Yes, I know The Last of Us came out in 2013. But I only just got around to experiencing it now. It’s one of the most important games of the last console generation and it’s a great example of how all the other “games pretending to be movies” have fallen far short on the “movie” end of things. It’s gorgeous, wonderfully acted, and has a gut-wrenching story that’s driven by the arcs of the main characters. At the end, protagonist Joel does something people widely consider to be an evil act, but I want to make the case that he was in the right. Or at least, it would be right if he did it in a world where medicine works like ours.
I’m going to spoil the whole thing here, in case you haven’t figured that out yet. This is a good time for this kind of conversation because if you haven’t played the game by now, you’re probably not going to.
In case you haven’t played, or you’ve forgotten: In The Last of Us, it’s 20 years after the zombie apocalypse. Joel – a selfish and brutal smuggler and former raider – is tasked with taking young Ellie across most of what’s left of the United States to find a group of people called the Fireflies. Ellie is (as far as anyone knows) the first human being immune to the zombie plague, and the Fireflies think they can use her to develop a cure.
In classic literature, a tragic hero is an otherwise virtuous character that is undone (usually killed) by a single flaw. Joel is the opposite of this, being a cold, cruel man who is undone by a single virtue. Along the journey, Joel and Ellie bond. As they reach the end, heartless Joel finally opens up and begins to love again. This would be a happy ending, except that when he delivers Ellie to the Fireflies he discovers that in order to get their cure, they need to get a sample of the fungus from her brain, which will kill her. Unable to accept the loss of the first person he’s bonded with in 20 years, he snaps, kills the Fireflies, and runs away with the unconscious Ellie. Later he lies to Ellie, telling her that the Fireflies did what they could but couldn’t find a cure. Roll credits.
Now, as presented, this was an evil act on the part of Joel. The zombie plague is the most devastating thing ever to hit the human race, and he stole away the hope of a cure rather than face personal loss. The story only makes sense thematically if we accept that what Joel did was wrong, and I’m sure that’s what the writers intended. But the writers also wanted to make the player willing to participate in Joel’s murder spree, so they made it somewhat understandable. In doing this, I think they went too far.
First off, the Fireflies are not good people. They’re losing a war against an oppressive government, but that doesn’t automatically make you the good guys. We see them stage terrorist attacks and it’s clear they’re just as willing to murder for their cause as their foes. When Joel finally meets up with them, they find him trying to save Ellie from drowning. He’s clearly no threat, yet they demand he stop (thus letting her die) for no real reason other then they’re just pointlessly cruel and stupid. They beat him up and are clearly itching for an excuse to kill this guy who has just spent the better part of a year doing them all a massive favor. This isn’t a bunch of humanitarians.
Marlene (leader of the Fireflies) claims it’s okay to kill Ellie for science because “Ellie would have said yes”. That’s a really sleazy bit of moral cowardice. I can swipe my neighbor’s car and claim he would want me to have it, but until he gives it to me it’s still theft. Likewise, killing a kid is still murder. Moreover, if Marlene is so sure that Ellie would say “yes”, then she should have just asked her. That would make it so that Ellie’s sacrifice was deliberate and heroic, not a knife in the back from a group of adults she trusted. Marlene makes it sound like this arrangement makes things easier on Ellie, but it’s pretty obvious that the one person taking the easy way out is Marlene.
I’m always pretty skeptical when I hear people justifying evil actions by saying the outcome will be worth it in the end. Having a good cause does not make you the good guy. Stalin’s purges, The Crusades, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and Hitler’s attempted genocide were all plans enacted by ostensibly smart (given the prevailing wisdom of the day) people who thought they would be doing good for the world, but who ended up killing millions without achieving their goals. While there are many thought experiments about doing some lesser evil in order to avert some other, greater evil, this sort of thing is usually just that: A thought experiment. In practice, people who perpetrate murder in the name of good tend to end up as shockingly prolific murderers, without seeing the anticipated benefit.
My Nazi comparison in the previous paragraph was not an accident. Like the Nazis, the Fireflies are given credit for being great scientists but are actually bad people, bad at science, bad at engineering, and bad at problem solving. If they have any success at all it’s probably a result of their ruthlessness, not their science. And in the case of the Fireflies they don’t even have the fig leaf excuse of previous success. The Fireflies have just lost a war and been nearly wiped out without their science accomplishing anything. They’re incompetent, cruel, short-sighted, and brutal. Now we’re supposed to accept that they’re clever enough and worthy enough that they should be trusted with decisions about who lives and dies?
Let’s lay aside the fact that Ellie is an innocent human being. (Or at least, as innocent as you can hope to find in the world of The Last of Us.) Even if she was a hamster or a lab rat, it would still be idiotic and irresponsible to kill the only known example of immunity to the zombie plague. While the subject is alive you have countless tests you can run: Blood analysis, biopsy, bone marrow, and other common non-lethal medical tests can be used to figure out what a thing is and how it works. Once the subject is dead, the cure dies with them. Maybe they could consider doing tests that will endanger or kill their lab rat after all other avenues of study have been exhausted and every single expert is out of ideas. But these guys haven’t had Ellie for 24 hours and they are in such a hurry to dissect her.
Even from my non-scientific point of view I can come up with some worthy experiments to try. Marlene says that the fungus has “mutated” inside of Ellie. Does that mean that the fungus in Ellie infects the host without harming them? How about we have Ellie bite someone and see if they end up like her: Infected, yet safe. (If these guys are willing to kill a little girl for a cure, then I would hope they’re willing to risk the life of one of their own!) Barring that, maybe try a blood transfusion. And if that fails, it’s an open question whether or not this immunity is an inherited trait. (Maybe something inside Ellie herself caused the fungus to mutate?) In which case a good experiment would be to keep her very safe and let her bear children and see if they turn out to be immune. (In the story it’s hinted that Ellie might be a lesbian. But we have enough variables to deal with here, so for the purposes of this discussion let’s just assume that if she’s willing to die for medical testing then she’s also willing to bear children.)
And here is where the Fireflies excuse of “ends justify the means” comes back to bite them. If they can kill Ellie because the life of one innocent girl is less valuable than the lives of all of humanity, then someone in Joel’s position would be justified in wiping them all out for trying to stupidly waste the one immune test subject on bad science. After all, the lives of a bunch of belligerent asshole hack scientists are also worth less than all of humanity.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that Joel is a hero. Joel doesn’t kill the Fireflies because they’re bad scientists who will waste Ellie’s life. He kills them because he wants to protect Ellie. At best, he did the right thing for the wrong reason.
To be fair, this isn’t really part of the story. If the author says the stupid Fireflies can (somehow) get a cure by killing Ellie, then that’s how it works in this world. It’s like criticizing the nonsensical behavior of radiation in Fallout or the extremely questionable biology in Aliens. While it’s up to the author to sell the world to us and make it believable, we do need to be willing to meet it halfway. This is a fun thought experiment and not a condemnation of the game. I think it’s worth noting that the Fireflies came off as so dumb, useless, and evil that I had trouble feeling the outrage and sadness the writer probably intended. The writer was trying to pull off a daredevil stunt where we would disagree with the protagonist while at the same time empathizing with him when killing the Fireflies. That’s hard enough to pull off in a movie, and far more difficult when we the audience need to be the ones ultimately pulling the trigger.
In any case, I love this game. I love that the author created a world that can support this kind of analysis and I love that they made it interesting enough that I’d want to do so. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and smart.
Shamus Young has been writing programs for over 30 years, from the early days of BASIC programming in the 80’s to writing graphics and tech prototypes today. Have a question about games programming for Shamus? Ask him! Email [email protected]