Coming Full Circle: An Apocalyptically Beautiful Contradiction - ace13 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
Switch Lights

The lights are on

What's Happening

Coming Full Circle: An Apocalyptically Beautiful Contradiction

Note: This post contains spoilers, including a debate about the ending. Proceed with caution. (And if you have a PS3, and haven't played it yet, go get a copy and do so. Seriously.)


To say that The Last of Us was my most anticipated game of 2013 would be understatement. I can still remember how excited I was when the first trailer was revealed. From then on, any poor person around me would hear me gush about the game from time to time, especially as the June release date approached.  

Well, The Last of Us exceeded my expectations, and then some. Even having finished it a few weeks ago, I still find myself thinking about it. If you compare Naughty Dog's other series, Uncharted, with The Last of Us, you wouldn't find much in common. While Uncharted does have some deep moments, it's much more of a light-hearted adventure. And it's common for the protagonist, Nate Drake, to mow down waves of enemies, sometimes with a funny catchphrase or move. The game even acknowledges this a few times, such as when Elena Fisher exclaims to Nate, "I think we took out a small nation!" Or when Uncharted 2's antagonist, Zoran Lazarevic, famously asks: "You think I am a monster. But you're no different from me, Drake. How many men have you killed? How many... just today?"  

The Last of Us, on the other hand, isn't a fun game. While it does have some really funny moments, it's very dark. It doesn't glorify or reward players for killing anyone, and the things you've done, and the people you've killed, come back to haunt you. Even while playing as Joel and Ellie, you are not sure what they are capable of, let alone any other survivor.

"You kill to survive and so do we. We have to take care of our own, by any means necessary." -David

In the game's post-apocalyptic wasteland, Joel and Ellie travel across the country on their quest, encountering hunters, the Infected, and corpses inside and outside of the many run-down, abandoned buildings. Along the way they're either sneaking (or killing) their way past the miserable, wailing Infected or fellow human beings who want to kill/rob them. It's a grim atmosphere full of death.

This is the setting Naughty Dog thrusts players into. As you advance on your journey, it's constantly stressed that this is a dog-eat-dog world. Even right as the apocalypse was breaking out, Joel lost Sarah because of this view. And afterwards, with every person you encounter, they remind you of this too.

"Sir there's a little girl. But... yes sir."

"Please, don't."

 

"You think you know me? You have no idea what I'm capable of."

-David


One quote that popped into my mind as I encountered the last of us, or the remaining humans, was a quote from the movie, The Dark Knight. "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

This was hinted at the beginning of the game when Tommy, Sarah, and Joel were trying to escape the city during the outbreak. Tommy and Sarah wanted to pull over to help a family stranded on the side of the road, but Joel demanded that they drive on. Someone else would pull over for them, he insisted.

Fast forward twenty years later, and Tess, Joel's partner, admits that the two of them are crappy people. Joel and Tess smuggle medicine and weapons in and out of the quartine zone they live in. And they do whatever needs to be done to survive, as evidenced by the duo tracking down and murdering Robert, a man who stole their weapons to sell for himself. It's not hard to understand why Tommy eventually stopped working with Joel, and still has nightmares about Boston to this day.

As you travel outside of Boston with Ellie, you come across many different places and people who also serve as reminders that it's survival of the fittest. There were some enemies who panicked and exclaimed that they really didn't want to fight me. But I had to, there was no other choice.

It was also tough to scavenge through a college student's belongings and find a note that said that the government was choosing to stop sending out aid/evacuation help for those outside of quarantine zones. What a tragedy. All of these young people, living at college, with bright futures, were just doomed and left to fend for themselves.

Similarly, while traveling through the sewers, you discover the remains of a family who had made a life for themselves with their children, complete with a mini-school area, only to be attacked by the Infected. It was even more tragic to learn from reading their records that a perfect stranger had noticed this family, and out of an optimistic willingness to live together, took a chance and offered them a spot in his home underground.

These are the ways The Last of Us stresses that relying on somebody else is dangerous. And caring for someone else can be even worse. Bill, an acquaintance of Joel, is so afraid of this that he willingly chooses to live alone. His base is surrounded by booby traps, and he talks to himself to cope with tough situations. And you can't forget about poor Henry, who shot himself after being forced to kill his Infected little brother, Sam.

"Once upon a time, I had somebody that I cared about. And in this world, that sort of thing's good for one thing: Gettin' you killed."-Bill


It's only when Joel and Ellie venture away from the societal/governmental decay that they both start to see the beauty in nature, and of surviving. The Last of Us is one of the most poignant stories ever created about enduring, and the game's gorgeous setting is an interesting backdrop for this. After fighting hordes of men or the Infected, I often found myself simply looking around the environment and taking it in.


