A Last of Us Retrospective, Part 1

Ian here—

Well, I’ve inaugurated a new video series, and I’ve done so smack dab in the middle of an academic quarter. Perhaps inadvisedly! We’ll see if I can keep up a regular schedule for this series, which dives deep into the storytelling techniques of the Last of Us franchise.

Script below the jump.

Hello everyone—Ian here. This is the first in a series of videos I’m going to be doing on The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II. As you might imagine, this series will contain extensive spoilers for both games—so, fair warning about those. Less obviously, this series will also contain spoilers for a very large swath of other games. I’m going to be talking a lot about game narrative structure, and that means pulling a lot of examples from other places. So, again: fair warning.

I waffled back and forth about doing this series at all. There’s certainly no shortage of videos about Last of Us Part II on YouTube. People may have long ago stopped searching for the “Citizen Kane of videogames,” but The Last of Us Part II has proven to be The Last Jedi of videogames. A lot of very silly people hated it preemptively because it had LGBT characters in it, which I think caused some critics to over-correct and praise the game in ways that weren’t particularly warranted. There are a lot of really legitimate critiques one can make about the game, but for awhile it felt sort of weird to wade into the discourse at all, since it had become so polarized and toxic. That was especially the case given the planned scope of my series, and how many parts it has. You can get away with doing a multi-part series on games that came out more than a decade ago—people will see how old the game in question is, and just assume that you’re approaching your object with appropriate critical distance. But if you do a multi-part, multi-hour video series on something that’s come out in the past few months, that’s whipped up a lot of controversy, like Last of Us Part II, people are more likely to assume you’re some sort of weirdo. Because you probably are. 

In the end, I did the thing I normally do, which is take too long to make my videos. And that solved my problems! The eruption of toxic hot takes subsided in the meantime, which is good, but as a result I’ve missed the window for engagement and clicks and will continue to toil on in complete obscurity which is, eh, whatever. Clearly this channel is a labor of love for me, rather than a way to chase clicks.

The reason I decided to keep writing, recording, and editing this series, long after the dust had settled, is because The Last of Us Part II is flawed in ways that are more interesting that 99% of the ways games are usually flawed. Its ambitions and failures alike present a great educational experience, and I feel like it’s a game that will have lasting popularity as an academic case study—much more so than it will have lasting popularity as an actual game. The first Last of Us game, and the Left Behind DLC were already popular games among critics and academics when analyzing the relationship between game characters and game players. And now The Last of Us Part II comes around and … is bad. But bad in a way that’s equally interesting, like they went out of their way to prove the limitations of certain approaches to videogame storytelling. It’s been announced at this point that the franchise is being adapted into an HBO series, which seems like some sort of milestone in videogame adaptations, and I’m sure that will provide plenty to talk about. But once the series comes out, and people start talking about its worth as an adaptation, I hope we never lose sight of just how fascinating The Last of Us and Part II were as games, just how much they grappled with the tension between pre-authored stories and player agency, and sometimes stumbled quite badly, but were worthy case studies nevertheless. In this series, I have both praise for and criticisms of these games. Sometimes I single out extremely specific elements of their execution both for praise and for criticism! In truth, a lot of the organizational structure of this series came from me not wanting to contradict myself within a specific video. I can hold two thoughts in my head at a time, but sometimes for the sake of rhetoric it’s just better to separate things out.

This first video is going to lean heavily into “praise,” and it’s going to focus entirely on the first Last of Us game. The first Last … god, this is going to get annoying to say. It’s about the first game in this series, why I like it, and the specifics about its execution I think work the best. As will be the case across this series, I’m going to be talking primarily about these games’ storytelling and characters. I’ll also be talking more generally about their mechanics, and about the specifics of their map design, but mostly those things will be subordinate to the larger discussions of story and characters.

So let’s go.

The Last of Us, released in 2013 at the tail end of the PlayStation 3’s life-cycle, is basically a piece of apocalyptic zombie fiction. It’s got its own spin on the subject—much like 28 Days Later, it takes a more grounded, pandemic-like approach to the zombie menace, in this case basing its zombies off of a fictional mutation of the parasitic cordyceps fungus. The fungus—which transforms its hosts into mindless spreaders—has killed a large percentage of the world’s population, left infrastructure in ruins, and, at least in the US, left the country under military marshall law for 20 years. Outside of a small handful of still-functioning quarantine zones, the military has lost control of the population, who have split into your expected factions of roving bandits and paranoid, isolationist survivor communities. The one faction that the military seems most interested in eradicating is the Fireflies, a resistance organization who, at least in the game’s opening credits montage, is portrayed as wanting to restore democratic governance to what’s left of the US.

