The narrative gravitas of “The Last of Us”
I finished “The Last of Us” last week. It’s an extraordinary game in a lot of ways. Yes, there are some quibbles with its gameplay (clickers entered Half-Life 2’s manhacks territory of irritation for me) but really, this was a splendid piece of interactive storytelling. Here was a true post-apocalyptic narrative, one that had no quibbles about the player’s agency or decision making.
Now, I thought about writing a traditional review for the game, but I really wanted to delve into a proper discussion of the game’s narrative. That is impossible to do without getting into major spoiler territory, so if you haven’t played the game and intend on doing so, please stop reading now.
I repeat: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
The lack of player agency in “The Last of Us” has been the source of some debate amongst critics. Forbes.com (which, despite its business-based pedigre ehas some of the internet’s better gaming writing) has some well-written points of view on the subject. Critic Carol Pinchefsky gave the game a positive review, but criticized the game’s ending.
A quick recap of the ending before delving into more analysis: The bulk of the plot of “The Last of Us” concerns the game’s protagonists, middle aged survivalist Joel and the scrappy 14-year old Ellie, traversing across a post-apocalyptic United States in an effort to find a group called the Fireflies. Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps fungi that has led to the collapse of civilization, and the Fireflies are supposed to provide her a safehouse, and perhaps study her to provide a cure.
When Joel and Ellie finally find the Fireflies, they take Ellie away to harvest her brain on the chance that they can turn it into a vaccine for the Cordyceps. Joel will have none of this, and kills most of the Fireflies (including the unarmed surgeons about to begin “operating” on Ellie), saving Ellie’s life in the process.
Pinchefsky was annoyed that the game gave the player no other option but to free Ellie, rather than let her die for the good of humanity. You can’t even progress without killing the surgeons. “I wanted to let Joel let her die, because it would be better for humanity. Also, he’d be living with even more regret,” she said in a reply to a comment of her review.
And that’s a perfectly fine take on the narrative choices of the designers. We all have preferences for the actions characters take.
However, I disagree that it was fundamentally mistaken to force the player into one decision.
For starters, Naughty Dog games have never had any illusions about having interactive stories. The “Uncharted” games give the player about the same amount of storytelling agency as “The Last of Us” (which is to say pretty much none). Unlike “The Last of Us”, The primary appeals of the “Uncharted” games are their action. The combat and puzzle sequences are of foremost importance. The story is strong enough to lend a sense of purpose to the action, but not much more. They’re similar to action films in that regard.
“The Last of Us”, however, is a post-apocalyptic narrative that happens to let you play along. That, I think, is why its ending is more jarring than the turns of the “Uncharted” games, or even the ending of similarly genre-narrative driven games like “Red Dead Redemption”. “Red Dead” was still about letting the player do their thing. No, you can’t dictate the bulk of the story, but you’re also free not to play it at all. A lot of “Red Dead Redemption’s” appeal was how free and open it felt. If you wanted to spend your days wandering the desert shooting rattlesnakes, you were free to do so. If you wanted to abandon the story and spend your time wreaking havoc, you could (with difficulty, but it was possible). “The Last of Us” lacks the open gameplay of “Red Dead Redemption” and is significantly more story-driven than “Uncharted”. And games have taught us that when a game is overwhelmingly story-driven, then that story should be gamer-controlled.
The “Mass Effect 3” controversy from last year speaks to this. A common complaint about the game was that the ending robbed players of a sense of agency that they had enjoyed for nearly 100 hours of gameplay. After seven years of being told that their decisions in the game were essential to their own, unique experience, it turned out that those choices just didn’t matter that much.
But unlike “Mass Effect 3”, “The Last of Us” doesn’t give a damn about the player’s take on the narrative. It has its own narrative, and it asserts this consistently. You can choose whether to sneak through a hostile gang’s house or to try to fight them, but you don’t get to choose not to go through the house at all.
At one point in the game, you come across a young man named Henry and his teenage brother Sam. You play through some of the game’s most thrilling sequences with them. At the end of one these sequences, they agree to accompany Joel and Ellie west, in search of the Fireflies. You can’t tell them not to.
