“The Last Of Us” restarts the great “Is Joel Right?” debate

It’s a moment I remember vividly all these years later. Reaching the hospital room in The Last of Us, seeing Ellie standing on the table and doctors and nurses who wanted to kill her to supposedly save the world.

I remember thinking the game was going to give me a choice. That after a narrative that left nothing to the player, this was one of those games that would leave you with a big final choice. But it wasn’t. That wasn’t your story, it was Joel’s, and so on was No choice. It wasn’t possible to leave this room without killing the doctor (even if you tried to shoot him in the leg like I did in one go). The decision has been made for you.

Now the debate over whether or not Joel did the “right thing” has found a new home with the expansive television audience for The Last of Us. The situation plays out almost identically to the game, Joel’s killing spree, his execution of the doctor (a season 2 necessity) and even his lying to Ellie afterwards.

Everyone seems to see the situation differently, and it turns out that your own view may be influenced by your real life circumstances. Speaking on The Last of Us post-episode podcast, Neil Druckmann revealed that in early testing, most players were split over the ultimate decision and what they would do if given the actual choice of potentially saving the world or just to save Ellie. Except for one group. The parents, Druckmann said, are 100% in Joel’s camp. No exceptions.

It is a more practical application of a question of theoretical philosophy. Would you save your child or set off a bomb that would blow up a million people you’ve never met? Perhaps the “moral” answer is that you should choose to make this sacrifice for the greater good. But for an actual parent who is forced to make that call about their actual child, I mean fuck all these people. No matter what it costs.

Personally, I’ve always hung myself in the logistics of the situation, which everyone tells me isn’t the point, but it still bothers me. Simply put, I have a hard time believing the idea that this one-of-a-kind doctor with a single immune patient and a single untested theory would actually be the great, worldwide cure that it claims to be. So when it comes to saving the world and saving a girl, I’m really not convinced that the healing would have happened at all. The point, however, is that Joel doesn’t care either way, as if it even were was guaranteed he would do the same. And the idea is that most parents would, too.

I also don’t think the fireflies don’t exactly have the moral high ground here either. Marlene tries to accuse Joel of getting him to admit what Ellie would have wanted had she been conscious. And yet we know that Marlene intentionally never gave Ellie the choice. She was not told she was going to die or asked if she would make this sacrifice for a cure. Although I probably agree with Ellie would said yes, the point is, she was not given the opportunity. And what if Ellie had said no, would Ellie and the fireflies really have just let her walk out the door instead of harvesting her brains against her will? No, that’s why they didn’t even give her the option.

The general consensus seems to be that Joel did the selfish, morally wrong thing in this situation, and yet you probably would have done the same thing for your own child under the same circumstances. But it’s not black and white, and it never has been, and it’s fascinating to see this debate reviving a decade after the original game.

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