The central characters of the first game are Joel and Ellie—you play as both throughout the game’s run, but you spend most of the time playing as Joel. Joel is a grizzled survivor type—he used to be a single father, but his daughter died early in the pandemic, after which he and his brother Tommy became roving raiders, doing what they needed to to survive. [“How did you know?” “Know what?” “About the ambush.” “‘Cause I’ve been on both sides.” “Oh.”] Tommy left him and joined the Fireflies, before later leaving the Fireflies as well. Joel, meanwhile, settled down as a smuggler based in Boston with his parter Tess. “Settled down” is over-stating things—he still regularly engages in both fistfights and gunfights as a smuggler—but his life in Boston seems at least a little more stable than it’s indicated some of the intervening years were.

Joel’s life is upended … upended … not “appended,” upended … eh. Joel’s life is turned upside down when he’s tasked with transporting a girl named Ellie to the Fireflies. During this seemingly straightforward task, Tess is killed, and the Fireflies they were supposed to contact in Boston are also killed. This would normally mean that Joel would abandon the job, but it comes out during the course of all of this that Ellie is immune to fungal infection, and she’s offering herself as a test subject so that the Fireflies can research a cure. Before she dies Tess forces Joel to promise he’ll finish the job… [“There’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me, so you get her to Tommy’s”] … which means hauling Ellie across much of the continent to meet Tommy, who can perhaps tell them where the Fireflies’ main medical research base is.

So that’s the basic setup. Let’s talk gameplay.

Gameplay in The Last of Us can be broken down into four components: stealth and shooting, both of which have distinct varieties whether you’re playing against human or infected enemies, environmental traversal, and resource gathering.

I want to talk about stealth the most, because I think its inclusion as an option is thematically important for the game. The game makes it plenty clear, across multiple exchanges, that Joel has had to do terrible things to survive, and has turned into an exceptionally violent person over the past twenty years. [“This is how you’re going to repay me, huh?” “Repay you?” “For all those god damn years I took care of us.” “Took care? That’s what you call it? I got nothing but nightmares from those years.” “You survived because of me!” “It wasn’t worth it.” “So, uh, you kill a lot of innocent people?” [grunt] “I’ll take that as a yes.” “Take it however you want.”] And it also says that the collapse of civilization means that you see who people really are, yada yada yada—standard zombie apocalypse themes. [“After the outbreak, they had a lot of looting. Everyone got paranoid. You remember any of that, Joel?” “Yeah, everyone barricaded themselves in their homes. Then supplies started running low. That’s when you saw what people are really capable of.”] But it’s also pretty clear that the story is trying for some grand redemption arc, so I think it’s important that the game offer opportunities for Joel and Ellie to get past areas without killing absolutely every person in their vicinity. Sometimes you’re going to be forced into violence, and that’s okay—it says something important about this world that you’re not able to do a clean, no-kill run of the game. But you can keep your kill count down, if you so choose, and from a character-and-gameplay perspective I really like that aspect.

We can contrast The Last of Us with earlier attempts at stealth gameplay from Naughty Dog in the Uncharted games, and Last of Us benefits in this comparison in three ways. 

First, there are no genuinely nonlethal stealth options in Uncharted: stealth means sneaking up on someone from behind and snapping their neck, rather than shooting them. Nathan Drake’s kill counts in these games are astronomical, but the game just shrugs it off. You’re not supposed to think about it. Stealth is not a way to forgo killing people, it’s basically a way to stock up on ammo and weapons before a major firefight, because enemies drop things on stealth kills that they don’t drop on regular kills.

And the firefight is bound to come: in Uncharted, stealth is only ever a phase of enemy encounters, rather than a true alternative option. Arenas are constructed so that you can stealth your way through for awhile, gaining the benefit of better weapon and ammo drops for stealth kills while doing so. But a firefight will inevitably break out due to circumstances beyond your control. This arena in Uncharted 3 I’ve been talking over is a good example. If you know the patrol routes of the enemies, you can sneak up behind almost every one, find an optimal stealth path through the level. But no matter what, you’re left with two guards at the end who don’t leave their post. As soon as you kill one of them, the other one snaps into alertness, and calls in a whole new wave of guys. You can try to creep behind them very slowly, you can try to take them out with the silenced pistol: nothing will work. This section is designed from the ground up to inevitably end with an alert phase, and a new wave of enemies.

And, finally, once a firefight does break out, you can’t slip back into stealth. The enemies in Uncharted don’t have what we might call “stealth AI”—they’re not capable of losing you, slipping back into a less-alert state. So, again, these are just distinct phases of an experience that has been tightly planned and curated by Naughty Dog.