Later, there’s a sequence where Sam is attacked by an infected and, it is later revealed, bitten. He turns. Joel pulls out a gun. Henry pulls a gun on Joel, before shooting Sam and then himself. It’s a brutal, highly tense scene. And it also plays out entirely in cutscenes. In “Mass Effect”, this would have likely been rife with dialogue wheels, like the infamous standoff with Wrex in the first game. In “The Last of Us”, it’s simply the game telling us its story. And I like that. It was at this point that I realized that this game wasn’t just telling us a story, but it was telling us its story, one that took precedence over anything else. The player has no control, and that’s the point. We’re there for the ride.
And that is a sort of narrative gravitas that blockbuster games rarely exert. There’s another bravado sequence in which Joel has been badly wounded in a fight with (yet another) gang inside a university building. In a sequence that is largely scripted (if not entirely cutscenes), Ellie shoots her way out of the building and gets an increasingly delirious Joel to safety.
It’s an extraordinary scene. Not only is it effective as an action set piece, but damn, I can’t imagine anyone NOT feeling a conflicted mess of feelings, both cheering Ellie on and feeling some sadness that the kid has become such an effective killer. I thought of a review by Polygon’s Philip Kollar, in which he talked about his preference for sneaking to fighting:
“The seconds that I spent waiting for enemies to walk past felt like white-knuckle, on-edge eternities. These instances left my nerves frayed, but I also felt good about progressing without forcing my young traveling companion to witness even more horrifying violence.”
On one hand, I totally understand this mindset. When Ellie turned into a mini-Joel, effortlessly killing many to save one person, it was impossible not to feel sad. I can relate to wanting to protect her from this sort of thing.
But actively playing the game to protect her from violence? That’s purely player-invented agency. This game’s world is a miserable one. It knows what we probably don’t want to acknowledge: that there’s no protecting Ellie from the horrors of this world. And the aforementioned scene is thrilling, yes, but it’s also heartbreaking. And that sort of narrative step; not just moving the plot forward, but being so in tune with the magnitude of internal character changes; is essential to this genre.
“The Last of Us” has received inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is perhaps the most important post-apocalyptic narrative of recent years, in which a father tries desperately to keep his son alive, knowing that the boy will inevitably be exposed to things no child should see. He constantly refers to him and his son as “good guys” and always has an answer for when his son wants to know if others they encounter on their journey are “good” or “bad”.
Of course, to the man, “good” and “bad” are irrelevant. His single goal is keeping his son alive, and anyone who can help is good and anyone who gets in the way is bad. “The Last of Us” is a rare game to own up to this sort of storytelling. Joel develops a paternal attachment to Ellie, one so strong that at the end of the game he will kill anyone who threatens her, much like the protagonist of “The Road” would do to anyone who would threaten his son.
And that’s where Naughty Dog won me over. They were telling a full-blooded story here, a character-driven drama that was happy to have me tag along, but that wouldn’t dare let me tell its story for it. In another response to a reader comment, Pinchefsky said that Naughty Dog “blew it” by limiting what she felt could have otherwise been one of the most poignant moments in gaming history. I disagree. Presenting a choice there would have diluted the narrative. It would have been like turning the end of “The Road” into Choose Your Own Adventure.
“The Last of Us” is a landmark in interactive storytelling. It makes “Heavy Rain” seem cheap by comparison. “Heavy Rain” (which, for what it’s worth, I like a lot purely on its own terms) achieved drama by aping cinematic cliches in an interactive format. “The Last of Us” is a rare game that achieves the narrative gravitas of good fiction in a way that’s achievable only in a game. Yes, the combat can be frustrating at times, But damn, does this game ever earn its pathos. It has guts enough to know that it doesn’t need to coddle the player with choices to make them care about its story. And it knows that every moment of tension, hiding from infected, or desperately engaging another person in brutal hand-to-hand combat, is part of the storytelling experience, adding to the narrative, as opposed to being the reason for the story to exist in the first place.
I don’t blame anyone who finds “The Last of Us” too grim to recommend. But I cannot fault the game’s delivery of its story. It’s an astonishing experience. Joel saving Ellie might not have been for the greater good of humanity. But after spending 20 hours with these characters, I didn’t think for a minute that either one would consider the world worth saving if it meant sacrificing the life of the other. And that, right there, is good storytelling.