TLOU ending and the tension between gameplay and story (spoilers)

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Posted by BigSocrates (1966 posts) -

I didn't like the ending of The Last of Us. There are tons of threads rehashing this ad infinitum and I don't want to get into the specifics of the story choices, but what I felt most of all was that it showed one of the principal reasons that so many game stories are bad, which is the limitations of gameplay. Once Marlene tells Joel that they're going to kill Ellie to operate on her there are a thousand ways he could have reacted in a movie or a novel or whatever. He could have tried to reason with the Fireflies. He could have asked to see Ellie one last time. He could have claimed to have information from the lab in Colorado that would enable them to get the vaccine without killing her. He could have tried to take Marlene hostage. Whatever.

In a game, with a limited engine, there was basically just one option. Kill/Sneak through an environment of chest high cover and side rooms to save her.

I personally chose to go the violent route, mostly because I liked clearing areas to search for loot, and because they gave me an assault rifle and am I supposed to NOT play with the only automatic weapon in the game and force myself to sneak around? Maybe, but that's the tension. Do I want to have fun or do I want the game to tell a consistent story? Sneaking also felt inauthentic because she was already being prepped for surgery, so if you are going to get there you better get there as fast as possible.

So there I was again at the end of a game playing a cover-based shooter where I gun down lots of men to advance towards my goal, and honestly it reminded me a lot of Spec-Ops: The Line, except that the ending in that game is supposed to show your character's insanity and depravity while in The Last of Us you are supposed to empathize with Joel, at least to some degree. I don't think the games are meant to be similar, but they are constrained by their mechanics and forced into similar situations. The big difference is that Spec-Ops leans into its mechanics while TLOU still refuses to acknowledge exactly what its character is doing. TLOU was meant at least in part as a reaction to the criticism that Nathan Drake is a jaunty psychopath who murders hundreds with a grin on his face and a spring in his step. Joel is supposed to be a more reluctant and guilty killer, forced into it not out of a desire for treasure but a need to survive. The game is meant to play into this by offering stealth as a real option and using scarcity to make killing not always the best option*. Despite that I found myself at the end of a game killing a bunch of misguided-rather-than-evil Firefly soldiers, husbands sons and fathers, because that was the only choice the game really gave me.

It's clear that TLOU's programmers put a lot more focus into combat and fighting than any other part of the gameplay. The puzzles are rudimentary (Find wooden pallet. Use wooden pallet to cross water) and the traversal is fine, but like every game it's inconsistent what you can climb and what you can't, you can't stack things to create structures to climb on, and it's rarely "fun." The engine just doesn't have a lot to offer there. I actually think that the puzzle with the broken ladder you do right before you get to the hospital, simple as it is, is an example of how the game could have focused more on traversal and moving through an environment, which would have resonated with the themes better than, say, the last big pack of infected you fight, which is so easy at that point that I almost felt sorry for them as I picked them off with arrows and molotvs.

As long as the people designing the gameplay parts focus their time on killing, games will inevitably have to tell stories about killers, and nuanced stories like TLOU's will always be in tension with the gameplay. Overall the Last of Us had a very well-told story, good characters (except for David, what a cartoonish villain) and I even enjoyed the gameplay, though others didn't. But it didn't rise to the level of a great movie or book because it couldn't transcend what you actually DID in the game. Which was kill people. And collect comic books. And swim around with the same wooden pallet like 5 times for some reason.

*though it undermines that by putting collectibles and environments that are much easier to explore once the bad guys are all down.

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#1 Posted by csl316 (14966 posts) -

Towards the end of the game, Joel is increasingly more desperate and broken. I feel that the ending makes sense for the world and the character. Maybe coming up with it had Naughty Dog working backwards from "how do build up to a final combat encounter?" But by the end of the game, Joel is no longer someone I can empathize with. He's too far gone, does something extraordinarily selfish, and I felt that his journey from the outbreak to being near death to dealing with rapist cannibals just broke the guy.

