What I was looking for in the ending of The Last of Us

Last of Us

Please note that the following article contains spoilers for the ending of The Last of Us. Don’t worry: there will another warning before this happens.

Spoilers aside, this is in part a revisit to an article I wrote back in June 2012 on the now-defunct badgercommander.net site.

Given the age of the original article, those who have played the game may be amused by how much of what I wanted married with what actually happened in the game.

What I was looking for in The Last of Us

I was somewhat looking forward to The Last of Us, a cinematic post-apocalyptic experience from Naughty Dog. They’re a studio which may not be good at mechanics but are certainly good at mood and storytelling.

Given this I was disappointed to read this piece on Shacknews and moreso when I saw this E3 demo.

Uncharted on Hardcore was not what I wanted. What I wanted was a post-apocalyptic game that forces thoughtful navigation through terrain, not a pop and shoot ride with a limited bullet count. Also, I was under the impression that this was to be an undead game whereas everything now indicates to the contrary.

It now looks like I am going to have to rely on I Am Alive and the upcoming Deadlight for the kind of experience I was looking for.

At the same time as I got to thinking about what I truly wanted from a game like this, I started worrying about the relationship between the two protagonists in The Last of Us and how the developer is going to make us care about their relationship. Getting people to care about something in a game is tough to do; for every Far Cry 2 success there is a Mass Effect 3 failure.

So what did I want from The Last of Us?

Truth is… I wanted an undead game.

Most games focus on the aftermath of a zombie/infected outbreak. I wanted something similar to the opening of the Dawn of the Dead remake, following it through to encountering the Mall.

The main character would be a family person, with a spouse and one kid. The game would open with them waking up in the morning.  Depending on the verbs to be used throughout the game I’d want it to be introduced in a mundane fashion. Looking over at the clock is used to explain use of the right analog stick/Mouse; turning the clock off explains which button or key is used to interact with objects. This could be expanded: if there is shooting mechanism with an iron-sight or over the shoulder cam then this could be shown through taking a picture of the character’s child (first day at school, a birthday or something similar). If there is a crouching feature, this could be demonstrated when the character ties their shoelaces just before running – another potential mechanic – for the bus. A cover mechanic could be used in a game of hide and seek… but maybe I am just pushing this too much.

The whole time this is happening the environment would be telling a story that the player could easily miss or ignore: a television playing in the living room reporting problems on the street, strangers randomly bumping into the protagonist as they race for their bus, and people discussing events while the protagonist is in their workplace going through their motions.

Then the outbreak would occur.

All of the actions demonstrated within the tutorial would then be repeated but with more sinister connotations: climbing over debris, running from chasers, picking up a weapon and then being forced to kill.

I am fascinated by the idea of a companion and how you would go about endearing a player to an NPC; you wouldn’t want them to be as helpless as Yorda, nor a crutch like Elika in the Prince of Persia reboot, nor overpowered like the teammates in Gears of War 3.

A simple introduction wherein the player rescues the companion following which the tables turn and the player finds themselves on the receiving end of help would be my preferred method of setting up the interactions between the player and the companion. How this would work I am not sure. Would they be equals in terms of their capabilities? Personally I would rather there were more of a Knight’s Contract vibe to it but with a more robust supporting character. But how to endear the player to them? I mean, one player’s Agro is another player’s Navi.

That is the 1 million pound question.

Mechanically it has to go further than just needing them to open doors for you. Narratively it would be good to tie their dependency into association, a father or mother figure for a daughter or son. It would have to be done slowly in terms of development, progressing past the tutorial with the bond not being a simple ‘hey, here you go, you now like this person.’

The ending of the intro would be the main character trying to track down their family with the help of their companion. The protagonist returns to their home to find their spouse dead, eaten by their offspring.

I reckon that would be a suitably traumatic opening for a game.

Summary 

It is amazing how much of what I wanted is actually incorporated into The Last of Us. Sure, it was still Uncharted on Hardcore but the way that Naughty Dog introduced the game and the subsequent development of Ellie and Joel’s relationship is better than I could have imagined.

Despite some of the game’s limitations mechanically, a lot of what the story was attempting was effective.

That is, until I hit the ending.

What I was looking for in the ending of The Last of Us

Right, if you weren’t already aware of it from the title above, there are now going to be complete spoilers for the ending of The Last of Us.

Joel and Ellie reach their destination but Ellie almost drowns in the process and Joel is rendered unconscious. He wakes up to find himself in a hospital outpost with the rebel faction that Joel was supposed to deliver Ellie to surrounding him. It’s explained to Joel that Ellie is unconscious and about to undergo a procedure that will kill her but will likely result in them discovering a cure for the disease. In a cutscene, Joel is being walked out of the hospital at gun point when he attacks the guard and then, in gameplay, you gun your way through 40 armed guards to get to the operating room where Ellie is being held.

