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I Beat The Last of Us. We Need to Talk.

The Last of Us is a lush, gorgeous stealth game masquerading as survival horror.

You may have heard there are zombies. There are. Just not a lot. This is not Dead IslandLeft 4 Dead, or Dead Rising. Your zombie encounters are sporadic but intense.

The bigger enemy here is a realistic one that would have pleased Sartre: other people. Some zombie games augment the action with psychos. The Last of Us is a psycho game that occasionally throws some zombies your way.

You mainly play as Joel, a gruff man who loses his family to the zombie apocalypse in the first act. Fast forward 10 years, and the world is now a giant, crumbling jungle. Joel gets stuck with the world’s worst escort mission: taking 14-year-old survivor Ellie across the United States so she can be studied. You see, Ellie was bitten by a zombie three weeks ago… and somehow hasn’t turned. To be fair, Ellie takes care of herself, much like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. But don’t get too excited. Unlike Elizabeth, Ellie doesn’t find stuff for you to “catch, Joel.”

Surviving the game requires an extreme level of patience (at least for me – I love to just slice and shoot stuff) and at least moderate competence with stealth. Bullets are rare, and you only get one melee weapon at a time – usually a weak-ass piece of wood or steel bar (upgradeable, for what it’s worth). There’s also a series of NPCs who tag along and occasionally block you from, say, RUNNING AWAY FROM THE REALLY FAST ZOMBIES.

I love melee, hate stealth, and almost exclusively use my Xbox 360 for console gaming. There is pretty much no reason why I should have enjoyed this game.

In fact, I was ready to bail after an early “clear the zombies” level. But I stuck with it, occasionally consulting the Internet for help with strategy and, more importantly, the PS3 controls. The last PS3 game I spent any real time on was Infamous, years ago. So not only was I overcoming my urge to run in and zombie bash, I was having to constantly look down to figure out where the damn Square button was.

I don’t know that I would say I loved the game… but it’s definitely a competitor for my Game of the Year right now. I respect The Last of Us. There were moments that took my breath away – both literally and figuratively. The storyline hit me in the parental gut so hard, I just had to finish it.

And that’s where my problem sets in.

BIG, FAT, MAJOR SPOILER WARNING: From here on out, we’re going to discuss, in detail, the end of The Last of Us. As in the finale. As in the very last thing you do in the game. If you haven’t beaten it yet and care: DO. NOT. READ. Got it? Get it? Good. Because I recently finished The Last of Us, and there are some things I need to get off my chest.

To be honest, I think Joel should have left Ellie to die.

There. I said it. I’m a terrible person… or at least a terrible parent. And for those who are in the “not going to play the game anyway” category, here’s what I’m talking about.

After walking across the United States through many seasons and surviving various attacks, Joel and Ellie finally make it to the Firefly Hospital in Colorado. (How very Stephen King’s The Stand!) The Fireflies welcome them with open arms, and thank Joel for delivering Ellie to them safely… so they can dissect her brain. But wait! There’s a reason. Ellie’s sacrifice could allow them to reverse-engineer a cure! And she’s the only known person with the immunity. But, ew, yuck, phooey: brain dissection.

Now, Joel isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is smart enough to know that hey, that could seriously screw up Ellie’s hair. Oh, and the whole “no brain” thing would be sorta bad, too.

So he fights.

This section begins with a cut scene where Joel fights for about two seconds before they knock him out. (If it wasn’t a cut scene, he’d last half a second. I still suck at PS3 controls.) Then Joel awakens, briefly tortures someone to find out Ellie’s location, and then gradually works his way upstairs to the big finale.

Here is where my problem comes in.

By now, the game has permitted you to make some nominal choices. You don’t really have to kill very many enemies in the game. You can just wait patiently, study their movement, and then quietly slip past when they walk by and turn their backs. Or, if you’re impatient like me/suck at stealth, you can take them out and leave a string of dead bodies. Downside: They will probably notice that Bob is face down in a pool of his own blood, leading to more bad guys on your ass.

