Cordyception: The Last Of Us Analysis
Every gamer has those special games that never leave us, games that capture our hearts and minds. It could be your first experience entering Andrew Ryan’s Objectivist utopia of Rapture in Bioshock or the Clayface Joker reveal in Batman Arkham City.
The Last Of Us profoundly impacted my life as a gamer. It struck me that gaming could be emotional, philosophical and lead me to question my views of humanity. Gaming isn’t just about chuckling as a Grunt explodes thanks to a cheeky plasma grenade, even though it’s hilarious. Gaming is a unique form of art that drops players into new worlds with characters that transcend the screen into reality. It’s the only form of entertainment that empowers you to actively inhabit the role of the main protagonist in a story.
Naughty Dog is one of my favourite developers since their action-adventure masterpiece Uncharted 2. When I heard that Naughty Dog was making a new IP involving ‘zombies’ called The Last Of Us, I knew it was a huge leap from the pulp stylings of Uncharted, but I had faith that they could make exceptional narrative games in any genre. The powerful narrative and character arcs in The Last Of Us are meticulously designed, every moment built the greatest bond between two of the best characters ever created in gaming: Joel and Ellie.
The Cordyceps outbreak was the ideal backdrop to establish a world in which people must find their strength to survive a form of hell and discover what is truly worth fighting for, finding hope in hopeless places. It breaks the strongest people, or the weakest people discover their strength. The true evil comes from the human characters who will kill or cannibalise others just for their survival. Usually, gamers are conditioned to playing the hero trying to cure the epidemic to ultimately prevent human extinction. The Last Of Us subverts these expectations, using the concept of player agency as a tool to challenge our need for a heroic or positive ending.
We assume that our superior intelligence and higher mental functions somehow elevates our civilization, but are we just one apocalypse away from unleashing our savagery? Survival only accesses our reptilian survival instincts, so emotions like compassion have no space to flourish however in apocalyptic situations compassion is the most important emotion to uphold.
The prologue of The Last Of Us lets us inhabit Sarah and we discover her close relationship with her Father Joel as she gives him a watch as a birthday present. Their love is truly unbreakable. We are introduced to the Infected when their ‘sick’ neighbour bursts into their house forcing Joel to shoot him. There is a long escape sequence where we are in the middle of the chaos, trying to escape to safety and we slowly realise the enormity of the Cordyceps outbreak.
Jumping to the end of the prologue, Joel and Sarah are saved by a soldier after being surrounded by a group of infected. Unfortunately, the soldier is instructed by HQ to eliminate them. Although Joel tries to reason with him, the soldier reluctantly opens fire. Joel dives for cover but Sarah cries out in pain as she is shot in the abdomen. Joel pleads with her to hang on whilst trying to stem her bleeding, but Sarah tragically dies in his arms. The ending of this sequence is harrowing and demonstrates the acting prowess of both Troy Baker and Hana Hayes.
Witnessing the death of his daughter Sarah underpins Joel’s personality, thought projections and actions throughout the game. The loss of Sarah affected Joel to the point that he is unable to move on from her death even after twenty years and rejects the giving or receiving of love. Joel doesn’t even speak of his daughter to Ellie, even rejecting Tommy’s picture of Sarah but he still wears the broken watch Sarah gave him as a memory.
Joel has a destructive coping mechanism for his grief and anger, so he created a tough outer shell, turning his heart into granite whilst keeping human relationships to the bare minimum. Compassion and empathy died along with Sarah, so Joel is afraid of showing emotions, afraid of being human, afraid of another loss, afraid of his vulnerabilities.
The beauty of the relationship between Joel and Ellie is how realistically it grows and strengthens along the difficult journey. At first, Ellie was just a means to an end, the leader of the Fireflies Marlene needed Joel to smuggle Ellie through the Government quarantine to the Fireflies Capitol.
At the beginning of their relationship, Joel was a heartless man, only responding to Ellie’s jokes with grunts or one-word answers. Nothing could lighten the mood or remove the tension. For a 14-year-old girl, Joel’s hostility must have been difficult to cope with especially due to the loss of her parents and Riley. Joel’s hostility can be traced back to the loss of Sarah, he clearly doesn’t want to open himself up to a relationship which to him only means loss or suffering. Ellie also painfully reminds him of Sarah, she’s a shadow of Joel’s daughter, a constant reminder that Sarah is dead. So, Joel closed himself off to emotion and not even Ellie would be able to change that.
But of course, Ellie does change that.
Both Joel and Ellie refer to themselves as survivors, but there is a huge difference in their belief of what constitutes a survivor. According to Joel, survival means that torture or murder is justifiable if you are doing it to stay alive. In comparison, Ellie has a more positive view of survival. She didn’t see herself as a killer but as someone who just needed to survive; if that took the form of killing, then that’s what regrettably needed to be done. Her viewpoint evolved due to discovering her immunity which Ellie wanted to use to save the world, but Joel decided to take that choice away from her.
