Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Redesigning The Last of Us - If We Played as Ellie



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Ellie's story and character arc matches up perfectly with her hypothetical player’s, even without interactive dialogue or story malleability. She would provide her player with an interactive story that is completely pre-determined, yet wholly based around ludonarrative empathy, much like Journey is. The way she plays would also be refreshing and more cerebral than the way we play Joel.

It almost seems like it was meant to be. Ellie was the first of the duo to be shown when the game debuted at the VGA’s. She narrates most of the trailers and commercials. She stands in front of Joel on the game’s cover, positioned where the player character usually is on box art. She is even on the front of the steelbook edition, with Joel being relegated to the backside. She also got her own prequel comic, with a more thought-out Quarantine Zone story than Joel and Tess’ Robert mission.

Ever since the earliest interviews she has been talked about with depth and excitement. She was presented as the hook of the game. Her description and role made her an interesting character, something new, and someone we wanted to meet. Meanwhile, Joel’s description and role always reminded me of my good friend, Mr. Gruffman McDark Past, from the Rated M tribe of Brood County on Planet Safe-Bet.

I heard that.
No offense to Joel, he is an amazing character.

In this walkthrough I will analyze the game, chapter by chapter, from both Ellie’s and her player’s perspective. I will go into detail on all the story and character moments to explain how and why they work well with Ellie as the player character. I am not rewriting the game or restructuring the story, so I will stick as closely to the actual scenarios as possible, just from another point of view and play style. Some little changes will be proposed here and there, but with their own explanations and justifications.



Some things to note:



  • The only part of the game that would need to be completely changed is Chapter 1, The Quarantine Zone. I don’t want to deviate from the actual game in this walkthrough, so the full QZone section can be read separately over here. There, you can see a detailed description of what Ellie’s chapter 1 could be like, and how it fits with the overall story. It’s not totally necessary to read it before reading the main essay, as there is a TL;DR version below.
  • The “Encounter” section is where we dive deep into how the player plays as Ellie. This section is primarily for those who aren't convinced that playing as Ellie can be worthwhile, so if you are one of those people I suggest reading it first. If you’re already interested in a playable Ellie, you can skip the section if you want. The full gameplay analysis can be read here.


Let’s get started...


My own game...



PROLOGUE


There isn't much to say about the prologue, since Ellie isn't in it. Everything can stay how it is, but I will propose one change: Instead of switching to Joel after the truck crashes, we continue playing from Sarah’s perspective all the way until she dies. You look around at your surroundings while Joel carries you. It’s basically a continuation of the truck sequence. This change will come into play in the hospital scene in a very specific way, but more on that later.

The obvious thematic ties between Sarah and Ellie will pay off better in an Ellie playthrough if Sarah is the "me" character all the way to the end


THE QUARANTINE ZONE


Here are the important parts that you should know about, because they inform things that we know happen later in the game:

  • Ellie and Riley shoot at rats with bb guns.
  • Ellie and Riley get bitten by a Runner in the mall.
  • When on their little mission, Ellie is the leader and Riley acts as the “partner”. This way the player gets a subliminal tutorial of what makes a good partner. This also makes the player empathize with Ellie more when Joel takes away her independence. When she tells him she can handle herself, the player knows it because they actually played as her taking care of herself and her partner.
  • Once we get to the cutscene where Joel and Ellie meet, the game continues like normal.

The full QZone section can be read here.



FIRST STEPS TOGETHER

When Joel and Ellie (J&E) meet, Joel takes Ellie to a room where they wait for Tess to come back. This short sequence is a good place to examine why Joel isn't as good a Player Character as Ellie. It is a very short gameplay segment, but says a lot about the differences between J&E as PCs.

The main issue with playing as Joel in this part is that there are 2 immediate dissonances that arises between him and the player.


What Joel knows

Joel knows exactly where the room they’re headed to is, and how to get there. The player doesn't. The player never visited that room and doesn't know that part of town. But somehow, the player manages to get to the room with no confusion, and navigate the alleys perfectly. This is because of how linear the level design is.

Now, that type of design is not actually bad or anything, and funneling the player down a path is common and not a big deal. Joel knowing his environment while the player doesn't is a type of player/character dissonance which is also common and not a big deal. These only become a problem when they're noticeable, since they can break immersion. What’s interesting here is that this is the only section of the game that has both these issues at the same time.

Let’s look at the sections that come before and after this scene:

  • Since the start of this chapter, Joel has been following Tess around, and then Marlene. This helps take your attention away from the rigidity of the level design and instead focus it on who you are following. There is a reason for the player to navigate swiftly despite not having been there before. It also helps for pacing. Unfortunately, the dissonance of knowledge is still apparent.

  • After escaping the city, Joel is in new territory for the rest of the game. He is finding his path as he goes, just like the player. Both parties are on the same page and have the same mind-set. Unfortunately, the player’s tendency to wander makes the linearity much more obvious.

These are two solutions for two different problems (dissonance and obvious linear design).

In this section of the game, as Joel, neither solution is applied, and both problems prevail.

Luckily, Ellie combines both solutions at once, eliminating both problems.

Ellie doesn't know where she’s going and neither does the player, but they both get to the destination because they follow Joel. Right here, we have the player and the PC in the same mind-set when it comes to both the environment and the way they navigate through it.


Lead the way gramps
What Joel feels

Another issue with playing as Joel here, is that he doesn't want to deal with Ellie. She’s a nuisance to him. He sees her as a liability and would rather not have to baby-sit. The player on the other hand, doesn't have to “deal” with Ellie. The gameplay doesn't change and you don’t have to keep an eye on her or worry about her. The player doesn't get annoyed and isn't put in Joel’s mind-set. We see Ellie as a new interesting character, and for some, the main hook of the game. But were playing as someone with a completely opposite opinion of her, and with a totally different view of the situation. We don't connect with Joel and his feelings. It would be fine if it were a movie.

