Would it change your mind if you weren’t given a choice?
This is one of those stories that leaves your mind untwisting an emotional, moral knot for days after playing through it. You pull carefully at threads at first, then start yanking them, cuss, throw it down in frustration, cuss some more, then feel lonely without it and start pulling again.
What follows is an exploration of the ideas in the narrative, not a review. So after a brief intro, I’ll be pretending you are familiar with story and unconcerned about spoilers.
This is a post apocalyptic world in which humanity is decimated by a bizarre fungal ant disease. 20 years later, the world looks like Discovery’s Life after People, only a handful of people are hanging on by a thin, frayed thread in a bleak existence that lives up to Hobbes’ billing as “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Meet Joel, the smuggler, only not the affable Han Solo type. Think Liam Neeson in Taken only with a dirt-grown Texan accent and disposition. If that’s sounding a little too wholesome for you, you’ll be pleased to know that his moral qualms are basically on par with those of a season five Walter White.
Early in the game, Joel meets Ellie, a young teenage girl who has been bitten, but possesses a special immunity to the disease. Joel is tasked with smuggling her out of the city to a group of scientists who can reverse engineer her immunity in order to save humanity. Their journey is the story of the game.
They must fight through a police state gang, a city of local thugs, cannibals, and variously, “Clickers,” the zombie-like former humans who have been transformed by a species crossover version of Cordyceps, a fungal disease that grows into the brains of ants and takes over their motor skills (a real thing). In The Last of Us, this happens to humans, but with Ellie, it doesn’t evolve instantly, remaining in a kind of stasis in her body. A group of freedom fighters, the Fireflies, fight against the military zones and the clickers to try to preserve liberty for people and to find a cure. This is the group Joel is trying to find for Ellie.
What makes the characters and narrative so rich in The Last of Us is the emotional relationships and the conflicts that test these relationships.
I’d like to focus on the most morally significant decision: to kill another human being. This is something Joel does a lot of throughout the adventure.
Many of Joel’s kills are not so black and white. In questionable situations, what moral compass is to be used? At what point does killing someone in the game alter your moral identity of your playable character from good guy to ok guy to questionable guy to bad guy?
In The Last of Us, the military authority is at war with the freedom fighter Fireflies. Joel isn’t party to either side. One seems to be corrupt and self-serving and the other a fool’s errand in a world where nothing is left except subsistence survival. Joel doesn’t kill because he believes in the cause of order (military), nor because he believes in the cause of liberty (Fireflies). For the most part, Joel kills for survival and for the lives of his companions.
In the beginning, Joel and Tess, his lover and companion, are smuggling Ellie to the Fireflies in return for a stash of guns and ultimately money or resources to help them survive. But after this plan falls flat, he is asked to fulfill an obligation by a dying Tess to protect Ellie and get to her to the scientists to help save humanity.
On his own, Joel is ready to take the girl back to the military and return to surviving day to day, yet he is willing to honor the last wishes of Tess. He must kill for survival and to fulfill a promise for a cause he doesn’t believe in. Naturally, you keep thinking eventually, he will come around just like crusty ole Han Solo.
Through the journey, he becomes attached to Ellie, as she fills in his heart a place left empty by the death of his daughter in the first onslaught of the zombies 20 years ago. He even tries to protect her from killing, refusing her a gun until finally he all but has to give her one for their mutual survival. The weight of killing is made apparent through a choked, hold-back-the-tears moment from Ellie after her first round of killing. Thereafter she becomes a full participating party to Joel’s violence.
When Joel is incapacitated for a section of the game, you play as Ellie and kill many people in an effort to shield and protect him. She kills to protect Joel and herself in the immediacy, while her ultimate goal hangs in the air legitimizing anything she must do.
This is where my opening question comes in to play:
If you could sacrifice your life and save humanity from a plague, would you? Would it change your mind if you weren’t given a choice?
To flip it: is someone morally justified in killing you if they have a noble cause?
After some twists and turns, Joel makes it to the Firefly compound in desperate straights. Ellie is unconscious after being swept underwater during an escape from Clickers. Joel is pumping on her chest with the Fireflies arrive. When he refuses to stop resuscitating Ellie, the Firefly promptly gives him a rifle butt to the head. Darkness.
You wake up as Joel to learn that Ellie is upstairs being prepped for surgery so that the doctors can remove the fungal growth in her and use it to develop a vaccine. The trick is, the Fireflies know that she is going to die from the surgery AND it is fairly clear she was never asked about her preferences on it.
Throughout the game, Joel has butchered people with pipes, shives, guns, and even a flamethrower, all to get Ellie to this surgery to save humanity. Now, he decides that what they are doing to Ellie is wrong. Why?
Ultimately, it lies with choice. Choice is fundamental to moral action; without it, you are not free and so cannot be moral. A decision forced on you by others naturally smells, to the individualist soul, of moral repugnance – even if the end achieved is a good one in terms of benefits to others. By individualist soul, I mean that part of the soul that everyone possesses, and so if you can’t smell the moral repugnance, it may be because you’ve dealt some moral repugnance lately and are unwilling to cop to it.
Knowing Ellie, I have to believe that if she were awake and could understand what was happening, she would decide to accept death to help others. But the fact that she didn’t know and that she was not allowed to make the decision transformed the freedom fighters into authoritarians. What does Joel do to authoritarians? He bashes their skulls with pipes.
So now as Joel, we kill the nominal good guys, the only ones left, in an effort to save Ellie. The problem is you have this creeping wonder all the while that this is not for Ellie, but for Joel. He loves her, as he loved his daughter, and he is unwilling to let her die period.
In a final confrontation with the leader for the Fireflies, Joel says of Ellie’s fate:
“That aint for you to decide.”
The Firefly replies:
“Its what she would want.”
Joel has no reply. Certainly, in forcing Ellie to make the humanity saving choice, the Fireflies have abandoned their total commitment to freedom. But Joel, knowing Ellie as he does, has abandoned her character and is also taking her decision from her. He is disloyal through his loyalty.
“You can still do the right thing here,” says the Firefly, “She won’t feel anything.”
That earns a bullet in reply. After rescuing Ellie, he escapes and when she wakes tells Ellie that the Firelies were not longer looking for a cure, that others like her have been no help. He then brings her to a safe village they’d been told of earlier in the narrative, a place where, “people do the best they can.” As they sight the town and prepare to enter it, Ellie asks Joel to tell her the truth about what happened with the Fireflies. Joel lies to her again by confirming what he’d said before as true.
We can tell that Ellie doesn’t believe him, that her trust is shaken. Annnnd, cut to black.
I walked away feeling that Joel was put in an impossible position and he erred on the side of loyalty to a loved one instead of loyalty to a cause. But the amount of people that had to be killed to save Ellie was stunning. You felt that each one was a misguided soul who was just trying to save humanity and by shooting them, you were a murderer. In the emergency room when you grab Ellie, you have to kill the surgeon and you have the option of killing the other two medical assistants. I didn’t, but I certainly thought about it.
The individualist in me wants to believe that Joel was heroic because he held choice sacrosanct above all causes. I can’t believe he would have done what he did if Ellie had been conscious and agreed to the surgery. Her lack of choice is what makes it necessary to act to kill for her – to preserve her ability to choose.
Our two meta-causes being used to justify killing are saving humanity and the primacy of choice. My kneejerk reaction is that any sacrifice is worth preserving choice as the fundamental value to moral and just society. But what if preserving choice destroys that society. Let’s say Ellie dies and with her the rest of humanity. Better to die a noble death or preserve life so that others can make moral achievements?