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The Last of Us: Spoiler Edition

by Eric Frederiksen | November 17, 2013November 17, 2013 1:00 pm PST
Eric

It might seem like it’s a little late to talk about The Last of Us, but I think this is the perfect time; we’ve had enough time to digest the story, but it’s still pretty fresh.

Readers, get ready: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Let’s jump in.

We’ve both completed the game once it its entirety; you reviewed it and we both really liked it.

There’s a lot going on in The Last of Us, more than just about any other game I’ve played. The writing and character development are some of the best around and with a few minor exceptions I think it was an incredibly well-crafted game.

Ron

Without a doubt. If more AAA studios like Naughty Dog could follow in this example of storytelling, I might not mind starting to drop $60 a pop for the straight up narrative alone.

Plenty of games have decent storytelling, and some have great storytelling. It has seemed more and more difficult to cram a decent script, wonderful characters, into the same package as exciting gameplay that can keep you on the edge of your seat.

I can only think of a handful of titles that have pulled it off this generation, but The Last of Us is the best encapsulation of this revolution in video game narrative that has been emerging from this console generation.

What did you find so compelling about the story and these characters?

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Eric

There weren’t any write-off characters. I look at the list of people I encountered playing through the game, and just about everyone was well fleshed out. I think if I could boil the theme of the game down to one word, it would be “relationships.”

Every character had some sort of counterpart with only one exception I could think of. Joel obviously had the biggest set of relationships as the main character, but then characters like Sam and Henry were well-written, interesting and believable.

The game repeatedly asked us, what would you do for that person? If that person was suddenly at death’s doorstep, if that person was being taken away from you, if that person was making a decision that would take them away from you. You see it with Sam and Henry, with Bill and his partner Frank, with Joel’s brother Bobby and his wife Maria. And finally with Joel and Ellie, the question is put to the ultimate test.

Ron

I had mentioned in the review that the ending could have only worked in one way.

Giving gamers an option to choose Ellie’s fate might have been a nice touch based on what kind of a person you are as a gamer and how you might react to in the situation.

Naughty Dog’s choice wisely puts the character development over the opinions and morals of the gamer, and that was a bold step in these days of gamer centered decision making.

Over the course of the game, we get to know Joel, his feelings of guilt because of the loss of his daughter and selfishness in keeping this new daughter figure alive. When the time comes for him to make that difficult choice, any other option besides dooming the world to further plague for the sake of one child would have seemed out of character.

In the end, you are still left with a choice as a gamer. Do you agree with Joel or not?

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Eric

What’s great about it is that it doesn’t matter if I agree with Joel. I’m going to bring out one of the fifty cent words in gaming: Ludonarrative Dissonance. Explained briefly for anyone not familiar with the term, it’s a concept specific to games that comes from a separation of what a game’s narrative is saying about its characters and themes and what the players actions are saying.

A good example would be, oddly, Nathan Drake from Naughty Dog’s other big series, Uncharted. In the cutscenes he was cracking wise constantly, but in the context of the gameplay, he was basically a serial killer. I killed literally thousands of dudes as that guy, but he was supposed to be a lovable guy you could drink a beer with after all that.

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Eric

I think Joel is Naughty Dog’s answer to that problem. The game hints throughout that Joel’s done some regrettable stuff, but he doesn’t appear to regret it too much. When we reach the end of the game, Joel’s been pulled out of his years-long haze by Ellie’s relentless youth and hope. When people try to take that away from him, we know he’d do anything to keep that from happening.

We come to the final room, and Joel sees the doctor there, standing between him and Ellie, lying unconscious on the table. We know what Joel would do, and we know what the right thing to do is. The game doesn’t give us a choice. Joel didn’t have a choice.

Ron

We assume that it is a happy end too. Joel and Ellie get to go live happily ever after in the secure mountain village built on the dam in Wyoming. Working electricity, plenty of vegetation and food, and a new father-daughter relationship to boot. What a nice way to tie it all up, huh?

Not especially though. The whole ending is built off of a lie Joel invented to protect Ellie from the truth. He knows this and it will haunt him to the end of his days. Will it affect him in the long run, I doubt it. His mind was made up and it was the only option he could have made.

Deep down inside, Ellie also knows that this is a lie. She understood Joel well enough by the end of the story too, and it was visible in her face throughout the closing cutscene that she didn’t believe one second of Joel’s story. Still, she decides to press on and continue living emptily in this mountain village where a million things could go wrong, thinking that her death could have saved the lives of millions.

Based on what we learned about her through the story, she was prepared to make the sacrifice Joel was not. However, she was also left with no choice in the matter.

