Thursday, January 1, 2015

IF WE PLAYED AS ELLIE - ENCOUNTER DESIGN



This section explains and analyzes Ellie's core combat gameplay, and how it fits in with the narrative. If you got here by accident, the main part of the essay would be that-away.

Orignally posted on July 30, 2013.

As Joel



When it comes to encounters, playing as Joel is a matter of sneaking and fighting. The feelings, actions, and mind-set that the player shares with Joel are that of self preservation. Try not to die, defeat enemies, sleuth around, etc. Now, that’s obvious video game stuff of course, and it’s not a bad thing. The problem is that there’s a huge character/story element of the encounters that was not applied to the gameplay: Ellie.

Now I’m not saying that she doesn't affect the gameplay at all, she certainly does. That’s great, but it’s also the problem. The way she affects the player’s experience directly results in another case of ludonarrative dissonance. This is, like before, the lack of connecting to Ellie as a player in the same way that Joel does as a character. This happens because her gameplay role in encounters completely lacks one key narrative element:


Joel is supposed to protect and guide Ellie, and he doesn't enjoy it.


You as a player don’t have to worry about or protect Ellie. This isn't because she’s super skilled or super strategic during encounters or anything like that. She is literally invisible and inaudible to the enemy AI. You also can’t willfully work with her, since she only stuns enemies and gives ammo when she feels like it. The encounters aren't made to be meaningful story or character-wise, just visceral and cool. That doesn't make them bad, but it creates the same player/character disconnect that’s been happening since meeting Ellie.

  • To Joel, Ellie is a person he must protect and guide, but to the player, she’s an auto-pilot npc that doesn't get hurt. The player never gets to experience Joel’s responsibility.*
  • To Joel, Ellie is a liability that he has to deal with, but to the player, she is a randomized tool that actually makes killing easier.
  • To Joel, Ellie’s plea for more tactical involvement is annoying, and he doesn't trust her with a firearm. To the player, her involvement is appreciated, thrilling, and often life saving. Her getting involved was one of the big hooks of the game since the E3 demo.

* Sometimes she gets grabbed and you have to save her, but:

  • They’re scripted moments (museum, fridge trap, truck ambush, sniper part, etc)
  • Clickers can insta-kill Joel, but take 10 seconds to overpower Ellie
  • Infected attack her even though she’s already infected
  • The only consequence for not saving her is restarting the encounter

As Ellie

Why it works


Like Joel, Ellie’s surface level gameplay during encounters is a matter of stealth action- hiding, distracting, stunning, stabbing, etc. In addition to this however, there is an extra layer of consequences to all your actions; If she performs well, Joel will stop seeing her as a burden and open up to more teamwork, eventually giving her a gun. If she does poorly and makes things worse, Joel will continue to doubt her and not trust her with weapons or strategic opportunities. This sense of responsibility adds more story and character weight to the encounters.


This means we can accomplish a level of player/character connection that goes beyond not wanting to die. Both Ellie and the player view their roles in encounters through the same lens. Both parties share the need to prove themselves to Joel. Both want to participate and get involved. Both want to be more than a caboose.


Allow me to introduce you to academy award winning director, Mr. Stanley KuBRICK

Ellie and the player even share an encounter-based arc that grows throughout the game. This is because both parties share goals that surpass surviving. The first goal is showing Joel that you are a competent sidekick and not a baby that needs sitting. The next goal would be earning the gun. The final goal is getting Joel to accept you as his equal and not just a sidekick. After all 3 are accomplished, there is no functional leader anymore, because they are both the predators, and they work as a team.

  • The arc begins at the first encounter, in the subway full of infected.
  • The arc’s catalyst is in Pittsburgh when Ellie uses the hunting rifle to cover Joel.
  • The arc is completed at the university after Ellie escorts Joel out of the science building.

This arc eventually becomes centric to Ellie and the player themselves, rather than based on their relationship with Joel:

  • The arc’s completion is manifested visually and through play when hunting the deer.
  • The completed arc is tested throughout the Winter chapter, when Ellie escapes the compound.
  • Finally, this game-wide growth that Ellie and the player have gone through crescendos with the killing of David.

After that, there is nothing more for Ellie or the player to prove, not to Joel, nor to the game, and nor to themselves. There is no more need to grow viscerally, and that’s why Spring can be calm. They earned the giraffes, so to speak. What’s next is the hospital, which is Joel’s turn to be put to the test.


