Well, I did it! My Last of Us series is complete. 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.
Abby and Lev are in Santa Monica, where they’re attacked by an unknown group while searching for a rumored Firefly base. Then Ellie is in Santa Monica, on their trail. And I will say I like how the game plays with our ignorance of the overall timeframe here. Those “Day X” markers are gone during this new act, and we don’t know if Ellie’s going to wander into the same fight we just saw, or what. Turns out the people that attacked Abby are slavers, and Ellie gets a tip that they’ve been holding Abby for awhile now. She assaults their compound, ends up enabling a whole slave revolt—basically doing the right thing for the worst possible reasons, because she’s still trying to find and kill Abby.
And she does find Abby, literally being crucified, now emaciated, a slim shadow of her former body-building self, because months have elapsed since we last played as her. And when Ellie sees her, rather than killing her, she lets her cut Lev down, and Abby carries Lev away. And again, we have that visual rhyme to the beginning of the first game. One person carrying a smaller, more helpless person is deeply engrained in this series’ visual vocabulary. Abby is following the path of Joel. She’s become a surrogate parent in a cruel world. In fact, she’s better than Joel, because her expression of familial love doesn’t doom the world.
And as she tries to follow, Ellie stumbles. She can’t keep up with Abby, who is disappearing into the mists ahead, out-pacing her despite her emaciated form, and the fact that she’s carrying someone else. The first game ended with us controlling Ellie, and possibly keeping our distance from Joel because we didn’t agree with his actions. And here in the ending of the second game, we’re forced to keep our distance from Abby. Because Ellie isn’t worthy. Her pursuit of vengeance for Joel’s death has dragged her farther and farther away from the love the Joel represented. Abby, who killed Joel, is now more worthy of stepping into his shoes than Ellie. Because unlike Ellie, she’s spent the course of the game redeeming herself. And at this moment, I was prepared to forgive the game for all of its sins, because I am a sucker for elegant visual storytelling, and Naughty Dog had once again proved themselves a master at it.
That’s it, walk away. God damn it, Ellie…. God damn. Oh, come the fuck on. Oh, god damn it. God damn it, Ellie! God damn it, Ellie! Ah!
So, Ellie couldn’t read the game’s visual symbolism. And she’s still determined to fight Abby to the death. [“I can’t let you leave.”] Abby refuses, because she’s done with this shit. [“I’m not doing this.”] Because she has better writers than Ellie does, apparently. [“I’m not gonna fight you.” “Yes you will.”] So Ellie forces her hand by threatening to kil Lev, the one true innocent in all of this. [“He’s not a part of this.” “You made him a part of this.”] So Ellie gets her desired hand-to-hand boss battle. And it’s … marginally better than the other two hand-to-hand boss battles in this game? Because at least it does us the courtesy of locking the camera onto Abby, which the other boss battles for some reason did not do, making them very awkward to play. But it still feels awful. And believe me: I wish I was just saying it felt awful in an emotional sense. But no, it also feels awful from a control standpoint, because Naughty Dog insisted that everything be mo-capped and realistically animated. Which looks great in the footage, but feels so sluggish to control. And the whole thing is about timing your dodges right, but the animations just don’t work for that task, in any capacity. And it’s hard in a way it shouldn’t be, and doesn’t feel right. I played this game practically immediately after beating Sekiro, and if I could get the blocking and counter rhythm down in that game, there’s no way in hell I should be challenged by The Last of Us. But I was challenged. Because it doesn’t feel right. Which is not the right way to challenge a player.
And then finally you get Abby down, and it’s another “press square” moment. So, yeah, we’re going to square Abby now, just like we squared everyone else in the game. But then, just as Ellie’s drowning Abby, she remembers Joel, and decides she can’t. She lets Abby go, and returns to the farm. But you can tell, because the color scheme has now shifted to that of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, that a sad fate awaits her. Dina has left, just like she threatened to. All that’s left is a room full of Ellie’s stuff, including Joel’s guitar. Which she can’t play anymore because Abby bit off her fingers. Ellie has lost everything in her quest for revenge.