Some games give you nonviolent options (Mass Effect 1 and talking to the final boss), but this isn't a game about choice. Naughty Dog told their story their way. The world is violent and hopeless, and Joel did whatever he had to in order to get some semblance of comfort. Negotiating or lying to the Fireflies? Probably wouldn't have accomplished much. And from what I remember, he did want to see Ellie one more time.

The chest-high cover argument? It's a third person shooter video game. And people putting up barricades need to be able to see over them to defend an area, right?

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#2 Posted by BigSocrates (1966 posts) -


I had a very different read on Joel. He actually seemed rather hopeful right before the whole Firefly thing goes down. He's actively trying to talk to Ellie (she's the one being quiet when they get to SLC) and planning for the future. He finally opens up about his daughter and takes the photo when Ellie gives it to him. He's the opposite of broken at this point in the story. He's healed. He starts out quiet and sour and ends up happyish and paternal. Now this might explain why he's so desperate to save Ellie, sure, no argument there, but I definitely think we're supposed to empathize with him up until at least the hospital. And maybe the switch in control back to Ellie when they go back to see Joel's brother represents a break with that empathy after what Joel does, but I think we're still supposed to root for him. I mean if not, why keep playing?

I don't want to get wrapped up in the chest high cover thing, but the hospital was Firefly home turf so why was the inside barricaded like that anyway (I understand lots of security on the outside, but if you go into an army building there aren't barricades in the middle of the hall.) And if you DO need security, you'd want machine gun nests, sniper nests, explosive booby traps, SOMETHING other than some overturned tables and crates. I get it, it's a game, if they secured the area so well that a single man COULDN'T get in it wouldn't be fun, but that's also kind of my point.

I'm not saying I wanted the game to be Mass Effect or give me a choice. I'm saying that I didn't like the ending they chose and I thought the choice was driven by gameplay. Frankly if they wanted to do it this way I would have rather played as Ellie (conscious of course) while she listened to Joel rampage through the fireflies and was unable to do anything to stop him. That to me would have been more consistent with the characters and the tone. But it would have been boring to play so it's a non-starter. Action movies have this same problem. They have to resolve everything through shooting and explosions (or fisticuffs) which often leads to silly plots and thinly drawn characters (not saying TLOU had those issues...but it had a lot of quiet scrounging and traversal moments in which it told its story.)

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#3 Edited by csl316 (14966 posts) -

@bigsocrates: I think my late-game Joel memories come down to these two ruthless interrogation scenes. Ellie is all he had at this point, and when he can't find her he goes off the deep end. I felt he was becoming obsessive, that there's no way in hell he wants to lose another "daughter."

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And that's part of why I found the end of the game so compelling. You had a different read on him, and that's totally fine and your personal interpretation. But from my perspective, I was controlling a psychopath at that point. Maybe our perspective on Joel is why opinions on the ending seem so divisive.

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#4 Posted by BigSocrates (1966 posts) -


The first interrogation I didn't see as psychotic because Joel was very weakened at that point, had been relying on Ellie, which he felt guilty about, and these guys were bad men with bad intentions who had kidnapped a teenage girl. It's not like the bandits ever try to parlay; if they see you you shoot, and keeping people like that alive can be dangerous. Maybe the game hints at how others see Joel when David says that he's a crazy man who killed a bunch of men as he gives Ellie the medicine, but given that David turns out to be a cartoonish psycho right out of central casting I'm not sure how much stock we're supposed to put in his words.

The second one was part of the whole thing I'm kind of complaining about, although the interrogation itself didn't seem so out of character for Joel, who was never like a nice guy.

The thing about the interrogations is there's several hours of game and several months of narrative time between them. During this time Joel is more tender and kind towards Ellie than he's ever been. My personal read was that the interrogations were meant to show how much Joel cared about Ellie at that point, which I got, but he has to show his love the only way the game knows how. By killing a bunch of dudes who are similar to his brother.

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#5 Posted by Shindig (4935 posts) -

They spend a lot of the game calling Joel out for being crazy but it usually comes from the player's main opposition. That's an interesting way to handle it but I feel the much more interesting way to handle the last section would've been to see how Ellie did without Joel, rather than vice-versa. I'm still miffed at how Winter was concluded. Especially how that section starts.

