(Minor midgame spoilers for The Last of Us.)
There’s an infamous scene in The Last of Us where Joel and Ellie arrive at a compound in Wyoming in pursuit of Joel’s brother, Tommy. The fortress dresses a hydroelectric dam providing power and comforts of the old life, pre-zombie apocalypse. For Joel and Ellie it’s a safezone; for Joel in particular, it’s the juncture in their trip when he will foist Ellie off on Tommy for the next leg of her mission, leaving him free and unencumbered. On arriving you’re given a peaceful tour of the compound, glimpsing the routines and friendly folk this settled life might afford those who chase the dream. But littered around the buildings are bricks and bottles and chest-high walls, signifiers of TLOU‘s combat mechanics whose presence always indicate an impending shooting sequence.
You can see it for yourself here after the 12 minute mark and on through to the next video. A lot of players, myself included, felt their experience frayed by this, usually with the self-diagnosis that it broke immersion by distracting from the cool chitchat of Tommy and his crew. Many other players went through it just fine, which is grand for them, but in the interest of figuring out the ins and outs of videogames and our experiences with them I’d like to focus on the response of the first group, because for them this is a part of a game that didn’t work and it’s still kind of unclear to me why. As with most of my design analyses, I like to take what I felt as a starting point and deconstruct an explanation for it, so here’s my question: why did this scene jar me so?
The first obstacle is the shorthand of immersion and its breaking, which is great for giving a general idea but woeful when it comes to specificity of the cause. Things get tricky when you try to look into why exactly your immersion broke, since a player’s interaction with a game is typically a jumbled and complicated affair for which the on/off state of ‘immersed’ and ‘not immersed’ doesn’t really apply. Whereas it should bridge us to further examine that messy phantom that is our relationship with a game, for TLOU it’s largely been considered an open-and-shut case by one of two explanations:
A) You were in a safezone so you should have been feeling safe, but knowing combat was around the corner you knew not to settle in and get comfortable.
B) As Joel, you were supposed to be following Tommy around the compound and chatting to him about his settled life and its routines, but knowledge of impending combat precluded your honest emotional involvement in this interaction.
Either way you look at it, the player is interacting with the game in such a way that objects are perceived as hints and messages to be used for interpreting meaning within the gameworld. It’s not dissimilar to the ‘dun dun’ tune in Jaws that tells you the shark is en route, even though you haven’t yet seen it. In the case of TLOU, these aren’t just bricks and chest-high walls, they’re motifs of the game’s dramatic composure. I stress this because I’m not sure either of the above explanations rings true if you follow through on the meanings of this scene’s composition.
Since leaving Boston, this fortified settlement is the first area you encounter that could be considered a properly established safezone, complete with dreams of a fresh start, a return to civilization of old. In his time in bandit-occupied country, Joel is a wolf in his element, existing moment-to-moment from one harsh skirmish to another, enjoying the sunlight and downtime as they occur but always mindful of the dangers that living in the world affords him. He’s reproachful to Ellie for her presented naivety to the rigours of his reality, keeping her at arm’s length as a way to distance himself from the memory of his late daughter Sarah, for fear of inviting compassion and courting emotional vulnerability. We’re directly reminded of this when Joel refuses Tommy’s offer of a photo of Sarah and immediately acts towards his goal of ditching Ellie on his brother.
It’s not subtle that Joel is pessimistic and combative, that his strengths lie in killing and surviving and that settled life might not be for him. We know he views the world in terms of imminent and inevitable danger. The presence of signifiers forbearing a shooting segment tells me of the fragility of the fortress even before the flood of raiders break through the camp’s defences. Tommy’s reassuring words ring false because the game’s cosmology–the nature of the world as told by its structures and composition, be they ludic, dramatic, or whatever–places me in a frame to view the world as Joel does. I stroll from building to building knowing I’ll be shooting my way back out, inconsiderate of its apparent security as anything more than fleeting, similar to how I expect Joel would view it, and he with as much certainty as myself.
