Editor’s Note: WARNING! This article contains major plot spoilers for The Last of Us Part I and The Last of Us Part II video games. These spoilers may also apply to the forthcoming HBO TV series adaptation of the games.
As we await the forthcoming HBO TV series adaption of The Last of Us, it’s the perfect time to recall what made the games truly special: their insistence on inserting players into complex moral dilemmas. From Joel’s decision to save Ellie at the end of The Last of Us Part I to the game developers’ decision to have players control Joel’s killer in The Last of Us Part II, developer Naughty Dog has never shied away from controversial storytelling choices that force their players to participate in serious and sometimes surprising ethical dilemmas. The point of this is not a mere shock factor, but rather an attempt to empathize with all sides of tragic events. Every major character in The Last of Us games is given a backstory that makes their motivations understandable, even if we as an audience sometimes disagree with them. As we revisit some of the series’ most thought-provoking moral quandaries, we’ll see why the games are so well-regarded for their storytelling and ripe for an HBO series adaptation.
Joel’s Decision to Save Ellie
This is by far the single most important ethical choice in the games, if not the most crucial moment in the games period. At the end of The Last of Us Part I, Joel murders innocent people in order to save Ellie’s life after he learns that she must be sacrificed in order to manufacture a vaccine that can save humanity. From a utilitarian perspective, Joel’s decision is pure madness. He’s unable to make a personal sacrifice for the betterment of all. But from Joel’s perspective, to let Ellie die would be an unforgivable failure.
Joel’s daughter Sarah tragically died in his arms, and this tragedy has hardened his heart and made him reluctant to emotionally invest in any other person. Along comes Ellie, at first seen by Joel as a burden he is eager to get off his back. But as he develops a father-daughter relationship with her, safeguarding her as they journey across the country (while also being saved by her on multiple occasions), the thought of losing Ellie becomes unthinkable.
At this point in the story, Joel is profoundly nihilistic and disenchanted with the Fireflies’ revolutionary objectives. He is a survivor, nothing more and nothing less. He thinks self-sacrifice is just naïveté, a delusion that one person can make a profound difference. So when confronted with the rare instance of one person’s life potentially sending shock waves across civilization, Joel is likely not interested and/or cynical about the Fireflies’ ability to manufacture a vaccine. For Joel, his sole reason for existing is to protect Ellie. It’s not only that he cares for her but that he longs to free himself in some way from the pain of his daughter’s death.
The writing in The Last of Us Part I is so exceptional that we understand perfectly well why Joel does what he does. Many players probably agree with his decision, while others find it understandable but shocking. Those who see Joel as perhaps a tender-hearted monster no doubt have fewer issues with the polarizing decision to have players control Joel’s killer in The Last of Us Part II.
Naughty Dog Makes Players Control Joel’s Killer in Part II
It was a bold and polarizing decision for game developer Naughty Dog to have The Last of Us Part II players control Abby, the woman who successfully hunts down and gets revenge on Joel for killing her father. Abby as a character is not quite as engaging as Joel or Ellie and her storyline is too similar for players to feel as invested in her as they do Ellie. But Abby’s inclusion in the game serves as a reminder that Joel’s decision to sacrifice the good of humanity for one person would not be without consequence.
Of course, Abby is primarily out to avenge her father, the doctor who could have developed the vaccine. She is motivated by a personal bloodlust more so than an ethical concern about Joel’s decision. Nonetheless, her quest is a potent reminder that no one, even in a violent, post-apocalyptic society, can kill with impunity. Sooner or later, someone will demand justice. Abby’s desire to kill Joel is nearly identical to Ellie’s desire to subsequently kill Abby to avenge Joel. The wheel of revenge and violence spins around and around, with few people eager to jump off. By having Abby be a playable character, the game developers want us to see all sides of this revenge cycle. We may like Joel and Ellie more as people but they are rarely more justified in their violent actions than Abby or many other characters featured throughout the games.
Ellie Kills a Pregnant Woman
The Last of Us Part II heavily features this theme of putting players into different characters’ perspectives. It’s a decision designed to make us understand characters we might have, at one time, hated or misunderstood. So when Ellie, in her revenge quest against Abby, ends up killing a pregnant woman, we are made to see how devastating revenge can be. It’s not an accident that at this time Ellie is in a relationship with a pregnant woman herself. Ellie’s realization that she’s actually taken two lives, not just one, is horrifying to her, but it doesn’t completely stop her from seeking revenge. It’s easy to make excuses for Ellie. She didn’t know the woman was pregnant, and she likely would have acted differently if she did know. But it’s Ellie’s decision to seek revenge, and she cannot be held blameless for the inevitable, albeit inadvertent, consequences of that decision.
Ellie Abandons Her Family
Ellie’s revenge quest not only leads to multiple deaths but also threatens her own happiness, as well as the happiness of her partner and the baby they are raising together. Despite her partner’s clear red line, Ellie leaves her family and tranquil life to chase after Abby yet again. It’s a decision made even harder to understand given how bucolic her new life seems. Beautiful sunsets, swaying wheat fields, happy baby goats, a bouncing baby boy – Ellie’s life seems just about perfect. Yet she abandons it just to kill Abby, a woman who has long since stopped caring about Joel. The Last of Us Part II ends with Ellie facing the consequences of her decision, as she returns to an empty home.
What Does Adapting These Decisions For TV Mean?
The Last of Us game developers have been unafraid to violate storytelling rules in their efforts to create games that are unique and thought-provoking. While certainly not every player will love controlling Joel’s killer or watching Ellie murder a pregnant woman, The Last of Us games take their premises seriously. This is a post-apocalyptic environment, filled with desperate people who have long abandoned polite society’s moral conventions. Few writers are willing to take the kind of risks that Naughty Dog bravely took. HBO, a network long associated with sharp writing and anti-heroes, is the perfect choice to adapt these games and imbue their series with the thoughtfulness that it deserves. If the show can even come close to replicating the spirit of the games, TV watchers are in store for something special.