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[Serial Saturday] The Storm
Happy Saturday, serialists! Welcome to Serial Saturday!____________________________________________________________
If you’re brand new to shortstories and thinking about participating in Serial Saturday, welcome! Feel free to dip your toes in by writing for this challenge or any others we have listed on the handy dandy Serial Saturday Getting Started Guide!
We appreciate all contributions made to this thread, and all submissions are of course welcomed, whether it addresses a previous challenge or the current one. We hope you enjoy your time in the community!
Take a look at our inaugural Serial Saturday post here for some helpful tips. You don’t need to catch up by writing for each of the previous assignments, feel free to jump right in wherever fits for you, with whatever assignment or theme fits for you, and post it on the current thread with a link to whichever previously posted challenge you chose to start with.
This week it’s all about: The StormPeople, we’ve made it. We’re in the eye of the storm and all around us shit’s gettin’ real.
We’ve talked about amping up the action.
We’ve talked about setting up for the moments that will appear in your story’s “movie trailer”.
If you’ve been holding out for this week to really test our edge-of-our-seat tolerance, this is the week for you to bust those moves.
In the next couple weeks we’ll be hitting the Finale-- but we’re not there yet. This week we’re going to see things double down for our protagonists. This time around things are gettin’ real hairy.
Friends and allies are meeting back up for a showdown.
Enemies are finding new and inventive ways to be a thorn in our side.
Metaphorically, our characters have been learning to juggle, and last week they learned how to walk the tightrope while juggling. This week they’re juggling on the tightrope while on their tippie toes , and... oh snap, someone is sending random electrical currents through it and turns out that’s … bad. Y’know, life threatening stuff. Metaphorically.
Remember our friend Bill, from the Event that Changes Everything, and Raised Stakes? In Raised Stakes he discovered he was on the new regional manager, Frank’s chopping block. This week Bill can choose to try to get upper-management to intervene and get Frank to slow his roll on new layoffs, or Bill can take matters into his own hands.
For the ones among us not writing life-and-death, this is still a story of when bad-leads-to-worse. In Pride and Prejudice this is when Jane’s letter to Elizabeth reveals that their younger sister Lydia just eloped with the rogue Wickham. In the 2011 movie Bridesmaids this ‘storm’ moment happens when the main character, Kristen, accidentally gets the entire bridesmaid crew kicked off the plane while headed to Vegas, forcing them to make the rest of the trip via bus and the protagonist gets replaced as the maid of honor.
The Storm doesn’t always have to be a big battle or argument-- this installment should make us worried for the health/safety/security/stability/sanity of your main character. This is a moment that takes up the focus of our heroes, and requires all their concentration.
Next week’s theme is the Darkest Moment, so make sure that this current week reflects how we end up there.
You have until *next* Saturday, 10/10, to submit and comment on everyone else's stories here. Make sure to check back on this thread periodically to lay some sweet, sweet crit down on those who don't have any yet!
Top picks from last week’s assignment, Raised Stakes:Fan favorite with the most votes: Lynx_Elia, with a story that pulls two threads together with all kinds of spy-tastic fun.
This week the Smoking Hot Challenge Sash goes to an author that nailed the spirit of the assignment: Xacktar, for raising the stakes on a story that has kept us on the edge of our seats.
And honorable mentions: Mobaisle_Writing, with a story that flows beautifully week after week, fitting the challenges and moving the story into deeper waters with every raised stake.
And ATIWTK, for an episode that is kicking into high gear with some earth shattering developments.
- In the comments below submit a story that is between 500 - 750 words in your own original universe.
- Submissions are limited to one serial submission from each author per week.
- Each author should comment on at least 2 other stories during the course of the week.
- That comment must include at least one detail about what the author has done well.
- Authors who successfully finish a serial lasting longer than 8 installments will be featured with a modpost recognizing their completion and a flair banner on the sub.
- Authors are eligible for this highlight post only if they have followed the 2 feedback comments per thread rule. Yes, we will check.
