Saturday, July 27, 2013

If We Played as Ellie - THE QUARANTINE ZONE

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Some notes:

This section explains and analyzes one possible way an Ellie version of Chapter 1 could play out. If you got here by accident, the main part of the essay is over yonder.

I've incorporated elements of the American Dreams comic in here, but this Ellie version of the QZ chapter will be based more on the actual game, which I will explain later.

Left Behind wasn't released or announced when this essay was written. Later on it will be reincorporated into this section when the essay is rewritten for the Youtube show.

As Joel

In the actual game, the quarantine zone chapter doesn't do much on the narrative/ interactivity side.

We see that someone duped Joel and Tess on their weapons, and they're going to go deal with this person and find out where their stash is. As they go on their way, you learn how to kill and choke people until they reach the plot. Then, Joel and Tess accept a job from Marlene that will get them their weapons back.

As the player, your only job is to walk and fight as Joel. You learn how to carry ladders, sneak, stab, choke, punch, shoot, etc. When you perform most of those actions, they don’t have narrative weight or purpose for the player other than the need to complete the objective so the game can move forward.

For the characters, that weight is definitely there, but we can’t feel that weight if the goal doesn't have meaning to us:

  • You the player don’t care about the weapons that were stolen. They don’t mean anything to you, yet you kill people just to find the guy who sold them.
  • You don’t have a history of animosity with Robert’s gang like Joel and Tess do, but you have to kill most of them anyway.
  • Robert betrayed Joel and Tess, but the player doesn't know Robert and was never betrayed by him. So why should we feel inclined to take Joel around the city to go torture and execute some guy we don’t even know?

The only logic, emotions, and goals that the player shares with Joel as a character in this entire chapter are “don’t die” and “kill if necessary”. That’s a disappointing change from the Prologue, which made the player experience mystery, anxiety, foreboding, fear, emotional stakes, good pacing, compelling non-violent interactions, and clear goals that the Narrative, Characters, and the Player all worked towards.

Note: It may sound like I'm specifically targeting the violence and killing. That's not my intention. I'm not here to complain about that stuff in particular. But, if it has to do with the subject I'm currently mentioning, I will include it and describe it like I see it.

As Ellie

Everything that happens in Ellie's chapter 1 informs the entire story in more ways than just tutorials

I'm not here to make a whole new design doc, so I’ll make this simple. I'm going to take the structure of the actual game's QZ chapter, and just switch the nouns around:

  • The opening cutscene won’t establish Joel and Tess as partners. Instead, it will establish Ellie and Riley as best friends, in addition to Ellie and Marlene's mother/daughter relationship.
  • Instead of the companion character being Tess, it will be Riley.
  • Instead of getting to know the smuggling business, we get to know the Fireflies.
  • Instead of the chapter’s focus being Robert, it will be Marlene and/or some kind of Firefly business.
  • Instead of the climax being Robert's death and Marlene’s proposal to Joel and Tess, it will be when Ellie and Riley get infected.
  • Instead of the last sequence before Joel and Ellie meet being another encounter, it will be Riley’s death.
Artwork by Faith Erin Hicks

Chapter 1 sets up the story and the world, but it's also the tutorial. We can make each tutorial and set piece mean something for the narrative, characters, and the way the player connects with Ellie:

Navigation and exploration

This can be done when Ellie and Riley sneak into an uninhabited part of the QZone for teenage shenanigans. Since it’s a new place for Ellie, the player’s knack for exploring will make sense, because she is exploring as well.

In the comic, they sneak out of school and go to an abandon mall at night and ride a horse. We can do that, or many other things. There are a plethora of opportunities in this chapter. There is a whole abandoned city ripe with places for rambunctious kids to explore:

  • The rooftops
  • The mall which has an arcade where Riley tells Ellie about "The Turning"
  • They can venture into the sewers, which would be a frightening place to encounter infected for the first time
  • A carnival or amusement park, with a bunch of rides that they wish they could go on. There can even be a switch you find that actually activates a rollercoaster or a carousel.

If the carnival situation happens, the military may come investigate, meaning our first Encounter takes place in an intricate and interesting environment, rather than this:

I wonder what this level design means

Stealth and sneaking

This tutorial can be when some police show up due to Ellie and Riley being in a restricted area (like the carnival example). Since this is a new area, with guard patrols that Ellie doesn't memorize, the player’s initial confusion and learning process with stealth is shared with Ellie.

Ellie will be able to choose paths and her own tactics in this segment. During the scene she expresses to Riley that she isn't so confident about the shenanigans they are up to. This let’s the player perform poorly and still have the scenario make sense, because she isn't a veteran with 20 years of experience doing this stuff like Joel is.

Speaking of Riley, she will be following Ellie’s lead. The player is the one in charge here, unlike when playing as Joel who follows Tess.

This does 3 things:

  • [Pacing] It loosens the feeling of being funneled through the level, and allows the player to explore without making someone else wait. Since both Riley and Ellie don’t really know where they’re going, lollygagging and exploring makes more sense. Plus, you get to follow the linear path without being literally told to do so by another character.

