Is the Last of Us 2 Emotionally Manipulative?
Nonlinear Narrative vs. Traditional Storytelling vs. Abby
The Last Of Us 2 (TLOU2) is an ambitious game. It’s been out for about 5 months now, which has given players time to reach the end and process its unconventional storyline. The response has been mixed:
The Last of Us (2013) had a strong, character-driven plot and the sequel is no different. While the first one followed the regular three act play, TLOU2 does more as both of its leads play as foils against each other. There are two parallel stories, happening simultaneously in in-game time, but experienced mostly sequentially with Ellie followed by Abby. It was a bold choice, and I’ll see how it fared by looking at the parts where the game’s story follows a traditional drama and at the parts where it diverges.
When I say emotionally manipulative, I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Emotionally abusive would be bad. Any narrative that isn’t linear will be manipulative; the narrator wants to present things in a certain order. And the story we’re being told may be biased and incomplete because critical pieces of information are lacking. It’s a risky opening because it puts the player on guard. Why aren’t we getting the full story? Things are presented out of order for a reason — why is that? A nonlinear narrative makes the player distrust the narrator because the artifice is obvious.
Many of us are familiar with this technique in Titanic, where the movie begins in the present day and framed the main story within a flashback. Doing so lets the viewer know that the character Rose survives, but nothing about the fate of the other characters. However, TLOU2 jumps around so much that one flashback isn’t a useful way to frame and understand the timeline. Instead, I’ve broken the story down by marking each occurrence when the player character changes. I’m doing it like this because of the way video games work as a medium; it’s how we understand the world — through the player character. This is the narrative.
Abby (Escape with Joel)
Ellie (Witnesses Joel’s death)
*Young Ellie (Dinosaur Rocket Birthday)
*Teen Ellie (Shooting with Tommy)
*Teen Ellie (Back to St. Mary’s)
Ellie (Massacre at the Aquarium)
* Youngest Abby (Tracking Lesson)
*Younger Abby (Aquarium — Christmas Date)
*Younger Abby (Aquarium — Pink Bow Shooting)
Abby and Lev
Abby (A long section, culminating with defeating Ellie)
Ellie (Farm — Mandatory potato moment)
Abby (Santa Barbara, gets captured)
Ellie (Santa Barbara)
Ellie (Return to Farmhouse)
*Flashback to Joel forgiveness scene, which happens after the dance
The scenes marked with a * are the ones that occur in the past, as flashbacks. Most of these scenes are tender and sweet — saccharine sweet. In one, Ellie explores a museum, puts hats on dinosaurs, and flies to space with the help of Joel’s headphones. In another, she has a hunting day with Uncle Tommy to learn how to snipe infected, a post-apocalyptically wholesome activity.
As for Abby, she has two sweet moments in the aquarium: one during a romantic Christmas date with Owen, and the other when she flirtatiously competes with him by shooting targets scattered throughout the room with a pink toy bow. And our introduction to her portion of the game is through a tracking lesson with her father, which ends with them saving a zebra tangled in barbed wire.
These happy scenes are sandwiched between the violence that make up the main game, and the transition between them is jarring. An example is at the end of Ellie’s journey in Seattle. The player first encounters the dog when Ellie falls through the Aquarium ducts to the ground below. After killing the dog with her knife, she makes her way to the confrontation with Owen and Mel and ends up killing them both. We cheer because Ellie is our player character and both Owen and Mel were complicit in Joel’s death. The player sees these as accessory enemies before reaching Abby.
But in the next portion of the game, we are forced to embrace Abby. We play as Abby 3 days before the aquarium scene and pick up Alice, the German Shepherd the player will have been forced to stab as Ellie. This jarring transition shades all of Abby’s story in more tragedy as we know exactly when and where each character will die, because we killed them just before. We are both the omniscient narrator and an invested actor in the story, leading to a sense of conflict. Scenes of brutality are juxtaposed with pastoral moments from the past, and just as the emotional jumps are extreme, so are they separated. Rarely is there violence in the happy scenes, and rarely is there happiness in the violence. This is an aspect of the emotional manipulation, this lack of middle ground. These extremes help set the mood for the game.
As a narrative device, it’s an interesting choice. Most of these emotional tones would be expressed through more conventional character-building techniques, like conversation, interactions with the environment, or mutual struggle, as was done in the first game. But TLOU2 bypasses that with nonlinear storytelling. It gives the player an emotionally charged event and has that event determine the mood for the rest of the chapter. Upon Joel’s death, the emotions for Ellie’s journey are set: revenge, regret, loss, and guilt. And since Alice, Owen, and Mel are killed within minutes of each other; the next half of the game with Abby is then seen through the lens of inevitable tragedy. Tragedy now, because the player was required to make the mental switch from seeing them as enemies to allies.