Ellie sees Joel as some scruffy old guy who’s a bit of a grumpy pants. All she knows about him is that his brother was close to Marlene. She doesn't know who he is and he sort of just popped out of nowhere and now she’s stuck with him. With Ellie as the PC, the player would remember Joel as the guy from the prologue. But it’s 20 years later so the young man we saw before is someone totally new now. He’s gritty, he’s pissed, he’s reserved, he’s mysterious. He’s obviously really good protection, but he’s also a disgruntled criminal who might not appreciate baby-sitting an infected child. We see Joel how Ellie sees him. We follow him with the same mind-set that Ellie does.





THE OUTSKIRTS

The Bite Reveal

When Joel, Tess, and Ellie make their way out of the city, Ellie is eventually revealed as infected. With Ellie as the PC, we play as her when she gets infected, so the bite wouldn't be used for a surprise reveal. Instead, it would be a tension device.

From the moment Joel and Tess meet her, Ellie has to keep the bite a secret. It’s important to keep it hidden because who knows what these two angry smugglers would do if they found out. This secret, and it’s potential consequences, would give that part of the game a sense of tension and caution. When the police ambush them, there’s an added layer of suspense when the guy pulls out the testing device.


Skyscraper - Joel Means Business

In the leaning office building, there is that pack of runners and clickers that Joel takes out by himself. It doesn't make much sense that Tess wouldn't come to Joel's aid the moment shots are fired. It made the scene an obvious tutorial that felt contrived.

With Ellie as the PC, this scene can stay the same yet have none of these issues. Since Ellie and Tess hang back, you get to watch Joel work and take out all the infected on his own, silently. This gives the player total confidence in Joel’s abilities. It messages to the player that he is a competent lone wolf that doesn't need or want help. The player also gets a subliminal hint that they don't need to try any heroics during encounters, at least at this stage in the game. This is important because eventually, the player will want to get more involved. This makes the player feel exactly what Ellie is feeling; the need to prove themselves to Joel, despite him telling her to stay put all the time.


I think this guy has it covered

Subway - The Arc Begins

The subway is where Ellie and the player begin their arc. Throughout the game, Ellie and the player will grow their character and relationship with Joel in tandem. This arc will be explained and expanded throughout the walkthrough, and is the main reason Ellie makes a better PC than Joel.

This is J&E's first real encounter together. The player will instinctively follow Joel's lead, knowing from the last scene that he is more than capable. The horror atmosphere will also influence the player to glue themselves to Joel. 

Speaking of horror, one of the pillars of the genre is powerlessness, because the more power you wield, the less scared you are of obstacles. This is why games like Silent Hill and Amnesia are so effective. If The Last of Us can produce anxiety and tension even when playing is the killing machine that is Joel, imagine how it would feel being someone who (at this point) is nowhere near as powerful.


So much for clean underwear

Museum - Get to Know Tess

In the museum, Joel gets separated from Tess and Ellie after the roof collapses. We don't know what happens on the girls' end besides Tess getting bitten. Anything could happen in the 5 or so minutes until Joel gets back, so here is one idea.

The area Tess and Ellie end up in is blocked off from where Joel is, which happens to be where all the infected are. The girls aren't in any danger but have to find a way to get to Joel. While finding the way out, Tess could give Ellie a little backstory on Joel, herself, or how they know Marlene. Preferably, Tess herself would be the focus here, so we can recoup her screen time we lost by not playing as Joel in Chapter 1. A nice character moment between Tess and Ellie would help make Tess’ death gain more weight. Maybe she talks about how she met Joel. Maybe when infected show up she doesn't try protecting Ellie like Joel does, but rather assumes she is capable of handling them on her own. If she does that, the player will warm up to her quickly, just as Ellie would.

Tess presumably gets bitten during this part. Her death is already Ellie’s fault, but we can make the player feel some guilt as well. Whatever way the scripted or non-scripted situation pans out, Tess will end up being swarmed by some runners. She is desperately fending them off with her pistol and 2x4. The player has to juggle between defending themselves and trying to aid Tess.

No matter what, the player is too late to relieve Tess from the onslaught, and she gets shoved through the door into the hallway from the force of her attackers. Ellie is immediately grabbed from behind. While Ellie is dealing with this guy, Tess manages to clear her space but at the cost of a bite. This sets up what we know actually happened when we played as Joel-- Joel enters a hallway and sees Tess take out a runner with a 2x4, while Ellie is trying to hold one back in the other room.

Making the player feel like they could have actually helped Tess, might give her death some dramatic weight that was potentially lost due to her shortened screen time.


BILL’S TOWN

Overview

At this point in the game, Ellie starts showing signs of wanting to be more involved tactically. She first asks Joel for the bow, but her proposal is shot down. It's also at this point that the player might start wanting to get more involved as well.

The previous chapter had a very survival horror-like feel to it, so the concept of being the weakest link who needs to be protected wouldn't have felt so odd. After Tess dies, the encounter with the military doesn't have quite the same tone and atmosphere. The player may start feeling that they should do more than sit around and call out foes. They might have some revenge tendencies and want to avenge Tess by taking guys out. They might feel obligated to seriously help Joel in that part because Tess' death was Ellie's fault. We can even have Joel be kind of reckless due to the stress of trying to hide his emotions.

If none of that works, then when Ellie mentions using the bow, the idea of no longer being an escort will be put into the player's mind.

