The Philosophy of Naughty Dog’s Tired Morality Play
A crucial element of literary discourse is understanding the context under which a reader approaches a text. When we approach video games it can get complicated. Is there a wrong way to play a game? A right way to interpret a game’s story? Maybe.
I’m not in the business of telling anyone that a reading is wrong, but certainly some readings are more correct than others. When it comes to discourse, analysis, and craft of video games, it becomes far harder to agree that a particular reading is objectively more correct.
My ten years of ongoing experience with Dark Souls and complete inability to play first person shooters means I’ll always experience the new Call of Duty differently than most folk, and so too with a new FromSoftware game. My background in fantasy fiction, literature, and world building allow me to readily decode the signifiers and coding in a Dark Souls game far more readily than Call of Duty. I do not know an awful lot about guns or modern warfare, nor about what makes a good shooting game.
I’ve included this preface for an important reason—I don’t think The Last of Us is one of the best games of all time. I think it’s competently made and tells a story that, for the critical mass of gamers, was a new experience.
Unfortunately for Druckman and Straley, I’ve read The Road, The Dark Tower, and To Kill a Mockingbird. This ain’t your papa’s Dad story but it isn’t exactly an original idea either. The Last of Us landed as a revolutionary narrative driven and emotion stealth-action, and this felt so revolutionary that we were slapping 10/10 labels on the game like they were going out of fashion.
In their review of The Last of Us Part II, “Girlfriend Reviews” aptly identifies that the first game’s plot and story are different. We’ll use this language for clarity, where plot refers to the external genre of the story—what is the primary motivation of our characters? What drives their actions? Story, here, refers to the internal genre—the arc of our main characters and how it relates to the themes of the text. For the game, then, “the plot was a cure the zombie apocalypse cliché, and the story was about the effects of Joel’s grief.”2
The generally accepted reading is that the game examines how Joel’s grief drives him to the brink of death, and that it’s Ellie’s role as a stand-in daughter to bring him back. It’s a heart-warming story that appeals to the most amount of people. Like man, how lovely that they’ve formed this bond and Joel has something to live for. Hurray, it’s great he’s letting himself feel a feeling again. Good on him.
The troubling politics of a female’s primary role being in service of a man’s mental health aside, there’s a more important question I want to address—is this reading accurate? Is it the most correct reading? In other words, what the hell is the story of the game actually about?
In its climactic moment, The Last of Us sees Joel carrying an unconscious Ellie from the Fireflies hospital. Marlene confronts Joel in the car park, and tells him there’s still time to do the right thing. The right thing.
The game’s final question is, should Joel sacrifice Ellie’s life to potentially save all of humanity?
Regardless of your approach to the ethics of the game’s central questions, the narrative underscores its final moments with a precarious epilogue, where we learn Joel has lied to Ellie about her possibility to cure humanity. Joel tells Ellie she was no good for a cure. The Fireflies did some tests and determined her immunity couldn’t change anything.
Joel stops the Fireflies from vivisecting a child; in abstraction, an objectively good thing to do. But the outcome of this planned vivisection is a potential cure. Potential, being the keyword. Because the people doing the vivisecting have not proved themselves the most reliable operators.
We’re introduced to the Fireflies as a revolutionary group who leverage guerrilla warfare to undermine the military in Quarantine Zones—there’s a lot of themes and ideas the game throws around like totalitarianism, militarism, and Marxism, but it boils down to this—the Fireflies want to overthrow the FEDRA, the current authority, and restore their version of pre-outbreak democracy.
Joel wants nothing to do with the Fireflies ideology, and the story does its best to position the Fireflies as well-intentioned bad guys. I think it’s fairly telling that the game’s Wikipedia lists them as villains. That Joel brings Ellie to Marlene to develop a cure is the central spine of the story. Everything else stems from this journey to get Ellie to a place where they can make a cure. So this decision, to let them vivisect Ellie or let her live, is the question of the game. And the way Joel, and us as the player, relate to the Fireflies is critical in how we perceive the events of the story and its ending.
I think for most players when they arrive at the climax, they are on Joel’s side. We’ve gone through the journey of growing close to Ellie with Joel, and we feel that natural paternal instinct kick-in. But the underlying motivation to save Ellie is where the game gets muddied.
The typical reading here is that Joel saves Ellie because he cares for her as he cared for his deceased daughter—he even mentions Sarah during the epilogue. But is that the reason Joel saves Ellie?
The critical narrative of the game almost certainly confirms the above reading. Joel can’t bear to let Ellie go and saves her at the cost of humanity. In story structure, this is your “best of bad choices” character climax, and defines Joel moving forward. He is now materialistic and paternal, traits in western fiction that are valued and sought after, undercut by the necessity of Joel to murder dozens of revolutionaries to achieve this. This subverts the player’s expectation—it robs Joel’s crusade of its heroism, and instead reveals him to be nothing more than yet another flawed human. It’s not exactly re-inventing the morality wheel. The closest the text approaches to complexity is: killing Fireflies bad, but Ellie dying bad, but which is more bad? Moral choices in video games! Except this never really resolves in a meaningful way because even in the text’s own logic, Joel butchering the Fireflies is not even the best way to keep her alive. Regardless, this ending remains strong enough to resonate for most players and critics even to this day.
