The Moral Ambiguities In The Last Of Us

I wasn't always sure how to feel about the things I witnessed in The Last Of Us. We're about to enter a world of spoilerhurt. Proceed with caution.

Joel is a good man. After everything we've been through, as player and avatar, I still whole-heartedly believe that. I kind of have to believe that. Because everything he ever fought for was something he believed in. Something I could believe in. But Joel's path wasn't always a clean one. And it wasn't just because he had to bash a couple of dudes' heads in with a brick. The decisions he made throughout the survival experience are a lot more complex than that.

There are a few major points in the story I want to go over in regard to the right and wrongs of The Last Of Us and, in particular, its ending.

The Rescue

Had Ellie been my daughter, or someone who had grown to become my daughter figure, I would never sacrifice her life even to save the lives of millions of others. Sorry, guys. Nothing comes in the way of family.

Since this is a video game, I actually might have done so in a virtual world where I can be more flexible with my emotions. If developers Naughty Dog gave me the choice of handing Ellie over to the Fireflies or refusing the surgery, I probably would've done the "right" thing and saved mankind, or at least given mankind a chance to be saved.

I don't begrudge Joel his decision. Like I said, I would have done the same. But there's a very specific distinction in the way that entire situation went down that makes Joel's decisions all the more righteous.

Let's recap. The Fireflies hit Joel over the head while he attempts to save Ellie's life. Then, he wakes up in a hospital and is told that no, you can't see Ellie and sorry, she's going to die whether you like that or not. No discussions. No questions. Just shut up and take it. After you went above and beyond the deal you made with Marlene, after you almost get yourself killed spending a year tracking these bastards down, and after they still don't give you the supply of guns promised in exchange for Ellie's delivery, the least they could have done was offer the courtesy of a conversation. With Ellie present in the room, prepared to make her own decision. That seems like the fair thing to do. But it's nowhere near what happened.

And that's why Joel's masacre of the Fireflies makes sense to me. Including the murder of the surgeon that would have ended her life. I spared the other two doctors, but only because I knew they wouldn't dare stand in my way. Not after I'd just shot their lead surgeon in the head without the slightest flinch. How could I entrust the life of my daughter to a group of people who could so easily disregard us and everything we'd been through to get there? To help them, no less?

The Kill

A few of you took issue with the fact that I called Marlene an "innocent" woman in a piece I wrote yesterday. Some of you shook your heads, claiming that she had deceived Ellie all along.

Let's remember one thing: Ellie is the daughter of one of Marlene's closest friend. After her mother's death, Ellie was put in Marlene's care. Marlene loved Ellie. That much is clear from her journal and recordings that you gather at the latter half of the game. But that's not all we learn about Marlene.

Though she's introduced to us as the "queen" Firefly, Marlene slowly lost control over the Fireflies as their organisation began to crumble. And though they'd asked for her permission to go ahead with the surgery, a surgery that would ultimately kill Ellie, Marlene knew they weren't really asking for her permission at all. She considered it a test. She was no longer the queen. The desperation in her tone when she's speaking with you in those final scenes at the hospital make that pretty evident. (Specifically when she's first explaining her position to you after you wake up from the knock on your head.)

So while it seems like she may have betrayed Joel and Ellie, I don't believe any of it was up to her in the end.

Was the entire situation handled badly? Yes. Was it Marlene's fault? No. Was she a good, strong woman? In many ways, yes. In other ways, she had lost a lot of that by the end of the game. But I think her heart was in the right place. She's an innocent, albeit misfortunate woman.

I can't blame Marlene for the decisions she's made or where it's led her. She put necessity over emotion. She sought a greater cause that would affect the future of mankind. But in that same line of thinking, I can't blame Joel for gunning her down. Though his efforts wouldn't save mankind, his motivations — to protect Ellie — are just as noble. His definition of "necessity" was just a different one than Marlene's, however intertwined with emotion it was. In the world of The Last Of Us, it's kill or be killed, and Joel is no risk-taker.

The Lie

This is the big one, and one I've seen debated in the comments on Kotaku. This is also perhaps the one instance I couldn't sympathize with Joel. And it's for a simple reason. I respect honesty. I very much dislike dishonesty. I can understand white lies or waiting for the right time to make confessions, but Joel flat-out lied to Ellie about their last encounter with the Fireflies.

