Entrapped: The Illusion of Agency in Naughty Dog’s Magnum Opus
Very few video games can make people weep at their conclusion. That emotional gut punch, amplified by a profound soundtrack, is often the domain of cinema. So it was a welcome surprise when I found myself crying at the end of The Last of Us in 2014.
A masterpiece in its own right, that game had shook everything I had come to believe about video games, no easy feat to accomplish with the Playstation 3’s then-groundbreaking but now cringe-worthy pixel count.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Last of Us, it is a post-apocalyptic zombie game with a plausibly scientific twist: The story focuses on a hypothetical mutation of the terrifyingly real cordyceps fungus, which takes over the brain and thus, the motor functions, of insects. The what-if scenario of the game explored the fungus’ jump from insects to humans, transforming people into spore-spreading vectors with a violent edge.
The game opens with the protagonist, Joel, losing his daughter to the military’s violent approach to maintaining quarantine at the onset of the outbreak. The game then jumps 20 years into the future, presenting him as a cynical, gruff man whose morally gray methods of survival in a world ravaged by the fungus can be… questionable at times. Circumstances demand that he transport a young girl who appears to be immune to the fungus, to a scientific facility across a United States ravaged by warring factions and infected “zombies”, with the hopes of using her immunity to find a vaccine.
Despite his initial resistance to any kind of emotional bond, over the course of the game, Joel slowly develops an attachment to this proxy daughter figure, Ellie, who in turn welcomes him as a father figure. The way in which this relationship manifests is so gradual, so patient, and elegant, it merits all the awards the game has in fact, won.
Towards the end of the game, we are presented with various X-rays of what the cordyceps looks like spreading throughout the brain. We are told that in order for a vaccine to be engineered, that girl the game has spent nearly 20 expertly crafted cinematic hours nudging Joel, and by association, the player, to care about, needs to die; that developing a vaccine requires for her brain to be dissected along with the uniquely mutated cordyceps growth in it.
In the end, Joel decides that saving Ellie takes precedence, and murders the entire medical staff as they are about to operate on her, as well as the militia guarding them. The player is not given a choice as to whether this the path they would follow. Unlike other games developed during the 2000s and 2010s, such as Dishonored, Bioshock, etc., there is a distinct lack of alternative moral routes presented in gameplay. Completing The Last of Us demands the player’s motives and actions align with Joel’s. And perhaps due to its relatable darkness, that ending was groundbreaking.
So strong was my faith in the developer, Naughty Dog, that it didn’t cross my mind for a second that a sequel could destroy the universe established the original, in the way so many well-intentioned sequels have.
As I played The Last of Us Part II, I found myself physically moving the familiar Playstation DualShock controller away from my body, uncomfortably extending my arms further and further as I played, wishing to distance myself from this new, older Ellie during her serial-killing spree across the Pacific Northwest. The player-instinct instilled in us in the first game, of protecting this young girl at all costs, was wiped completely, and to be fair, quite artfully. However, this glorious game that had such a knack for nuance in the original, had reduced its sensibilities to one idiotic message that was hammered into my head the way Ellie bashed people’s skulls in, over, and over, and over, again:
Other people are people too.
Given the many crises the world is going through, this message is surely valuable. Empathy is valuable, and teaching young people empathy through video games is a noble goal. The only problem is that the game does not allow you to demonstrate you have received this message, does not allow you to be merciful, or, dare I say, outright non-violent.
The only narrative path forward is one where the protagonist is asked to brutally murder anyone and everyone whom they view, or whom the game presents, as “the other”. Sure, a stealth option exists, but it often means less deaths, not none. One could argue death is an inevitable part of most videogames, however, when it is presented with such a degree of emotional resonance and brutality, it gives the player pause, more than once. And there are plenty of playable cutscenes where the only button to press are triangle or square, which means jab, slice, hit, hit again, hit harder.