- While content rules are more lax here at /ShortStories, we’re going to roll with the loose guidelines of "vaguely family friendly" being the rule of thumb for now. If you’re ever unsure if your story would cross the line, feel free to modmail!
- Make sure your post on this thread also includes links to your previous installments if you have a currently in-progress serial. Those links must be direct links to the previous installment on the preceding Serial Saturday post or to your own subreddit/profile.
- Authors that complete a serial with 8 or more installments get a fancy banner and modpost to highlight their stories.
- Saturdays we will be hosting a Serials Campfire on the discord main voice lounge. Join us to read your story aloud, hear other stories, and share your own thoughts on serial writing! We start on Saturdays at 9AM CST. Don’t worry about being late, just join!
Join the Discord to chat with prompters, authors, and readers!
Previous constraint: Raised Stakes
Have you seen the Getting Started Guide? No? Oh boy! Here's the current cycle's challenge schedule. Please take a minute to check out the guide, it's got some handy dandy info in it!
|1) Beginnings||2) Goals, Wants and Needs||3) Calm Before the Storm|
|4) Enemies||5) Allies, Friends and Lovers||6) The Event That Changes Everything|
|7) Point of No Return||8) Raised Stakes||9) The Storm|
|10) Darkest Moment||11) Re-invigoration||12) Second Wind|
|13) Victors||14) Loose Ends||15) The Spoils|
|16) The New Order|
The Last of Us 2: A Storytelling Catastrophe -- An Essay
This is part three of a three-part deconstructive analysis of The Last of Us: Part II. Find part one, about Ellie's misrepresentation, here; find part two, about how this game fails to utilize its mechanics to tell its story, here.
The Worst Story Ever Told
So much has been said about The Last of Us: Part II. There are so many holes to pick in its plot that it's like Jesse's skull. A number of very eloquent writers have already done this online. I don’t feel the need to join in.
A few things really bug me about the storytelling in this game, and some of them haven’t been dwelled on by others. Here, I would like to illustrate these things, and provide examples on why they’re so offensive. This is the longest, most rambling, and the least important part of the trilogy, but you asked for it, so here it is.
This is a quote from Neil Druckmann from an interview about Part II:
“You’re already connected to Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us, so we put them through a very tragic event, give you one look at a quest for revenge, and then shift to Abby in order to tell a mirror story of redemption that follows the person who — by killing Joel and avenging her father — has already accomplished what Ellie is trying to do, and is struggling to come to grips with it.”
So the cat’s out of the bag. We play as Abby for the whole second half of the game. Once the perspective swaps, we can be certain that this game is not, as I’ve explained in my other essays, part II Joel is dead and Ellie is MIA for hours and hours. If Abby’s half were meaningfully connected to the first game’s story, this would be different—it isn’t. This is a spinoff, not a sequel.
The core idea here is very strong: two forces, placed in opposition, and you play both sides simultaneously. It’s a great concept for a game. There’s a lot of potential there.
So how did Neil fuck it up?
Dumb people will be tempted to draw parallels between Abby’s story and Ellie’s story. This was clearly the intention of the writers, as cited above. These parallels are false. Abby and Ellie are seeking vengeance for different reasons: Ellie wants justice, Abby wants vengeance.
There is a BIG DIFFERENCE.
The core of the problem is that what Abby does to Joel is inexcusable, and it is not an equal or opposite reaction to what Joel has done to Abby or what Ellie intends to do to Abby when they meet up.
What does Joel do at the end of the first game? He kills Abby’s father. He does this to rescue Ellie, a fact which Abby is fully aware of. Is this wrong? Maybe. Is it subjectively justifiable? Yes. This is killing, effectively, in self-defense. Even if we don’t agree with it, we can’t say that, were it our loved one in Ellie’s place, we wouldn’t want to do the same. Joel doesn’t kill Abby’s father because he’s angry at what he’s about to do. He doesn’t do it out of anger. In fact, we can’t be certain he would have done it at all, had the surgeon not jumped out in front of him—an armed man—and tried to stop him with a fucking scalpel.