The look on Ellie's face said everything: she knew. And she accepted it, I imagine, for the same reason that I feel compelled to believe that Joel is a good person. Because all things considered, he still is. His sole purpose has become Ellie and protecting Ellie and being with Ellie. But in that moment when he lied to her, I knew it wasn't for her — out of love or protection over her — it was for him. He made the selfish decision to deny any dissent, because he had already made up his mind. He was keeping Ellie. She was going to live, and they were going to live together. Shielding her from what happened with the Fireflies wasn't for her benefit, because she already knew the truth. Ellie just wanted to see how Joel would respond when confronted.

Ellie's final speech to Joel about survivor's guilt is incredibly telling. It wasn't the same kind of guilt Joel was talking about. Joel probably wished he had died in place of his daughter, Sarah. Ellie's wish is something entirely different. She wanted to do something that would make every death she witnessed mean something. For all of her friends that died in front of her, she wanted to make a difference. I'm willing to bet that given the choice, given a conversation with the Fireflies that they never got, Ellie would have sacrificed her life. She would have convinced Joel to let her go and The Last Of Us would have been a very different game. But she was never given the option, by the Fireflies or by Joel.

After all of Ellie's growth with Joel — after he slowly came to trust her to protect herself — it all suddenly felt stunted in that moment. Ellie's matured in so many ways, but in that moment Joel chose not to confide in her. It's the one thing I truly regret the game making me do.


    I was one of the people that was with Joel all the way - I burnt the doctors with fire, all of them, and I would have gladly pulled the trigger on Marlene and pressed X to lie if it were a playable event. I'm not saying what he did was right, but as a father I perfectly understood his motivations.

    But moral ambiguities aside, at least we can all agree that the paedophile cannibal was evil! Didn't know it was Nolan North until the credits.

    I didn't think joel was a good person at all. That's what I think was so clever about the game. It got you to identify with the guy, and then witness him do lots of monstrous things through out. Sure that's the world he lives in yada yada yada, he still kills a lot of dudes, some through torture.

    Still loved the game though. But I never thought Joel was a good guy. I didn't need to, to enjoy the ride that they took me on.

      Yeah that's one of the things that I thought was awesome about this game. In Uncharted, you're this lovable wise-cracking moral person, who in gameplay then goes and kills thousands of dudes. But in this game, you're a survivor, and in this world that often means a murderer. It's not immediately obvious because we're used to killing people in games, but Joel is never really a "good guy". He mentions it to Ellie that he's done ambushes and killed innocent people before, and I get the impression that's what the falling out with Tommy was about.

        YES! That's exactly what I was thinking!

        To be honest, I find this sort of world pretty depressing, I like to think that people would be more likely to help each other than just fall into cannibalism and banditry in that way. But that was the ride they wanted us to take.

        I always had a problem with uncharted. Great game but as many have said, the juxtaposition between the jokes and wisecracks and the killing of so, so many is a bit strange.

          i guess its just human nature to revert back to our primitive instincts when the fabric of society breaks down. remove law and order and that is what would happen i believe. plenty of people will band together and help each other but when people get desperate they will do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival.
          of course it could totally end up another way. i guess we won't know until the apocalypse haha

      In a world like that, with no real laws, it becomes every man for himself. Black and white morals suddenly become every shade of grey in between.

      He wouldn't survive a week in that world being the stereotypical 'good guy'.

      Last edited 05/07/13 1:28 pm

        If you say so. I don't see it the way you do. I see it in grey, but you're actually the one being black and white. "everyone else is a murderer so I will be too".

          That's a fair enough. All I meant is that you can't survive by just being a really nice guy. I mean where do you draw the line?

          If someone attacks you and tries to kill you, what would you do to survive?

            Totally understand. I would do what I could to survive. But I'm more a 'clean kill if I have to' person. I'm not a torture you to death guy.

            Playing the game, I sneak around most enemies if I can. On the harder settings, you get swarmed really easily, and I hate taking down enemies that I can clearly see have a shotgun, to get absolutely no shotgun bullets or anything off them.

