Alignment, Allegience, and Abby: A Last of Us Retrospective, Part 3

Ian here—

Flying by the seat of my pants on this series, really hope to time the fourth and final video to drop on June 19, which will be the one-year anniversary of the release of Last of Us Part II. Script below the jump!

The following video contains spoilers for the Last of Us games (which you probably expect), but also spoilers for an array of other games (which you might not expect). I would also recommend watching this series in order, rather than beginning it here.

We’re playing as Abby again, for the first time in a dozen or so hours. And it’s a flashback, establishing who she is and what her motivation was for killing Joel. Ellie’s already pieced together that it had something to do with Joel’s massacre of the Fireflies in Salt Lake City, but we learn here that Abby’s dad was in fact the head surgeon that the player triangled at the climax of the first game. Also, he’s now an angelic, baby-faced thirtysomething young dad, whereas before he was a hideous revenant barely cloaked in human flesh. I don’t have any big point to make here, just find this retconned appearance interesting—once Naughty Dog decided they wanted to humanize him, they decided to give him soft puppy-dog features, because we all know that someone with dark circles under their eyes can be triangled without a second thought.

Then we jump forward in time from that fateful day … but we’re still in a flashback. It’s Seattle Day 1 again. We’re going to play through each day in Seattle again, this time from Abby’s perspective.

This is a bold choice. I had completely soured on the game over the course of Ellie’s portion, but I have to admit I was intrigued by this. This is a narrative trick that’s tough to pull off in games. And to get into the reasons why, it’s time to pull out two terms that have been in my back pocket for the entire series so far:

Alignment and Allegiance.

You may be familiar with the concept of identification in storytelling. If you’re not, it basically names the way we come to share the goals of a character in a fictional story, so that their struggle becomes our struggle, their victories become our victories, etc. If you’d like to explore the concept in more depth, I did a dedicated video on it, which was Episode 4 in my series on horror games. In fact, I talked about the first Last of Us in that video, as a case study.

Anyway, a bit of background: in the 1990s, several academic film critics were getting annoyed by the limitations of identification, as a concept. It’s a big term, and it carries the danger of smooshing together what are in fact distinct phenomena. So in this climate, the theorist Murray Smith came up with a three-part alternative he called the structure of sympathy. To be frank … it never really caught on. But I like it, and I’ve continued to use it, and assign chapters of Smith’s book for courses I’ve taught.

Smith proposes chucking “identification” and replacing it with three terms: “recognition,” which literally just refers to our ability to recognize bodies onscreen as characters, and then two, more interesting terms: alignment and allegiance.

Alignment refers to the perspective we get information through—how a story feeds us information through a certain character, restricting what we know to what they know.

Allegiance is a matter of our moral evaluation of a character: we assess their actions and their values, and, if we like them, we ally with them, and we hope that they achieve their goals.

The fact that these are separate terms is very useful, because it gives us the language necessary to clean up some of the messier aspects of “identification.” 

We might be aligned with a character in a strictly narrative sense, without being allied with them in a moral sense: The 2012 remake of Maniac with Elijah Wood is a good example here. We see the entire film from a first-person perspective, in a very literal way never having any access to the events of the film beyond one character, but that character is a serial killer. We’re not supposed to like him. It’s a horror film, and we’re supposed to be horrified.

We also might be allied with a character we’re not aligned with. In horror and suspense scenarios, we often know more than a sympathetic character does—it’s their ignorance of danger that we’re aware of that invests the scenes with suspense. And characters can also keep secrets from us. We might be invested with Bob Harris’s moral journey in Lost in Translation, but we don’t know what he says to Charlotte at the end of that film, and we never will. I put my faith in Cooper as the hero of Twin Peaks Season 3. [“Now listen: I’m going through this door. Don’t try to follow me. Either of you.”] but I’m not clear on what his plan is, and why it seems to have gone wrong … maybe? [“What year is this?”]

Videogames can pull off both gaps in alignment and gaps in allegiance. It’s a trickier matter than in film or TV, because of the needs of interactivity. But when it’s done well, the payoff can be enormous—it’s one of the most interesting aspects of videogame storytelling.