Afterward, when Joel and Bill are stocking up, the player will share Ellie's disappointment from being denied a weapon. This feeling would be prevalent throughout the chapter because of how much fighting there is compared to earlier in the game. Multiple occasions arise when Joel and Bill get to use their shotguns while Ellie has to make due with her knife and bricks.

This chapter ensures that the player will start playing with the action mechanics a lot more. This is the next stage in the arc Ellie and the player share; they are exiting the escort mentality and are on their way to becoming a sidekick. From this point on, the player's confidence in getting down and dirty during encounters will grow, and the prospect of receiving a gun will be a mutual goal for both Ellie and her player.


Allow me to introduce you to academy award winning director, Mr. Stanley KuBRICK





Refrigerator Trap
When Joel springs the fridge trap, Ellie has to cut him down. The player would have to cut the rope which is very thick and needs lots of time and effort to dismantle. Eventually, she will have to keep Joel from being overwhelmed by infected by jumping down and stabbing them. The player will have to juggle these two jobs during the scene. Each one lends less time to the other, so the player will need to make snap judgments of which is best to focus on at the moment.

A scene like this could use a timer for urgency. It's not necessary, but here's an idea.:

The timer could be in the form of a Bloater that is trying to break through the fence, or maybe there’s one stuck in another trap inside the garage. Wherever it is it will be trying to break free, and will get out soon. Without a timer like this, the scene could get stale because there's nothing forcing you to want to cut Joel down as fast as possible. If the player feels that they can just go down and take out infected with no consequence, the situation won't be urgent and it will have a rinse/repeat fell to it. Also, the player might assume they can just wait for the infected to stop respawning, and then cut Joel down, which shouldn't be the case. Getting Joel down now should be the most important thing, which is why I think having an imminent Bloater would be a good idea.

While Ellie is cutting, Joel will be using up ammo, and he’ll be vulnerable when reloading. When Ellie’s on the floor pouncing on infected, Joel can reload safely but time is being used not cutting. While all this is going on, the looming threat of the Bloater breaking free will drive Ellie, and the player, nuts with anxiety and fear. The more intense and urgent the scene is, the more the player can feel what Ellie is feeling.

Bloater or no Bloater, the Ellie version of this scene is still more dynamic and intense than just shooting waves of infected with infinite ammo.

Here's an optional idea for ending the scene if there is a bloater:

When Joel runs out of ammo he gets grabbed by a clicker, prompting Ellie to go help. She stabs the clicker in the neck and saves Joel. She now has to go back to the fridge to continue cutting, but uh-oh, Mr. Bloater has broken free.

Joel has no choice but to give Ellie the bow, and she picks up the few arrows that fell out of Joel’s backpack. She attempts to distract the Bloater with arrows, but it doesn't seem to work or do any damage. It marches toward Joel, and Ellie feverishly keeps firing to no effect. Suddenly, the Bloater gets shot at by a gun coming from nowhere. Bill shows up firing and Joel tells Ellie to cut him down. With Bill distracting the Bloater, Ellie manages to release Joel. Bill then leads them to the alley to escape.


The Truck

When we get to Bill’s truck, we play as Ellie in the driver’s seat. With Joel and Bill pushing, the player steers and attempts to pop the clutch. The camera stays in the truck, and the player can look around and call out when the infected show up. You steer with the left stick, R2 is the gas, and L2 is the clutch.

The view could be like this:




Or:



In motion:




There could be a clicker that bursts through the driver's window:




PITTSBURGH

Overview

In this chapter, Ellie and the player will be confronted with a new form of encounter- the Hunters. There is the truck ambush, the 3 guys by the bus, the large group at the QZone entrance, and of course, the hotel. There is a lot of conflict here, and the player will get to use the action and stealth mechanics much more than usual.

As fun and strategic this chapter may be, the prospect of using a gun will always be there irking the player. In case you didn't read the Encounter section yet, there many ways a situation could pan out, and having a gun could prove very useful when spotted.

Damn escort quest, he keeps getting into trouble and needing my help

This leads us to the next stage of Ellie and the player's arc.


Ellie to the Rescue

When Joel falls down the elevator shaft, he and Ellie get separated for quite some time. This is the first time Ellie is alone in a hostile environment since they met. The player will also be alone for the first time, so their experience here will be more frightening than normal. We don't know what Ellie was up to in this part, which means this section of gameplay can be anything, so we won’t go into that.

At some point you hear a commotion, and upon investigating you find that bandit trying to drown Joel. You run over, pick up the pistol, and blast the guy just in time.


We shot the hell out of that guy huh
Ellie saves Joel’s life with the very object she’s been clamoring for this whole time. In the following cinematic, Joel shows no appreciation for the act, and instead of being glad for her saving his life he says he’s just glad she didn't blow his head off.

With Joel as the player character this scene creates one of the biggest points of dissonance in the whole game. Everything Joel says is the opposite of how the player feels. We are glad Ellie did what she did. We love it when she helps out. When we saw her hand come into the water and pick up the gun, it was a glorious HELL YEAH moment, punctuated by sheer relief. Joel’s reaction is not ours in the slightest.

With Ellie as the PC, this scene works wonders for our connection to her. When Joel dismisses her heroics, we instantly disagree with him. We don’t deserve that treatment and neither does Ellie. When she backfires saying she deserves a little gratitude, the player agrees completely. Both parties feel the same way about the situation. The whole conversation has the player aligned with one side, Ellie’s side, and that makes her work as a PC here. She is saying what we are thinking, and we don't even need interactive dialogue to make that happen.

Joel then takes the pistol away from her, turning up the aggravation in both Ellie and the player a wee bit more, which helps the following scene work better.