 


As you can see, the amount of detail Naughty Dog put into creating the environment deserves all of the praise it's received. Whether there was a sunset or sunlight peeking through trees, The Last of Us is one of the most stunning games I've ever played. What really impacted me though, is the contradiction between the beautiful scenery and the ugliness of humanity.

It sends a really striking message that the world has moved on, and will continue to do so, whether humans are shaping it or not. In fact, without civilization, it seems that nature only becomes more beautiful and strong as it takes over previously uninhabited territory.


 

However, one of my favorite aspects of The Last of Us' setting is how it has a more active role, instead of merely serving as the background. It's subtle, but extremely powerful, if you think about how both places, and people, come full circle in a way. It's how players get sucked into the game, and learn about how dangerous it is to care about someone else. Reading notes, exploring different areas, and going through former occupant's possessions all helped me feel like I was truly connected to the game. All were strong reminders of how the world, and the protagonists, used to be.


"Just so we're clear about back there. It was either him or me."-Joel

The setting also impressed upon me that it is truly "us or them". As I mentioned before, killing isn't encouraged, rather it's necessary if it's your only option (when sneaking fails). It's brutal, stopping you in your tracks sometimes, but unlike other games, while it doesn't excuse the act itself, you can understand character decisions.

For example, David is one of the most affecting antagonists I've ever encountered in any game. (Ironically, he's voiced by Nolan North, noted for his work as the lovable Nate Drake.) Ellie runs into him during the winter, when times are tough because supplies are scarce, and Joel is injured. Ellie is understandably skeptical of him, but in fighting together against a horde of Infected, he seems to be a decent guy. He talks about how he has a whole camp of people he's trying to provide for. You save his life, and vice versa.

But he also turns out to be a cannibal who has lost men he sent scavenging to "a crazy man and a little girl." That scene definitely took my breath away for a second. Yes, he's talking about Joel and Ellie, and he wants revenge against Joel.

"No such thing as luck. I believe everything happens for a reason."

-David 

"I lost most of my crew crossing the country. I pretty much lost everything. And then you show up and somehow we find you just in time to save her. Maybe it was meant to be."-Marlene


He has other, awful plans for Ellie too, trying to (what I believe included) sexually assaulting her. He's another reminder of what people have become, and what they've done, to survive. His battle with Ellie was extremely nail-biting. It was tough to imagine myself fighting for my life against some crazy survivor, who thought I was indeed the villain.


"Okay" or How Naughty Dog Packed So Much Power Into One Word:


I believe the mark of a great game is the impact left after it's completed. Based on the many discussions circling around, The Last of Us has remained with players long after finishing it. It is one of the best endings of any media in that it while it has a linear story and set script, due to the ambiguity, it leaves the decision making up to the player. Whatever motive you think Joel had, or however you think Ellie truly felt, differs for each player. It's a beautiful concept. 



Is Joel a hero, or did he become a villain?

Was humanity worth saving?

What does it mean to be strong in The Last of Us?

How does Ellie feel in the end?

When it's the end of the world, what really is "the right thing" to do?


These are the important questions I have thought about since finishing the game. I have come across people who believe Joel is not a villain, but rather that he's selfish and weak, or snapped mentally, because he couldn't survive after losing another loved one. Others say that in taking away Ellie's right to sacrifice herself for a possible cure, Joel did become the villain because he made the decision for her.



"Do you even know what your life means?"-Joel (to Ellie)

"I bring you the cure for mankind and you won't help me."-Joel (to Tommy)

 

"Find someone else."


In the closing cinematics, you're literally walking in Ellie's shoes as you head to your new home with Joel, who seems to be happy and talkative. She, on the other hand, is quieter. As you both approach the hill overlooking Tommy's camp, which is ironically where Joel considered leaving her behind earlier, Ellie stops him.

She opens up about how both her and a friend were bitten, and they decided it would be okay, almost poetic, to lose their minds together. As we all know, Ellie turned out to be immune, and she watched her friend die. Marlene, her mother's friend, ended up taking care of her and spearheaded the whole crusade for a cure, because of Ellie's "gift."




"Please, don't!" (A familiar phrase said at the beginning of the game when Joel was pleading for his and Sarah's lives...)


I've seen a lot of discussions about the ending, but one thing I think people miss about the big picture is that Ellie, while very clever and resilient, is still a child during the apocalypse. Henry comments that surviving doesn't really seem to faze her. Well, I think she was prepared (and expected) not to live for very long in it. Marlene herself even exclaims to Joel that Ellie dying for a potential cure is better than her being raped or ripped apart by Clickers. It's not very hard to imagine how this whole cure crusade has become a burden on her as Joel accompanies her across the country.