            Probably my biggest annoyance of the game. If I take down a dude, I should at least get a few spare bullets from the weapons he's carrying.

              Yeah I was sneaking around too. But in some areas OCD kicked in and I had to take them down so I could explore everything. I wish there was a non-lethal takedown.

              Probably my biggest annoyance of the game. If I take down a dude, I should at least get a few spare bullets from the weapons he's carrying.

              There was a funny pic I saw a few days ago that made fun of how the infected can drop ammo, but people with guns didn't. I did find that a little odd but I suppose it's how they kept ammo more scarce. I agree though that they should have given you the bullets - would have made it more realistic too.

                Totally. Just 1 or 2 bullets. Would've made getting through on hard a bit easier. Most of the time I was walking around with less than 5 rnds ready to go.

      Not good by modern civilized standards certainly, but civilization had broken down here, and civilized morality is completely maladaptive and would get you killed. From the perspective of a more tribal system of morality, where you protect those in your tribe (or group) over everything and anything else, including the rest of humanity, then hes a good person.

    Nothing comes in the way of family. She's technically not family. ;)

    I think Marlene had good intentions. I don't recall there being anything during the game to suggest that she wanted Ellie's demise or knew that it would be required to save humanity. It could have been simply the fact that the medical staff realized it was the only way to do it.

    Joel probably went "f*ck humanity, after what I've experienced and after seeing the most horrible side of it, why should I attempt to save it", plus you're right, he considered Ellie as his daughter by that stage. Which brings me back to the top point - namely that it doesn't have to be all about family (i.e. blood ties).

    People build relationships with others. This can take time. Some people are closer to their friends than to their family, etc.

    Over all it was an amazing experience and a game that deeply explored different facets of human emotions. The entire spectrum from love to hatred.

      After his year with her, joel considered her as a replacement for his daughter, she was definitely family to him in his eyes.

      The point he realizes this is after ellie kills dave or robert (forget his name), he calls her "baby girl" which are the same thing he calls Sarah when she dies.

        Yeah I know, I was just pointing out the fact that you don't need to have the same blood to be in a family, nor do you need to like your own family simply because you have the same blood.

        It just depends on how we use the word 'family' - whether it's biological or otherwise.

          sorry, i was on my phone before and didn't see that you already mentioned that. :)

    I finished this yesterday and it's kinda funny looking back on the confrontation with the doctors, there wasn't even a moments hesitation to shoot the lead surgeon. Like, I didn't even think about not shooting, I just shot whereas normally I might wait it out just to see what happens. I don't know if the game forces you into doing that because I had done it instinctively and so quickly that I couldn't even tell. And then I proceeded to point the gun at the other two and hesitated. I didn't shoot them, but I would have if they had tried anything.

    At the time it didn't seem like much, but thinking about it now, I would have done the EXACT same thing if it were a real life situation, and I don't think a video game has ever made me do what I would do in real life purely because it is a video game and I don't think a game has ever made my instincts kick in like that. It's an odd feeling. Hats off to Naughty Dog.

    Last edited 05/07/13 1:30 pm

      No, the game doesn't force you to shoot him. I stabbed him with his own scalpel - he threatens you with it and does try and prevent you from getting to Ellie otherwise.

      I shot the surgeons. And I liked it. >:)

        I shot them all. And oddly enough it seemed the appropriate thing to do in the situation. I sort of thought it was a bit wasteful later, seeing as there probably weren't that many doctors left and all.

      I didn't shoot. So joel stabbed him in the throat for me.

      The whole time I was thinking "oh nooo. Nooo. Don't do that. Oh nooo."

      Just like when he tortured those guys to death in the cabin. Even though they deserved it.

      i didn't even think about what was going on. i just busted in there and popped all 3. then i stopped and thought "shit!! was i meant to shoot them" haha.

    I became so protective of Ellie. I made sure she was always safe, no matter what. It was strange.

    If it was real life, I would have done the same thing. I would have protected her at all cost. Considering how civilisation had degenerated in those twenty years between the outbreak and game play, I don't think that the cure would have done much. All you can do is find something that's worth fighting for and stick with it.