None of these things are true of The Last of Us. You can’t get through every single area without killing anyone—as I mentioned before, sometimes open encounters are scripted, and other times the patrol routes just don’t allow for it. But I’ve successfully executed stealthy, no-kill runs of several levels in the game, including the escape sequence from the Boston Quarantine Zone, the Capitol Building after Tess’ death, the first phase of the Lakeside Resort (although there’s some scripted encounters in the second phase that make stealth impossible), and the QZ checkpoint and bookstore area in Pittsburgh. This last one is especially interesting—the enemies move in such a way that you can time your movement through the store to a science, and even pick up all of the artifacts and collectables along the way—the guards’ patrols are spaced perfectly. But then right as you get to the second floor you trigger a guard to move to block the exit, and I thought Naughty Dog were back on their bullshit again: another guard, positioned right at the level exit, designed to be a forcible end to a player’s attempt at a stealth run. And this guy is really hard to get past, because he prioritizes standing by that door. But after much experimentation I was delighted to discover that it’s not impossible to get him to wander away from it. Using a bottle is really dicey because his response to it is unpredictable, but using a smoke bomb did the trick, and I was able to get out. Technically this wasn’t a pure stealth run, since the smoke bomb put them on alert, but I got in and out without Joel having to kill anyone. And I applaud Naughty Dog for this! The Last of Us has much more robust stealth systems than Uncharted ever did—including AI that allows your pursuers to lose track of you, which is essential in stringing together mixed stealth-combat encounters.

As far as the gun combat goes, it superficially resembles Uncharted: both games use third-person, cover-based shooting, with the ability to rush enemies and engage them in hand-to-hand combat if you think that will give you better chances of survival. But everything feels more weighty. Guns are slower to reload, even slower just to load the next bullet into the chamber. The large amount of weapon-sway combined with the strict caps on how much ammo you can have on hand means you’ll spend longer carefully lining up shots, even if it means putting yourself in more danger. Regenerating health is gone, and using a health kit is a slow process that can be interrupted by enemies. Everything is simultaneously more methodical and more panicked and scrappy, and there’s a grim and weighty seriousness behind all of it.

“Grim and weighty seriousness” also describes the environmental traversal in this game. Naughty Dog cut their teeth making 3D platformers, and the Uncharted series still contained vestiges of this legacy, even thought the platforming in it is largely a no-fail affair where you point the analog stick toward the next grapple node and watch Nathan Drake do all the work, with the help of generous magnetic ledges. These sorts of acrobatics are completely absent from Last of Us—you really get the sense that someone wrote the words “grounded” and “weighty” on a big whiteboard in Naughty Dog’s central meeting room, and those words informed every single design decision in the game, including the environmental traversal. Jumping is simply not in these characters’ skillset. [“Hmmm, I can’t make that jump.”] Getting over gaps consistently means finding boards to bridge them. [“Alright. Now you just need to find a way up.”] On top of this, Ellie can’t swim, so there are several light puzzles in the game based around finding palettes for her to ride on as you push her from place to place.

I don’t hate these sections as much as other people do, but they do feel like adjectives on a design document brought to life, with little regard to player engagement. Ellie even remarks on how tedious these sections are … [“Alright Ellie, I need you to—“ “I know, step on the fucking palette”] … and while I get that it’s “clever” to have characters comment on the gameplay that surrounds them, in the end you’re still the one who left un-engaging mechanics in your game. 

Finally there’s resource gathering, which is very much not interesting in and of itself. You press “triangle” next to drawers and cabinets to open them, and you press “triangle” again—sometimes many times—to grab the stuff inside. Resources aren’t exactly scarce, but there are caps on how many you can carry at a time, and most have at least two mutually exclusive ways you can use them, so if you find yourself with a lot of alcohol, for instance, you have to choose whether to use it for health kits or Molotovs, and then once you make your choice, you’re depleted, and you have to prioritize finding alcohol again. It’s not the most interesting inventory system, but it gets the job done. Where it really shines is as a delivery system for level design. Much like Valve, Naughty Dog make highly linear, tightly-designed experiences. But the levels in The Last of Us feel much more open and expansive than anything in the Uncharted games, because the constant need for resource-gathering means that the levels have to be designed around exploration and discovery. They’re an excellent example of what, in my series on Half-Life 2, I called “stream pool” level design: The levels all have beginnings and endings, with a definitive path that you trace through them, but they also have nodes designed for you to stop, slow down, explore. I talked about this design strategy when discussing the maps d2_coast_05 and d2_coast_09 in my Half-Life 2 video. And ep2_outland_07 in Episode 2 is also a good example of it. But there’s a limit to how far Valve was able to take this type of level design in the Half-Life series, since you don’t need to collect quite so many resources. 

The Last of Us feels like the maturation of this design strategy, especially when you factor in the game’s character dialogue. The characters are constantly commenting that you should probably be looking around for resources … [“Joel, see if there’s anything we can use in here.” “Sure thing, boss.”] … which you as a player were probably already doing anyway. [“Whatever supplies you may want or need, I suggest you grab them.”] Or, asking if you found anything … [“See anything?” “Uh-uh”] … which was indeed your motivation for setting off on this weird side-path, so it creates a nice synergy between character action and motivation and player action and motivation. If they only ever talked like this, it would get annoying after awhile, but there are also tons of little optional side-conversations triggered by things you only see if you’re exploring the edges of the map. [“Shit, you gonna go in there?” “I wanna see what we can find.” “You’re gonna find my body when I die from a heart attack.” “Don’t worry. I got this.”] So exploring the map for supplies starts out as a mechanical necessity, which you’re reminded of by characters … [“You know the drill. Look around, see if there’s anything we can use.”] … but then becomes a source of pleasure, a time when you can sit back and enjoy the game’s sharp character writing. [“It’s a tie!” “No, no. You clearly got destroyed.”] The game’s pacing benefits enormously from this, and these sections are truly a showcase for Naughty Dog’s magic. There are very few studios out there who expend these sorts of production values purely to make sure players slow down and enjoy spending time with the characters. [“There will come a day when kids can just be kids again.”]

