Being a parent is an exhilarating and terrifying experience. There is nothing else quite like it in the world. Being a parent changes you and your perception of the world. The goal of this series is to examine a game, idea, or concept through the viewpoint of a gamer parent. Sounds interesting? Good! Then let us begin!
* DISCLAIMER!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!! *
In order to fully discuss the game, the story will be discussed in detail and spoilers abound. Read at your own risk.
The price of sacrifice
What I did not realize when I bought The Last of Us was that I was the perfect audience for the game. In November of 2013, I was blessed with a beautiful daughter. Not only am I a father, I am a single father, perfectly mimicking Joel’s situation in the game. My daughter is obviously nowhere near the age of Joel’s daughter Sarah, but despite that, I could not help but put myself and my daughter in their roles. Needless to say, the opening grabbed me by the throat and went for the heartstrings.
While I had predicted what would happen to Sarah, I was still upset when she died. I tried to imagine going through that as a father, and I cannot even begin to fathom ever losing my daughter. While I could debate on whether the opening was cheap and preyed on my emotions, I cannot argue it was effective at setting the tone of Joel’s character. One of the main drives as a parent is to protect your child, at whatever the costs and with complete disregard to your safety if need be. If anyone was threatening my daughter, I would do whatever it took to make her safe. The love for one’s child and that parental bond is one of the strongest feelings a person can have towards another human. When Sarah died, even though no direct blame could be leveled at Joel, he assumed responsibility for her death. He failed to protect the person he cared about most in the world. This severing of the parental bond is so traumatic, Joel morphs into the character we see later. By losing Sarah, Joel sees no reason to care for people anymore. Why let someone get close only to lose them? This is a routine done in countless post-apocalyptic settings, but by being an interactive experience rather than a passive one, the player experiences Joel’s evolution firsthand.
When we first encounter Joel, he is a scared, vulnerable father desperately trying to protect his daughter. The next time we see him, he is a loner and a proficient killing machine with little to no remorse for his actions. By showing us Joel at his most vulnerable, Naughty Dog urges us to feel more sympathy for him. By allowing us to experience this loss first-hand rather than simply dropping us into a game with yet another bad-a** Rambo character, Naughty Dog allows us to further understand what drives Joel to do what he does.
Denial and acceptance
Despite the overwhelming theme of loss however, there is a glimmer of hope in the form of Ellie.
From the moment we meet Ellie, we can tell that Joel will come to view her as a daughter. While he does not want to become attached just to lose someone again, she slowly worms her way into his heart nevertheless. Towards the end of the game, Ellie has to commit murder to save herself. It is at this point, after nearly losing another daughter, that Joel finally opens up to her.
He actually has a conversation with the girl, answers personal questions to a point, and acts more like a father than simply an escort / guardian. This transformation was inevitable and unsurprising. Having been a father, he easily falls back into the role once he finds someone to fill the void. It was simply a matter of time before Joel acknowledged and embraced the fact.
What made Ellie significant to me besides the obvious daughter connection, is her name. You see, my daughter’s name is Elliott and I sometimes call her Ellie for short. As you might imagine, this helped to intensify what I felt for the character of Ellie. I swear Naughty Dog planned that just for me. Cheeky of them.
Not letting go
The biggest talking point surrounding the game is the ending. However, I do not want to focus on the actual ending, but the big events and reveal leading up to it. When Joel discovers the only way to harvest the cure requires Ellie to be dead, he takes drastic action.
He goes on a murderous rampage killing numerous people in order to stop the surgery that would be humanity’s salvation. He murders the doctors, many members of the Fireflies, and the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, a person who loved Ellie as a daughter herself. Despite the possibility of a cure for the disease, Joel acts selfishly and decides having Ellie as a replacement for Sarah is more important than possibly saving what is left of the human race. Although having a cure to the disease would save countless other children so other parents would not have to experience the loss Joel has undergone.
As the hospital killing-spree unfolds, players find recordings of Marlene detailing her coming to grips with her decision to sacrifice Ellie. The recordings are tearful and emotional as Marlene bares her soul regarding her decision. She has known Ellie since she was a small child and views her as a daughter, but she lays aside her selfish desires in order to make a tough decision. This selfless decision is a stark contrast to Joel’s actions. Despite basically being a mother to Ellie, Marlene decides that the sacrifice of one life is worth it if others may be saved. As the wise Mr. Spock once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
I honestly was not surprised by this turn of events. Throughout the story we got glimpses into Joel’s past and the terrible things he had done. There is a scene where Joel and Ellie gets ambushed by bandits, and after the fight Ellie asks him how he knows so much about killing. Joel simply replies, “I used to be on both sides.”
We know why Joel became bitter and ruthless, but this is no excuse for being a reprehensible human being. The entire game shows how he is a selfish and terrible person. So when the time comes for Joel to make an unselfish choice, he making the selfish one is not a surprise. Just because I was not surprised by the turn of events does not mean, however, they did not have an impact on me. As a parent, I can sympathize and see why he did what he did. I cannot imagine losing my daughter. No parent can imagine that level of pain and suffering. I wonder what I would do in the same situation.
I can see Joel’s side and completely understand not wanting to lose Ellie. The Fireflies themselves seem questionable as well. But on the other hand, you could create a cure to the disease and save countless lives. Is one life too much to ask for in return? Could I sacrifice my daughter to save the world? It’s a tough subject to think about. It’s not a question I can easily answer as a parent either. Who would have guessed that being one would increase my connection with any game?