All sorts of spoilers for The Last of Us follow, but we’ve been doing that for some time:
The interwebs, or the trolls thereon, like to hit TLOU by saying that it is an interactive movie, just a series of cutscenes. I have pondered in this space about whether Naughty Dog did rely too much on cutscenes. And here, last night, a TEN MINUTE cutscene. But I’m not going to knock it. Indeed, that ten minute cutscene was one of the best pieces of distinctly game storytelling I’ve maybe ever seen, not despite the fact you weren’t controlling it, but because you weren’t controlling it. Here’s why.
Perhaps you remember the long sequence where you are in the house, sniping dudes. This sequence ends with you having to save both Sam and Ellie (little red crosses, you know). I saved Ellie first; more on that later.
As soon as that ended, Henry says “is everyone ok?” and I KNEW, capital letters KNEW that Sam was bit. However, from that scene all the way to Henry’s death you can’t do a damn thing. It’s all one cutscene. So here I was watching it play out, knowing how it was going to end (because I pretty much knew Henry was going to either kill himself or get killed himself), and I was totally powerless to stop it.
Which is something in and of itself but here’s the thing: I WANTED to get some degree of control back. I was EXPECTING to get some degree of control back. I expected, when Sam grabbed Ellie or Henry was pointing the gun at me or himself or something that a quicktime event would happen. There’d be a little square or something, and there wasn’t. But I wanted there to be. Even if it meant I killed Sam myself or I defended myself or SOMETHING, but the game never gave me that chance. It left you there, watching tragedy, helpless to stop it.
So why is this a perfect illustration as to why games can do things movies can’t? You could look at this, and think “hey, that WAS a movie. Ten minutes of movie.” But it wasn’t. In a movie, you’re not holding a controller, waiting for your chance to jump in. You’re not reminded by that thing in your hands, that you’re clutching just a little tighter, that you CAN’T. In a game, you’re USED TO BEING ABLE TO AFFECT THINGS and at this point in this game YOU CAN’T. By turning the controller into a dead piece of useless plastic, Naughty Dog made a point in a way no other medium could. And they followed through. You can’t even loot the bodies after that final shot.
If you re read a couple paragraphs ago, you’ll notice that, for the first time, I didn’t call Joel Joel I referred to him as “me.” Which is the first time I felt that. Interesting that the first time I felt that was when I could do absolutely nothing. It was Henry saying “it was your fault.” I remembered I shot the clicker attacking Ellie first. Now, maybe it was coincidence, maybe design, but the scope of my rifle passed over Sam before I saved Ellie. I could have saved Sam first, but I passed on it to save reload time and to save Ellie. So I thought, after I turned the game off, “Did I cause Sam’s death?” (not did Joel cause Sam’s death) to the point I had to wiki it. (I didn’t)
So I take back what I said about telling too much with cutscenes. And the people who think cutscenes aren’t “part of the game” need to step off. Because that scene could only happen that way in a game, and it could only happen when you could only watch.