Why “The Last of Us Part II” might change the way games tell stories
There is one thing about the title “The last of us” that always caught my attention. It has, after all, a very obvious meaning: the one that refers to the survivals of a pandemic that wiped the world as we know it. “The last of us” would, then, be the remaining humans, the ones that did not turn into savage monsters and are somehow trying to find a way of living in said world. But then there is one more possible interpretation, one that is maybe hidden in between the lines: “The last of us” might also mean all that remains of us. The smiles, the nostalgia, the grudges, the hatred, the prejudices, the dreams and the hopes that still make us human even after all that have happened. Under that light, the game series would not be only about the survivors, but also about what lingers in their bodies, minds, hearts and souls, making them, after all, humans. And us, since the title is smartly inclusive. Regardless of the chosen interpretation, the newest entry in the series came to show that, once and for all, we haven´t seen the last of us.
“The last of us Part II” is as controversial as it was anticipated. Announced almost two years before it actually hit the stores, the title fired up heated arguments since that moment, when the protagonist of the game was shown to be Ellie and not Joel, like in the first game. And then, of course, the fact that Ellie was a lesbian and was kissing a girl in that trailer was also a big deal. A very big one. The controversy would only grow as the game would have its launch delayed. Which would end up exposing the situation of the employees at Naughty Dog — and consequently in the whole video games industry. Then came the leaks: footage, gameplay, plot details. Some people credited it to a hacker, others to one of the unsatisfied employees who ended up being fired. Regardless, those leaks made controversies even bigger: besides a lesbian character, there was going to be a transgender one as well? — so it seemed. And the thing escalated to a point where people were accusing Naughty Dog of “forcing an agenda” as well as destroying their own game discs as a form of protest — even if they had already paid for the game.
As funny as it is to see bigots being contradicted in their own territory, especially when that territory is as toxic as the gaming community, all those controversies barely scratch the surface of what “The last of us Part II” is actually inviting us to discuss. The very way we tell stories in games has reached a tipping point — one that has been brewing since long ago, both in AAA and indie games. And it has been done with such mastery and craft, that it sets new standards. If you think of games as part of pop culture, this might represent a change not only for them, but even to media storytelling itself. A dauntless deed, and one that we should be talking about, much more than the sexuality or the gender identity of some characters. But, since it´s here, let´s take it out of the way once and for all.
The “Rainbow Herring”
Ellie. She was an NPC most of the time in the first game and has now turned into the main playable protagonist. Ellie has been a lesbian since the first game (launched in 2013). The fact that she was only fourteen then, and that much of her role involved crossing a country destroyed by a pandemic was also not exactly the mood for “spring awakening”. But she never acted “straight”, whatever that means. Also, the first game featured Bill, an NPC who was clearly gay and who played a key role in the unfolding of the events of that installment.
Those are weird remarks, but still important ones, since every time a video game character is revealed to be LGBTQ+, there is a backlash that it has been done for publicity, “pink money” or to “force an agenda”. In any case, speculations about Ellie were more than cleared out by the DLC “Left Behind” (2014), that not only showed her in a romantic situation, but also made the ending of the first game even gloomier, by showing what it actually represents to the characters involved.
So, the fact that Ellie is a lesbian should have already been digested in 2018, when the trailer came out, but… not so much. Players were still mad about that, especially because it was clear, then, that they would now have to play as her. That was also already hinted in the first installment, but having it confirmed seemed to have shaken up a community that is used to see its main heroes as white muscular guys — even for games made in Japan.
But then, they “went too far”: the leaks and the discussion talked about a transgender character in the game. And since the images and gameplay excerpts also showed Abby, a muscular white girl, everybody assumed that she was the trans person and, “even worse”, that we would have to play as her too. Now, people who assume a girl is trans only because she has a built physique are not only transphobic: they have also probably never been to a gym or watched a Crossfit competition, for example, where Tia-Clair Toomey or Sara Sigmundsdottir, both cis gender athletes, would very much identify themselves with Abby. Also, they are much more fit to survive in a world where jumping, climbing, swimming and fighting are as important as breathing. Actually, much more than this tweet suggests:
So, if girls in real life (or those of a post-apocalyptic world) look like Ellie and Abby, why should they look always like Tifa (the character to the right, who also wears a mini-skirt) when portrayed in games? As my grandma said: “the chicken that clucks is the one that laid the eggs”. In other words, the ones complaining are the very answer for this question. And, as it happens, they are mostly not girls.
Regardless of who is or who is not transgender or lesbian in the game, I will only say that it matters very little to the message it brings and everything it stands for, which also discards the argument that “pushing this agenda harms the story”. It does not because the story was never about this. And if this is getting a person´s attention more than all the rest, maybe this person has a problem with acceptance and inclusion. It´s a “rainbow herring” (an LGBTQ+ Red Herring, if I may) set from a very loud part of the audience who seem to care a lot about appearances and little about the messages they contain. To which we are finally getting to.
A clockwork mushroom
A big part of the specialized critique is already talking about it (again): ludonarrative dissonance. Basically, that is what happens when what you play is different from what the story in the game tells or conveys. The relation between this two parts (gameplay and narrative), is, by the way, in my humble opinion, the decisive thing to identify a great game. All of the critics seem to agree about how good the game is and how important its messages are, but then, comes a division in opinion: while some critics consider the narrative and the gameplay are perfectly harmonious, others are even a little outraged by what they feel is a contradiction between what they were doing in the game and what they were “being told” by the story (this link is in German). None of them are wrong.