The Cordyceps infection creates terrifying creatures driven by an unconquerable biological desire to spread however this apocalyptic backdrop highlights the even greater horror committed by other human survivors. Infected kill due to biological necessity whereas humans do it because they can. Ultimately, Bill points out that free will and human greed make people much scarier. Infected are a predictable threat but that kind man who helped you bag a deer and save your life could also very well be a cannibal. David’s evil turn was unexpected because your previous companions were friendly just like him, his death matured Ellie to be able to navigate the world with open eyes.
Ellie developed a great sense of survivor’s guilt due to losing her parents and Riley who was bitten and died in the Left Behind DLC. Ellie & Joel meet Sam & Henry on their journey. Ellie begins to open to Sam, and they slowly became good friends as Henry comments that he’s never seen Sam smile like that before. The two get to talking about the state of the world and what it’s like to survive, eventually Ellie reveals her greatest fear. At first, it’s typically benign, but Ellie soon spills the beans and reveals what truly frightens her in a world gone mad, full of lunatics, deadly zombies and cruel humans. Ending up alone, this theme heavily links with the ending of The Last Of Us Part II.
Meeting Sam profoundly affected Ellie after he got bitten and attacked Ellie in the morning. Ellie also mentions Sam as being another reason for her survivor’s guilt, as he died of infection, but she didn’t despite being bitten. Her attachment to Sam continues throughout the game, Ellie kept his robot toy with her. She even comments that she should have said something different to him the day he died when she was deeply upset during the winter section.
Furthermore, when Ellie examines Sam’s Robot artefact, she will lament her final choice of words to him, saying “I was so stupid. I should have said something different to you.” There’s even an optional conversation when Ellie and Joel are in Wyoming, they discover a small grave with a teddy bear watching vigil over it and Ellie remembers that she forgot to put the “stupid robot” on Sam’s grave.
The turning point in their relationship is when their meet Joel’s brother Tommy. However, Ellie hears that Joel wants to merely “drop her off” and get Tommy to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies, she runs away, hurt. She ended up hiding out in Tommy’s ranch, and there’s a special dialogue that occurs between Ellie and Joel once they reunite.
You would expect that this conversation may destroy the chance for a real friendship. The breakthrough occurred later when Joel changes his mind and decides to travel to the capital with Ellie. Joel’s outburst lowered some of the barriers between them as he realized how much his presence meant to Ellie. He opens himself up to Ellie because this is his only chance for him to have some inkling of how it would have been with Sarah had she survived. In addition, he knows Sarah would have wanted him to stay with Ellie. This scene is so important because it’s when Ellie and Joel finally make the decision to get closer to one another, strengthening their bond that will last through to the end of the game.
The most significant bonding moment between Joel and Ellie occurred when Joel severely wounds his stomach when trying to escape the University of Colorado. The Winter season was tough and lonely for Ellie as she has to independently care for a seriously wounded Joel and rely on the skills she learnt from Joel. We saw Ellie’s maturity grow, further evidenced by Naughty dog letting us experience playing as her. She demonstrates true resilience and courage to go outside hunting for food, scavenge for medical supplies whilst evading the Infected and human enemies, whilst constantly worrying that Joel will not be alive when she returns. Every action she took was for both her and Joel’s survival, NaughtyDog flipped the usual trope of male protagonists surviving serious harm and the annoying nature of escort missions.
During this period Ellie encounters David a seemingly helpful and kind man when she’s out hunting for food and crucial antibiotics. Ellie says she’ll give him the deer in exchange for some antibiotics from David’s village. The agreement is made, David even helps Ellie survive a gruelling horde of Infected. David becomes sinister and exposes himself as a villain when he reveals that he knows that Joel and Ellie killed his men when escaping the University of Colorado. Ellie escapes with the medical supplies, her only thought to administer the antibiotics to Joel at their hideout without David and his gang finding her.
Unfortunately, David captures her. When Ellie regains consciousness, she awakens in a cell and is disgusted to discover that David’s gang are cannibals and that David only saved her to rape her. Ellie knew she would not survive and truly feared for her life. Thankfully, Ellie’s resilience kicks in and she manages to escape. She cleverly bites David’s hand, shouting that she is infected, and David is too. David was initially cynical until he rolled Ellie’s sleeve up to uncover her bite mark. We jump back to playing as Joel, fighting through the blizzard to desperately search for Ellie.
David meets his demise when he was violently hacked to death with his own machete by Ellie. Ellie continues to slice into David out of terror and self-preservation, the only reason she stops is when Joel holds her. Joel consoles her by calling Ellie “Baby Girl”, the same endearment he used to calm down Sarah. This scene is the turning point for Joel and Ellie’s relationship, Joel decided to lower his guard and allow his love for Ellie to show. This transference of affection from Sarah to Ellie illustrates how close Joel has grown towards Ellie. She’s worth as much to him as his deceased daughter.
