Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chamberlain & Chance on The Last of Us.

This time, Chamberlain (read Infinite Backlog, his awesome blog!) and I have totally different emotional reactions to The Last of Us.  This C&C is absolutely bursting with spoilers.  Don't read this if you haven't played and finished The Last of Us, which is totally frickin' incredible and required reading for anyone (with a PS3) who fancies themselves a gamer. 

That said, this epic-length dialogue is, I feel, one of the better C&Cs we've ever done.  You should totally read it!

All good?  Let's rock.

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CHAMBERLAIN : The ending of The Last of Us.

I am not thrilled with it. It feels like they bent over backwards to not have any closure so there was room for another game.

CHANCE : Seriously?  I feel like anything else they could've done would've felt... easy.  If Ellie dies, or turns and Joel has to kill her, it's this big tragedy you see coming after the game spends so much time getting you involved in their relationship.

If Joel gets bit or whatever and Ellie has to kill him, it's the same problem - it feels like an "easy tragedy."

The ending, for me, was perfect.  The story is Joel's story - an exploration of how hardened the world made him, after the death of his daughter - and the central question was whether or not he would or could ever open himself up again, and love someone in the way he loved Sarah.  He had no interest in taking care of Ellie, and fought hard against it - even going so far as to attempt to pawn her off on his brother, so he wouldn't have to... care about her.

The ending was Joel coming to terms with the fact that he loved Ellie - of letting the barrier down that kept him alive since the outbreak - an answer to his character's (and TLoU's) central question. As they walk back to Tommy's town, it's important that perspective has switched back to Ellie.  Joel is now The Other, and we see him from her point of view, finally opening up about Sarah. We see how much he's changed, as opposed to how the rest of the story shows so much of Ellie growing - like how much of Joel we see in her during the Winter sequence.

The ultimate moment, when Ellie reveals that she knows full well Joel was lying about what happened with the Fireflies and essentially begs him to lie to her... I just found it very beautiful, and very touching.

When Joel swears to her, we can tell - we can see it in her eyes, she knows he's lying.  She knows that this is Joel's way of taking care of her - of taking on the sin of surviving, so that Ellie can live.  And Ellie lets him, and says "okay."

God, it was fucking beautiful.  I never felt (to me) in the least like this was their way of leaving it open for a sequel - and Naughty Dog have said, clearly, that while they may tell other stories in this universe, the story of Joel and Ellie is over.

CHAMBERLAIN : The problem is that there is no surprise. It played out exactly the way I thought it would, only for the opposite reasons you saw it coming.

Joel is a terrible human being, just as bad as any of the bandits he kills. He has spent his life looking for the next thing to hold on to to maintain his will to survive. Like he said at the very end, bad things happen and you find something to hold on to.

It became clear after Ellie ran away and they fought that he didn't care about her. He cared about the idea of her. She was someone that could be the next surrogate. After his daughter it was his brother. Then it was Tess, then it was the last thing that Tess told him to do. Finally it was Ellie. They were all just reasons or excuses for a killer to kill.

In the end Joel puts his own needs about that of the rest of humanity. This is not a beautiful thing, it is a complete tragedy. Joel gets what he wants and Ellie has so bought into him as her father figure that she will accept anything he tells her.

I just can't root for Joel getting his way in the end. He is not a character with any redeeming features. Joel should have died with Ellie in his arms. At least then some good would have come of the whole adventure.

Side note, they missed a great chance for a 'we have seen the monsters, and they are us moment' when Ellie was wandering through the camp in the snow storm killing guards. She should have come across a building full of terrified children, all begging her to not kill them.

CHANCE : It's this kind of disagreement that really highlights for me that The Last of Us is one of the truest examples of Games as Art - and doubly special, given that it's almost the only one I can mention that exists as a top-tier triple-A title.  It's a piece of work we can both look at and come away from with very, very different feelings - it's one story, one statement - but two people can absorb it and have completely polar reactions to it.

Like a Picasso.

I found the ending hopeful, beautiful, honest and inspiring - you found it (I'm putting words in your mouth, here) obvious, prescribed and shallow.

There are multiple conversations to be had about TLoU - one, for example, suggests that the theme running through the entire game is actually one of "partnership" (or simply love) and an exploration of its implications in this new world.  It begins with the statement of Sarah's loss, followed by the introduction, exploration and destruction of the Tess dynamic, which is later echoed with Bill.

"In this world, that kinda' shit's good for one thing - gettin' ya killed," he says. Bill, who chose his own survival over a relationship, and later has to confront the corpse of the love he betrayed.  Sam and Henry, meanwhile, suggest that such a relationship is the only reason to live - driven home by the hammer on Henry's gun.  When his brother dies, his partnership is severed, and he chooses not to go on without it.

It's fertile ground for so many interpretations.

In that way, I feel we're both right - and the fact that our perspectives are so different says great things about the game.

But then again, that rather suggests Max Payne 3 is an example of games-as-art, which kinda' damages my point.

Which reminds me,

-Critical Miss-

CHAMBERLAIN : I think you can call The Last of Us art and mean it. Max Payne 3, not so much.

The Last of Us has a message that is not static. It can mean something different to each participant. I would liken it to movies that you recognize as being of excellent quality but that are not necessarily pleasant. For example, Pans Labyrinth was a very good movie. It was also incredibly depressing and I do not know if I want to watch it again.