Contrast this to Abby. Abby spends years tracking Joel across the country. She does this not for justice, but for pure petty vengeance. She wants to get back at Joel for taking her father away. This is VERY DIFFERENT than killing someone because they’re between you and a loved one.
Moreover, she kills Joel despite the fact that apparently Joel is now a stand-up guy who rescues hapless travelers from hordes of zombies, and otherwise seems entirely reformed by the start of the game. He wasn't hurting anybody anymore. He's helping people now. He helps her, and she repays him by torturing him to death with a golf club.
Abby's revenge is understandable, but it is not, in any way, justifiable. Under no circumstances, coming out of the first game, can I ever possibly learn to care about her after that. It's just too much. She comes across in this scene as evil. Gleefully. Without a moment’s hesitation. In fact, the character in this scene has effectively nothing at all in common with the character we see at the end of the game; they behave like entirely different people.
Meanwhile, from Ellie's perspective, Abby is still on the loose. Here's a psychotic, jacked-as-shit assassin who goes around murdering people with her team of military maniacs. She's still at large. She's like a serial killer. She needs to die. She needs to be brought to justice. Later on, we learn more about the WLF, and we come to the realization that Abby is also a beneficiary of an absolutely horrible paramilitary organization that should be brought down, which just makes her death seem even more necessary.
(Did anyone else read the notes about the WLF during Ellie's Day 1? They're really, really bad. How come the WLF we see aren't doing any of that bad stuff? Did the writers just forget???)
This is why Neil’s contrast between these characters is false.
While we can all agree that vengeance is self-destructive, you can read Part II in such a way that the themes seem to be condemning the very notion of wanting justice at all. This isn’t how human brains work. Human brains need justice. And torturing an old man, who just saved your life, with a golf club? That is egregious. It demands justice. Above simply being petty, it feels like a stab in the back.
Human beings hate murderers, turncoats, and adulterers on instinct. Abby is all three!
This is emotional, not logical, but storytelling is emotional. You can’t expect us to consume the story like Vulcans. And yet, twelve hours later, guess who we’ll be playing?
First impressions are important. This is why the most influential book in screenwriting is called Save the Cat. It doesn't matter who your protagonist is; if you introduce them saving a cat, we'll like them. This is why Sarah dies at the start of the first game—she is the metaphorical cat that Joel tries, and fails, to save. Sarah’s death establishes empathy with a character who's going to go on to do very, very bad things down the line.
If we were introduced to Joel while he was torturing those two cannibals to death in Winter, nobody would have liked him. We weren’t. We saw him on the day his daughter died. This is very different. Abby doesn't save the cat. Abby murders the father figure. This is bad storytelling if the writers legitimately expect us to like this character later on.
There are so many ways in which they could have accomplished what Neil says they were trying to. There are so many small ways to change this one scene that would fix the entire game.
But the torture of a beloved character? That’s one of those things we can’t forgive. Abby is just bad. She is set up as an irredeemable monster, and my memory isn't short enough to forget that after we learn she has a dog. I wouldn't have liked her even if she had a whole litter!
Neil knew what he was doing in this first scene. He wanted us to feel this anger. I simply don’t understand why he thought we’d be okay with playing this character by the midpoint.
I feel like the big problem with the perspective swap in this game is that Naughty Dog wants us to see the world objectively. “You thought Abby was bad, but look! She’s a human being, just like you!” This rings false for so many reasons, some of which are elucidated in the second part of my review. Leaving game design to the side, can we learn to like Abby if we give her the benefit of the doubt?
WHY SHOULD WE?
Why should we, as players, take the time to learn about her life? Why should we learn to like her? The only answer is because that's what the writers want us to do.
I want you to take a minute right now and realize that every villain is a human being at the end of the day. Even Hitler had a family, just like Abby. Knowing about their troubled upbringing isn't enough to make us empathize, not when the introduction to this character was so profoundly negative.
Moreover, why should we take the time to become immersed within Abby's life? There is no excuse for what she did. It doesn't matter if she's a great person overall, just like it doesn't matter if Hitler loved his puppy or if Jeffrey Dahmer loved his mother. They're still evil.
