Now, I may be digging up an argument that has long since been buried, but when a popular, reputable and, dare I say, influential podcast sticks a bee in my bonnet, I have little choice BUT to react.
Listening, as I was, to a very recent populat Playstation Podcast, I overheard the team discussing my favourite game of all time, The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s masterpiece of gameplay and storytelling has been well received by nearly all who have experienced her tragic beauty.
Even the Playstation Podcast team themselves have been very complimentary in the past – and for the record, I think it’s an excellent podcast well worth your time! However, when they were discussing the pitfalls of games and the repeated ‘block puzzle’ moments of The Last of Us, they crossed a line when they attacked Ellie and her swimming abilities.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you The Last of Us is perfect. It’s about as close to perfect as any game can be and, indeed one of the few gripes I have with the game is related to these self-same block puzzles. However, their assertion was that the frustration for them was that Ellie should have just learned to swim! That this was somehow a story breaking moment – and it is with this point I take umbrage.
First, some context. The Last of Us has one of the greatest and bravest stories ever told in videogames (and that’s before you factor in the amazing Left Behind DLC). It is complex, nuanced, subtle, exciting and harrowing throughout. It’s delicately, yet viscerally told and had me on the edge of my seat even after it had ended. The idea that the story is ‘broken’ or diminished in any way because of Ellie’s lack of skill is frankly ridiculous.
Further to this, the puzzle they attacked was absolutely the right point of the game to go after. But, for me, it’s the repetition that’s at fault.
To the uninitiated, there is an issue in the game that crops up from time to time as protagonists Ellie and Joel make their way, slowly and often painfully, across America. Ellie cannot swim, and as the dystopian landscape they travel across does not really care about her abilities and helpfully offer multiple routes from A to B, there are occasions where Ellie has to cross bodies of water of various sizes.
The way the game deals with this the first time is to have Joel find a large wooden pallet that not only floats, but is able to carry Ellie across the water as a makeshift raft.
How the game deals with it the second time is by finding a large wooden pallet. And the third time…
Essentially, when you reach a body of water in the game, you very quickly stop thinking “how will I get Ellie across this?” And instead simply think: where is the pallet?
This for me, is the game’s biggest and only misstep. And it’s not a failure, so much as a missed opportunity. Ellie’s not being able to swim is a great dynamic in the storytelling and eventually proves quite pivotal towards the end of the game. It just would have been nice to solve that puzzle a different way each time – had to improvise in usual ways or think on your feet instead.
This itself was mitigated somewhat by the self-awareness of the game, Ellie mocks the situation herself at one point saying: “I know, I know step on the [censored] pallet.” Before clambering on for the fourth or fifth time.
It was a small irritation, that the game itself acknowledged. I quickly forgave it and went on with my day. Unlike the popular Playstation podcast crew, I never once thought – why the hell doesn’t she just learn to swim?
And here’s why:
First off, Joel and Ellie are constantly on the move. Their journey is spread over a year and we only get to play ‘highlights’ from each season of their journey. But nowhere in the game was I given the impression that the sections between seasons we don’t play were filled with downtime, fun and games or, you know, swimming lessons.
Left Behind helped confirm the idea that they’re constantly moving, trying to battle through, by letting us play another chapter between the seasons of Winter and Spring. The whole time was a struggle for Ellie, Joel (and Riley) staying hidden or fighting for their lives.
Secondly, swimming is hard. Even starting as a kid with a fully qualified instructor, it’s not something anyone can pick up in an afternoon. It takes hard work, patience, dedication and guidance. It also usually starts out with arm bands, water wings or floats!
Imagine instead of that you have a pressing journey, no experience in water and an instructor that barely seems interested in your survival for the first 6 months you know him. You’re unlikely to progress quickly under those circumstances.
It doesn’t end there either. How about the fact that Ellie and Joel are being hunted, people want them dead. Infected may appear at any moment. Hunter or Firefly factions could be around any corner. There can be few more compromising situations than hanging out in a large body of water, weapons and clothing put to one side, especially when only one of you can swim.
Finally, and not to get too technical here, but – sanitation. Exactly where are they supposed to find a large enough body of clean, safe water in which Ellie can learn? It’s not like each of the game’s factions were thinking: we need to gather food, find shelter and keep the municipal pool in working order. Most of the water in the game world looks rank and stagnant. Sure, Ellie might be immune to the cordyceps infection responsible for the global pandemic, but is she also immune to typhoid? Botulism? Dysentery?
My assertion is that in the circumstances through which Ellie and Joel travel, swimming lessons are a dangerous, totally unnecessary risk – not a story breaking dynamic to force puzzles on us.
If anything, the story breaking moment would have been reaching the Winter chapter and suddenly discovering Ellie could swim!? I’d be wondering how the hell that happened and how mightily irresponsible it was of Joel to put Ellie in such a dangerous position! Rant over. Did I miss anything? Did Ellie’s lack of swimming skills seem out of place to you? Or would you, like me (and Ellie) have just liked an alternative to the pallet a couple of times? Let us know in the comments below.
Huge shout out to Olly Moss from whom we stole the feature pic! You should add him on twitter, visit his website and give him sweets.
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us and Olli Olli 2 are the finest games ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @TLOUFactionsMP or @VigilanteSanta and view his occasional twitch outbursts on twitch.tv/spooklebeans.