Compare this with the morality of Joel’s rampage through the hospital at the end of TLOU to save Ellie. Players could argue whether or not Joel was justified and draw their own conclusions on the ethical dilemma. But rather than letting the player think it through, the TLOU2 already sets the tone for how it wants the player to feel. We are going to hate Abby because she killed one of our favorite characters, but then we’ll be forced to love her because we play as her for half the game. Through the course of her story, the player experiences her friendly interactions, her jokes, her compassion for others, and her own guilt after killing Joel. The game makes sure the player understands that Abby is a complete person with her own complete story and does its utmost to reverse her status as the villain, twisting player emotions in the process.
Withholding information by jumping around in time is a useful tool for revealing key bits of information that would’ve spoiled the story earlier, a technique used often in horror and thrillers. In these works, we only see the swing of a hatchet or the rolling of a head. The identity of the villain is withheld, building suspense and mystery if done well. The work withholds information to prevent spoiling itself. If we return to the Titanic analogy, the hunt for the blue diamond is the whole point of the expedition, but if we had known Rose had the diamond on her person from the beginning, we’d be thinking, this is a devious old woman who wants a free trip to drop off a diamond at the Titanic and deny Bill Paxton his dream. It would’ve spoiled the movie rather than have it be a poignant moment.
But TLOU2’s narrative style is that it spoils itself. The emotional climax of a work, like the death of a major character like Joel, normally appears near the end, but in TLOU2 it appears at the beginning. The rest of the story is then seen through the filter of the act. Similarly, for Abby, it’s rare in video games that the player kills a trio of characters but then must turn around and regard them as friends and allies. During the runup to TLOU2’s release, I avoided spoilers as best I could, but it turns out I didn’t need to. The game presents the emotional climax first and uses that to color the player experience for the following portion. It purposefully gives information ahead of time to have the viewer see the story in a certain way. This is what I believe lies at the heart of the emotional manipulation. The intentional placement of chapters, one completely happy, one completely brutal, or one that’s full of touching dialogue with another that’s just a trail of bodies, serves to strengthen the gap and emphasizes the difference between these sections.
But this shuffling of events and narratives comes at a cost, and TLOU2 encounters an issue when it tries to resolve two competing stories.
Up until the farmhouse, both Ellie and Abby each have a story that follows a traditional hero’s journey of revenge:
Ellie sees Joel die (death of the father figure/teacher) and that sets her on the path of revenge. She has a love interest/companion in Dina, and Jesse rounds out the thruple. Tommy is the surrogate teacher but is flawed and can’t replace the original. Ellie loses bits of her humanity each time she brutalizes and kills one of Joel’s murderers, but she still begs for pregnant Dina to be spared. Realizing she could’ve lost everything, she lets go of revenge and she and Dina go to a farm to live out a perfect life.
Abby sees her father die (death of father figure/teacher) and that sets her on the path of revenge. She has a love interest/companion in Owen, and Mel rounds out the thruple. Isaac is the surrogate teacher but is flawed and can’t replace the original. Abby’s story does become augmented with the addition of Yara and Lev, and eventually Abby and Lev play like Joel and Ellie in the first game. With the help of Lev, Abby retains a part of her humanity when she spares pregnant Dina, and the two go to Santa Barbara in search of a better life.
Ellie’s story has a natural end at the farm. After such tragic losses, despite not killing Abby, she settles on a life focused on the living, where she and Dina enjoy quiet and solitude while taking care of Spudster. Like before, this first farm scene is beyond idyllic: we see Ellie and the baby enjoying the sunset from the seat of a rusted-out tractor as the sounds of Dina cooking from the kitchen mingle with the song Ellie picked out. This would’ve been an understandable ending, one fit for literature. Ellie doesn’t get what she originally wanted, but instead has found peace within a happy life after all the chaos and murder. The conflict is resolved and Ellie learns to live with it. Life goes on.
This would be well and good if the story were only Ellie’s, but since it’s also Abby’s, we need to contend with her plotline as well. The last time we see Abby, she’s exiting the theater with Lev. This would be acceptable for a villain, but the player is invested in her as a hero as well, and leaving her on such a note would damage the game’s core tenet of showing the complete lives of both women; Abby needs an end to her story too.
So, while Abby’s motivation for heading to Santa Barbara is clear, spurred on by memories of Owen and the destruction of the WLF, Ellie doesn’t have much reason. The game offers two motivations:
1) Tommy. Tommy has a lead, Tommy is family, and Tommy cannot fight anymore.
2) Ellie’s psyche. Flashbacks, panic attacks…the unresolved gnaws at her.
