2013's video game The Last of Us, is perfect apocalypta. Like all Terran apocalypta, it concentrates human dilemmas into a form more simply perceptible than the minor nuances offered by war, social challenge, or kidnap dramas: the "pending death of the race/world" backdrop imminentifies any immanent human poignancy; when done well, melding thought experiment with plausibility. In this case, the story was exceptionally well done, and gives us an opportunity to consider some meaningful moral issues.
If you don't care for video games, the format isn't important; this particular narrative, for purposes of our discussion, can be likened to cinema or literature. If you do care for video games, buy a PS4 with the remastered version of The Last of Us, and don't come back here for the spoilers until you've finished it. All the plot can be witnessed on easy mode, with auto-aim, if 3PSs are difficult for you.
The Last of Us starts like many other zombie plagues, though it's finely-written enough that it doesn't quite slide into banality, even despite the mountains of seemingly-comparable dross out there. Sarah, the little girl, wakes up one night and sees on the news that the fungal infection has been causing people to lose their minds and get violent--here, the zombies aren't really undead; in accordance with popular trends in current science, they're the "infected," but they exhibit all the behavior one would expect from modern book/comic/movie/game zombies. They mindlessly attack humans, biting or scratching so as to spread the infection; they live for years without seeming need for sustenance; some of them are blind, some superpowered, some possessing other quirky mutant abilities; they don't attack each other; they have no fear of death; and, they're easily susceptible to simple traps, but prone to congregating in large numbers and overrunning barriers.
Sarah escapes her home one night with her father Joel and her uncle Tommy. They head for a military quarantine zone meant to protect uninfected people from the worldwide spread. On their way, maddened crowds are rushing around, confused and scared, and they get in a car accident that hurts Sarah's legs. Joel carries her after Tommy overland toward the quarantine zone. They lose Tommy in the dark foliage. When Joel and Sarah reach one of the military zones, a frightened lone soldier orders them away. The soldier receives an order from his officer to shoot them; the soldier hesitates, advises his officer that there's a little girl present, but is ordered to shoot anyway. He shoots Sarah, knocking her down on top of Joel, who was carrying her. Tommy hears the gunshot and comes to shoot the soldier before the soldier can shoot again. Sarah dies. Prequel ends.
Twenty years later, Joel is in a quarantine zone. The world has ended, in the sense that the remaining scraps of civilization are crammed into various quarantine zones, under martial law, subject to curfews and food rationing. Joel has occasionally been a smuggler, bringing contraband into the quarantine zones. Tommy had previously joined the "Fireflies," a paramilitary resistance group that wants to end military control, cure the plague, and restore civilization. Joel is friends with benefits with a woman named Tess, who is also a part-time smuggler.
The plague, which is called the Cordyceps Brain Infection, spreads by the airborne transmission of spores, as well as (of course) the bites of the already-infected. It centers, as the name suggests, on the brain, though it eventually spreads everywhere else. Because it is so communicable and because there is neither vaccine nor cure, the quarantine zones are heavily guarded. Gas masks, or the equivalent, have to be worn in order to travel through an infested area without catching the infection. Within a couple days after infection, the infected person becomes violent, irrational, and begins biting and attacking; thereafter, worse stages of the disease produce a hardier, more dangerous zombie.
Joel and Tess open their main storyline in the middle of a smuggling problem: a local criminal named Robert has betrayed them by selling some guns that belonged to them, and to cover up his theft, sends two thugs to kill Tess. She reports the attack to Joel, and they conclude that they need to get Robert before he gets them. They battle some thugs, get to Robert, and kill him, then discover that his business partner was a woman named Marlene: a leader among the Fireflies (the aforementioned rebels) who bought the weapons from Robert the criminal smuggler for use in her rebellion.
With me? Okay, so Robert is dead, but he sold Joel and Tess' weapons to Marlene. Joel, who knows Marlene from when his brother Tommy was a member of her organization, asks for their return. Marlene refuses to return them for free, because she paid Robert for them, and didn't know about the theft. She agrees to return them if Joel and Tess do a job for her. It's an important job, so she pleads a little extra with Joel for it, saying it was something she meant to do herself, but couldn't handle.
