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Strong spoiler warning for The Last of Us

Context: an email discussion from the week before Butch’s recent post “In Defense of Long Cutscenes

Butch:

Now we must discuss Ish.

To refresh your memory, this is the series of notes you find in the sewer, where a dude set up a camp with a school and kids and all that. And you find dead kids. And it’s real fucking cheerful.

So here’s what I want to discuss: We can agree, here, that it was really depressing and fit the theme of failing your kids/the next generation etc. So we don’t need to go there. But, what I can’t get my head around, is is this a good way for a game to tell a story? On the one hand, one of my beefs (and one of the internet’s beefs) is that too much of this game’s story gets told when your hands aren’t on the controller. “It’s an interactive movie” or “all you do is go from cutscene to cutscene.” Hell, in this space, we’ve wondered if this would be better as a movie.

So here, the story gets told when you’re reading. Not even a cutscene. So part of me says that’s cheap. That’s not using gaming to tell a story.

And yet, that story was effective. Wandering, finding little bits of drawings, the way it didn’t go linearly in time (you find the dead husband before you find the note of the husband deciding to go find Ish’s camp), and being in the environment, feeling the same fear these people felt, was distinctly game. And needed to be game. So it’s weird. I think, in my pondering, that this was good game storytelling, despite the fact that none of the actual narrative happens when you’re touching the controller. Or even in real game time. So what does that say about some notions of game narrative? Because there’s certainly some thought that what makes games games is gameplay, and, thus, narrative must be directly tied to that or it’s an “Interactive movie/novel/whatever,” but this, I think, disproves that.

Whatchu think?

Can we agree that the drawing of Ish and Danny as “our protectors” when you know they all die is really, really, really upsetting? Ok, good.

Feminina:

Oh man yes. Ish. This is the sequence that sticks out in my mind when I think of lighthearted fun moments that are not in TLOU.

The notes, the toys and kid drawings, the cheery ‘we’re surviving!’ messages which just filled you with a sense of impending doom, and then the room full of dead kids (possibly at least a partial answer to the question of why we don’t see infected kids running around)…gah. SO upsetting.

And you’re right, I think that the way you find these notes as you go about your business looking around for things, and the way they then build on each other, is a distinctly game-related function that would be hard to exactly replicate in another medium. Finding the notes, kind of interspersed in other stuff that is important to you (you need to find useful things), lets them work up a particular resonance. I started to dread them, because which one was going to be the one that told you the terrible ending of that little story? And yet, I’m not NOT going to read them.

It’s definitely part of the ‘failing our children’ theme. It says, along with Joel losing Sarah at the beginning, that even when we do our best, we can’t protect them: someone will make some stupid mistake and wreck the safe little world. And as with Sarah, it’s a stupid human mistake (the soldier surely didn’t INTEND to kill a kid), not malice.

This is in contrast to the intentional malice of the hunters, who actively want to kill kids, and the fact that we don’t see the hunters succeed, but we do see the results of human error, suggests that even if we could get rid of our evil (kill all the hunters!), our general incompetence would eventually do us in (or allow an uncaring world to do us in).

There is nothing you can do that will guarantee your childrens’ safety!

Butch:

One of the great gut punches of all time is the kid’s drawing that says “our protector.” See, I think that played on the PC (by this I mean player character, not my ex). You’re feeling your oats at this point in the game. You’re stealth killing things, your guns are upgraded, you have bombs, life is good. Probably like Ish was. So the game picks that point to put you in your place.

The more I think on this, the more I think it was, in fact, not just good storytelling, but specific to game storytelling. Which is good.

Buuuuuuuuuut:

This also plays into a trend in gaming that the medium needs to wrap itself around.

So far, I think the story of Ish was the best narrative bit of TLOU. Note, this story had nothing whatsoever to do with Joel, Ellie, Bill, Tess, or any other character you actually see. This fits in with what we’ve noticed in Bioware games: the best stories are about tangential characters. This is a great story, but the game is not about Ish. This story should support the main narrative, not be the story that stands out after you finish the game. So this bit is great storytelling, but it also highlights a flaw in the storytelling of the game as a whole.

Another thing that I noticed, that you have likely forgot, is Ish’s last note. In it, we learn the ultimate fate of the family he befriends. This is Susan, Kyle, and their kids. Kyle, we learn, was the one who shot all the kids and himself. We learn that Susan “lost her kids.” Ok.