Let’s tackle gaps in alignment first. Sometimes a videogame character will know more than the player does, at least for awhile. In God of War, Kratos has a plan to retrieve the magic chisel, apparently. [“I have a plan.”] But he didn’t share it with me. [“Can you guess it?”] So I’m going to spend the next half hour dicking around and climbing on things. [“You’ve realized something, haven’t you Rex? Something important that the rest of us can’t see.”] In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Rex receives a revelation that gives him the confidence to rescue Pyra and Mythra. [“I know now what I have to do.”] But I don’t learn what he saw in that revelation until … ever? I think? I’m gonna go with “ever.”

But on the other side of things, sometimes we’ll know more than our player-character does. This is of course most likely to happen when we’re re-playing a game, and know future twists. I know who David is and what his agenda is when I re-play The Last of Us, but I can’t just let him die while we’re fighting infected—failing to save him when he’s grabbed is still considered a fail state. But sometimes games let you know more than your player character even on the first playthrough. As I’m climbing up a cave wall in Uncharted 2, I see a monster I’ll be fighting later, but Nathan Drake doesn’t—he’s still blissfully unaware. [“What was that?”] In Persona 3, I can find one of the game’s main villains hanging out in a public square. But I can’t confront her, or fight her, because my character doesn’t know she’s an enemy yet—the only reason I know is because I’ve seen cutscenes depicting events he hasn’t been privy to.

Those are minor moments, but I’ve been seeing more and more ambitious alignment-gaps in games in recent years, and in fact two of my favorite examples both came out in 2019. You start off the game Rainswept playing as Michael Stone, a detective investigating the deaths of Chris Green and Diane Miller. Seems like a straightforward detective-adventure game at first, but then the playable flashbacks begin. And it turns out that for a substantial chunk of the game, you’re actually playing as Chris Green, in flashbacks that lay out the entire history of his relationship with Diane. You know that these two characters are going to die, violently. And there’s this weird, heartbreaking sense of fatalism that hangs over the whole proceedings: like, why are you even making dialogue choices? What’s the point? Successfully de-escalating this one fight they’re having isn’t going to get you the “good ending,” where everything turns out great. Their fate is already sealed. You’ve seen it, and it’s ugly, and tragic. This might turn some players off entirely, because they’re used to choices having story consequences. But in stripping the possibility of a happy ending away entirely, Rainswept re-distributes the emotional stakes of dialogue choices in a novel way. You’re no longer just saving up your kindness coins for a good ending. You’re in this moment, this particular argument, right now, and it’s worth de-escalating, damn it, because these poor people deserve some small bit of peace, some momentary respite from animosity, before the inevitable end hits.

Lorelei does something really similar, and I think it’s really effective as well. The title character dies in the game’s first chapter, a stupid, pointless death at the hands of her piece-of-shit stepfather. She’ll return as a ghost, but before we get to that part, we flash back to the beginning of that day, which was her first day at a new job. For an entire chapter, we play through her day at work, knowing what comes afterwards, and it’s just incredibly affecting. She’s so young, doing care work with elderly people—and you really get a sense in the game of just how difficult and emotionally demanding that work is—and she’s making friends, but her friends are also hazing her because it’s her first day, and then you have the option of playing a prank on her mean supervisor by putting laxative in her coffee, and maybe in a different game I would have gone for that, but I didn’t have the heart to in Lorelei—no, this is my last day on earth, and I’m going to be kind to people, damn it. Anyway, Lorelei is very good, and you should play it. It has a really impressive tonal range, and it’s a very worthy successor to Harvester’s previous games Downfall and The Cat Lady. Maybe I’ll do a full video on it as part of my horror games series sometime.

Gaps in allegiance are a riskier proposition in videogames, because it’s hard to keep a player motivated when they don’t have moral sympathy with their player-character. I’ve already tackled this matter in this very series as I described how much the Ellie sections of Part II gradually wore me down, until I could barely bear to play. [“He can take care of himself.” “Jesus Christ.”] But it can be also be done right. I think Shadow of the Colossus does it right, because you always at the very least pity its protagonist, even if you find yourself questioning his goals and values more with each passing colossus. And I know that Spec Ops: The Line and Kane and Lynch 2 have their defenders, even if they’re not exactly my cup of tea.