      *sings* I need something good to die for, to make it beautiful to live! *sings*

      - Queens of the Stone Age

      I love how whenever you were next to Ellie in cover, you'd put your arm around her protectively. There'd be moments when we were there, hiding from bad guys, and I'd almost silently whisper "Don't worry, I'll protect you Ellie".

      That got me. That and "scooch" on the horse. :)

        Ahhhh, I need to get my copy back from a friend so I can play it again now. All this talk is making me want to get back into it for another playthrough.

        My favourite part, where my heart swelled the most was where Joel saves her in the building with the cannibal and he's just holding her and he just says "Oh, baby girl."

        It was at that moment I knew he'd do anything for her.

          Oh yeah, the feels, and how it echoes him saying "baby girl"to his daughter as she died. That game. Oh man, what a game.

          And to think that to many non-gamers, when they think of "computer games" all that comes to mind is pacman and maybe Call of Duty.

      Not that strange - in fact its more likely that you're a bit abnormal if you didn't react that way. I'm not overly sentimental and the game certainly got to me. I was very motivated to kill everyone of the Fireflies between me and Ellie after that initial scene with Marlene in the hospital.

      The game pushes every 'protector instinct' button we have, and then some. Our species wouldn't still be around if we couldn't be motivated to act this way towards young people in our 'family'.

    Are we at the bottom of the page? OK. Awesome. Can un-cross my eyes now.
    Thanks for the spoiler warning. That is all. Bookmarked to read later.

    I respect Joel's decision so much because I think if I was put in that position, I wouldn't have been strong enough to save Ellie. I worry that if given the choice, I might have left Ellie with the Fireflies.
    I think Joel did the right thing, but I think he was still debating with himself whether or not it was. When Marlene said "It's what she'd want" Joel knew Ellie hadn't been given the choice, so he chose. Humanity can still survive. Humanity will survive in this world because people like Joel exist, people who fight for the right reasons.

    Last edited 05/07/13 2:11 pm

      I'm amazed at how easy they made it for him to just walk away... And while I don't agree with his decision, I greatly respect Joel's conviction for not taking that easy way out and sticking to his choice.

    You say that Joel is a good guy, but in this world everything he did was selfish. He is one of the most likeable villains in current gaming, naughty dog made us believe what we did was right for Joel, but for everyone else it was wrong and evil. Joel even says it himself, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but when push came to shove, he could practice what he preached. Joel is a horrible person, but that's one of the many reasons I love this game. It drags you in thinking that your doing whats right, but upon reflection, Joel is as bad as most other people in the game.

    Last edited 05/07/13 2:20 pm

    I blasted the lead doctor's guts open without even thinking about it because he was clearly going to hurt Ellie and he most likely would have attacked me too. I didn't kill the nurses, but obviously its easier to make these choices in a game. right after killing the doctor, I just thought to myself "fuck,I just shot that dude without even thinking about it".

      Thinking on the subject a little more, I recall the lead surgeons body language being far more confrontational than the other two who proceeded to back up. I wonder if that added to my ability to shoot him so easily, and if it was planned by Naughty Dog or if it was some sort of hard wiring in our brains. Probably looking into it too much, but it's interesting.

        In the making of documentary, they mention that originally that confrontation was going to be a cutscene, and somebody on the team (can't remember who), pushed for it to be playable instead. Good call I reckon.

          Bloody good call. Is the making of documentary in the bonuses section or on a collectors edition or something? I'd like to watch this.

            Yes I'm sure it comes with one of those packages - I think the season pass. So I guess that this version on youtube will be taken down eventually.


        you're right, I think it may have something to do with our natural sense of danger - "fight or flight"
        usualy in a game I go for an effective shot, like a headshot or heartshot, but this was a reaction rather than a tactical action.

    Ellie did have her say. It is explicitly discussed just after the Giraffe encounter at the Zoo. Joel suggests they leave this struggle behind and go to Tommy's. The Fireflies might not be there, it might not work, it's just not worth risking their lives anymore. Ellie is resolute, 'it can't all be for nothing'. She doesn't flinch, she has her goal and hers is the gift that she's seen so many die for already and she can't let it be in vain. Joel is obviously disappointed, his priorities have shifted now that he has something that resembles what he lost to cling to. Twenty years ago the authorities took his 'baby girl' from him and he isn't willing to chance it a second time. But it's not up for discussion, Ellie's mind is made up.