Ish’s last note ends with him being optimistic. “I still feel there’s good in the world.” It also says he has to be strong “for her,” and it’s pretty obvious he means Susan. Which on the surface sounds heroic. But if you look a little closer, you see that, basically, because of Ish, this woman lost her family, and he is running off into the sunset with her. He got her family killed, and got the girl. When you say it that way, it’s not at all heroic. It’s selfish. And, as that picture tacitly compared Ish to Joel/you, it raises the question as to whether seeing yourself as hero/protector is a selfish act in and of itself. As that metaphor extends to the real life experience of parenting….. you go with it.

Blog that.

Feminina:

Ooh…I HAD forgotten that last note, but damn if it doesn’t tie thematically back into other things later on. Very interesting point.

In a way, this whole sequence could almost be the prologue to another story (in terrible circumstances, woman loses kids, man survives to ‘comfort’ her and they go off to face…whatever becomes the MAIN story at that point). It’s like the sad origin story of some protagonist in any sort of adventure tale. “Bad stuff happened in the past, and here’s how we went on to overcome that trauma” or whatever.

But the fact that all we see is the aftermath of the ‘origin’ event (which is soul-crushing), as well as the fact that we know how bad things are out there, means all we can really think is “they’re infected or dead by now for sure.”

It’s sort of a “the human will to survive endures” message AND a “struggle is futile” message combined. Yeah, Ish and Susan carried on for a while despite the worst imaginable tragedy for her, but so what? It can’t have gotten them very far, because there’s nowhere in this world to get.

Selfishness, too. That’s a big theme. Essentially the worst we’ve seen from humans so far comes down to selfishness (the hunters basically just want to have whatever they can get all for themselves), and yet selfishness is a requirement for survival in this world because you HAVE to look out for yourself.

Also, just as Ish somewhat benefits from ‘getting the girl’ after her husband and kids are dead, Joel and Ellie benefit from everyone who ever stockpiled some food or supplies or ammunition and then died before they could use it. You’re all just looting the dead when it comes down to it.

Butch:

I will say that if a dude ever gets me killed, and my kids killed, then runs off with Mrs. McP, I will not find that particularly heroic. Even if it was my decision to go with him.

There is completely baseless internet speculation that a TLOU2 would somehow focus on Ish. We weren’t the only ones who played this game who gravitated to it, and you’re right: it is a bit of a prologue. Indeed, after some extra research, there are two references to Ish in the expansion pack multiplayer maps, and there was going to be another note from him in Gone Home, the DLC prequel (that I have) but the writers decided that was too much of a coincidence, as said DLC takes place in Boston, not Pittsburgh.

So maybe we will see more Ish.

“Infected or dead by now for sure…” Hmm. Maybe. But then, the fact that he, by his own admission, is a runner not a fighter might have made him make it.

Though he wouldn’t be much of a hero to play. Dovetailing the “he gets the girl for nothing” bit, it was a wrenching dovetail that Kyle’s last note said “Ish’ll come. He has to,” when what Ish actually did was seal everyone in, bar the door, and holds Susan who wants to go back in from doing so. Is that cowardice? Is it practical in the sense that was the only way to save her? Is it downright evil in that now he can have her to himself and welcomed the opportunity to get rid of Kyle?

All the same. Not sure I want to spend 25 hours as Ish.

I still think having Ish wind up with Susan was intentional to drive that idea of selfishness home. They could have had Ish die, or get out alone, but no. He winds up with the widow of the family he didn’t save. And manages to convince himself that’s heroic in the process.

As for looting the dead, it’s true. But then, Joel and Ellie haven’t overtly caused the deaths of anyone who wasn’t trying to kill them. We haven’t (yet) locked innocents in an infested strewn bunker. We haven’t shotgunned helpless people to take their stuff. So we’re not really Ish, or hunters. Yet.

Feminina:

I agree that there’s definitely a huge difference between Joel and Ellie and the hunters (or Ish). Killing people to take their stuff is much different than just happening by and taking their stuff after they’re dead. Still, you’re all benefiting from the fact that someone who used to own something is now no longer there to claim it.

It’s also different than saving yourself and one other person at the possible expense of a bunch of other people, although honestly it’s hard to argue that Ish necessarily made the WRONG choice. What he did wasn’t the NOBLE choice, but it was certainly the smart one.

