In The Road Cormac McCarthy writes, “You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget” a quote that outlines some of the driving themes in The Last of Us. The Last of Us follows a man named Joel on his important mission to bring a girl named Ellie to the other side of the country. Ellie is the key to the survival of mankind because she is immune to the virus that infects people and turns them into zombie-like creatures. Joel’s mission is to bring Ellie to a rebel group called The Fireflies where Ellie can be used to create a vaccine that will save the human race. The greatest strength of The Last of Us is the game’s ability to use apocalyptic themes such as the impact of loss, survival at all costs, and one’s personal desires versus what is best for the world in order to force the reader to question his own morals.
Loss is a major theme in The Last of Us and is present in almost every character that the player encounters throughout the game. However, the player gets the most insight into the personal loss that Joel faces and how he deals with that loss. In the beginning of the game when the initial outbreak occurs, Joel’s daughter Sarah is killed. Sarah was the most important part of Joel’s life prior to the outbreak. Her death displays Joel’s bleak outlook on the current state of the world. Although the loss of Sarah impacts Joel, the long-term guilt of that loss is what haunts him. This points to another key theme in The Last of Us – survivor’s guilt. After Joel gets to know Ellie, he begins to see her as the reincarnation of his daughter which leads to an extremely strong bond between the two. Sarah is not mentioned until halfway through the game when Joel’s brother Tommy brings her up. Shortly after this discussion, Joel becomes much more connected to Ellie. Joel tries to keep Sarah out of his mind prior to the discussion with Tommy. Although Ellie serves as a reminder of Sarah, she also becomes a reminder of the loss that Joel experienced. Joel attempts to pass Ellie on to Tommy in order to alleviate the fear that he could cause the death of yet another person that he sees as his daughter. Joel continuously relates Ellie to Sarah, and at the same time he tries to block the connection between the two. After seeing a picture of his daughter Joel remarks, “you can never escape your past”. The connection between Sarah and Ellie is apparent in the ending of the game as Joel carries Ellie out of a hospital similar to the way that he carries Sarah as he tries to escape the chaos of the outbreak. Joel refused to lose another daughter at the end of the game and saves Ellie in order to get his daughter back. Joel blocks out the past and everyone around him for 20 years following the loss of Sarah. After all this time, Joel is extremely desperate for emotional stability. Joel masks his sensitivity with his cold personality and uses violence to release the anger from the guilt that he feels from the loss of Sarah. Midway through the game, players are introduced to two brothers named Sam and Henry. Eventually, Sam is infected and Henry seeks to relieve the guilt he feels by blaming the infection of his brother on Joel. After this fails to reduce the guilt, Henry shoots himself and ends his life. The difference between Joel and Henry is that Joel grasps onto a sliver of hope for happiness in his life which Ellie eventually fulfills. This sliver of hope drives Joel to do anything necessary to survive.
The Last of Us uses several groups and characters to display the cost of survival. Often times the methods taken to survive lead to the loss of peace of mind and the loss of the humanity of the survivor. The Hunters have resorted to extreme measures to secure rations and weapons in the outside world: they lure victims with cries for help, kill passersby and loot their bodies for anything useful, and have explored outside the quarantine zone in a world that has fostered the instinct to shoot first and ask questions later. Many survival tactics rely on taking from others with as little resistance as possible, so many have turned to deception to gain the upper hand on their victims. This is why Maria and her followers at the dam are quick to draw a gun against Joel and Ellie, because, although they may look harmless, they may be a trap. Joel’s hesitancy to follow Henry and Sam when Henry just attacked him is another example of Joel’s suspicion that the duo may be deceiving them and strike again when they are vulnerable. David is another good example of deception. He has resorted to charm and a welcoming disposition in order to lure victims to his camp, where he and his group can kill and feast on the victim’s corpse. Joel tortures David’s men to save Ellie and uses torture earlier in the game to get information from his victims about the location of supplies and weapons. Other survivors have ruled out any chance to be duped or double-crossed, like Bill, by sequestering themselves from any pocket of society. Bill, for example, has taken it a step further and ended his relationship with his partner Frank, believing he might threaten his life one day perhaps out of treason or because he is trapped in a predicament that may jeopardize Bill’s life. He believes Frank would make him a man with something to lose, making him more vulnerable to the unforgiving post-apocalypse world, so he chooses to increase his likelihood of survival at the cost of sociability and sympathy from others. Withholding information for survival can also break the trust among loved ones as well as one’s group. For some reason, Sam chooses not to disclose his infection to his brother Henry or Ellie and Joel, perhaps aware that revealing this will put all four of them in an ethical predicament.
At the end of the game, Joel is forced to choose between the survival of Ellie and the survival of the entirety of mankind. Joel finally brings Ellie to The Fireflies but they inform him that in order to create the cure they must surgically remove Ellie’s brain thus killing the only person Joel cares about. Players are forced to take control of Joel as he desperately guns down any Fireflies that stand in his way. In order rescue Ellie, the player must murder the unarmed doctors that are preparing her for surgery. This proved to be one of the most morally challenging parts of the game for most players. As I entered the room, the doctors grabbed knives and begged me to stop because this was mankind’s only chance of recovery. Their arms shook as they raised their knives toward me and stated that if I tried to take her they would kill me. I stood in the doorway for a minute pondering my options. Eventually I murdered the doctors and picked up Ellie. Sad music played as I carried Ellie down the hallway and desperately attempted to escape the pursuing guards. As a player I felt terrible as I came to the horrible realization that Joel, the heroic survivor that I had played as and looked up to the entire game, was actually the villain. Joel’s transition from hero to villain is comparable to Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. He was a character that the players had become extremely attached to…and he was the bad guy. On top of that, The Last of Us concludes with Joel lying to Ellie about the whole thing and saying that The Fireflies did not need her because a cure could not be created. Another moral dilemma occurs when players ask themselves if they would make the same decision if they were in Joel’s shoes. Ellie saved Joel on multiple occasions and more importantly had become his new daughter and served as his only source of happiness and hope. The loss of yet another daughter would be devastating to Joel and would most likely cause him to commit suicide. However, the world of The Last of Us is based upon the basic selfish mindset “me or him”. One could argue that by saving Ellie, Joel was saving himself and simply abiding by the mindset that everyone else in the world lives by.
The greatest strength of The Last of Us is the game’s ability to use apocalyptic themes such as the impact of loss, survival at all costs, and one’s personal desires versus what is best for the world in order to force the reader to question his own morals. Would the loss of my own daughter transform me into a cold hearted killing machine? How far would I go to survive and protect the lives of the ones I love? Would I sacrifice the only person I care about in order to save mankind? These are just a few of the morally conflicting questions that players will come across when playing The Last of US. Developer Naughty Dog uses The Last of Us to force players into provocative situations that cause them to question their own morals.