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The Philosophical Themes In The Last of Us

by Joe Triana on 07/13/13 02:01:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 


THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS, IF YOU HAVEN'T PLAYED THE GAME I STRONGLY SUGGEST YOU GO PLAY IT AND COME BACK LATER. 


WHAT IS THE LAST OF US?

Soon enough I found out I was way too invested in this game, the overall tone and little nuances that NaughtyDog was able to create coupled with the depth of the main characters awed me from the very beggining.

There is a certain beauty in nature reclaiming its domain said Neil Druckmann once, and I agree, it is unsettling to see how beautiful the end of humanity would look like, nature creeping into our realm of cement and steel. And it’s that paradox between the painful and harsh lives these characters have to endure and the beauty of the world that they inhabit what kept me in awe during the whole game.

If you compare the age of the earth with how long we have been here as modern men, you realize that we are nothing! Compared to the history of the earth, humans – specifically modern humans – we are an anomaly.

The characters in this game are real, believable; they behave and respond as a normal person would when survival is the only thing that matters, and in a world where people have resorted to cannibalism and where killing and torturing other people is not uncommon, NaughtyDog did an excellent job conveying that survival comes at a cost, your humanity, your identity, your peace of mind.

In that world of havoc two characters meet each other in the most unexpected of circumstances, but the world and the way things are don’t change immediately. At the beginning, Ellie to Joel is just cargo, and Joel to Ellie is just another dude stuck with her. But as the months pass and they fight together for survival, their relationship grows to become deeper than that.

These characters have multiple layers, it’s not only the fact that Joel sees Ellie as his daughter and that Ellie sees Joel as possibly her father - since is the only person in her life who hasn’t abandoned her - These characters are more complex than that, they evolve and react to the situations that they faced, the people they meet and obviously they influence each other.

At the beginning Joel is an experienced cold survivor, whose deeds have been more than questionable. Ellie on the other hand is a 14 year-old girl who despite being wiser than a common 14 year-old kid is still innocent and oblivious of the level of cruelty outside the quarantine zone. Despite the fact that she understands that violence sometimes is necessary she still retains her trust in people which acts as a contrast to Joel’s unwieldy mistrust.

But as these characters interact they influence each other’s personalities and traits, by the end of the game we see a different Ellie who has learnt from Joel (her only father figure in this journey), she adopts his determination to survive and his autonomy; meanwhile, Joel is also influenced by Ellie, he regains his humanity and thanks to that he is able to see the world with different fresh eyes.

"Tell them Ellie...is the name of the little girl who broke your F***ING FINGER!"

The characters that we see at the end are very different from the characters at the beginning; however, the character arc feels natural due to a great pacing; it doesn’t feel forced or unrealistic and is accompanied by a change in design, different stations of the year complement particular situations in their journey.

The Last of Us revolves around the idea of survival, people evolved and adapted to the situation and in that process society turned into a dangerous merciless species.(or maybe that’s what we have always been)  Most of the people in this world are heartless killers and just a hand full of people show empathy or at least are slightly more civil.

What is interesting is that the people that only people that show these characteristics are those that have a reason to survive, and by that I mean they have a companion, someone they care about. Sam and Henry, Tommy and Maria, so there is this underlying tone that tries to explain that in this new world you need to find someone to keep you going, or a Joel says "I struggled a long time with surviving. But -- no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for."

One of the strengths of this game and a characteristic that was thoughtfully included is the contrast between the brutality of survival -the miserable aspect of society, people living in ruins eating rats, a society that’s decimated and groups that have resorted to terrible acts to survive – (groups that use survival as an excuse to do terrible things) and the beauty of nature. The world is fine, the deer and giraffes are fine and the plants are growing, it’s not the end of the world! And I think that is very important to the meaning of the game. Life goes on and I think this idea is very important to describe the role of acceptance in the game. I’ll come back to this later.