Joel and Tess agree to do the job, and Marlene produces a young girl--Ellie--whom she says needs to be delivered to other Fireflies outside of the quarantine zone. Marlene reports that she knew Ellie's mother, and promised her (before said mother's death) to take care of her little girl. Joel and Tess want to inspect the weapons to be sure that Marlene really has them to offer, so they split up--Joel starts leading Ellie out of the quarantine zone, while Tess goes with Marlene to look at the weapons, promising to catch up. Tess catches up and reports that the weapons are there, all of them, and that they'll get a big payoff if they can deliver the girl.
So, on they go: Joel and Tess leading Ellie out of the military quarantine to deliver her to the Fireflies. The military is on alert from a recent Firefly attack, and they try to kill the party as the party tries to escape. Joel and Tess kill a few soldiers. While the party is climbing through an old drainage ditch, they are ambushed by soldiers and scanned as prisoners. Ellie has a hidden knife, stabs a soldier in the leg, and the party is able to escape. The soldiers' scanning device, however, reveals that Ellie is infected with the plague.
Angry and betrayed, Joel and Tess worry that Marlene sent them away with Ellie in hopes of getting them infected and gotten-rid-of. Ellie, though, shows them the scar where she was bitten by an infected a long time ago--well past the time when she should have shown any symptoms. Joel and Tess realize that Ellie is immune to the plague--the first person ever known to be so--and that Marlene is delivering her to the Fireflies in order to develop a vaccine that could save humanity, end military control of the few miserable quarantine zones left, and bring about a brighter world.
On goes the party. They fight their way past some infected, following their secret smuggling route out of the city, toward the building where they were supposed to meet the Firefly representatives who will take the girl from them. They discover that the Fireflies have been killed, and that soldiers must've tracked the Fireflies here. There they hide, in the abandoned municipal building, wondering what to do. Tess tells the others to go ahead so she can buy them some time. Joel protests, but Tess reveals that she was bitten only minutes ago by one of the zombies during their escape. She tells him not to make her sacrifice too difficult, and leverages their past relationship to tell him how important it is to her that he deliver Ellie to the Fireflies so that the world can be saved. She insists that he "complete the job" by bringing Ellie to other Fireflies.
Joel and Ellie run to the building's second level and search for cover while Tess has a final showdown with the hunting soldiers. The remaining soldiers continue to pursue, and Joel kills a few and finds a way out of the building in the direction of un-quarantined lands. They escape the soldiers and get away.
Still with me? Okay, that was the beginning. Plot-wise, things then progress much more easily. Joel and Ellie are out of the quarantine zone, so they travel through the infected countryside, trying to survive against the assaults of both the infected, and against small bands of "hunters," e.g., the barbarian hordes seeking food and supplies in order to live outside of military control. They pass through many tragic empty wild and urban environments, witnessing the twenty-years-decayed ruins of civilization. They visit a small town covered in traps where an old acquaintance of Joel has holed up. The acquaintance is homosexual, has recently lost his partner to the zombies, and is going mad from isolation. He owes Joel a favor, so they fight some zombies and Joel and Ellie get a working truck, satisfying the favor.
Joel and Ellie travel on, encountering a city controlled by a mob of brutal hunters that uses roadblocks to rob and murder travelers. With much difficulty, they fight their way through the city. On their way, they meet a pair of black brothers who are hiding from the hunters in the city; they enlist their help in the escaping, and join them in fighting through a small town held by more hunters, but when they have achieved victory, it is revealed that the younger of the brothers has been bitten. The next morning, he wakes up a zombie and his older brother kills him, then commits suicide.
