Hey peeps! Just thought I'd compile a list of the themes The Last of Us touches upon. In my opinion, I think these themes make it a great contendor for GOTY and this is what makes TLoU's journey more interesting than Bioshock Infinite's ending. Please, tell me any fallacies in my arguments and feel free to mention new themes that I ought to look into. I think it is paramount that we gamers highlight the themes touched on by video games if we want to make video games be considered on par with other storytelling mediums like movies and books.
The game highlights numerous themes mostly centered around the innate human desire to survive and what happens to mankind when the institutions for civilization collapse. Like most post-apocalypse tales, one of the central implicit questions the game asks is “Who is worse? The humans or the infected?”
Martial law and its shortcomings
The Fireflies, perhaps inspired by ''s Fishes faction, and the Hunters have emerged in response to the martial law that begot the quarantine zones. The military is a common institution that takes over the last pockets of mankind in post-apocalypse fiction, begging the question what measures must be taken by the military in order to preserve the human species. Quarantine zones besides Boston where Joel initially lives have fallen from either internal or external developments due to more soft measures, so the Boston military has decided to declare harsher edicts such as a mandatory curfew, supervised passage of refugees into and out of the zone, liquidation of any infected individuals within the zone, and severe reprisals against any kind of opposition against the military regime. The Fireflies are quick to highlight the shortcomings of the military and believe they are the right faction to reinvigorate mankind, and so have taken arms against the military and will stop at nothing to find the cure: the key, they believe, will resurrect mankind.
The Hunters of Pittsburgh spawn from the military’s inability to provide enough food for the quarantine zone refugees, either because the military cannot find enough food or they too have grown corrupt and hold more rations for themselves. The Hunters have risen against the military, whom they consider inept to protect and feed them, in order to take control of doling out the rations and assuring there is enough food and weapons for the former zone’s jurisdiction.
Loss and its scars
One of the biggest running themes of the game would have to be the vulnerability of humans and how the unmerciful post-apocalypse atmosphere morphs them and removes their ability to sympathize. Joel is perhaps the epitome of the consequences of vulnerability in this CBI-afflicted atmosphere, as the loss of his only daughter Sarah serves as the watershed moment where he begins to shut off his heart to others. He does all that he can to prevent further losses in his life, including a moment where he wants to protect Tess from the military knowing she will turn infected eventually.
Ellie also has experienced loss in the form of losing her parents and her friends. She states to Joel, “Everyone I have cared for has either died or left me,” and her fear of having Joel being replaced as her caretaker demonstrates she does not want to lose this deep connection she has made with him.
The Hunters have resorted to a myriad of ways to secure rations and weapons in the outside world: they beckon victims with cries for help, kill passerby in order to lessen the mouths to feed and loot their bodies for anything useful, and have explored outside the quarantine zone in a world that has fostered the instinct to not trust non-Hunters and to shoot first and ask questions later.
Many survival tactics rely on taking from others with as little resistance as possible, so many have turned to deception to gain the upper hand on their victims. This is why Maria and her posse at the dam are quick to draw a gun against Joel and Ellie, because, although they may look harmless, they may be a trap. Joel’s hesitancy to follow Henry and Sam when Henry just attacked him is another example of Joel’s suspicion of that the duo may be deceiving them and strike again when they are vulnerable. David is another good example of deception. He, like the cannibals encountered in The Road, has resorted to charm and a welcoming disposition in order to lure victims to his camp, where he and his group can kill and feast on the victim’s corpse.
Other survivors have ruled out any chance to be duped or double-crossed, like Bill, by sequestering themselves from any pocket of society. Bill, for example, has taken it a step further and ended his relationship with his partner Frank, believing he might threaten his life one day perhaps out of treason or because he is trapped in a predicament that may jeopardize Bill’s life. He considers Frank would make him a man with something to lose, making him more vulnerable to the unforgiving post-apocalypse world, so he chooses to increase his likelihood of survival at the cost of sociability and a sympathy for others.
Withholding information for survival can also break the trust among loved ones and the group one belongs to. For some reason, Sam decides to not disclose his infection to his brother Henry or Ellie and Joel, perhaps aware that revealing this will put all four of them in an ethical predicament. At the same time, we observe that Henry has still not told Sam his belief that no one else from their group might survive.
Who are the infected?
One of the most pivotal conversations in the game occurs between Sam and Ellie as Sam begins to question what entity are the infected. Sam mentions a haphazard explanation from Henry being that “They have moved on,” into heaven to be with their families. Ellie offers another kind of explanation being that although they look human, their minds and being no longer exist there. This discussion demonstrates the human need to dehumanize one’s foes in order to rationalize their destruction, something the two duos frequently must do in order to survive.
Because Sam was his brother, we observer that Henry initially cannot dehumanize him once he attacks Ellie in his infected state, yelling at Joel, “That’s my fucking brother!” However, within a few seconds his does kill his brother but is still unable to dehumanize him enough, because he mourns his brother’s death and tries to exonerate himself by first blaming Joel. However, that proves fruitless, so he commits suicide to spare himself from the guilt.
A subset of self-preservation, perhaps unique to David and the Cannibals, is cannibalism. When a normal society no longer exists to ridicule cannibalism, the idea of eating humans for self-preservation becomes a more welcome and understandable idea. It seems that David also did not like resorting to the idea, since he sent posses to other cities in order to secure other food sources and showed an interest in securing Ellie's slain deer for his group.