Anyway, I digress. So up until this point, you’ve had the option to leave a good proportion of the enemies alive, keeping your conscience (mostly) clear. Some guys have to die – the game won’t let you advance without their demise – but this is minimal and generally restricted to boss battles.

Fast forward to the operating room. Ellie is strapped to a table, surrounded by doctors. Joel bursts in and, naturally, the hospital staff freaks. In my game, I shot the first doctor I saw – he had a scalpel, which I mistook for a (large) knife due to some impressive shadow work. After that… nothing. A nurse cowered in the corner. Another doctor stood next to Ellie, waiting to… stand next to Ellie some more.

No opportunity to walk away. No chance to change your mind and save humanity. The game just sits and waits for you to finish things.

With no other choice, I finally took out the remaining hospital staff, picked up Ellie, and ran out of the hospital.

Now we’re a few scenes later and – yes! A Firefly aiming a gun at me lectures about how Ellie, who is still unconscious by the way, could unlock the hope for all mankind and end this plague simply by giving her life (and brains). The speaker reveals she’s not just some stranger who wants Ellie’s brains. She’s known Ellie since she was a baby, and firmly believes Ellie would want to die so that others might live.

Let’s hit the pause button briefly to reflect on the previous 15-20 hours of the game. In conversation after conversation, Ellie has indicated a desire to push on because she holds the key. For whatever reason, she’s immune, and she believes that she can help everyone else who’s not been irrevocably zombified. It might be too late for the many people she has personally lost, but at least she can help people in the future.

With that in mind, I was sure this was the big moment. My thumb hovered over the buttons, waiting to press whatever shape on my controller that it took to drop Ellie and make my escape, alone. Because that would be an option, right?

No.

Once again, cut scenes take over. There’s shooting, then Joel is in the car with Ellie, still in a hospital gown and asleep in the back. When she finally wakes up, Joel explains that there were dozens of immune people floating around Colorado, so Ellie didn’t need to make that long-ass walk after all. It was just one big wacky, violent adventure with no real purpose. And now, we’re heading home to live in the Valley of the Dam(ned).

The game ends with Joel and Ellie once again helping each other climb broken cement, working their way back home. Ellie has just one question: Was Joel telling the truth? Why yes, yes he was.

And scene.

I understand the need for an uplifting end. I definitely get the need to NOT KILL THE KID who looks just like (but isn’t actually played by) Ellen Page. What I don’t understand is why the developers didn’t include an alternative: Let Ellie die so that others may live.

As a parent, I hate typing those words. Hell, I hate that I am THINKING those words, just hours after beating the game. But it also feels shallow to me. Yes, Joel clearly has bonded with Ellie, and he sees her as surrogate family. But he’s also had 10+ years of reliving his son’s death from a zombie attack every time he closes his eyes. That has to weigh heavily. Wouldn’t he at least consider letting the Fireflies take Ellie and cure humanity? Or are we to believe that his need for a child to protect in lieu of his son cancels all other possible choices?

I think it would have been fascinating to give players the option to “play God,” as it were. Create an operating room cut scene in which the doctor pleads his case – and offers to let Joel leave, unnoticed through a back door. Joel can still unleash carnage afterwards. Or how about in the garage? Give Joel one last chance to leave Ellie behind with the Fireflies and back away.

Horrible? Absolutely. Realistic? Who knows. But I think it would be fascinating to see what percentage of players choose to save Ellie versus save the world.

Yes, it would be more work for the game’s developers. Perhaps the publisher was concerned it might piss off too many people. Or maybe they have plans for a sequel, where Joel and Ellie return to the countryside while being chased by more people and zombies who only want her for her brains.

But it would certainly would have made for some interesting water cooler conversations among gamers. It would have made for an interesting conversation with myself, in fact. Because honestly, I don’t know what I would actually do.

Perhaps I should be happy the developers didn’t make me choose

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