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The Last Of Us Case Study

Yes, I know The Last of Us came out in 2013. But I only just got around to experiencing it now. It's one of the most important games of the last console generation and it's a great example of how all the other "games pretending to be movies" have fallen far short on the "movie" end of things. It's gorgeous, wonderfully acted, and has a gut-wrenching story that's driven by the arcs of the main characters. At the end, protagonist Joel does something people widely consider to be an evil act, but I want to make the case that he was in the right. Or at least, it would be right if he did it in a world where medicine works like ours.

I'm going to spoil the whole thing here, in case you haven't figured that out yet. This is a good time for this kind of conversation because if you haven't played the game by now, you're probably not going to.

In case you haven't played, or you've forgotten: In The Last of Us, it's 20 years after the zombie apocalypse. Joel - a selfish and brutal smuggler and former raider - is tasked with taking young Ellie across most of what's left of the United States to find a group of people called the Fireflies. Ellie is (as far as anyone knows) the first human being immune to the zombie plague, and the Fireflies think they can use her to develop a cure.

In classic literature, a tragic hero is an otherwise virtuous character that is undone (usually killed) by a single flaw. Joel is the opposite of this, being a cold, cruel man who is undone by a single virtue. Along the journey, Joel and Ellie bond. As they reach the end, heartless Joel finally opens up and begins to love again. This would be a happy ending, except that when he delivers Ellie to the Fireflies he discovers that in order to get their cure, they need to get a sample of the fungus from her brain, which will kill her. Unable to accept the loss of the first person he's bonded with in 20 years, he snaps, kills the Fireflies, and runs away with the unconscious Ellie. Later he lies to Ellie, telling her that the Fireflies did what they could but couldn't find a cure. Roll credits.

Now, as presented, this was an evil act on the part of Joel. The zombie plague is the most devastating thing ever to hit the human race, and he stole away the hope of a cure rather than face personal loss. The story only makes sense thematically if we accept that what Joel did was wrong, and I'm sure that's what the writers intended. But the writers also wanted to make the player willing to participate in Joel's murder spree, so they made it somewhat understandable. In doing this, I think they went too far.

First off, the Fireflies are not good people. They're losing a war against an oppressive government, but that doesn't automatically make you the good guys. We see them stage terrorist attacks and it's clear they're just as willing to murder for their cause as their foes. When Joel finally meets up with them, they find him trying to save Ellie from drowning. He's clearly no threat, yet they demand he stop (thus letting her die) for no real reason other then they're just pointlessly cruel and stupid. They beat him up and are clearly itching for an excuse to kill this guy who has just spent the better part of a year doing them all a massive favor. This isn't a bunch of humanitarians.

Marlene (leader of the Fireflies) claims it's okay to kill Ellie for science because "Ellie would have said yes". That's a really sleazy bit of moral cowardice. I can swipe my neighbor's car and claim he would want me to have it, but until he gives it to me it's still theft. Likewise, killing a kid is still murder. Moreover, if Marlene is so sure that Ellie would say "yes", then she should have just asked her. That would make it so that Ellie's sacrifice was deliberate and heroic, not a knife in the back from a group of adults she trusted. Marlene makes it sound like this arrangement makes things easier on Ellie, but it's pretty obvious that the one person taking the easy way out is Marlene.

I'm always pretty skeptical when I hear people justifying evil actions by saying the outcome will be worth it in the end. Having a good cause does not make you the good guy. Stalin's purges, The Crusades, Mao's Great Leap Forward, and Hitler's attempted genocide were all plans enacted by ostensibly smart (given the prevailing wisdom of the day) people who thought they would be doing good for the world, but who ended up killing millions without achieving their goals. While there are many thought experiments about doing some lesser evil in order to avert some other, greater evil, this sort of thing is usually just that: A thought experiment. In practice, people who perpetrate murder in the name of good tend to end up as shockingly prolific murderers, without seeing the anticipated benefit.

The Last of Us has inspired some smart fan theories. As is often the case with most story-driven games, the narrative leads players to concoct their own elaborate explanations, even for elements of the story that weren't mysterious. From ideas that explain Ellie's past to possible crossovers from other video games, The Last of Us fan theories abound.

A big reason for all the fan theories is the moral ambiguity of the game. Joel, the hero, is forced into difficult situations where there's often no obvious answer. Players search for clues and reasons why things turned out the way they did. When there isn't an obvious one, they often come up with their own theories to fill in the holes in just the same way people invent conspiracy theories for confounding events in the real world.

Not every The Last of Us theory is perfectly sound. Some seem pretty ludicrous while others appear to be pretty likely, but that's just the nature of fan theories in a nutshell.

It should go without saying, but there are The Last of Us spoilers ahead.

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The Fireflies Were Never Going to Find a Cure

When Joel and Ellie arrive, the Fireflies almost immediately decide that she must die in order to produce a cure. The problem is, all of their reasoning is very, very flawed. Instead of scientifically studying the only known immune person in existence, they immediately want to kill her without first running comprehensive diagnostics or tests. It's likely that even if they did kill Ellie, they wouldn't have the knowledge, ability, or patience to develop a cure from her brain.

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2 123 VOTES

The Fireflies Wanted Total Control of the Cure

According to the Fireflies, Ellie needs to die so they could dissect her brain and discover the cure. According to this theory, that's only partly true. The Fireflies could derive a cure from Ellie without murdering her, but as long as she is alive, other factions, such as the military, can do the same. By killing her and becoming the only ones with the cure, the Fireflies would become the most influential organization in the world.

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3 132 VOTES

Joel Is Immune and Doesn't Know It

When you think about all the stuff that Joel has gone through, this theory makes a lot of sense. In addition to spending a lot of time with the infected Ellie, he's also constantly coming into contact with other afflicted folks. He fights them hand-to-hand on an all-too regular basis, yet he somehow manages to avoid it himself. Either he is incredibly lucky, or he's immune. If he is immune, there's a question of whether or not he's aware of it.

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4 107 VOTES

The Last of Us and Uncharted Occur In the Same Universe

Fans love to consider the possibility that some of their favorite games are playing out in the same universe. In this theory, The Last of Us and the Uncharted series take place a few decades apart on the same timeline. The idea is that Nathan Drake is indirectly responsible for the infection. In Uncharted 3, Drake foils a plot to find a sunken vessel with what is essentially an ancient chemical weapon in it.

If Drake failed, the villainous Marlowe would have uncovered the vessel and perhaps unleashed the Cordyceps virus on the world of The Last of Us. The chronology could work, but this Uncharted 4 newspaper Easter egg is the only real evidence of a shared universe.

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