How will mankind repopulate?
David again brings up another important theme for discussion. It is implied that he would like to sleep with Ellie, perhaps both for pleasure and also possibly as a way to repopulate the planet. This question has been brought up before in 28 Days Later where the military outpost plans to keep the two female survivors as a means to repopulate England at the cost of the women’s right to decide who to have sex with.
(added 7/24/13) Intergenerational exchange of traits
Like any human connection, both parties involved begin to develop one another’s traits both consciously and unconsciously, and Ellie and Joel are no exception to this rule. Primarily, Ellie absorbs Joel’s mistrust of others while Joel grows capable of discerning with whom he can start opening up to by following Ellie’s example.
Although Ellie already carries the mistrust of others that has preserved her in the quarantine zone, Joel’s perpetual suspicion in others augments this facet of Ellie’s thinking. Despite David’s attempts to let her guard down, from asking her name to praising her marksmanship to imploring her cooperation, Ellie never mentally surrenders when she knows she is backed up in a corner. There is one moment where Ellie and David pause after David holds her hand from the other side of the cage, and just when he thinks he has pacified her, she breaks his finger and attempts to grab the keys on his waist. Ellie has come to appreciate Joel’s mistrust in others since this survival skill has gotten them through many harrowing episodes in the past.
Joel, on the other hand, has found some merit in breaking his self-erected emotional wall by observing Ellie’s behavior. We can see this distinctly the moment Joel points a gun at Henry on the beach, outraged at Henry’s earlier betrayal back at the Pittsburgh bridge. Without Ellie, he probably would have shot Henry and Sam in cold blood for their perfidy even if he heard Henry’s logic (perhaps even before Henry could explain himself) but as a result of knowing Ellie survived and realizing that her quick expression of a desire to cooperate with them eventually got him and her out of Hunter territory, he uncharacteristically gives them a second chance by sparing their lives and journeying with them through the Suburbs. Another moment occurs after the two duos successfully get out of the Suburbs, and Joel starts to open up about his past life, mentioning one time how he and Tommy would celebrate Tommy’s birthday, to another person – Henry – he has known in a shorter time frame than he has known Ellie. Joel also makes an effort to pacify the unstable Henry with words after he had killed the infected Sam rather than shoot or harm him, demonstrating that Joel had formed enough of a connection with him to want to keep him alive and in a healthy state of mind. (end 7/24/13)
Corruption of the youth
A subset of the previous theme, Ellie represents the tough youth that has emerged after the CBI pandemic, but before the journey, it is understood she has never killed a cognizant human being. In Pittsburgh, we observe her initial revulsion at killing the hunter that threatened Joel’s life, demonstrating any vestiges of Ellie’s innocence as a youth has finally been extinguished now. Perhaps it is why after this moment, Joel soon hands her a hunting rifle to provide back up against another posse of Hunters. (added 7/24/13) [[Joel]] is also the first individual to teach Ellie how to fire a legitimate firearm; to have Joel train her demonstrates one of the early signs of Joel’s macabre skillsets and abilities passing on to Ellie. (end 7/24/13) She carries around a handgun after that situation, and Joel seems fine with that since it is an impersonal way to kill others. Many chapters later, we see her skewer David with his machete as she lets go of her pent-up rage against him, and Joel scrambles to stop and console her before she heads down the same dark path that he was in for 20 years. Ellie’s demeanor changes significantly after that moment for many reasons, one perhaps being because the machete takes away that impersonal benefit a handgun has in killing someone.
(added 7/24/13) Redemption of the past generation
Another subset of the previous overarching theme, just as Ellie develops the corruption Joel unconsciously emanates, Joel also feels some of the redemptive capabilities of the younglings. As a result of having the responsibility to care for Ellie, Joel has this new opportunity to reopen his heart to another human, but as we see, Joel is not quick to tap into that side of his emotions since it does make him vulnerable before Ellie and in this post-pandemic world. For much of the journey, it can be argued that Joel is only looking after Ellie but not because he cares about her well-being; at maximum, he could feel a tie with Ellie developing that he wanted severed the moment he could hand her off to Tommy or at minimum, he still had not formed that bond with Ellie, enabling him to impassively hand her off to Tommy. It seems really after silently admitting to himself that Ellie has suffered as much, if not more, than Joel that he begins to care about her well-being like any other human would, thus reopening his heart, enabling himself to feel that side of the emotional spectrum, and becoming more vulnerable than before. (end 7/24/13)
A few moments after the beginning of the game, Joel, Tommy, and Sarah are attempting to escape Texas before their car is T-boned by another driver. Joel ends up having to carry Sarah out of the danger area, chased by the infected, but fails to save her as she is killed by a military operative. Many years later, Joel is placed in a similar situation, having to carry Ellie’s unconscious body out of the Firefly Lab and being pursued by Firefly operatives. Both scenes play similar music to highlight this theme.
Personal connection vs the good for mankind
As the game wraps up and Joel learns that Ellie is going to be sacrificed to recreate a vaccine that will end the CBI pandemic, Joel comes to have developed too much of a human connection with Ellie to want to lose her. So this personal connection, this emotional side of man, proves to outweigh his knowledge, the rational side of man, that she could save humankind from the pandemic. He also comes to consider Ellie as his goddaughter and worthy partner in life, so he chooses to save her instead of lose her for the good of humanity.