  • [Gameplay] The player will see first hand how a good partner acts like during an encounter. Later in the game when Joel becomes the leader, the player’s experience with Riley will manifest itself as a tutorial they never knew was happening. The player can remember the kinds of things Riley did that were cool and effective, and emulate that behavior around Joel. So while playing the Stealth and Encounter tutorials, you also get a Companion tutorial ingrained within it that directly affects the player. This means the player won’t have to be explicitly taught how to act around Joel during an encounter later in the game. The player will take a part of Riley with them into the rest of the game.

  • [Narrative] With Riley running up to cover next to you, following you, and helping you out, it puts you in a position of leadership and control. Later, when that leadership is taken away by Joel, the player will feel it, and empathize with Ellie who yearns for Joel to understand that she is more than capable. When Ellie says she can take care of herself, the player agrees because they actually played as her taking care of herself and her partner.

YOU! Watch that potty mouth

Grabbing and Stabbing

The player learns how to grab and stab when Ellie and Riley encounter a pack of infected for the first time. Since Ellie never dealt with infected before, she shares the player’s inexperience. They both share the same fear, anxiety, and learning process because they are both dealing with this situation for the first time.


Unlike when playing as Joel in the first firefight, this shooting segment won’t be played for conflict or action. Instead, it is here to foster character/ player growth AND ludonarrative foreshadowing. Remember when Joel lets Ellie use the hunting rifle in Pittsburgh? Remember how she tells him she has experience shooting at rats with bb’s? That’s what we’ll be doing here.

Joel is obviously a professional, so if an inexperienced player does poorly as him it creates a dissonance between him and the player. We don’t know Ellie’s shooting skills yet, so that aspect of her character has yet to be established. This means you can be as bad at shooters as possible, or as good, and it won’t affect the continuity or your immersion. Before the player actually uses the BB gun, there will be no hints as to how good Ellie is with it. That way, she will inherit the player’s abilities naturally, and those abilities won’t contradict her character.

The reason this sequence is important is because Ellie’s use of firearms is a vital part of her and Joel’s relationship later in the game. Having her adopt the players skill naturally is important in it’s own way; the more the player connects with Ellie here on a personal level, the more the pistol and sniping parts will resonate later on in Pittsburgh.

Rat Patrol 01, reporting in

We know from the comic that Ellie and Riley get bitten inside a mall. This set piece could be done in a myriad of ways. All we need to know is that it happens, and it should happen during gameplay (duh!). Riley will get infected in her attempt to save Ellie's life, making Ellie and the player feel like it's a bit their fault.

I actually think a lone Clicker should be the culprit here. No matter how hard the player tries, they can't defeat it, and it eventually has it's way with Ellie's arm until Riley attacks it. This would establish the unique danger that the Clickers pose, preparing the player for the fact that they are one-hit kills if no one is around to help. But, the Runner is canon, so it's fine either way.

If you were to lay out the QZ chapter structure of the actual game, and this Ellie version, then this bite scene would be where Robert's interrogation would be. It's the visceral high point of the chapter, the turning point that will eventually lead the protagonist to a meeting with the co-star.

The main takeaway we get from Joel's version is basically the fact that he and Tess are hardcore murderers who really want their guns. That's pretty much it.

In this version, what we come away with is the strength of Ellie and Riley's friendship, and also the looming threat of 2 main characters turning.

If despair and hard times is what this game is supposed to be about, I think Ellie's climax fits the bill a lot more than Joel's.

Artwork by Faith Erin Hicks
In Joel's game, the next scene is him and Tess following Marlene to her safe house, with another encounter along the way. In the Ellie version, the next scene would be Ellie and Riley heading home before curfew, at sunset. It would be ominous and tragic. They slowly walk the streets in silence, not knowing what to say about what just happened. They have to keep their bites hidden, and not rouse suspicion. The "goal" is one we don't look forward to-- getting home and breaking the news to Marlene (who, based on my guess from the comic, is Riley's mother. Poor Marlene).

Maybe they keep it a secret and do that “wait it out” thing Ellie mentions in the ending. Or maybe that’s after they told Marlene. Who knows. Whatever happens, Ellie has to watch Riley turn and die, or perhaps kill her herself. This version of Chapter 1 ends in a tragedy that was preceded by a long buildup, emotional stakes, eventful pacing, and was topped off with a bit of mystery regarding Ellie's immunity. As apposed to a chapter filled with the usual gang warfare, chest-high walls, empty motives, and zero stakes.

“3 weeks later”, and Marlene tells Ellie shes going find a way to take her to the Firefly Lab. Marlene leaves to find Robert, but comes back with Joel and Tess. Then we continue on from there.

I think this version of the quarantine zone chapter is better suited for the story-driven experience The Last of Us strives to be. There seem to be more characterization opportunities, purposeful interactions, ludonarrative foreshadowing, player-character connection, a higher stakes inciting incident, a denser story setup, and an emotional high point in addition to the tutorials, all by switching the game to Ellie’s point of view.

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