A weird pattern emerges when I think about all of the parts I don’t like in Part II, that leave the worst taste in my mouth and crystalize everything I dislike about the game. It’s the “press square” moments. Press square to torture Nora to death. Press square to murder Abby. These moments seem specifically designed to fracture our allegiance with Ellie, to make us resent having to play a part in the game’s narrative.
At first glance, it’s odd. Isn’t Naughty Dog just repeating the same trick from the first game’s ending, which I liked? Well, yeah, it’s attempting to repeat the same trick. But it mis-remembers that trick, and the context that allowed it to work in the first game. So let’s take a trip back in time to the seventh console generation.
Moral decision-making between binary options has a long history in videogames, particularly in roll-playing games. Some historians name Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar as the first game that implemented consequences for these sorts of binary choices, so it’s safe to say it goes back at least to 1985. It remained a popular part of CRPGs for decades, and gradually saw more widespread adoption in the 2000s. BioWare began making games for the Xbox, exposing more players to their guns-and-conversation model. David Cage started making games, for better or worse. And eventually, by the seventh generation, dueling-button prompt, paragon-or-renegade, gain-or-lose-karma moral choices were everywhere in games.
And a lot of what this era produced was bad, because it made no attempt to explore what motivates characters. Evil in fiction is compelling only insofar as we can understand and even sympathize with the motivations of those who enact it, even if we ultimately reject their worldview. Blowing up a city is certainly evil, but if it’s done for no reason it’s not interesting.
Games such as Spec Ops: The Line and the first Last of Us can be understood as an attempt to course correct from this sort of facile moral choice in games. Both games are linear experiences with highly authored narratives. They may use small choices in play style as a way for players to engage with the overall themes of violence, but in the end they railroad their players into taking certain morally reprehensible actions. They deliberately abandon any pretext of player choice in these moments. But the tradeoff is that they’re able to speak much more directly to the motivations of their central characters, giving them coherent psychologies. Even if we’re repulsed by Joel’s actions on a purely intellectual level, on an emotional level we understand that his actions at the end of the first game are in keeping with this character. That was the tradeoff a game like The Last of Us offered: instead of facile, unmotivated choices that didn’t connect into any larger worldview, it gave us a linear experience, but one that actually illustrated a character’s inner emotional world. That is the benefit of its chosen format.
Given what I’ve just sketched out, of course I didn’t expect Part II to offer dueling button prompts, giving the option to, say, “press circle to not torture Nora,” or “press circle to refrain from killing Abby.” That would have turned Ellie’s quest for revenge into a simple rehash of GTA IV, which gives you the choice of letting Niko spare Darko after tracking him down. And that choice in GTA IV, like so many of the other moral choices that popped up in games around that time, was poorly written. Sure, sparing Darko is a “good” choice, rather than an “evil” one. But it’s just as arbitrary and unmotivated as the decision to blow up Megaton in Fallout 3. So it’s equally weightless and uninteresting. It doesn’t connect to any real moral arc on Niko’s part. The platitudes he spouts off to Roman in the car after sparing Darko inadvertently illustrate just how little sense this decision makes, given his character. We all know that in the next mission, he’s just going to go back to gleefully yelling out one-liners as he mows down dozens of men. In fact—why wait that long? You can start right now.
The entire benefit of a linear narrative game like The Last of Us is supposed to be that, by the time you get to that moment where you’ve subdued Abby, the decision Ellie makes doesn’t feel arbitrary. It is, instead, properly motivated by everything we know about her and her values, and feels like a fitting end to her character arc, even if we disagree with the choice she makes. But judged by those standards, the game fails.
We don’t want Ellie to kill Abby in the final scene, because we’ve been out of alignment with Ellie for a large portion of the game, and everything we’ve seen during the Abby sections has pulled us farther and farther out of allegiance with Ellie as well. (Assuming players were even still in allegiance with Ellie by the end of her Seattle portion, which I wasn’t.) But what we want and what Ellie wants are different things. So, unlike with GTA IV, the writers are really on the hook now. They have to actually do their job. If Ellie’s going to spare Abby, they need to portray why she does so. And what do they go with? Ellie remembers Joel in this moment, playing his guitar on his porch. And it’s a pretty scene, but what does it have to do with anything?