Last of Us Part II foregrounds its allegiance gaps by giving us a pair of dueling protagonists, each on opposite sides of a conflict. And this is indeed a rare thing—outside of strategy games with campaigns for each faction, or one-off DLCs that let you play as the Darkspawn or the Joker or whatever, it’s unusual to have a player switch off between playing as two characters who are antagonistic to each another within one single-player campaign. Prior to Last of Us Part II, the example I could most readily think of was Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Your playtime in Dreamfall is split between three characters: Zoë Castillo, April Ryan, and the Apostle Kian Alvane, the last of whom is a solider on the opposite side of an ongoing war from the other characters. And I think that it’s telling that, in a game that’s a dozen hours long, you probably spend only about an hour playing as Kian. And most of that time—I am not exaggerating—most of that time is spent walking. Just walking forward, until the next cutscene starts. Ragnar Tørnquist obviously liked the idea of seeing the other side of this conflict, and was comfortable doing it in cutscenes, but knew players probably wouldn’t enjoy actively mowing down the other characters in the game. So Kian ended up being more of a delivery system for cutscenes than a full-fledged player character. You do kill a couple of members of April’s faction when you’re playing as him, but they’re not people you’ve seen before, in fact they’re just identical generic NPCs that bark the same thing and politely wait their turn to die one at a time. [“Your Goddess can’t help you here.”] And then the game teases you with the choice to kill April, your other player-character and the hero from the first game in the series, but even if you chose it Kian chickens out and doesn’t go through with it. [“I … I can’t. I cannot kill you. You do not deserve to die.”]

The Abby portions of Last of Us Part II are leagues more ambitious than this—and not just because they’re long enough to acclimate us to playing as our former antagonist, gradually wearing down that gap in allegiance. No, the Abby portions of the game are ambitious because the combine an allegiance gap with an alignment gap. Both are operational at once. We don’t share Abby’s goals—at least, not initially. And we also don’t share her access to knowledge. Much like in Rainswept or Lorelei, we know more than her. We know aspects of her future that she’s completely oblivious to.

This could be great—as I think it is in both Rainswept and Lorelei. It could also end up as an unmitigated disaster. And, in the opening moments of Abby’s time in Seattle, I was fearing the latter. Abby’s Seattle Day 1 begins with what amounts to a second tutorial, really heavy-handedly driving home the connections between Abby’s world and Ellie’s world. Once again, we’re woken up by a friend. [“Abby!” “Mornin’!”] Once again, we chat about the previous night’s romantic exploits. [“Thanks for giving me the room again last night.” “Yeah—who was it this time?” “She kissed me. It was just Dina being Dina.”] Once again, we see how this community feeds itself in the post-apocalypse. Once again, we grab some food. Once again, we get tutorialized on the shooting controls. Once again, our expected routine is disrupted, and we have to escape from a building with the help of rope physics. [“Get over!”]

And when it’s not repetitively driving home the parallels between Abby’s life and Ellie, it’s serving up forced pathos and forced moralizing. Abby plays fetch with a dog named Bear. [“Oh, hey there, Bear. Yeah, okay, since you asked so nicely.“] This dog showed up at the hospital in Day 2 of playing as Ellie, where you could kill him. [“That’s a good Bear! Good boy.”] And if you don’t kill him there, he shows up again in Day 3. [“What is it, Bear? You smell something?”] So there’s two distinct places where you can kill Bear as Ellie. [“Fuck! Fuck!”] The game really stacked the deck here, tried as hard as possible to get you to kill Bear when you were playing as Ellie … [“Somebody fucking killed Bear!”] … all for the chance to wring some extra guilt and pathos from this Abby moment.

It was precisely at this moment, when Naughty Dog placed this good dog in front of me and tried to make fetch happen, that I really worried about how much our alignment gap with Abby was going to be played for cheap pathos. We start this section with the knowledge that at least six members of Abby’s inner circle are going to die: Nameless Guy, Jordan, Leah, Nora, Owen, and Mel. And honestly, I half-expected something as sappy as the Bear scene for each of them. Oh, I love you, nameless guy! Here, let me pet you! Anyway, sure would suck if you were murdered! Lorelei is pretty damn sentimental in its flashback chapter, but it’s not shameless, and holy hell was I worried that Part II was going to be completely shameless.