As they make their way outside, going through the ballroom, Ellie is giving Joel quite the attitude. It’s a few minutes of walking, and gives time to reflect on what just happened. You can bet Ellie and the player have the same thoughts running through both their heads during this scene:

Damn it Joel, what’s your problem?
We had a tender moment in the truck not too long ago, why is he acting like such a butt?
If I had a gun I’d be saving him left and right.
At least I don’t have gray hair.


Joel look, your likability is going out the window
This quiet walk allows the emotions to simmer and prepares the player for the surprise in the next scene:


Covering Joel

At the lookout spot, Joel gives Ellie the hunting rifle and thanks her for saving his life. This is the moment we've been waiting for. Now Ellie and the player have the chance to prove to Joel that he made the right choice. In case you didn't read the Quarantine Zone section, this scene is foreshadowed in Chapter 1 when Ellie and Riley shoot at rats with BB guns.


All is forgiven buddy, I won't let you down
After clearing the courtyard, Joel finally gives Ellie the pistol she and the player have been striving for all this time.

I think it would be fitting if Joel let’s Ellie keep the rifle instead of, or in addition to the pistol. Sniping could be her thing. The rifle would be a constant reminder of when Joel finally gave his trust to Ellie, so it's more than just a new killing toy. It has meaning.

It seems like that what was supposed to happen anyway, judging by the game’s promotional art and even the cover:
Ellie isn't the one who carries the rifle, so what gives?

Again, this seems like a cool setup, but never happens


Ellie was made to look like her role in combat was being the scout/sniper, which fits well with her design and the story, as explained above

If the player performed poorly covering Joel, there could be a nice scene afterward where Joel gives her a shooting lesson. This is not only good for a bonding moment, but also for the player to practice. This scenario was also shown in official promo art:


Seriously, why didn't this happen? A moment like this would be memorable and important, just like it was in The Walking Dead



THE SUBURBS

Sewers - New Partner

One of the more interesting parts of the game is when the group gets separated in the sewers. It's when gate closes, with Joel and Sam on one side and Henry and Ellie on the other. Unfortunately, when playing as Joel, nothing really interesting is done with the switch. This is mostly because the switch doesn't actually change the gameplay in any way:

  • You still can’t incite teamwork.

  • Like Ellie, Sam is invisible and inaudible to enemies.

  • Sam doesn't react to the infected in any different way considering Henry’s absence. He isn't more scared or anything.

There is also a lack of any character stuff, however passive and simple it could have been:

  • Joel’s performance or sense of urgency isn't affected by Ellie being in unknown danger.

  • Sam doesn't seem to worry about Henry.

  • Sam doesn't act any differently about being alone with Joel, despite the incident on the beach.

Ellie is in a more unique position during this scene. Since her core gameplay is heavily involved with her companion character (as explained in the Encounter section), the switch will affect the player's experience.

We don't know what happens on her end, so I'll come up with my own idea. But first, I'll propose one change to the already established situation: Instead of the group of clickers being on Ellie's side, it will be on Joel's side. This way we have something to worry about on his end, and the danger will inform Henry's behavior.

As Ellie and Henry make their way around, Henry will gradually get more and more worried about Sam. His nervousness will get the best of him and cause him to perform poorly. Ellie will basically become the leader, and take point in a fashion she hasn't had to before. In Pittsburgh she got a gun and a boost to her confidence, but being in a group of 4 meant things were fairly easy. This scene is where she will really be put to the test. This prepares her and the player for when Sam and Henry are gone, and it's just Joel and Ellie.

Henry’s opinion of Ellie is formed in this scene, which will come into play in the next encounter.


Sniper

When the group gets subdued by the sniper, there are several ways this scene could play out as Ellie.

Ellie goes around one side of the neighborhood while Joel goes around the other. You can search the houses and backyards for a clear shot to snipe the sniper, or you can attempt to infiltrate his building. 

  • If you take him out with the hunting rifle, Joel will be able to commandeer the sniper and cover the group as the rest of you make your way up the neighborhood.
  • If you infiltrate the building, Ellie and Joel can work together to take out the sniper. Then they can both cover Henry and Sam, or Ellie can go back down to help them directly. If Ellie takes out the sniper before Joel gets there, he'll go help Henry and Sam, with Ellie covering them.
  • If Ellie goes to help Henry and Sam, Henry will trust her to lead them because of how she performed in the sewers. When the armored car shows up, Ellie can shoot the guy who drops the molotov, if she can get a shot. She can also throw her own molotov into the vehicle if she has any.


TOMMY’S DAM

High Five

Before J&E meet Tommy, one of the my favorite moments of the game happens. After forming a bridge with the dam walls, Ellie raises her hand and the player can press the triangle button to give her a high five. It was a cute moment that created smiles all around.

Unfortunately, this moment is just that; Cute... cool, neat, etc. There isn't much to it. It also doesn't make much sense. When Joel brings the pallet over to Ellie, she interrupts him with:

“I know. Step on the fucking pallet.”

Her attitude shows that she’s sick of this minigame and wants it over with. But after Joel crosses the bridge she goes--

“Teamwork!”

*clap*

“yeahhhh”  

--as if she enjoyed it.

I get that it’s supposed to show that their relationship is getting better, and it certainly accomplishes that. The thing is, it’s only accomplished if the player activates the high five. Leaving Ellie hanging is not something Joel would do, and even if you’d argue that he would, it still isn't something the player would do. The only reason for the player to ignore her is to see what happens if I leave her hanging, most likely on another playthrough.

If the intention of the moment was to inform J&E’s relationship, then making it a choice in a game that is strictly not about player choice is odd. Nothing story related precedes the moment, nothing is affected by it’s outcome, and the immediate interaction is just a triangle button prompt. If this is suppose to be a character moment, it shouldn't be portrayed with the same level of effort and importance as an optional conversation.