Down to two members in the party, Ellie and Joel travel across some infected wildlands, heading for Tommy's hideout. Tommy, if you'll remember, is Joel's brother, and a former Firefly, so Joel thinks Tommy might know where the Fireflies are located. They endure difficulty, meet Tommy, and find that Tommy is living with a small community in a hydroelectric power plant, which they have managed to get running. Joel and Tommy argue about the past a little, and Joel finds out Tommy is married to a new woman. Joel tries to get Tommy to take Ellie to the Fireflies, and Ellie, upset at the thought that yet another person would abandon her, runs away. She is captured by hunters, and Joel and Tommy rescue her. Joel decides he will stick through to the end and tells Tommy goodbye; Tommy offers Joel and Ellie a place in his new community, but Joel says he has to save the world by bringing Ellie to the Fireflies and curing the plague.
Tommy directs them to the University of Eastern Colorado, where the Fireflies had a lab and were studying the plague. Joel and Ellie have more adventures, get there, and discover that the Fireflies are gone--the military drove them out months ago. Joel reviews some of their scientists' logs, talking about how impossible it is to cure the plague, and how they're going to give up. They discover materials leading them to believe the Fireflies will be located further west. They are attacked by hunters and survive, then continue west to search out the Fireflies.
Joel is badly wounded in the fight, so Ellie drags him to an abandoned town and patches him up and tries to care for him over the winter. She is attacked by a group of cannibal hunters led by David, an insane cannibal leader just like you'd expect in such a situation. She barters for antibiotics, escapes, gets them to Joel, then fights the hunters more, until she defeats David. The antibiotics wake Joel up and he and Ellie reunite and continue their journey.
Still with me? Okay, we're about at the end. Joel and Ellie discover the Fireflies. The Fireflies capture them, like a military, and Joel wakes up in detention. Marlene is there, and she thanks him for completing the job. She tells him he can leave. He asks where Ellie is, and she says that Ellie is being prepped for surgery--her doctors tell her that they can only begin investigating a cure by removing her brain. Her immunity to the Cordyceps Brain Infection must've begun there, says Marlene. Joel is upset that Ellie will be killed, but Marlene says that it is harder on her than on him to do this, because she was the one who promised Ellie's mother to look after Ellie. She reminds him that humankind is dying off, has been dying for twenty years, and that the only hope for things is to cure the infection. She tells one of her soldiers to take him out of the facility.
Joel escapes from his captor, kills his way through the Firefly lab, and breaks into the operating room, killing the doctors and saving Ellie from the mortal surgery just in time. She is under sedation, so he rushes her to the parking garage. There, Marlene confronts them. She and Joel have another disagreement about the future of humanity. Marlene insists that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself to save humanity. Joel overpowers her. She begs to survive. Joel tells her that, if she is left alive, she will continue hunting Ellie and trying to kill her for a cure. After killing Marlene, Joel sets the unconscious Ellie in the backseat of a car and drives away, escaping the Fireflies.
On the road back to Tommy's community, Ellie wakes up. She asks if they found the Fireflies after all. Joel says yes, but he says that there turned out to already be a lot of people who were immune to the plague, so there was nothing special about Ellie. Ellie can tell something is wrong--she asks him if what he said was really true, and he says it was. Together, they leave the car and head into the hills to join Tommy's community. The end.
What did The Last of Us Mean?
The moral parables expressed in the narrative are far more complex, and far more beautiful, than the "gotta survive in a tough world" perceived by most of the game's fans, and the "was it right for Joel to lie to Ellie?" conundrum raised by most of the game's reviewers. Let's go through them.
Was it right for the Fireflies to sacrifice Ellie in pursuit of a vaccine/cure to the Cordyceps Brain Infection?
Firstly, we consider the question, Would cutting out Ellie's brain have allowed the Fireflies to successfully produce a cure? At the University of Eastern Colorado's laboratory, the Fireflies' notes said that they were giving up after years of 100%-effort study. Not only the Fireflies, but the U.S. military, and (presumably) militaries and governments across the entire world had already tried and failed to find a vaccine or cure, for over twenty years. Only one person out of more than six billion got noticed as being immune, ever?