I think the notion that we should understand the people we hate is a good one, but the reasons given to empathize with Abby in this game simply aren’t good enough. She SADISTICALLY tortures the man who just rescued her TO DEATH.
If she were filled with remorse, as Neil seems to for some reason think she is, maybe it would be different. If she had acted against her own will or better judgement, if she had made a mistake, maybe it would be different. This isn’t how the character is presented. She doesn’t lose any sleep over what she’s done. She mentions Joel to Manny once right at the beginning of her section, and not remorsefully, and then never, ever again. The reasons we’re given for liking her are entirely independent of what she’s actually done in the narrative.
Because Abby doesn't really want anything in this game, does she? Aside from Joel's death, which she gets. She wants...to survive? I mean big stuff, stuff that stretches through the whole game.
Ellie wants justice—good, simple, easy, I can relate (because I also want justice).
Abby wants…nothing. There’s nothing for her to want.
In fact, our whole first day adventuring with her is just filler. We go on a mission that gets sidetracked, then go back home. We go out to find Owen, and despite the fact that Owen seems to make it to his aquarium scot-free every day, we have to kill 125 people on our way there. What's the plot? What is there to root for? We spend the whole second day looking for supplies to save Yara, who dies in a cutscene anyway! Why didn't we just skip right to Day 3?
(The answer, of course, is to build the relationship with Lev. At this Day 2 is moderately effective, but the narrative design is sloppy at best. Things needed to be much more focused.)
This gets into a whole different problem with this game’s story, which is that Abby’s sections and Ellie’s sections have literally no causal relationship to each other. Hollywood cinema’s classical narrative is all about cause and effect. Luke finds R2D2; R2D2 causes Luke to find Obi-Wan; Obi-Wan causes Luke to become a Jedi, etc. Like many of you reading this, I had anticipated this to be what Abby’s sections did: Danny would be someone Ellie killed! You’d be reminded that your actions have consequences!
Nope. Most of our time with Abby is wandering around Seattle with no goal. We never once see Ellie until the end of the game. There is no causal connection whatsoever. The two stories could be happening on different planets for all they interact with each other.
I could've liked Abby if she'd had a strong driving force. Something to relate to. Something like revenge for the death of her father. But Abby gets her revenge before we play as her, basically, and she's left with nothing. We can't have rooting interest in a character if we have nothing to root for. Nothing to root for, no interest. This is basic storytelling stuff. You'll learn it in any creative writing or screenwriting class. Our introduction to her is so weak. We’re simply immersed into a whole new world—of fascist, evil, raiding Wolves, who are established as being very bad and say weird Hunger Games things like a creepy cult to each other—and expected to care.
I didn’t care.
I profoundly didn’t care.
If I wasn’t so invested in the first game, I would have stopped playing at this point. Swapping perspectives and leaving us on a cliffhanger grinds the entire game to a halt, ruins all momentum, and makes the remainder of Abby’s sections feel like a slog. Pushing forward was actively difficult for me. I simply didn’t care. Other writers have spoken on the pacing elsewhere, so I’m not going to dwell on it. I’m more interested in the stuff that’s less obvious here, but the travesty that is this game’s second act pacing is very hard to look past.
The Georgian Parable
I want to tell you a story. In the 19th century, there was a young man from Georgia—the country, not the state—named Joe Jugashvili. He had a very troubled upbringing. His family was miserably poor and all of his siblings died in infancy. His father was an alcoholic and he beat poor Joe and his mother mercilessly. Throughout his childhood he struggled with illness, injury, and homelessness, and it wasn’t until he found religion that he began to show his merit. He became a novice priest. The climate of the day in the Russian Empire was brutal, but he cast away the chains of his youth, and in the end became one of the most important people of the 20th century.
Most people don’t know him as Jugashvili, though. But I’ll bet you’re familiar with his pseudonym.
Stalin. Joseph Stalin.Understanding Stalin’s upbringing is important. We should try to learn how he became the man he was. We might even be able to make him into a sympathetic character.
