The Last Of Us - You Are Not The Hero
The Last of Us is generally regarded as a large step forward for the narrative capabilities of video games, predominantly through its efforts to bring a cinematic quality to interactive art. I’m not going to talk about that. While that discussion very well and truly has merit, I want to talk about a singular moment towards the end of the game that is decidedly...uncinematic. A moment that ditches the seamless for some big, big seams. And I want to talk about why, in spite of everything it was preceded by, it just might be the best moment of storytelling in the entire damn thing.
Let's try and breeze through the context quick. A fungal infection has spread across North America, potentially further, that turns people into not-zombies-but-totally-zombies. You play primarily as Joel, a smuggler who lost his daughter to a man in charge with a gun when the outbreak hit. He's tasked by Marlene, the leader of a rebel militia group, The Fireflies, with smuggling a teenage girl across the country for an undisclosed reason that becomes disclosed as soon as she fucks up and shows the bite on her arm. Thing is, she's way outside the commonly understood window of time from infection to transformation. They're transporting her to a hospital because she just might be immune. Of course, given the fact that this is a young girl that is important, and that the two spend a lot of time together, Joel eventually sees in her the spirit of his dead daughter living on, and becomes quite protective of her, and vice versa.
As their journey approaches its end, Joel notices that Ellie's getting a bit gloomy. When pressed, she reveals the thing that neither one of them were willing to say: if the fungal infection attaches and grows through the brain, what are the odds that these doctors will be able to remove it without also having to kill Ellie? Not good. She's a bit torn, because on the one hand there's sacrifice for the greater good, and on the other there's not being alive anymore.
Before they come to any sort of conclusion on this, they're captured by The Fireflies, and when Joel awakens, he's in a hospital bed. He asks to see Ellie. Marlene says he can't because she's being prepped for surgery. Joel resists, and Marlene reminds him of what we should be remembering right now, too. This is not an easy decision for anyone, least of all Marlene, who not only knew Ellie from a baby, but promised Ellie's mum that she would protect her.
"This is not about me. This isn't even about her," Marlene says. "There is no other choice here."
She tasks one of her lackeys with transporting Joel to a holding area until the surgery is over. On their way out, Joel gets the jump on the lackey, belts him in the face with his own gun, and puts it to his thigh.
"Where's the operating room?" Joel asks, pausing a second before following, "I ain't got time for this."
He shoots the lackey in the leg.
"Where?" he asks, before shooting him again. "WHERE?"
"Top floor...the far end," the lackey finally says, as Joel releases his grip and he begins to slump to the floor. Joel shoots him in the head and begins his journey.
What follows is a systematic slaughter, as you move Joel from room to room, murdering every member of The Fireflies that comes into your path. Eventually, you find the pediatrics ward. As you approach the operating theater, shadows react to the sounds of you kicking the doors in. It's shocking in how not-at-all shocking it really is to open the door to the operating theater and find nothing more than a surgeon, two nurses and an unconscious teenage girl on a cold slab of metal. This is what you've been working towards; this is the evil wizard at the top of the castle. The game goes silent. The surgeon stands between you and the two nurses, and holds up a scalpel.
"I won't let you take her," he says, waving the scalpel back and forth.
The game stays silent. You know what you need to do.
At this moment, a jolt of electricity shot through my body - the rudest of awakenings - and I was floored. For a game that went to great, stupidly expensive lengths to blur the line between fiction and reality, this felt so very...gamey. There were big, big blocking volumes placed on the surgeon to leave you unable to move either towards Ellie or the nurses without going through the surgeon. After saying his one line, the surgeon never repeats it. His animation is a four-second loop repeated endlessly. You can touch his scalpel only to have it pass right through the geometry of your head. The virtual boundaries of this world were on full view in this moment, almost turned up. From this, an argument could certainly be made that this is off-target - that, in this moment above all others, you couldn't be signposting that the player is playing a game.
To that, I respectfully disagree. Here's my journey with Joel up until this moment: I sympathised with the man to the point that I felt like I was the man. I fell in love with Ellie. I was willing to murder anyone willing to murder me or her, because I couldn't bear the thought of her being alone in this world, not because I felt like she couldn't get by without me, but because I felt like I wouldn't be able to get by without her. I fell in love with her all over again when I found myself mortally wounded and relatively unconscious for a few months, and she became my protector. Though I was playing as her, I didn't feel like I was her. I was still Joel, drifting in and out of reality, battling death just so I wouldn't have to spend another second alone. When Ellie found herself held captive by a group of cannibals, I mustered the strength to go and get her, and I arrived to find that she'd taken care of herself just fine without me. Of course she did. As far as I was concerned, she’d learned from the best. Not that I gave enough thought to that to care. Nothing mattered, but for the fact that I had her back.