The Last of Us was also of excellent quality. At the end, though, it depressed me, because who my mind had labeled the 'bad guy' got his way.

Joel is one bad dude. 

CHAMBERLAIN : By the way…

DARK IS SO BAD. OH MY GOD. [see : this blog post at Infinite Backlog]

CHANCE : Sure Joel is, by the standards of our puritanical society, a "bad guy" - but he's also the hero.   Also, who's to say Ellie's sacrifice would have actually meant anything?

The point of the giraffe scene was to remind us - after all the shit, all the horror of the resort - that regardless of what happens with Ellie, life will go on and be beautiful and healthy and worth it.

There were certainly no assurances that Ellie's death would have actually solved the plague - all Joel got was "no, you can't even say goodbye to this girl, and no, we're not actually giving her the choice or telling her that this means her death."

Prior to Spring, it's never implicitly stated that using Ellie to find a cure would mean her death.  The fact that (as far as we know) she didn't give consent is one strike against the fireflies.

The second is their unwillingness to let Joel so much as say goodbye to the girl, or assure himself that that was, in fact, what she wanted.

The third is that she's fifteen fucking years old and they may not have been joined by blood, but if my "daughter" wanted to get her head cut off for the good of mankind, my answer woulda' been the same as his.

Seriously.  Picture this:

There's a guy standing in front of you with his hand on your daughter's shoulder, telling you he's going to chop her head off because it might do the world some good, and your fifteen-year-old daughter tells you this is what she wants.

Do you let her?

I don't, man.  No way in Hell.  I shoot that guy between the eyes, take my baby girl by the hand and tell her "you'll understand when you're older."

Also : awww I wanted Dark to be good, but it did look shitty.  It always looked shitty, in everything but concept.

CHAMBERLAIN : I think you are short changing Ellie and her desires. She may be 15 but she has had to do more growing up and deal with more insane situations than I ever want to. She was waiting for her turn to die and Joel denied her that opportunity without asking her. And he didn’t do it for her, he did it because he wanted to keep her around so his life had continued meaning.

Had Ellie regained consciousness at the hospital and volunteered for the process, what then? Would Joel still have killed most of the fireflies? Probably, which is why they didn’t want to let him say goodbye. They knew he was a skilled killer and were trying to get him out of the way as quickly as possible. I am surprised that they rescued him in the first place.

There are no heroes here, only victims. Which, in retrospect, is probably their whole point.

CHANCE : Let's say that Ellie's greatest and most-true desire was to die for the sake of a possible cure, and that at a mere fifteen years old she has the human right to make that decision for herself.  Given that she clearly knew Joel was lying as demonstrated by demanding he swear to it at the end - if it really was so important to her, if making that sacrifice was far more meaningful to the girl than the relationship she's forged with Joel, why did she wait until they were all the way back at Tommy's place to bring it up?

Why, when we see the understanding in her eyes that, as he swears, he's lying to her, does she say "okay?"  She knows.  We can tell she knows.

Even if you would allow your foster daughter to make that choice, I put it to you that Ellie made it - and she chose to live, and stay with Joel.  She chose it as soon as she woke up in that car, and he lied to her the first time.

I didn't see it as a sad ending in any way, shape or form.  I can - I should italicize this - I can appreciate why one would view it with a different meaning, but I saw it as two vulnerable, deeply wounded people finding the meaning of their lives in each other.

Where one sees a tragedy, I see a celebration of humanity in all its weakness and beauty.

Another lovely interpretation I read, somewhere, was that "love makes monsters of us" as reflected in Henry, Bill, David and most of all Joel, which viewed the game's themes as terribly dark, and horrible.  I love that TLoU can be analyzed and argued in so many different shades.

How on earth do we wrap this up?

Do we just agree that, even with the highly divisive ending, it's a phenomenal game?  'Cause you can't tell me it's not an incredibly accomplished game in pretty much every regard.

Or can you?

CHAMBERLAIN : It most certainly is an incredibly accomplished game. It has to be to support two starkly different interpretations. Naughty Dog has given us all the information and the freedom to make our own decisions in a way usually limited to movies and books of the highest quality. The few quibbles I have about the combat don’t really matter because that was never the point of the game. All the violence and all of the combat were just a means to an end.

I do not usually clamor for the acceptance or acknowledgement of critics, especially ones specific to other media, but it’s a shame that Rodger Ebert will never play The Last of Us. I would very much like to hear his opinion.

CHANCE :  Ebert wouldn't know stealth from a steakhouse.


  1. I'm with Chance. It's the rare open ended conclusion that satisfies. Joel lied, Ellie chooses to believe him, their relationship arc is complete. There is nowhere else to go and it ends at just the right moment.

    There may be another game set in this world but I will bet money (all my money)on the idea that Joel and Ellie will then be given easter egg status at best.

    These are fun articles guys, keep at it!

  2. 100% agree with Chance. The whole arc of the story was "mourning father learns to love again." All the zombies and bandits were just window dressing.

    I've read several opinions similar to Chamberlain's; that Joel should have sacrificed Ellie "for the greater good." I'm always suspicious of anything that has to be justified by that. Should Joel have left Ellie with David? After all, those townfolks were hungry!

    Chance brings up a good point with "would you let YOUR daughter do that?" Another good question is "would your Dad have let YOU do that?" I know when I was a kid, I wanted to do a lot of dumb stuff. Thank goodness my Dad was around to not let me.