These are weak because they are not intrinsically motivated by the character; they come from external sources. Ellie’s inescapable visions have been haunting her and Tommy provides the information to resolve those visions and the guilt into getting her to go. Ellie responds almost begrudgingly, like a child forced to do a chore. And the cost of leaving is her perfect family and life. The game offers an explanation for Ellie’s departure, but it feels strange and off because Ellie’s story naturally concludes at this point. She doesn’t have to go but she does, and that makes for a weak motivation.
However, her trip to Santa Barbara and eventually finding Abby leads up to the climax in a traditional narrative: does Ellie kill Abby? In this pivotal moment, the game doesn’t spoil itself and reserves the reveal for last. And the players, as seen in the Twitter screenshots above, can debate how it should’ve ended — the result of an engaging story. But the story is no longer Ellie’s; it’s Abby’s, which is why the resolution works for Abby and Lev as they jet away in their boat but leaves Ellie hanging out in the ocean with nothing to do.
In order to balance this out, we are given Ellie’s ending. The first part is when she returns to the farmhouse, now empty, with only her belongings left behind, covered in a layer of dust. As she struggles to play the song she learned from Joel, now sounding off because she’s missing two fingers, we are given the final cutscene.
This cutscene, placed at the very end, shows Ellie forgiving Joel. Though she doesn’t outright say it, the implied meaning is there. In terms of in-game time, this happens the night before the player begins TLOU2, but is shown at the end of the game experience. This scene, which would have explained much more and emotionally shaded the entire game differently, is the ultimate payoff of TLOU2’s nonlinear narrative. This is what was kept from the player. Not the identity of the killer or that the jewel was in Rose’s possession all along, but a scene that affects emotions. It doesn’t add much backstory or character development; we already knew things were rough between Joel and Ellie. Instead, it informs the player that the night before Joel’s death, he and Ellie were on better terms again. There was hope for them. Whether that makes the game better or worse is up to each player, but let’s look at the narrative if it had been chronological:
Joel and Ellie get to Jackson, where they start their new life after the events of TLOU. Everything is great, but Ellie can’t shake the suspicion that there’s more at St. Mary’s. She heads off on her own and Joel chases after, ending with the ultimatum that he tell her the truth or she disappears forever. Once she learns what really happened, they don’t speak for years. Despite this, Joel stands up for Ellie at the party, and though Ellie tells him off, she goes to his home after the party and begins the process of forgiving him. Joel dies the next day.
While this doesn’t make Joel’s death easier to bear, at least the player would’ve known that the relationship ended on good terms. My guess is that the player wasn’t given this scene chronologically because it would’ve made Joel’s death less impactful. The player could think, at least Joel died knowing Ellie still cared for him. Without that information, the player could only wonder at the status of their relationship at his death, shrouding both his and Ellie’s mental states in more mystery and potential tragedy. This alleviates that tragedy, but only at the very end.
To answer the question I posed at the beginning, yes, TLOU2 is emotionally manipulative. The game wants the player to feel a certain way about the situation and characters and does that by giving out emotional information from chapter to chapter, in the form of flashbacks to happier times. In a nonlinear narrative, TLOU2 replaces scenes that normally give key pieces of information with scenes that dictate emotion.
Did it work? I can only speak from my own experience, but this game is the first one that made me examine my own biases against a character, as both controlled protagonist and enemy, multiple times. “Do we hate Abby this time?” I’d ask every time I booted the game up. It was a fun exercise, getting to examine my own emotions as I played and progressed in the story. I am still more partial to the traditional way of character building and letting the player or reader decide their emotional response for themselves, but this was a fascinating look into an alternative form of storytelling, especially with two complete storylines occupying the same space.
The interesting thing about video games as a medium is that it relies on and forces the player for narrative input. The story cannot be experienced without the player’s consent with each button press, and thus makes the player complicit. Ellie wouldn’t swing her knife if we didn’t press square; yet by not pressing we cannot progress in the story. While we can close our eyes during a scary scene in a movie or skim the words in a novel, we are forced, in a video game, to observe and react to the details on the screen or risk dying and needing to go through the whole ordeal again from the last checkpoint. It is one thing to observe violence; it’s another to create it. TLOU2 invites the player to indulge in the killing and survival, but also asks the player to remember their own humanity and the humanity of the characters they’re playing. The narrative did this in an unconventional way, by juxtaposing emotional highs and lows next to each other, and while it may not have been a pleasant experience, it was something bold, different, and memorable.
These texts helped me understand story structure, motivation, and narrative:
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.
Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1950. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon, 1968. Print.
Lisle, Holly. Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love and Money. 2000.
And my own experience writing the novel Ashra (2014).