I’m going to be honest with you; occasionally, I look ahead on Wikipedia and spoil the plot for myself. I don’t do it very often, but I have done it in the past. I have a couple of reasons for doing this.
Firstly, I like to make sure that something in the game that is a mystery is actually solved at the end. For example, in Hotline Miami, I really wanted to know if there was a reason for all the mindless killing and I was worried it was going to turn out to be all a dream or something. I looked ahead and the ending was appropriate for the game, so I finished it in my own time without having to rush to the end to ‘solve the mystery’.
Another reason is if I’m not having fun with a game, and I want to make sure that the ending is worth the effort; this is what I did with the Last of Us. This turned out to be a very good thing to have done.
*SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE*
From Wikipedia –
“Joel awakens in the hospital and is greeted by Marlene. She informs him that Ellie is being prepped for surgery: to create a vaccine for the infection, the Fireflies have to remove a Cordyceps sample from Ellie's brain, killing her in the process. Joel escapes and battles his way to the surgery room, from where he carries an unconscious Ellie to the basement parking garage. There he confronts and kills Marlene to prevent the Fireflies from pursuing them. On the drive out of the city, Ellie finally awakens, and Joel lies to her about the events, telling her that the Fireflies had tried and failed to produce a cure with other immune candidates and had given up trying. The pair arrive on the outskirts of Tommy's settlement. Ellie expresses her survivor's guilt and asks Joel to swear that his story about the Fireflies is true, which he does.”
After reading this entry, I realised that the ending to the Last of Us was awful, casting the Fireflies as the bad guys, and Joel as the typical hero who saves the girl in the end because she deserves to live. A similar thing happened in Prince of Persia (2009) and I didn’t like it then either, mainly because both games wipe away an entire games worth of progress, and ultimately, both doom the world.
Finding out the ending was awful didn’t make me want to stop playing. It made me want to play the game more. I wanted to enjoy every moment, explore every area and generally just take my time with it, with no pressure to get to the end and ‘solve the mystery’. The game is very well made, and there are a lot of excellent games that fall at the last hurdle because they can’t think of an appropriate boss fight or for whatever reason but the journey to get to that ending is amazing.
Actually getting to the end of the game made me realise that Wikipedia got it wrong. It left out the fact that Joel doesn’t save Ellie because she deserves to be saved, he saves her for his own selfish reasons - he doesn’t want to lose his daughter again. It leaves out the fact that the Fireflies are the good guys, and have weighed up all the options and decided that the right thing to do is to sacrifice Ellie so thousands (millions?) of children just like Ellie don’t have to live through the nightmare that she has. It leaves out the fact that the game makes you murder the surgeon, and makes you watch as you kill Marlene in cold blood.
It leaves out the fact that Joel is the bad guy after all, most likely a sociopath, and he doesn’t give a fuck about saving the world.
If not for Wikipedia, I wouldn’t have played the game to the end. If I hadn’t played to the end at a slower place, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. The game is excellent and I loved it. It’s a bit of a flawed masterpiece (a lot like Bioshock Infinite), but what it does well, it does amazingly well. I don’t want to criticise the technical flaws in the game that stop it from being perfect today, I might in the future, I just want to focus on how it could have been even better, or if not better, then just different.
After playing through the stand out sections when you control Ellie, I was left wondering, why don’t you play as Ellie more?
The bits as Ellie were more challenging (aside from the insta-stab, unbreaka-knife), were more scary (a 14 year old girl against a town full of FREAKING CANNIBALS) and I would say more interesting. The bit in the diner with David took me right back to the boss fight in Metal Gear Solid against Vulcan Raven, except this time you weren’t a fully armed secret agent. You were an unarmed teenage girl.
So what if you played the whole game as Ellie?
For the first third of the game she doesn’t even have a gun! Imagine trying to avoid the bandits and infected with just that knife! When Ellie gets lifted by Joel onto boxes or walls or over fences, or when Joel goes underwater, she’s totally alone, and with no way for Joel to reach her. Imagine doing all those environmental puzzles unarmed whilst having to avoid enemies? With Joel totally unable to help you.
Instead of a tutorial teaching you things that Joel already knows, the tutorial could be Joel teaching Ellie how to shoot and how to hunt, over the course of the game. This way you get to experience Ellie gradually getting more skilful over the course of the game, up until the point when she can almost single-handedly defeat a bloater in the Winter section.
I’m not saying that Joel as an NPC should do all the fighting though. Ellie can clearly hold her own, and initially she would be able to outsmart her enemies by using the environment, or by just being really sneaky. Maybe she can’t even kill enemies until after the scene in the hotel where she saves Joel’s life by killing the bandit? Being unable to kill enemies – is that survival horror enough for you?
You’ll also get to see Joel through Ellie’s eyes; starting out as someone she doesn’t trust, getting to know him until he practically is her father, but always aware that he is constantly brutally murdering people around you, maybe even people that don’t deserve it.
And in the final cutscene, waking up in the car with Joel telling her that she couldn’t help after all, and you as Ellie, not quite believing him. Perhaps even a final post-credits scene playing as Joel as he ‘saves’ Ellie from the Fireflies, and watching as he kills Marlene, and the ‘OH FUCK’ moment as you realise that you’ve left Ellie with a man brutal enough that even cannibals run away from him.
I’m not saying that this idea is better than the game, but I thought about it a lot during the parts when you play as Ellie. There aren’t many games that put you in the role of someone like her, and it was quite refreshing that it did it at all.
Well done, Naughty Dog.