The Fireflies had access to Ellie's blood, samples of brain, lung, or other tissue, and many other things without killing her. The attempt to remove 100% of her brain to study the infection seems like a wasted, pointless endeavor--or at least, sloppy. And what about the practicality of her being immune? Her offspring, or her eggs, or her blood-generating marrow, might be vital factors in a sustainable cure for the planet. Killing her as soon as she shows up was completely wrong and ridiculous. The Fireflies never even got to realize the full moral dilemma of "sacrifice the one to save the many," because they were so eager to whip out the total surgery. Their hasty desperation could have spoiled an enduring future for humanity. Ellie might've been the "Eve" who could give birth to a dozen immune children, and lead to a new, immune race. Killing her would've been the last desperate act of the outdated humans destroying the future.
Secondly, we must also consider, Was Ellie really immune? Maybe not: at the very end, after Joel lies to Ellie, and turns to walk down the hill toward Tommy's community, Ellie pulls back her sleeve and studies her arm, scratching at a spot where a fungal growth has just begun to appear. That could mean a number of interesting things: (1) She wasn't really immune; the disease just had a longer dormancy period in her. So, there was no cure, and killing her would be vile if she would have been able to live several more years before losing her mind--or if it would have resulted in the development of a partial cure that allowed others to withstand the infection as long as she had.
Thirdly, maybe Ellie herself wasn't the source of the (partial?) immunity, but rather, the infected that bit her. Perhaps some infected carry something that, when applied via bite, causes a partial immune reaction to future bites. Maybe Ellie was scientifically worthless, and the type of infected that bit her is the one carrying the cure. Sacrificing her life has no value there, again. In fact, it distracts from the quest to study the actively-infected, rather than the dormantly-infected.
But then again, was Ellie really seeing the disease expand at the end because of her original bite? Maybe the interference by the Firefly surgeons was what caused her dormant infection to become active. Maybe, by attempting to operate on her, the Fireflies destroyed the one true immune person, dooming not only Ellie, but humanity's future. For now, suddenly showing signs of CBI just after the operation-attempt (after months/years of nothing), suggests that the Fireflies may have really been the ones to finish her off after all.
Was it right for Joel to lie to Ellie at the end about there having been other immune people available for study?
To consider that, we first have to ask ourselves, did Ellie really believe Joel's lie? Ellie was intelligent throughout the story, and she knew how important it was that they get to the Fireflies. She knew Joel well, and when she woke up in the car, she had no conscious memory of the Firefly experience. And yet, she never asked Joel why he didn't wake her up, or why Marlene wasn't there to meet her, or how long she'd been asleep, etc. She accepted his version of things because she wanted to.
Ellie asked Joel again because she knew he had lied. She wanted him to lie. There's a crucial masculine distinction there that the fans and reviewers are missing: when Ellie asked Joel if there "really were" other immune people out there, what she was truly asking him was, "Are you sure you will bear the moral burden of me not having to be killed right now to maybe make a cure?" And Joel, by giving her a flat look and promising that he was telling the truth, was accepting that burden. Ellie wasn't stupid; she knew the essentials of what was going on. Even without the fungal growth on her arm--and even before she'd noticed that growth--she knew Joel was lying. The voice actors and animators did a good job of conveying blankness, intelligence, or suspicion on Ellie's face--not relief, or acceptance. Ellie didn't get excited and ask about the status of the vaccine/cure from the other supposedly-immune people. She didn't ask Joel how the world would change, now. She just relaxed, glad that he had taken that burden.
The Narrative's Deeper Moral Principles
Now we'll move beyond the parables as they apply only wholly within the game, and look at larger ones. The "was it right to lie to Ellie" quandary is a difficult one to accept for many, because it goes to the natures of being a caregiver. The perspective here is traditionally "man/woman," or "parent/child," but the nature of being someone's caregiver goes beyond that. For Joel to do what he did, or for anyone else to offer a similar service to a person, is a kind of spiritual connection, love, and giving orders of magnitude higher than merely holding open a door or saving a life: it is to bear the conscious, ongoing, emotional responsibility for all the importance appurtenant to such an act, e.g., to be the one willing to bear the cost in jealousy, so that someone else doesn't have to.
Terran counterparts to this type of action are of the "pure charity" kind. If you give someone needy a hundred dollars, then you don't only give them the hundred dollars--you give them the knowledge that another person has condescended to them. You give them the obligation--which they may never be able to satisfy--of having been provided for; of having been patronized, sheltered, and looked after. Even the best-natured, sweetest, most honest person feels that.