He was alive, last we knew, and nearly everyone else was dead, and what other standard of success has the game given us? We’re not aware of the names of any heroes who nobly sacrificed themselves for principle or to help others, are we? It’s questionable that he could have actually saved them by going in or letting Susan go in (although it’s certainly possible–Joel has shown us that sneaking around killing infected and surviving is possible), so while it does seem clear that a nobler person would have gone back, does that mean we can say he should have?

It’s kind of a callback to our discussion about whether Joel would have gone back for Henry and Sam, and we concluded that he wouldn’t. Maybe Ish is meant to reflect another version of Joel–or, at least, another version of the ‘successful’ survivor in the post-infection world. Abandon anyone and anything as soon as it becomes dangerous to hold on. We don’t think much of Ish, so what does that mean for how we feel about Joel?

If he’s not dead and a sequel does focus on Ish (I was not aware of those rumors), this will definitely be a major discussion point for us. And others–I can imagine the term papers now!

Butch:

It’s also kinda cheap that Joel alludes to being a hunter, but you never see it. I mean, games are supposed to put you in a character. Being told about a past doesn’t really do that.

What sticks with me, though, and is supposed to be the detail that muddies the waters, is Susan. Ish didn’t just save Susan. It’s implied that he ended up with Susan. Saving some at the expense of others may be a reasonable decision: save a few or everyone dies. But when the choice is really 1) try to save everyone or 2) let ’em die and screw their wives, that becomes less of an objective choice.

There is that . And it helps that it is timed when it is. Because this point of the game you’re feeling more than your oats as a protector: you’re finally starting to like Joel, or at least I am. For a while there, I didn’t like Joel. He was grumpy, selfish, and pretty much an asshole. But in Pittsburgh, he starts to soften. He laughs. He cares. I was starting to see him as a protector myself, as a hero, as someone who I liked and wanted to be. Then the game comes in BAM and reminds you that he isn’t that way.

Also, re kids: It is interesting that you get the sense that Ish’s camp was trying their best to shield kids from the world, and not just physically. They weren’t treating their kids the way Henry treats Sam. They had toys, they had books, they had crayons, they were letting the kids be kids. There was some value in that. And, in the end, the world caught up to them, the way it always does. I find it telling that, with that as a backdrop, the first thing Ellie says to Joel when they get out is, with pride, that she killed a couple of clickers herself when she was separated from Joel. Says “That’s… good,” in that way you’ll do when little O’Ladybrain does something grown up that he’s proud of and you dread. The world catches up. And the game seems to be saying that’s never good.

Feminina:

I’m realizing that I was so emotionally stomped by the dead kids, and by my automatic sympathy and horror for Susan, that I didn’t really think about Ish’s role as the guy who winds up with the woman because he let her family die and bodily prevented her from trying to save them. I was distracted by the people around Ish, and kind of accepted him as he presents himself–just a guy trying to do his best, and then tragic stuff happens!–but your read on it is an interesting re-focusing on him as the person at the center of the story, and the point that he seems to end up with Susan and that this muddies the waters is a good one. (Did it ever say that HE was the one who forgot to fasten the gate or whatever that let the infected inside? Because if so, then I missed the fact that he probably intentionally killed everyone to get Susan, and he is the worst person we’ve met so far.)

Here’s a thought: the sequel shouldn’t be about Ish, it should be about Susan. Let HER try to figure out whether he’s just doing his best, or is actually a huge weasel, and whether or not it’s a good thing that he prevented her from (likely) dying along with her family.

I would play that in a second. (Not that I won’t likely play a sequel anyway. But I think Susan has as much potential as a character as Ish, and it would be extremely interesting to see him through someone else’s eyes, rather than mostly through his own words.)

Good stuff also with the way that the group was trying to let the kids still be kids and have some fun in spite of everything. I guess you wind up feeling that this was good: I mean, you figure they were probably going to die one way or another, and you don’t get the sense that kids could be very effective killers of infected (they’re strong and fast and you have to shoot them a lot) so why not let them be kids in the time they have left?

On the other hand, maybe some combat training and Molotov cocktails could have made a difference if they’d spent their time doing drills instead of drawing pictures and relying on unreliable ‘protectors’ who weren’t able to save them in the end. I suppose there’s no way to know, just as there’s no way to know in real life whether or not you’re doing the right thing in your attempts to prepare your kids for the future. (Spoiler according to TLOU: you probably aren’t.)

Butch:

No. He says “One open door. That’s all it took.” Is that an admission? I, initially, didn’t read it as such, so much as mournfulness. But then, he doesn’t say who did do it.