That’s all the gameplay elements, but i mentioned that stealth and shooting are pretty distinct when engaging infected enemies, when compared to normal human enemies. Stealth and shooting against infected enemies is where the game’s horror aspects come to the front—and not just because of visual and sound design of the enemies, which is fantastically gruesome. Stealth against these enemies is harder, because every type, from the runner to the bloater, has better hearing than standard human enemies, meaning you need to move more slowly and carefully around them. Both clickers and bloaters can insta-kill you if you come within a certain radius, no matter your health status, so if you’re close enough to shiv a clicker to death you’re also necessarily close enough for them to instantly kill you if you make one false movement. Once one enemy hears you, all within the area will run directly at you. They don’t take cover—their AI is much simpler than that of human enemies. You’re the target, and they come after you. But just because they’re mindless, it doesn’t follow that the fights themselves are mindless—there’s a lot of moment-by-moment prioritizing the player has to do. Clickers are a good candidate for the players’ top target priority, because of their insta-kill abilities. But runners are faster, so can easily intercept players while they’re taking the time to line up a shot. Both the clickers’ and runners’ bobbing and weaving animations make them much harder to hit than standard human enemies, and it’s very easy to accidentally waste huge amounts of ammo while fighting them. There are two mitigating forces here though, to provide negative feedback and balance things out: one, infected drop ammo whereas normal enemies don’t (which is weird when you think about it, but prevents the game from becoming too frustrating), and two immediately after you escape from a grapple, the game tends to line up a pretty good shot automatically. So if worse comes to worse, ammo-wise, it might pay off to sacrifice a bit of health for guaranteed shots. (Not a guarantee!)

All of these systems work really well together, and help make encounters with infected feel completely different from other enemy encounters—which they already would anyway because of the amazingly horrific sound design, but it’s nice that the fights themselves are well-planned and executed.

The Last of Us hits this weird sweet spot, where it’s easy to over-state the success of any of its individual components. Truth be told, there are many ways in the game is not particularly exceptional. From a gameplay perspective, it strings together a lot of scenarios and setpieces that will be familiar to anyone who’s played a lot of single-player games released since 1998 or so. Its plot, meanwhile, recycles lot of expected genre tropes from other post-apocalyptic zombie stories. There’s the wholesale adoption of a right-wing survivalist worldview, based around the idea that society is just a thin veneer, and if you strip it away people will become violent and stop cooperating with each other. There’s the gruff, violent man who is intensely loyal to his friends and family—perhaps the most important trait to have in a world defined by protective paranoia, community isolationism, and ruthless self-interest. [“Keep driving, Tommy.”] There’s the search for a cure that causes scientists to sacrifice their humanity just as much as the strongmen. None of this is, in and of itself, exceptional. Where The Last of Us excels is in bringing all of these ingredients together, in finding ways for the competent-but-not-innovative gameplay to mesh with the competent-but-not-innovative storytelling, producing a result that is distinctly more than the sum of its parts.

So, a lot of games start you off without weapons, leaving you in an environment you can explore while the game builds up backstory and a sense of dread. The first Half-Life did this back in 1998. But The Last of Us does this by putting you in control of Sarah, Joel’s daughter, during a critical moment in the pandemic’s outbreak. Playing as Sarah is great from a storytelling perspective, because you’re just a kid and you get up in the middle of the night and your dad is gone and there are explosions outside, and it’s a wonderful way to manipulate your emotions. And it also works from a gameplay perspective, because it establishes that you won’t always be playing as Joel in this game. That makes the sections much later in the game, where you play as Ellie, flow much more smoothly.

And this continues. Are you telling me that the rickety elevator I’m on is collapsing, and it’s going to separate me from my companion, and send me tumbling down into the building’s flooded basement? Oh no, it’s just like … every other videogame I’ve ever played. But then after Joel escapes the basement and re-connects with Ellie, she saves his life by shooting someone in the head. Breaking his rule that she can’t use firearms. And he’s mad, instead of grateful. [“Why don’t you just hang back like I told you to?”] And she’s genuinely hurt. And she acts like a sullen teen for awhile, which is appropriate, because he’s been shitty to her. [“We need to get back out. Find that bridge.” “Just tell me where to go.” “I hate this crap.”] And all of this is just … really well-written and well-acted. And so many of these moments are dialogue embedded in interactions I’ll be doing anyway, rather than cutscenes that interrupt the flow of gameplay. And everything is building to a moment later when he relents and gives her a gun … [“You reckon you can hand that?”] … and its a major milestone in their relationship, and it actually means something from a gameplay perspective, too, because you’re about to go into an arena where she can snipe people from above. And lots of other games have previously given me companion characters who can act as snipers, but very few of them included an emotional bonding moment leading into it.

