Analysis / The Last of Us
As gamers, we're used to playing the hero. We're given a weapon; instructed to shoot the baddies and we follow this blindly and in some regards, the LoU is no different as you kill infected, hunters and fireflies with impunity. However, as the game goes on, it's clear that Joel is not a "good guy" per se. The concepts of right and wrong didn't exists anymore in the world. It was about survival and people doing what they felt was right from their point of view or to benefit their situation. This is highlighted after a level where Joel and Ellie are ambushed and upon clearing it out, Ellie questions Joel who begrudgingly admits that he also used to ambush people - and some were innocent no less. Were his actions right or wrong? The game doesn't judge him as it was part of his survival tactics. It is this ambiguity that makes it a challenging game and one that's debated hotly - it has no easy answers.
From Marlene's perspective, killing Ellie is a necessary evil in order to begin the process of saving the world. Ellie is the only person on the PLANET to be immune. While her murder is harsh, you could argue that it is justifiable. Marlene even states this to Joel when she says, "How long until she's killed by a group of clickers...if she's not raped and murdered first." In other words, if Ellie is to die, let it have meaning as opposed to an empty death where she's mauled by animals both human and infected. Marlene is torn up over her decision but she makes it anyway because she understands that Ellie represents hope for humankind. It's not an easy decision but it must be done and she makes it. It's easy for the player to dismiss her as the "bad guy" because we don't play as her. We don't share her journey of a promise made, kept and ultimately broken. This would've been a fascinating experience if the main character had been Marlene and we played as her (with Ellie in tow) from the time of Ellie's birth to her being delivered to the hospital and Joel (an NPC) comes in and tries to steal Ellie away. I wonder how players would've reacted if they had played from Marlene's point of view the entire time?
From Joel's perspective, killing Ellie is immoral. It's not a sacrifice because she's not choosing to do it. The choice is being made for her without her knowledge or consent and to Joel - and vicariously to many players - that makes it murder. Even if Ellie's death leads to the eventual salvation of humanity, he doesn't care because as he says to Marlene, "It's not your decision to make." In other words, he may have accepted this had Ellie freely given herself over for the procedure, but she didn't and no matter how good the outcome, the ends don't justify the means. We spent most of the game with Joel. From his original reluctance of taking the assignment, to keeping Ellie with him (rather than hand her over to his brother) to saving her from being killed (or raped) by David. By the time the end arrives, the player is in a clear father figure role and upon hearing that Ellie is in trouble, most will instinctively rush in 'guns-a-blazin' to save her from the procedure.
Here's the point most people miss - both Marlene and Joel decided that they each knew what was in Ellie's best interest without consulting her first. Marlene never gave Ellie a choice to decide if she'd be willing to sacrifice herself for humanity. Joel too also denies Ellie a choice by lying to her about the Fireflies. Ultimately, Ellie's two parental figures lied and manipulated her in order to achieve their own selfish desires. That's why neither Marlene and Joel are "heroes". In trying to do what they each deemed "right" and arguing with each other about what they thought was best, they fully neglected to consider what Ellie wanted and truth be told, neither of them cared. This is never more evident than at the end, when Ellie pleads with Joel to swear to her that he told her the truth about the Fireflies and Joel lies point-blank to her face. In that moment, he revealed himself to be no better than Marlene because he betrays Ellie just the same.
Ultimately, The Last of Us
is a statement about what human beings will do when they're desperate and scared. How we'll easily sacrifice each others rights and desires to attain what we desire, even if it means hurting other people in the process. This is why the game ends with Ellie being lied to and believing it because that's what humanity has sunk. That's the real tragedy of the game.
All the locations are symbolic.
The game starts with the last remnant of the US Government in Boston, which is appropriate because Boston was a starting point for The American Revolution
so is arguably where the country began. The last act is in Salt Lake City, a city that was founded by survivors amongst other subjective terms for The Mormons. Someone explained the symbolism of the Colorado University on YMMV page under Genius Bonus
. Lastly I posit that the reason for Jackson, Wyoming is a reference to the song "Jackson", a song about a couple in a dead relationship coming to Jackson for a better life than being with their partner. The reference casts further doubt over the sustainability of Joel and Ellie's relationship. The last cutscene is even called Jackson. You've got me on Pittsburg though.
The ending of the "Winter" stage is a brilliant deconstruction of the Damsel in Distress trope.
After Ellie's boss fight with David, they both fall unconscious. The perspective then shifts to Joel who begins murdering his way through David's cannibal group. This leads the player to believe that Joel will be the one to save Ellie. However, the perspective again shifts to Ellie who saves herself by killing David with a machete. Joel shows up seconds too late to help Ellie, but it doesn't matter because Ellie can save herself.
"Find something to fight for": parents letting their kids down
The analysis at the top of this page does talk about how Joel lets Ellie down massively when it comes to the cure. But here's a minor example at the end - when Ellie talks about Riley and Tess and Sam - he assumes she's making a cry for help. An emotional cry for help. But she looks disappointed when he touches his watch and talks about finding something to fight for, and given the Word of God on how she saw through his bullshit, this is perhaps one more thing she saw through - Joel was trying to convince himself that he had made the right choice. And she realised that then, on top of his talking about Sarah on the way there.
At the same time, she's also disappointed because of this: she was talking about what she was fighting for. Ellie pushed on through a year of hell to the hospital. She could've given up along the way. She could've given up so many times. But she didn't. She was fighting to save people - to save the crashing plane of humanity. She saw the journey as a chance to help people. And he didn't understand that, because he was busy focusing on the justifications of his actions (again, his insistence on recalling Sarah, and his touching of his watch. She's clearly on his mind). Also, it's odd advice to be giving someone who had to fight on her own - she had to fight for Joel in Winter. She fought for him. This ties into his not accepting that she's grown up - that she has changed, that she's a very different little girl from what Sarah was or would have grown up to be.
Of course, it's also ironic - he just stole what she was fighting so hard for from her. He didn't give her the choice to take the pilot's seat, and let the plane go down. He robbed her of the thing she was fighting for.
So... this ties into the first analysis? Joel is unable to see through to the heart of it all - that Ellie is mature. That she's gone through the crucible of hell and come out independent and brave, and that she can make choices and has her own goals to fight for. It's an additional layer to the idea of him depriving her of a choice to save everyone, and also adds to the fact that the writer tried basing Ellie off his daughter. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that parents can fail at recognising that their children 'are also people with agency and choices and dreams of their own.'