Think we reacted to this differently because you are a lady and I am a dude? I was sensitive to the whole “stealing the woman” thing, more than the dead kids thing (which did affect me. Separate discussion as to the fact they covered the dead kids with a tarp. )

Susan in the sequel: Oooo! I like that! Nice! Let’s go with it!

Naughty me for not seeing that as a possibility. Gender bias. And yeah, at this point we’re pretty much adding Naughty Dog to the list of devs we will play right off, right?

While I fully expect Henry and Sam to die in some horrible way, it is an interesting and probably intentional contrast that Henry is raising Sam in the absolute opposite way. Early on, we see Henry telling Sam that he can’t keep a toy, despite the fact that Sam says his pack is nearly empty. That being said, I haven’t noticed a weapon in Sam’s hand yet. But he is younger than Ellie. That’s established.

It’s funny: you seem to have been more down, or at least fatalistic, about the camp than I was. I admired their optimism. But then, in real life, I’m a pessimistic person, so I admire optimism in others. Yet, you were more forgiving of Ish in the end. Maybe I don’t like that he betrayed the optimism? Dunno.

Though finally I had a session with this game where I see where the reputation of masterpiece comes from. Not saying it is a masterpiece, but this part of it was pretty damn good.

Feminina:

“One open door,” eh?

No, that’s not an admission, but it is interesting that he doesn’t say who did it. We could easily read that as either a generous desire not to lay blame now that it’s too late (“why make a big deal out of the fact that it was Sally who was careless? Anyone could have made the same mistake, and they’re all dead now anyway”), and maybe a sly way of marveling to himself at how easy it was to get Susan’s family out of the way (“one open door, and I’ve got everything I wanted!”)

I could see this being a central question in a whole other game. Because seriously, if he left the door open, Ish is the most awful person we’ve heard of in this game. The hunters at least are just going to kill you for your stuff, and (aside from the “pretending to be a hurt refugee” trap) they’re honest about it. If Ish pretended to befriend this family for weeks, while secretly plotting everyone’s death except Susan’s so that he could ‘comfort’ her afterwards, then he’s history’s greatest monster (returning to previous discussion about monsters).

It suggests that deception and the act of betrayal is what makes you truly monstrous: I said something about how what seemed most awful to me about the hunters is that they preyed on the sympathies of their victims by having one of them pretend to be hurt to get people to stop. Ish’s betrayal of Susan’s family (if he did this) would be much worse, since he pretended to be a friend over a long period of time, earning trust (“Ish’ll come”) which he then fails spectacularly to deserve.

Of course, we don’t know that Ish was the one who left a door open, or even if he did, whether it was actually an honest mistake, so I could be slandering him terribly. Maybe he really was just a well-meaning if cowardly guy, trying to do the best he could, and preventing Susan from dying along with the rest of them was genuinely all he felt he could manage to accomplish at that time.

I would love to survey a bunch of other dudes and ladies about their initial read on that sequence, and see whether there’s a measurable breakdown along gender lines. As you say, it might be a more manly dude thing to be sensitive to the “Ish stealing some other guy’s woman” aspect, and a more womanly lady thing to be sensitive to the dead kids and the mother’s loss.

I would totally design a poll!–if anyone actually read this blog.

You expect Henry and Sam to die? Whyever would you think that? Wait…you’ve consumed media before, haven’t you? Ha.

No comment, but I agree that the contrast between Henry’s approach and the one taken by Ish, Susan et al. is interesting. I was kind of wanting to say “dude, let him have a toy, no one else is ever going to use it, and what the hell else does he have to look forward to?”

And yet, if Henry’s attitude is more “if it doesn’t help us survive, it’s not worth carrying,” maybe that’s a more appropriate outlook under the circumstances. Playing with a toy robot is not going to feed you or keep the infected off you, so better not to even indulge that childish inclination. This isn’t a world that’s a good place for children, so the best thing to do is grow up as fast as you can.

We could also speculate that if it was one of the children who left the door open at the hideout, could that be a knock against the “let kids be kids” thing they were trying to do there, and a point in support of Henry’s approach? Maybe if the children had taken things more seriously, and had understood more about the horror that was out there, they would have been more careful.

Man, that whole ‘open door’ thing is so vague, it’s almost as if they WERE planning to go somewhere else with that story. If it does feature in a sequel, it will certainly be interesting to see how they deal with it.

