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  • Writer's pictureTuur Verheyde

The Last of Us and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

Minor spoilers ahead for both The Last of Us and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

In Claire Colebrook’s article Extinction, it is briefly mentioned that post-apocalyptic culture has spread from literature, to cinema and other media. One of these media that is referred to is gaming. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the parallels and differences between The Road, i.e. one of the most critically acclaimed and well-known representations of post-apocalyptic culture in literature and The Last of Us, one of the most well-known and critically acclaimed representations of post-apocalyptic culture in the interactive art of gaming.

The Main Characters

The most obvious point of comparison is the fact The Road and The Last of Us each have two main protagonists. In both of these works, the duo consists of an adult man and a child. In both of these works the narrative revolves around this duo making a long and demanding journey, most of which is spent scavenging for scraps, during which they are confronted with the highs and lows of humanity. The main difference between the protagonists in The Road and The Last of Us is that in the former the protagonists remain unnamed, while in the latter, they are named (as Joel and Ellie). The second difference is that the unnamed protagonists of The Road are related by blood while the bond between Joel and Ellie is one of surrogate father and daughterhood.

The World

Both The Road and The Last of Us illustrate the highs and lows of human survival. In both works, the main characters are confronted by friendly and hostile strangers. The survivors of both worlds have to resort to cannibalism (in some cases) and scavenging to survive. The main difference between the worlds of The Road and The Last of Us is that in the former the main cause of the apocalypse seems to be the degradation of the biosphere (due to some unspecified calamity), which makes it impossible to plant crops or live of natural reserves and forces people to scavenge for supplies, while in The Last of Us the main cause of the apocalypse is a pandemic, which wipes out most of human civilisation but leaves the natural world intact. As such, The Last of Us lacks the theme of ‘the dying world’ that underlines some of The Road’s narratives.

The Good Guys & The Bad Guys

Lastly, I’d like to address the different ways in which the morality of survival is handled in The Road and The Last of Us. As mentioned by some of my peers, the father in The Road, uses phrases such as ‘carrying the flame’ and ‘the good guys’ to distinguish himself and his boy from most of the other survivors. However, this distinction is based on something. ‘The Good Guys’ are on several occasions shown to hold on to principles of compassion (they, for example, do not eat other humans), while others do not. In this way, The Road makes it easy to root for the protagonists. They uphold their moral codes, despite these desperate times. The Last of Us, however, paints a far bleaker picture of what it would take to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Whilst not partaking in cannibalism, the main character of Joel is presented as morally ambiguous to say the least. To commit murder regularly, to steal other people’s means of survival, to leave people in need to die… these are just a few things the protagonists of The Last of Us have (or choose) to do in order to survive. Often the choice between the immoral and moral in a post-apocalyptic world seems to mean the choice between being a living bad guy or a dead good one. Especially in its ending, The Last of Us asks the question of what to do when the making the moral choice and protecting those you love are mutually exclusive.

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