You’re probably thinking, Dude, it’s just a high five, it’s not a big deal! To that I’d say you’re right. But, something like a high five can in fact be deeper than just being neat, and the fact that it is a binary choice means each outcome needs to be equally as meaningful.

The high five in Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a great example.

It starts with Duck asking Lee (The PC) if he can join in on the investigation of the broken flashlight. Lee has to decide whether to let Duck investigate, which is a risk because he might not keep it secret or might tamper with evidence, or tell him no and crush his dreams.

If you choose to partner with Duck, he will later offer an enthusiastic high five upon uncovering the big clue. Your initial reaction is to reciprocate, but not doing so is actually a valid option here, because this simple choice comes with baggage and potential consequences:

  • You don’t want to encourage Duck’s involvement in potentially dangerous affairs, especially without his parent’s consent.

  • It’s hinted at that Duck may even be the one planting the evidence or creating the “crime scene”, because he wants to play Batman and Robin.

  • He may even be the one who broke the flashlight and is trying to place the blame on someone else.

There's more to it, but that's entering spoiler territory so I'll leave it at that.


Oh you
Telltale used a high five to cap off a thought process the player went through that’s related to character and consequence. It seemed like Naughty Dog put the high five in there to hold the player’s interest after spending ten minutes on another boring and pointless pallet segment. Naughty Dog is known for small details and working hard on the little things, so it’s a shame to see such a unique and unseen type of interaction be used for little more than a giggle.

So what’s the point of talking so much about so small a thing? If you think I’m way overreacting with this high five business, you’re probably right. But, the point of this analysis is to demonstrate how well Ellie’s story fits with the player’s, even in ways as small as a high five. Playing as Ellie in this part would eliminate the inconsistencies of playing it as Joel, and will add some of the depth from The Walking Dead's version.

Joel has an opinion of Ellie based on the player’s interaction with him during encounters and downtime (explained in the Encounters section), which for now we’ll call “trust”. That arc is still incomplete at this point of the game, so there is a reason for Joel to react to the high five in different ways:

After crossing the bridge, a triangle prompt will have Ellie initiate the five.

  • With high trust, Joel will reciprocate and the two enjoy the moment.

  • With medium trust, he will seem confused for a second while raising his hand, and Ellie will initiate the clap.

  • With low trust, he will leave Ellie hanging and say that they have to keep moving.

This gives some insight as to how J&E’s immediate relationship is going, and better yet it's based on how the player has been inhabiting Ellie. Plus, getting and not getting the high five are both valid circumstances that actually inform the next scene either way:

  • Getting the high five would make the player like Joel a wee bit more. It’s also our last interaction with him before Ellie finds out he wants to leave her with Tommy. This helps up believe Ellie’s decision to run away, and puts us in her shoes by giving us a tender moment with Joel before he “betrays” us by leaving.

  • Getting no high five would foreshadow Joel’s unabashed decision to leave Ellie with Tommy right away. It would be as if Joel wants to distance himself from bonding in order to make the separation easier for both of them


The Plant

When J&E get to Tommy's plant, they are temporarily separated. Joel goes with Tommy to talk in private, while Ellie goes with Maria to go eat. Nothing really happens on the story layer until Ellie runs away. Going through this scene from Ellie's perspective works because we don't actually miss anything that happens with Joel.

The info we get during Joel and Tommy’s talk is either already known to us (Ellie is the cure), can be explained by Maria (Joel and Tommy’s past before splitting up), or will show up later (Joel’s plan).  

The gameplay on Joel’s end can also be replicated with Ellie:

  • The player sees how the people live and how the plant runs while following Maria.
  • Maria gives Ellie the photo of Sarah.
  • Ellie defends the plant from the attackers alongside Maria and her pals.



THE UNIVERSITY

This is where Ellie and the player complete their arc. The partnership with Joel has been leading up to this chapter.

Ambushed

During the encounter with the bandits, Joel is attacked by a guy on the second floor balcony. In the tussle the barrier breaks and they both fall down, with Joel getting impaled by a bar. When playing as Joel, Ellie doesn't do anything for the 10 whole seconds it takes for the barrier to break. She could have been right next to you when you opened the door, but she still disappears until after Joel falls. This scripted moment was made with no regards for Ellie’s presence, even though she can be right next to you when it happens. The set piece feels contrived and Ellie's inaction is out of character considering all the times she pounces on Joel's attackers.

Playing this part as Ellie means we have to solve the issue of what she is doing while Joel is being strangled. It could be anything really.

  • There could be 2 guys who burst through the door instead of one. One of them goes after Joel and the other goes after Ellie. By the time she defeats her attacker, Ellie is too late to save Joel from falling.
  • Ellie can try to attack the guy who is choking Joel, but she get's knocked off before the barrier breaks.
  • Ellie can pounce on Joel's attacker like usual, but the weight of her jumping on him is what causes the barrier to give way. This would make the player and Ellie feel a bit at fault, pumping the next scene with more emotions.

We can even combine all 3 scenarios:

  • Ellie and Joel each get jumped by their own attackers. When Ellie defeats her's she can go help Joel. The barrier will break and Joel will fall if you jump on the guy, or if you're too late.

Escorting Joel - The Arc is Completed

Instead of playing as a wounded Joel, the player helps him along through the science building as Ellie. She leads the way, covering him from the bandits and helping him up when he stumbles. The roles are now reversed. Joel is the one who needs to be guided and protected, and Ellie is in the leadership position.