At one point later, Joel is very seriously wounded, and it seems like he’s just lost way too much blood to survive. And the screen cuts to black we advance an ambiguous amount of time and now all of a sudden we’re playing as Ellie. And the whole time we’re asking “wait did Joel die? did he actually die?” And of course I’ve seen that move made in a ton of movies and TV shows before—we cut away, leaving a character’s fate unclear, we just have to wait until the truth is finally revealed to us. But here we’re playing as Ellie the whole time, as she hunts. We’re impatient, because we want Joel’s fate to be resolved. She’s impatient, because she’s cold and starving. Both the player and the character are impatient, albeit for different reasons, and so maybe we mess up in our hunting in the same way that she would in this situation. [“Come on, Ellie.”] And the hunt just goes on, and it’s eerily silent, and this area is simply huge, and from a pacing perspective it’s both a necessary lull in the action while also being a moment of agonizing ambiguity. 

Again: the ingredients themselves are often not exceptional. They’re often run-of-the-mill, off-the-shelf stuff. But the way they are assembled is masterful.

If I were to pick out one area of the game that is exceptional on its own terms, rather than through expert synthesis, it would be characterization. Naughty Dog are simply the best in the business when it comes to bringing videogame characters to life.

Now, writing a character that’s compelling in cutscenes takes good writing, good voice acting, and good animation. It’s satisfying when it all comes together, but in the end the skillset needed for cutscene characters is identical to that needed to make animated films. The people at Naughty Dog obviously possess this skillset. Their cutscenes are fantastic. They have a genuine eye for cinematic framing, which means they can properly set up visual jokes. [“You got something on your shoe.” “We’ll cut through this building.” “Uh.” “Gross.”] They give their actors real direction when doing motion capture, which means gestures and prop business actually contributes to the storytelling. Long before Joel ever verbally opens up to Ellie, we know that he has some fondness for her, and that she reminds him of Sarah, because of the quick glance down to his watch he makes as he’s first getting her out of Boston—the watch that Sarah game him, the one sentimental keepsake he allows himself.

But for a character to really come alive as a videogame companion character, they need to have things to say and do as you spend time with them during interactive portions of the game. [“Aw, yeesh. That is a big rat.”] This is a good deal trickier, because it means a lot of high-level coordination between the people writing the dialogue, the people designing the levels, the people handling the scripting of specific moments, the animators, the voice actors—as far as storytelling goes, this is pretty much the pinnacle of collaborative complexity. Valve set a high bar for scripted companion banter in Half-Life 2 episodes 2 and 3. [“Oh, back so soon?”] Irrational animated Elizabeth in elborate scenes quite far-flung from standard gameplay. And Naughty Dog bested them all with The Last of Us. [“OK, we need to lighten the mood. Ready? It doesn’t matter how much you push the envelope, it will still be stationary.”] As of this date I still don’t think I’ve seen anything more impressive than The Last of Us, aside from subsequent Naughty Dog games. Valve actually took a step back in Half-Life: Alyx by making Russell mostly a voice-on-the-radio. A big step down for them—but perhaps necessitated by VR. So Naughty Dog has held the crown.

The obvious place to start out when inserting character moments into gameplay is to have the characters point relevant things out in the environment—useful items, routes forward, that sort of thing. [“I bet we can get up there?”] This makes the characters seem aware of the environment they’re inhabiting, while also being helpful to the player. [“Hey, what about over there?” “Yeah, that looks like a way in.”] There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but if you design these sorts of dialogue moments and nothing else, then it eventually becomes clear that the character is little more than a glorified hint system. It makes them seem less human, and it can also breed resentment on the part of players that they’re being led around by the nose so much. [“Pick up that ammo. I’m sure we’ll need it.”]

So what can you do to avoid this? Well, you can give your companion characters more in-game dialogue. Maybe have them point out things in the environment that aren’t gameplay-relevant. [“Oh—hey buddy!”] This helps shift the balance—whereas before they might have felt like the dictatorial hand of the developer telling you what to do, now they just seem perceptive. [“Woah! Fireflies! I mean, real firelies.” “Yeah, I see that.”]

You can also have them be playful—maybe instead of merely pointing out that a piece of environmental art exists, they react by doing a bit. Naughty Dog was already fond of scripting Nathan Drake’s dialogue in the Uncharted games in this way. [“Hey—check it out! Marco!” “Really?” “C’mon!” “No.” “Marco!” “Polo…”] And in Last of Us they crafted dedicated animations for Ellie that some players may never see, because they’re triggered by proximity to specific bits of a map’s layout. [“Oh, I’ll be checking in for one night, and I’d like your finest suite, please.” “What the hell are you doing?” “Why yes, you can take my luggage upstairs.” “You are a weird kid.”  “Oh, shit! Sorry! Sorry, that was me.”]