But the fact that Stalin had a harsh upbringing does not excuse what he would go on to do. Nobody would argue otherwise. We can understand that life sucks without forgiving him for his crimes against humanity. You could write a compelling film in which we root for a young and troubled Stalin, only for the twist of his true identity to be revealed at the end. It would probably be effective. But it would never excuse his actions, and I would hope that it would never convince anyone that his actions were somehow justified.
If you’ve ever seen Downfall, you might have experienced this for yourself. We come in at the very end of the Third Reich and so we never really see how bad the Nazis are. You almost feel sorry for Hitler. The film does a great job illustrating that even the worst monsters in all of human history were, still, human.
Note that Downfall would NOT work if the opening of the film was in Auschwitz. We would remember that Hitler was evil and never be able to come to care about his problems. In fact, his problems would seem well-deserved. It would be an entirely different movie.
Yet, in effect, this is what Naughty Dog is asking us to do. We’re being asked to empathize with Abby because “she’s a human being, too!”
So was Stalin.
So was Hitler.
So were Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Do you think those inmates who killed Dahmer were wrong to do so just because he loved his mother? Maybe you think it was wrong because it's a violation of due process or because he was no longer a threat, but do you think that there's something about Dahmer himself that makes killing him wrong?
If you do, seek help.
Everyone is a human, but some people do deserve to die. Revenge fiction relies upon this fact. Based on how she’s introduced in this game, Abby is one of those people. She is irredeemable. Her characterization is too negative. She needs to die for what she’s done—especially considering that “frontier justice” is the best we can hope for in the post-apocalypse.
“But what about Ellie,” I hear you cry. “Ellie is bad too!”
You’re right. Ellie is bad. But she’s only bad in this game. Empathy has been effectively established before we start seeing her do bad things. Our sympathy for Stalin in my hypothetical drama is predicated on us getting to know him before he enslaves half of the USSR’s populations in the GULAG system and revokes NEP and relocates huge numbers of minority populations in brutal death marches, just as how our sympathy for the Germans in Downfall is predicated upon us being shown the people, rather than the politics, behind the NSDAP.
We’re expected to learn about how human Abby is after we see that she’s a fucking psycho. This is why no one likes her.
Where's the conflict?
I like the character of Owen and I like how those scenes at the aquarium are written, but we’re thrust straight into them after barely being given a chance to know the characters. Think about how long it is that you’ve known Ellie in the first game before there’s an entire sequence with no combat, no threats, and nothing but character.
If you’re like me, your first thought is probably within the Left Behind DLC. That’s because moments like those aquarium flashbacks have to be earned. You can’t put them in the game and expect the audience to care, because subjecting us to a sequence without drive, without conflict, and without real gameplay is a luxury. It doesn’t stand alone. It isn’t a substitute for actual character development. An hour in an aquarium flashback is the icing on exploring Abby’s character; it’s not a substitute for the cake itself, and eating it out of context doesn’t do much to tell you about how good the meal as a whole is.
And it’ll MAKE YOU FAT.
Meandering with Ellie after she’s been in one and a half games is fine and forgivable. Meandering as Abby, after seeing her murder Joel, is a death sentence. If we were expected to learn to love Ellie through Left Behind before having played the base game, it wouldn’t work.
This all comes down to conflict. Ellie’s section, despite its enormous flaws, has some kind of central conflict: find Abby. This gives us something to root for. When there’s conflict, we can get behind people who are morally questionable. Abby’s sections have no meaningful conflict. All of that stuff in the aquarium? There is no conflict AT ALL. It’s just, as I’ve said, icing. That might be okay if it was a small portion of a larger game, but it isn’t. Those aquarium scenes are why we’re expected to like Abby. Because…we’re supposed to find her charming, I guess?
You simply cannot write a visual story this way. Maybe a novel, maybe, but not a game or a movie. It violates all of the rules. This isn’t brave or bold or innovative, it’s just inept. A Hollywood film written this way would never get made. The script would never be greenlit.