But then: it course-corrected. Abby’s relationship with Owen is indeed a big part of her character arc, and Mel shows up pretty frequently. Nora and Jordan have what amount to brief cameos. But Leah and nameless guy never show up, and are only mentioned briefly in dialogue. As it turns out, Naughty Dog has committed to telling an actual independent story with Abby, one that goes in places I honestly didn’t anticipate.

So let’s talk about that.

Even as we’re getting parallels in the second-tutorial section, we’re also getting contrasts. Abby is shooting targets with live ammo, not throwing snowballs. Her home is militarized in a way that Ellie’s is not. They don’t just patrol against infected; they’re actively at war with another human faction.

This war has been escalating over a period of years, as each side retaliates against the other, and both parties steadfastly insist that they’re not the actual aggressors. [“We let our guard down, and they strung up an entire squad.” “That was in retaliation to us shooting those kids.” “Okay, but those kids attacked our guys. What would you do?” “I dunno—not riddle them with bullets.” “I’d rather save our people.” “Manny, they’re kids. It’s not their fault.” “Not our fault, either. Those deaths are on them.”] And given everything that’s already been beaten into us about aggressors and retaliation in the game’s first half … [“Didn’t Abby and her friends come to Jackson ‘cause of something Joel did?”] … clearly the city of Seattle is supposed to represent eye-for-an-eye vendetta justice escalated to its logical endpoint of genocidal total war. [“We could try another truce. But how long before some asshole on their side or our side unravels the whole thing? No. It has to be all of them.”] I don’t think it entirely works, for reasons I’ll get into later, but I’m fairly certain that’s what the writers intended. The life that Abby leads is utterly dominated by the cycle of violence, blown up to civilizational scale.

All of the exposition we get in Day 1—including a weirdly small role for Jeffrey Wright—prepares us to understand Abby’s life and goals and story in these terms. But then, very quickly and very drastically, we fall out of that. Owen has gone AWOL. [“He shot Danny, apparently to protect some Scar.”] Is accused of deserting and killing a fellow Wolf. Abby goes after him. But before she can reach him, she is captured by the Scars, only to be saved by two rogue scars, the brother and sister Lev and Yara. This all happens over the course of a night that feels impossibly long, and truly nightmarish. We don’t know it yet, but as Abby is getting dragged into this darkened forest, she’s also getting dragged away from the expected conflict, and into a tangential story arc.

After both helping and being helped by Lev and Yara, Abby finally meets up with Owen, who confirms that he’s tired of killing Scars in an increasingly pointless feud, and is deserting the WLF. [“I told him I’m done. He can do it himself if he wants. And he points his fucking gun at me!”] If this scene had been placed earlier in Abby’s story, it might feel like a major turning point, but given what Abby has already gone through with Lev and Yara it feels almost superfluous, just one more signpost on a moral journey she’s already deep into. Abby gets guilty about not helping Yara and Lev out more, given that they saved her life at great personal risk, and Yara’s arm is really seriously broken. This leads to Abby going on a fetch quest that lasts all of Day 2 … [“a saw, sutures, clamps, antibiotics…”] … during which she’s accompanied by Lev.

This fetch quest is where the storytelling gambit Naughty Dog is making really becomes clear. Abby has by this point completely deserted the WLF. Since she’s not around her WLF friends, she doesn’t know that Jordan and nameless guy were killed yesterday. Her story is really breaking off into its own separate thing, completely disconnected from her conflict with Ellie. 

This has benefits, in terms of both alignment and allegiance. Our allegiance gap is minimized, because as long as Abby’s pursuing a goal for Yara and Lev that has nothing to do with Ellie, that means she isn’t focused on killing Ellie, Joel, Dina, or Jesse. And the tension caused by the alignment gap is minimised, as well: yes, we still know things that Abby doesn’t about the fate of her friends. But since she’s off having her own adventure right now, with a companion that Ellie didn’t kill, that knowledge doesn’t practically impact us that much in this story. 

