‘The Last of Us’ and the Illusion of Choice

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.

TLoU4 590x331 The Last of Us and the Illusion of ChoiceGames 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.

TLoU2 590x331 The Last of Us and the Illusion of ChoiceThis 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.

TLoU5 590x331 The Last of Us and the Illusion of ChoiceI 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.

About Sam Cline

Sam is an adventurer from Dallas, Tx. An avid gamer with a passion for storytelling, he also holds a B.S. in Film. Pop culture is his bag.


  1. Dan Brown says:

    This is absolutely silly. There’s a reason that over the past 3000 years, famous works of literature are NOT “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels. Has this idea been invented? Yes. Why is it not used towards a medium that is literally the foundation of all other meaningful stories? Because it is primarily used for little children. Think about that. If you have read any literature, just imagine how idiotic the story would be if you were given a choice.

    Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment let’s you choose Raskolnikov’s fate, Nabokov’s Lolita allows you to grow a conscience, Shakespeare’s Macbeth enables you to stop the spiral of doom, etc.

    Do you understand why meaningful stories require an absence of choice? Because it is NOT ABOUT YOU. You said it perfectly near the end. The whole reason that the Last of Us is the most awarded game in history and has won so many writing awards is because it is the first time you are not SUPPOSED to use the pronoun “I” in the game. You are supposed to be playing a character, not yourself disguised as a character (GTA5, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, they all fell to this mistake). The point at the end where you complain about this decision, is exactly what makes this game one of the greatest. To tell a meaningful story, you need to explore the thematic decisions made by characters who are different from you, who face different psychological constraints. Joel’s decision is analyzed today, with many people offering up explanations of how he chose a form of humanity over another.

    If you were allowed to make that decision, all of that analysis, that deep look into the human condition and human nature, is spoiled. I suggest you look at other games with strong stories and see how they all offer up the illusion of choice (Bioshock, The Walking Dead, Zero Escape), and then also look at how terrible choice is in novels and interactive movies and even games. I’m glad Naughty Dog did not cater to your whims, because it would have completely destroyed what is probably the greatest achievement in gaming so far.

    • Sam Cline says:

      I would argue that it’s not spoiled, just as much as the ending of Spec Ops: The Line isn’t spoiled by allowing you to make those choices. Instead of a character study it becomes a morality study based on you as a person.

      As you said, a lot of mediums, specifically literature, don’t offer choice, but in video games (where interactivity is the defining factor) when you’re offered choices throughout the game, it’s a bit jarring to suddenly not have a decision about the crux of the title.

      I would argue that, when given choice, you learn a lot more about people/yourself through the ability to make those decisions. How people play Fallout 3 is a lot more telling than how people played The Last of Us. Again, I wouldn’t raise these complaints is The Last of Us had never offered choices in the first place.

      • Where does The Last of Us offer choices in the first place? I never felt like I had choices. In fact, like I said before, what a lot of people comment as the strength of the game is how it, right from the bat, divorces you from feeling as if you are Joel. You play as Sarah, and then you witness Joel do things that most people would not condone. Like Tess says, Joel is a shitty person. The character is lethargic to play as, which is completely unlike how “I” would be in a videogame (compare it to Uncharted’s fluid gameplay). You even play as Ellie. The point I’m making is that the game makers never intended for it to feel like you were Joel and making choices. I have no clue what made you feel like that, but everyone I have heard talking about the game says the exact opposite.

        And as for your point about learning about yourself, keep in mind that that is NOT the point of The Last of Us. I could learn a ton about how someone plays Fallout, and I can learn a ton about how that person plays GTA5 or Skyrim or multiple other games. I could learn a ton about that person just based on WHICH games he plays. Naughty Dog wanted to do something that is rarely found in games, which is to tell a meaningful story. Like I said, to do this, they had to take away choice. I just have very little clue about what you mean on this “illusion” of choice you keep talking about. This is not the Walking Dead or Bioshock, where your choices actually have literally no impact on the story. This is The Last of Us, where there are no choices but a linear story throughout.

        Also, clearly the ending would have been spoiled. Naughty Dog is trying to get a message across: there are different forms of humanity. Just because Joel might have doomed humanity (in the sense of the larger mankind) does not mean he doomed humanity (in the sense of morality, justice, etc.). In fact, he chose his humanity, which he had slowly chipped away at after the death of Sarah, to protect an innocent girl that restored his faith in people in a world of rapists, murderers, cannibals, etc. How could such a message be gotten across if you could sacrifice her? How could they discuss that moral grey zone if you could make a decision that just turned the Last of Us into another zombie story? It’s not possible to get across the story they wanted if they gave you choice. Like I said, think about it like literature. There’s a reason that so many books follow morally ambiguous characters. Take a Tale of Two Cities for example. How many people would actually CHOOSE the ending the book had? The point of the ending is divorced from the idea of choice.

