How The Last Of Us is redefining videogame morality: “Joel has no moral line left to cross”

The Last Of Us new gamescom screens

“How did you know?”

“About what?”

“About the ambush.”

“Because I’ve been on both sides.”

“Oh.”

The Last Of Us’ difficult line

Not words you’d expect to hear from a typical videogame hero. Words that imply that, in a post-apocalyptic world filled with scavengers and infected, our leading man and playable character is a man who has held up, robbed, and probably killed innocent people for his own gain. And when was the last time a game gave you control of someone like that?

But The Last Of Us’ Joel is not your typical videogame hero. In fact, you’d scarcely call him a hero at all (although no doubt by game’s end we’ll all have a big ol’ man-crush on him and his manly drawl). Because, in stark contrast to the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog is now making a game without typical heroes, because typical heroes only exist when you’re working within a typical framework of morality. And in a world that’s this far gone, where daily concerns extend no further than trying to stay alive to see another sunrise, that framework is has been shattered like a Fabergé egg in a tumble drier.

The actor playing Joel, Troy Baker, was aware from the start that he wasn’t lending his performance to a wise-cracking charmer: “There was one line in the character description on the audition script that I keyed into the most: ‘Joel has no moral line left to cross’”, he says. “ That’s such a statement about anybody, because the circumstances that predicate that being true about you have to be incredibly dire, and what desperate situations must you have been in to not only give up on humanity but also yourself, that you’re willing to do anything.”

Well circumstances don’t get much more dire than the end of civilization, but while the amorality of this ‘after-world’ has been much explored in books (such as The Road and I Am Legend) and films (such as Mad Max), games haven’t been so bold. Yes the setting is familiar, but not the complete transformation that accompanies human behaviour within that setting. As Troy mentions: “How quickly that dynamic changes when you introduce danger and an unknown element.”

What this means for a game that is sure to be a contender for next year’s best is a considered investment in your actions unlike anything we have seen before. Many games have offered some form of morality system or professed to give players the choice of bad vs. evil, but whichever route you go down you never really care. It’s fun to be a murderous madman in inFamous 2 and fry innocent civilians with your electro-superpowers, and it’s fun to make your Captain Shepard a consistent boy scout. But venture off your chosen path and you’re unlikely to beat yourself up about it, and if a few hundred lives are the price it takes to make Cole McGrath look badass then so be it.

The Last Of Us new gamescom screensThere’s no chance that any death will be met with that kind of flippancy in The Last Of Us. As we’ve seen not only from the graphic nature of the killing but also the physicality of the struggles that precede it, here it’s every bit as grave and impactful as it should be. Conflicts are not about the battle of good vs. evil or tyrant vs. world-saver, they’re about two people desperately fighting to stay alive – one has to win, the other has to die. As Troy’s co-star Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie, says: “There’s nothing normal about growing up in this world. The only worries are: ‘Am I going to survive through this day?’”

So every gunshot will ring out in your conscience as it does in the collapsed ruins of buildings, and every snapped neck will twang your conscience as well as your victim’s spinal cord. The character you play as in The Last Of Us is not a ‘good’ man. And you can’t make him one – if you want to survive in the world and continue the adventure, you too will have to cross your moral lines. In most games, the disposability of life makes that easy to do. In The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog is treating life – and the taking of it – with the reverence that it deserves. It’s a bold step, and one that’s bound to be uncomfortable at times. But then something like this should be: can we really accept the post-apocalypse as anything else?