But in addition to minimizing the tension of those gaps, Abby’s tangential adventure also works in terms of themes and character arcs. Ellie’s arc and Abby’s arc are mirror images of one another. Ellie is moving from innocence into bloodlust, as she pursues her obsession with revenge. But Abby sees misplaced retribution every day, and she’s sick of it. She wants a way out. She had her revenge against Joel, and it didn’t stop her PTSD nightmares. So she knows, firsthand, that revenge doesn’t solve anything, and she’s trying something else: being a good Samaritan, in the literal sense of helping out someone against whom her clan has a blood feud. Abby is very explicit about this—maybe even a bit too explicit, to the point where it’s not particularly subtle writing. [“Why did you come back from us?” “Guilt.” “Of what? You didn’t owe us anything.” “I just needed to lighten the load a little bit.”]

Arguably, Abby’s going through a similar arc to that of Joel in the first game: a violent person trying to find some peace and redeem themself, through an act of surrogate familial love. And speaking of Joel, holy hell is the writing better now. It’s like Naughty Dog has re-discovered how to write your basic odd couple. [“People from the old time were weird.”] Once again, we have people who are from different worlds, so it actually makes sense when Abby explains stuff to Lev, and vice-versa. [“What is that?” “A quarter of what? What?”] And beyond that, their personalities just clash, in ways that are funny. [“What the fuck? You know I can’t do that, right?” “There’s a way around, if you don’t wanna.” “No, I don’t wanna.”] Abby’s banter with Lev is just so much better than Ellie’s banter with Dina or Jessie, there’s simply no contest. [“What’s going on between you and your friend Owen?” “Oh my god Lev, now?” “It seemed really awkward.” “Just go!”]

As I got deeper into Abby’s Day 2, the Ellie portions of Part II started to feel like a weird, distant memory, and I was realizing just how much I liked this game better than the one in which Ellie suffered from slow and steady character assassination. It wasn’t just the dialogue writing. Even the level design had improved. Ellie’s time in Seattle had started out strong, with ambitiously-sized maps, and then gotten smaller as the days got harder. Abby’s levels substitute sheer square footage for verticality, tying into her persistent fear of heights. [“Oh fuck! Oh fuck!”] And Naughty Dog sticks with the verticality, so in Abby’s portion you not only get walkways in the sky, but also heavily-vertical infected areas. [“Oh, god.”] And vertical stealth arenas with complicated lines of sight you have to account for. You also get a boss fight that’s harrowing and great, a big step up from the occasional bloater fights in the first game.

In fact, it got to the point where I started wishing that Abby’s story had been this game’s true focus. Maybe, with more time and resources dedicated to it, the writers would have been able to iron out the few things that really don’t work here. The motivations for the Seraphites, for instance, don’t make sense when you think about them. They’re a cult that thinks that the cordyceps plague was sent as punishment for humankind’s reliance on technology, and therefore swear off pre-fungal-era technology. Their home on the island reflects this worldview, and they actively complain about having to breath the city air when they’re inside Seattle. [“I just don’t like being out here. No trees. No green. The air is stale.”] So why are they expanding into the WLF’s territory? Why do they want territorial control over a place they consider sin incarnate? Their desire for access to the shrine where their leader was martyred makes sense, and I could see them fighting a bloody war for that, but the rest of their turf conflict doesn’t—they’d have to raze the whole city to even justify living in this place given their religious beliefs. 

Speaking of things that don’t really work: my god, the transphobia. It turns out Lev has been ostracized from the Seraphite community because he’s trans. [“The apostate!” “Shit.” “It’s Lily!”] And the game does that thing that’s so common in preachy fiction, where bigots are depicted as inhuman monsters, who hate trans people more than they love life itself, and will happily suffer a bloody, horrific death if it means just one more possible opportunity to be evil to a trans person. It’s very morally smug, and it’s the wrong way to depict bigotry in fiction. No one will see themselves reflected in these characters, so no one’s going to learn any valuable lessons about transphobia from this game. It’s also an instance where the developers’ desire to make a heavy-handed political statement has thrown their otherwise monomaniacally pursued themes totally out-of-whack. The message of the Wolf-Scar conflict is supposed to be that the cycle of revenge leads to civilization-wide war if left to fester. [“That was in retaliation to us shooting those kids.” “Okay, but those kids attacked our guys. What would you do?”] This works best if neither side seems completely in the right or completely in the wrong. But when one side includes transphobe Jason Vorhees whose shambling, seemingly undead body is animated solely by his burning desire to disembowel trans teens, that, uh, tips the scales a bit.

