The lights are on
I suspect that Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is going to be many people's game of the year. It's certainly mine. It's an experience that has stayed with me long after I finished it. In the months that have passed since it released, I've continued to think about the game's ambivalent ending and what it means.
[Note: This article contains many spoilers]
I reviewed the game in June. One of the challenges of being a game critic is the delicate balance that must be struck between discussing the impact of the experience while, at the same time, not spoiling any major plot points and robbing the reader of the opportunity to experience the game for themselves.
So, while I alluded to the ending and expressed some of my feelings about it, I couldn't deal in many of the specifics. I'm writing this to go into more detail, because The Last of Us's ending was, to me, a watershed moment for gaming, a work of genuine daring on the part of the game's creators.
If you're still reading, I'm going to assume that you've finished the game. If you haven't, stop reading. Don't cheat yourself of the opportunity to experience the full impact of the moment.
The Last of Us's deft dialogue and characterizations of its protagonists Joel and Ellie allow the it to build a bond between the player and the characters that few game achieve. Both Joel and Ellie are built from familiar archetypes: the taciturn tough guy and the young girl in distress. But The Last of Us turns these stereotypes on their head. In many ways, Joel, still haunted by the shocking death of his daughter which plays out in the game's opening, is the one who's emotionally needy. Ellie, despite her age and inexperience, possesses a steely grit that comes forward in the last third of the game when when the player takes control of her in a particularly grisly segment involving a cult that's imprisoned her.
At various points, both defy our expectations - and both do things far beyond the pale in order to survive. On the one hand, they are doing what we expect video game characters to do: they kill in order to survive until the end of the experience. However, Naughty Dog doesn't flinch from the implications of their deeds. In its own Uncharted series, Nathan Drake is portrayed as a charming rogue - despite the fact that he murders dozens and dozens of human beings over the course of each game. For Joel and Ellie, who are traversing a post-apocalyptic world that's a good sight more grim than any Uncharted adventure, the death toll is higher - and much more gory. Though we remain attached to them, in large part due to their increasing affection for each other, the game's ending doesn't allow us the cognitive dissonance that usually comes from "likeable" protagonists who, from another perspective, could be considered mass murderers.
This moral bill comes due in the game's final half-hour, which is as gripping a sequence as I've played. After surviving untold dangers, Joel and Ellie have finally found the "Fireflies" - a group of survivors who are reportedly working towards a cure to the plague that has decimated humanity and turned millions into blind, grotesque mutants. Ellie, who discovered she was immune to the disease after being attacked by a "clicker", hopes that she holds the key to the cure. As it turns out, she does - but the procedures needed to be performed on her to extract a vaccine will kill her. The Fireflies, who will see it as their only chance to save humanity, are prepared to to whatever is necessary - including ending Ellie's life.
After they take Ellie, Joel escapes his captors and fights through throngs of Fireflies to save her. Its a set-up we've seen many times before: the embattled hero fights against the odds to save the object of his affection, in this case his adopted daughter figure. At the end he succeeds, and murders Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, in cold blood with an unconscious Ellie in his arms. As Marlene, already wounded, pleads with Joel to reconsider and allow Ellie to be sacrificed for the good of humanity, he walks up and says, "You'd only come after her." - and shoots her in the head.
The game cuts to Joel in the car. We soon see Ellie, waking up from the anesthesia. She's unharmed, and ask Joel what happened. He lies, saying that the Fireflies had discovered that there was no cure, that they had given up trying.
The travel back to the wilderness compound occupied by Joel's brother and a band of survivors. On the way, they talk, Joel saying how he thinks that his daughter would have liked Ellie. It appears that we're headed for a conventional conclusion, with Ellie and Joel picking up the pieces of their lives and walking off into the sunset.
But then Ellie stops. She tells Joel a story of the first night that she was bitten, how she watched her friend turn into a twisted creature before her eyes - "I'm still waiting for my turn." She looks Joel in the eyes and asks him to swear that he's told the truth about the Fireflies and the cure. He looks back and says, "I swear." Ellie gives and inscrutable look, and says, "Okay."
Then...the credits roll. There's no conclusion, no resolution. We'll never be sure if Ellie believes Joel or where the two will end up. I remember feeling pinned to my chair, struck dumb by a game that - for once - wouldn't wrap things up neatly.
Was Joel a hero, saving the life of a young girl from the ruthless Fireflies who would have sacrificed her? Was he a villain, dooming humanity to save someone who didn't want to be saved, who desperately wanted to know that she died helping save millions of survivors?
These questions remain; we've debated them in the office many times since the game was released in June. For me, I think The Last of Us hit so hard because, ultimately, I think it made me relate to a man who, in many ways, was a monster. Joel killed often and remorselessly, all to save a girl that he hoped would replace his own daughter - without asking her if she wanted to be saved. In the process, he wiped out humankind's last chance of survival - and Ellie's last chance for her life to truly mean something. At the same time, I look at my own daughter and realize what I might do to save her. On some level, I'm disgusted by Joel, but wonder what I myself would be capable of in the same situation. It's an incredibly bleak ending to an incredibly bleak game, and it's one of the many reason that The Last of Us is the game that affected me the most in 2013.
I doubt I'll play The Last of Us again. Having been through the harrowing journey, as expertly crafted as it was, I have no desire to relive it. But I can guarantee I will never forget it.