(Detailed spoilers for the The Last of Us below. You have been warned.)
It’s been a while since I played The Last of Us but I still think about it often. Sure, the detailed world, fully-realised characters, art, and sound design are all worthy of reflection and praise. However, what keeps me thinking about my time with the The Last of Us is the uneasy feeling it left me with.
The ending is a stark reminder that you may be playing as Joel but you are not Joel.
As gamers we are used to finishing campaigns on a high. We have rescued the princess, saved the world, defeated our enemies and/or reached our goal. Even more introspective games like Journey or Spec Ops: The Line leave us with a sense of catharsis. For me The Last of Us was different. As far as the story was concerned I felt a sense of resolution, but emotionally I felt conflicted and unsure. I have not felt like that after finishing a campaign before and I love the game for it.
I think the reason why The Last of Us works so well is that the player isn’t allowed to make that final choice between saving Ellie and (potentially) saving humanity. The ending is a stark reminder that you may be playing as Joel but you are not Joel; you may be playing a game and expecting to have agency in the world, but you are playing through Naughty Dog's story, not your own. This may sound like a criticism but it’s actually a powerful approach.
This conflict between the interactive nature of the medium and the rigidity of the narrative form exists in all story-driven games. Most developers negate this conflict by presenting the player with protagonists worthy of empathy and projection; someone whose goals align with that of the player’s. As players, we want to progress, level up, explore, meet and pass the next test of our abilities. These driving forces often match up narratively to the protagonist’s goals.
Joel’s decisions and goals no longer aligned with my own.
Crystal Dynamics, for instance, designed its rebooted Lara to be more human, and thus someone that players would want to protect. The character's drive for self-preservation aligns with the player’s desire to help her survive and progress through the game. The genius of The Last of Us is that it initially presents Joel's journey in the same light – the player wants to protect Ellie and reach their goal.
As The Last of Us reaches its conclusion, however, this dynamic changes and the inherent conflict between interactivity and storytelling presents itself. Joel’s decisions and goals no longer aligned with my own. While some may have found Joel’s action to be justifiable, I did not. This spectrum of reactions to the ending of the game is further testament to the success of Naughty Dog’s storytelling.
Before reaching the Fireflies, Ellie confesses to Joel that she doesn’t want everything they have been through to be for nothing. Later, when discovering Ellie would have to die to save humanity it felt like a punch in the guts but I accepted it as a necessary evil which complied with her wishes. After she’s taken, however, Joel turns from hunted to hunter, a cold-blood killer ploughing through waves of ‘bad guys’ to get his surrogate daughter back. But of course it’s not Joel who is doing this; I am doing this – against my wishes. The combat was familiar but the context had changed.
The combat was familiar but the context had changed.
This inner turmoil came to a head when Joel found Ellie in the surgery surrounded by medical staff. I paused, not wanting to kill these innocent people. It took me a minute to realise that the game would not offer me any other way to progress. It was a brilliant, jarring moment and a subversive exploit of the conflict between interaction and linear storytelling.
In the epilogue, Joel’s refusal to tell Ellie the truth further pushed me away from the character I had spent 12-odd hours inhabiting. If a quick time event had popped-up allowing me to spill Joel’s guts to Ellie I would have pressed it – but at the same time I’m grateful I wasn’t given the choice. Interactivity would have cheapened the story Naughty Dog sought out to tell.
Games like Mass Effect seemingly represent the flipside of this conflict. Sure, you play as Shepard, but you play as your Shepard. In The Walking Dead you don’t play as Lee Everett, you play as your Lee Everett. The promise of these series’ is that you can play your character as virtuously or as dickishly as you’d like. Your choices will matter. The problem is that ultimately this freedom rings false. You may appear to have freedom but only within the bounds of where the developers lead the narrative. In the case of Mass Effect BioWare seemed hamstrung by its promise of player choice and the realities of telling a definite story. This lead to a finale that left many dissatisfied.
Naughty Dog appears to understand this dilemma; embracing it and twisting it to create a profound and exceptional ending to its ‘interactive’ story. As important as player choice is, in this case limiting that choice greatly amplified the impact of the story. Sometimes we don’t learn and grow because of the choices we have made. Sometimes the most powerful moments come from when we have no other choice.
Source : ign[dot]com