And the reason is because, as art is supposed to do, The last of us Part II unsettles. It is not an invitation out of our comfort zones, it´s an expulsion from it. Something very similar to what Stanley Kubrick (based on the book by Anthony Burgess) did with “A Clockwork Orange” (maybe the oranges became fungi?) or Gaspar Noé with “Irreversible”. But those are films. Even if we identify with the characters or immerse into it, we are never required to act in their shoes. Now, The last of us Part II is a video game. And as such, we must embody those characters and assume their actions. Their guns. Their hate. A turn that is not even new (and players of “Spec Ops: The Line”, as well as “Hotline Miami”, which gets a literal reference in the game, will reckon that), but that has also never been done in such a degree, with such implications and to such a big audience.
The implications are especially important here. Because it means that the players will find themselves in situations where they are not in control. We are used to games in which we take decisions and see the consequences. But we are not so comfortable when characters take those decisions and, nevertheless, we must go along with them. So, you might not have agreed with what Joel did in the end of the first The Last of Us. Still, you played it through and did “what had to be done”. Now, again, you will see Ellie going into situations that will seem uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. To the point that you won´t want to keep playing. You won´t want to shoot, to stab, to kill. But, unless you want to see what comes next in the game, you must. As afore mentioned, it´s the Clockwork Orange all over. Only this time we don´t get to feel sorry, or sadistic, or judgmental about Alex, the main character, as he sits in that chair, watching those behavioral films. Now WE ARE Alex. And we have to sit through it. Not being able to close our eyes. No exemption from our deeds.
It is a bold move, especially in a game that costs so much and carries that much expectation. And because it touches on very delicate points, both for games and reality: violence and hate. The Last of Us Part II “obliges” us to hate and to be violent — like most of the AAA games do, to be honest. But it also makes us feel very bad about it. And of course, just like in “A Clockwork Orange” one might argue that violence only leads to more violence. But the cycle breaks exactly when you realize that. If you do, you get rid of it. You finally got the message. Then, it might sound like ludonarrative dissonance, because it is. But it was put there by design, which makes it even more interesting. The game wants us to acknowledge that those decisions our (beloved) characters are taking might not be good ones.
Still, we must go by their book. Because this is not Fallout 4 or Breath of the Wild, it is not an open world, it is an enclosed social experiment. And if some of us (many of us, hopefully) are familiarized with those messages and think they are obvious or annoying, a quick look in the list of the best selling games for Playstation 4 (to which The Last of Us Part II is an exclusive) will reveal that the number 1 game is Grand Theft Auto V, a game that basically allows (and is famous for) killing for pleasure. It is followed immediately by Call of Duty: Black Ops, a first- person shooter in which destroying your enemies is the main objective. Red Dead Redemption might be an exception in the sense that it has a very deep storytelling behind its violence, but it is still there, followed by (guess what?) another Call of Duty (WWII). This list will soon have The Last of Us Part II as an addition, which means that players who are basically trained to shoot and kill are getting their first warning call here. And it is a very hard and classy one.
We are talking about a level design that is intricate enough to make you feel like in an open world — even if it is actually as linear as a Mario level. You can only go forward. But there are so many secret passages, alternative ways, hidden paths, upper floors and under bridges, that you might not know where “forward” is. Now you can finally break windows — I wished for that in a game for ages. And, not by chance, as you can imagine, even look at yourself in mirrors — another simple detail that games never cared too much for. Exploring is a delight and an advantage, since it will give you weapons and resources. But in order to explore, you might have to be violent, since enemies won´t let you do that in peace. Even that beautiful view from the top of a building: you can´t enjoy it properly until you did something about the guys shooting at you. Then you just do it, right?
But we are talking about a game in which every human enemy you kill has a name. And you will hear their friends calling for that name and crying if you eventually take them down. Even their dogs have names. And they will cry for them too, while you have your gun pointing at them. We are talking about a game whose art is so realistic it looks like pictures. And violence is so graphic that it turns your stomach. Still, you are the one causing it. And still: the story is so compelling that you can´t just let it go. Just like the characters, you can´t leave it as it is. You must get to the bottom of it. You must know what happens next. At any cost. Even if the message seems already obvious to you. Even if you know you´re above all that. You are still not so good as not to be at least curious. The motivations might be different (and therefore the designed ludonarrative dissonance), but the goals are the same. And that is a one way road. Once you go through it, going back seems silly, bland, obsolete. Because it essentially changes the way we relate to the interactive storytelling of video games. And, as a result, the way that storytelling is designed. You can still go there and you can still play all you want. But the lesson is rubbed to your noise, laughing at you, making you feel a little worse than you normally would. À la Pavlov. That is not by chance. That is smart design.
We know that because of the way perspectives are switched. We know that because this is not an open-world game with multiple storylines, but a linear narrative one, from which we can´t escape. We know that because level design pushes you forward, never backwards. But above all, we know that because it´s something that we all share and still makes us human, something that is somewhere inside of us and, to many people, was buried under big layers of toughness, grief, sorrow or pain. Something that, to many, might have been forgotten. That something is the last of us. That is what the game is all about.