Is this a journey to redemption? Or is this a Journey to acceptance? Is this Joel’s attempt to regain control (after having his own child taken away from him) or is this a Journey that will force Joel through grief?

Someone said this is another story by men for men about men, but I beg to differ. This story is as much about Elli as it is about Joel, Ellie is the character that moves the story forward.

There is also the idea that the death of Sarah at the beginning is a common trope and is there to justify the acts of the main character or to spur him to take steps and move the story forward. However, I don’t think that is the case, if you analyze it carefully the death of Sarah doesn’t spur Joel’s behavior to go out and kill a bunch of people in a brutal and highly detailed way. In fact, during most of the story Joel is in denial, he blocked for 20 the fact that he ever had a daughter. If Sarah’s death was in fact the “women in the refrigerator” trope Joel’s actions and story would begin from the stage of anger and his journey would be a fight to find the military and pay them in kind for what they did. But this is not the case, Joel deliberately blocks the memories of his own daughter to avoid the pain therefore Sarah’s death is not the catalyst of the story, her death is very important to understand Joel’s actions but is not the catalyst of The Last of Us

Ellie’s appearance however does operate as a catalyst; it forces Joel to remember his daughter. At the beginning Joel doesn’t want anything to do with Ellie, because she reminds him of his own daughter but as he travels with her, he starts caring about her and he wants to protect her. When he realizes that he cares about her (or that he is starting to care) he get’s scared (maybe of the possibility of losing another daughter or maybe he feels as if he was betraying his own daughter by caring about Ellie) and he decides to hand the responsibility over to Tommy. But when he is confronted by Ellie she opens his eyes to the fact that she has suffered too and that

“Everyone I have cared about has either died or left me. Everyone -- fucking except for you! So don't tell me I would be safer with somebody else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.”

He (first in denial and scared) tells her that he is not her father, but as the idea sinks in he accepts the fact that he does care about her, so he decides to stay with her. This is why I believe this is not a Journey to redemption but to acceptance; and that idea, the theme of acceptance, will be a recurrent topic that will provide the nuances that will make the end a conflicting closure open to interpretation. I’ll come back to this later on.

HOW PHILOSOPHY FITS INTO THE LAST OF US

There are many recurrent themes along their journey, the idea of fate and destiny, the idea of companionship and reasons to live, the dichotomy between the depressive and dark lives they must endure and the beauty of nature that springs from the ruins of men, and then there’s the idea of individuality versus collectivism, utilitarianism and justice.

We have discussed the idea of companionship (in that world you NEED to find a reason to live for, usually another person and that relationship will help you keep your humanity, your soul and peace of mind), we’ve also discussed the dichotomy between the end of humankind and how in that world nature thrives from our ruin (the world isn’t over, as far as we know the infection is a natural product, animals and plants are now stronger than ever; only humans have lost their identity, most of the faction have resorted to inhuman acts to justify their survival). But what is the idea of fate and destiny?

This is a theme that becomes evidently recurrent during the final chapters: winter and spring. The first time the idea of destiny is introduced is when Ellie finds David, he clearly states “you see I believe everything happens for a reason” later on we find out that his group has resorted to cannibalism to survive and right when they are about to chop little Ellie up into pieces she reveals the fact that she is infected which gives her time to attack them and escape.

The theme continues when Joel and Ellie find the Fireflies and Marlene states that she lost half of her men crossing the country to get to St Mary’s hospital; Joel replies by saying that the fact that Ellie and he got there “maybe it was meant to be” so there is a recurrent theme of fate and destiny that gives the idea that all that happened had to end with Ellie and Joel in the Fireflies’ base. But then, what is the culmination of their destiny? Was it to sacrifice Ellie to save humanity or to force Joel to kill Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, who is clearly presented as the final antagonist?

DETERMINISM VS FREE WILL

If we believe that destiny is a reality that actively plays into the story then what happened was their destiny, their purpose was to kill Marlene. Let me elaborate on that, if destiny is a fact then there is a predetermined course of events and what happened was in fact what was meant to be, and perhaps Joel’s decision to save Ellie was the culmination of his journey.

