“The Last of Us” and Narrative Decisions

The Last of Us Cover“The Last of Us” [My Review] is, rightfully, being lauded as one of the best games of 2013. It provides mature gamers a tight, immersive gameplay experience framed in a smart and engaging story. It also handily demonstrates the high quality that can be wrung from seven year-old hardware. I enjoyed the game deeply but, as is often the case with something so close to perfection, small issues take on significantly more weight.

One of these issues is the consistent lack of player control over the narrative arc. The story is framed around a series of emotionally-crushing moral choices but the player is given no control over them whatsoever. The game is littered with points where such options could have been presented. Instead these moments pass as purely scripted video events with the player a simple spectator.

[There will be many spoilers ahead. For other games such as “Infamous”, “God of War” and “Shadow of the Colossus” as well. You have been warned.]

The primary playable character in the game, Joel, is world-weary and jaded. He lost his daughter violently during the initial chaos of the outbreak and has never truly recovered in the years since. He’s forced by circumstance to escort Ellie, a lively and precocious teen painfully similar to his lost daughter. Miraculously,  she is somehow immune to the plague destroying mankind. Together they cross the country trying to bring her to the rebel Fireflies in the hopes that she might help them to find a cure.

The game, like Naughty Dog’s excellent “Uncharted” series, is dedicatedly traditional in its presentation: non-interactive cut-scenes progress the story and move the player from location to location. All meaningful decisions are made for the player in these cut-scenes. While there are many quiet moments for exploration, the game is precisely linear in execution.

Interactivity in Exposition

Many, if not all, of these scenes could have been interactive, at least partially. By setting such scenes in-engine, with full player control, a basic level of interactivity can be cheaply bought. The downside, as can be seen in games like “Mass Effect” or “Skyrim”, is a loss of directorial and camera control. The characters may wander away or stare at the ground during your big NPC speech.

A hybrid approach, as seen in “Half Life 2” for instance, allows the player to maintain character control but gives the game brief, but meaningful, moments of camera control to direct attention to scripted events. Allowing the player to initiate and control the pace of conversation during scenes is also effective even when the conversation itself is linear and without options.

To its credit, the game actually did wrap significant exposition into various “walking scenes” where the player followed various NPCs through an area while listening to them explain the situation. This was appreciated but often simply book-ended additional static cut scenes.

False Freedom is Still a Kind of Freedom

Games are, of course, unable to offer true freedom. Even the most open of worlds has limits and must enforce boundaries in many ways. Characters are limited both in where they may roam and what they may do. While you may indefinitely ignore the actual story in games like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Skyrim”, you must eventually commit to it to see all that the game has to offer.

Because of this, game designers have created many ways to give players the illusion of freedom. One of the simplest is the false choice: multiple options that result in the same outcome. In the original “Infamous” the hero is presented with a choice to save his fiance or six anonymous doctors. Should he choose the former he discovers that his fiance was among the doctors; if the latter she dies alone. The choice is heart-wrenching but, hidden to the player, ultimately meaningless.

In other cases giving the player a minor element of control can dramatically increase immersion while having no real impact on the story. In “God of War 3” the player, not the game, decides when enough is enough. Even after, technically, beating Zeus the player can decide to continue raining down punishment for as long as they like. Only when the player decides to stop does the game end.

Similarly, in the bittersweet ending of “Shadow of the Colossus” the player is placed in an un-winnable situation. They can fight against the tide as long as they like but they can never overcome it. The player must actively accept their fate. “The Last of Us” offers many opportunities to present the player with such faux choices: options that would seem meaningful in play but have no actual result on the outcome. Here’s a short list:

  • In the Statehouse building Tess demands that you leave her to stall advancing soldiers in order to save Ellie. Joel does this in the cut-scene her and you’re given control on the far side of a locked door. What if you were able to stand by your (possibly only) friend? After taking out a first wave of soldiers, perhaps, Tess may simply force your hand by charging the oncoming soldiers instead of waiting for them? You could then run (and continue) or die as you chose.
  • In another cut-scene Joel and Ellie are pulled from the river by Henry after he betrayed them. Joel punches him. Why couldn’t the player decide to do that (or not)? Perhaps, in fact, the player might have decided to hit Henry several times only to be pulled off of him by Ellie and Sam.
  • When Ellie finally kills David in one of the most emotional sequences in the game, why are the death blows left to a cut scene? Why can’t the player direct them – and keep directing them until they feel vindicated as in “God of War 3”? Perhaps it should be rule: players should always be able to decide how much to hit pedophile cannibals.

