The last of us

An analysis of the cultural impact of games and their transformation into conventional media outlets through the new HBO show “Last of Us” and its philosophy. This article will try to answer the question, “What can video games provide for us?” 

Last of Us, as a video game, first came out to challenge our survival skills and moral decision-making. Coming out in 2013, the popular video game was adapted into an HBO series in 2023. While the show took some creative liberties as it transferred the game to the screen for audiences, the basic premise for the show remains loyal to its source material. 

The Last of Us: Plot Analysis

The adaptation of video games into movies or TV shows is not a new concept, but even at that, few have managed to become as successful as The Last of Us. Resident Evil, a game with a remotely similar concept, tried its hands at movies. However, with critics giving it a 21% Rotten Tomatoes score and the audience score being 48% for their 2010 movie, it did not succeed. Not only amongst the fans of the games but also among the viewers. In contrast, The Last of Us stands strong with an IMDB rating of 8.8/10  and a 96% approval rating from critics. 

Like the game, the TV show follows the story of Joel (Pedro Pascal): A tragic anti-hero who lost his daughter to humans in a world destroyed by infected monsters. In the first episode’s opening scene, the Last of Us explains the science behind the infection in a believable, core striking manner. The world is ravaged by a fungal infection that turns humans into aggressive monsters with a hive mind known as ‘Infected’.

The plot revolves around the familial bond between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), as they navigate the desolate and dangerous post-apocalyptic world. After the ‘Infected’ overtakes the world, Joel becomes a smuggler in a quarantine zone tasked with escorting Ellie, a teenage girl immune to the infection, across the United States. Their journey is filled with struggles as they encounter various hostile groups, from the Infected to humans and face difficult moral choices as they try to survive. Along their journey, they develop a strong bond akin to a father and daughter as they care for each other. 

What makes the game and the show so immersive and captures the audience is the several philosophical and emotional themes that it presents. From nature vs civilization to nature of good and evil, the show is more about humans than the infected.

As a personal take, perhaps The Last of Us choosing to spend more time on humans (good or evil) than the Infected, who are significantly shown less than hostile humans, implies the underlying ethical challenges humans face and makes the viewers question what is actually evil in the show. Maybe the moral questions about the show make it resonate with a broader audience. One of those questions is the conflict between altruistic utilitarianism and care ethics. 

A Found Family Trope and Why Do We Care?

The terminology and technicalities of utilitarian and care ethics can be unnecessarily complicated, so here is a rough definition. 

Utilitarian ethics, in simpler terms, refers to the moral philosophy that the morally right thing to do should promote the most happiness for the most people. This sub-philosophy of consequentialism is often criticized for quantifying happiness. 

Altruism is essentially the idea of being absolutely removed from an emotional bond when making a moral judgment. For an altruist, a person should not base judgment according to their relationship with others. 

As opposed to altruism, care ethics suggest that there is nothing morally wrong with prioritizing loved ones. It is a moral philosophy that emphasizes personal bonds and relationships. In contrast to altruism, care ethics puts value on interdependence and the interconnected nature of individuals. 

The Last of Us

But how do these philosophical concepts apply in the show? Well, for context, in the end, it is revealed that Ellie’s immunity could potentially be to create a cure, but this would result in her death. However, as Joel becomes more attached to Ellie, he cannot sacrifice Ellie for the “greater good” and chooses to save her by condemning humanity.

Joel’s decision to save Ellie at the expense of humanity, meaning “the greater good”,  is a classic case of rejection of utilitarian ethics. It is similar to the trolley problem, where we would think sacrificing one would save five people. But what happens when the person we push down the tracks is our kid, mom, or partner? The lives of those five people seem irrelevant.

Perhaps this is why we cannot condemn Joel; we would all do the same thing. Altruism would deem this decision morally wrong, selfish even. Why should your loved one’s lives matter more than any other person on the street? As far as that sounds, this philosophy is criticized for its non-human and almost heartless views. After all, what are we, if not caring, social animals who form bonds and communities?

Care ethics suggest that it is natural to human beings that we are inherently caring for our family and loved ones. Without our desire to form bonds and care for each other, we wouldn’t learn to care for others either. So essentially, this view suggests that choosing one person over five can be morally right because caring is a natural and essential part of human nature, and lacking it would create a cruel and cold world. 

This is particularly important in Joel’s case. Found family trope is sure to pull heartstrings due to its heartwarming nature. Joel, who lost his daughter, finds a new daughter, (not biologically bound, but a daughter he chose to love and care for through his time with her). Similarly, Ellie, a wounded and emotionally closed kid, learns to rely on Joel and care for him as she takes care of him when he is vitally wounded.

As the audience, we care not only for their bond, which was challenged through their struggles, but also for Joel, who found his purpose in life through Ellie. We care for their pure human connection and unconditional familial love in a world full of misery and disconnectedness. 

The desolate dystopian world they live in makes their connection more precious as humans in this world become either monsters or, maybe even worse, while keeping their human bodies. Throughout the game and the show, they encounter more dangerous humans than the Infected, as they have to survive cannibals and raiders too. 

However, one significant difference from the game is the brilliant, bittersweet twist they bring to Bill and Frank. The game is more pessimistic and depicts their story in a more horrific way where Frank commits suicide because he cannot stand Bill, and Bill is constantly fighting the Infected to protect what remains of his town.  The Last of Us, however, tells a beautiful but sombre story where two people find each other in this hopeless world and find hope together.

While Bill helps both of them “survive”, and keeps them safe from the raiders and the Infected, Frank teaches Bill to “live” ; they farm strawberries, enjoy romantic dinners and live their lives in their bubble where it almost seems like the apocalypse did not happen. Their story ends when they die together of old age and leave a fulfilling well-lived human life behind. 

In a way, the game justifies Joel’s decision. In a world where no humanity is left to save, and everyone they encounter betrays them for their gain, saving Ellie, the last pure human connection he forms, seems like a worthy decision. Furthermore, the show does a brilliant job of crafting the story in a way to add more weight to Joel’s decision. This world and humans are worth saving, mainly because of people like Bill and Frank.

The show even deviated in the episode where Ellie and Joel meet two brothers. The younger one gets infected and shot by his brother, leaving the older one with no hope, so he ends his own life. The brothers betray and leave our protagonists to fend for themselves in the game. In the show, they don’t betray anyone, and the group bonds over similar experiences, leaving Ellie traumatized after the younger brother’s death. She even ends up staying with him through the night after learning he is infected and desperately tries to use her blood to heal him but to no avail. 

Moments like these prove that finding a cure would have healed the world and its people like the younger brother Ellie tries to save. In addition, we know why and how much Ellie wants to use her immunity to save the world, and Joel’s decision becomes more morally ambiguous as we unpack all the layers in the show. 

Ultimately,  it is easy to decide whether Joel was right or wrong when we watch it unfold on our screens, but the game experience puts us in his shoes and makes us see the world through his eyes. No matter our judgment, video games reflect various aspects of our humanity in them, showcasing new and exciting aspects of their previously synthetic nature. More and more games are playing along the lines of complex philosophical questions. Perhaps agreeing or disagreeing with Joel shows more about our relationships and life views. So what would you choose?