I love ambiguous endings. Endings that the player or viewer can create theories about and make their own. Endings that spur players and viewers to go back through the game or movie and dig up informational artifacts that support their theories or even change them. This was one of the big reasons I loved Hotline Miami and wrote a billion jillion words about it (which I then never bothered to edit and put anywhere, just chillin’ in a .txt file on my hard drive; you’re welcome).
My immediate reaction to The Last of Us’ ending was honestly disappointment, and the more I think about it the more I believe that that reaction was because of the game’s pacing and not the story decision that was made at the end. I actually really liked that they did not go for the expected “sacrifice yourself to save the world” route. It’s ballsy and unexpected and cool.
(I wonder what feedback would have been like if they had allowed Ellie to die, then shown that no actual gains were made from her sacrifice. Can you imagine the frothing, screaming rage that could induce?)
Anyway, the ending felt kind of abrupt and I was pretty meh about the whole experience aside from the Cool Decision(tm). After a few days had passed I decided to read some words on the internet about the ending, because forming your opinions based on what other people on the internet say is a Good Idea!
It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but what I thought was most interesting about peoples’ reactions is that it seemed to me as though most people had thoroughly justified Joel’s actions at the end of the game and established him squarely as the Good Guy in all of this.
Let me start by clarifying. I did some thinking, and that line of thought was: What would *I* have done if I were Joel, and if I were Ellie?
If I were Joel I absolutely would have followed the game’s ending. No doubt about it. Maybe I have been too brainwashed by too many escort missions, but even if I didn’t feel an emotional connection to Ellie I would not let her die. The Fireflies can find a way to investigate the cordyceps without fucking murdering her, or they can all get flamethrowered. End of discussion.
If I were Ellie, there would be a great deal more ambiguity. I’m struggling with survivor’s guilt and the visions of the horrific things that I’ve gone through on my way to get here; the cannibalism, dealing with the fact that I have killed people to preserve my own life, losing friends; I’m unquestionably depressed, and this lends itself to two potential viewpoints:
1) Humanity is not worth saving
2) Life is not worth living
So at this point, it depends on which is currently dominant in my mind. Me, personally (not Ellie), being inclined to severe depression and thoughts of suicide, I would bank on the second viewpoint as dominant. So, tl:dr; I think that if I were in Ellie’s shoes I would give up my life for what may or may not be the good of my fellow man. I don’t know if the decision would be so easy if I were Ellie-at-the-beginning-of-the-game, but for Ellie-at-the-end-of-the-game, yes. I would agree to die.
Going back to the viewpoint of Joel as Good Guy, I don’t think he is. Do I think what he does is unjustified? No. Absolutely not. Personally I’m 100% behind murdering all the Fireflies because they come across as enormous assholes. BUT IT IS STILL WRONG. Is it likely that the Fireflies would have diamond-sawed into Ellie’s brain and found A Glorious Future For Mankind? Christ, no. I am of the (extremely uneducated) opinion that, once Ellie died, whatever symbiotic relationship was sustaining Ellie’s immunity to the cordyceps would also die, and they would never find whatever it was they were looking for. I mean, did they even try doing something like creating a vaccine out of her blood serum BEFORE going to the “let’s drill her head open” option? It’s an absurdly radical step and, I think, points up the inability of the Fireflies’ doctors to actually deal with the situation of having an immune person to work with.
BUT MURDERING THEM IS STILL WRONG.
At the end of the game you have taken away the one hope that they had for beating the “plague” and returning to Life As It Was. You’ve murdered a ton of people whose only crime was that they believed the Fireflies. Or maybe you used stealth and didn’t murder TOO many, but you did murder Marlene.
Demonizing Marlene is part of casting Joel as a Good Guy. Most people seem to think that Marlene had a savior complex and was determined to Be The Person Responsible For Curing The Disease, but I don’t see that as being a thing. She very clearly wrestles with the decision to kill Ellie. I still want to know what, exactly, Marlene’s relationship with Hannah (Ellie’s mom, IIRC) was; when she says she misses her on the recording (as an aside, those things look like pregnancy tests) her voice is full of emotion. If there was a biological relationship I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t have told Ellie, so I wonder if there was a romantic relationship there – if this is the case, Marlene would be condemning to death the daughter of the woman she loved. Obviously Marlene is desperate to take this step. Her convictions don’t seem strong enough to bear up this decision, so she is just hoping against hope – probably also becoming overwhelmed with despair regarding what humanity has become and is becoming – that this will work. She goes on in the recording to say something about not being able to kill the only person who understands the gravity of Ellie’s sacrifice, which I assume is Joel, and is why she doesn’t murder him out of hand.
Because Joel did not protect Ellie. Joel took Ellie to the Fireflies’ door, and was then taken prisoner by the Fireflies. They could have killed him at any time between the moment they make contact and the moment he wakes up in his cell. They didn’t, and the reason he’s not dead is because of Marlene. If Marlene REALLY wanted to GUARANTEE that Ellie’s surgery would go ahead, she would have told someone to put a bullet in Joel’s brain. She didn’t even have to do it herself. But she lets him live. And she has to know, somewhere, back deep inside of her brain, that Joel is not going to meekly walk out of Firefly HQ while elsewhere in the building they are putting Ellie to death. She is the only reason you even have the opportunity to rescue Ellie at all.
And you kill her.
Joel is not a Good Guy because, in this world, NO ONE is a Good Guy. There is no longer any such thing as a black-and-white morality. Every choice is ambiguous. Say you’re feeling like life is sacred one day, so you don’t shoot a man when you both try to hunt the same deer. You let him take it. You find another one of your own. And then his group of hunters tracks you down and murders you.
Conversely, say you DON’T feel giving and you shoot the man dead. His wife and child then starve to death in the cold. But you can’t ever know which situation you’re in. You can only make decisions based on what you know when you know it. And sometimes these decisions result in the taking of a life. That life is gone forever. And while self-defense is justifiable, and I believe in it, you might never know whether or not taking that life was necessary. And you will always have ended that life. You will bear the responsibility for the end of that life – whatever comes of it – on your shoulders. And this will never be 100% right and good. Even when it is the best option, taking a life is never the Good option. Especially in a world where uninfected human life grows less and less every day.
The Last of Us illustrates moral ambiguity in a really great way by allowing us to assume the role of the character but not control his actions. We, as humans, then feel the need to justify his actions to make ourselves into the Good Guys, despite the fact that we had no control over these actions at all. Which is, in its turn, a pretty amazing illustration of humanity in general.