The Last of Us: The breaking of the game-player contract

Note: If you did not play the game, do not read the article. It would completely spoil the experience.

the-last-of-us-playstation-3-ps3-1323617313-009I really loved The Last of Us, and I’ve been very much touched by its story. This “trolling” post’s title is just stating that a modern game has duties to fullfil regarding player’s interaction. And I felt betrayed by Naughty Dog’s decision to not give the player the final choice. So, what’s the problem ?

The game-player contract

The story is linear, and this is the source of the problem. But linear scenario is not new to video games (it’s the contrary actually), and especially for Naughty Dog (all Uncharted games, as good as they were, were very linear). In The Last of Us they have written a very deep, complex scenario about relationship, traumas, psychology and survival instincts. the-last-of-us-sunsetThe player has no choice to make in game, while the story goes on and the characters reveal their true nature, and build their relations. A goal is given to the player at the beginning of the game, and he feels like he’s working to reach it all along. We are used to heroes that have more or less complex character. In The Last of Us, even when Joel has doubts (especially when he finds his brother and tries to leave Ellie), we know that he will finally make the expected choice to keep on reaching the initial goal (saving the world, mostly). And I was fine with it: when the hero is given a mission, it’s actually a contract between the game and the player (“you can play the game, if you accept to save the world through it”). External actions can change the course of the mission, and the player (through the game) will adapt. Or, in non-linear games, that’s the player’s decisions (in addition to external factors) that shape, more or less, the story (cf. The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Fallout).

The story of The Last of Us

the-last-of-us-screenshot-ME3050053980_2But the epilogue of The Last of Us is really breaking this game-player contract. Joel has, in the end, motivations that are different than the player supposed, and that’s where I felt betrayed: when a game gives you a character to play, it either introduces it to you or let you customize it, so you trust the game to make the character act as you’d expect (when it doesn’t let you make the decisions for him). Naughty Dog decided to break this contract, so I really felt like I was just a spectator in the end, and not an actor of the story. Video game is THE interactive art, so I think that developers have not the right to make the player believe he controls the character, and then impose tough, crucial decisions to him. It’s easy to imagine a Zelda game where Link, in the end, uses the Triforce to take over the world of Hyrule, instead of protecting it, and that would be shocking. There are linear games where the hero is actually bad, but it’s in the game-player contract (God of War is the best example).

A tough call

The-Last-of-Us-01The conclusion of this topic is not to say that Naughty Dog made a mistake. It was the only possible conclusion to make it a truly memorable game. If Joel had delivered Ellie and let people make the vaccine, they would have been heroes, Ellie would have died, Joel (and the player) would have been very sad, and the game would have been simply excellent. The actual ending is shocking, emotionally very powerful, but I feel it’s an ending that should be delivered in a movie, because you take it as a spectator, but that”s not the case in a video game, through the mouth of your own character. Naughty Dog tried to prepare the player to this conclusion throughout the game (from the prologue to the evolution of the Joel-Ellie relationship), but I didn’t agree with Joel’s decision of killing every people in the hospital to save Ellie. I did this with resentment. Maybe it would have been a little better if all the epilogue (including this last chapter) has been presented through a (long) cinematic.

I’d really love to talk about it with the writers at Naughty Dog’s, to have their feeling about it. Did they reflect on this matter: Making a strong, memorable but frustrating experience, or rather a logical ending to the story, for a quite classic (but excellent) game ?

EDIT: after some discussions about the article and following reflections, I must admit that this choice is a masterstroke. But I also feel that it is and will be a one shot experience, as no game will be able to reiterate it so much success. I really think that breaking the game-player contract will create more and more frustration and/or suspicion as it is repeated. This way, we cannot say that Naughty Dog made the video game art move forward, but most definitely had an excellent original idea and made an excellent product from it. But like Usual Suspects in its own time, which ending was a very big surprise, every following movie using the same trick were less and less surprising as they were released.

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  1. Deckard

    I like it this way. Finished the game a week ago, couldn’t imaging a better ending to my opinion. (I was scared during the last chapter that Joel might accept to sacrifice Ellie).
    Concerning the “no choice” ending, as you said the whole game prepares to this ending, that would not make sense to give the choice.
    Anyway I admit the game is very linear but it’s the key to build strong character relationship.
    All the recent games wich let you choose your actions (Dishonored, Infamous…) just do it wrong, I don’t feel any character appropriation, you just try to see what happens and don’t make choices with your guts.
    Only real open world games as the Elder Scrolls games can bring both character and story appropriation and action freedom but can’t bring such a deep scenario.

    The last of us is probably one of the best game ever (to my eyes!).

  2. GameAsArt

    Thanks for sharing your opinion about it.
    I myself agree that the game would not have been as memorable with a different ending. After a little more thinking, I think it might have been done on purpose by the developper. I mean that in a movie, this reaction would not have been so shocking, because we would have expected it (on the other end, cinema is a lot older medium). Forcing your own character to act as a selfish bastard is the only way to make it that strong.
    But still, I didn’t want to be a bastard, and while I can accept it because it’s the very first time I have that kind of feeling in a video game, I would be very disappointed if other games in the future use the same trick.

    • Deckard

      As time goes on I tend to like games with scenario, atmosphere. I’m more into the contemplation thing. Gameplay comes next.
      So maybe I was more incline to Naughty Dog’s preparation but for me when I played the game, my only concern was to save Ellie what ever I would have to do.

      • GameAsArt

        To talk about the game itself, I feel that most of its components are absolutely amazing (story, characters, acting, music, artistic direction, visuals, ambiance), but the gameplay is just a way to get the player involved while he’s waiting the next cinematic. The gameplay is not amazing, just good, and in the end, I feel that this art piece as a whole is lesser that the sum of its part (which is quite the contrary of masterpieces like Shadow of the Colossus or Journey, for instance).

  3. Kris Lee

    I am actually rather impressed by the design decisions made in the gameplay for Last of Us. Instead of the same over the top combat shooter game, what you get from playing Last of Us is the feeling and experience of survival in a world where resources are scarce (though this will differ depending on the difficulty level you chose). You become conscious of the resources you currently have and you react accordingly, like you will want to conserve ammo, only use your nail bombs and molotov when you really need to (or when you are having too much resources). This create a gameplay that cannot be described as “fun” but I feel that it create a sublime experience that feels true to the settings of the world you are caught within.

    I feel that the gameplay is really a work of art that is based not in the realms of ludology but in the realm of emotive experience design. 😛 just my views on the best game that make me feel emotionally engaged since Journey.

    • GameAsArt

      Hi, glad you took your time to share your thoughts about it.
      I agree the survival mechanic a very good feature of the game, but I feel that in a survival game there should be choices to be made, because surviving mostly means running out of time and trying to make the best choices from the time you have left (which is excellently done in “Don’t Starve” for instance). I never felt the urge of time in the game, and actually lost a lot of time looking for every hidden items in the areas. Therefore, I never really felt in danger. And the linearity of the game actually hurts this feeling, since the story stays the same whatever you’re doing during the gameplay stages. This is more a survival kind of the game like the first Resident Evil, than what we have found recently, like “Don’t Starve”, “The Walking Dead”(which makes you feel like your choices have an impact on the story), or even “FTL: Faster Than Light”. Talking about “The Last of Us” kind of survival games, “Dead Space” is truly amazing.

      And, I totally agree that Journey is one of the most amazing art masterpiece we have been offered these last years. 😉

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