The end of The Last Of Us will be spoiled in this blog. If you have not played the game's main story to completion and there is even the smallest chance that you will then I don't want you to continue reading. The impact of what I'm going to talk about will be lost on you without already having the context you'll get from playing the game yourself, and it is well worth experiencing first hand.
You have been warned!
The other day I was discussing player choice in The Last Of Us with a few of my peers and, in particular, I thought one of the revelations that we came to was really interesting from a game design perspective, how it impacts the story and more specifically, how it puts the player in a similar position to the characters.
To recap The Last Of Us… well... the story is actually quite complicated to synopses because of all the little nuances, and I fear that doing one will be boring and / or distract from the key moments that I use for my points, but a picture is a thousand words! If you want a refresher of the end then have a glance at the screenshots below.
The discussion popped up when someone mentioned that they were frustrated by the lack of player choice given during the finale of the game. I absolutely felt that way too.
There are arguments to be had that could justify Joel's decisions but that is outside of the scope of this blog. If you are interested in that, I highly recommend this section (and the rest) of Joseph Anderson's video analysing the game.
I think it is safe to say that most everyone questioned Joel's actions in those final moments of the game. Like me, I bet you felt a deep sense of disgust, confusion and frustration. I felt opposed to the very character that I put myself in the shoes of for the last 15 or so hours. It was a strange disconnect, "I wouldn't have done that". But now I can see that this disconnect was by design.
The essence of the narrative in The Last Of Us is control and helplessness. The Cordyceps virus takes control of it's victims, the civilised world loses control of the situation and the survivors are either trying to wrestle some control back or are exploiting the lack of control and embracing the id. Sometimes both. The game's environment also shows nature taking back control from the now skeletal concrete structures of man. This battle for control can been see right from the start.
Like the player, Joel doesn't make choices that effect the narrative. Joel doesn't have control over it.
The major examples are that Joel is helpless to save his daughter. He follows Tess to a T. For the majority of the game Joel's only motivation is not some heroic act to save humanity, it is only to go through with Tess's plan even though she is not around anymore. He was guilted into this but the situation keeps changing.
He doesn't make choices, except for three moment towards the later parts of the game.
The first being when he has a change of heart and insists on bring Ellie to the Fireflies himself even though the option to leave was handed to him. This is the moment Joel truly realises that he deeply cares about Ellie. He probably sees this as a chance for him to make a difference to someone, to change the world, to take control of his life.
The second is when he finds out that Ellie will die during the procedure that the Fireflies will conduct on her, trying to find a cure.
He decides to take control of the situation to save Ellie's life. Joel slaughters all the opposing Firefly soldiers. He breaks into the operating room where he finds an unconscious Ellie and a doctor who is willing to put his life on the line to protect the best opportunity they had to take control of the virus. Joel kills the doctor and escapes with Ellie.
Ellie lives but the hope of a cure dies.
The third moment is when he decides to lie to Ellie about what happened.
But the player didn't make those choices, Joel did. This creates a disconnect between the player and their on screen avatar. I didn't want to kill the doctor, I had no choice. The only way the game would progress is if I actively killed the doctor or walked close enough to where Joel takes control away from me and kills the doctor.
Everything that happened in this journey, the struggles getting to the end and the hardships of dealing with what we experienced has been rendered moot. We are right back at square one.
Doubling down, Joel lies to Ellie again.
Because I had no choice with Joel's actions I felt powerless, disappointed at Joel, his decisions and disrespected because I didn't get a say in the matter. Just like Ellie.
We shall 'shlaters',