And if you want to make them seem even more like a character, and less like a environmental-observation delivery system, give them things to say that have nothing to do with the surrounding environment at all. People complain all the time for no reason, and maybe your characters should, too! [“Urghh, I’m so hungry!” “I know, I am too.” “Alright, next squirrel I see, I’m totally shooting it.” “Let’s get past this place, then we can scrounge up some food.” “Well, if I starve then you’re responsible.”]

Ellie also has a couple nervous tics that come out when nothing much else is happening. She hums. She sings guitar noises. She has a little mini character arc where she learns how to whistle. [“Are you alright?” “I’m trying to learn how to whistle.” “You don’t know how to whistle?” “Well, does it sound like I know how to whistle?”] These whistling clips are triggered by being in specific areas—much like Ellie’s little performance at the hotel desk—but they don’t tie back in to the environment. They’re just her reacting to boredom. [“I’m whistling!” “Oh good. Something else you can drive me crazy with.” “That’s awesome.”]

All of these techniques combine to make the relationship between Ellie and Joel feel lived-in and real. But for me the secret sauce that really binds everything together are the really fine-grained, contextual responses the game has to the player’s own actions. So, for instance, say I first enter Bill’s town and I don’t know where I’m going, so I just randomly start climbing on things. And Joel says he’ll have a look! [“Let me get up here and I’ll get a look.”] I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just climbing on shit ‘cause it’s a videogame. But Joel has a plan! He’s going to survey the area! The game has taken my half-assed inputs as a player, and had the character of Joel add some credibility to them. It’s like post-facto role-playing.

But the trigger for this line is contextual! If I actually know what I’m doing, and immediately grab the necessary board, prepare it, and then climb up, then Joel doesn’t say he’ll have a look. Because he’s not just having a look! He has a plan!

The actual scripting here isn’t that complicated, but it takes a lot of foresight on everyone’s part: the level designer has to think about how players might approach environmental features, then the writer has to think about what sort of things Joel would say given the circumstances, then a programmer has put in the relevant trigger for playing versus not playing that dialogue.

But if it works, it really gives the impression that Joel is an actual character, rather than just a conduit for player input. And that other characters are noticing his behavior and reacting appropriately. [“Well, if you got anything to confess, this would be the place to do it. That’s not the confessional booth, that’s my room!” “Alright, I’m not touching, I just….”] And although sometimes Ellie will simply congratulate the player for their accomplishments, in a way that doesn’t feel too far removed from Alyx in Half-LIfe 2 … [“Teamwork!] … sometimes she doesn’t. [“Hey, how about a hand?” “You sure you can trust me with that?” “Ellie…”] She also reacts in other ways that flesh out her interpersonal dynamics with Joel. [“Push harder!” “There, how’s that?”] Including, in some memorable moments, refusing to react to the character’s commands, because she’s being moody [“Ellie?”] or aloof [“Ellie!” “What?” “The ladder. C’mon.” “Right.”]

The plot of Last of Us is structured into four acts and a prologue. The prologue consists of the opening moments with Sarah, and her eventual death. In act I, “Summer,” Joel accepts the job of transporting Ellie out of Boston. Moments such as that little watch-glance indicate that he’s developing a liking to her, but then Tess is killed and he’s bitterly resentful about being emotionally manipulated into agreeing to cart her across the country, leading to him setting very authoritarian rules for her. [“And lastly: You do what I say, when I say it. We clear?”] The two of them pick up a car from his associate Bill, which doesn’t last them long. They only get as far as Pittsburgh, when they’re ambushed by the bandits that run the town. Surviving this ordeal leads to the moment I mentioned earlier, where Joel gives his blessing for Ellie to use firearms. The pair team up with two brothers also trapped in Pittsburg, Henry and Sam, with whom they escape Pittsburgh and travel to a series of other locations, until it’s revealed that Sam has been bitten. Henry, mad with grief, kills himself. Thus ends Summer.

Summer is by far the longest act, taking up somewhere between half and two-thirds of a typical playthrough. From a structural standpoint, I think it’s too long, although if I was taking a pair of scissors to it I’m not sure what I’d cut. 

On the face of it, the trip to Bill’s town to get the car is the least consequential portion of the game, since the car is immediately destroyed in the very next scene. But Bill’s town has my favorite level design in the whole game, so I’d really miss it if it were gone. And Bill is an important character, too. Although Joel refers to him as a weirdo, it’s easy to see that this bitter hermit represents the logical endpoint of the philosophy of cutting off one’s social-emotional ties that Joel already espouses, albeit in a less overt form. [“Once upon a time, I had somebody that I cared about. He was a partner. Somebody I had to look after. And in this world, that sort of shit’s good for one thing: getting you killed.”]

Henry and Sam are a welcome humanizing counterweight to Bill, and Sam’s attempts to impress Ellie in particular are all really fun and charming. [“So, how old are you?” “Me? Fourteen. How old are you?” “Uh … the same.” “Oh, you’re fourteen, huh?” “I’m close.”] It’s easy to see the narrative function these characters serve: to show us the kind of warmth and camaraderie that is doomed to come to an abrupt end in this harsh world. It’s emotional world-building that lets us feel the cruelty of this world firsthand, rather than just being told about it, and it makes the stakes of Ellie’s journey for a cure crystal-clear.

