The story of a minor character you never meet in The Last Of Us teaches one inescapable truth of that world: one way or another you are getting blood on your hands and you’d best make sure it’s not your own.
Note: the article contains mid-game spoilers for The Last of Us.
Ish is first mentioned shortly after you escape Pittsburgh with Henry and Sam, in a note you find on an old boat:
Well… It’s looking like I’ve dodged the chaos and the mayhem long enough. My time out at sea is coming to an end. I’m short on supplies and this boat has seen better days. And you know what… This was bound to happen sooner or later. I guess it’s time to go see what’s left of mankind.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
If you happen to find my skeleton, please don’t step on my skull. Thanks.
Like a lot of notes in the game, it helps flesh out environment details and backstory, but in Ish’s case this isn’t a one-shot deal to explain a random body. Instead his story grows to give you a glimpse into his life and those of the people he touched. It’s one of the only times the game makes some space to expand and explore what happened to another group in any detail. As you explore the sewers you discover more notes and slowly piece together their history. And it’s a miserable tale.
A second note inside a sewer shows Ish is a survivor, but a non-confrontational one: he resolves to settle in and wait “until it all gets sorted up there”, while others are clawing at each other’s throats for bottled water and tinned food.
I’m gone for a few months and the world doesn’t waste any time going to shit. Everywhere you turn there’re infected — and non-infected — trying to kill you. Mankind is back to the food chain, baby! I’m kind of shocked I’ve survived this long.
These sewers seem pretty safe. Unlimited exits/entrances make it easier to defend, and if anyone gets in here, I can lose them in the maze.
I might not be tough, but I am quick. Maybe I just need to bide my time down here until it all gets sorted up there. I think I’ll become a sewer mole-man for a while.
Wish me luck.
Obviously the day things got sorted never came and Ish’s attempts to wait things out slowly transformed into the everyday grind of survival, his note making it clear ‘normal’ people were just as dangerous as the infected. His path was to avoid both. But the weight of one man’s decision would mean little against The Last Of Us‘ backdrop on its own. Which is what makes little foreshadowing touches like this start to make your arm hair prickle:
You see, Ish isn’t alone. He’s a good man, and what does a good man do? He tries to help. Not only is Ish optimistically waiting for better days and avoiding trouble, when he meets others doing the same he throws his doors open — as outlined in a trading note you can pick up:
Yesterday I met with some people who did not want to shoot me on sight. Shocking, I know. We traded some supplies and went on our merry way.
They had kids with them and they seemed pretty scared. I almost told them about this place. What if they’re like the others? What if…
You know what? I don’t care. What’s the point of surviving if you don’t have someone to laugh at your lame jokes?
Tomorrow, I’m going to search for them. See if they want to join me in here.
Not long after that it becomes clear that he did find them and the community he created as a result was all about the kids. From a bright castle painted around a door frame to this sign:
Those aren’t instructions for grown-ups, that’s someone worrying about the safety of children they can’t watch all day; trying to keep them safe without letting the outside world press in too much on what it means to be a child. There’s evidence of the group’s focus on the kids everywhere. Not long after you find a football and set of goalposts painted on the wall and Ellie and Sam play while you explore.
Apart from the whole ‘being in a sewer’ thing there’s a faint sense of optimism to all this. It’s not just that people made it through, but that they made it through well — caring for each other and resisting the call to turn into predatory animals like the majority of survivors you encounter.
Later, you find a series of barrels and pipes constructed to collect rainwater, along with this note:
I just wanted to drop you a quick line and say these rain-catchers were a great idea. Super smart to gather water without leaving the place.
I hope you don’t mind, but I gave the kids a couple of water guns. So of course… I’ve been drenched all day.
If you don’t want them to have it, let me know and I’ll take them back.
See you at dinner tonight. Fair warning though — Kyle is making his special “meatloaf” again.
It speaks volumes of the group dynamic. The children are playing. The adults are working together and even making jokes about each other, suggesting they have been together long enough to form significant relationships. The most telling part of the whole area though is the classroom: Ish and his group obviously thought the children had enough of a future to make education worth pursuing. Brightly coloured letter tiles cover the floor while the alphabet is written on a whiteboard, although only up to ‘R’, as if they were interrupted.
