The Last of Us Part 2 is a great game, no doubt. The gameplay gets very close to the feeling I had when I first watched a livestream of the gameplay demo of the original game back at E3 2012: stealth-action so slick it seemed choreographed (which it probably was, in that demo) yet still feels like a product of player agency.
The story is also good. And the game's secretive marketing strategy paid off: the surprise structural conceit of the game is a fantastic and bold narrative decision which – for once – actually manages to use gameplay to enhance narrative. Splitting the game down the middle and forcing the player to see the perspective of both sides of the revenge plot is a wonderful way of reinforcing the theme that's been central to revenge fiction since classical literature: revenge begets revenge, and there are no winners in this pointless cycle of violence.
The idea of having two foil characters equally hell-bent on revenge against the other but with the audience able to emphasise with both sides is pure revenge tragedy; Abby is Laertes to Ellie's Hamlet, and even the motivation for revenge remains the same as in Shakespeare's story (Polonius and Abbie's dad are both only killed incidentally, as it happens). As a side note, I saw a coffee-shop in digital Seattle called 'Seneca'. Coincidence or not?
So that's an example of gameplay serving story, and the best thing I can say about The Last of Us 2's narrative. Unfortunately, like two enemies locked in a clumsy grapple to the death, gameplay and story have the power to wound each other far more than they're able to synergise. Yes, this is the 'ludonarrative dissonance' thing, and before I go on I'd like to say that I agree with the points made
in this article about violence, and would like to raise some further points about how elements of the game's narrative are hampered by its gameplay systems.
Firstly: I should quickly outline my view that the concepts of 'gameplay' and 'narrative' are intrinsically at odds with one another, because one is about the player's freedom and the other is about the storyteller's freedom. The more free you make the player, the less free the storyteller is to tell the best story they can: for example in Telltale's The Walking Dead, where the player has the ability to actually give themselves a less satisfying narrative if they make the 'wrong' choice in the choose-your-own-adventure style story. Another example that I recall is the choice you make at the end of GTA4. Again, when I played it I accidentally chose to give myself an ending that was clearly less fitting than the alternative I never got to experience. Putting that kind of agency in the hands of the one who is blind to the consequences of their narrative decisions is a mistake.
Equally though, give too much freedom to the storyteller and you'll make a game that loses the qualities that make it a 'game' in the first place. Some gorgeous stories have been told in this way, Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther and Gone Home for example, but these sorts of games have been criticised by people expecting gameplay and finding that instead they're more like lightly interactive films. It's no fault of the games themselves, but it's a shame we've not found a neater way of describing them than "games" even though they bear far more resemblance to other forms of art than they do to Pac-Man or Street Fighter.
The Last of Us 2 by and large opts for the latter form of storytelling. You are free to do many things in the game, but you are not free to tell the story. This is fine, and I wouldn't want it any other way: I want Naughty Dog to tell me this story. The problem is, the game's need to be a game rather than, for example, an animated TV drama, leads to a number of problems…
- Pacing – looting
Pacing is definitely the main collateral in the tussle between narrative and gameplay. The game trains me to hunt pick-ups in every corner of its sprawling world, and makes these pickups valuable not only to my gameplay experience (items for combat) but also for my narrative experience (through the often contrived notes available find and read). It's very clear that I can't just ignore pickups if I want the full experience.
But this is a huge problem when on the one hand I want to join my companion, who is conveniently positioned at what is clearly the level's exit, and on the other hand I am making my character do a ridiculous sweep of the environment, having to cover every inch of ground like a Roomba to make sure I haven't missed anything. Whatever emotions I was feeling in the narrative, particularly in the way the two characters connected through their dialogue, are dissipated as I stop thinking about the story and begin scouring through drawers.
Even worse are those occasions where there's a real sense of urgency and tension to the narrative – perhaps there's a character I have to save and time is running out – and as soon as I see the way I need to go, I automatically have to go in the opposite direction to check side-passages for any items I may have missed. When the game tries to be a high-stakes Hollywood story, this sort of thing just doesn't work, and for that matter continuing to collect trading cards while the blood of innocents is still drying on my clothes is an even weirder disparity.
2) Pacing – quicktime events in cutscenes
Of course, as is traditional, in the most dramatic moments of the narrative control is wrested away from the player and we watch cutscenes. Except that the game feels guilty for just making us watch something, so occasionally we have to press the square button. If this is intended to make me feel like I'm the one committing the action the character is performing then I can't say it works. And the problem is that on some occasions my morbid curiosity is to 'fail' the quicktime event in order to see the grisly death animation the developers have created.
Also included are those fighting scenes that are somewhere between a quicktime event and a fighting game; a sort of two-button timing thing based on dodging and hitting. I had the game on 'hard' difficulty which I found about right for the combat encounters, but during these fighting scenes led to some ridiculous repetition where a plot moment which was meant to be dramatic and emotional just became frustrating. The most harmful of this was the game's climactic fight in the water between the two rivals. It became weird to see Ellie die at Abby's hands again and again only to keep repeating until, like Groundhog Day, events occurred the way they were destined to. This brings me to my next point:
3) The Santa Barbara sequence
After a false happy ending, the idea that Ellie must inevitably get dragged back into her revenge quest makes perfect thematic sense, and is in-keeping with the idea in the game (and revenge fiction in general) that revenge is a futile and self-destructive activity.
Unfortunately I feel there's something of a missed opportunity here. I came to Santa Barbara greedily expecting narrative. I was itching to see what Ellie and Abby might say to each other after this time. The answer in the end was: not a lot. Instead I realised what this section of the game really is: it's just some additional gameplay with Ellie. We've upgraded Ellie's character pretty far by this point in the story and overall the game is somewhat lighter on the human combat sequences (the game's best moments) so the game gives us a load of new human baddies to fight and a new camp to infiltrate. Gameplay-wise, this is brilliant stuff. I look forward to replaying this section over and over again, enjoying its design and tension.
But story-wise it's unsatisfying. A huge buildup leads to a confrontation with an emaciated Abby which is more or less a retread of their previous encounter in the theatre. This time, Ellie spares Abby rather than the other way around, and Ellie perhaps breaks the cycle of violence when she is able to see her face reflected in Abby's in the water (in a brilliant bit of visual symbolism which perhaps redeems the whole thing). But it's a lot of disconnected gameplay-stuff to lead to this showdown.
I'm not sure what I wanted at this point of the story, but it wasn't this. I didn't necessarily want Abby and Ellie to explain themselves to each other, since that would defeat the point of the game's conceit that the player is the one with the perspective each woman doesn't have, but I think I did want some more drama and more dialogue at this point, instead of something that felt too much like a 'final boss' for the sake of having a final boss, like in Uncharted 4 and countless other action games.
4) The ending
In other stories, an open ending is a narrative decision. In this story, the open ending feels like a marketing decision. The game doesn't commit to the genre trappings of revenge tragedy all the way by having everyone die, because a little box called "The Last of Us Part 3" is floating in Neil Druckmann's mind, with dollar bills falling out of it.
With that said, the way Ellie's song is gradually forgotten throughout the story is brilliant, and her final maimed rendition of it without 2 fingers is a wonderful symbolic moment of the cost of her actions and the way her quest for revenge has engulfed the object that was initially its purpose.
Anyway, enough rambling from me. Agree? Disagree?
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