There are some neat things that can be done with this scene in addition to the physicality of helping Joel carry himself. Ellie is completely on edge and has to control her anxiety and fear in this scene. We portray this emotional state through gameplay in a myriad of ways:

  • The camera sensitivity can be raised to make the player feel the heightened alertness that Ellie has as she scans the environment for bandits.
  • Ellie’s movement can also be faster, and more exaggerated. Her idle changes, and fast-walks when she moves. When she crouches she goes all the way down with her fingers touching the floor.
  • The vibration would represent Ellie's heartbeat, which starts as a faint rhythm that steadily raises it's tempo throughout the scene. Whenever a bandit shows up the tempo spikes.
  • When playing as Joel here in the actual game, the camera has a slight wobble and depth of field effect. We can apply this wobble and a rounder lens so that the player has to deal with Ellie’s sense of anxiety and scrambling for control. Having the edges of the field of view be blurred would make the world seem like it’s closing in on us, raising the sense of fear and diminishing the importance of background detail.
  • When the bandits come, Ellie’s shots when aiming will actually be more accurate than usual, due to her heightened adrenaline.
  • Joel can get shot by the bandits if he is in the open and Ellie doesn't take them out fast enough. He would stumble and yell in pain, which would raise the intensity and urgency. But, they're just grazes, nothing that would make Joel’s survival more unrealistic.

After a whole game of Joel escorting Ellie, she finally returns the favor and gets him to safety all on her own. Ellie and the player proved themselves to be more than just a sidekick. They demonstrated that they have as much value and strength as Joel in this relationship. They went from being nothing more than an escort, to a life-saving teammate. From this point on, Ellie and the player take Joel’s place as the protector and caretaker, thus completing their gameplay arc.

Hey Joel want some character growth? I got plenty


WINTER
Oh Deer

So you may be wondering how a so-called completed player/character arc is going to fit in when there’s still hours left to go. Well, just because it is complete, doesn't mean it’s over and done with.

The scene with Ellie hunting the deer is a visual representation of her fully realized arc coming into play. But that’s not all. The act of playing the scene means the arc’s completion is actually manifested through play. The player finally experiences what it’s like to be a Joel-like figure of dominance. An apex predator in complete control. A hunter. A true survivor. All those hours of being the hunted while looking to someone else for protection are in the player’s past. Now they are the one in charge, stalking their prey. This is story, character, and narrative all coming together through interactivity, aw yiss. Growing as a player in the same way your avatar grows as a character is one of the unique things a game can accomplish, and Ellie provides that.


Bow to me... pun intended
This feeling of growth and connection doesn't happen when Joel is the main PC. This is because if you play as Joel all the way up to this point, you simply start playing as a smaller version of the same avatar.


David - Testing the Arc

Now that the arc has been established, Ellie and the player have this new found growth and survivability. They are now going to have to utilize it to it's fullest extent. After Ellie encounters David, her story begins to spiral into a conflict that pushes her to her limits. Ellie is being hunted by his men, and she's all alone. This chapter is where the completed arc is put to the test..

The events that take place here can stay the same as it is in the actual game. What’s different, however, is the sheer amount of context, build-up, meaning, and player/character connection that now fuels the entire chapter. You've been in her shoes through all the events that prepared her for this final obstacle. You’re alone, and there are dozens of people hunting you down, but that’s okay because you’re prepared physically and emotionally.You weren't capable at the beginning, but now you are.

WARNING: Pretentious analysis incoming:

David is the manifestation of the destruction of Ellie’s arc. He wants her submit to him, and stop acting against him. He is driving her to cave, and to stop being that which she fought so hard to become. He keeps her in a cage, even less independent than on her first day with Joel. Her escape challenges David’s advances to reverse her arc. When they finally battle, it is meaningful. There is more at stake than a game over.

When David is choking Ellie, she is at her lowest point, and her arc is about to break. When Ellie takes the machete and fights back, it has to be gameplay. Ellie isn't the only one who needs this moment, the player does too. With every mash of the attack button, Ellie and the player unleash vengeance onto David, bringing a glorious crescendo to their arc. That’s character growth, change, and conflict being applied to the player’s experience. It’s conflict that goes beyond a mere boss battle.

With the killing of David, Ellie and the player have completed their emotional and physical growth. Their arc is fulfilled. They have nothing else to prove, not to Joel, not to the game, and not to themselves. There is no more room to grow. This is why Spring gets to be calm. They earned the giraffes, so to speak. The next conflict is at the lab, because it is now Joel's turn to be tested.


Looks like the worst is behind us

Joel

Speaking of Joel, I now have to mention what to do with him in the parts of Winter where you control him. It’s simple really. Keep everything the same but take out the combat. This design choice is very important, and will payoff in the next chapter.

After Ellie is choked out by David, our perspective turns to Joel who gets up to search for her. As Ellie, we just had a giant shoot-out with infected, a long trudge through bandits at the resort, and after waking up we’ll have to escape the town, and then have a boss fight at the inn. Having Joel’s part be be just another encounter is monotonous and unnecessary. Plus, it makes little sense-- He starts out limping, but somehow decides to stop being injured when enemies show up. Then after killing them all with ease, he goes back to limping.

Instead of an encounter, Joel will be walking through the village calling out to Ellie. He’s alone, it’s quiet, and his calls echo ominously. The context for going down the linear path would be that Joel is following the horseshoe prints. He eventually gets to the blood where Callus got shot, and he starts to panic. As he approaches the edge he sees Callus' body but no sign of Ellie. Suddenly, he is ambushed by those two hooligans. Like in the actual game, Joel defeats them and takes them prisoner, and then we switch back to Ellie.

We come back to Joel after Ellie is knocked out again by David in the inn. He’ll be entering the town from a side where the people aren't currently searching. Joel and the player’s point of reference would be the smoke in the distance (from the burning inn).

