Topic: You Can't Stop This: Illusory Choice in THE LAST OF US 2 [spoilers]
Since this is the longform writing hub in general, figured I'd post here—lemme know if it's best sorted elsewhere. Medium link here!
Y'all know I love the first game and have been wanting to love this game for years, so it brought me no pleasure to write this, a piece on how The Last of Us Part II actively hates its players and its protagonist and wants nothing more than to traumatize them in the name of delivering a bad lecture.
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One of Naughty Dog’s talking points leading up to the release of The Last of Us Part II was that the game featured a powerful new adversary: dogs trained to sniff you out and attack you once they’ve found you. The sadism of this new gameplay component is, Naughty Dog says, the point — with every dog stabbed, shot, or set on fire, the player is meant to feel the weight of their actions as they carve a bloody path to vengeance no matter the cost. And they are your actions — because, the studio said in an official PlayStation blog post, you can get through the game without killing a dog at all.
Getting jumped by a dog is not only nerve-racking and dangerous, it presents players with the moral choice of whether they flee or take it out. Naughty Dog confirms that you don’t have to kill these animals to progress, and personally… based on my heavy heart following the demo you’re better off evading them.
Only one problem with that confirmation: it’s a lie.
Late in the third act of Ellie’s story (the game’s structural wonkiness is such that this is only about halfway through its playtime), you’re moving through an abandoned aquarium in pursuit of Abby, the woman who brutally killed Joel, only to come face to face with her guard dog. In one of the button-mashing quick-time events that are peppered throughout Naughty Dog games, the dog lunges at you, and you’re forced to stab her with your switchblade. There’s no way around it, no alternate path to take. No matter how painstakingly you may sneak around enemy dogs prior to this point, you cannot progress without killing this one.
In this moment, the illusion that you’re morally responsible for your canine murder collapses. Naughty Dog never intended to provide you the option to avoid it. The game is determined to make you kill a dog, because it is determined to make you feel guilty.
* * *
Throughout the last four years of pre-release hype for The Last of Us Part II, director Neil Druckmann has made it clear that this game is About Something, specifically cyclical violence and the trauma it creates. In an interview with Kotaku, Druckmann said,
We’re making a game about the cycle of violence and we’re making a statement about violent actions and the impact they have on the character that’s committing them and on the people close to them. And our whole approach is to say, ‘We want to treat this as realistically as possible.’ When you stab someone — if you watch reference videos, which we have, it’s gross and it’s messy and it’s not sanitized like you see in most movies and games. And we wanted to get the player to feel that. [. . .] [The idea is] for the player to feel repulsed by some of the violence they are committing themselves. It felt like that is the most honest way to tell this story.
“Fun,” Druckman has insisted, is not a word he wants to use to describe the game. Its intent — through putting you in situations where you’ll hear your victims’ names screamed as you kill them, watch their dying convulsions as they bleed out from shotgun wounds, and experience their anguish as you slaughter their dogs — is to repulse, to punish. To leave the player sadder and wiser about the choices they’ve made and the pain they’ve inflicted.
This should strike anyone who’s familiar with Naughty Dog’s games as a bit of an odd goal, since their narratives are not by any means choice-based. Whether it’s The Last of Us or the Uncharted series, the studio’s last decade and a half of games have been defined by linear stories about characters who are distinctly separated from player input. Coming from a studio like Bioware, whose games like Mass Effect hinge on choice (though even there the level of player autonomy is wildly overstated), this kind of exploration would make sense. Coming from Naughty Dog, it’s at best counterintuitive.
Which is perhaps why they’ve also emphasized the openness of Part II in comparison to their previous titles. The game, they emphasize in promotional material, is not only their longest but their widest, full of multiple paths through encounters and at least one semi-open-world segment. This scale, Druckmann and others imply, by its very presence adds player choice to the game — you can, if you’re averse to violence, simply stealth your way through each section and call it good.