These complaints aside, the tangential trajectory of Abby’s narrative is thematically clear. She has become a deserter out of moral necessity, because when the cycle of violence reaches this scale the only moral option is to opt out. Sure, sometimes she’s a bit nihilistic about the whole thing. [“They’re killing each other.” “Good.”] But her nihilism is still preferable to Ellie’s self-righteous obsession. She’s grown as a character, whereas Ellie has … shrunk? Is that a thing? Do characters shrink?

Which means we’re poised for maximum dramatic irony as Abby returns back from the Seraphite’s island. After having taken a vacation for awhile, that alignment gap is back in full force: we know what Abby is going to find. She’s been on a retreat to reclaim her soul, but in the meantime Ellie’s been busy losing her soul, and we know that Abby is going to return to an aquarium filled with dead friends. And there’s an extra sting now, when Abby says “we let you live.” [“We let you both live, and you wasted it!”] She’s spent her whole half of the game trying to redeem herself from a life of violence, and here’s this little prick who wasted the mercy she was shown.

So let’s kill her!

Yep, we’re hunting down Ellie now. It’s a stealth boss fight, much like Ellie’s fight against David in the first game, and it’s pretty tough. Ellie doesn’t behave like other enemies, she dodges bricks and bottles with inhuman reflexes—I don’t know, maybe she has secret cordyceps powers? [“Fucking die!”] And so if you’re like me, you’ll probably die to her repeatedly, and boy oh boy does that allegiance gap return here in full force. During the hours we spent playing as Ellie, Ellie’s explicit goal was to kill Abby. And now, Ellie killing Abby is a fail state. It is a statement, to be sure—on violence, on shifting perspectives and our allegiances with characters, but all I could think was: man, this works so much better in media such as television or cinema, where you don’t have to worry about fail states. [“Got you!”] Movies and TV are filled to the brim with examples of two characters on the opposite sides of conflict, both of whom have the audiences’ sympathies, trying to kill each other. It was one of the central storytelling tricks of Game of Thrones. (At least when the show was good.) And those scenes are filled with tension and drama because you do not have to worry about a fail state, with a developer constantly coming in and telling you no, that’s not what happened, Ellie actually does not kill Abby here, stop PLAYING IT WRONG. I’m going to let you play with my action figures only if you play it right. Otherwise I’m going to tell mom. Mom!

I think, uh … I think we may have discovered a particular storytelling trick that’s difficult for videogames to pull off well. It was very bold of Naughty Dog to try, but … I can’t say they pulled it off.

So, no matter what, this scene does not end with Ellie killing Abby. It ends with Abby decisively beating the crap out of both Ellie and Dina, but then sparing them at Lev’s insistence. Lev has really become the embodiment of the better angel of her nature, at this point. And this actually marks twice—twice now—that Abby has spared Ellie as part of a deliberate effort to break the cycle of violence.

So we finally leave Seattle. Ellie and Dina are farmers now, raising Dina’s baby. And as we all know from playing the Red Dead Redemption games, whenever your characters start herding farm animals, that means we’re in the coda, and the game’s coming to a close. Tommy shows up, and—I’m sorry, but how is he still alive? I see that he’s limping, so presumably he has nerve damage, but seriously he was shot right in the temple! Anyway, the bullet must have missed the vital parts of his brain, and he’s still alive. And he’s a sad, bitter man. Maria has left him, because he can’t get over his obsession with revenge. [“We’re taking some time apart.”] Clearly, he stands as a warning of what Ellie could have become, and this will be a character-development payoff moment, where we learned that she’s grown, and can resist his bait and … oh. [“Hey.”] Oh no. Oh no. [“I can’t.”] Oh no, this game has another act. Oh f—

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