The State of Nature
In the first game, there's this really jarring time skip between Summer and Fall, where Ellie and Joel just kind of teleport from Pittsburgh to Wyoming. If you're not an American, you may not realize that Pittsburgh and Wyoming are about as far apart as Paris and Moscow. I've always wondered...what happened during all of that time? What adventures did we miss?
This teleportation, however, works for one important reason: the world of The Last of Us is big...and it's mostly empty. This is established beforehand when Joel and Ellie drive from Boston to Pittsburgh; cities are dangerous hotspots, but the countryside at large isn't all that hazardous.
I would now like to contrast this with the second game.
So Ellie and Dina and also Jesse and Tommy, and Abby and her friends, teleport freely from Jackson to Seattle. Well, okay, maybe it's just empty, I can maybe live with that. It does seem a little hard to buy, though, especially because zombies in this game wander around the US like WWZ hordes, but whatever.
Okay. Now we're in Seattle.
Seattle, apparently, is SO DANGEORUS, that when Abby wants to go visit Owen at his aquarium, she has to have AN ENTIRE DAY of gameplay to get there. Well, this is the apocalypse. I can buy that. It's probably pretty dangerous.
I need to emphasize this point. The entirety of Abby's first day has no narrative. Its sole purpose is to show the player how incredibly violent and dangerous this world is.
And then the game forgets.
When Abby finally discovers the bodies of Mel and Owen, I was amped for a scene in which we played as her tracking Ellie across Seattle. That sounded so badass. It would've been really cool.
Instead, Abby teleports to the theatre.
So do they all. Everyone just teleports to wherever they need to go, despite the fact that we spend AN ENTIRE DAY establishing that this world is so dangerous that we need to have hours of gameplay just to talk a stroll down the street.
Obviously all of that shit is just filler. It has no bearing on the story. But this bothers me so, so much. There's no internal logic to the narrative. It's all so jarring.
Weird post-apocalypse religious fundamentalists are a horrible cliche. You're telling me that a bunch of Amish psychopaths have set up shop in Seattle, and had massive success, preaching that technology is evil...despite the fact that most of them were probably born in our modern, secular age? Really?
Is this a joke??
Seriously. The Seraphites are like something out of Fallout. They don't fit with The Last of Us' aesthetic. I'm once again left wondering if Neil actually played the first game.
WLF vs. The Seraphites
Abby's section concludes with a big dumb boring pointless stupid action scene in which you ride a horse with Lev through a warzone. I have some questions about this sequence that I'd really like help answering.
1. Why are all of the buildings uniformly on fire?
Do the WLF have mortars? Did they drop napalm? Why is every house on fire at the same time? Who set all of these fires? Why?
2. How did the WLF uniformly distribute themselves across an entire island during an invasion?
Didn't they, like, have to land somewhere first? Did they parachute in??
3. Why is the Space Needle on an island?
The Space Needle is not on an island.
If anyone has answers to these questions, let me know in the comments below. I'd ask Neil but he'd block me on Twitter if I tried.
A Story Backwards
I don't want to harp on about the pacing any more than I have to, but I would like to point out that the presentation of this game's story is engineered to create player apathy. We're expected to immerse ourselves into the lives of Mel and Owen after we've found out that Ellie kills them all pointlessly in a cutscene. All throughout this review I've said "why should we care?" Well, this right here is an enormous reason why we SHOULDN'T. We know how it ends. There's no mystery, there's no tension. Why get invested in Owen's story when we KNOW that it doesn't go anywhere?
The answer is...you don't.
If Ellie's and Abby's sections could have been told side-to-side, the entire game would have worked so much better. Owen's death would have been much more impactful if we actually gave a shit about him when he died. We'd maybe even hold it against Ellie for what she's just done. But Neil needed the swap to Abby to be a big surprise, so a story constructed in the least intuitive way possible is what we got.
A common criticism of this game’s finale is that Abby gets away mostly intact, despite the fact that she successfully enacted her vengeance, while Ellie fails to carry her vengeance through…and yet also loses everything in the process.