    She accepts Joel's lie - we presume - but the conversation that is denied at the Hospital has already been had.

    My consideration for The Rescue was that it was a fishing expedition. The justification Marlene gave was the the scientists involved couldn't figure out how Ellie was immune, so that wanted to kill her and see if having access to the cordyceps around her brain might provide the answer. But it was entirely plausible - even likely - that it wouldn't give any answers, either. They'd kill her, and be no closer to a cure. So Joel's lie is true, from a certain point of view. Because otherwise, Ellie would've sacrificed herself for no good reason. Joel pretty much wiped out the Fireflies to rescue her. The lie maybe gives Ellie a chance to live a normal life, have kids (who maybe will inherit her immunity) and maybe learn the truth when she was an adult (I wouldn't burden a scarred 14-year old girl with the truth, either, even if I didn't know her from a sack of potatoes).

    I also, on reflection, was a bit contemptuous of the surgeons. They wanted permission to kill Ellie, but didn't want to be culpable - they made Marlene - in many ways Ellie's surrogate mother - make the decision to salve their own consciences. That's why I shot both of them and left the nurse alive - I don't have a lot tolerance for someone who wants permission to kill a 14 year old girl out of scientific curiosity, but tries to absolve themselves of any blame despite being the ones wielding the knife. To me, that's ... well, I don't want to draw the ire of the Gowin's Law people, but it certainly is reminiscent of a certain infamous doctor from the mid-twentieth century who was famous for unethical human experimentation.

    I think a lot of the morality in the game can be derived from the title. This isn't a game about saving the human race - that boat has pretty much sailed. You see all the QZs that have gone under, the way humans preying on humans is now the norm, and the continuous losses the Fireflies have endured as they scope and size is whittled away. Assuming a cure could be discovered, mass-produced and distributed (all very unlikely), human civilization is toast anyway. What's left really is the last of us.

      see if having access to the cordyceps around her brain might provide the answer

      I have a decent understanding of immunology, and that whole thing didn't fly with me. The key to the cure would more likely be in Ellie herself not her brain fungus. So I very much interpretted this as a long shot, and that they were essentially going to kill her for nothing, or worse, prematurely before making sure that she didn't have some awesome immune thing going on that they could make a vaccine out of. And the point about saving the human race as it had came to be - not particularly appealing. So yeah, was barely even a choice for me.

    Just out of curiosity, everyone should right "Do have kids" or "Don't have kids" after their post...

    the one thing i regret about The Last Of Us is reading this article, i was feeling so good about everything TLOU until i read this and ingested your negative spin

    I understand the lie part, when some one I cared about died I couldn't bring myself to say it out loud because when you say it, when you tell other people what happened that makes it real. It sounds weird now but then for weeks after I never said died I would just say she's gone and I wouldn't say more than that. Thats why i understand why he lies and why even though Ellie knows its a lie she goes along with it because to actually say what they did would mean they have to confront what Joel did.

      Interesting that some people assume Ellie knows about the lie. At most I would say she suspects, which is why she asked Joel to swear it was the truth. Even if she suspects it is a lie, she doesn't really have any indication of what the truth is, as we assume that she didn't regain consciousness between almost drowning and being prepped for surgery. If she had regained consciousness, you'd think she would have talked with the Fireflies to at least some degree, and therefore have an idea of what Joel did at the hospital.

    The lie at the end was strange and hard to accept for me at first.

    Thinking more about it though, it made sense. Joel became Ellie's surrogate father in a lot of ways. Parents, unfortunately, lie for the sake of their children. Santa is real etc - in order for them to be able to survive.

    It was a great ending that left me fulfilled and yet wanting more. I'm wondering why you didn't go into the moral complexities of when he was torturing those two men for Ellie's whereabouts in the winter section, after she had been captured. That was brutal, yet it was also cutscene. And unnecessary too, I think. That was the harshest section of the game, I believe - the whiteout made the blood so much more apparent, and the world itself had seemed to turn on them. I wish Naughty Dog had explored that with some clickers, and overall, I felt that there was a lack of mutants in the story, as the few times I was stuck with them were some of the most exciting and tense gameplay I'd ever experienced.

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