You then have the option to either kill the doctor threatening you with a scapel and rescue Ellie, or kill all three of the staff in the operating room and rescue Ellie.

After a ‘push forward to continue gameplay’ section, Joel eventually reaches a car parking lot and another cutscene triggers in which he is confronted by the leader of the rebel group. Pleading for him to stop, Joel guns her down, gets into a car and drives off.

Still in a cutscene, Ellie wakes up in the back of the car. Joel explains to her that there were more people like her operated on by the rebel group and that they’d not found a cure, so he’d taken her and headed back to a safe place.

At this point, you control Ellie and follow Joel along a mountain path towards his brother’s encampment, the game attempting to portray this shift of perspective mechanically and also emotionally.

The game reverts to a cutscene in which Ellie confronts Joel. In it, she explains all the loss that she has witnessed and how she believed she would be part of the solution. She then demands that Joel be honest with her, tell her the truth – confirm what he told her before. He glances about a little nervously, then replies that it is all true. She responds with a complicated ‘okay’.

It’s a great moment, with the emotions on display being genuinely affecting.

I get what Naughty Dog were trying to do; there’s an unrepentent sense of nihilism throughout. As an audience, we are supposed to feel helpless in watching this man descend to the very lowest point he could possibly go, before then descending further and undermining anything he may have held dear.

The problem is that the game doesn’t really earn it.

Every turn and twist in that final debacle is clearly Joel’s story; you, as the player, are relegated to the audience. Whether you agree with Joel’s actions from the hopsital onwards are irrelevant because there is no real agency in your actions. You can choose how these people die, but that’s it. As the player, it’s easy to distance yourself from the atrocity as you are not actually performing these actions. Instead, you can easily reason that it’s Joel who’s committing to these actions and that you are no more than a puppet in the game’s whims.

This cheapens the denouement. Sure, it’s beautifully rendered and acted, but you are now in the realm of a film or book. These more passive experiences allow you to relate to characters that you may have nothing in common with, but using this form of narrative is at odds with what games can do.

For example, Spec Ops: The Line has multiple endings with each ‘right’ choice – player actions which extend the game length or would be considered the right choice in another title simply descending the protagonist and the player further into despair. It is delicious in that sense, as it’s counter-intuitive to the player; that doing nothing is more positive (but not all that positive) than taking action is something we are not trained to appreciate.

So, I propose an alternate ending to The Last of Us.

Or, rather: endings.

As Joel is being escorted by the guard after waking up in the rebel base a button prompt would appear, indicating that pressing it will take the guard out. If the player does nothing, they’ve got their first ending.

It cuts to several years later, the infection has been curtailed, people are starting to rebuild the country. Joel sits in a bar drinking. The camera zooms in on his face, his eyes are deadened, sunken into the sockets of his skull, his entire visage is haggard and he has clearly lost some weight. He mechanically drinks until the glass is empty. A bartender approaches him and asks if he wants another. He nonchalantly looks at the bartender; you can see that the smile on his face is bitter. He replies ‘Sure, why not?’. At that point, you cue credits.

The second ending would be triggered if the player presses the button to take out the guard. Then you, as the player, must indulge in murdering a group of men that, ideologically, are in a better moral position than the protagonist.

The turning point is when you realise that maybe killing a bunch of medics might not be the way to go. It would not be indicated anywhere, but you would be able to simply walk out of the operating room (anecdotally, a lot of players I know tried to do this). In this scenario, Joel is gunned down by the remaining rebels, the game cutting to black to the sound of gunfire. The game ends there, with no explanation on what happened next.

Then there would be the final, original ending from the game, with the player sinking right into the emotional mire with Joel.

Each blossoming step takes the player down Joel’s path both narratively and mechanically. The player is so used to following what the game says that, when they are punished for it, the first thing they will try and do is to ‘win’. They will try to game the ending only to discover that there it only gets marginally better with each inaction. The message would be clear and still in line with Naughty Dog’s vision: life in this world is only shades of misery.

It would also mean that the player would be forced to commit the worst of the crimes willingly to get the ending where both protagonists live, and the game would make the player own the cost of that. The lack of hope would be reinforced by the mechanics and the subversion of the player’s desire to always win would hammer it home.

This is what games can do. By making a player active in this, it is possible to experience things in a way that films, books, photographs simply cannot. Someone needs to pick up this gauntlet (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a good start) if we are to see storytelling in games grow.