*Contains Spoilers: This article may only be fully appreciated upon completion of The Last of Us*
The video game hero is oftentimes never a truly realised character. With hours needed by the player to invest in the completion of the game, to have the player at odds with their heroes makes the entire experience hard to connect with. We want to save the world or we want to destroy it, whichever route the game takes you down the player’s and protagonist’s goal are intertwined; we share their quest because it is what we generally believe in. Therefore the hero we invest our time in can do no wrong, not unless an explanation is given later on that make us forgive their transgression. Even in universes like Grand Theft Auto you may have to torture some guy in an uncomfortable and brutal fashion but moments later you’re driving him to the airport to save his life, because hey it’s not like you’re a total monster! Your character just cannot act out something that we the players will entirely condemn, otherwise the game is over for us. In that sense we can never see the video game protagonist as fully realised because their motives must always revert back to our satisfaction and moral code.
However Naughty Dog then brings us The Last of Us and with such a satisfying story for the player throughout we are left with an ending that the fans still cannot feel comfortable about. For the first time in mainstream video gaming culture, the player is forced to act against their will; our protagonist has his own ideas how this quest will end. In perhaps the most powerful set piece in the entire game Joel burst into the operating room and the player slowly comes to a chilling realisation; Joel isn’t ending this game until you’ve murdered the surgeons, taken Ellie away and undone all possibility of saving humanity. It’s hard to recall another time when pressing a button on the controller was so difficult. Joel has essentially asserted his own consciousness in this set piece and has acted in a way we wish can be undone. He has committed the murder regardless of every social and moral code that tells us he’s wrong. Then he has the gall to lie about it all to Ellie, triumphantly walking away into the sunset and swearing to her that she wasn’t needed anymore so they’re going home. Our adventure is undone by this protagonist and there’s no drive to the airport this time, the story is over and Joel has betrayed us.
However, The Last of Us has two protagonists and with Joel’s betrayal the desperate player can now place all their ideals upon Ellie’s shoulders instead. Surely her story isn’t over yet, she’ll give us the catharsis we crave, we just need a sequel and everything will be fine, Ellie will sort it out for us. Perhaps though Ellie will prove just as untrustworthy as Joel, perhaps this is a universe which will never give the player what they want.
As the chaptered seasons progress in the game, Ellie’s optimism slowly diminishes before a bleak and cruel reality before her. From early on she becomes a reminder of how powerful humanity can be and especially through her interactions with Sam we, the player and Joel, begin to build our case for the saving of the human race. The two display natural wonderment to the world around them and even moments after fighting for their lives, they can still play a game of darts like any other kid who hasn’t lived in an apocalyptic state. However hope is dashed, Sam is killed off and Henry instead of trying to build something with our heroes takes his own life, having lost all hope. The young never grace our journey again and Ellie loses all touch with that natural humanity from here on out. Instead she meets David and with him an evil that we thus far haven’t imagined in this universe. As the boss fight reaches its climax the true extent of David’s words “you have no idea what I’m capable of” sinks in (a dynamic camera angle leaving us to imagine what he’s about to commit to her) and his savage destruction takes her to breaking point; she realises the evil humanity is capable of and not even darts with Sam may be worth ending this apocalypse. The shadow that seems upon her when arriving in Salt Lake City makes us question, does she really believe in this quest anymore, or does she condemn it, and are we the players the only ones who believe in it anymore. Of course we can easily forget all this once we’re set out to murder everyone with Joel, and we can easily hate him from denying her the chance to save humanity. But then again, have the fireflies asked her what she wants either? If they had would she have gone through with it willingly or has Joel’s choice worked in her favour after all?
The quest to save humanity may be something the player will most likely always find reason to fight for, but with The Last of Us we are given protagonists who have rejected our ideals and have becoming independently motivated individuals. While creative director Druckmann has suggested we can interpret the ending as Ellie “realising she can’t rely on him anymore” we must remember that we cannot rely on her any more than we can and ever have done Joel.
Ultimately, perhaps a sequel to The Last of Us will allow the player the ending that they desire but be wary players because there is also equal cause for these characters to betray us all over again, for Naughty Dog has allowed them full realisation, and they are now no longer limited by our expectations.