Well, here’s what it refers to: the night of the dance, when Ellie confronted Joel after he made a scene. That was a big emotional reckoning for her. She took him to task again for robbing her of the chance to make a meaningful sacrifice. [“I was supposed to die in that hospital.”] But then told him she’d be willing to try and work toward forgiving him. [“I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But … I would like to try.”] In retrospect, this is what that off-the-cuff mention of a movie night from the very beginning of the game was referring to … [“I was thinking of inviting Joel to watch a movie.” “Oh! You guys good?” “Yeah.”] … an attempt on Ellie’s part to re-forge her relationship with Joel. Abby killing Joel foreclosed Ellie’s opportunity to learn how to forgive him. But here in this moment, Ellie displaces this deep need to try and forgive Joel and transforms it into forgiveness for Abby. That’s good character motivation, right?
Well, no. Because of the game’s relentlessly stop-start storytelling, we don’t know this yet. That entire scene I just described is yet another flashback that takes the form of a coda, and the viewer doesn’t see it until after the story has concluded.
Can we just…. This game is obsessed with being clever. We want Ellie to spare Abby because we, as players, have experienced things she hasn’t. But instead she spares Abby because she has experienced things that the player still hasn’t. Yeah, yeah, yeah—it’s clever. But our allegiance with Ellie has been pushed so far past the breaking point in this game that it’s really not the time to be playing additional tricks with alignment. Even re-playing the game, and knowing what the scene with Joel on the porch referred to, I still didn’t think it worked in the moment.
Frankly, I would say: If Ellie is going to remember Joel in this moment, what she should be remembering is something the player can actually read at a glance. It could be that time Joel told her they didn’t have to go through with things. [“We don’t have to do this. You know that, right?”] Or even those times when he snapped at her, said that when people die you should move on and not dwell on it. [“How many times do we need to go over this? Things happen, and we move on.” “It’s just—” “That’s enough.”] Those moments arguably didn’t represent Joel at his best. [“You don’t bring up Tess. Ever.”] But that’s what Ellie needs to hear right now, and so that’s what she should be remembering.
It would mirror the previous game’s ending: Joel clings to a heroic memory about Sarah, and that’s what makes him a monster. Ellie could remember Joel at his most inhuman, when he was most closing himself off from the world and others, and that memory could actually motivate her to finally stop being the monster she’s become. In both cases, redemption would be tempered with irony. But at least in Ellie’s case the redemption would be real, rather than imagined. You got a nice little … nice little fit.
Would that have worked? I think it would have been better than what we got. But I still don’t know if it would have “worked.” The larger problem is that, in the context of 2020, Part II feels set in its ways. The first game pulled off the trick of forcing players to take a certain action better than its immediate contemporaries. But it can’t hold on to that glory forever. Seven years have passed between—seven years packed with some really great games, and an expansion of the medium’s vocabulary. Part II is stuck playing the same old tricks.
Let’s look at some of the developments Part II ignores. And yes, this is largely an excuse to talk about some games I like. As a treat.
Writing a linear story is not the only way one can explore the motivations for evil in a videogame. You can also use gameplay itself, giving player choices in-game consequences as a way of deepening the moral connection between players and characters. If you make being “good” harder, you might inculcate a ruthless moral pragmatism in players. After all, what good is evil unless it’s enticing? [“♫ And evil is practical / Ah yes, evil is practical! ♫”]
The first BioShock game tried this, with the act of saving the sisters incurring a penalty in your ability to gain Adam. But then they diluted this design choice, by adding alternate sources of Adam if you save the sisters. And overall there’s just too much Adam in the game. You rarely make interesting choices about how to spend it. So: a notable attempt, but it doesn’t really work. The option to never take the drug Joy in LISA: The Painful is a better example of this gambit at play, since that game is genuinely unafraid to get hard, making your decision to forgo a performance-enhancing but corrupting substance carry genuine weight.
