Spoiler Chat is a community-driven conversation focusing on key aspects of a particular game. If you have not played THE LAST OF US, I recommend you do not read any further. If you’re not concerned with particular spoilers, feel free to ask questions about a particular plot point or sequence in the game.
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I think the most impressive aspect of The Last of Us is how casual Naughty Dog is in developing relationships. The brief introduction shows Joel and his daughter sharing a tender, humorous moment. It’s clear immediately the type of person Joel is and that his daughter recognizes the sacrifices he has made as a single father. When she dies, the emotions melt out of the screen and into your experience.
From there, you might expect a touch of hubris would be added and each character introduced be forced into some sort of relationship with Joel. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Each NPC that is introduced to Joel is given a fleeting moment of clarity that shows who they are and how Joel feels about them. The narrative around each interaction helps you understand the world itself and you being to feel that trust has to be earned and that love is an emotion that simply isn’t plentiful anymore. When Ellie is introduced, players immediately make the connection between her and Joel’s deceased daughter, clearly expecting a connection. It’s Joel’s own temperament and proclivity towards coldness and Ellie’s own “fuck you” attitude that allow players to put up a wall to any sort of emotion that we’re clearly seeking.
With Ellie’s infection and importance to the world as the only immune survivor, the only weight of importance we feel is to saving mankind. Even a couple of hours in, players understand that Ellie is important only because she’s the key to survival of our race. Even the scenario with Sam & Henry, where a young brother is infected (and destroyed) and his older brother takes his own life in front of us, there are no other reactions beyond, “Is Ellie OK?” And the question is about physical health, with her mental state only an after thought.
It’s a strange thought that only when Joel is faced with death are we presented with the actual weight of the love that Ellie and Joel have for each other. It’s a father/daughter relationship for sure, but you never feel that one is attempting to fill the hole in their lives with the other. They just fit into their own special place and develop a bond.
The final act is where it became clear to me why the relationship was so special. Why it felt so strong. Joel is an antihero. Joel is not a good guy. Granted, there are scenarios when you’re forced to defend yourself from people who are dangerous (or infected), but the entire scene with the Fireflies shows Joel’s true colors: he’s selfish. He refuses to save the world at the expense of this little girl and, perhaps a worse tragedy, she’s willing to sacrifice herself. She understands that in order to cure the world she has to die.
And Joel lies to her in order to prevent it from happening. Joel is an antihero and that’s what makes The Last of Us so amazing. Where most games propel you forward as the hero, making only minor choices that might be considered suspect, Joel is continuously doing bad things with only a few minor choices that make him seem like a hero.