The Last of Us: Moralizing Death in a Violent Medium
By Cameron Cook | Editor-In-Chief Published: 06/19/2013 2:36 pm EST
[Note: Major Spoilers for The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite follow. Beware!]
“I don’t want to die,” a doctor in scrubs screams to me as I point a gun at her face. “Please. Don’t kill me.”
I turn to Ellie, strapped to a gurney and prepped for surgery. I try to free her, but for some reason I can’t.
I turn back toward the doctor, put the gun to her head, and pull the trigger. Her brain sprays the back wall of the emergency room, and her body hits the floor.
I go to Ellie, where I can now free her of her restraints.
These are the final gameplay moments of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, and I can’t think of any other time in my life as a gamer where I felt more terrible about pulling the trigger.
Until this point, the game has more-or-less given you the choice to avoid killing your human opponents. Sure, there’s the occasional firefight that forces your hand, but the opponent always starts the fight. The opponent is always deadly.
Joel, the co-protagonist of the game, has no problem killing when he has to. He’s a survivor. To Joel, surviving is living by any means necessary. Any means necessary.
So when I, through Joel, pull the trigger on a helpless doctor (of which there are few left in the world), I’m breaking my own cardinal rule of survival. I’m stepping into immoral territory.
But that doesn’t even begin to touch the selfish decision Joel has made. Not only has he robbed the human race of a doctor, but he has robbed the human race of a cure for the fungal infection that has brought upon everything short of total annihilation of our species.
Why did he let this happen? Because his daughter was killed twenty years ago, and he has filled that void with another young girl he has grown to love.
Because Joel doesn’t want to feel pain, he is allowing the entire human race to go extinct.
When I finished the game, I felt a strange sense of relief. “Good,” I thought. “Ellie lived.”
But, somewhere else in my head, I thought, “Really? Joel felt like he could make that choice?”
The Last of Us uses its own medium’s morality against us with its ending. We’ve killed hundreds of people because we had to, and now we’re killing the rest of them because we want to.
Unlike some other games, however, The Last of Us doesn’t pick and choose its moments of moralizing. All of the moralizing already exists within the player.
In Tomb Raider, Lara is horrified by the idea of murder after she’s committed it for the first time. And yet, a couple of minutes later, she’s zinging arrows into men’s faces without a moment’s hesitation.
The Last of Us begins its story proper nearly twenty years between Joel’s first slaying of an individual and his next. All of the existential angst and fear he would have felt would have long been replaced by the hard shell he now carries.
And Ellie? Ellie was born into this world. She knows no other means of survival. The difference between Joel and Ellie and the rest of the world is their understanding of necessity. Like Sam’s toy that Henry makes him throw out, murder, outright murder, is frivolous in this time of survival. No precious resource can be wasted. There’s no time for emotional decision-making.
Stack this up against the games that obviously inspired the Tomb Raider reboot, Uncharted. Uncharted is the franchise that allowed Naughty Dog the luxury of making a game as ambitious as The Last of Us. It’s an Indiana Jones-style adventure focused on collecting artifacts and beating the bad guys.
And while the gameplay is some of the best of any generation, it’s hard not to be uncomfortable by the series’ blase approach to murder.
Nathan Drake kills thousands of people over the course of the trilogy, and he never once regrets it. He never questions it. There’s never a brooding moment where Drake thinks, “Wow, I’ve killed the population of a small American town. Perhaps that necklace isn’t worth all this carnage.”
Of course, the MacGuffin of the games usually awards the big bad some sort of supernatural, Earth-ending power that makes Drake’s relentless, violent rampage meaningful, but we don’t know that from the beginning.
What if Drake had killed thousands of people for a necklace that doesn’t do anything?
The Last of Us, to me, is that game. Joel, who is essentially a humorless, old version of Nathan Drake, kills (if the player chooses) hundreds of men in his quest to save the human race. And then he doesn’t.
On my second play-through, I can’t help but think about all the senseless murder I’m committing in my attempts to complete an impossible objective. I know how it’ll end, and yet I persist.
I shoot the doctor in the face anyway.
I lead Sam into a pit of infected. I give Henry no reason to survive. I make Tess’s death meaningless. I make the near-death of my brother a trivial moment in time.
The Last of Us feels like an answer to the criticisms that Drake is too bloodthirsty and happy-go-lucky in a time where violence and its moral murkiness is at its most dangerous. It gives us the best reason possible for a person to kill, and then it forces us to make a decision that eradicates that reason. It puts a brick in our hands and tells us to kill enemies who fear death. Who scream to stay alive. And it makes us kill them anyway.
All because Joel misses his daughter. All because Joel feels the moral certitude to endager his species because he can’t bear to lose anyone else.
This year’s other gaming masterpiece, Bioshock: Infinite, attempts to settle the same issues with its violence.
It moralizes and questions your actions while you control a character who literally cannot put his gun down. And at the end of the story, it never mattered. All it took was a trip through a tear. And even then, even if the trip was never taken, there are infinite universes in which you did it anyway.
In the increasing sophistication of graphics engines and storytelling in modern games, the idea of killing an endless wave of human enemies has grown much more complicated and disturbing.
Developers have to try harder and harder to make us hate who we’re killing. They have to somehow justify the death we bring.
Bioshock: Infinite handled the issue in a post-modern rationalization. Even when you’re not killing, you’re killing somewhere else.
The Last of Us looks at the issue and says, You killed them all. Now keep going.
The impermanence of Bioshock: Infinite‘s finale is almost the complete opposite of The Last of Us. The temperance of an infinite world settles small deaths. However, the magnitude of Joel’s single decision is far-reaching and extremely permanent. The consequence is plainly sitting in front of us.
The Last of Us is one of the most exciting examples of a game that strives for something more. It’s a work of art that asks more questions than it answers. It demands full attention from the player, and it demands the moral fortitude to see what’s right when moral ambiguities abound.
Cameron Cook has been obsessed with, and haunted by, films of all kinds ever since that weird, singing fish jumped out of that pond in The Brave Little Toaster. Now he's all grown up, educated in the ancient art of writing and telling stories, and he's still wondering whose idea that fish was. What he does know is how to find a good writer, and he's spent his life working his way toward CultureMass.