These decisions aren’t required to affect gameplay or story. They allow the player to take actions that feel right to them  merge their (sometimes petty) desires with those demanded by the character. Players of “The Last of Us” are instead continually plucked from the story and converted to a mute audience member.

An Alternate Ending

The player as spectator was made clearest at the very end of the game. Joel has gone through hell to save Ellie from the Fireflies who, he discovers, plan to kill her to fully study her immunity. The choice is a harsh one for all involved. At the end, reaching the parking garage with the unconscious girl, he faces the leader of the group, Marlene. Having known Ellie longest she, perhaps almost as much as he, understands the sacrifice being made. Distraught but determined she makes an impassioned plea for the future of humanity.

Cut-scene Joel is faced with an agonizing choice: save the girl he’s come to love to live her life in this terrible, broken world or allow her to die and possibly put an end to the nightmare for future generations. He knows that Ellie would gladly, unquestionably sacrifice herself. Cut-scene Joel makes the choice to shoot Marlene and save Ellie.

What would you have done? It doesn’t matter: the game doesn’t care.

As trite and gimmicky as they have become this game screams for an alternate ending based on this one, ultimate choice. After working and suffering throughout the game the player should have the final choice. The player has earned the final choice. What if you decided to sacrifice Ellie?

The scene opens on a shabby curtain similar to the one in the title sequence.  The camera moves to a vantage slightly above a small, shabby room. Sunlight beams through the large window. Children can be seen and heard playing outside. Joel, now older, sits quietly in a chair staring blankly ahead. Ellie’s crumpled backpack sits in his lap.

An ambulance drives slowly by, its loud speakers reminding people that infection is still a danger and that vaccination is mandatory. A happy couple walks by the window pushing a carriage and carrying groceries.

His eyes never moving, but tears streaming down his cheeks, Joel quickly draws a pistol and places it in his mouth. The screen fades quickly to black with the shot.

Yes, that may be clichéd and trite, but it also rings true. It demonstrates how your decision may have saved mankind but the weight of it utterly, but quietly, destroyed Joel.

There is no need to create the continual, binary morality choices of games like “Bioshock” or “Infamous” and, in fact, “The Last of Us” would have suffered for it. The wasted opportunity here was to demonstrate that even if you do everything right, even if you make all the best choices, there will still be time when there is no simple answer, no obvious path. Only the player can determine the lesser of the two evils.

A Restricted Narrative

The game might have also, very successfully, I think, taken the path so wonderfully realized in 2009’s “Prince of Persia”. There the player is forced to watch his beloved companion die to save the world from evil. The credits start to roll. The game is over… except that the player is still in control.

The player discovers that they can continue the game – and bring their companion back to life – by purposefully undoing the work so painstakingly completed. The character’s motivations make these actions inevitable but it’s the player that must complete them. Again the character is working against the wishes of the one to be saved.  The player can simply stop playing. After all, the credits have rolled essentially giving them permission to consider the story complete.

Although only one path is offered the player must decide to take it. This draws the player in and forces them to actively commit themselves to the desires of the character; desires that, if the game has told its story well, will be completely understandable.

The entire experience in “Shadow of the Colossus” is based on a similar structure. In that game you are hunting and ultimately killing magnificent, and by all appearances, peaceful creatures for purely selfish reasons. You can choose not to do so. The game places no restrictions or demands on your time. The only way to progress, however, is to accept the motivation of the character and commit to the only course provided, morally distasteful as it may be.

This is the key to my, admittedly minor, disappointment with “The Last of Us”: my participation in the story wasn’t active. I played to see the story doled out as a reward. It was, truly, a profoundly good story and I thoroughly enjoying watching it, but I never felt part of it.

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