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The Reality of What Would Have Happened if Joel Had Chosen Differently

The Reality of What Would Have Happened if Joel Had Chosen Differently

Many players haven't had the opportunity to check this title out, so it's worth noting that this article is entirely focused on the ending of The Last of Us. If you've been waiting to play it — maybe because of its newest PC release earlier this year — I'd suggest you close this article and experience it as blind as you can.

It's quite astounding that The Last of Us has been out for a whopping 10 years now. Though, likely more resilient than the cordyceps virus and even the game's love is Joel's infamous decision at the end of the game. For the tenth anniversary, I want to explore a different outlook on this war that has split players for nearly a decade now — instead of focusing on Joel's decision, I want to query: what if Joel had chosen differently? How would the world look?

As a quick refresher for the game's ending — over the course of the 15-hour playtime according to howlongtobeat.com, The Last of Us puts you in the shoes of Joel Miller, a man that has survived through 20 years of the cordyceps virus. As you play as Joel and interact with his deuteragonist, Ellie, you are expected to bond closely to her, learn to love her, and then — at the end of an arduous journey against all odds — sacrifice her to the Fireflies for the good of humankind. Instead of the sound decision to save humans, Joel instead chooses violence.

Except... can humans even be saved?

Starting with the cordyceps virus, I have... doubts. The Last of Us' apocalypse starts off from the Cordyceps Brain Infection — CBI for short — and is based on a real fungus that, luckily, only affects insects: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. The way the game explains the apocalypse is that the cordyceps virus evolves to take over humans instead and turns them into the ravaging creatures that become the infected.

Staying within the game's confines of the virus, it is not only entirely likely that the cordyceps fungus could evolve again — ultimately nullifying the sacrifice that Joel and Ellie make — but it is also unlikely that scientists could even find a way to cure this completely. The makeshift laboratory — the Firefly Labs — consists of the few remaining scientists and machinery available to humans, and definitely not the crème de la crème-type of doctors you'd need to cure a fungal infection. In fact, it's so unlikely that even in 2023 — 10 years after the events of the original virus — we are still trying to cure fungal infections, as vaccines for these simply do not exist.

That's the scientific side of it. Even if we pretend that after 20 years without scientific advancements and that the ever-cunning cordyceps virus wouldn't mutate a second time to account for the vaccine, there is still one factor to take into account: the post-post-apocalyptic threat.

A criminally underexplored ideology is what happens after humans survive a catastrophic event and live to tell the tale. While most forms of media focus on the here-and-now of apocalypses, it is seldom shown how it looks if humans do manage to survive and later on thrive in these environments.

If CBI were to be cured, there are two factors to take into account: immunity and treatment. Modern medicine focuses on preventive measures against viruses, instead opting to avoid future infections rather than cure others. Following this same ruleset, the cure the Fireflies would be able to get from Ellie may be replicated and administered to the remaining thousands of humans alive, but the millions that suffered at the hands of it are not only forever gone but are also an ever-present threat — a predator, even — to humans. Keep in mind that the infected defeated humanity at its best, with technology, scientists, and military-trained personnel fighting back against it, and as an omnipresent predator, it'll remain oppressive as ever, if not worse so, due to the stages of evolution the infected undergo, from Runner to Clicker and Rat King.

The Clicker Infected The Last of Us

The cordyceps virus continues to evolve throughout the years with six stages that have been confirmed by gameplay elements — from runner to Rat King. Unlike the apocalypse in World War Z, where once you are bit, the infected ignore you because you are a new "host", the cordyceps virus doesn't discriminate, as evidenced by the various times Ellie is attacked. Although humans have already adapted to the infected threat (as much as you can), they will never thrive in spite of it, meaning that it will forever be a consistent detriment to their evolution and progression.

Accounting for the fact that humans have succeeded in stabilising their lives over the 20 years of the apocalypse, it is without a doubt that humans could — theoretically — retake the Earth after several years of fighting the remaining hosts of the virus and the decaying landscape. Even in the impossible scenario of complete immunisation, the ideology of repopulation and restoring the world to what it was is a pipe dream. 

The Last of Us Leaning Towers Scenery

The process of governing Earth for humans would be split into a three-way war between the “good”, the “bad”, and the virus. Expanding each civilisation entirely depends on being able to fight off the threat enough to reclaim the land and return to a “stable” world that has forgotten the ideals of rationing and scavenging. Different communities could theoretically grow with individual ideals and create what we now know as the “countries” of our world and — sooner or later — the scarcity of supplies would lead to wars claiming what is left. And even once the reigning faction has overcome, they live in the remnants of a society that evolved far beyond them and have instead been reduced to less — mediaeval, even. Large skyscrapers become landscapes you have to overcome, cities and lands that are uninhabitable either because of the threat of a virus or that are no longer “forageable” because humans would need to plant food once again to survive.

The idea of trading and travelling overseas becomes a pipe dream. Even if these technologies were previously accessible to those who were around pre-apocalypse, replicating them and immunising those overseas becomes a new war, a new undertaking, and a new threat to the remnants of humanity. So your options are to limit the “world” to the United States or find a way to travel overseas and fight a new foe in the form of foreign civilians, a potentially thriving virus, and uncharted lands that may have no trace of humans left. After what would be generations of fighting a war against the virus and the hunters, many would forget what the world looked like before the virus, and a new “era” would begin, independent of our modern world and their post-apocalyptic one.

The Last of Us City Look Part 1 PC2

With the few remaining scientists that may or may not remember modern medicine, with few engineers capable of replicating some of our greatest wonders, like conquering the skies in the form of aeroplanes, we are reduced to a primitive civilisation once again. Instead of the thriving race we are today, we are forced to relearn and rediscover things that we’d previously mastered. Vehicles, homes, and even renovation of ancient, untended buildings have become a new science that we have to discover again because those who mastered those fields are ageing and dying — a generation spent in an apocalypse.

Even after all of that fighting, even after the impossible scenarios of trafficking the vaccine and taking the world back from the virus, the final question remains: morally speaking, should the cordyceps virus even be vaccinated?

The Last of Us Ellie David

Without law, the remaining humans have opted to wage a three-way war on one another — FEDRA and its residents, hunters, and the cordyceps virus. The tragic state of Earth explores the ideology of a world torn between warring factions, and it all starts at the root of all evil — humans.

The world in The Last of Us explores a bleak picture of humanity facing the apocalypse in both the shoes of the tyrannical military leader that manages each Quarantine Zone and those who survive and free themselves of their rule. Whether you are looking at FEDRA's authoritarian ideologies (and the thought of "necessary evil") or former quarantine zone residents, the hunters, who overthrew FEDRA and freed the city like in Pittsburgh, you see evil all around.

Pittsburgh The Last of Us

Although utilitarians will advocate that humans always deserve good — and anti-Joel idealists will agree — the fact of the matter is that an overwhelming amount of foes in the game come from humans themselves: hunters, scavengers, and ultimately bad people. While the central antagonist is focused on the infected and CBI, many of the secondary ones focus on the hunters that tread the path — most notably, David.

Even those who stand against Joel agree that you are ultimately playing one of the evilest characters in the entire game; no matter where you look, the remaining survivors' actions are often bordering nefarious.

The Last of Us Sick Ellie

From the impossibility of actually curing the cordyceps to the miserable future of a three-way war, whether Joel's actions were good or evil would have been for nought — humanity was doomed to fail from the very beginning.

Artura Dawn

Artura Dawn

Staff Writer

Writes in her sleep, can you tell?

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