Narramblings #2: levity in the time of cordyceps

Wojtek Borowicz
Narramblings
Published in
5 min readMar 20, 2023

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Why, yes, I am shamelessly coasting on the popularity of the TV show to talk about The Last of Us games. Specifically about why I never want to play the second one again even though I love it and I beat the original TLoU multiple times. (Don’t worry, it’s not going to be one of those gamergate-flavored rants!)

Spoilers ahead! For: The Last of Us, The Last of Us Part II, Grand Theft Auto IV

Ellie playing guitar.
*Cue tears*

There’s a good reason The Last of Us Part II won a thousand and one awards for best narrative. It’s a fantastic game with a story to match that has elevated the cinematic AAA experience to a new level. There’s hardly a word of praise it hasn’t earned. And yet, when I finished it, I sighed with relief and said to myself I’m never touching it again.

Part II tells a story of vengeance and self-destruction. The power of this theme is in following a character’s path to the edge of a cliff to see if they will turn around towards redemption or plunge to their death. It’s had a grip on audiences for centuries (Achilles and Hamlet, anyone?) and all the way up to the likes of Tony Montana in Scarface and Nina in Black Swan. But watching a movie about a character losing themselves in a quest for revenge or glory is one thing. Participating in it as a player for 20 hours? Now, that’s excruciating. By the time Ellie finally decides to let Abby go, I was so exhausted from spiraling towards damnation as both heroines that I had no interest in the salvation of either.

In fact, in both of their confrontations, first when we play as Abby and then as Ellie in the final chapter, I tried losing on purpose because I didn’t want my character to win. I don’t think I’m unique in this and this is precisely what makes storytelling in Part II so exceptional. Indeed, Naughty Dog pulled off an incredible narrative feat. The player becomes both an agent (you need to defeat Ellie/Abbie to proceed) and an uncomfortable witness (but you don’t want to!) to the characters’ self-destruction. It’s bold. It’s dark. It’s thematically perfect, making us an accomplice in perpetuating the cycle of violence, unable to break it even if we want to.

It’s so fucking good and I still won’t touch it again.

I lost this fight on purpose, hoping for a secret ending.

There are two main reasons. First, as a player I want games to make me feel like I have agency. And for this to be possible, the player’s and hero’s motivations need to align. Mass Effect doesn’t work if I don’t want Shepard to save the galaxy. Tomb Raider doesn’t work if I don’t want Lara to, you know, raid tombs. The original The Last of Us doesn’t work if I don’t want Joel to protect Ellie.

Playing as Abby and fighting Ellie delivered a gut-wrenching plot point but at the expense of the player’s agency. I didn’t want to win that fight! Then reversing the roles in the final chapter made it even worse when Ellie decided to push away Dina, the last person in her life who still cared about her, and go after Abby once again. I understand the purpose behind that. It shows us how pursuing vengeance leads you to destroy yourself. I have no doubt it will be a heartbreaking scene when the HBO show gets to it in later seasons. As a player, however, I was mostly frustrated and weary of my motivations clashing with the hero’s.

That weariness brings us to my second issue with Part II. It’s relentless. By the finale I was begging for the credits to roll. Amid the conflict between Ellie and Abby, every character either dies or gets horribly hurt. We go from one tragedy to another, without a moment to breathe. It’s misery porn and it’s too much.

The first game didn’t have any of these problems. The writers made sure the player’s motivation is the same as Joel’s: to protect Ellie. Of course, the original game had an easier job than Part II because of the nature of their stories. The Last of Us shows us you can find purpose and hope in a desolate world by taking care of someone else. Part II does the opposite. It’s about how you lose everything if your purpose is violence. But even that can be done while keeping the player’s agency intact. One of my favorite scenes in video games is from GTA IV, another game about seeking vengeance at all cost. When Niko Bellic comes face to face with the man who betrayed him, the player gets to choose whether to execute Darko or let him go. It doesn’t affect the rest of the plot but it lets you decide what closure looks like for Niko. It’s a masterpiece of narrative design.

‘How much do you charge to kill someone’ always gets me.

Also, in the original game, Naughty Dog uses levity to shine an occasional ray of light in the darkness. The Last of Us has wonderful ambient dialogue, between Ellie being the bratty teen and Joel reminiscing about the pre-apocalypse world. When Ellie tells puns, it’s not just a gimmick or filler content. It’s a narrative device to lighten the mood in an otherwise grim story. And Joel’s reactions to the puns become nicer over time, showing us how he gradually warms up to her. Cutting across the doom and gloom with humor achieves one more thing. The tragic scenes hit harder if they follow a moment where you loosened up a bit.

Part II is longer than its predecessor but the only moments of levity come either early on, before anything terrible has happened, or in the flashback scene with Joel in the museum. Other than that, it’s a machine gun fire of trauma. Excellently written, no doubt, but 20 hours of near-constant grief is a little much.

The worst thing that happens to Joel.

I never thought games I loved and never want to play again was a category. Not until I played The Last of Us Part II. It occupies this narrow, uncanny space where a story is both excellent and uncomfortable. It’s powerful writing, but also uncomfortable and exhausted are not feelings I’m looking for in a video game.

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