With the recent trailer release of The Last of Us: Part II, which may, for all we know, come out in the very far future, and even as fanboys have begun posting frame-by-frame analyses of what those three-plus golden minutes promise, I’m compelled to go back to the original game. For some time now I’ve wanted to write about a certain philosophical point, which isn’t often mentioned in game reviews and posts, concerning Joel, the main character in The Last of Us, and about this question of choice.
There has been, and likely still is, strong reaction to the ending of The Last of Us, specifically on the choice presented to Joel and the decision he makes. Commentary from gaming sites, along with much lauding, are often expressions of shock and even some moral hand-wringing over Joel’s decision. The situation I’m referring to is near the end of the game, when Joel had to choose between saving Ellie, the young girl he was assigned to protect, or letting her die so that the Fireflies (a resistance group) can extract from her a vaccine to stop the viral outbreak. Almost without pause, Joel chose to save Ellie. His decision is often described as selfish, or at the very least made players uneasy, and given Joel’s backstory, his decision is without a doubt morally questionable. The death of his daughter, Sarah, in the opening sequence of the game, builds into the final chapter when he has an opportunity to re-enact a similar scenario, only this time with an opportunity to change the outcome. In choosing to save Ellie, Joel realizes a kind of personal redemption, but one that comes at the expense of saving all humanity.
This makes for a neat and compact analysis of Joel’s character, but there is more going on here than a mere description of selfishness can do justice to. For one, consider the world of The Last of Us, full of men who’ve made themselves into animals, a world of grim survival and brutal violence, of loss and lost hopes, a world where a military state arose as a means of dealing with the viral outbreak, and where men hunt each other like the animals they’ve become. As I played the game, I often asked myself, ‘What good is there in any of this?’ Not of the world, which was surprisingly beautiful in all its ruin, but what good was there in humanity? Joel’s daughter wasn’t killed by an Infected, she was shot by a soldier following orders. People were being indiscriminately executed in the streets of walled-off towns. People schemed with and against each other, vying for a little more power, a little more influence. So, when Joel decided to save Ellie over that of general humanity, he had reason enough, because what good was on display in people?
Of course, there’s the argument to be made that because of the ruined state of the world, people will act horribly, as they do in The Last of Us, but if given the chance, and a healthier context, people can be good. Yet if that’s all it takes, then what a thin and delicate line that is. I’m reminded there’s no truer picture of human behavior than when we are under duress, and then all kinds of horrors come out. I think Joel’s distrust of goodly causes or any hope for humanity, as he tells Tess “No, no, no, that was your crusade!”, is simply a reflection of what’s around him. There may be those few who retain their compassion and work from their better selves, but the odds are they won’t survive against the marauding bands who are ready to cook their flesh. In light of that, Joel bet on those he knew and against those he didn’t, which is to say he chose to save the one life he knew, Ellie’s, and said to hell with the rest.
But the other, possibly more important point is that Joel’s decision was the act of a free man. The exchange between Joel and Marlene near the end of the game was exactly about this. After explaining to him that in order to extract the anti-virus, doctors would have to take Ellie’s life in the process, Marlene demands that “There’s no other choice here!” To which Joel responds, “Yeah you keep telling yourself that bullshit….” The contrast between Marlene and Joel is a contrast between two very different philosophical outlooks. Marlene stands for a cause, she thinks in terms of what’s best for others, or the group, which is characteristically utilitarian; but Joel sees things from the perspective of the individual, independent from others and of large groups. He judges from within his purview and hasn’t much thought beyond that. In this way, he is pragmatic, if oddly libertarian.
So the contrast is this, to Marlene there is no choice, because the clear and greater good is to save many people at the expense of one life; on the other hand, what Joel emphasizes is that there is always a choice and, in fact, there’s even more of a choice when we think there isn’t one. Or, put another way, when the choice is between what is generally accepted as the right thing to do, against what is generally agreed to be the wrong thing; even then, there is still a choice. For Joel, as a free individual, though he’s aware of what the ‘right’ choice is (look at Joel’s expression when Marlene pleads her case, before he shoots her), he chooses in the other direction.
I’ve already explained some of the personal motivations for Joel’s decision, as regards his daughter, but to add to that, Joel has probably seen enough in the world to know that the claim ‘There is no choice’ can easily become a justification for all kinds of horrors. Case in point, David. Though there’s no scene that reveals David’s reason for reverting to cannibalism, we can safely imagine, as the leader of his group, that he had considered the options and concluded if they want to survive, ‘they have no choice’ but to start eating others. I’m sure that’s what many people have told themselves as a way to justify all kinds of terrible acts. History, we all know, is full of them.
But putting the reasons and justifications aside, what’s more important to me is the fact that in its purest form, the decision Joel made to save Ellie’s life, over that of humanity’s, is an illustration of true choice. He chose against a larger, albeit more abstract, good and went for the smaller, more immediate and concrete good, though he’s likely aware he should have chosen the other way.
I write this in part as a defense, because I see Joel is an embodiment of what it means to be human. More than Ellie or Marlene or Tess, Joel is a deeply flawed man, withered and eaten by sorrow and loss, brutal and angry, awkward and caring, soft-hearted, as we all are, and he is, as one of our core human characteristics, selfish. But the fact that he didn’t fall in line with an accepted conception of the good and chose based on what he desired, that is the act of a free individual, even when that freedom comes at everyone else’s expense, including, in the long term, his own.
So, it’s not just that Joel is selfish; what he illustrates to me is an understanding of what choice really is. First off, that it is always there and to claim you don’t have it is an act of bad faith, in the Sartrean sense. This is exactly what Marlene does. The other is that to be free means you are responsible for yourself, which includes your choices, and sometimes those choices may appear to be ‘wrong’, but that you are still free to go with ‘wrong’.
Joel is ultimately the human factor of things, namely of the unexpected and paradoxical. He’s a reminder that we are far from our perfect, rational selves with a clear moral compass. With this inherent flaw, combined with the freedom to choose for ourselves, we are likely going to fuck things up, badly. But Joel at least knows the choice is there, because it’s always there, and that in fact you can, and sometimes will, choose to totally fuck things up.
Put another way, Joel is free, because he chose, for lack of a better word, to be bad.