He heads towards it, but soon a large group of bandits enters the street. Joel quickly detours into the backdoor of a building. He finds Ellie’s backpack in there, and continues on. Eventually he arrives at the inn, and we cut back to Ellie.

Something else we can do with Joel, is have him really struggle to move around, like in the science building. With his wound and with the blizzard, it would make sense that he would be in a state of almost suffering. He would trudge through the snow with his limp and his hand clutching as his stomach. He would cover his eyes from the snow, fall down, blow into his hands, etc, like Nate does is Uncharted 2. The fact that this heavier form of travel is something the player is dealing with would give them a first hand account of how much Joel is putting himself through just for Ellie, without resorting to the usual killing he’s been doing already. We connect with him a bit more, but on a personal, non-violent level (that comes later).


Like this...
...mixed with this

Even though we didn't play as Joel when he was wounded in the science building, we still get to experience that feeling with this scene, and with a better set-up. This scene also foreshadows the events to come in the hospital, which is where the violence comes in.


THE FIREFLY LAB

After the giraffes and the drowning scene, we end up back in Joel’s perspective. The lab part doesn't need any changes. It's fine the way it is, structure-wise. I will, however, propose a teeny weeny change:

All of Joel's kills have to be done by the player.

If we are supposed to be experiencing Joel’s actions first hand, we should experience all of them. This means torturing the guy for directions and executing Marlene. This isn't changing the game too much either, since we were already forced to murder someone in cold blood; the doctor.

A lot of players felt disconnected from Joel at that part because they didn't want to kill any doctors, but they had to in order to progress. This problem goes away if Ellie is the player character. Joel is not the “me” character, so our lack of choice in his matters won’t becoming jarring. He will resonate as a third-person character much more, because that form of writing won't conflict with his avatar state. Joel isn't the "me" character here, so his actions can be disagreeable without creating a player/character dissonance.

We first played as Joel in Winter as he struggles to get to Ellie. He was struggling hard, freezing and in pain, and we felt his drive to save her. Here, we do it again, but the means of him getting to her is what changes. In this part, we will feel first hand how Joel’s darker side drives him to save Ellie.

Having us start by executing the guy on the wall sets the tone for the remainder of the chapter. In this encounter, the player would feel first hand just how ferocious and violent Joel is. Ellie’s switchblade pales in comparison to the inhumaneness of his melee weapons. The shift in play styles would be alarming and unnerving. We haven't fought anyone as Joel before, so we won't be desensitized to the feeling and visuals of employing his extreme violence. Playing as this walking death machine would feel different, angrier, more visceral. We feel Joel's anger and determination.

If you played Spec Ops: The Line, you can get a better sense of what I mean here, since that game does this to certain extent.
When confronted with the doctors, at least one must die, according to Joel. We don’t just see, but also feel the lengths Joel will go to just to save Ellie, who is the “me” character. He is doing all this to save me. It makes the scene all the more bittersweet.

Remember how I said we shouldn't play as Joel in the prologue? Well now is the time to explain why.

In the actual game, we play as Joel carrying Sarah to safety, and then we play as him carrying Ellie to safety. With this setup, the player experiences one concept:

  • What it’s like to be Joel carrying his daughter figure to safety.

If we stayed in Sarah’s perspective until her death, the player ends up exploring two concepts:

  • What it’s like to be Joel when carrying his daughter figure to safety. (Ellie)
  • What it’s like to be Joel’s daughter being carried to safety. (Sarah)

We know what it's like to be in Ellie's position, because we already experienced it. This allows the player to be put into both Joel’s shoes and Ellie’s shoes during this scene. Even though Ellie is unconscious, we are connecting with her and sharing her experience. In a way, we get to inhabit Joel and Ellie and the same time. We knew what it was like to have Joel desperately try to save us, and now we know what it's like to be Joel desperately trying to save us.

When we get to the elevator, we get a minute of silence as it makes it's way to down. A time to reflect on what is happening. When the door opens, Marlene shows up. Joel shoots her and puts Ellie in the truck. We see that Marlene is still alive. Joel kills her in cold blood, and we have to pull the trigger, not unlike killing The Boss in Snake Eater. We don't want to do it, but Joel makes it happen. It’s as if we are the part of his conscience that’s telling him no, but in the end, his madness overcomes and there's nothing we can do about it. There's nothing we should be able to do about it. After all, he’s not our avatar.



EPILOGUE

At this point, Ellie and the player have already completed their arc, and Joel's is just about to wrap up. The duo have one final walk in a forest together. We control Ellie, and see Joel from behind like usual. But this time something is different. Nothing feels the same. We've changed. Our perception of Joel has also changed. We now look at him in a completely different way than ever before.

Ellie looks at him and sees his lie. She thinks he took away her one opportunity to avenge the deaths of Riley, Tess, and Sam. We the player look at him, knowing exactly what he did at the lab and feeling the blood of his victims on our hands.

For the first time, Joel brings up Sarah. He tells Ellie that she would have liked her, and that the two of them would have been friends.
We see now what brings Joel’s arc to a close.
We see why things happened the way they did.
We see the entire story come full circle.
Then and there we realize, that even though she died long ago, we never truly stopped playing as Sarah.




If you haven't done so already, swing on over to the Encounters section or The Quarantine Zone section for more insight on what it would be like to play as Ellie.


Maybe someday...
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Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more posts!

https://twitter.com/Boojro

8 comments:

  1. I haven't read the whole post yet, but the introduction and first few chapters already got my mind flying.
    I hope Naughty Dog listens to you. I'd pay GOLD for a DLC like that.

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    1. Thank you very much!

      The few chapters are kind of the low point of the analysis, I'd say, due to the story not really picking up yet. But I'm glad you like it so far.

      I'd like an Ellie-centric DLC as well, or even a game version of the American Dreams comic which is pretty nice.

