In The Last of Us, Joel Had It Right

Shamus Young

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In The Last of Us, Joel Had It Right

Shamus looks back at the brilliant The Last of Us to dissect the motives of Joel vs. the Fireflies to see if the result was indeed the proper response. Spoilers, so be prepared.

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Robyrt

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I tried so hard to break that scripted sequence, expecting that this would be a game with a Big Moral Choice at the end. When told to kill a Firefly by the quest log, I shot him in the calf with an arrow, hoping I could scare him off like this was Spec Ops: The Line. Unfortunately, the plot is on rails and it was not to be. :(
 

Smiley Face

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Most of this stuff was going through my head when I first played the game, and I rather enjoyed the results. Sure, Joel wasn't stopping the fireflies because their idea to dissect Ellie right out of the gate was stupid, he was doing it because he cared for her, but as the silent partner in the whole endeavour, I was on board because their science was stupid and incompetent. Is that what the writers intended? Probably not, but it didn't lessen the story for me, it became less of a story about the continuation of a tragic hero and more about a tortured man finding peace, and I enjoyed it.
 

Casual Shinji

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I think the one recurrence in the characters of TLoU is not so much that they're evil and/or ruthless, but that they're lost. Everyone seems to be lying to themselves to make some sense of what's left of the world and humanity in it. Bill is lying to himself regarding how he left things with Frank, Ish is lying to himself when he says he still has faith in humanity, and Marlene and the Fireflies lie to themselves in thinking they can synthesize a cure with what little manpower and expertise they have.

The only person in the game that actually has his head on straight is Joel. He knows that humanity is screwed, there's nothing left to save, and he only survives for the sake of surviving. That is untill the end when he starts lying to himself, since he found a bit of humanity again with Ellie. Ellie in all likelihood would have wanted to die for the sake of a possible cure, because she's just that kind of person, but more importantly, she suffers from a major case of survivors guilt. Joel however takes that choice away from her, because he doesn't want to loose her at any cost. And he does it under the guise of a protective father figure, when really he is just hopelessly depended on Ellie now. It's remarkable how much The Last of Us has in common with the original King Kong.
 

Dreadman75

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Wow, this is a really weird coincidence but I just got The Last of Us for Christmas and completed it just a few days ago as well.

Anyway, this article is a fantastic read, helping to bring a bit more context to the ending as well to the characters of the Fireflies. To me, most of the Fireflies weren't that much better than the bandits you fight throughout the rest of the game. Just another bunch of dicks that have long since stopped truly caring about anyone other than them. I'm not entirely convinced that they wouldn't have held the cure ransom from the government, and by extension the people under them, until any number of demands were met.

I'm of mixed thoughts on the ending, on the one hand I can totally sympathize with Joel and how he felt wanting to protect the one person he became close to in over 20 years. But at the same time both sides of the argument, Joel's and Marelene's, both rob Ellie of her choice. She's a child that has been forced to mature very quickly, and she deserves the right to make that choice herself. I guess that's what makes this such a great game though, great, flawed, and compelling characters all trying to survive.
 

JarinArenos

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Robyrt said:
I tried so hard to break that scripted sequence, expecting that this would be a game with a Big Moral Choice at the end. When told to kill a Firefly by the quest log, I shot him in the calf with an arrow, hoping I could scare him off like this was Spec Ops: The Line. Unfortunately, the plot is on rails and it was not to be. :(
I'm not sure Spec Ops: The Line is a good example of a plot that's NOT on rails. Seriously, try to avoid that game's major plot "choice", I dare you.
 

senordesol

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In the case of the 'drowning' scene, I interpreted that more as a sensible 'take no chances' approach than truly 'evil' (after all, we see the 'help me' ambush tactic used elsewhere in the story).

That said, I can agree that the Fireflies are otherwise deluded if they think killing their only viable test-subject could do anything beyond 'jack' and 'shit'. That really bothered me with regard to the end of TLoU, it was such a shmuck play that you felt like you had to kill them for their own good.

For all that, however, Joel did some pretty dumb stuff too. I really don't get why he was so slow to give Ellie a weapon; particularly with all the furballs they'd barely survived up to that point.
 

medv4380

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If they can kill Ellie because the life of one innocent girl is less valuable than the lives of all of humanity, then someone in Joel's position would be justified in wiping them all out for trying to stupidly waste the one immune test subject on bad science. After all, the lives of a bunch of belligerent asshole hack scientists are also worth less than all of humanity.
Bad logical flow.