Determinism is the philosophical idea that everything that happens is a result of certain conditions, and given those conditions nothing else could happen. If determinism is in fact part of the story as it was implied then given the conditions that Ellie and Joel faced what happened was in fact their destiny. Nietzsche describes that final decision as Amor Fati the acceptation-choice of the fate. but in that way, by accepting it, fate becomes another thing, it becomes a “choice” destiny.

Amor Fati literally means “love of fate”, it is an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in one’s life, including suffering and loss as good. Furthermore, it is characterized by acceptance of the events or situations that occur in one’s life. Following this idea, Joel’s final decision to save Ellie is not only his destiny but also the culmination of his grief, is the choice to accept what happened in his life and to move forward. So in the end, the Journey is to acceptance, not redemption.

And finally, we have the ending. I’ve never seen an ending that spurs such a variety of interpretations, and that forces you to have a debate with yourself to resolve your feelings.

There are several concepts that are, in one way or another, part of the ending and shape the whole ending sequence, these themes are polar opposites by nature and they provide the powerful, open-to-interpretation ending. Consequentialism and Deontological Ethics, Utilitarianism and Justice, denial and (once again) acceptance.

CONSEQUENTIALISM VS DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS

As regards to the ending I see two different positions that fans have adopted, first are those who believe that Joel’s act was selfish and that the game is a tragedy since the Fireflies were not able to produce a vaccine to fight the infection, and then there are those who believe that Joel’s acts are justified and that what he did he did out of love for Ellie.

First let me begin by saying that no one is wrong here, let me rephrase that, we are all right here, and that is the beauty of the ending, it mixes two underlying believes and themes in such a way that no matter where you stand you are right and you’ll find reasons to justify your position. It is based on two incompatible positions.

The ending is clearly designed to be conflicting, it is a gray area and depending on your position it will end on a sour note or could be a “happy” ending.

First we have Consequentialism, this concept states that the consequences of one’s acts are the only way to measure the rightness of one’s conduct, therefore from a consequentialist stand point a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome or consequence regardless of the nature of the act itself. If we analyze Joel’s and the Fireflies’ acts from a consequentialist standpoint, we’ll find out something quite interesting.

The final objective of the Fireflies is to find a vaccine to cure the infection. Now, if we consider that their objective is altruistic and we judge their acts solely on the outcome, then their position is morally correct; they would save society and would be able to increase the quality of life of thousands of people. But if we analyze and judge Joel’s acts from a consequentialist standpoint we find out that his position is also morally correct, the outcome of his actions would save the life of an innocent girl. Therefore, both decisions from a consequential point of view have moral value.

What we can take away from this is that you can’t justify the Fireflies’ acts by saying that they were going to save mankind and then judge Joel’s acts as selfish. By doing this you would be judging the Fireflies from a consequentialist stand point and Joel from a deontological standpoint (judging the morality of an act based on the act itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct) In the same way, you can’t justify Joel’s actions by saying that he saved an innocent girl and the condemn the Fireflies because they were going to sacrifice Ellie to save mankind.

So by analyzing their acts from a consequentialist and deontological standpoint we understand the both positions are morally right (if we take into account solely the outcome.) The debate then focuses on what choice is the “best” one, or what has more value to you. Utilitarianism versus Justice. Individualism versus collectivism.

UTILITARIANISM VS JUSTICE & INDIVIDUALISM VS COLLECTIVISM

Your position regarding the ending will then depend not on what is right, but on what has more value to you as the player.

Utilitarianism is a theory that focuses on maximizing the aggregate utility (maximizing happiness for the most amount of people) under this approach you would have to compare the benefit of saving a girl against the benefit of saving a thousand people, but the key word here is COMPARE, you would have to try to estimate the overall impact of Ellie as a character in society and then compare the overall impact of creating a vaccine on society and then choose the one that maximizes happiness.