You might object that Joel mustn’t actually perceive Tommy’s dam in this pessimistic mindset because he himself chose to cart Ellie here to secure her for her mission, or that Joel believes full-heartedly in the dream of the encampment, complete with the life of peace it whispers. That’s a fair reading to have of Joel, and I doubt I have any proof that could turn your mind. For my own reading, I’d speculate that despite always motioning to deliver Ellie on towards Tommy’s protection, Joel’s disbelief in a sense of safety of any kind was never far from his conscious mind. His porcelain machismo forbids it.
So I’m not sure if the answer is that the bricks and chest-high walls create narrative dissonance, because it doesn’t strike me that the doublespeak here is narratively inappropriate. This is also why I don’t think the model of diverging player/character frames, where dissonance occurs because the player’s and the protagonist’s minds are on two different tracks, accounts for my experience. Yet the fact still stands that my mind was tossed out for one reason or another, so the question remains: what could have caused it?
In Critical Distance’s end of the year podcast one of the participants, Cameron Kunzelman, shoots down the conversation by saying it’s unfair to punish a game for being a game. Although this was done as an attempt to obfuscate and rebuke the experiences of others, there might be an element of truth there hinting towards what about the scene diminishes it. The Last of Us doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be an emotional narrative experience or a flighty cathartic shooter. It takes the form of a videogame because Naughty Dog make videogames and this was made by Naughty Dog, but not every videogame needs to be a game. Not every videogame benefits from being a game. There is a magnificently strong current in game design and critical theory dictating otherwise, using definition rhetoric to decide what is and isn’t worthy of the medium and hence our time. It’s a nasty attitude that has long polluted the confidences of games studios the world over. I’ve written before on how Naughty Dog is a slave to this apprehension.
By this mindset The Last of Us is characterised as a stab at a deep and meaningful narrative while toeing the ludic line. It aspires to be a game because of the belief that being a game is central to being a videogame, and by “game” in this case it references a specific set of interactions and systems: gunplay and puzzles–conventional structures of play safely satisfying the expectations of ‘everyone’, meaning a mass market of players who primarily want games to pander to their escapist desires, with anything beyond that a bonus. It’s a game by way of apology for the story they want to tell, which is the message I got time and time again from its pointless, banal environmental puzzles and over-indulgence in shooting sections.
As I arrived at Tommy’s dam, my problem with the bricks and chest-high walls wasn’t that it was saying to me a shooting section was coming up, it wasn’t that there was too tangible a conflict between what was being said by characters onscreen and what I could figure out from the game’s dramatic structure. If that sort of dissonance were all it would take, it would have been hanging over my head long before this scene, since I was reasonably certain the game wasn’t going to end with Joel dropping off Ellie and leaving, with her story arc still unfinished. What jarred me was how the bottles and bricks and chest-high walls felt deliberately placed to inform me that the quiet ‘story’ sections were to soon end, that I only need to tolerate them a short while longer before I could play the shooting game again. Remember it had been since the end of the previous level that the player had last enjoyed combat, a good thirty minutes ago. Thirty minutes is a long time for many players to be playing a game without ‘doing anything’, by which they mean only certain actions count towards their enjoyment and time spent elsewise is time wasted. It’s been ages since you shot someone. You just picked up a new gun, a new toy, that you want to try out. You’ve done your scavenging and topped up your inventory, come onnn let me blow something up.
To be faced with this stupid half-grin, half-shrug apology for its narrative was like a patronizing pat on the head. What had jarred me was the game’s condescension, it’s deeply low expectations of me simultaneous with a lack of esteem for its own story. It was suddenly clear how dishonest it was about its own nature, governed by cynical ideas of what makes a videogame and what people look for in a videogame, how it didn’t believe I enjoyed walking through the canyon or had been touched by Sam and Henry’s deaths, but these were things it needed to include to please The Academy. To meet expectations it toes the line without ever being quite sure how to achieve balance; it could never afford itself the silliness that Metal Gear Solid uses to juncture these two demographics, so it ends up feeling disjointed and irreconciled. It’s a game talking out both sides of its mouth, earnest neither as a shooter nor as a story. Never was this more clear than at Tommy’s dam.
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