But there’s also a problem with the Henry and Sam portions, storytelling-wise, which is that Ellie in particular is arguably too lighthearted and naive. [“Hey Sam—stand by those posts.” “Henry! Did you see that?”] The brothers’ death is written as a moment of shattered innocence for her, but her innocence was already shattered by the death of Riley [“I miss you”] which she talks about much later in the game [“Her name was Riley, and she was the first to die.”]. And then we experience that death and how heart-wrenching it was for her in the Left Behind DLC, which considered in isolation is a great loss-of-innocence tale. But Ellie’s character arc doesn’t really track when you piece everything together. Given that Ellie just traumatically lost Riley a few weeks ago, it seems unlikely that she’d be jovially yukking it up with Sam. [“What did the green grape say to the purple grape? Breath, you idiot!” “That’s so stupid.”] You’d expect her to be more cautious about making friends under such dangerous circumstances.

Anyway, that’s Summer. It’s long, but also has strong character arcs—for the most part, if you don’t pick at them too much. In Fall, Joel and Ellie finally reach Jackson, Wyoming, to meet up with Joel’s brother Tommy, which has been their goal since the failed trade-off with the Fireflies back at the Massachussets State House. Tommy tells them that the last he knew the Fireflies had a base at the University of Eastern Colorado. Joel tries to unload Ellie onto Tommy for the remainder of the trip … [“The way I figure, they’re your boys. You finish the job, you collect the whole damn payment.”] and Ellie gets mad and runs away. They make up after some fighting, and Joel turns down Tommy’s offer to take her the rest of the way, insisting on taking her himself. [“Come back to town, let’s discuss it at least.” “Nah, you know me, my mind’s all made up.”] This character turn on Joel’s part is somewhat abrupt. Unlike, say, the events leading up to Ellie getting the gun in Pittsburgh, there’s not a good meshing of gameplay moments with character beats. Joel just acts one way, then kills some guys in a farmhouse, then acts another way. But it gets us to where we need to be: Joel now fully treats Ellie as a surrogate daughter, and this is where he’ll stay for the remainder of his character arc.

It turns out the Fireflies are no longer at the University, but the trail is getting warmer, and they have a good lead pointing them to Salt Lake City. The dialogue in this section is really good—Joel is still taciturn, but it’s clear that he’s opened up to Ellie as much as he possibly can, given his underlying personality. [“Were you married?” “For awhile.” “What happened?” “Okay.” “Too much?” “Too much.”] While they’re still at the University, they’re attacked by a group of hostile scavengers, and Joel receives a nasty injury that could very well be fatal. This is the transition from Fall into Winter, and I’ve already mentioned how good it is. When Winter begins, we’re playing as Ellie, and the game really plays with the idea that Joel might be dead. Right up until Ellie starts bartering with a stranger she meets named David, and blurts out that she’s desperate for antibiotics. [“Medicine!”] Even assuming the player did well in the buck hunt sequence, this still happens about 10 minutes into the chapter, and it’s been an agonizing ten minutes.

Despite surviving an infected onslaught alongside David, Ellie never trusts him. Which it turns out is smart, because he reveals that it was members of his own town that formed the scouting party that attacked her and Joel at the University. David has a weird obsession with getting Ellie to join their settlement, which—make of that what you will. Ellie attempts to lead David’s group away from the house where she’s been hiding Joel, but she gets captured, and it’s revealed that this town is made up of contractually-obligatory-post-apocalypse-cannibals. [“You should it.” “What is it?” “It’s deer.”] Yeah, it’s my dear friend Chuck!

We’re back to playing as Joel, who wakes up, and, after stumbling around just a bit, proves himself to be surprisingly nimble given his condition. The title card that separates Winter from Fall is kind of a cheat, because we don’t know how long Joel has been recuperating. It’s long enough for him to have recovered somewhat from a full impalement, but it’s not so long that he needs physical therapy to stand and walk again. Eh, whatever. Joel heads off to Soylent Greenville to rescue Ellie, but he’s too late, because Ellie has already freed herself and is in the middle of a stealth boss battle against David. This ends with Ellie hacking David’s face apart with a machete, passing a new threshold for violence and loss of innocence that shows that Joel won’t always be there for her.

Overall, I think Winter is the weakest of the chapters—I like that it puts us in control of Ellie, and leaves Joel’s fate unknown for so long, but it doesn’t actually add much in terms of character development. They put Ellie through this huge trauma, but in all the times I’ve played it, I’m still not sure what they payoff is suposed to be, storytelling-wise.

