Who is the Real Enemy?
The Last of Us does not have a clear villain. In video games, villains translate to being the final boss who functions as a means for the player to witness the game’s climax and test their skills with the game.
The lack of a final boss in The Last of Us still surprises me. My first playthrough was a general mess as I never mastered the game’s mechanics. As I neared the end, I dreaded who or what I would face because I knew my combat skills weren’t up to the task. While the final gauntlet challenged me, it didn’t feel incredibly different from the rest of the game. As I rushed through the halls with Ellie, my body tensed up as I feared I would get caught. Who would be waiting for me at the elevator? What was I about to face? In my experience, whenever a game presents a heightened situation or problem to be solved, the player will be the one solving it. But this did not happen. It turned out the game was over, apart from one final gameplay segment walking through some forest.
With no final boss in the game, it begs the question: who is the real enemy in The Last of Us?
Joel and Ellie face a plethora of enemies throughout the game. There are the human enemies: the military, hunters who prey on people invading their territory, bandits who raid areas far from quarantine zones, smugglers who work to acquire and deliver illegal goods, and cannibals who consume human flesh. Then there are the Fireflies, the militia group fighting against military oppression to restore “peace” and government. Joel works in direct opposition to their goals, though they are never placed as a primary force of antagonism. Even when he does work with them by bringing Ellie across the country, it isn’t because he wants to carry their agenda.
Then there are the non-sentient enemies, the infected. Infection moves through four stages: runner, stalker, clicker, and bloater. All four pose a threat, though each is unique in its approach. Runners charge toward you while stalkers lurk quietly so they are difficult to find and can sneak up on you. Clickers are a late stage of infected where the infection takes over the person’s face so they can’t see. They use hearing to find their victims and make clicking noises to create sound waves. Bloaters, however, are the final stage of the infected. Their entire body grows massive and grotesque, and they hurl mounds of spores at people.
Outside of gameplay, there is still more potential for a possible capital B bad guy. Marlene, leader of the Fireflies, is a good contender as she stands in direct opposition to Joel’s belief system. Joel has no love for her cause, and she gives the order to perform surgery on Ellie that will kill her for the possibility of discovering a cure. Although the player never has to fight Marlene, we watch Joel defeat her in a cut scene. Marlene fits the villain description because her views oppose Joel’s.
Joel also positions himself as a potential villain. After being attacked by hunters in Pittsburgh, Ellie asks how he knew about the ambush. “I’ve been on both sides,” Joel responds. Not only was Joel a smuggler in Boston but played the part of a hunter offscreen. At one point in the beginning of the game, Joel and Tess kill a handful of men on their way to Robert, a two-bit gangster. They chase Robert down and murder him. Later in the game, after Ellie is kidnapped by David and Joel goes out looking for her, he interrogates two men to find her. He ties one guy up and beats the other before killing them both. This isn’t to say any of these people would not have done the same to Joel, but that is not the point. Joel and those two men are the product of this world. Both perform villainous actions.
The end of the game reinforces the theory that Joel is meant to be the villain of the story. He actively works to keep the Fireflies from finding a cure for the cordyceps. From killing a bunch of Firefly men to killing the doctor himself, Joel acts in service of selfish motivations.
On reflection and re-play, finding a central enemy has proved fruitless. Having a final boss may risk undermining the themes of the game. The Last of Us does not hand us a traditional hero who comes to take down the moral bad. No one person is the villain of this story.
When looking at a conflict such as Ellie and David’s dilemma, it is not just about cannibalism (although many remember David for this reason). It begins because Joel and Ellie murdered David’s men at the lab. Although this was self-defense, the same could be said of other people Joel and Ellie have killed. Violence is rampant in this story and comes in a variety of forms. It is a game of survival of the fittest. It is all a cycle that started with the pandemic.
When you get to the core of this game, it becomes clear that the virus itself is the villain. Many small conflicts exist between characters throughout the text, but deep down it is a person vs. nature story. The acts of violence that Joel and Ellie perform are no better and no worse than the violence enacted on them. It all boils down to survival in a world that has been ruined by the pandemic. People are performing in reaction to the world’s new demands. The pandemic broke down societal structures. The world lives in chaos.
Building on this, the game seems to suggest that the real enemy is not just nature but the human condition and how a pandemic can bring out the worst of people, whether their actions are conscious or unconscious due to being infected.
After the mass outbreak of the cordyceps, society spiraled. Although the Fireflies want to rebuild and FEDRA is doing their best (their best being very poor) to keep what is left of society under control, no one is able to escape using violence as a tool for survival. Joel and Ellie are pitted against many enemies while also acting as enemies themselves. There are no good people here, only survivors. The lack of a true final boss in this game is a statement in and of itself. Everyone is the villain in someone else’s life in this game. The pandemic ruptured society, and in doing so, cracked open the worst of humanity: that we will do anything to survive. Anything.
- Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2013.