That is what you walk away having experienced, watching the credits roll on The Last of Us. This is a world concerned not with why it all changed, but how to survive this change. Resource scarcity is a constant: bullets, medicine, time. There is barely a moment to gather thoughts, let alone all the other resources needed, as enemies are more numerous and therefore more powerful than you. Survival is dependent on taking what you can, quickly as you can, using it as effectively as you can.
Every moment of the game forces you to question resource usage and strategy: using that one last bullet in the rifle chamber against one long-distant opponent, or sneak past; use materials to create a Molotov cocktail or save it for bandage; get to a higher position to snipe everyone or silently take them all out?
At times, it is overwhelming. Nothing seems to be in your favour, the world’s fist is constantly closing around your goals and beating you with them. Indeed, beating us is exactly the point: this thing called “nature” appears to be reclaiming what we’ve “taken”. Thankfully, the game’s writers aren’t nearly so yellow, not preaching messages of punishment overtly, or mumbling juvenile environmental lamentations as a branch pokes out a Mercedes.
It just is.
After all, the idea that “nature” is taking something “back” from us implies we’re not part of nature, whereas we know we’re mammals who share a common ancestor with everything from apes to daffodils: it is precisely our more savage side that arises when the cage of civil society breaks, according to many writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though, there is good reason to think such people have a more fictional take on humans than anthropological.
What’s striking about The Last of Us‘ world is precisely how civilised people continue to be: there are settlements, military personnel and checkpoints, vaccines and medicines.
But brutality still arises, as it always does. This game doesn’t try provide happy endings, despite seducing you with a tale of a girl who could “save the world”. By providing us with a character like Joel, we were expecting care to grow for Ellie (portrayed brilliantly by Ashley Johnson), since Joel tragically loses his daughter in the first few minutes of the game.
Those opening moments solidified what to expect: Joel’s daughter Sarah, after all, is not killed by the monsters of the new world, but the monsters of the old: a man with a gun.
Joel is sharp and bristling when initially accompanying Ellie, but slowly warms, as do we, when we start recognising that – even functionally and in terms of game design – the journey cannot be completed without her. Eventually, it becomes second nature to send her to different heights and depths and push and pull her around, as you help each other navigate through a destroyed world.
The true twist – if you can call it that – is that we were made to view Joel as the typical gritty hero out to save the world. But, actually, he is just a desperate father who can now finally save his daughter. He answers the tragic question: What do you call a father without a daughter?
This isn’t a game to love. It’s a game to experience, which is needed more these days. We have enough things to love, things that are uncomplicated in their joy and the happiness they bring. The Last of Us isn’t trying to make us happy: it’s telling a story, it’s asking and providing some conclusions about what if: What if a man who loses a daughter is suddenly given the key to saving his species, but must sacrifice her? What is the point of continuing in what is so obviously a losing battle?
Of course we know: Why save the species that killed your daughter? Why give up when there’s a chance to play make-believe with a surrogate of the person you lost? The world can burn, the species can end, but at least you are redeemed – even if you have doomed everyone else.
The ending is perfect for this game. It doesn’t try justify itself; it never has Joel provide long exposition – indeed, there’s hardly ever exposition, just reaction – it just shows you: Here’s Joel. Now this is what he wants to do: Do it. It doesn’t matter whether you agree.
I didn’t want to charge through a hospital, I didn’t want to pull the trigger while aiming at one the planet’s last, remaining surgeons. But he drew a scalpel. He was blocking me from taking Ellie. And thus, I pulled the trigger.
That was my choice.
He lay dead, bleeding in his perfectly clean green surgeon’s gown.
The Last of Us in the title should’ve given it away. Humanity is doomed due to one man’s inability to look past a tragedy he couldn’t avoid. That’s the nature of tragedy: no matter what you could’ve done, no matter how much you tried to avoid it, the tragedy hits. And of course, it begets its own children: in this case, it birthed the inevitable end of humanity because one of its own couldn’t rise above his misplaced guilt.What is a father without a daughter? Someone we can’t trust to genuinely care about those of us remaining.