The Fireflies logic is One life lost to save all of humanity it worth it. They're using the basic Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Joel isn't justified in killing them because the logic does not invert. Killing a few scientists that could save all of humanity so that he can save one little girl is not equivalent morally. Joel is effectively saying to hell with the potential of saving everyone.

Joel, objectively, does an immoral act. While the others are doing a morally dubious act by some standards they are doing a moral right act by their own morality "The needs of the many out weight the needs of the few."

All that is presented as to why the Fireflies are "bad" is little more than and ad hom, ad hitlerium, Godwin's Law fallacy. Unless you're willing to demonize Utilitarianism as well as a slew of other objective moral codes the argument is poor.
 

bjj hero

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A great read Shamus. I've not played the game but I like when story tellers try something different.

Personally I just blame people. I won't go into nazis but I thought about the war on terror and the torture of detainees by America and their proxys.

How come when ever people claim that "the end justifies the means" then the means always means being a dick? I just feel people can justify any behaviour they need to, no matter how vile.
 

SandroTheMaster

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JarinArenos said:
Robyrt said:
I tried so hard to break that scripted sequence, expecting that this would be a game with a Big Moral Choice at the end. When told to kill a Firefly by the quest log, I shot him in the calf with an arrow, hoping I could scare him off like this was Spec Ops: The Line. Unfortunately, the plot is on rails and it was not to be. :(
I'm not sure Spec Ops: The Line is a good example of a plot that's NOT on rails. Seriously, try to avoid that game's major plot "choice", I dare you.
Well, it's easy. You stop playing. That's the whole point of the game. The only way to stop the killing is for you, the player, to stop indulging in it's violence.
 

CarlsonAndPeeters

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Very good read, very well reasoned. Still, I can't help but feel like the climax doesn't really make sense. Like, regardless of the stressful post-apocalyptic situation, I don't think humans would react that irrationally. There seems to be no reason Marlene wouldn't sit down with Joel and Ellie and discuss the status and potential options. Now after that point, if they disagree, then you could have a show down. But there was never a clear reason why everything had to be pushed so far with so little provocation.
 

RicoADF

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Shamus Young said:
In The Last of Us, Joel Had It Right

Shamus looks back at the brilliant The Last of Us to dissect the motives of Joel vs. the Fireflies to see if the result was indeed the proper response. Spoilers, so be prepared.

Read Full Article
Thank you for the spoiler warning, I have the game (from release day) and still haven't played it fully yet so will have to come back to this once I've finished.
 

Sniper Team 4

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senordesol said:
In the case of the 'drowning' scene, I interpreted that more as a sensible 'take no chances' approach than truly 'evil' (after all, we see the 'help me' ambush tactic used elsewhere in the story).
I agree with you there. The world is dangerous and they certainly don't want to take any chances. And as you said, there is a part earlier where we see that people aren't above calling for help to spring a trap.

However, the Fireflies lost all points in my book once I got to meet them and read/listen to messages. They wanted to kill Joel on sight. Marlene says that they wanted to put a bullet in his head and be done with him once they had the girl. Joel did all that for them, and that's how they wanted to thank him.
Then there's the way the guy escorting Joel acts. He's a thug, just like everyone else that Joel has met in the game. And let's not forget that Marlene orders her follower to shoot Joel if he tries anything. She says this without batting an eye.
Finally, and this is the one that really bothered me, they didn't let Joel say goodbye. I'm betting that if he had been given the chance to talk to Ellie--the girl he had just spent a year caring for--before everything, things might have turned out different.

So yeah, I had no problem with what Joel did at the end. Okay, maybe not no problems. I did feel a little uncomfortable at first, but once it sank in that these guys weren't exactly shining paragons, it got easier. Didn't like having to kill the defenseless doctor though. Wish I could have just punched him and knocked him out.

All in all, I enjoyed this article. I agree with pretty much everything that was said here, and it's nice to see that I wasn't the only one who went, "Wait, I just did all this for you, and you want to kill me?"
 

Nixou

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Marlene (leader of the Fireflies) claims it's okay to kill Ellie for science because "Ellie would have said yes"[...] Moreover, if Marlene is so sure that Ellie would say "yes", then she should have just asked her

Marlene is not the leader of the fireflies: she called the shots in Boston, but in Salt Lake City she clearly defers to others: more likely, she was willing to ask Ellie but was overruled by her superiors and did not dare challenging them, which would be thematically relevant: to fight the post-apocalyptic junta, the fireflies became increasingly military in their organization, to the point of mimicking their enemies' worst vice: gaze at the abyss for too long...

