For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we’ve been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we’re running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective. Warning: If you haven’t played The Last of Us Part II yet, there are some spoilers ahead.
In the beginning, Ellie was just a young girl trying to survive the end of the world. She was a miracle — a child somehow immune to the fungal zombie plague that had decimated the world. Somewhere far away, there was a doctor who thought he could take what was inside Ellie and make a cure for everyone. To save everyone.
All she had to do was get there. And Joel — who’d already lost his own daughter, who was haunted by the things he’d already done to survive and wanted nothing to do with Ellie — was the man who had to take her.
In video games, risk is a feature.
Risk is codified, incentivized, lauded, anchors the equations that drive decision-trees, is calculated as part of the experience. Potential risk is how encounters are built (is it worth fighting the over-leveled boss for the potential loot drop?) and mechanical risk defines how they play out (Heal now? Dodge now? Run?). Risk is something that video games understand because it is something that the player understands. We know that we are stepping into your 1080p, AAA murder simulator. We accept that (virtual) risk is part of the deal. It’s why we’ve come.
It took months. Pretty much every minute of it was dangerous. Ellie and Joel grew close. She came to see him as a father, and he saw her like the daughter he’d lost. They risked their lives for each other a hundred times and, against all odds, they made it to the hospital, to the doctor.
That was when they told Joel what had to happen: That in order to make the cure and save the world, Ellie had to die.
But in being expected, is it really risk? Because if we know it’s coming — if we understand that the zombies are brain-hungry all the time and the Nazis are blood-thirsty all the time and all the monsters are out to kill us all the time — then the risk feels less like possibility (the potential to get something or see something or experience something in trade for an elevated chance of imaginary death) and more like inevitability. A box checked on a form. And if the risk/reward corollary is so baked into the very essence of gaming — if, in fact, it can be argued that there is no game without risk and reward — then what can a game do to make risk feel … risky?
Joel refused. He hadn’t spent all this time keeping Ellie alive just to see her die now. And when simply saying no wasn’t enough, Joel killed every person in the room — including the doctor who knew how to make the cure. He took Ellie and he ran. He never told her what he’d done. He hoped she’d never find out.
Narrative risk is the opposite of gameplay risk. Where simple risk and reward is essential to the functioning of any game, narrative risk is anathema because narrative risk is actually dangerous. It has the potential to alienate players, damage franchises and upend expectations; to cause hurt feelings and push against calcified notions of what games are for.
The reason games follow a three-act structure, chart redemption arcs, love a Big Bad, a Twist Reveal and a Boss Battle is that those things have proven to work in the past. They’re the dependable, sturdy, straightforward rigging on which to hang whatever story you want to tell. And when there’s years of work, thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, narrative risk can seem like something to engineer out, not design for.
Now, it’s years later. There’s still no cure. Joel and Ellie have found themselves a town to live in, a community to be a part of. He’s teaching her to play guitar. She’s found friends her age, work that she’s good at, a girl in town that she likes. They’re adapting. The world is moving on.
And then we meet Abby.
Real narrative risk (particularly in a big, high-profile, studio game) is rare. To do something that fundamentally alters the player’s experience with your game takes guts and a commitment to storytelling that puts the purity of narrative first, and everything else second. And that’s what The Last Of Us 2 is saying when it chooses to split its narrative in half: That story matters more than gameplay, more than comfort or consistency, more than a player’s identification with this character or that one. It’s insisting that there’s something to say that can only be said, by doing something actually risky — first presenting us with Ellie’s story, and then, later, offering us a new perspective, an entirely new story. It gives us Abby’s story.
It makes us play as the person we hate most.
There’s a moment in this game that you will never forget. It comes early. It is shocking and terrible in its violence and in the way it changes everything. It is a single choice that permanently and irrevocably changes everything. A choice that we misunderstand maybe, condemn maybe, loathe absolutely.
It’s the moment where Abby kills Joel.
Ellie, we know. Ellie has been with us (has been us) since the start. Ellie and Joel’s relationship is long and deep and powerful — strained sometimes, particularly in the opening hour of TLOU2, but real.
Briefly, we play as Joel. We’re him when he goes out on patrol with his brother Tommy and we’re him when everything goes wrong. Along the way, Joel does a good thing by rescuing a woman cut off from her friends and under threat from the zombies. Joel doesn’t know her. But we do.
That woman is Abby.
We’re Ellie again when Ellie watches Abby beat Joel to death.
We’re Ellie when Ellie swears revenge.
We’re Ellie when she lights out for Seattle with her girlfriend Dina, hunting for Abby and Abby’s friends, meaning to kill every last one of them. And we’re Ellie while she does exactly that, relishing her vengeance, even when it turns ugly. Because these are the people who killed Joel, and for a while, that’s all we know. That’s all that matters until the midpoint of the game when, suddenly, TLOU2 makes us play as Abby and forces us to come to grips with who she is and why she did what she did.
Because Abby has spent years hunting Joel. She has made terrible sacrifices and done some awful things just to get to Joel. Because Abby? She was the teenaged daughter of the doctor who was supposed to cure the zombie plague. She was there (off screen, out of sight) when Joel murdered her father.
TLOU2 could’ve just been a run-of-the-mill revenge story, but it isn’t. Instead, it fashions itself into a parable about the futility of revenge and the way that violence only begets more violence. It leans into the cognitive dissonance of a universe where everyone is supposed to be both bloody-handed and noble by making no one noble, no one right, no one innocent. It forces us into choices that we tell ourselves we would never make by making them the choices of characters who absolutely would make them. It makes us understand why.
No matter how much we yell at the screen, the story unfolds the way it is meant to. The only way it could. Walking in Abby’s shoes and experiencing the story through her eyes, we see that her vengeance is just as earned, just as necessary and just as pointless as Ellies. In Abby’s world, Joel was the monster. The man who killed her father. And she is no more or less good than Ellie. No more or less evil. Thus, we become the mechanism of vengeance, the instrument of violence, locked into a two-sided story which allows for no other ending. It uses our expectations against us as it winds into nesting cycles of violence and sacrifice. It understands how dangerous it is being, and doesn’t flinch.
Narrative risk should be dangerous. That’s the point. It’s easy to tell a story with no real stakes — where no one changes and everyone gets to feel good about their choices. But this, of course, is how we end up with dull games. Pretty-but-stupid blockbusters that play so smooth and feel so familiar that we forget about them even as we’re in the middle of them. Because without narrative risk, all the other risk just feels rote.
And TLOU2 is a game that reckons with precisely that idea. There are other risks it takes (the centering of unconventional characters, dealing with the trauma of violence, deliberately breaking the narrative flow with slow, quiet flashbacks that ignore the kill-loot-kill feedback loop in favor of deep character development), but its biggest swing is the structural choice to split its story into competing, oppositional perspectives, forcing the player to contend with the consequences of their own actions and to wonder at what point the cycle of violence and the duty of vengeance has become too much for anyone to bear.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.