Initially, I had doubts Naughty Dog would be able to break away from the framework they established with the ‘Uncharted‘ series. Although the series is a massive success, it was becoming old hat. But their latest entry, ‘The Last of Us‘, showcases an amazing depth of what Naughty Dog can deliver. What Naughty Dog crafted here is, hands down, one of the best gaming experiences this generation. Everything from the character and level design, UX/UI interface, story presentation, and so on just shines. But most of the chatter around this game circles around one major aspect, the ending. If you completed the game, then you know know it was nothing short of shocking. As a forewarning, this post will contain heavy spoilers though out. Do NOT read any further if you have not completed the game.
I appreciate and love that Naught Dog did not give us game built entirely on conventional themes or cookie cutter characters. This is a look at an early dystopia and there no heroes or bad guys. There are no happy endings. For all loses, Joel is clearly not a ‘good’ man. He’s not even close to being a disgraced or fallen hero. Even at the onset of the game, he’s shown to be a very selfish individual. In the very beginning while driving through town, they see a family trying to flag them down for help. But Joel forcefully insists that his brotherTommy keep driving and leave them. Even his daughter Sarah makes a minor quibble about this. After surviving an ambush, Ellie asks Joel how he knew they entered an ambush and if he killed any ‘innocent’ people. Dryly, Joel responds he’s been on both sides of the situation regarding her former question and leaves it up to her decided regarding the latter. Most of his motivations are shown to be in his own self-interests, even to the very end. In another instance, Joel and Ellie partner up with another lone wolf and cub duo by the names, Henry and Sam. During a pursuit by some hunters, Joel is suddenly cut off from the group. A flustered Henry hesitates, but fails to see any immediate solution. Henry then leaves Joel and Ellie to fend for themselves. This example is played out many times throughout the game. Regardless of who these people were in the old world has little relevance here, what matters is survival. In short: ‘good’ people are sometimes forced to make ‘bad’ decisions given the situations they’re put in.
This game is just chockfull of these kind of humanistic moments.There’s one touching scene between Ellie and Sam where she gives me a toy robot he had to leave behind. This is off set by the next morning where it’s revealed Sam is infected and is by by his brother, Henry. The grief of which drives him to commit suicide right there. I call out this scene for a few reason. One, this is a perfect example of how well Naughty Dog is able to convey human emotions and moments flawlessly. And second, they display a keen attention to detail. Before this event occurs, your group is in a toy store where Ellie will stand next to the robot. Proceed to the next section but don’t go through the door just yet. Turn around and look at Ellie, the toy robot will be gone. This kind of attention to detail and continuity is what makes this game memorable. If there were any protagonists in the game, it would be Ellie. Despite seeing the world fall into madness, Ellie still maintains an air ‘innocence’ (and I say that ever so slightly). Her teen sensibilities and child-like nature provides the perfect balance to Joel’s gruff nature. But unfortunately, she’s never really given a true moment to be the “hero” of the game aside from saving a dying Joel. Who, arguably, may not be worth saving in the first place.
But that’s the real question: who’s worth saving in the first place? Joel and Henry briefly discuss how quickly people turned on each other when the infected begin to spread. On one hand, it’s easy to empathize with Marlene’s perspective. The key to humanity’s survival potentially lies with Ellie (more specifically, within her brain). We learn that Marlene has essentially raised Ellie from a young age after the death of her biological mother. And the choice to sacrifice her does not come lightly but she believes it is for the greater good. In contrast, Joel has never quite come to terms with the death of his own daughter Sarah. But the journey with Ellie, has softened him into viewing her as his adoptive ‘daughter’. There was no way Joel could endure that kind of loss again, humanity be damned. It’s interesting how both Joel and Marlene are surrogate parents to Ellie; yet they both have their own agendas in mind. There’s also some eerily Messianic ties in this dynamic. Would you sacrifice your only ‘child’ for the greater good of man no matter how far they’ve fallen? For Marlene, begrudgingly Yes. For Joel, Hell No! Ultimately, it was not a decision for either of them to make. It should have been Ellie’s choice. Granted, laying the fate of humanity at the feet of a child is extremely messed up in itself. But it’s still a decision that belonged to Ellie, not her ‘parents’. Joel was right about one thing: Marlene would never stop hunting them. Obviously, that’s no sound justification for killing her, but it is a fairly accurate assumption given Marlene’s demeanor. In the end, it’s clear Ellie knows something doesn’t add up with Joel’s explanation of what happened. Part of me even believes that Ellie realized later on that she was going die to help develop a cure, but played along as a comfort to Joel. What is clear is their relationship going forward is standing on some serious rocky ground.
In closing, a big round of applause and bravo to Naughty Dog for delivering such an outstanding masterpiece. I love this game so much that I truly hope they opt NOT to make a sequel. I’d welcome the planned DLC, but the game itself is perfect as a stand alone title, moral ambiguity and all. What do you think?