        You cannot tell meaningful stories by offering choice. You can maybe make a game that suits your tastes better, but The Last of Us is about telling one of the first mature meaningful stories in the medium of videogames. It had to be the way it was. Choice was, by necessity, not allowed.

        • I totally agree with all your sentiments. I would also like to add in regards to the article stating that games like Spec Ops & TellTale’s the Walking Dead offer “choice” to the player that these examples offer merely the illusion of choice. Whatever you say or do in the Walking Dead, the same events always transpire, w/ minor differences. TellTale said, just like Dan Brown did, that they are setting out to tell a story, and while they like the player to add flourishes, the player does not dictate the story. I played through Spec Ops once, and they did a great job at making your choices affect the playthrough in a way where it impacted the player more than the story itself. The Last of Us was never put forward as a choose your own adventure style story, the choices were always meant to regard the way that the player approached combat and it did in fact succeed with flying colors, the creators had a mission statement in place, and delivering on that story is what makes the game a classic. I could see games actually making choice matter in the future, but it will be a long road filled w/ many failed experiments that will ultimately end in an interesting place, but it’s not the future of storytelling by any stretch. TLOU was a masterpiece, and to say that it’s undeserving of Game of the Year because it didn’t achieve a goal it never set out to accomplish is ludicrous and kinda backwards. You yourself said the game was fantastically made and one of the best of the year, if the game itself didn’t grab you as much as others did then that’s fine, but the lack of choice should have no bearing on that. It’s like the best kinds of Art, offering a clear & solid statement while also being open enough to inspire thought & conversation in the viewer.

  2. Sam Cline says:

    “You cannot tell meaningful stories by offering choice.” That’s completely bogus. The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, etc; tons of games offer choice and have incredibly meaningful stories.

    I’m pretty sure we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

    • Dan Brown says:

      The Walking Dead is a perfect game that offers the “illusion” of choice. Throughout the game, messages pop up relating to your “choices” but that are completely meaningless. There is absolutely NO WAY to avoid the ending. Characters that you end up saving are killed off anyways, losing the importance of your decision. More than 90% of the decisions actually change nothing, and the 10% that do change an outcome only really direct you towards the ending the gamemakers wanted to go to.

      I did not feel like any of the other games you listed really had meaningful stories that were dramatically altered by choice. Once again, it’s not bogus. Literature is a prime example. Why are there literally ZERO good “Choose Your Own Adventure” books out there? The medium has been around for 3000 years, compared to the the tiny 50 for videogames. See, if you answer that question, you arrive at the fact of the matter. Choice divorces you from the consequences of your actions. You can replay and replay, the weight of the ending becoming nonexistant. Also, you cannot have a meaningful consequence by choice because that implies, if you chose differently, you might have had another consequence, which then dilutes the meaning dramatically.

      It’s not a matter of agreeing to disagree. If you argue that you want something that is not trying to tell a meaningful story, which is fair, then go ahead. I just cannot imagine the Last of Us without its ending. If you give a choice, you completely ruin the entire message of the game. I cannot fathom how you retain the poignant look at what humanity entails if you allow gamers the choice to make Ellie into the “Child of Omelas.” There’s a deep philosophical stance that the game makers take here, and choice completely ruins it.

    • Marcus Anderstrom says:

      while i have never played walking dead i have heard many great things about its story and choice system. Its probably why i won’t play it, cause what the point of saving someone if they just die to another unavoidable threat later. but as far as Dragon age, mass effect and Fallout those are some pretty bad games as far as story telling.

  3. jak_d_ripr says:

    I’m sorry but complaining about the last of us giving the illusion of choice, while praising the walking dead in the same article is just silly. The last of us never once gave us the impression there was going to be any choice, don’t get upset at the developer because you developed those expectations yourself. There isn’t a single story choice in the entire game, what gave you the impression the ending would diverge from this? The last of us was always sold as a linear experience and that’s what the game delivered.

    On the other hand, the walking dead is honestly the poster child for the illusion of choice. Like dan brown already said, not a single choice you make has any real consequence, save carley or save doug? Doesn’t matter, they both get shot by lily. Desert lily or let her stay with you? Doesn’t matter, she leaves the group anyway. Save or drop ben? Doesn’t matter, dies anyway. Cut of lee’s arm or leave it on? Doesn’t bloody matter because he turns anyway. I can’t believe you actually list this game as an example of choices that matter.

    The last of us gave a very interesting ending, whether or not this would have been spoilt by choice is another discussion, the fact is the game never once sold itself as anything but a linear adventure, I don’t understand where you got this impression of choice from.

  4. lol Sam, you’re a bit far reaching with your argument. You’re drawing at straws here, and your argument has been spread so thin there’s nothing holding it up. There’s virtually nothing in TLOU where you can change the story through your actions. It plays out in a completely linear fashion, regardless of difficulty level, or how you play. The same people live and die every single play through regardless. There isn’t so much an illusion of choice, so much as your delusion that you had a choice in the first place, making the crux of your argument completely moot and invalid.

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