Butch:

It is something one can read either way. And what was cool was, as I was reading it in game, when I was empathizing with the whole horde of infected coming to kill you because, well, a horde of infected just tried to kill me, I read it as a lament. It was only after I calmed down (actually, stopped playing) that I thought……hey……wait…….

Which, again, is why this is the best part of the game thus far. See, he’s an extreme. He’s either a hero who tried to save kids, or he’s a monster who killed kids to get at a woman. And you don’t know.

As I watched something about quantum computing with Butch Jr. last night (he loved it) and I’m feeling all esoteric because I am exhausted, quantum physics would dictate that if we can’t be sure he’s either, then he must be both.

Yes, yes I did drop a quantum mechanical analysis on a video game and it made sense.

We’re on fire this week.

But either way Ish didn’t deserve the trust. I mean, Kyle, as he was trapped and about to die, was utterly convinced that Ish “Had to come.” Ish let people believe he was “their protector” when, even if he wasn’t a monster, was a weak, flawed, cowardly individual. He certainly was no protector. Hell, before he meets Susan, he admits he’s small, and someone who’s best suited for running and hiding, hardly the gun toting dude in the kid’s drawing. He let them believe he was something he KNEW he wasn’t, and got them killed for it.

Another thing that just occurred to me is that we get from this story that Kyle and Susan were pretty helpless, and Ish swooped in with this offer to help them. What I forgot is that it’s established that the rain catching device you find was Susan’s idea, and Ish never thought of it. We get this glimpse that Kyle and Susan really were equipped to do just fine without Ish, even if they didn’t know it, and their own need to rely on someone else eventually did them in. When Joel finds the note from Kyle in which Kyle decides to go with Ish, he says “Well that wasn’t a good decision now was it?” When the alternative was do nothing, keep to your own devices. That’s the good decision. Trust yourself and live. Doubt yourself, trust others, die.

I was wanting to say that [about just letting Sam have the toy]. I guess I spoil my kids, but that bit made me sad.

You know, props all around to Naughty Dog. This was like nine notes. Maybe, what, 13, 14 paragraphs of in game text? And look at the analysis we can throw at it. That is good storytelling, now that I look back on it.

Feminina:

Yeah, there’s a lot of ambiguity to the saga of Ish. If I recall correctly, I got out of there and was like “I want to move on as quickly as possible because that was crushing and I need to put it behind me,” so I’m not sure I ever got to the reflective place where I really thought hard about it (until now).

That’s probably exactly what Ish was hoping Susan would do, too. “We have to move on! Put this horror behind us! No, no, there’s no point thinking about the details, that’s too painful. Here, just let me hug you.”

It certainly rewards a closer look, though. Now I kind of hope we DO get more of the story in a sequel. And that Susan winds up kicking Ish’s ass if he’s anything like we’ve conceived him here.

It’s not ALWAYS a bad idea to trust/join up with someone else, though. I mean, it worked out OK for Ish, even if he’s not a horrible weasel, and it seems to be working out OK for Joel and Ellie with Henry and Sam: they’re helping each other out. And the hunters are doing OK by working together, although we don’t know if maybe they’re constantly backstabbing each other when we’re not around.

Maybe it’s just that you just can’t ever get too comfortable, no matter who’s around? Like, the problem is that they relaxed and thought things were OK, and if they’d been more on edge they might not have let an open door slip by?

Or maybe you’re right, and the ‘trust’ is fundamentally about family: Susan and Kyle should never have trusted Ish, because Ish wasn’t family. Joel and Ellie are essentially family by now, and Henry and Sam are family, and so they trust each other (within those two pairs, not between groups), but they can only ever provisionally trust and rely on non-family. Certainly Henry and Sam shouldn’t count on Joel to put himself out for them the way he would (we suspect) for Ellie, and they should be aware of that. Maybe it’s just about who you allow into your family. Your tiny group.

It’s the fragmentation of society into small kin groups. We talked about tiny groups before, right?

Butch:

There’s a lot of soul crushing to this game. Not happy at all. I hear the Uncharted games, which I have not played, are far more….uh….fun. My buddy the beer brewing gamer, who says TLOU is the best he’s ever played, told me that Uncharted is right up there, so maybe I’ll give 4 a dance if I have time next year. See what these guys do when they’re not crushing souls.

I like how, as you’ve pondered, you’ve become the one judging him as a monster and I’m defending him. We’ve come full circle.

Feminina:

Let no one say either one of us is so set in our ways that we can’t change our minds when presented with new evidence. Even if it’s evidence we make up in our minds.

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