What Video Games Taught Me About Philosophy
Still from The Last of Us (2013) © Naughty Dog
Between big-budget movies of classics like Prince of Persia, and the growing community of Twitch and gaming YouTubers, video games are bigger and more relevant now than ever before. But in the midst of all this, it’s easy to forget that more so than films or even books, video games are an intensely personal experience. They’re entirely designed around the basis of interactivity, and each player’s experience is uniquely meaningful.
I got into this whole gaming thing pretty late. I played RuneScape and Pirates of the Caribbean Online when I was twelve, but I didn’t graduate to ‘real’ games until the summer after my A-Levels when I bought myself a PS3 to celebrate. I specifically chose that console so that I could play Naughty Dog’s 2013 release, The Last of Us, a critically-acclaimed PlayStation exclusive, and the game that would end up most influencing how I think about gaming, narrative, and myself.
That game, for me, was an intensely personal experience. It was the first big-name game I ever played, the second I ever finished (I finished Grand Theft Auto V first – thanks auto-aim). The Last of Us was the game that made me realise that video games, just as much as any other narrative medium, can tell a meaningful story. The experience blew my mind, and it stayed with me in a way few other stories have.
But in both narrative and gameplay, The Last of Us was nothing new. It’s an aggregate of all the gameplay elements in the action genre of its day – multiplayer, complete with chest-high walls, and a crafting system. It’s your run-of-the-mill zombie story: a jaded older man and a young girl who turns out to be crucial to developing a cure. The Last of Us launched just a year after The Walking Dead game and mere months after BioShock Infinite, both featuring very similar protagonist duos. Don’t get me wrong, The Last of Us is a really good game. But I’ve played a lot of good games.
So what made this one so special to me? Why did it have such a lasting effect? I actually didn’t know until I played Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End by the same developer. See, Uncharted 4 spends a lot of its time setting up the relationship between brother protagonists Nate and Sam, which culminates in facing Nate with the choice to run and save himself (as Sam begs him to do) or stick around in a burning ship to try and save his brother.
And I was terrified. Not of the fire, or the enemies, or any of the actual danger in the sequence. This decision played out in a cutscene; it might as well have been a movie for all the control I had, which can be a blessing in a fast-paced action game — you don’t have anything you can mess up. But that lack of control is a double-edged sword, and I was so worried that Nate would decide to leave his brother behind and save himself, and that I would have to go along with his decision, the game offering me no choice or control.
Why would I assume the game would make me play through a decision I disagreed with? Because that’s what happened in The Last of Us. And this, I realise now, is why that game affected me so much. Our protagonist Joel in The Last of Us, just like Nate in Uncharted 4, is faced with a decision: save our companion, or let them die. But The Last of Us isn’t Uncharted, it’s not a lighthearted adventure romp in the vein of Indiana Jones. It’s a harrowing and intense survival horror, and it treats that final decision very, very differently.
Here’s the dilemma: our companion, Ellie, is the key to a cure but the procedure will kill her. So Joel’s question is not Nate’s, it’s not whether to put himself in danger to save someone he cares about. It’s whether to save someone he cares about at the expense of the rest of humanity.
This is a dramatization of the most famous thought experiment in Western ethics, the ‘trolley problem’. Even if you don’t recognize the name, chances are you’re familiar with the concept: a runaway train headed for a track with five people on it, and you can pull a lever so the train heads down a different track with only one person. It seems fairly straightforward. One life for five, right? It’s easy to moralize like that, from a distance. We all like to think we’d do the right thing in a difficult situation.
The Last of Us challenges those preconceived beliefs. Intellectually, I think we all know it would be more ethical to let Ellie die to create a cure for the rest of humanity. But emotionally? Even if we know the objective, moral, right answer, how many of us would actually take it when the life of someone we care about is on the line?
And we do care. We care about this girl, this fourteen-year-old girl, who has to die to save everyone else. She has helped us through our entire journey, been a source of both humour and emotional honesty, and much of the platforming in the game is specifically designed around teamwork with Ellie. And so when this dilemma arises after hours of getting to know her, relying on her, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t want to save Ellie, even if we know logically that isn’t the ‘right’ choice.
But crucially, what we think is right doesn’t matter. The player doesn’t get to make that choice. Joel does. Our only options are to do what Joel wants, or to turn off the game. And Joel chooses to save Ellie.
