The Last of Us – Fixed Storyline Done Right (Spoilers)

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I finally got around to playing Naughty Dog’s, The Last of Us, after avoiding any forums and social media that even mentioned the game after its release, in hopes that I would be able to jump into the game with as few preconceptions of what to expect as possible. I knew the game was highly rated and well received, and it had a good storyline involving horror survival, but aside from that, I was going in with a clean slate.

I was originally expecting to sit here and write about how Naughty Dog took one of the most hated game mechanics, escort missions, and how they successfully designed an entire damn game around it but, as I sit here with the sick feeling left in my stomach after finishing the game mere hours ago, I decided to write about why I am currently battling my own inner turmoil and conflicts with morality instead.

When the story was first progressing, I thought I was going to be playing a game with a generic, but compelling, savior-hero protagonist that battles his way through dead monstrosities that served as a backdrop to his ultimate battle with the corrupt faceless government authority figures, like in many games. Joel was a man in pain, left to deal with the death of his daughter 20 years ago as he learned how to survive a ravaging plague. With Ellie in tow, no fucking government, zombie, or heartless thug was going to stop them from curing the world! NOT ON MY WATCH.

I was mistaken. The driving force of this story was moral ambiguity, and the lack of player choice was the guiding light.

The Last of Us showed that situations are never black and white. There was no good or bad, hero and villain. I wanted so desperately for Joel to take Ellie under his wing, to be the daughter that he lost. I wanted them to bond, to rely on each other to reach their goal. I wanted Joel to be the hero that I knew he could be. Sure he’s rough on the outside, but who wouldn’t be after what he’s been through? But I know he has so much potential for love and compassion! Well, I got what I wished for and was blindsided as a result.

This was a story about men. Men who have spent there whole lives around surviving an unbeatable plague. Desperate men. Naughty Dog did an excellent job providing character development to all sides of the spectrum. Through notes we find that the soldiers weren’t husks of men doing government bidding, but people just doing what they felt was necessary to get by. Through developing story we find the heartless thugs we’ve been killing at every opportunity were just versions of ourselves. Just like ourselves they came from all walks of life, all with different agendas. Some were obviously bad as they mowed down people in a Humvee, while others seemed good, but 90% of the time you had no way of knowing if the guy you were currently sticking a shiv into the neck of was just part of a group looking for food for their families, or some asshole in that group who gets off on raping and murdering as he survives.

Joel was no exception. The man I think we all hoped would be the hero that we wanted was as morally ambiguous as anyone. I was struck off by an early exchange between Ellie and Joel where she asks him how he knew the “injured” man was an ambush, and Joel admits to being on both sides, to killing innocent people. Personally, that made my stomach churn. Joel just became less of the hero that I had made him out to be, and more of the survivalist that he was. “But no,” I reassured myself, “This is a story about redemption!” Joel just needed to save the world, and then we can all sleep easy knowing that he just was doing what everyone else had to do to survive. Thank god that’s all behind us.

I was mistaken, again.

As Joel takes Ellie under his wing, just like I had hoped he would, we’re greeted with a man that is driven to protect the thing he has been avoiding for 20 years, someone he loves. Joel does everything in his power to keep Ellie safe.

As the game reaches its climax, I’m pulling the trigger on countless Fireflies, all the while thinking about how these are probably good men for the most part. They’re trying to save the world, like I was. I just spent the game trying to find them! Now I’m a man driven by blinding love. I hesitantly kill doctors who are working on a cure. I execute the leader of the would-be saviors who’s character development reveals her to be dealing with the same insane moral dilemma that Joel faces with Ellie, but chose a different path, arguably a better path.

By the end of the game, I am no longer guiding a character to achieve a morally sound goal that almost all of us would have picked if given the opportunity. Instead, I’m along for the ride as Joel does his own thing, and he does not give a damn about how sick his actions make me, or how much I yell at my T.V.

I’m left with a sinking feeling in my stomach as the credits roll and all I can think about now is, “How great was that game?!”

Thank you, Naughty Dog, for showing us that fixed storylines aren’t dead in an era where player choice is a mechanic prevalent in many games,  and the ones that do have a fixed story often make it clear what side of the morality spectrum the characters sit while playing.

If we were allowed choice throughout the game, especially in the ending chapters, the story wouldn’t have been an ounce of what it is. Stripping that freedom away from the players allows us to experience the game in a completely different way than one gets from the ability to choose. We had to experience and deal with what was going on, and didn’t get a say in the matter one bit.

-Nick Thompson

@notnickthompson