GameCraft: Subtlety and Choice in The Last of Us
The following article assumes the reader has played through The Last of Us.
The word “choice” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a game such as The Last of Us—at least in terms of its gameplay. This of course is not a negative aspect of the game, but when compared to many other recent titles, the restriction of influence on narrative might make the game feel too linear—or have less longevity than others. This is a misconception. Underneath what seems to be a straightforward narrative, the telling of an engaging story, there exists a choice of experience. Through optional conversations and during one of the final, most gripping moments before the game’s close, The Last of Us demonstrates a subtle and powerful versatility of experience—one that connects with some of the larger themes of the game.
Engaging in every possible conversation throughout the span of the game may mean nothing more than scoring a trophy for some. For others it adds to the richness of the world—filling in the details not touched on by the cut scenes. But if we accept the journey of The Last of Us as being the rediscovery of Joel’s humanity and the slow wearing away of Ellie’s innocence as the two form a bond during their trek across a post-outbreak America, then the conversations and the player’s choice to engage them—or not—can create a very different picture in the end.
Take one of the first optional conversations Joel can have with Ellie. It’s brief, but the choice has some implications. After surviving through the museum, there’s the option to ask both Tess and Ellie if they’re okay. Now it makes sense for Joel’s character to ask Tess, given what the two have gone through during the 20 years since the outbreak and the bond they’ve formed—but what about Ellie? Given Joe’s initial aversion to escorting Ellie—only agreeing to on the promise of obtaining some weapons—would he actually take the moment to ask her? That decision is up to the player and it allows a bit of role-playing. If you choose to not speak to Ellie in that moment, then why not? Has Joel become so scarred, so jaded by the reality he now lives in that the thought doesn’t even cross his mind and he just continues on? Has he buried the emotional devastation of losing his daughter so deep that being responsible for a young girl again—and actually caring—would stir memories that are simply too painful? All of this is up to the player and can potentially shape the perspective and the remainder of the game. That moment, and other ones similar, influences the player’s connection with Ellie through Joel in a way that goes beyond the script—beyond the mere telling of a story. It impacts how the player relates to Joel and whether or not the player mentally becomes Joel through the experience.
Choosing to reassure Ellie that she’s doing a good job shortly before trying to flee Bill’s town in the truck, stopping to watch Sam and Ellie play darts, giving Ellie a high five after crossing the dam, these are all just a few of the many times that the game gives you the option to interact—the choice to interact. You won’t choose what to say—the plot is not yours to change—but those moments are the ones where you can alter the experience that you as a player are a part of. Engaging in these also changes the answer as to where Joel begins to regain his humanity. Is it over the course of time he spends with Ellie—shaped by those brief conversations? Or is it all hinged on that point between life and death when Ellie saves Joel from dying after being wounded—before needing to be saved herself? Could it be in that sobering and bitter moment where Marlene tells Joel that Ellie will not survive the operation? That’s all for the player to decide and the choice of these conversations weighs into it. And though Joel does regain his humanity by the end, there’s the question of his overall sanity. Once again, the player has a choice of shaping that in what is quite possibly one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever experienced in a game.
After forging a warpath through the hospital to save Ellie, Joel arrives in the operating room to find a doctor, scalpel in hand, refusing to give her up. This is yet again another moment where the player can make a few minute choices that reveal how deeply the player has become engrossed into Joel’s character—or shaped him in their own perspective. There’s the matter of how to deal with the first doctor, whether you simply charge in and blow him away with a shotgun, or engage in that brutal and agonizing moment of stabbing the man’s throat with his own scalpel. Then there are the remaining two doctors where the choice of what to do with them is entirely up to the player. These are not spelled out options like one would see in a conversation in Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s subtle, not told to the player. After following the narrative for 17 hours, the game lets you loose for that split second and you’ve either become Joel or not. The feeling of reality at that point is as pure and as gravitational as choices in real life.
During my first playthrough of the game, the hospital scene sparked a sensation in me that no game has ever before. After shooting the second doctor, the third one sunk to the floor and, screaming, called me a monster. The controller nearly fell from my hands. I was practically in shock at the thought of what I was doing—the sudden realization of how swept up I was into Joel’s mind. Only Ellie mattered in that moment—not in the script, but to me, sitting down and playing the game. And I was left with the question of whether or not I was supposed to do that, or if I had the option? Terrified by this, I grabbed Ellie and fled from the hospital.
Though a wild mutant fungus sparked the apocalypse with enraged zombie-like infestations, Naughty Dog has made it completely clear that the story is more about what humanity has become in this new world. Throughout the course of the game we see humans who have made all kinds of choices—with increasing levels of darkness. The choice of sheer brutality in the hospital room can hopefully shed light on what Naughty Dog was trying to get at. Almost anyone can turn into that “monster” the doctor shouted as I tore apart the hospital room as Joel in a frantic craze to save someone I had grown to love and care for. That choice of my behavior has become my ending to The Last of Us. I can play it differently next time, but that first time resonates powerfully and stands out. But most importantly, I didn’t have to do it the way I did. It was all a choice, and in the words of Robert Frost’s speaker in “The Road Less Traveled,” looking back, remembering the experience, my choice had “made all the difference.”