By Spring, Ellie and Joel have reached Salt Lake City, supposedly where the Fireflies are now. Ellie’s uncharacteristically distant, and after a nice moment where they meet giraffe, Joel tells Ellie that he doesn’t actually have to deliver her to the Fireflies if she doesn’t want. [“We don’t have to do this. You know that, right?”] This shows how much Joel has bonded with Ellie over the trip, and is also some pretty strong foreshadowing that Ellie might not come out of this procedure alive. Ellie is caught up in the current in a flooded tunnel, and as Joel is attempting to administer CPR, they’re intercepted by a Firefly patrol. Afterwards, Marlene briefs Joel on the situation: in order to create the vaccine, they’ll need to take a tissue sample from Ellie’s brain, killing her. Joel can’t accept Ellie’s sacrifice, so he abducts her from the facility, killing the head surgeon in the process, and dooming the cure.

Now. There were several options available for Naughty Dog, as they were putting this scene together. One would be for Joel to kill the Fireflies and their doctors in a cutscene. Take away all player input. This is a bad option—arguably the worst option in any videogame, because it basically rejects the medium, turns a game into a movie. But, since the writers have a definitive story they want to tell, with a definitive end to Joel’s arc, it would have at least been understandable if they went this route. I have to give them kudos for not taking the easy way out.

So how do you go about things, if you’re not going to do it in a cutscene? Well, you could offer a simple binary option: do you kill the doctor and take Ellie, or let Ellie give her life to save humanity? Simple binary options are pretty popular in videogames. Do you save Kaidan or Ashley? Do you harvest the little sister or free it? Do you shoot Ash, or yourself? Do you save remote control nerd or Carly? Do you have sex with Madison for no reason? Or do you not? For no reason. This is not the most compelling form of choice a videogame can offer, but hey, it’s interactivity. [“I think you’re a great guy.”] Oh, thanks Doug. I appreciate it.

But the climax of The Last of Us doesn’t do this, either. Instead, Naughty Dog went for a third option, just slightly more interactive than a cutscene: There’s only one thing to do, only one way forward, only one option. But you, the player, have to do the deed yourself. When you enter the operating theater, no one attacks you. The doctor picks up a scalpel, but he doesn’t use it against you. You just stand there, unless you push a button. And although there’s no button prompt that shows up, it’s a pretty predictable button: the triangle button, which has been used for contextual interactions andto perform grabs for the entire game. Everything stands still, until you, the player, hits triangle, and Joel grabs and kills the surgeon. [“No!”] And then you, the player, press triangle again to unhook Ellie from the machines. And then you, the player, carry her away through the facility.

These type of “there’s no choice but you, the player, must perform the action” moments were a popular solution to the problem of player agency around the time The Last of Us came out. [“There’s always a choice!” “No. There’s really not.”] Both Spec Ops: The Line and BioShock Infinite have similar moments where they railroad players into doing something they may not agree with. I am not a fan of single-button-prompt railroading in game design. But I have to say, for what its worth, that I do find The Last of Us’s climax to be successful in a way those other games weren’t. The actions Joel undertakes makes sense given his story arc. And the game doesn’t ever feel like its mocking you for doing the evil thing you need to do to progress—unlike, say, this loading screen in Spec Ops: The Line. I mean, Jesus Christ, Spec Ops, really? If that’s the way that you really feel about me, then, you know what? 

The Last of Us … doesn’t really overtly portray Joel as a bad irredeemable monster, who made a bad irredeemable choice. Instead, the end gives us … catharsis. We understand how, emotionally, Joel is feeling a moment of redemption, of getting a second chance at the role of protective father figure he never dreamed of getting. This is communicated very eloquently, through a visual rhyme between the game’s ending and its beginning. Of course, none of this means that Joel is actually good, and that the choice he made wasn’t monstrous. But the game lets us actually ponder Joel’s actions in its closing moments, rather than sneering in glee because it forced us to do the thing. In fact, it makes it pretty explicit that we should take a moment to be detached from Joel, and think about his character’s choices from a critical distance.

To facilitate this, it places us back in control of Ellie for the final moments of interaction in the game’s coda, so we can look at Joel with eyes unclouded by the relationship between player and player-character. I especially like this moment because there have been times throughout the game where Ellie has been angry or taciturn, and puts distance between herself and Joel, refusing to follow behind him closely. And now that you’re again in her shoes you can choose to behave in the same way. Joel barrels forward, renewed and confident in his emotional catharsis, and meanwhile you can just kind of … stay back. Watch the man from both a literal and critical distance.

So, yeah: even though I think other games using the “no choice but to perform this action” mode of game storytelling got things wrong, I do think that Last of Us got it right. Its ending is very good. Still among the most well-executed videogame endings I’ve ever played.

And Naughty Dog were obviously proud of it, because they decided to devote an entire 20-plus hour sequel to that exact same fulcrum point where a perceived path to redemption masks total moral rot, all communicated to us in the form of a game in which we are repeatedly forced to do things that are quite obviously bad and horrible, banally so. To put my cards on the table, I do not think that their efforts were successful. But again: I wouldn’t be putting together this entire video series if I didn’t think the results weren’t at least interesting, and worth talking about. So we’ll do that next time. Stay tuned.

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