If you honestly thought Ellie was going to kill Abby in the end, you are a stupid person. That was never on the table as far as I’m concerned. That climax would go against this game’s thematic purpose, clearly. In fact, I thought both characters would be captured by the Rattlers (in cutscenes), then forced to work together to escape—thereby coming to a new understanding, and parting ways on equitable terms. That really would have driven the humanizing message of the game home, I think.
Instead, we got the game’s actual ending.
Generally, in narrative, stories have what we call themes. Themes are the moral lessons that your character must learn in order to overcome the antagonist at the climax, thereby reaching a new stasis. Every good story does this in some respect. If you honestly can reject this premise, you have no idea what you’re talking about and have never studied storytelling to any extent whatsoever. Everything needs a theme, no matter how basic. We tell stories to learn about the world around us; the theme is what’s being taught.
In a tragedy, the character fails to learn the theme in time, or does so only after it’s too late, and is punished for it. Tragedies are about people who make the wrong decisions. This is where catharsis comes from. In a more conventional modern story, the character learns the theme and is rewarded. She gets the girl, saves the day, wins the game—whatever.
At the end of The Last of Us: Part II, Ellie makes the correct decision. She breaks the cycle of violence. She frees herself from her hatred. AND SHE IS STILL PUNISHED FOR IT!
This is so wrong. It’s wrong in every way. Part II would be a decent, albeit very sloppy, tragedy if Ellie got what she wanted at the expense of all she had. That’s the traditional revenge arc—Hamlet, Monte Cristo, Sweeney Todd, whatever.
But Ellie makes the right decision! She learns the theme! She doesn’t get what she wants, she loses everything she has, and she’s left with nothing at all.
Worst of all, her fear has been realized: she is now totally alone in the world. She has nothing to live for. This would be perfect…if she’d actually taken her vengeance. She doesn’t take her vengeance. Therefore, this doesn’t work.
It seems like Neil has forgotten that the point of storytelling is to teach us and not the characters. It doesn’t matter if Ellie “perpetuates the cycle of violence;” the point is that WE learn from her mistakes. WE learn about the cycle of violence. This is the whole idea behind every single one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The entire thematic purpose of the game falls flat on this point. For one, if Ellie had simply killed Lev and Abby, the cycle of violence would have ended. There was no one left to come after her. Two, the person who fails to learn this specific theme about vengeance is the one who gets the ‘happy’ (although still pretty shitty) ending!
Remember when I mentioned justice earlier? This ending violates the audience’s sense of justice, and it’s possible to read its events as actually condoning violence. I mean on the most primal level possible. If Ellie is going to be punished despite making the right decision, she might as well have made the wrong one, right? Why not? It’s not like she has anything else to lose. I know, I know, somethingsomething about forgiving Joel or whatever, or she maintains her humanity. That’s not good enough.
As the audience, the message we take away is that murder is bad—which I think I knew already—and that pursuing vengeance is also bad. Well, so is eating candy and playing video games; we do it because it makes us feel good. It’s entirely human, particularly when your existence is haunted by PTSD nightmares that mean you can’t ever return to normalcy until achieving closure. The pursuit of this closure is so bad, apparently, that even repenting—and losing two of your fingers for it—isn’t enough. Simply making the mistake is worthy of punishment.
If you take only one thing away from this essay, I want it to be a realization of how fucking wrong this is.
The Last of Us is a series about zombies. Nobody calls them that, but we all know it. With that said, the game works hard to make its “infected” seem more than what they are. There’s been an effort to give their appearance a realistic justification—the cordyceps fungus has made the jump to man, and it is our reckoning. There is at least the façade that this is a story of Man vs. Nature, and that the zombies we’re facing down have a lifecycle, a biological reason to exist, and that they’re just another form of life. The notion in the apocalypse that “life finds away” is one that, thematically, I think is extremely relevant to the first game. Man has left Salt Lake City, but giraffes now roam free. The streets are abandoned, but foliage reclaims what was once taken away. The fall of civilization isn’t actually the end; it’s just the end of us. This is The Last of Us, remember, not The Last of Them or The End of the World. The world is doing just fine. In fact, it’s better than ever. It’s just us on the out. Even the “zombies” aren’t necessarily bad. All hosts think their parasites are bad, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil. They just are. They exist to propagate themselves.