It broke my heart to see her mood plummet as we approached the hospital, because I knew that I was going to have to let her go. Because I knew that she had already made the decision to be let go. I was in awe of this incredible young woman, more emotionally mature than people with decades on her. She had the power to save the world, and she was willing to give up life to do it. I couldn't think about how hard this was going to be on me, because I knew I had to be strong for her. I knew it was the right thing to do.
And then we got ambushed. And I woke up in the hospital bed. And I got angry that I didn't get a chance to say 'Goodbye' to Ellie. Can you blame me? But then, I tortured a man for her location and shot him as thanks. It's a very deliberate stroke to have this occur in a cutscene. Them's the first clue. I've been willing to do a lot as Joel up until this point, but never once have I enjoyed it. When I choked my first kill until she died, I spun the camera around to look into Joel's, and my victim's, eyes. This was a big thing that I was doing, and they deserved the respect of looking into someone's eyes before their life ended. Joel took no pleasure in the act, either, gritting his teeth and trying his best to look away and make it quick. That was then. This act of murder was different. This wasn’t necessary, this was malicious. This man gave me the information. I could have left him alive and restrained. I didn't. I found myself thinking,
"I wouldn't have done that."
I felt cheated that it had been done in a cutscene, as if somehow, I'd lost agency.
This level of thinking persisted as the cutscene ended and I resumed playing the game, finding myself unable to progress through an area until every member of The Fireflies was bled out on the floor. Once again, textually, this was no different to other points in the game - clear the room, advance to the next checkpoint - but subtextually, those other points were different. Those people weren't after Ellie so that she could rescue mankind. They just wanted us dead. It's a lot easier to feel okay pulling the trigger when good and evil is so perfectly contrasted. Here, though, each kill made me feel more and more nauseous. These were militants believing in a cause that would result in a restoration of the world I know. Who was I becoming?
When I kicked open the surgery door, I felt like I was going to vomit. I wasn't going to get let off somewhat easy here by watching a cutscene. I had to do this, and the game became a videogame to capitalise the point. I refused. Out loud, I actually said,
"Don't make me do this."
The game didn't reply. The surgeon waved his scalpel. Back, and forth. I left the room and poked my head back in. The surgeon hadn't moved an inch, beyond his head, fixed on my position, able to see me through walls. I went all the way back to the beginning of the area, desperate for a secret conclusion to this scene that involved me reclaiming my connection to Joel as he acknowledged that this was too far, and that as much as it may hurt us, we have to let Ellie go.
There was no secret conclusion. There was only one way this could go. I still resisted. I went back into the room, and rifled through my inventory, sure that there was something I could use that would simply incapacitate the surgeon. There was nothing. Desperate, at my last rope, feeling Joel slipping from my grip, I thought that maybe if I melee attacked the surgeon, he would be knocked unconscious. I knew better than that. I'd already lost Joel. With a push of a button, Joel grabbed the surgeon's wrist, took the scalpel and lodged it deep into the man's throat. Though it was fast, it was deliberate. This was sending a message. Joel left the nurses alone - a minuscule concession compared to the lack of agency I was afforded up until now - and picked Ellie up off the table. Though I was the one pressing the buttons, I wasn't the one holding Ellie. Joel was directing me this time.
Joel continued to direct me as he ran Ellie out of the hospital, The Fireflies in tow. Out in the carpark, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief through the tears as Marlene confronted Joel. As they argued, Marlene implored Joel to acknowledge that Ellie made the choice to die, to do something right. And Joel paused, and I saw him think, and I saw myself start to return to him. Marlene put down her pistol as a gesture of peace, and begged Joel to do the right thing.
"Please," I said to Joel, entirely helpless to the medium. "Please let her go."
The camera cut to a POV shot of Joel's hands on the steering wheel of a car as he passed through a freeway. The angle changed to a side-on profile as he looked out the windshield at the road ahead. He looked mad, and sad, but there really weren't too many moments in the game where he didn't. I held my breath. Did I have him back? Did we do the right thing?
Beside him, obfuscated from view, a young girl's voice murmured, coming out of sleep. Ellie was in the backseat, and I broke. Joel was gone from me forever. As if the game knew, as if it wanted to twist the knife, Ellie asked what happened, and Joel told her that when they got to The Fireflies, they found lots of people like Ellie - immune - and they'd stopped looking for a cure. As if to capitalise on the bullshit, this dialogue was accompanied by silent footage of Joel and Marlene in the carpark. As she approached Ellie, Joel shot her in the stomach.
Back in the present, Joel finished his story, and Ellie rolled over and went back to sleep. Cut back to the carpark. Joel put Ellie into the backseat of the car, turned, and approached Marlene, bleeding out on the ground. She asked Joel to just let her go. Now, Marlene could be seen as a villainous type. She was willing to let Ellie die where Joel was not, after all. But if these scenes aren't enough to clue you in, there are audiotapes that you can find that detail exactly how agonising this decision was for her. She's not the villain. The villain is the man standing above her bleeding body, the man she just asked for mercy.