How it works


Except for when Ellie is alone, you wouldn't be the one who initiates progress in encounters. Joel has his plan and wants to deal with the situation as proficiently and safely as possible. He may tell Ellie his plan, or he may come up with one as he goes. Either way, Joel will always be the leader, and he is the game’s initiator of progress during encounters. The game doesn't wait for you act, which makes you stay more alert and helps the pacing.


As an encounter plays out, with Joel taking point, the player’s  base instinct would be to keep an eye on the rear and Joel’s blind spots, while remaining stealthy. The player can of course call out enemies, pick up objects, etc while acting as caboose. This is the plain, “default” way to play the encounters. This would probably be the way players act early in the game, as they (and Ellie) see Joel as their protector but also a stranger with an unknown temper towards disobedience.


Eventually though, the player will want to stop playing caboose and get more involved, just like Ellie does. Luckily, the player can perform any actions at their discretion at all times, just like in the Winter chapters. You have free reign over how to act during encounters. Tightly following Joel’s lead is just one option. You are never tied down as caboose.


Now, I know some people will see “Caboosing” as being on-rails (no pun intended), but that’s not the case. Staying passive is not the most reliable strategy. Joel isn't perfect so he will mess up, get grabbed, get lost, get shot, etc from time to time. Joel’s plans going wrong is inevitable, and you will need to save his life, and your own, numerous times if you don’t pitch in enough.


I turn my back for ONE second...

Since this section is getting pretty long, I’ll only give one example for how playing as Ellie is more engaging than it might seem. It’s easy to imagine what going around bricking people and stealth killing would look like, so let’s look at a deceptively simple aspect of Ellie’s gameplay. Here are some of the options the player has when confronted with this one little action:


Spotting an enemy that Joel doesn't see

1) Tell Joel

  • Joel’s plan will now change to accommodate the new threat, for better or for worse.
  • Depending on the situation, and how much confidence he has in you at this point, he might tell you to take the guy out or to stay put. If it’s late in the game and you have shown your abilities many times before, he might even give you ammo or a brick to use against the guy, or use a bottle to help you.
  • Someone might hear you. Let’s say somebody is right around the corner and they hear you. They might react and seek you out. Or maybe, they’ll keep quiet and attempt to use your plan against you by setting up an ambush.

2) Go after him

  • If Joel’s attention is occupied, you might want to take care of the threat yourself.
  • If Joel sees you go he might get antsy and pursue you, making him frustrated. This would also ruin his plan and potentially mess up yours. But, he might see you take out the threat all by yourself. He can also help you if you mess up.
  • If you leave Joel without telling him though, you risk not being there when he needs you. Also, he might go looking for you when he notices you gone, ruining his current plan. Plus, when you go back you wont know where he his and now you have to look for him too. He might end up mistaking your footsteps for an enemy and react, and vice-versa. Or what if you trigger a nail bomb you didn't see him set? Conversely, if you take the guy out and return, Joel will be super impressed when he realizes that you alerted literally no one, not even him.


3) Tell Joel and then go after him

  • Joel will know where you are going, and what you plan to do.
  • If Joel’s confidence in Ellie is high (after he gives her the pistol for instance), he might throw you some ammo or a brick or something. He may even consider teamwork and distract the guy for you. Maybe at a certain point, Joel will actually follow Ellie’s lead for this brief sequence.
  • If he doesn't want you to go, he’ll tell you to come back. If it’s early on and he doesn't trust you yet he’ll follow you and try to take charge again. He may even physically hold you back. If he really doesn't want to risk it and can’t catch you he may even shoot the guy before you get to him. You think, “I’m finally going to show Joel what I can do, I’ll just stab this guy from behi-” and then bang the guy goes down. Now he used up a bullet and made noise, good going. If he trusts you though, this won’t happen, unless the guy turns around or something. Of course, if all goes well and you take the guy out, Joel will be impressed but still scold you for running off.


4) Don’t say anything, and don’t go after him

  • If the guy you spotted isn't headed toward you, or isn't looking for you, doing nothing can be a good choice. Don’t want to worry Joel? Is he already occupied and deep in his plan? Is he about to ambush someone? If so, you  might not want to ruin his rhythm by mentioning the threat or going after him.
  • What if the guy is headed towards you? What if he is actively seeking you two out? It still might be good to keep it to yourself, for Joel’s sake. You can keep your eye on him, while Joel is focused elsewhere. You can have a brick or bottle ready just in case. If Ellie has a gun, and the guy doesn't, you’re pretty safe, but noise is still a concern.
  • If you distract him so he starts patrolling away from you, you risk everyone else hearing and changing their positions. This could ruin Joel’s plan but save you from an inevitable spotting.

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