Eric

I think that last shot of Ellie was the perfect ending to the overall story and to her particular part of it, too. She’s a smart kid, and for her to accept Joel’s version of the truth without a doubt would’ve been a disservice to her. It’s also a real testament to where we’re at with facial animation that we’re conveying emotions like ‘ambiguous doubt.’ so effectively.

That brings us to talking about Ellie and the game’s women in more detail. Ellie herself is the only character we meet who was born into this horrible world and, unlike Joel, she has to learn to be violent. She has answers other than violence ready, but the situation forces her hand without compromising her character.

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Eric

All throughout her segment of the game, I wondered constantly if Joel was dead. When it switched back to him for a bit, I thought I was going to have to save her from the creepy pervert. But Ellie, like Tess and Marlene especially, was written as being strong and resourceful. The whole sequence was great, starting with the hunting.

Aside from that being the most realistic hunting I’ve ever seen in a game, it established her as being independent from Joel. Her capture was a little exploitive, but I think the way the writers handled it worked. Once again it established her as being in charge of her own destiny.

Jumping back to Joel for a second, the ending took that away from her. When Joel killed those doctors to save her, it was entirely selfish, as you’d said. Ellie was a well written character, but this really was Joel’s story, and him taking that away from her solidifies that in my mind.

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Ron

I often wonder what would happen if David hadn’t been killed by Ellie. She had used her infection as a weapon in the game, which was a stroke of genius for getting her out of the fix, but if he hadn’t been killed, would he have turned? We never find out because of course, she cuts him to ribbons with a machete.

Ellie’s combat section is the best, and probably most game’s most breakable segment. I managed to get so many cheap stealth skills using the bow and arrow.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the story switching in and out of Joel’s perspective here. Perhaps the chapter would have worked better with us wondering if he had survived the pipe going through his gut.

In a video game, you can’t be stranded for too long of a time from the central character. We’ve been controlling Joel until this point, and I remember that I had a lot of junk and skill points I was anxiously awaiting to use on him at this point.

However, he should have been toned back a lot in this chapter. Taking him through the town and going about his murderous routine of killing everyone to make sure Ellie is safe would have been far more effective if we weren’t witnessing it.

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Ron

Think about it. Ellie just finishes killing David, and Joel just shows up, bandaged but in pain. It’s not too unbelievable knowing he’s alive because she was looking for penicillin. A brief little bit of exposition, but then we leave the restaurant and see the path of dead bodies Joel leaves in his wake.I also disagreed a bit with Naughty Dog here implying that these cannibals were just other victims in Joel and Ellie’s path. These guys were murderers who got their comeuppance.

Eric

Your mentioning of skill points brings one thing to mind, and that’s that the leveling mechanic could’ve been dropped entirely. I don’t think it helped the game. It didn’t hurt it, but it didn’t help either. It just made me want to look through drawers even more than the crafting system already did. Also, why is every game character an expert gunsmith? Joel and Lara Croft could supply an army if you gave them enough nuts and bolts.

I do agree that Joel’s role could’ve been toned down. It might’ve been more effective that way. I will say that the cannibals got what was coming to them, but also that everyone in Joel’s path is a victim, because he’s broken.

Ellie’s sequence, too, is the part of the game that makes me think of a sequel. There’s no more game for Joel, except as maybe prequel DLC or something like that. But if Naughty Dog wanted to franchise this, Ellie would be the leading character in her own game and it could be awesome. The questions the ending poses – how much does Ellie know and how does she feel about it – could be a springing point for investigating who Ellie is as an adult. Does she break off from Joel and try to pursue a cure? Does she imitate what she learned from Joel as she does this?

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Eric

I loved Joel, and I think the story was perfect for him. Ellie had enough to make me want to learn more about her and, going against my initial instinct, she makes me want a sequel. She’s one of the best female characters in years and I think she has an entire game in her.

Ron

I too am a little anti-sequel for this game, but I agree. It would have to be centered on Ellie if it ever happened, and Joel would have to be an unseen presence, perhaps pursuing her attempts to undo his decision or an oppressive force holding her back from moving on with her life.

It all depends on how much gamers really want more of The Last of Us, but I believe I’d had my fill. Naughty Dog wanted to make a “zombie” game with an emotional kick, and they did just that. They wanted to make a series with Hollywood excitement and adventure, and they got a whole trilogy out of it.

For once, I’d like to see a successful game just be a standalone title and let the developers and writers move on to other ideas.

As much as I love the world and characters of The Last of Us, it’s time for Naughty Dog to do something else. We know the world, we know the kind of people who live in it, and I like being left with an open ending, giving me the decision with how I think these characters will continue on.

Eric

I wouldn’t mind if there was never a sequel. I think this is a great stand-alone game and I’d love to see Naughty Dog do something new yet again. But if they did explore this world more, it’d definitely be worth playing. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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