Take Ellie to the end of this and let her see this through. Either she goes along with the fireflies or Joel's absence makes her have second thoughts. Slow it down a little and give the player a little bit of info about where the Fireflies are at and maybe cast some doubt on whether they've got it in them to produce a vaccine.

The ending left on the table is still good but it does feel like a missed opportunity.

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#6 Posted by NTM (11812 posts) -

Depends on the difficulty level. On hardest, it's a lot easier to devise a way to have a mixture of running and sneaking past all of them until the final moment. All that matters to Joel is getting to Ellie, which the player can so choose to do so with haste. I had no issue with the end, and if I were to come up with such a complaint you had, I would feel like I'd be reaching for a fault. Not saying your point isn't valid, or that you're wrong to think the way you do, but I don't really see it the same way. To me it's all about the mixture of feelings I got from Joel. I still like him as I know what he has been through, but was the choice right or wrong in the end? You can also just factor in his life after his daughters death, where he progressively through the 20 years, degraded into someone that just didn't care for people other than a select few. That's all it's about to me.

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#7 Posted by poobumbutt (960 posts) -

Naughty Dog has pretty much always wanted to tell a singular, linear story. I see that as the reason why there was one way to deal with the ending conflict, not limitations of the engine. Just as the ending goes, though, not your other points like puzzles amd the actual way the final fight is handled. That obviously could have been diversified.

My thoughts on the ending have always been that it's true that Joel kills a LOT of people (possibly good people on the whole, but I'm not willing to buy that given the Fireflies' previously implied excursions) in what is basically a blind rage. The common complaint is usually he is putting one ahead of possibly a whole race. I agree to an extent, but I'll get to that a little later; my rebuttal is that, well, I didn't spend a whole game developing Marleen's character, did I? What about Guard 2, who gets punked at the start of the scene? We definitely don't see his three-dimensional development. What I'm saying is essentially fuck those guys.

For me, they aren't "fathers, sons or husbands" until the game develops them as such. Until then, they are bullies with guns (again, as the game portrays them). The world we see in TLOU is not a pretty one and I didn't have a problem denying the cure to people who, in the scope the game gives, are a bunch of dirtbags. Is Joel one of those dirtbags? Maybe. Probably. But I think Ellie is assuredly not, and I'm not willing to give her up to save some OTHER pedo-cannibal and put a militaristic sect with a collective savior complex in control of who to cure and who not to.

Besides, the way the law of probability and genetics works means as long as Humans keep reproducing, it'll be only a few years or maybe less before some terrible bandit/murderer/rapist gets bit but doesn't turn and just happens to be around some scientists. Use him. Problem solved. The idea that Ellie was humanity's ONE great hope (after only a mere 20 years after outbreak) and now humanity is doomed to die slowly is silly.

For the gameplay, I'm still sticking with my character theory. The "people" I'm killing barely qualify as such. Not because they're jerks, but because the most interesting things they have going on with them is a comment about how "this shit sucks" or how they're kinda cold, just before I drain their last gasps from them. It's like strangling cardboard to death. But that's fine, they're general-purpose video game enemies. I just mean that in a theoretical game where you spend the entirety developing an assortment of 2-4 "friend" characters, and near the end, our protagonist ends up killing one - just one - of them for a selfish, yet understandable reason would make him WAAAAAY more sociopathic to me than Joel, because the story actually made it matter using characters and hard work. As for Marleen, she's a little better, but she'd need more than two and a half** scenes of dialogue before I actually care.

But all that's just in defense of the ending (which I liked, but understand it's controversial from multiple angles). I don't take it as gospel, nor on par with other, better game stories. I just like it. I do think that an ending where Joel lives but Ellie dies or Ellie lives and Joel dies or they both die or Joel reasons with Marlene or SECRET SPACE ALIEN ENDING would all be equally as good as the one we got (or better than it, in your case). I guess the fact that TLOU doesn't just tell the story of a "hero" and it's plot and characters are inherently flawed (some intentionally, some not) is part of why I like it. I realize how dickish or hipster that probably sounds; "the very fact you're complaining about it is why I like it" is only as true as far as it proves the story stuck to its guns for better AND worse, and I can appreciate that.