"After all we've been through. Everything that I've done. It can't be for nothing... What's the alternative?"-Ellie


I believe Ellie has made it her life's mission to find redemption for being lucky, for being immune. When Marlene tells Joel that Ellie would want this, to sacrifice herself, I do think she would have. But, and it's a huge but, a) I feel Ellie doesn't really know how to live, and she's afraid to be alone, therefore she is throwing herself at this cause, b) a cure is not guaranteed, and c) the manner in which the Fireflies tried to achieve a cure was wrong.


Have the Fireflies explained how they are going to distribute the cure, if it's even possible? Or will they use it to gain leverage against the government, which they have been fighting? Did they talk about any part of the procedure to Ellie? Did they actually get her consent?



Joel awakens to find himself separated from Ellie, who is already being prepped for surgery. Marlene offers him a short explanation, but that's about it. Granted, it's logical for her to assume that Ellie was just cargo to Joel and a goodbye wouldn't matter. However, Joel makes it clear that this isn't the case. His life is spared at least, but he's lead out at gunpoint from the facility still. After that, I panicked just as Joel did, racing through the soldiers standing between me and Ellie. I even killed two of the surgeons before I realized the remaining one was cowering in fear defensively. I'd be lying if it didn't remind me of the beginning of the game, in trying to get Sarah to safety, but it wasn't just about that. 




Based on research recordings, the Fireflies have been trying to find a cure using other test subjects to no avail. Marlene herself revealed how tired she was from all of the pressure. In the beginning, while she seems to be heroic, in the end she became another villain to me. She was so blinded by a potential cure that she didn't even mind sacrificing someone she claimed (to Joel) to have raised and loved more than he did.  



"Apparently, there's no way to extricate the parasite without eliminating the host. Fancy way of saying we gotta kill the kid. And now they're asking for my go ahead. The tests just keep getting harder and harder, don't they? I'm so tired. I'm exhausted and I just want this to end... so be it. Oh I miss you Anna. Your daughter will be with you soon."- Marlene


Again, while I do think Ellie would have wanted to try and save people, in a way, it's pretty scary how she was brainwashed. It seems no one has truly been "good" to her. When she ventured outside of the city walls, learning about the way things were with Joel, cracking jokes and looking at various things, she really came to life. I like to think if Joel got to speak with Ellie prior to the surgery, things would have turned out the same way, except Ellie would be helping Joel escape.


When Ellie determinedly asks Joel to confirm what he's said about the Fireflies is true, she's asking for some meaning. Ellie's disappointed that she couldn't help with a cure. She feels guilty for surviving while her loved ones haven't... and as I mentioned before, she's afraid of being alone. Joel does lie to her, (which I hope he eventually explains to Ellie, because she deserves it) which they both recognize, but more importantly, he gives her something to live for. Ellie realizes his answer is murky, but recognizes the intent behind it. 


They prove that sometimes, just one person can have a tremendous influence on our life. In the end, Ellie and Joel have each other, and their relationship is a symbol of hope when the world has ended. This, along with the belief that humanity can and will survive, without sacrificing the life of an innocent girl, is what I garnered from the ending.


In fact, as I was playing, it hit me later in the game with the giraffes, that perhaps humanity wasn't meant to be saved with a cure. Now, I'm not saying there aren't good people still alive in the world such as Tommy and his community. They can't be the only decent human beings left. But is one life not worthy of living if it could possibly save others? That's for each player to decide.
 
I think humanity can be saved by this goodness. The vaccine was never a guarantee, and even if it was produced, it can't ensure that society will build up as it used to be. Joel's love for Ellie and his commitment to her, and vice versa, is what can provide a way for humanity to rise up again, regardless of a cure or not. What good is a cure if humanity dies in the process? Instead of calling Joel weak because he can't give her up, I prefer to think that he's empowered by Ellie. There is strength in the love he has for her. He did what a lot of people haven't been able to due in the apocalypse, which is care for another person.




"Well, is it everything you hoped for?" "Jury's still out. But, man... you can't deny that view."

"So...this everything you hoped for?" "It's got its ups and downs. But... you can't deny that view though."


The scene with the giraffes is one of my favorite parts of the game. In comparing these scenes, Joel asks the same question, and Ellie has a similar response, but the intent behind both has changed. Again, this is an another example of how The Last of Us shows how far they've come. The Giraffes are not only a sign of hope, but also a symbol of Sarah. It's in this moment, not at the hospital, that I believe Joel decided for himself that humanity can live on without depending on killing a young girl, who he has come to love like his own daughter.






On the hill, again, it's another example of how the two of them have come full circle. Both have lost loved ones in the past. Ellie is afraid to be alone, while Joel was initially scared/incapable of getting close to anyone again. I knew because of how much he loved her and needed her, and how much she'd grown to feel the same way, that she accepted his "truth." With a simple, yet extremely powerful okay, she's saying, it's hard, but we can both live.





It's a masterpiece.




 

comments