You switch characters halfway through and become Abby, the cause of Ellie’s pain and suffering and murderer of her father figure, Joel. You are then made to witness emotional moments with some characters and animals that you had killed as Ellie (at the behest of the game) moments ago. And as the game trudges on, the whole forced lesson in empathy just becomes so fucking exhausting. After 30 hours of growingly uncomfortable violence leading to a what I thought was a profound and powerful finale, diluted by a strangely cruel and bleak epilogue, I felt compelled to voice my opinion in the service of hopefully inspiring a better Part III or Part IV, should they ever be made.
One crucial bit of criticism I have not seen mentioned in any of the reviews published so far, is that the game is ultimately betrayed by the notoriety of its makers. When playing the original, The Last of Us, I did not think of Naughty Dog as anything beyond a logo. Neil Druckmann did not exist for me. Neither did Halley Gross or the inevitable Westworld-awareness her presence would bring.
Employing the skills of a Westworld script writer who smartly chooses to mine the Westworld call-sheet for actors that provide motion capture and voice-acting for the game was an inspired decision. Ellie’s friend/love interest, Dina, played by Shannon Woodward, is absolutely radiant, emotionally captivating, and quite honestly deserves an Oscar.
What the Druckmann/Gross writing team questionably forgoes, is the multi-layered intelligence of the first season of Westworld, in favor of copy-pasting the storyboard formula of using non-consecutive chapters to disorient the viewer.
Vignettes of characters’ childhoods/youth are presented to illustrate their present day motivations. Multiple “villains” are laid out, but their respective villainies are a matter of perspective, the game declares, with the subtlety of a pipe bomb. Chapters end with abrupt time jumps, back and forth, and although we are told when we are playing the game at a given time, the shuffling of plot points feels awfully contrived. And unlike the TV show, the game’s pacing suffers because the player is constantly asked to catch up to the game. What’s more, these jumps often demand physical, even tactical reactions from the player. And while I understand this structure is intended to expand our awareness of character motivatons, it has the opposite effect, pushing the player further and further away from any kind of emotional investment.
For the sake of comparison, 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls, another video game that boasted a splendid motion-capture and voice-acting cast led by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, had made excellent use of a non-linear narrative structure by presenting it as the default from the beginning. It never allowed the player to be comfortable, but also never gave enough of the story consecutively for it to start feeling like the norm, allowing that sense of displacement to be the driving engine behind the journey, making the player expect and appreciate the back-and-forth. The Last of Us: Left Behind, an additional story downloadable after the release of the original game, also employed a semi-linear, interwoven structure, and that worked beautifully, creating layer upon layer of emotional depth that won Ashley Johnson a BAFTA for her skills in voicing (and motion-capturing) Ellie. So it is surprising for Naughty Dog to fail at something they had demonstrated an aptitude for in the past.
The public visibility of the development process of this sequel, coupled with the interminable countdown towards the game’s release, wrought with delays, made us all mindful, as players, that there were puppet masters behind our experience of the game, perhaps for the first time in the history of video games. (For the sake of contrast, in my entire history of playing the many, many Resident Evil games, no matter how frustrated I got with various challenges or storylines, not once did I find myself resenting Shinji Mikami or Tokuro Fujiwara. Have you?)
So when something happens in The Last of Us Part II that I vehemently take issue with, whether it’s being yanked away from a storyline just as a conflict was about to reach its climax, or butchering dogs that let out a helpless yip as they die, or smashing a metal pipe into the skull of a woman crying, begging to live, I struggle to maintain my suspension of disbelief that is so vital in preserving my emotional investment; because I catch myself picturing a meeting room in California where a group of people all agreed on making us experience this particular thing this particular way.
When that same room full of people had once asked the player to murder anyone most humans and infected zombies in the player’s path, in the context of finding a vaccine in the first game, there was a degree of morally gray fog players were willing to wade through. The very valid question Naughty Dog had asked then, about the lengths a person could or should go to, in order or to save lives, or even one life, was poetically executed.