If you crumple up the Benjamin and slip it into the bottom of her purse when she's not looking, though, it's chance. It's "maybe I dropped that there last year and just forgot it." It's one of those little niceties, like feeding an infant, that transfers affection and responsibility on a much deeper level. To some degree, the person knows they didn't randomly lose a hundred dollars (or whatever) and then just find it. But the plausible deniability you have given them--the uncertainty; the maybe of it all--frees them from having to fully acknowledge that they were the recipient of charity; of unearned goodies. Obviously, Joel saving Ellie's life is a greater form of that. It's hard to come up with examples on selfish Terra, but the possibility of benefiting someone so thoroughly that they don't know you did it is a massive act. In a literary sense, it's the birth of God, the Genesis light, the echo of creation; in the Father Zosima way, it's the unprovable certitude of a greater love. In a scientific sense, it's the increasing manifestation of conscious presence and meaning, wherein the selfishness necessary to recognize the reality of existence begins to perceptibly network.
In today's west, it's quite difficult to accept the foundational basis for such charity, even if the blatantly charitable examples (like sneaking money into someone's wallet) can be easily referred to. For example, if your parent(s) and/or guardian(s) didn't smother you in frustration, you're the beneficiary of a million acts of neverknown kindness and sacrifice, from the burdens you necessarily transferred away. You can never know how difficult it was. You can guess, if you begin trying to take those burdens from another, and realize how heavy they are, but everyone is different, and you can never know the weight of what you passed off, no matter how many bad things you may have been given in return. There's a masculine (not necessarily "male," though percentage-wise perhaps appropriately shortened as such) element there, also, where the burdens that some humans bear to keep others whole weigh heavily, and necessarily, when transferred, and where no currency exists as payment. Joel's sheltering of Ellie, in this way, is a colossal act--one that would have been easily understood in different places and times, but which goes almost wholly unnoticed today, in a Terra filled with people who only want to be the recipients of such gifts, rather than the bearers of such massive burdens. Ellie's demonstrable intelligence and strength makes the act more profound, for if she were weak or stupid, and would have genuinely (with wishful, willfully-dimwitted ignorance) believed Joel's lie, then she wouldn't have had the capacity to truly sacrifice herself. Ergo, she wouldn't have been able to be saved from the choice. Joel demonstrated what it means to be a man, and he did it in a part of the narrative where there were no punches, guns, or wounds.
How different were the Fireflies?
As westerners continue to move away from the era of authoritarian reverence, it becomes easy to conclude that "the rebels" must be the good ones. Since the U.S. military in the quarantine zones of The Last of Us were evil tyrants, the Fireflies seemed like a light in the darkness--and yet, it turned out that they were just another military. Like mobs knocking out random bystanders, raping the daughters of the bourgeois, or beating up some poor old Korean and destroying his convenience store: it's easy to think in George W. Bush terms of black and white, e.g., "The MICC and police state are so bad, the rebels must be good." But in actuality, Dubya is wrong, and it's not fair to treat people like that. That's how militaries get created, anyway. If the Fireflies had won, their child-sacrificing policies would've stuck with them into the next regime, just as the (currently) official military's policies still bear the same foul stains of those body trenches in the Philippines.
If it had actually produced a cure, and been known to produce a cure ahead of time, would it have been right to sacrifice Ellie to save the billions and save the world? No. Not anyway. The parable of Sarah's death at the beginning of The Last of Us comes back, here, again: not merely as "Joel's motivation to be protective toward Ellie," but because the soldier who murdered Sarah at the beginning was acting just like the Fireflies. He murdered the little girl--and his officer ordered him to do so, and the military commanders made the decision to establish such policies, guaranteeing such murders--to protect the sanctity of the nation through quarantine. And even so, civilization collapsed. The Fireflies weren't rebelling for moral reasons; by being willing to sacrifice Ellie to (maybe) save others, they proved themselves equally vile and dictatorial. When you sacrifice even one person, the immorality is complete.