** Not fully counting last scene as she says little of importance and is there to be shot - and show Joel's "willingness".


- Yeah, what was up with that last infected encounter? It's even easy on Grounded (which I have *shudder* experience with).

- Oh, my God. The pallet parts. They have the dialogue, but it's the one part they decide to skimp on its length for some reason; usually just some variant of "whoa, be careful". It's not even challenging, you just take a second, look around and "oh, there's progression".

- Yeah, I guess David is kind of goofy, huh? The coolest part of him was seeing that Nolan North has some killer range.

- I've never really bought the whole ludonarrative dissonance thing, when it applies to killing. Don't get me wrong, it's cool when a game nails it, but I always just imagined that unless specified otherwise, cutscenes exist in a world apart from your gameplay. Games which have one "canon" ending despite multiple possible others have trained my brain like that. Think of Mortal Kombat's use of X-Rays: those would murder most people, but the characters don't even have trouble speaking afterward. Perhaps this is reductive and video games are obviously capable of better. I mean, I do prefer the other, to be clear.

- Okay, got it: Joel and Ellie escape the Firefly base nonviolently before discovering the post-apocalyptic world they now live in is the Jak and Daxter universe.

"Ready to get... Jakked up?"

Credits roll.


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#8 Posted by ThePanzini (731 posts) -

"I personally chose to go the violent route, mostly because I liked clearing areas to search for loot, and because they gave me an assault rifle and am I supposed to NOT play with the only automatic weapon in the game and force myself to sneak around? Maybe, but that's the tension. Do I want to have fun or do I want the game to tell a consistent story? Sneaking also felt inauthentic because she was already being prepped for surgery, so if you are going to get there you better get there as fast as possible."

TLOU on Survivor is one of the greatest momnents in gaming I have ever had, the limit on ammo and supplies adds so much to the game making every encounter a nail biting experience.

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#9 Edited by militantfreudian (684 posts) -

Joel didn't have time to negotiate with Marlene. I mean, Ellie was unconscious when she got to the hospital, and they didn't even wait for her to wake up; she was prepped for surgery immediately. I also thought of Marlene as being somewhat monomaniacal (she wouldn't be the leader of the Fireflies otherwise) and I think Joel recognizes that in her, perhaps because he's not unlike her. Anyway, I don't think Marlene would've made the decision to proceed with the surgery and deny Ellie any choice in this, if she wasn't fully convinced this was the right choice, even if she quarrelled with the decision.

I don't think there's a disconnect between the story and gameplay whatsoever. Joel is a survivalist and a cold-blooded murderer, as evidenced throughout the game. He was afraid of getting attached to Ellie, that's why he wanted to let his brother take her to the Fireflies. He knew well enough that if he did, he wouldn't be able to live without her, as evidenced by the ending and foreshadowed by what happened to Henry and his little brother. Also, I think stealth wasn't implemented to avoid the video game protagonist psychopath syndrome. It just plays into the survival aspect of the game; it's basically a more cost-effective way to survive. I think the gameplay and story work very much in tandem.

I think what you might be experiencing is a dissonance between your motives and Joel's -- I personally felt the same way when I played it the first time. Up until that point, my goals aligned quite perfectly with Joel's, but when he decided to go on a rampage at the end, I felt like that's not what I would've done. I was totally fine with killing David's men, but not the Fireflies, even though I didn't fully believe in their cause. I don't think that's the game's fault however; it wasn't telling my story, it was about the relationship between Joel and Ellie. I don't think Joel was supposed to be a vessel for the player, you just play as him. He's a fairly well-delineated character, anyway.

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#10 Posted by deactivated-5b031d0e868a5 (935 posts) -

I didn't really like the ending and maybe that's a sign of a good ending and story or whatever.

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