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    2. Okay, I finally got around to reading the whole post.
      And, though I understand and agree to Naughty Dog's vision of using Joel as the main character for a more fast-paced, action-driven game, I'd still absolutely and thoroughly enjoy a DLC like that.

      And, since you liked Ellie so much and gave this post so much thought, I have a question to you, that's been bothering me for a while now (actually more than one, but they're kinda the same question):
      What do you think is the purpose of playing as Ellie specifically on the final scene? How do you interpret that? Why do you think the designers made that choice?

      I mean... I don't think it's a decision made out of nowhere. I think the designers purposly made Ellie the final PC, I'm just not sure why. I have soem theories, but I'm curious about your opinion on the matter.

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    3. I would say it was because at that point were supposed to get the story from Ellie's point of view. We already saw Joel's final choices and saw him lie to her, so his part is basically done. This part is about Ellie and how she deals with the situation.

      Before she confronts Joel, the walk in the woods is a good way to let the past scene sink in, and let the player gather themselves before the actual ending. Playing as Ellie during that walk lets the player experience that part of the story more fully:

      - She knows Joel is full of it, and so does the player
      - She probably sees him in a very different way than usual, and so does the player, since we now know his true colors
      - The player and Ellie probably have the same questions running through their heads at this point

      There is a very interesting twist to the scene that affects the experience even if you didn't notice it outright: This is the only part of the game that you see Joel during gameplay from someone else's pov. This makes it easier to disassociate with him. So naturally, you will associate with Ellie and view Joel through the same lens.

      Joel opens up about Sarah for the first time here, and seeing that from Ellie's perspective drives home the fact that he is alone except for one person. He doesn't even have a player anymore, just a girl. And playing as her here makes you feel his dependence first hand because he is talking directly to you.

      For some reason that was really hard to articulate, and I don't think I explained it well, but I hope you understand what I meant.

      That's my interpretation of the scene, but in an effort to make it as meta and fulfilling as possible. As for why Naughty Dog actually chose to make Ellie the PC here, I can't say for sure. I honestly think the real reason is because we played as Sarah at the beginning, and now it's like the story came full circle, simple as that. I don't think ND intended any of the meta stuff about Player/Character relations and pov's that I mentioned, simply because none of that stuff is present anywhere else in the game. But we can't know for sure.

      You said you had your own theories however, care to share?

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  2. My theory isn't as thought out and articulated as yours, but well... here goes nothing.

    I also think it serves to let the past scene sink in, but I also see it from a narrative point of view.
    Narratives are, mainly, about characters' changes and growth. The game is about Joel (supposedly) going through that. After the hospital scene, it's like Joel's finished changing (or not, depending on your point of view. More on that in a sec), and, now, it's time to tell Ellie's growth.

    It's like the game's saying: "And that was Joel's story. Now, The Story of Ellie begins". I'm not talking about sequels or anything. It's just from a narrative point of view. That end suggests that Joel's arc is complete, he is done changing. But Ellie still has a whole life to go. She has secrets to uncover. She has room to mature.

    Now, about that "Joel changing" thing. You can either argue that he changed (he's opened up about Sarah. He started to care for Ellie); or that he didn't (he hasn't moved on. He's still looking for a daughter). If he did, the game's saying "Joel's done changing. Now it's Ellie's turn". If he didn't, it's saying "Joel's had his chance of changing, but he didn't, and never will. Ellie, however, still has her chances".

    Again, I'm not suggesting a sequel. I don't think there'll be one. But the narrative is still opened to continue.

    And that's it. It was hard to articulate indeed, and I'm not sure if that's because my I haven't given it enough though; or because English is not my first language; or because it's simply really hard.

    I guess The Last of Us striked me as a more narrative game, so I see it from a narrative perspective, while you see it from a player-character relation perspective. I'd love to see more analysis like yours.

    Now on to play Gone Home.

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  3. If you are interested in these kinds of analysis', I have some suggestions you might be interested in (if you don't already know about them that this):

    - Errant Signal (he just uploaded a Gone Home video)

    http://www.youtube.com/user/Campster/videos

    I think his Tomb Raider and The Last of Us reviews are some of the best stuff I've seen


    - Matthewmatosis

    http://www.youtube.com/user/Matthewmatosis/videos

    His most recent review is The Last of Us, and his Bioshock Infinite one is great too. His videos are usually longer than 30 minutes. Great stuff


    - MrBtongue

    http://www.youtube.com/user/MrBtongue/videos


    http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/

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  4. I like the narrative framework you've laid out, but a lot of the game mechanics assume you're playing as Joel, not Ellie. Almost all the puzzles are set up Sands of Time-style where Joel lifts heavy objects and Ellie crawls through tight spaces, and crawling through dark passageways is one thing this game doesn't need any more of. The Winter segment is designed around acquiring a small number of fixed weapons and limited crafting options as Ellie, giving a break from the player's high level of preparedness by this point in the game, where player-Ellie would already be fully stocked on gear. Conversely, much more of the game would be spent without guns, requiring some additional combat/stealth options to liven up those portions of the game. (Maybe an upgrade tree for the switchblade? After all, those first weapon crafting stations are going to be pretty pointless when Joel has all the guns.)

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    1. All of those things don't have to apply. We do away with those puzzles or design them differently. The Winter segment wouldn't have a super-powered Ellie, she would have the same backpack contents as in the actual game. Those weapon crafting stations would be pointless, if they were there, which they dont have to be.

      "Conversely, much more of the game would be spent without guns, requiring some additional combat/stealth options to liven up those portions of the game."
      I assume you mean the combat sections before the sniper part of Pittsburgh. I cover that in the Encounters section.

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