The motivations that Naughty Dog thinks drive this sequel, feel selfish.
The game incorrectly assumes that at the beginning of The Last of Us Part II, the player’s reasoning and hunger for revenge align with Ellie’s. This perhaps a leftover habit on Naughty Dog’s part from the first game — a kind of blind conviction that their story succeeded in converting the player into a ruthless killing machine.
While it is fair to expect players to mourn the death of a beloved protagonist, even desire payback to a degree, it is rather presumptuous to think that we would all be okay with killing everyone on our path to get even. It’s so very Star Wars.
It is equally presumptuous to think we would all commit to this vicious rampage the game demands we partake in for 25 to 30 something hours, which, in video game terms, is a very long time to commit to anything.
The more visual and sonic details Naughty Dog attach to this revenge quest, the more they force players who have a vested interest in the narrative, into a gameplay experience they did not sign up for. To top it off, they then perversely punish the player through these guilt-inducing mechanisms in storytelling and in sound effects. The entire second and third acts of the game function like the world’s most elaborate emotional BDSM fantasy, if guilt is your kink.
The solution to the problem of violence, which is so obvious that I’m not sure why the game does not employ it, has been available in some stealth-based games like the Dishonored and Metal Gear Solid series for a long time: Let the player choke people until they pass out, not until they die. Give Ellie chloroform rags, or sleep darts instead of explosive arrows. Let characters move and hide bodies so they don’t get caught and attract the attention of more people whom they then have to kill. Basically, expand the stealth mechanics with the same degree of realism that the murder mechanics have been “improved” to give the player a legitimate option to be as non-violent as they’d like.
There are so many alternatives to the game’s bizarre entrapment approach to inducing guilt, that no amount of high-minded empathy peddling justifies the narrative choices the game forces you into, then punishes you for.
In the Last of us Part II, the only way to demonstrate you understand the moral (or moralizing) of the game is to simply not play it. While Yoda and the Jedi Council might approve, as someone who has waited years for this, I do not. And based on the internet’s reaction to the game I am far from alone.
The amount of violent threats the developers and actors received is absolutely unforgivable, and is representative of the culture of hate we live in. And it can certainly be tempting to dismiss the threats, the hate, the vitriol. To reduce it to an issue of ignorance, or childishness, or an inability to discern reality from fiction. But isn’t this exactly the kind of destructive hate Naughty Dog desires to address in their oeuvre? And if so, can we have an honest discussion about where that hate comes from?
A lot of anger seem to stem from fact that Joel dies, or that Abby, a strong, muscular woman, beats him to death with a golf club, or that a trans character, Lev, is part of the story. I posit, that these are in fact, not the real problem. After all, the game’s predecessor showcased a teenage lesbian love story and was universally lauded for it.
While on the surface, the anger towards Naughty Dog may seem character or gender-driven, had the game offered its audience a bit more dignity, the entire experience could have panned out differently. On multiple levels, The Last of Us Part II treats players like children, pretending to provide agency, pretending to offer control, and yes, pretending its tactics for storytelling will actually surprise anyone. Its emotional manipulation is crude, its intentions transparent, and its approach to its subject matter surprisingly shallow. Is it any surprise then, that countless players became annoyed, if not angry?
Naughty Dog’s lack of subtlety, which gives off a distinctly unpleasant holier-than-thou attitude, and convoluted approach to storytelling is what inevitably created this atmosphere of resentment towards the developers.
The Ellie that I felt compassion towards is gone, and to a degree I can understand, even appreciate that.That I was emotionally blackmailed into viciously murdering hundreds, only for the script to pull a frustratingly obvious trick and force me to play as one of the people I was supposed to murder (who also murders hundreds) is frankly, a tiresome choice. Conversely, if the entire first half of the game leading up to Joel’s death had been presented from Abby’s perspective to begin with, I would have welcomed the lesson in empathy.