Having finished a 30+-hour playthrough of Part II this weekend, I can verify that it’s as expansive as advertised, and that there are far more possibilities for traversing combat encounters than in the previous game. You can go in guns blazing; you can sneak through undetected; you can say “Fuck it” and run, trusting to luck not to get shot; or you can combine approaches. But the odds that a player could travel through the entire game without killing a single enemy are of course vanishingly small, and every time you do kill someone the game is sure to let you know that it sees what you’ve done and is not happy about it.
Stuff like enemies calling out the names of the NPC you’ve shot is eye-rolling moralizing, and the way it’s implemented is clunky at best — I lost count of the number of times I shot an AI unit that otherwise would have shot me only for its companions to cry out “Oh my god, [x name here]!!!” But that sort of lecturing isn’t new to video games, and in a vacuum wouldn’t make Part II uniquely repugnant.
The problem is that Naughty Dog isn’t content to lecture the player. They want to punish you for playing their game, and they want to make you complicit in your own punishment.
* * *
In a sequence midway through Ellie’s half of the game, you’ve taken her to a hospital basement to track down a friend of Abby’s who knows where she’s hiding. As chase gameplay transitions to a cutscene, the woman tells Ellie she won’t talk no matter what happens. Ellie sets her face, and raises a crowbar.
And then a button prompt comes up.
Hit her, the game tells you. It’s not enough to watch Ellie do it. You have to. And if all you do is sit here, nothing will change. The button will still be there, its mute presence a command.
So you hit her. And the prompt comes up again, and you hit her again. And so on, and so on, until a cut to black. When Ellie returns to her home base visibly shaken by what she’s done, you’re meant to feel a mix of sympathy for and horror of her, but you’re also meant to feel guilt. You did this, the game design tells you. You did this to her.
It’s a crass bit of manipulation that occurs again and again throughout the game. You’re forced into situations where it’s nearly impossible to progress without committing violence, which the game will immediately chastise you for; and on the off chance you do manage to achieve a relatively peaceful outcome, it will force you to torture and maim and kill in “choices” that are reduced to “If you want to proceed you have to hit square — but don’t blame us! You should feel guilty for what you’re perpetrating.”
The game wants to punish its players, and that urge is hardwired into it. It makes you commit acts of unspeakable violence all with one easy button push, and then rubs your nose in the trauma that results. But granting players the illusion of choice in order to lord a moral high ground over them isn’t the only way Naughty Dog strips away agency. They also compromise their own characters.
* * *
Joel’s ultimate sin in The Last of Us — the act that drives a wedge into his relationship with Ellie — is his denial of her choice. When he learns that creating a vaccine for cordyceps infection will kill her, he goes on a murderous rampage to save her. He’s convinced of the rightness of his own actions, but they are actions ultimately made for selfish reasons. He loves Ellie, but not enough to treat her as a human being, only enough to want to protect her for himself. And so, when she asks what happened, he lies to her. He tells her that there are dozens more immune people across the country, and any attempts to derive a cure from them have been useless.
Ellie knows he’s lying, and it’s clear in the final moments of the first game that she considers it unforgivable. Which makes it all the more repulsive that, in the sequel where she takes center stage, Druckmann and Co. strip Ellie of any dimension she has in order to turn her into the crux of their moralizing.
The Last of Us Part II is obsessed with taking a protagonist who has already suffered untold trauma in the first half of her story — death of friends, attempted rape, watching loved ones turn into mindless infected — and doubling down on the pain inflicted upon her. As a direct result of her single-minded yearning for vengeance after Joel is killed, her friend Jesse is gunned down. Her surrogate uncle Tommy is blinded in one eye, left with a permanent limp, and sees his marriage crumble apart. The woman she loves, Dina, is nearly killed. And while the game wants to look as though it empathizes with her, its constant fingerpointing is only ever barely beneath its surface.
