The Last of Us released recently and has since garnered critical acclaim, earning perfect scores from critics across the board. One thing the game really nails is its storytelling, which I've praised highly. Specifically, I want to talk about one facet of this game's pitch-perfect writing: the black-and-whiteness. In a medium inundated with binary "good" and "evil" conflicts, it's good to see a game that leaves us a little unsure as to who's right and who's wrong, and whether or not we're doing the right thing.
Games like BioShock and InFamous paint good and evil as two radically different extremes. You are either Ghandi, or you're Hitler. You're Mother Theresa, or you're Ted Bundy. There's no middle ground. There's no moral ambiguity. In some cases, good and evil are clearly listed with their respective labels, for the convenience of the player. Not so with The Last of Us. Though the player doesn't get any on screen prompts asking if they're a bad person or not, they feel a sense of uncertainty when the term "hero" is put in any kind of context. Joel is a character that I ultimately end up rooting for, but I'm never entirely certain if what he's doing is "right". This is a game that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, in a good way.
Please be warned, there are spoilers below.
The world Naughty Dog sets up is bleak, brutal, and unforgiving. After the prologue, the narrative skips ahead twenty years to show us what the world has become. Joel is now living in a quarantine zone under marshal law. It's easy to finger oppressive military regimes as wholly "evil", but the game does a fairly good job showing us why living under the military's scrutiny could be seen as a necessary evil. These circumstances are dire and, as the player later discovers, the alternative is an anarchic dog-eat-dog world. That doesn't mean the military can be viewed as heroes of the hour, however. Rations are running low, people are starving, and people aren't being treated fairly. Despite these struggles, people are still desperate to sneak into the city, as we see, and Tess comments on, after the first infected fight.
The story wastes no time in letting us know that Tess and Joel are "shitty people". They are survivors. They realise that sitting in line waiting for food isn't going to get them anywhere. In order to make it in their world, they have to break the rules, and a few bones. True, the military police are ruthless and aggressive, but so is Joel. The difference here is that the military is trying to hold on to the last semblance of societal order they have left, and Joel is just trying to stay alive. Joel hurts and even kills dozens of people, all for his own well-being. The framing of it doesn't make it feel outright evil, but looking back, it's hard to say what you do in the game is always justified. One of Joel's character flaws is his selfishness. Everything he does, at least at first, is for his own well-being. Later, when he cares for Ellie, he's doing so not for the greater good, but because of his emotional attachment.
Joel is characterised as a human being, with flaws and weaknesses, which ultimately makes him one of my favourite characters in this medium. From the get-go, we see how he would rather leave a family on the side of the road than risk harming coming to his daughter. That selfish attitude is only amplified as Joel spends twenty years hunting, killing, and looting. He's killed innocent people, but isn't that what it takes to survive? Maybe.
Based on this depiction of Joel, you might get the impression that he is unlikable. Thing is, he isn't. Naughty Dog did a superb job here nailing the characterisation of Joel. He's a character that is morally ambiguous at best and downright terrible at worst. At the same time however, the player can still feel perfectly fine playing as him, and rooting for him, because they can sympathise with him. Joel might do bad things, but what really matters is that we understand why he does those things.
Part of what makes Joel work as a character and a playable protagonist is how players understand his motives. The prologue shows us Joel's personal tragedy, which leads to the development of his character flaws. Joel has put up an emotional barrier between himself and others. It's clear he and Tess have an implied chemistry, but Joel won't allow it. He doesn't want to get attached to people, because he doesn't want to get hurt again. Joel and Ellie's journey isn't about saving the world or redeeming the human race. It's about Joel's emotional development, and how he learns to put his guard down, and learn to care again.
Caring for another human being is another character flaw. Joel's final decision, to save Ellie from the Fireflies, isn't necessarily done because it's the "right" thing to do. Joel does it because he cares too much for Ellie to let her go, no matter the cost. I know there are some who felt the game would have benefited from multiple endings, but I disagree. The rigidity of the narrative works well, because we have a clearly defined protagonist. I wasn't always sure if I agreed with his actions, and sometimes I almost felt a little guilty, but I never outright rejected a scenario, because everything Joel does fits with his character.
That isn't to say we couldn't have seen some element of player choice in this game, however. There is one small moment where a moral decision is left up to the player. When the player first encounters the trapped man (just outside the Boston QZ) with a broken mask, he begs Joel to kill him. Tess asks Joel what he thinks they should do. This is really just a quick tutorial to acclimatise the player to the shooting controls, but the player can simply walk away. I'm not saying the game is lacking in any respect, but I do feel that this could have been interesting had this been fleshed out some more. I would have loved to see a similar moment later in the campaign, when the player might be really hurting for ammunition or supplies. Finding a survivor in need of help could put the player's moral compass under strain, as they associate helping other people with a loss. In the future, I want to see more games that aren't afraid to punish players for doing the right thing.
Small, organic decisions such as these are fine, as I can understand the wiggle-room in our protagonist's characterisation. However, there is one set ending, and it works. It works not because it's the best possible outcome, but because we know why it happens. At the end of the game, Joel learns that the potential cure for mankind would come at the cost of Ellie's life. This isn't so clear-cut, however. Audio and text logs reveal that they've had other candidates, and that even though Marlene doesn't like the idea of killing Ellie, she does it because she believes it's for the good of mankind. Even though the Fireflies are basically freedom fighters, they cause dissent and chaos, and are willing to do anything to restore the old world, no matter the cost. Here, the player is asked to ponder if the ends justify the means. Regardless, Joel doesn't believe it does, and even if he did, he doesn't care. He only cares about Ellie.
What makes this so compelling is that there is no good and evil here. It's just different people doing different things, because they have different upbringings and motivations. Joel cares about Ellie so much that he's willing to risk letting the cure go just to save her. The framing helps players participate. Yes, Joel is going on a rampage, killing these people who could potentially bring humanity back from the brink, but they are also going to kill a little girl. However, Joel is doing this for his own selfish reasons. He's doing this because Ellie has become the new Sarah. She's become his surrogate daughter, and Joel is too weak to allow himself to lose another little girl. The fact that Joel carries her in his arms, much like the prologue of the game, punctuates this. Regardless, there's a lot to consider here. There's no guarantee that Ellie's death will grant us with a cure, and even then, there's no guarantee that we can pick up the pieces of society and put it back together again. There's a lot to consider here, which leaves us with a moral dilemma for us to ponder, instead of insight or an overall message.
In The Last of Us, notions of "good" and "evil" are cast aside, and replaced with characters and their motivations. Most games are afraid of giving us complex and morally ambiguous characters. Earlier, I said this game left me with a bad taste in my mouth, but in a good way. By that, I meant I was left a little unsure as to whether or not Joel's decision was justified. He possibly snuffed out humanity's last hope by going on a rampage, even going as far as to execute a doctor and an unarmed woman. There's a lingering doubt that hangs over the ending of this game, and that's what I like about it. There's no clear "good" guy here. Just characters and motivations.