Think about this for a second: those whiteboards, letter tiles, footballs didn’t start in the sewer. Ish, Kyle, Susan and Danny must have gone out looking for them. Risking their lives for the kids while the rest of the world fought in the dirt. It’s one of the few parts of the game that doesn’t seem to be completely laden with gloom and suffering. There’s hope in those rooms.
Except they died. They all died. They tried to do the right thing and they died. It becomes clear not long after you push through the painted castle door and are attacked by the infected. “Well,” says Ellie, “at least we know what happened to these people”. She only knows the world as it is now and barely seems to care. The statement’s practically a quip she throws out.
It’s a miserable lesson. Especially so soon after escaping the hunters in Pittsburgh. A note there had explained how a group of teenagers were rewarded for murdering a family because they’d ‘procured supplies for the good of the group’. That decision by the leaders of the time created the culture of murderous scavengers you have to run from with Sam and Henry. If Ish’s naive idealism is one end of the spectrum then they’re the other: a group that only see people as resources to be harvested. The ‘tourists’ as they call them. There’s a clear winner.
The two contrasting Pittsburgh city and sewer sections are so close together it seems to hammer home the idea that the strong survive while the weak get eaten. That’s the law of the this world now. Ish and his group learned this the hard way and it’s only made worse as you push through the settlement and discover how. This place chewed them up as hard as it could:
We’re trapped. I think everyone else is dead. Some of the little ones are with me. I got infected pounding at the door. I don’t know how long we’ll hold out. If Ish and the others are alive, maybe they can reach us. They have to reach us.
If it comes down to it I’ll make it quick.
“Jesus”, mutters Joel on finding this. While the earlier infected attack and the well-rotted bodies have already made it clear nothing ended well, the note leaves a bad taste in your mouth, forcing you to consider the final moments and not just walk past the evidence. The pounding on the door. The panic. Did they know this would come one day? Or really believe they could wait it out and raise those kids?
The ultimate punishment, though, is saved for Ish. His reward for helping? For trying to be a good man?
He gets to sentence them:
One open door. That’s all it took. One of us forgot to close a door and a horde of those monsters entered our camp. We shut them in there and wrote a warning on the outside.
Susan and a couple of the kids are with me. As far as I know, we’re the only survivors. I had to hold Susan so she wouldn’t run back in there — go back for the bodies. It’s just too dangerous. She lost her children, and I have no clue what to say to her.
Every part of my being just wants to give up. It’d be so easy to surrender to this world. I can’t do that, though. I have too much faith in humanity.
I’ve seen that we’re still capable of good. We can make it. I have to stay strong… For her.
Although, even at the end, having sealed his friends in to die, he’s still trying to do the right thing. Ignore that bit about not surrendering or having faith, he left a warning for others on the door.
There’s one last kicker to all this. After escaping the sewer Joel, Ellie, Henry and Sam find a small group of houses representing the world Ish and the others tried to escape. There are signs warning away looters and a note from Kyle, written before he took the families to join Ish in the sewer, describing the world he tried to escape:
Another night, another shooting. I could see the muzzel [sic] flashes coming from the Carsons’ windows. I stayed up the entire night with the whole family in one room. I doubt anybody got any sleep. It’s only a matter of time before the looters try to break into our house. We have to get out of here.
The skinny man approached us again. He traded more of his bullets for some of our food. He offered us to join him in his hideout. He says it’s secure and more importantly hidden. Easily defendable is how he described it. He said that the only reason he trusts me is because I have kids. I don’t think we can stay here anymore. He seems like a trustworthy guy. I’m going to suggest to everyone tomorrow that we take him up on his offer.
“Well, that wasn’t a good idea now, was it,” mutters Joel when he reads it. Unlike Ellie’s glib appraisal of the clickers in Ish’s sewer, there’s a sigh in his voice. As Joel mentions after surviving the hunter’s truck ambush, he’s ‘been on both sides’. Later conversations with his brother Tommy again strongly imply Joel has done very questionable things to make it this far, and knows better than most what it takes to survive. But he also remembers the world before and what humanity, and he, has lost to get this far. Ish might have been a better man but he lacked Joel’s hard edges and paid the price. Choose poorly and it’s a lesson you only learn once.