This is the ending most players experience. Joel denies the world salvation and galvanizes himself as a bad guy in the eyes of anyone with stock in a cure.3 But…is it what actually happened?
I’m one of those people who reads everything in a game. All the diary entries you find, all the bulletin boards, all the ledgers, everything. I like to understand how and why world’s function, what makes them tick. I recently finished Control, a game built around the notes and memos of a bureaucratic office. So much of the game’s intricacy is communicated via these diegetic readings. The Last of Us has two flavors of this non-critical text—additional dialogue options and collectibles.
Additional dialogue is prompted by objects in the world, and allows the player to experience more banter and insight into Joel and Ellie’s relationship. It’s fun, well-written, and focuses on characterization rather than world building. There’s some exposition within—Joel alludes to what he misses from before the outbreak, revealing the current state of the world. Or Ellie discusses her childhood during the Outbreak, giving us a glimpse into how childhood has changed in the apocalypse.
But the collectibles and items around the world are where we learn the most about the world at large. Notes from one bandit to another, ledgers explaining cargo shipments, and so on. You don’t have to read any of these items, but the more you do, the more context you learn—even just glancing at every third collectible will increase your contextual knowledge and help certain moments land with more weight. And yet these little snippets of the world are at times more engaging, and subplots like the hunters and the cannibals prove more compelling than anything the Fireflies have to say.
I think this is a function of the Fireflies and the FEDRA being the most obvious incarnations of their respective ideas — the Fireflies are revolutionaries with a good goal but bad methods, while the FEDRA are authoritarians with a bad goal but understandable methods.
The crucial counterpoint to a typical story here is that the Fireflies are not particularly good at what they do. Whether it is bombing a compound, disrupting a supply run, or taking hostages, the Fireflies blow it, a lot. For example, let’s take the first note you find. It’s by an unnamed Firefly who has snuck out of the Boston Quarantine Zone to meet up with Tess and Joel. The unnamed Firefly and his squad hear soldiers approaching. In their panic, they duck into a spore infested building. In this world, keeping an eye out for spores and dealing with the military are the only two things the Fireflies need to be good at. That the squad responsible for maintaining the safety of the only immune human on the planet can’t even achieve this basic task is telling.
The failed Pittsburgh revolution, arming vindictive citizens for random suicide missions, and Marlene’s complete inability to manage her people gradually illustrate the Fireflies as incompetent. To the point where Marlene even doubts the Firefly cause by the end of the game. And yet even this reading feels reductive because we experience the world via Joel’s point of view.
Joel’s mistrust of the revolutionaries at the start of the game is partly due to his own desire to remain agnostic to the politics of the apocalypse, but it’s also his experience of them lacking basic competence. Joel and Tess are extremely competent. By contrast, every Firefly operation they encounter has gone awry—to the point where it’s why they end up taking care of Ellie in the first place.
So in another setting, Joel’s choice is to give over the girl to save the world. But in reality, his choice is to give over the girl to a group of people who have continually failed to enact their ideology, keep their people safe, and execute on the most basic missions.
Joel’s hesitation is natural, then. He’s afraid that if they vivisect a child, they might botch the cure. Or create a cure and lose it. Or create a cure and never be able to administer it. Or they’ll use it wrong. The possibility of the Fireflies obtaining a cure might be worse than the alternative.
The question that lingers as the credits roll is far less important than how and why Joel ended up in a position to make the choices he did. When we meet Joel post prologue, he is a smuggler, bereft of purpose, following Tess’ lead. His actualization as Ellie’s protector, and eventually, her friend and father, is the work of this game’s story. The examination of how bonds are formed over great periods of time is the real success of The Last of Us. Where other stories simulate brotherhood, or closeness, or simply tell us people are friends, The Last of Us reveals the way intimacy ebbs and flows. It examines healthy and unhealthy relationships in a unique, extensive process.
Joel rejects the cure, yes, but he doesn’t damn the world. The cure in the hands of bloody revolutionaries is no kind of salvation. Instead, he backs a different kind of redemption for humanity—his relationship with Ellie, Tommy’s community, and relying on others. But it is a redemption built on a lie, a foundation of quicksand. Even in his moment of true vulnerability, Joel can’t quite let Ellie in, because now that he’s found someone he cares about, he’s terrified of losing her. Just like Tess. Just like Sarah.
Even though the verbs of The Last of Us are the most obvious (third-person shooter, melee, stealth) it attempted to deliver an intricate story to raise a lot of pretty compelling questions, but the game’s own text undercuts the way this can land for so many players. The ending comes out as a strange, ambiguous fade-away that implies far more interesting moral questions than the text can ever achieve.
- Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2013.
- “Understanding The Last of Us Part II | Girlfriend Reviews.” YouTube video, 2:13. “Girlfriend Reviews,” 2020. https://youtu.be/bh5gzGs-63Y.
- Takahashi, Dean. 2018. “What Inspired The Last of Us (Interview).” VentureBeat. VentureBeat. December 12, 2018. https://venturebeat.com/2013/08/06/the-last-of-us-creators-inspirations/.