"You'd just come after her," Joel replied, and shot Marlene in the head.
Fuck you, Joel. Fuck you, you fucking piece of shit. I cannot believe I saw myself in you. You betrayed me, you fucking monster.
When the game picked back up, and for its brief remainder, I didn't play as Joel. I couldn't. Not anymore. There was none of me left in him. The only person left in this world that I had anything in common with was Ellie, and that's why I was in her shoes. She, like me, was left looking at this hulking mass of aggression walking ahead of us in the distance, wondering just to what extent we'd been let down by him. Ellie made the choice to sacrifice her life for a vaccine, and Joel took that away from her. In the same way that the game removed my agency by forcing me to murder what might have been the last surgeon in North America, Joel removed Ellie's by taking advantage of her unconscious body for his own selfish ends. I didn't want to live without Ellie, but not for the sake of this.
Joel acted like nothing happened. He talked about his daughter like her and Ellie would have been friends. Eventually, Ellie couldn't stay silent any longer. She told Joel about the friend she was with when she was bitten, and how her friend was bitten, too. In spite of their romantic pledge to succumb to the infection together, Ellie never succumbed. She was still waiting for her time. Joel tried to explain survivor's guilt, but Ellie was well past that.
"No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for--" he started, before Ellie sighed and cut him off.
"Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about The Fireflies is true."
Joel was taken aback, me as well. Everyone involved in this fucking horror show knew that this was his last shot to take ownership of his selfishness, and acknowledge that he had done the wrong thing. His face told the story before his words did.
I watched, as Ellie's, and my, last ditch effort to salvage some level of humanity from all of this circled down the drain. Her face communicated hurt, and betrayal, before a look that acknowledged that in spite of all of this, she just can't be alone either. As much as it may hurt, we were both stuck with him.
"Okay," she said. Credits.
I spoke with a dear colleague and friend of mine about that moment in the surgery, and was surprised to find that he had what seemed at first to be a dramatically different reaction to me. He said that he slowly, and methodically, murdered everyone in the room, and felt good about it. He said that, in this world, there was absolutely nothing that was worth losing Ellie. I was shocked. I couldn't believe that there was any other way to read that scene. I seriously doubted my interpretation of it, and of everything that followed. That was, until I realised that what my friend was describing was nothing more than the other side of the coin that I was on. Much as I might harp on that it was Joel that murdered the surgeon, not me, that's not true. I pushed the button. I made the mechanical connection from the button press input to the cutscene output, the exact same way that my friend did. I just had a layer of denial covering my actions. We were both willing to murder medical professionals, people whose job it is to help people, for our own selfish gains.
And then I thought about it further, and realised further that my friend and I were both as bad as each other, because there was a third option through all of that, that I could have employed but didn't: I don't kill the surgeon. I don’t kill anybody. I put the controller down, eject the disc, and never finish the game. I acknowledge that this is an action I cannot perform, and refuse to play party to it. It seemed so simple on reflection. So why didn't I turn off the game? Why did I eventually murder the surgeon?
The answer is just as simple: because I was willing to. I lied to myself. I allowed idealism, and the safety blanket of being sat on my lounge chair and not sat in the moment, to cloud my thoughts and lead me to believe that I was willing to let this person, whom I loved more than anything else in this world, die. Of course I wasn't. Agonising over the choice or not, I killed the fucking doctor, and I didn't do it for Ellie. Fuck her decisions. What does she know? She's just a kid. I did it for me. Because fuck you, I'm not losing another daughter. And fuck this world, it doesn't deserve a cure. The soldier that put a bullet in my daughter's head is dead, but the person who gave the order to put a bullet in my daughter's head might still be walking around, wondering if a cure will ever come so that they can get a night’s sleep uninterrupted by the ever-present threat of sudden, vicious death, and I'll be damned if I ever let them, or you, feel safe, ever again. When I told Marlene that she'd only come after Ellie if I let her live, that wasn't out of fear for Ellie's safety. That was out of selfishness. She's mine. You can't have her.
Now, let’s return to the presentation of that moment in the surgery, the artifice of it starkly contrasted to the slick, polished content surrounding it. This moment worked because it required interaction, presented in its most base form. If this was a movie, this internal agony over agency wouldn't have occurred. There would only be those that agreed with Joel's actions, and those that didn't. By so staunchly becoming a videogame, The Last of Us became something transcendent. It brought the quiet fact that you saw yourself as Joel to the surface, and in that operating theatre, it silently asked,
"How much of him do you see in you?"
It didn't matter how you answered. It didn't even matter if you answered. If you just played on, and you murdered that surgeon, you replied,
"I am Joel."
And now, through Ellie's eyes, you have to look upon yourself. You got what you wanted. Hope you're happy.