And then you have even more radical examples like the Dishonored games, which give you the “Clean Hands” achievement for playing through the game without killing anyone—not even your assassination targets. If you’re going for a no-kill run you’ll need to play in a very exploratory way, searching every nook and cranny of the map for extra clues and story beats that will reveal to you how you can properly humiliate your main adversaries without taking their lives. [“I’m a friend of Pendleton’s, and I’ve done a few favors for your cause.”] Meanwhile, if you don’t care about your body count, you get to see a whole lot of satisfying mechanics you’ll never see otherwise. [“♫ Evil really works! Evil really works! Yes, evil works! And not against itself—against you! The results of evil are $42,000 a year on dividends alone! And imagine what the capital must be … if money is the root of all evil, give me the whole tree! Evil works! Evil really works! ♫”]
In fact, with Dishonored, we wade into a design strategy that’s arguably distinct from simply making being good “harder,” in the straightforward sense that combat is more challenging. Some games also make the “good” options more obscure. They actively hide the choices available to you, meaning that you have to explore the game more thoroughly to discover for yourself the moral options it allows.
I already talked about the Criminal Past DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided in a previous video on fail states in detective games. In it, you can miscarry justice quite badly, and get railroaded into killing a man who’s probably more valuable as a witness. But it’s not like you’re given some binary choice—“press Q to be a good detective” versus “press E to be a bad detective.” Being a good detective just requires you to be more observant. Important clues are highly missable. And if you don’t find them, other characters will take advantage of your ignorance, try to use you for their own ends.
And as long as I’m talking about the Eidos Montreal Deus Ex prequel games: Human Revolution often gets a bad rap because of its ending, which was a simplistic button-press moral choice. It is a distinct step down from the first Deus Ex, where the endings you could get were partially dependent on your character build. Not every player will be able to get the “New Dark Age”ending, because if you haven’t upgraded environmental resistance enough, the toxic reactor environment will kill you.
But: I’m going to praise Human Revolution, because there’s a bit in it I do quite like. The game offers the “Pacifist” achievement to let players know that a completely non-lethal playthrough is possible. At a certain point in the game, your VTOL is shot down. And your pilot, Faridah Malik, is stuck inside. Malik’s a likeable character. You can chat with her between missions, and they made an effort to humanize her. And when you reach this moment, it seems impossible to save her while maintaining a pacifist run of the game. There are heavy soldiers converging on her, and a military mech—just seemingly insurmountable to take on with nonlethal means only. So you have to make a choice: continue your no-kill playthrough, or save Malik. If you stick to the shadows and don’t kill anyone, Malik dies after about a minute or so of this onslaught. [“Faridah—“ “Give em’ hell for me.”]
This was probably the end of many a player’s pacifist run, because it seems so clear that you’ll need to kill people to save her. But in fact this is not a binary choice! You can still save Malik while maintaining a no-kill run. It’s just unexpectedly hard. You need to find an optimal path through the level, and you need to move through it at a speed you’re probably not used to if you’ve been working on a pure stealth build. There’s gotta be no crouching, no taking cover. Just takedown after takedown, using up energy at a truly worrisome rate. So you might have to use those items you may have been stockpiling for the late game. And since the mech explodes when you throw an EMP at it, you may have to drag some unconscious bodies out of the blast radius, at the same time you’re doing everything else.You have to learn a new play style quickly, and there’s very little margin for error. And this feels right! Sticking with your principles shouldn’t be just, like, 15% harder than taking the easy way out. Sometimes it should present a nearly-insurmountable challenge. One that you hadn’t even initially conceived to be possible. In fact, it seemed obvious that it was impossible. Hearing Malik get out safe and sound, while at the same time knowing that 10 soldiers are safe and sound asleep, having all been tucked in the past 90 seconds, is a really wonderful payoff. [“Thanks, spy-boy.” “Anytime, fly-girl.”]
The Metro games are really fond of building entire game stories around these sorts of non-obvious moral choices and obscure out-of-the-way options. All three Metro games have good endings and bad endings, but the “bad” decisions that lead you to a “bad” ending are rarely obvious decisions. In deciding what ending you get, the games tally up how much “insight” you have, and you gather “insight” throughout the game in a variety of obscure ways. Sometimes it’s obvious videogame-karma stuff: give the coin to the beggar, that sort of thing. But if you just do that, you’ll still get the bad ending, because there are many more non-obvious ways to gain insight. Sometimes you need to stay and watch a vaudeville performance play out. Sometimes you need to hide in the shadows throughout the entirety of a conversation about religion that a bunch of enemies are having. [“And those who believe that the shepherds could not abandon their herd say that they watch over us still, directing our every step, but do not show themselves to us.”] These are bad people, and you’d probably be justified in killing them, but it’s important to let them have this moment of human self-reflection. [“… for they turned down their shepherds in a time of weakness.”]