I said this game made me play through a decision I didn’t agree with, but that’s not entirely true. I did want to save Ellie. And Joel’s rescue is framed as just that: after we spend the entire game trying to reach a group of rebel freedom fighters called the Fireflies, the ‘good guys’, that same group betrays us. They take Ellie away to kill her, and Joel and the player must ride in to save her from the surgeon’s knife. I was completely onboard for a lot of this. The Fireflies were supposed to fix everything, but instead they put us in this position, so if some of them had to die for us to get to Ellie? So be it.
There’s a second part to the trolley problem. A runaway train on a track headed to kill five people, but this time the only way to stop it is to push someone in front of the train, killing them but saving the five. It’s still one life for five. But the action has changed: you’re not just pulling a lever that happens to lead to the death of a person – you’re actively choosing to kill someone. Everyone thinks they know the right answer to the trolley problem, but this is philosophy; it’s not that simple. Utilitarianism, which says consequences are all that matter, believes it’s still right to kill one person to save five. But deontology says the action is what matters: in the first scenario, you’re pulling a lever, but in the second you’re killing someone. There is no right and wrong here; just like video games, philosophy is intensely personal.
So. After killing our way through upwards of 40 Fireflies, we arrive in the operating room. Ellie is there, unconscious. A doctor blocks our path to her, unarmed except for a scalpel. Two more doctors cower in the corner. To progress, we have to shoot the doctors, rescue Ellie, and leave the building.
This is the first moment I faltered. I remember searching for any other way to get through the encounter. I remember being so very reluctant to kill the doctors in cold blood. But it was the only way to continue the game, so I did – bang, bang, bang. It was only on a second play-through that I realized you only need to shoot the doctor blocking your path to progress; I killed the two others for no reason. I feel genuine guilt over that.
“There is no right and wrong here; just like video games, philosophy is intensely personal.”
We play as Joel for the vast majority of this game, which is why we understand his reasoning for saving Ellie. But there are two sections in which we don’t play as him. The first is a long action sequence where we hop back and forth between Joel and Ellie. The second is at the very end of the game, before the last cutscene. And because we were just playing as Ellie, we see this cutscene through her eyes. It’s important we get that shift: we inhabit Joel when he makes his decision, even though we can’t influence it; and then we inhabit Ellie afterwards, we see him, his choice, his actions — our actions — from an outside perspective.
Two crucial things happen in this final sequence: we hear Joel talking about his dead daughter Sarah for the first time, which can be read either positively (he’s starting to face his grief and heal) or negatively (he’s latched onto Ellie as a surrogate); and then, in the cutscene, when Ellie asks him to be honest with her, we see him lie. He lies and tells her the Fireflies didn’t need her after all, he lies and pretends there was no choice to make, he lies and erases our rampage, those doctors killed.
However you interpret the scene, the game tells us that this is Joel’s greatest sin. More than saving Ellie or killing the Fireflies, the game frames lying to Ellie as the worst thing Joel does. And we see this through Ellie’s eyes, but also with that detached movie-quality that cutscenes lend us — at the end of the game, we are at our most impartial. We understand where each character is coming from, we have travelled with them and as them for hours, and now the game wants us to look back over the narrative, over Joel’s actions and our complicity in them, and it wants us to reach some sort of conclusion for ourselves. The first part of the trolley problem is Joel’s dilemma. But the second half is ours to puzzle out. Do the ends justify the means? Was saving Ellie worth it?
Of course, Ellie is just an AI, the whole game just a spiderweb of programs. And video games have made me do a lot of terrible things in the name of my own entertainment. Grand Theft Auto V famously had an unskippable torture sequence which rated you on your performance. Middle Earth: Shadow of War’s main mechanic involves mind-control slavery even while it decries that same tactic being used by your enemies. And Papers Please incentivizes moral corruption through every aspect of its gameplay. But I will always, always think back to those two doctors, to my eagerness to go along with Joel’s plan, and the way it crumbled to overwhelming guilt the moment I was faced with that operating room.
Philosophy from a distance means very little until you’re faced with it yourself. The Last of Us is a personal experience not so much because you need to experience its intense, paranoid gameplay for yourself, although it certainly adds to the experience. No, it’s personal because you need to experience that moment at its end, where you look back on your actions and wonder: was this worth it? It may only be a video game, but I still felt real remorse killing those doctors. And the weight of my actions, virtual or no, really does make me question myself, my own morality.
All stories are constructs. But this one made me complicit. •