So those of you who believe that the ending is a “sad” ending (it’s impossible to pigeonhole the ending as a pure “sad” or “happy” ending) because Joel denied the possibility of a vaccine saw the ending from a utilitarian standpoint.

However, utilitarianism has been criticized because it tends to ignore justice, and in this case sacrificing an innocent child to save mankind is clearly unjust. The problem with utilitarianism is that the decisions that tend to maximize the “happiness” also tend to be unjust. Plus utility cannot be measured or observed directly.

I encourage you to consider the following statement.

“Punish an innocent person when and only when to do so is not to weaken the existing institution of punishment and when the consequences of doing so are valuable”

If you disagree with that sentence, then probably you agree with Joel’s position, it means you value justice over the expected outcome of finding the vaccine, and that’s right too.

I’m trying to analyze this objectively but it is evident that the player’s feelings are heavily influenced by empathy towards Ellie. Empathy that results from Naughty Dog’s excellent idea to portray Ellie’s personality in a subtle way, and also from the idea of giving us control of her character during an emotionally deep sequence.

 And finally we have the recurrent theme that is part of the game from beginning to end, Acceptance versus denial.

I previously explained how NaughtyDog shows a world that is thriving despite the infection, and as far as we know the infection is natural (meaning that it wasn’t artificially created by humans)

If the whole story in fact gravitates around acceptance and Amor Fati (acceptance of what’s happened including suffering and loss) then Joel’s decision shows in fact acceptance of the course of nature, of the world they live in, it shows peace of mind and willingness to move forward. That position is evident when Joel and Ellie go back to Tommy’s, Joel shows acceptance when he is finally willing to talk about Sarah and wants to be reborn with Ellie by his side, and as I will show later Ellie is ok with it.

The Fireflies on the other hand show denial, they are determined to save mankind, a society that for the most part has lost whatever made them human, the fight for survival comes at a cost, and that cost is usually your humanity, your morals, your conscience, basically everything that makes us human.

And finally we have the lie, Joel lies to her at the end stating that the Fireflies stopped looking for a cure, latter on he is confronted by Ellie who asks him to “swear that everything you have told me about the Fireflies is true." Joel replies, "I swear" and Ellie replies “Ok”

The fact that Joel lied to Ellie can be seen as attempt to protect her, or as a selfish attempt to prevent her from sacrificing herself.

I believe his intention is to spare her the guilt of knowing that her sacrifice would save a society that she never knew but then again everything is open to interpretation he could be lying to keep her beside him.

What is interesting is Ellie’s answer “Ok”, it represents once again acceptance. Her response indicates that she is willing to trust him and, whether or not she believes he is lying, she accepts him as what he is, a shattered man with a dark past going through the process of healing and that’s ok with her as she stated previously in the game.

"Everyone I have cared about has either died or left me. Everyone -- fucking except for you! So don't tell me I would be safer with somebody else, because the truth is I would just be more scared."

She sees Joel as a father as opposed to Marlene who she classified as “just a friend” at the beginning of the game, and the Winter scenes seem to  be there to indicate that Joel is not the only one invested in the relationship and that Ellie is willing to take care of him and risk her life as well.

The whole ending sequence seems to mirror the beginning, but the situation is reversed, at the beginning Joel and Sarah get out of the house and into a white car to escape the infection, the sequence culminates on Sarah’s death. The Ending is a reversed sequence that begins with Joel carrying an unconscious Ellie a situation reminiscent of dying Sarah and culminates with them driving home in a black car. This could very well be a coincidence or seem like a stretch but given Naughty Dog’s exceptional attention to detail I believe this was deliberately done to signify duality, closure but also a new beginning.

Based on what we’ve seen we can understand that the ambiguity of the ending comes from two incompatible positions represented by Marlene and Joel, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Utilitarism vs. Justice, Consequentialism vs. Deontological Ethics. Therefore, the ending will depend on your personal feelings and no matter which side you choose you’ll be right.


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