The long and winding road…
Spoilers for The Last of Us follow.
What is it that separates movies from video games? What changes the dynamic in the medium? The obvious answer is interactivity, and if you’d like to go a little deeper; choice. Being able to choose how the character in a game operates is an active experience, as opposed to the passive experience of watching a movie.
The Last of Us was an amazing game that seemingly built up these choices only to reveal that you were playing a movie.
Games where you don’t decide the fate of the characters are nothing new. In fact, they’re not even inherently bad. It’s all in the context of the reveal and the storytelling of each game. However, we live and game in a world where Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead exist. In the last few years, choice has been a huge mechanic in some of the biggest releases in gaming. Being able to play as the hero and shape their/your world based on that is an incredible opportunity and experience.
The Uncharted series didn’t offer any choices to be made by the character, but, seemingly, there was an understanding of what the games were. They were fun, character driven, movie games in which the players never really make any real decisions. Most players enjoyed the characters, but never really connected with them on the same level as The Last of Us.
This is the problem that presents itself with The Last of Us. Throughout the course of the game, you grow with each of the main characters and every little moment is an opportunity to learn more and invest in the relationship that Joel and Ellie share. As you explore the world, you can choose to interact with objects/people in the environment and learn a little bit more about the world that remains. These little decisions make Joel and Ellie your Joel and Ellie. It’s possible to make it through the whole of the game without ever experiencing these things.
Being presented with these smaller decisions led me to believe that the final decision would be one that the player themselves could make. The final decision isn’t a hard one to see coming. Throughout the game, the importance of Ellie is constantly reiterated. I had a feeling that the final moments would come down to letting her die and saving the world, or letting her live and dooming the world to a continued existence with the infected. When you make it to the final level and it’s revealed that it is the final decision, you don’t get to make it. There’s only one way to finish the game, and that’s with Joel taking Ellie, leaving, and thus, dooming the world.
I would’ve let Ellie die. As hard as that decision was to make and to obsess over, Ellie dying was better for humanity in the long run, even though it wasn’t for Joel. That’s where the divide is. The whole game I was invested in the characters. I referred to them in the first person, like “I did that this way,” etc. The finale ruined all of that. Instead of, “Man, I’m an awful person for choosing Ellie,” it’s “Man, Joel’s an awful person for choosing Ellie.” The veil was broken. The illusion of choice was revealed, and that made all of my investment for naught.
Is The Last of Us a fantastically made game? Yes. Is it one of the best games of this past year? Yes. Did it deserve “Game of the Year?” Not in my opinion. They built up so much greatness and when it was time to put the cherry on top, they dropped the whole sundae. If you’re going to allow choice, then really allow it, even when it’s difficult.