, let me focus in now. Joel, as you have mentioned, has lost everything. He’s a broken man, and has been for twenty years. He isn’t who he was and will never be. But, Ellie comes along, the necessary means to an end, and it is a curse for Joel. But as time goes on, the way he sees Ellie changes. She becomes an integral part of his life. She is all he has. She is his hope, and not because she is the possible cure for the infection, but because she fills the void left in his life. She is his redemption for Sarah. Because of that, he slowly realizes that she means more than saving humanity–as it has devolved into a sick predator–she becomes his missing piece. Of course, she will never replace Sarah, but she is a lonely girl who has nobody, and he is a lonely man who now has nobody.

    In the end, there are very few who even knew about Ellie. Regardless of her sacrifice or his selfishness, the world would not have changed. People would have still killed, the infected would still roam wild, and it would take centuries to rebuild. But one man who found his reason helped protect a girl from a brutal and dirty world.


  2. Well said man I am with Joel also, like the virus would change anything & no matter how selfish this sound Joel’s life was ruined anyway he didn’t have anything to loose only to gain, Ellie means too much for Joel to loose her, it’s the only thing that keep him moving forward, so at the end who the fck care about this ruined world anyway, people was more animals in my eyes even than the infected, at least those was sick humans kill people left & right just to steal a little food or w/e they can find why Joel must care about them, I would do the same in his place w/o a second thought.


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