What would Darwin make of The Last Of Us?
WARNING: This article contains several plot spoilers.
Remember when that one producer said you’d “want to protect” Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot? It’s not hard to figure out why people across the game industry took umbrage with this quote. The phrasing suggested that Lara – a mature, able-bodied woman – required the protection typically reserved for a small child. It’s insulting to make that sort of claim about an adult, especially since it’s hard to imagine a grown male being regarded as similarly vulnerable by default. But just because the Tomb Raider faux pas was misguided doesn’t mean the imperative to shield another person is degrading in every narrative context. There’s one type of person that you don’t need to be self-conscious about characterising as a child – and that’s an actual child, of course.
The Last Of Us is a game about parenthood – initially biological parenthood and later, upon the introduction of Ellie, adoptive parenthood. In terms of the potential for affection and solidarity, we see nothing handicapping the latter variety. Joel is no less willing to risk his life for Ellie than he was for Sarah. Their familial tie seems no less insoluble. They don’t share the same blood, but they’ve shared moments of bleeding, which is a powerful bonding agent in itself.
In the current wave of post-apocalyptic storytelling, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road got here first. The father depicted in that novel lives only to protect his son and deliver him to safety. But the concept of parenthood resonates on a different frequency when it becomes a matter of fending off your species’ extinction. The film Children of Men, which almost certainly informed Ellie’s life-saving immunity (gene mutation?) in The Last Of Us, brought this fact into sharp relief by focusing on a single, improbable infant.
The demise of civilisation offers storytellers a chance to showcase and ponder the most primal of human impulses – our primate impulses, if you like. And the idea of a parent protecting a child isn’t just a romantic idea that makes for compelling human drama. In Darwinian terms, reproduction is the only meaningful barometer of success for a creature. Congratulations, you survived long enough to pass on your genes, you are free to die and become plant fertiliser now.
Think about it. In the animal kingdom, one of the surest ways to get yourself mauled to death is to threaten the wellbeing of a hulking carnivore’s young – or even give the appearance that you’re toying with the idea doing so. The urge to protect one’s offspring rivals the urge to protect one’s own life. There’s an evolutionary imperative to protecting the wellbeing of your offspring: they carry your DNA. When Joel’s daughter Sarah is gunned down by a military trooper in the opening moments of The Last Of Us, Joel’s genetic line comes to a decisive halt.
When creative director Neil Druckmann spoke to us about the climactic moment of the game’s prologue, he remarked on the line of dialogue “Don’t do this to me, baby” that Joel mutters while cradling the body of his deceased daughter, that it sounds oddly selfish since she was the one dying. Clearly Joel rues the fact that he’ll be forced to outlive his child – a fate worse than death, some might say – but perhaps there’s an element to that selfishness that comes from that primal impulse to pass on our genes. With the loss of Sarah, Joel’s line is severed. It’s no accident that the word “selfish” also surfaces in the title of a famous Richard Dawkins’ book about evolution, adaptation and natural selection called The Selfish Gene.
Though seemingly counterintuitive, evolutionary biologists don’t actually consider kin selection – sacrificing individual fitness for the wellbeing of one’s offspring – to be altruism because it aids the preservation of one’s own genes. True altruism involves risking one’s wellbeing for the a genetic stranger, so to speak, which is exactly what you see in the counterpoint of Joel and Ellie’s surrogate father-daughter relationship. How do we make sense of such a relationship in evolutionary terms? This is the sort of example seized upon by people who find evolutionary theory unpalatable and believe that altruism effectively debunks it.
The answer is something called mutual reciprocity, and it’s not a concept that’s difficult to understand. The golden rule is built right into the natural order: if you help other people, at some point you might just find yourself relying on them to help you. This is why there’s a moral dimension to human relationships even in the absence of divinely inscribed stone tablets. Despite the pillars of civilised society lying in ruin, sacrificial human kindness persists, and must persist if the humans species is to have any chance of long-term survival.
We see the beauty of mutual reciprocity illustrated in the way that Joel and Ellie take turns saving one another’s life. Ellie stabs a guard in the leg with her knife when she, Joel and Tess are apprehended outside the quarantine zone, preserving their escape plan. She shoots a thug in Pittsburgh who’s moments away from drowning Joel in the flooded crevice of a hotel floor. She stabilises Joel’s wound after he falls onto an exposed length of rebar. Joel responds in kind, stealing Ellie off the operating table in the Firefly hospital in a bizarre retooling of the Christian myth, snatching the sacrificial lamb off the altar just moments before humankind’s redemption has been secured.
It’s tempting to sum up The Last Of Us in terms of its bleakness, chaos and extreme violence. The natural order and its evolutionary machinations frequently encompass all of those things. Darwin understood perfectly well the brutality of natural selection. But Naughty Dog’s game reminds us that there’s ample room for beauty and optimism as well. Tom Waits once sang, “You can drive back nature with a pitchfork, but it always comes roaring back again.” There’s something beautiful and almost inspirational about that kind of irrepressibility, the tenacity of living things.
Nature keeps renewing itself with each successive generation. Our children embody that renewal but they also remind us to appreciate it through the example of their wonderment. Even though Ellie is 14 years old, she’s never ventured outside the quarantine zone. When she does, we see her ooh and ahh at her first ever stroll in the woods, at a cloud of fireflies buzzing around at dusk, at a purple and coral sunset. She rouses Joel from his jaded stupor and helps him appreciate the beauty of his surroundings, the beauty of being alive on this day, here in this place, right now, while it lasts.