Metro Exodus actually surprised me—I had tailored my play-style in these games around killing as few people as possible, because that was usually a good bet in the first two games for getting the most insight. But I failed to maximize my insight in one level, because it turns out doing so required freeing groups of enslaved NPCs. And this actually requires playing more violently than I otherwise normally would in these games, picking specific fights rather than remaining a pacifist.
One developer that pushes this approach of obscurity further than anyone else is FromSoftware. From’s games are beloved for a lot of reasons, but one aspect of their games that I actually think is underrated is how they treat moral choice and role-playing. Obscurity in all things is the philosophy at From. Your player-character is never told much by the sources of authority in the game, and for first-time players it’s rarely evident that you can do anything but put your blind trust in their plan. Diverting from their plan is not usually “harder” from just a pure combat perspective—combat’s going to be hard in these games either way—but it does require an obsessive commitment to exploration, to returning to previous areas after certain events have passed, finding hidden area, talking to hidden NPCs, hearing hidden conversations. And even after all of this, once you’ve revealed the additional ending options for Bloodborne or Sekiro, it’s still not clear that the new path you’ve set for yourself is “better” or “worse” than the standard path. You always have an incomplete picture of a complex and perhaps irredeemable moral universe. But at least, by discovering more options beyond the tasks you’ve been assigned by others, you are actually making a choice, rather than just doing what you’re told. And arguably that’s morally preferable, in and of itself.
A key component of From’s design philosophy is the single auto-save slot. If you find out a choice had consequences you didn’t anticipate, you can’t just go back and load an earlier save, because you made that choice hours ago, and the game has been constantly overwriting your single save. This also feeds into another aspect of From’s design: loop-based storytelling. Once you beat the game, that single auto-save you have becomes a new game plus save. And now you have the option to explore more and make different choices this time around, especially because you may have certain items that make certain areas slightly easier, so you can go places in a different order, and maybe catch a scene you missed the first time around.
Undertale follows through on this sort of loop-based presentation beautifully. Undertale telegraphs pretty clearly from the outset that you can forgo killing mosters and come to a common understanding, instead. So in a way it hews pretty closely to the usual “good is harder than evil, and you need to take the time to figure it out” model. But in addition to this, the game really expands on subsequent playthroughs—particularly those in which you commit to a specific play style. The extra or alternative scenes present in the True Pacifist route, in particular, really broaden your understanding of this world and its history, so your sense of your character as a moral agent within this world is significantly deepened if you take the time to replay it.
NieR: Automata does something quite similar. Your first playthough tells a straightforward story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Bing, bang, boom. If you start a new game plus, you play as a different character, and although you’re mostly just repeating the same story, you see a different perspective on everything. And eventually there are some major revelations that the moral universe of this story is quite different from what it first appeared, and you should be questioning what you’re doing, and in fact you probably have in the past, but you’re memory’s been re-set, and who’s to say that this isn’t all a loop and you’ll be re-set again afterwards. Except the loop breaks due to major changes that take place in the first new game plus. And if you start a second new game plus, all of a sudden it’s not a new game plus at all, but an entirely new chapter. The machine is breaking down, the loop has been broken, you’re on your own to find your own moral meaning in this world. And from here there’s a bunch of little choices you can make to see different endings. But once you’ve seen enough endings, the game indicates that the characters are still in a loop, no matter how many outcomes we see they endlessly return back to where they began, and suggests that maybe the best thing to do now is delete your save file.
I think if you wanted to, you could make the argument that Last of Us Part II is a loop narrative, and belongs somewhere in the same family tree as NieR: Automata. After all, you go back in time, and you replay the same three days from a radically different perspective. It’s superficially similar. But Naughty Dog doesn’t actually commit to the form. Although Part II is told in a non-linear fashion, with flashbacks and shifts in perspective, it is ultimately presents a single, canonical narrative thread, one that comes to a definitive terminus after you play through both Ellie and Abby’s scenarios. Although not all players are going to see its ending, because some of them will undoubtedly get sick of the game before finishing it, it doesn’t provide off-ramps and false endings in the way that NieR: Automata does. After all, sequels are at stake! For all I know, Sony themselves may have insisted on a single, canonical ending, with no hidden trickery.
