Spoiler warning for The Last of Us, I am Legend (the movie, not the comic), Spec Ops: The Line and Old Man Logan (the comic, not the movie). Also, there’s also some headcannon fan fiction involved, feel free to disagree with the idea presented. I know it’s not in the game, I just think it would’ve been a sweet addition.
There’s a piece of concept art for The Last of Us that I stumbled upon one day while I should have been doing something more productive. It’s a picture of Joel in a gas mask, facing off against an Infected who is holding a length of rebar. Chalk it up to being an early design but it doesn’t look like any of the Infected in the game, if I had to guess though I’d say it’s somewhere between a Runner and a Stalker – victims in the earliest stages of the infection. The thing that caught my eye though, and sparked my imagination, is the fact that it’s holding a weapon.
I’d finished The Last of Us a few times by this point, so I knew that nothing like this occurred in the finished game. The Infected stagger around in a fungi-induced insanity with nothing but the clothes on their backs, just waiting for Joel and his friends to come and kill them. It’s not until we encounter a deadly Bloater that we see the Infected use anything beyond their fists and teeth for weapons.
Anyone who writes fiction knows that the first draft of a story rarely makes the final cut, The Last of Us is no different. For all the praise it received as a Feminist game, at one stage in its development only females were affected by the Cordyceps Brain Infection and Ellie was special not just because she was immune but because she was the first female that was immune. There’s also some concept art where Tess is holding a knife to Joel’s throat, because at one stage she was going to be pursuing Joel and Ellie across the states in a mass-murdering road trip all of her own. There’s also some concept art of Infected animals, like lions and gorillas, which was a idea that was never really explored in the game beyond infected, but immune, monkeys.
But I’m getting sidetracked here, the point is that even though it didn’t appear in the final game, at one stage the developers at least entertained the idea of the Infected being able to use weapons. This, to me, suggests some kind of sentience still remaining within the Infected and I think this presented a massive opportunity that they missed.
Players of The Last of Us know that Runners, victims in the earliest stage of infection, are still sort of there in the head – they’re just going a little crazy. They moan in pain, mumble and gibber as they try to resist the infection, they even get startled by gunshots and they really don’t appreciate it if you set them on fire. The people they used to be are still half there but practically speaking they’re gone, even at this early stage, and it only gets worse as the infection spreads.
Killing the Infected in The Last of Us is a nothing task, some fungus faced freak is coming to kill you so you stab them in the neck or shoot them in the knee and stomp what remains of their mycelium rotted brain out onto the sidewalk. By Chapter 4 you’ve seen every kind of Infected there is, after that it’s just their clothes that change and killing them becomes routine. But what if just once when you’re creeping up on a group of Infected, one of them turns to Joel and says, “Yeah, if you could not throw a Molotov Cocktail at us, that’d be great.”
What if, like Ellie, there were others who were resistant to the infection, just not as resistant as she was? These Pariahs would keep their wits about them, for months or years or possibly even permanently, but physically they’d appear as any other early-stage Infected. These poor souls would be wracked with pain as the fungus slowly grew, warping and hijacking their bodies. They’d wonder if they’d eventually lose their minds and become like all the other Infected, or if they’d simply linger on in a body that’s playing host to a fungal parasite. The worst part would be the fact that unlike the true Infected, since they’re not turning into Clickers or Bloaters, the infection would just move to its final stage and begin pumping out spores while the host is still alive. Even though the Pariahs would be immune, most other people wouldn’t be and thus they’d see the Pariahs as just as much a threat as any other Infected.
The Pariahs would be a whole new faction in the setting, and every other faction would hate them. Any humans would want to kill them on sight for fear of infection and the Infected would sense that they’re not fully infected and move in to try and get the job done properly.
It’d be the instant humanization of a monstrous enemy, the Infected would cease to be a faceless and mindless horde that exists simply to run from and/or kill. This can only ever add depth to a story as the enemy stops simply being a hurdle for the characters to overcome and suddenly has some sort of agency of their own. Sure, they may still attack the characters but it’d be because they chose to based upon their own reasoning and not because it’s some basic animalistic instinct.