The jarring, inconsistent pacing of the game hinders any emotional connection I could otherwise develop — not just with Ellie, but with any of the characters. We are given tidbits of humanity from these companions, most of whom die, and this trend of killing off core characters without batting an eyelash has been done to death by Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead for the past decade, so when Naughty Dog repeats it, it offers nothing new. Dina, thankfully, is spared this routine and is easily the MVP of the game.
It is also worth noting, from the growingly implausible amount of resources available for the character at any given time, despite the game being set 25 years after the world… sort of ended, to the formulaic scavenge-combat-scavenge structure of most chapters, the game grows stale far too quickly for what is supposed to be a 30-hour adventure.
While the ability to modify companion characters’ level of skill in handling enemies is certainly inventive, the overall low difficulty (Am I the only who misses the unforgiving gameplay of Grounded mode in The Last of Us?) makes for increasingly dissatisfying encounters where the attack-block-attack-block dance becomes as tedious as Jedi Knight lightsaber combos from the early 2000s. The decision to add a non-linear structure to the journey itself, constantly returning to a base of operations in Seattle that is conspicuously lit up for what should be a secret hide-out, is equally exasperating because it neuters the tension.
Suddenly shifting characters and playing as Ellie in the first game, following a scene where Joel was impaled on a rebar, with no explanation as to what happened to him, had left me wondering if Joel was alive. This had created the good kind of tension that motivated me to continue playing the game. That tension was compounded when I realized not only was Joel alive, but it was up to me save him. There were unknowns, there were emotional stakes. There was an onslaught of infected that did not allow me to consider anything beyond the immediate present. That kind of urgency was key in making me play as a new character. Even though Ellie was not as heavy or durable as Joel, and was less skilled with weapons, I did not have room to disagree with the game. I had to be Ellie and survive, and this necessity fueled the pacing of the original game.
The mistake, if it can be identified as such, with the Last of Us Part II is not in asking the players to play as Abby. Sure, we can all benefit from walking a mile in the shoes of someone we disagree with, to put it mildly. The issue lies in asking the players to develop Abby as a character, and invest in her at a stage when we already know the outcome of her actions. There is no mystery — she has already done the deed. The prologue portion where the player controls Abby, which Halley Gross described as contributing to the player’s emotional investment in her character in an interview, simply does not accomplish that. As a result, when the game pulls us back to three days ago and puts us in control of Abby, 15 or so gameplay hours in, the urgency, the momentum that prevents us from seeing the cracks in this universe, dissipates. There is also very little joy in reaching a midpoint in any game, collecting various upgrades along the way, only to discover that a reset button has been pressed and now you have do it all over again. What could have been a genuinely engaging story about an entirely new character in a new environment, becomes overshadowed by a faulty narrative structure.
It is vital for Naughty Dog to understand that while their gameplay is engaging, it isn’t so engaging that I want to dive into a Sisyphean revisiting of the same mechanics with a new character mid-game. The Ellie chapter of The Last of Us worked because there were no workbenches or pills around, nor time to even think about upgrades. With Abby, the pace of the game suffers because the game compounds the empathy ask from the players by assuming we will remain engaged enough to essentially start over. As the story drags on, the game’s haughty motivations become increasingly obvious to the point of being annoying, the act of playing feels laborious, and downright unpleasant.
It isn’t an issue of bleakness. It is an issue of pretending that the violence conducted by any character I am expected to play as, is in the service of a moral lesson that I neither asked for, nor needed to be drilled into my skull. It is in the attitude with which this game is presented, not as an adventure, but as a bitter pill prescribed by a company who, in my opinion, has no business teaching morality to anyone. After all, this is the same company that constantly asks “What about humanity?” then gives you a hammer and tells you to push square.
When the only agency Naughty Dog offers is between pressing a button and turning off the console, I can’t help but wonder: Was there a more honest way for this story, or any story, to be told in this marvelous universe you had created?