The world of The Last Of Us uses a ‘zombie’ apocalypse to focus on what it means to be human. Being human is frightening, to show emotions is to open yourself to experiencing pain, fear and love. TLOU’s true message of keeping your humanity, your capacity to care, your ability to show compassion in spite of everything is so impactful. Without emotions we can easily commit inhuman acts, we become no better than the Infected or even worse.
Our heroic ending has been built up throughout the game. Joel and Ellie have defied the odds, survived the inhuman and human enemies, lost people along the way and grown closer together and now they have made it to Fireflies’ capital. We can finally save humanity and we can be left with a positive feeling. It’s the normal trajectory of every action game, right? The classic happy ending.
Wrong. Joel and Ellie are knocked out by the Fireflies. When Joel wakes up, the first person he lays his eyes on is an armed Firefly soldier, followed by Marlene. Marlene says thank you to Joel for safely bringing Ellie and that Ellie is being prepped for surgery. As a gamer, I expected that the cure could be created from Ellie’s blood, not through surgery. Joel obviously questions Marlene and she replies:
Joel says that the growth grows all over the brain. Marlene nods, says, “It does…” This procedure will sacrifice Ellie for the betterment of humanity, and ultimately Joel will lose his whole world – AGAIN.
Fast forward to Joel escaping capture and heading straight to the operating room killing every Firefly along the way. When you reach the operating room, Ellie is laying on the operating table, but we don’t know if Ellie has already been operated on, if she’s already dead or if she’s about to die.
We expect that we will have a moral choice to decide the ending trajectory. NaughtyDog cleverly removes player agency by forcing you to kill the innocent surgeons before you can scoop up the unconscious Ellie in his safe arms and escape the building. Murder is the only option. They are finally faced by Marlene who begs Joel to consider the bigger picture that Ellie is the key to preventing countless deaths and restoring mankind. And points out that Ellie would want to stop the apocalypse. Unfortunately, Joel doesn’t care about the world and so, Joel shoots Marlene.
I understand why Joel chose to save Ellie instead of giving the world a potential cure, he couldn’t prevent the death of Sarah, but he has the power to protect Ellie now so nothing in hell would come in the way of his love for her. Joel’s life without Ellie would be meaningless. If saving the world and humanity means losing Ellie, he would rather let the world die at the hands of the Cordyceps outbreak.
The Last Of Us is the total antithesis of the Uncharted series, bleak and brutal, you don’t play the charismatic hero Nathan Drake finding treasure and ultimately saving the world. You play as a flawed, haunted but realistic person driven by grief and pure survival. Joel may even be considered the villain, choosing to damn the world by saving Ellie from the Fireflies surgery and lying to her about the ramifications of his decision. Personally, it was the perfect ending. Why save a world where the human enemies are more horrifying than the infected? Is life meaningful without people you love?
NaughtyDog deconstructs the zombie genre by shattering our assumptions of playing the hero. Gamers have been conditioned to make the ‘good’ moral choice in games, the lack of being given an expected choice was a bold and refreshing move. Marlene represents the typical power fantasy of playing the hero of the narrative, someone who will do the ‘right’ thing even if it means sacrificing someone they love. In a sense, the game designers illustrated the difference between the wants of Joel and the wants of the player. Gamers have the power to guide Joel’s external actions but not his internal thinking. The lack of player agency, forcing us to shoot the doctors to externalize what is happening inside Joel’s brain is a smart twist. We thought that Joel had slowly worked through his grief towards Sarah however he would damn the world so that he didn’t have to go through loss again. It’s a truly selfish decision but as gamers, we have grown to also care for Ellie and want to protect her.
In the epilogue, Ellie mentions Sam when she refers to the people, she cared about who have died from the infection. This connection with Sam even persists into TLOU2 as Sam’s Robot is on a shelf in Ellie’s room in Jackson as a token to remember him by. Death affects her too, but she has a positive coping mechanism whereas Joel locks grief away unless he is with Ellie. When hiking through the woods, Joel mentions to Ellie that he thinks that she would have been good friends with Sarah and Ellie finally discussed the death of Riley. These conversations demonstrate that they trust each other enough to expose their gentler human nature, their vulnerabilities and their demons.
The most heartbreaking but powerful scene closes this masterpiece, somehow Ellie doesn’t fully believe the narrative that Joel fed her regarding what happened with Marlene and the Fireflies. We feel terrible because our actions created this lie, but truthfully, I would not want to ruin the beautiful relationship between Joel and Ellie in The Last Of Us with the truth.
The characters, the narrative arcs and the grim tone work perfectly together as an examination of what it means to be human in an inhuman apocalypse and the power of human friendships to heal past traumas. That makes The Last Of Us a true masterpiece.