Think of the alternate ending to I am Legend; Neville releases the Darkseeker woman when he finally figures out the hideous monsters are only attacking his home because their leader just wants his girlfriend back. You know, the one he kidnapped earlier in the movie? Neville then looks at the wall of his lab and sees all the photos of his failed attempts to cure the virus, and all the deaths that have resulted, and realizes that he’s the monster. Sure, they may look more monstrous than he does but he’s spent the entire movie hunting and experimenting on them because he incorrectly though they were mindless beasts.
We could’ve had a similar revelation and subsequent character development with Joel, we could’ve had that with Will Smith as well but noooooo, audiences likes explosions and two dimensional antagonists so this is just the alternate ending and instead we get an ending where he blows himself up to kill the mindless CGI vampires… sorry, 10 years on and that still annoys me.
My point is, killing humans clearly doesn’t bother Joel or Ellie, they kill them in the hundreds in their journey across the states and then Joel literally dooms humanity by killing the Fireflies and saving Ellie. So what if Naughty Dog managed to instil some sort of meaning into all these deaths in the most unlikely of places – by having Joel and Ellie carve their way through a supposedly Infected town, only to realize all too late that the Infected are actually the still sentient Pariahs and that they were just innocent people defending their home.
The Pariahs would have made every attempt to isolate themselves so they weren’t a risk to others, but then the cataclysmic tidal wave of destruction that is Joel just happens to go left instead of right at an intersection and crashes into their hideout. Maybe he would’ve wondered why the Infected were using guns, and running for cover, but he wouldn’t have stopped. Joel is death incarnate, criminals and cannibals alike rightly fear him, he hasn’t stopped in twenty years and this is primarily because there’s been nothing that can stand in his way long enough to stop him.
Just like this would have been a humanizing moment for the Infected, it would have been a dehumanizing moment for Joel. It would be a moment akin to the White Phosphorous scene from Spec Ops: The Line, one of the most powerful moments in video game history. Captain Martin Walker and his team think they’re shelling enemy troops with white phosphorous, but it turns out they’re actually shelling loyal American soldiers and the innocent civilians they’re defending. 47 civilians, including women and children, are killed and Captain Walker tips over the edge into insanity due to the guilt. He spends the rest of the game trying to maintain this delusion that he’s still the good guy, while it’s everyone else around him that’s evil.
Characters like Joel are hard to work with, they become less like people and more like unthinking forces of nature. It’s easy for them to move the plot along, since they’re so action orientated, but it’s hard to give them any sort of character development. They don’t care about the violence since they’re so good at killing, nothing scares them and after a certain point they’re pretty stagnant. You need something to shake them up, to make them pause and actually stop to reflect upon their lives. As much as the gameplay is about killing, the story of the game is meant to be about the development of the characters.
A similar character that actually goes through the sort of transformation that I’m talking about is Wolverine – he’s got claws, unbreakable bones and he even heals. Basically, he’s an immortal super soldier. He doesn’t stop until the events of Old Man Logan, where he’s tricked into killing a lot of innocent people – namely, all of his friends. That shakes him up and makes him change his ways, because that’s something that not even he can waltz past in an apathetic haze.
Just like Neville, Captain Walker and Wolverine – Joel needs a similar reason to stop and question himself, so that he can grow. As much as his relationship with Ellie supposedly redeemed him, it simply gave him another reason to use violence upon the world. At the end of the game he’s still the same mass murdering arsehole he was at the start of his journey and he’s going to need some doubt to change this. Accidentally killing innocent people who he once thought were a threat is just the sort of event to kick start some much needed character development.
I think that a humanized faction of Infected like the Pariahs would have added some extra depth to The Last of Us. It would have added some complexity to the Cordyceps virus and it would have allowed for some further character development in Joel. As varied as the four types of Infected are they’re all still kind of samey, and they’re all really bad at spreading the infection while still alive (but that’s a discussion for another day.) If violence is all that characters like Joel are good at, then turn that violence against them. Give him a chance to break free of his delusions of being the good guy and realize that he’s just as much a monster as the Infected are.