In the end, we’re all parasites. We’re all leeching off of our hosts, dependent on their lives so we can live ours. At least, that’s what The Last of Us wants you to believe. Much like the parasitic fungus that’s taken over much of the US population and turned them into effectively zombies, The Last of Us is about the things we cling to in order to live, how separating from these hosts can destroy us, and how clinging to them can destroy the lives of others even as we preserve our own. It’s an apt metaphor, but ultimately leads to a bleak, cynical conclusion about the nature of humanity that misses the beautiful parts of relying on each other.
The story of The Last of Us isn’t as important as the relationship between the main characters Joel and Ellie. As the only person immune to the fungus that’s choking the broken country, Ellie may hold the key to a cure. Joel must deliver her to a renegade militia known as the Fireflies so they can figure out a way to use her condition to develop a vaccine. The road in between is where all the character development happens, and everything that happens around Joel and Ellie shapes how they feel about each other. Various levels of dependency develop on both sides, with Ellie reliant on Joel for safe passage and Joel needing Ellie to fill the various voids in his life thanks to people he’s lost. Ellie eventually comes to trust and love Joel as a father figure, but then Joel ends up unwittingly bonding with her after first losing his daughter at the beginning of the pandemic, then his companion Tess during the beginnings of their journey with Ellie. We hear Ellie say that one of the things she’s afraid of is being alone, but it’s Joel who proves that fear is present within himself after we see the lengths he’s willing to go for her sake.
We see the aftermath of grief in this game repeatedly. Joel’s outward reaction to losing someone is to cut off his feelings and carry on, a lesson he tries to impart on Ellie when she witnesses tragedy, watching people fall apart without their reason for living. Fellow travelers Henry and Sam briefly game them respite from going it alone, but the grief of losing his brother Sam to the infection broke Henry, leading him to kill himself. This is one of the clear events in the game where the parasitic nature of Joel and Ellie are mirrored to the point where Henry couldn’t live without Sam. The parasite can’t live without the host.
It’s a bleak scenario that matches the state of the rest of the world. Harsh lessons are deemed necessary in order to survive. Indeed, Joel’s entire credo before he’s honest with himself about Ellie’s role in his life seemed to revolve around survival first. We’re asked not to judge Joel too harshly for all his past selfishness via murder and theft, at least not at first. We still have to play as him, after all. The desperation of the state of the country warrants the harshness, the game tells us. Trust is a luxury that can ill be afforded except in extreme circumstances. Even the budding community Joel’s brother Tommy and his wife Maria are building can’t trust anyone outside their walls lest their trust be met with looting and death.
Joel quickly makes a lie of that sentiment, though. When Ellie finally arrives at the Fireflies’ base, Joel learns that in order to make a vaccine, they have to remove the infected part of Ellie’s brain, killing her in the process. Joel’s reaction to this is to murder his way to the surgery room and take Ellie back before they can go through with it. After they’re away from the compound, he lies to her that they couldn’t make a cure from her condition, which he swears to right before the credits hit. It’s at this point that we’re meant to see Joel as being driven by selfish motives. Yes, Ellie is alive, but at the cost of the country. We don’t even know if Ellie would have consented to the procedure even after hearing about the sacrifice she’d have to make. We’re just left with Joel’s selfish choice, and his decision to not face up to it.
The Last of Us’s view of relationships, even in extreme circumstances, is that they’re parasitic, that we need each other to live, but in a way that’s inherently unhealthy. The game never lingers on tragedy, pushing you forward in the story without unpacking what just happened either for you or the characters. And we barely ever see quiet moments where the genuine connection between Joel and Ellie shines through. The Last of Us is about how we need more than food and shelter to truly survive, but instead of being a beautiful realization, you’re left with the ugly reality that it’s inherently a selfish act. We care only because we have to care to feel like we’re alive. The Last of Us is onto something here, but stops short of offering either a panacea for this ailment or anything beautiful about what binds us together. It’s just desperation for our hosts and not being ripped from them. Is the game right? It’s certainly not wrong. With small exception, we need each other to truly live, and that’s purely from a selfish point of view. But that’s not all there is to relationships. This ignores the selfless aspects of our bonds with others, the love that we feel for our fellow humans. That aspect of relationships is real, but The Last of Us stops short of showing us that. Instead, they’re treated purely as parasitic as the killer fungus that upended society.