But what this means is that, although Part II carries the barest superficial resemblance to some genuinely great recent games that really pushed the boundaries of how to tell morally-compelling stories in games, it isn’t actually reacting to them in any meaningful way. Underneath the shiny surface innovations, its storytelling feels like a relic of games past.
Can you imagine—and I’m just asking you to imagine, I’m not saying Naughty Dog should have done this—but can you imagine if, after Abby barges in on Ellie, it actually went right into a boss fight, rather than leaving us hanging. You play as Ellie rather than as Abby, and you have one chance to beat her. If you die, it autosaves. Ellie has died. That’s the story. Roll credits. And only after the credits roll does the option to play as Abby open up. And then you see her story—and there’s no boss fight at the end this time. Everything just plays out as you played it before. If you lost to Abby when playing as Ellie, she wins here. But if you did manage to kill Abby, then you’ve spent these whole three days getting to know her and know Lev and sympathize with both of them, but there’s no way you can save her from your earlier actions. She dies, because you killed her.
And then, only after having played as both Ellie and Abby, a new game plus option opens up, and you play as Ellie again. But this time there are additional artifacts and pieces of environmental storytelling you can find, or scripted sequences you can witness if you poke around enough. Ellie can actually observe, learn more about the Wolf-Scar conflict, more about Owen, more about Abby. And if you do this, Ellie’s behavior changes, and she can have the type of change-of-heart moment the game already gives us, only this time it would be clearly motivated by her own changing awareness of the situation, rather a deus ex flashback-ina.
And maybe this game would suck. I don’t know. It could have all sorts of problems I’m not anticipating. All I can say for sure is that it would feel more plugged in to the current state-of-the-art of videogame storytelling. And there would be an actual payoff to the flashback duel-protagonist structure, rather than it feeling like a bold gambit that ultimately goes nowhere and is completely hemmed in by Naughty Dog’s love of fail states.
So there you have it. Two games that are bold and daring, yet conservative and calculating. That have some of the best character writing in the medium, and some of the worst implementations of the central relationships between player and character. I warned at the beginning of this series that I have a multitude of reactions to these games. I’ve tried to keep the praise and criticisms separated out for rhetorical purposes, but now that we’re here at the ending and I’m trying to wrap things up, it all dissolves into a bundle of contradictions. I love these games for what they try to do. And sometimes, they even succeed at it. But not always. And frankly it’s a disservice to the medium to pretend otherwise. I don’t think that any critic who is seriously invested in the future of the medium should shy away from Part II’s flaws. It’s innovative, yes. But other games succeed where it fails, and those games are actually more deserving of our attention than Sony’s massive behemoth.
To anyone who’s interested in what a shaggy hang-out comedy might look like in a videogame, yeah you could play the natural history museum chapter, but actually I’d recommend that you play Wide Ocean, Big Jacket instead.
If you’re interested in flashbacks in games, and how to structure a narrative in which we know more than our player-character, play Rainswept or Lorelai.
If you’re interested in games that loop back on themselves, giving you a chance over radically different campaigns to more fully understand the nuances of a central conflict, play Undertale or NieR: Automata—or hell, even Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
If you’re interested in a game in which the two protagonists come in conflict with one another and fight at the end, play A Way Out. When I first played it, I found it to be an somewhat awkward attempt at a co-op Uncharted, but in hindsight its actually much more successful at staging conflict between deuling protagonists than Part II is.
If you’re interested in a game that fully explores the inner mindset of why a character makes the choices they do—while also giving you, the player, the agency to make those choices—play Disco Elysium.
If you’re interested in games about LGBTQ characters, well, good news: you have literally thousands of other options, many of them actually made by LGBTQ creators.
And … that’s about all I’ve got to say. 26,000 words on the subject of The Last of Us … it’s about all I got. Thank you, in all sincerity, for sticking with this series, for anyone who did. Keep playing, keep thinking, and stay safe out there.