How it will play out
Think about this. We already know that weapons can be switched between characters during melee combat. With Ellie not directly under the player’s control and obviously the weaker of the two, the player must then logically keep their awareness split between their own survival and making sure that Ellie is equipped with the right kit at all times. While also making sure that she doesn’t get over-run by enemies. And making sure that her weapons haven’t broken, as we know they will be capable of doing. Crack out a cigar and celebrate. That’s your gameplay-driven paternal instinct forming right there.
But then we have the thing about Ellie developing her violence-meting abilities throughout the course of the story. And I think, rather than simply being a case of her miraculously evolving into an overnight Pvt. Vasquez as the action hots up and demands it, that this will be another major driving force behind the player’s sense of responsibility for her. It all comes down to a seemingly innocuous but probably very important quote from Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckman, the creative lead and writer on the game.
"What does it mean for a teen to grow up in this world? If you see bleakness everywhere, how do you be a kid in this world?"
Ellie has never known the world before the apocalypse. This chaotic, violent, dangerous world of looting and survival has been her crib, her nursery and her playground. It has formed her sense of herself and her sense of place and purpose in a fundamentally different way to that imparted by a normal childhood. So what if violence and brutal survival skills become not an extreme, but a naturalised way of life and of play?
Above: How would a world like his shape someone from birth?
Such skills will become vital along Ellie and Joel’s journey, and as a smuggler, survivor and violent anti-hero, Joel will be the man to train her in them. But what if that changes her as a person? What if it reshapes her in a negative way, and she accepts that reshaping with the innocent, unquestioning openness with which a child or adolescent learns their boundaries through fun and interaction with their surroundings? That’s a whole other level of responsibility for Joel right there, and it's another thing that I think we might have to juggle alongside the stressful business of shooty-stabby.
The virtual combat-daughter
As Joel, you’ll be directly responsible for the person she turns out to be. And you can bet that her evolution won’t just come by way of a cheap "I am a badass now!" cut-scene. If Naughty Dog are serious about this, they’ll create in-game situations which force you – or at least give the illusion of forcing you – to direct her into these situations. A playable gun-training section would be a smart move, as would the ability to direct Ellie into different courses of action when tackling threats.
Above: Packed with clues. Allow me to explain...
We know that there will be multiple gameplay pillars to The Last of Us. We know this, because the trailer sneakily revealed them. As game director Bruce Straley states, “It's teasing the different kind of mechanics you're going to be playing with in the gameplay set-ups”. Fine-toothing through the reveal footage then, we know that we’ll be getting predatory stealth, evasive stealth, flat-out running away from danger, gunplay, melee violence, scavenging and resource-management, and co-op combat.
A mighty eclectic gameplay menu then, with its roots very much in Uncharted, but with a very different defensive angle and with a whole new mutually-dependent character-driven lens to focus through. Again, if Naughty Dog are smart, they will use that broad spread of options to hit hard with a sense of responsibility by putting the player in charge of them, at least some of the time.
Direct Ellie into all-out combat or incite the enemy into aggression and it’s your fault entirely if she gets into a scrape. Keep her hidden and you’ll have to tackle the brunt of the trouble yourself, but at least you’ll know she’s safe. And that, I reckon, is the sort of decision that Naughty Dog will be aiming to have the player make. Not directing or working around Ellie based on her use as a tactical tool, but based on the emotional responsibility for what might happen to her depending on each decision. At the very least, the fact that health kits are a reportedly laborious thing to use implies that ND want to incentivise cautious play, even if only by adding a degree of extra burden to cleaning up the aftermath of violence gone wrong.
It’s one thing giving Nathan Drake the option of using cover for either fire-fights or stealth-kills. He’s equally capable either way, he’s ultra-adaptable, and if things go wrong the only person he has to think about is himself. But while Joel may have an expanded repertoire of options, his responsibility for Ellie should mean that those options will make things harder, not easier. At least on a mental level.
If The Last of Us plays out in the way that I think the evidence suggests it will, tactical choices will not be a case of simply weighing up challenge vs. benefit, as in most games. Your decisions will be as much about how well Ellie may cope with - and be affected by - each encounter as they will be about how well Joel might come out of things. And if those effects extend to her long-term well-being as a growing person as well as her immediate safety, then all the better.
One other thing…
Oh yeah, and as a final note, we know that Joel’s work as a smuggler has already taken him to areas infected with the violence-inciting parasitic fungus. And although developed by a separate team, Naughty Dog have recently already played around with the idea of a player character out of control and unable to trust his own actions, by way of Uncharted 3’s hallucination sequences.
That could throw a very interesting and guilt-ridden spanner in the works. Just sayin’…