For some reason I expected the sequel to lean more heavily into this aspect. I was wrong. Naughty Dog has demonstrated they had no interest whatsoever in this thematic point. Instead, cordyceps infected humans are just zombies. No effort has been made to naturalize them in Part II. In fact, now they travel in hordes! They attack en masse! They wait for victims passing by under the snow banks! In short, they’re zombies. World War Z zombies, no less.
I’ve always wondered: how does the supply of infected keep growing? Cannibalism and parasitism don’t go very well together. Anytime someone gets infected, they’re either eaten or their infector is killed. This is not very good for population sustainability!
But The Last of Us is not, nor has it ever been, particularly concerned with the logistics of the apocalypse. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be. It isn’t about the world. It’s about Joel and Ellie.
…or so we all thought. But if Abby’s sections aren’t about this fucked up world, then they truly do have nothing. This is yet another inconsistency. I appreciate that the game has ditched generic human enemies of “hunters,” replacing them with factions that have real personality—a little bit like the difference between Fallout 3 and New Vegas—but I lament the decision to turn the infected into pure monsters. I feel like it misses the point. The Last of Us is a natural disaster, not a supernatural or scientific one. And yet face down the Rat King—basically, a big fucking zombie undead monster. Great. The entire art style is the reclamation of urbanity by nature, but apparently the infected are no longer natural. What’s the point, then? Why not just have them be demons? Why pretend they’re cordyceps-infected at all? Because it makes them look freaky?
The brilliance of the first game's infected is an idea just left in the ether. Now no one will ever be able to explore those themes in the medium of zombie fiction, because cordyceps fungus is so distinctively TLoU and I don’t think there’s any better way to have a zombie virus that’s also natural. I so desperately want to write a zombie story set in this series’ universe to capitalize on what I think is there, and now the entire thing has been ruined. We will never get what was so easily within reach.
What Went Wrong?
I want to conclude this series with a discussion of what went wrong with this game. How did we go from The Last of Us, which still inspires new players with its brilliance even seven years later, to The Last of Us: Part II, which is about as intelligently written and designed as an actual spore of cordyceps fungus?
It's not a difficult question to answer, actually. They made Neil VP.
And it's really that simple. In Hollywood, it's nigh unheard of to concentrate both creative and financial powers into the hands of a single person. Outside of the greatest auteurs in the field--Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles--no one can handle that kind of responsibility alone. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and you need multiple perspective to make a good product.
Game development is even more collaborative than film. It lives and breathes on harmony between the different branches of the developer. Bruce Straley was a check and balance against Neil's ineptitude. Straley managed to turn Neil's obvious bad ideas into great ones.
But then Straley left, and we're left with only Neil in charge...and now he's VP. So he has all of the creative control, and no one can question him, because he's also the boss. He answers to no one but himself. Dare to say "hey Neil, the pacing sucks?" You're putting your job at risk. This is how people like Tommy Wiseau make movies like The Room: they have nobody to answer to except themselves.
That is a horrible position to be in. Even good writers need external forces to filter out the bad ideas. Giving your director full creative control means that all of the bad ideas get thrown into the pot, even if everyone else realizes that it's a mistake. It takes a true genius, like Orson Welles, to avoid catastrophe.
Finally, I would like to make the controversial statement that Neil Druckmann is NOT Orson Welles, and add on that even Orson made some really shitty movies over the course of his career.
The True Tragedy Was Inside Us All Along
I think Part II is one of gaming's greatest tragedies. Never has so much potential been so horribly wasted. But it was almost fated. The odds that someone made a game as good as The Last of Us were 100%. The odds that Naughty Dog in particular could do it twice were basically 0%. What we got was even worse than I'd imagined, but I can't say I'm all that surprised.