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.
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?
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.
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.