***

And here is where the Fireflies excuse of "ends justify the means" comes back to bite them. If they can kill Ellie because the life of one innocent girl is less valuable than the lives of all of humanity, then someone in Joel's position would be justified in wiping them all out for trying to stupidly waste the one immune test subject on bad science.

There's another aspect to take into account: the reunion between Joel and Tommy serves to show that contrary to the Boston and Pittsburgh chapters hinted, it's the quarantine system which is on its last leg, not civilization nor humanity as a whole: the choice is most definitely not between sacrificing Ellie to get a cure and mankind's extinction: it's between the unhinged self-righteous survivors of a failed revolution taking a long shot and choosing the longer, harder, but much more likely to be successful path of not treating the cordyceps' eradication as the obligatory first steps toward rebuilding society.

My pet theory is that the surviving fireflies' goals got perverted along the way, from wanting to restore he rule of law to wanting to be hailed as civilization's saviors: this change drove away the more level-headed members like Tommy, leaving only the more radicals members who kept reinforcing their self-righteousness by retreating in their own insular epistemic bubble.

***

At best, he did the right thing for the wrong reason.

I think that's were the real ambiguity of the story lies: it's not whether rescuing Ellie was the right thing to do, but whether Joel's motive were honorable or selfish. In a way, it boils down to how one perceive Joel.

Personally I see him as a man who's furious at the universe his life was destroyed despite the fact that he'd done all he could to be an upright citizen and good father, so he's going to make sure he causes to others more pain than he, himself, suffered... but he's not self-conscious enough to admit it to himself and looking for an excuse, any excuse to let his rage lose and inflict his wrath upon other people.
Ellie is thus the perfect rationalization: Joel can kill, maim, torture people left and right while pretending that he still is a decent man because he's doing it all for her.
 

Robyrt

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JarinArenos said:
Robyrt said:
I tried so hard to break that scripted sequence, expecting that this would be a game with a Big Moral Choice at the end. When told to kill a Firefly by the quest log, I shot him in the calf with an arrow, hoping I could scare him off like this was Spec Ops: The Line. Unfortunately, the plot is on rails and it was not to be. :(
I'm not sure Spec Ops: The Line is a good example of a plot that's NOT on rails. Seriously, try to avoid that game's major plot "choice", I dare you.
You're right, Spec Ops is on rails a lot of the time. I'm thinking of the scene where civilians rush you and you can either gun them down, shoot over their heads, or punch them non-lethally. Basically, I was expecting to be able to scare people into doing things my way, considering that Joel is by now a famous crazed killer.
 

JarinArenos

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SandroTheMaster said:
JarinArenos said:
Robyrt said:
I tried so hard to break that scripted sequence, expecting that this would be a game with a Big Moral Choice at the end. When told to kill a Firefly by the quest log, I shot him in the calf with an arrow, hoping I could scare him off like this was Spec Ops: The Line. Unfortunately, the plot is on rails and it was not to be. :(
I'm not sure Spec Ops: The Line is a good example of a plot that's NOT on rails. Seriously, try to avoid that game's major plot "choice", I dare you.
Well, it's easy. You stop playing. That's the whole point of the game. The only way to stop the killing is for you, the player, to stop indulging in it's violence.
Which is what I did. Hell, the only reason I played it in the first place was everyone telling me it was so damn good.
 

Ickorus

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It's been a while since I played, but was it not hinted that Ellie isn't the first case of immunity the fireflies have encountered - I think there's a tape where a scientist says that the other patients deaths will not be in vain.

I guess this may suggest test subjects for other potential cures but perhaps not.
 

Gizmo1990

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I have always had a problem with the Fireflys. The leader comes of as someone who is honestly just trying to save the world and is willing to make difficult choices in order to do it. However I have never understood why people had sympathy for the others because the only time other Fireflys ever talked, they were either telling Joel to stop performing cpr to save a young girls life or saying how much they would like to put a bullet in his head despite the fact he saved their only hope of a cure and they say/do all of this before he tries to get Ellie back.
 

balladbird

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The fireflies were greedy. If all they wanted was a means of using Ellie's body to inoculate the rest of humanity, it could have been done without killing her. blood or tissue samples are all that have ever been needed to create vaccines. They didn't want to stop at just that. they wanted the unprecedented scientific discovery of a human brain that had functionally created a symbiosis with the parasite, something that was certainly significant, but far from urgently pressing.

It may well have been rationalization on my part, but I felt little guilt in attacking the fireflies to save Ellie. Gloryhounds who lost their sense of perspective, man.