The Ellie of the first The Last of Us is defined by her essential goodness — she’s an imperfect person, but fiercely loyal, empathetic to a fault, and insistent on doing the right thing for others even when it risks her safety. The Ellie presented in Part II, however, is defined by her selfishness. She deliberately puts her party members in harm’s way time and again in order to get closer to her goal of vengeance. She willingly infects the aforementioned torture victim to get her to talk. She brutally murders dozens upon dozens of people over the course of her three days in Seattle. She is in every aspect so monomanically focused on vengeance no matter the cost to others that it strains any credulity or plausibility, because the game really has no interest in continuing her story. It simply wants to use her as an avatar for the canned moral Druckmann wants to impart, no matter how much that means overriding her best parts or hurting her and the people she cares about.
In an unintentionally perfect embodiment of this betrayal, the first of the game’s final boss fights sees the player, in control of Abby, facing off against an AI-controlled Ellie. Its mechanics are too reminiscent of Ellie’s own fight with the cannibal pedophile David in the first game to be a coincidence — you sneak around AI Ellie through a crowded backstage area in a dilapidated theater, waiting for the right opportunity to strike her from behind. Ellie throws out the occasional line as she fights you, but Ashley Johnson’s voice work isn’t enough to dispel the uncanny-valley nature of the sequence. We’re not fighting Ellie. We’re fighting an empty vessel the game is using for whatever purpose it best sees fit.
* * *
And then, after the first of several endings — Ellie, beaten and broken, all her friends dead or critically wounded, is spared by Abby and told never to come back — the game keeps going.
It’s years later, and Ellie and Dina have seemingly found their happy ending. They live together in a revitalized farmhouse, raising Dina’s baby, loving each other openly and tenderly. Ellie isn’t without her troubles — the trauma of Joel’s death and of the havoc she wreaked in Seattle linger — but they’re doing okay.
And then — because Naughty Dog have evidently not ground the point into your face with their boot deeply enough — things keep going.
Tommy shows up and lets Ellie know that Abby has been located in California. Ellie, against Dina’s pleas, goes after her again. When Abby won’t fight her, Ellie, in a moment so wildly out of character it’s appalling, puts a knife to the throat of Abby’s teenage companion Lev and tells her if they don’t fight, she’ll kill him. Over the course of their fight, Ellie has two fingers ripped off by Abby’s teeth. And THEN, Naughty Dog decides enough suffering has been inflicted upon her that the idiot players will get the fucking point.
After thirty hours of unrelenting brutality, Ellie decides, for no discernible reason, enough is enough and lets Abby go. Her reward for this is to return to an abandoned home, Dina and the baby gone. She sits down to play the guitar that is the last remnant of her relationship with Joel, but with two fingers missing she’s no longer able to do so. And that’s where we leave her.
For the game to take Ellie, who was herself almost raped and killed as a teenager, and have her threaten a child’s life to make another woman fistfight her is a sickening betrayal of her character. I still love that character — who appears in fits and starts throughout Part II, mostly in extensive flashback sequences that are genuinely moving precisely because they’re free to be about people and not simply imparting a simpleminded indictment. But the Ellie who exists for most of Part II isn’t that person, or indeed any person. She’s a puppet, flung around from brutality to brutality, until Naughty Dog finally decides it has punished her and the player enough for daring to act out the scenario it’s forced upon them.
* * *
And what has this contempt for its audience and its characters earned Naughty Dog?
Currently, Part II is one of the highest-rated games of all time on Metacritic. It’s being hailed by game critics and fans as a masterpiece, one of the pinnacles of games as a medium. It will almost certainly go on to get Game of the Year, and Naughty Dog will be able to deflect any criticism towards its narrative (or their studio’s abominable crunch practices) as the mere ramblings of online bigots (never mind that their game seems to be intent on inflicting as much suffering on its queer protagonist as possible).
So perhaps, after all, that contempt is warranted. Maybe it’s what we deserve.