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The Last of Us: The breaking of the game-player contract
by Frederic Fourcade on 02/24/14 05:56:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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. But there's still something that botheres me in this game. Indeed, I feel 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 DeadMass EffectFallout).

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.

If you want to read more articles about video game as a proper art form, please visit my blog gameasart.net


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Comments


Mike Lentini
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I have to disagree with you entirely here. When I walked into the operating room I sat for a second thinking, "What now?" As soon as I realized I had to kill everyone, my heart sank and I felt something a game never made me feel before. I had to kill these people to save Ellie, but I didn't want to. It was a truly fantastic experience, and I think taking that control away from the player accomplished exactly what Naughty Dog wanted. It should never be assumed that giving the player complete control of the story is the best thing for a game. The Last of Us would have suffered if it fell into that common assumption.

Frederic Fourcade
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Of course, you can't give complete control to the player, that's what open-world minecraft-like games are made for, and that is not what The Last of Us is about. What I deeply regret is that the game gives control of one character, and when comes the toughest choice you have to make, you realize you are not controlling him. And the game makes the choice for you.
As I said, for the game to be that memorable, they had to make the game finish that way, but I felt like I was the character's puppet, instead of the character being mine. That would have been interesting if it had been assumed, like breaking the fourth wall. But they forced me to conclude the game as they intended, leaving me choosing between abandoning the game or doing as they told me to do. That's why it may have been better to conclude the game with a cutscene (which is the case with the very last discussion between Joel and Ellie, where the choice of saying "no" is as important as the choice of saving her).


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