Making Connections in Video Games: The Last of Us
Upon entering the makeshift surgery room, where Ellie was being prepped for torture , I commanded Joel for the game’s most heroic and desperate moment. Although; after unloading both barrels of my sawed-off shotgun into two unarmed and questionably licensed surgeons, very little about the events felt heroic. It felt more like a choice I consciously made based on the game’s dominating narrative.
Video games have evolved from linear experiences that lead to a finale and sense of accomplishment, to a series of player-made virtual choices that result in an outcome not necessarily designed to please you. Bioware, Bethesda, Quantic Dream and Telltale Games are leading developers in producing titles that solely rely on player choice. In Mass Effect your choices can lead to the extinction of an alien race, and Fallout 3 allows you to determine whether a small town gets obliterated off the map. The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain make you carry the weight of your choices as you can inadvertently cause the permanent death of characters. While these games allow you to spend hours traversing worlds or working to topple kingdoms, they are also designed to accomplish one thing – reflect you.
In regards to The Last of Us, Naughty Dog did not rely on stop-screen choice menus, reaction-time bars, or character mood gauges to stimulate player choice. Instead, the game takes control of the narrative and outcomes unfold before you as you are left with your own reactions to carry on with. The Last of Us allows you to dictate enemy engagement, and you are given agency over method and level of brutality.
The story of The Last of Us introduces us to Joel, a loving father struggling with the mundanities and making ends meet. We watch Joel grow into a hardened post-apocalyptic survivor in constant conflict with his own choices. Unable to process his failure to protect his own daughter, Joel is disconnected and only survives one day at a time. Taking control of the narrative, The Last of Us does not allow players to dictate Joel’s choices directly, instead we learn who he has become, what he has had to do to survive, and what he is willing to do to complete an objective. We follow Joel as his past experiences torment him while he grows to care about his unlikely companion, Ellie.
Naughty Dog set out to create an immersive atmosphere that emphasized the collapse of civility. Joel is constantly placed in grim circumstances where the odds are stacked against him. Where the game releases control is in enemy engagement. If you feel you have the skills to avoid enemy patrols, convoys, and reach a destination without firing a shot, the game will oblige. Although, the narrative of Joel is a clear depiction of a man who is able to handle himself in a straight kill or be killed kind of scenario. We learn that killing is not a hindrance for Joel, it is simply how he sees another day. Finding a purpose, Joel made his way in this new world as a smuggler with an expertise in getting around undetected and maximizing limited resources. In the early acts of the game, it was appropriate to behave accordingly and use evasive strategies when travelling and managing resources efficiently. Ellie becomes a powerful piece of the evolving narrative that impacts our lead character, this also impacts our choices in gameplay.
In the game’s later acts, the mechanics are influenced by Ellies abilities and Joel and Ellie’s relationship as competent fighters. As the narrative continues to depict a growing relationship between Joel and Ellie, Ellie’s vulnerability to the environment has a direct impact on our choices in combat. Where patience, stealth , and careful resource management felt appropriate when Ellie was only a thing to transport, I found myself taking a more brutal and aggressive approach to enemy AI to ensure Ellie’s safety as Joel’s imagined daughter. Stumbling upon a marauder hideout, this dynamic strongly influences your choices.
I no longer reserved bandages or alcohol for med kits and rather crafted more molotovs and explosives to ensure progression. As the game’s difficulty increased, protecting Ellie through stealth rarely was the method of choice as shotguns and bombs felt more satisfying. Whether wrong or right, Joel and Ellie’s relationship directly influenced how you advance to the next segment. Stemming from Joel’s inability to protect his own daughter, the game allowed us to engage the environment how we saw fit. The Joel I controlled would kill as many as he needed to to ensure he did not fail again. The game blantlany offers avenues to avoid direct enemy contact, and opportunities to implement strategy to minimize death and use of resources. I simply chose not to.
With a narrative as immersive as the environment, The Last of Us stimulates player choice through a unique vehicle. The game is a compelling drama that unapologetically plays on our sense of family, parenting, and personal loss. For me, The Last of Us will remain a very personal experience that I made a strong connection with.
Thanks for reading. Check out our play through of The Last of Us in End Game!