Creating Player Guilt in The Last of Us 2 and Spec Ops: The Line

Why did The Last of Us 2 have me play with the dog?

This is the question I keep coming back to, months after my playthrough of the game. If you’ve played it, you know exactly what bit I’m talking about. After playing through three in-game days, the game flashes back to day one and switches perspectives, having you play as the archnemesis of the character you’d been playing so far. Then, you can play fetch with the doggo that you (as the first character) had just brutally stabbed to death. You murdered this pupper, the game seems to be saying. The doggy will soon be dead because of you.

As far as I know, Neil Druckmann, creative director of Naughty Dog, has never overtly stated (or rather, admitted) that the aim of this game is to make you feel bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. But then…

Why did they have me play with the dog?

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WHY DID YOU KILL ME?

Creative choices don’t exist in a vacuum, and this game didn’t will itself into existence. Someone decided to include the dog scene, and they did so for a reason. And there is no other conclusion that makes sense to me than this: they did it to confront the player with the fact that they’d just, in a previous scene, murdered that dog.

Surely I’m not suggesting that Naughty Dog were trying to make me feel bad for something I had no choice but to do? After all, the doggy murder is an unavoidable moment in the game. How could the player be expected to feel bad for that?

The simplistic answer is: they can’t. You can’t expect someone to feel bad for something that was out of their control. Unless you’re one of those too-clever-for-their-own-good people (in my mind they’re always twirling a well-oiled mustache) who say: “Aaah, but you chose to play the game. Doesn’t this make you complicit?” Which makes as much sense as saying that because you sat through Breaking Bad you are somehow responsible for Walt’s trail of blood. If anyone literally killed that dog, it wasn’t the players, it was the developers, and they are very naughty indeed for murdering their own brethren.

As hard as I bounced off The Last of Us 2, I need to defend Naughty Dog here. I don’t think that the devs were so silly that they believed you, the player, should feel bad because you chose to kill the dog (which by any reasonable standard you did not).

But there is a sense in which in which a player could feel bad — and that is if they wanted to kill the dog.

Remember Spec Ops: The Line? It’s a game that came out in 2012 and pulled a massive switcheroo on the military shooter genre. It starts out like any other standard gung-ho US-centric shoot-em-up. You command a small military unit of three men, who arrive in a chaotic post-apocalypse Dubai and decide they’re gonna clean things up. Cue the bang bang, some anonymous brown people die, but that’s fine, they were bad and we’re good. Slowly, however, things change. It turns out the bad guys might be the American unit who have taken up residence in Dubai, or, more worryingly — it might be us. (Spoiler: it’s definitely us). Like The Last of Us 2, the game deliberately sets up an expectation, only to turn it on its head. I’m the good guy…aren’t I?

And just like The Last of Us 2, Spec Ops: The Line confronts you with choices you never made. “How many Americans have you killed today?” the loading screen taunts you. It’s the equivalent of the doggy playtime scene. Again, I ask — why is this message being shown to me? What purpose does it serve, if not to make me feel bad for what my character has done? To teach me a lesson of some sort? And, most importantly, did it work?

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Betrayed Expectations: The Game

When Spec Ops: The Line came out, it wasn’t a commercial success. This might be because it was marketed as a regular Call of Duty-style military shooter, so the people who initially bought it had no clue that, instead of having a great time blowing up Arabs, they were going to be shamed for war crimes. It was sold to the exact kind of audience who were more likely to feel disappointed and betrayed by it than to appreciate its subversive themes. But targeting the “Call of Duty audience” was integral to the entire purpose of the game: to reverse the player’s expectations (war is fun, Americans are good, the other guys deserve what they get), and to make them feel bad for having those expectations to begin with.

And, insofar as players had those expectations, the game was right to do so.

Here is where we finally get to the key question: when is a game justified in trying to make you feel guilty for something you had no control over? My answer is: when you were rooting for that thing to happen. I may not feel complicit simply for sitting through all of Breaking Bad, but if I was cheering for Walt when he poisoned that kid, it may well prompt me to take a long hard look at myself.

Similarly, games can confront you with your own problematic beliefs. Why were you rooting for a series of aggressive military actions that led to mass slaughter? Are you on Ellie’s side? How about now — when she’s bludgeoning a girl to death with a lead pipe? I imagine that these moments can be truly effective for the right audience — that is, people who bought in to the malicious set-ups of these stories. People who had the “right” expectations.

And here we hit on the problem. These moments can only work for the right audience — those people who were (at least initially) cheering for the protagonist-but-actually-the-antagonist. And this is quite a small target to hit. By the time I played Spec Ops: The Line, I’d heard it was a game that challenged and criticised FPS genre conventions, and that is why I picked it up. “Do you feel like a hero yet?” the loading screen sneers at me, assuming I believe that the Americans are always the hero in foreign conflicts. And, the most telling message: “Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.” The game assumes I am something I am not — pro-war, pro-US military…or, at the very least, a fan of military shooters. None of which I am.

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The Last of Us 2 doesn’t taunt us so explicitly — but it does present us with some deliberately confronting scenes, and I believe that in that confrontation (here’s the dog, look at the cute dog THAT YOU KILLED) lies the same kind of judgment, the same assumption about who I am and what I believe. In between the slaughtering of dogs and the butchering of humans, the loading screens may as well have been displaying messages like, “Do you still think Ellie’s a good person?” The problem is, I never did. Not for a moment was I on board with the revenge mission or Ellie’s pursuit of her enemies, and so, I never experienced the cognitive dissonance that I think the game was trying to create.

None of this is to say that confronting players in this way is a bad design decision, just that its effectiveness will always be limited to the players who have exactly those expectations and values that the game intends to make them feel bad for. Many players will be profoundly changed by these experiences with the game. For others, it will create the alienating feeling that the game is trying to make you feel bad for something you don’t even believe — like the developers are judging you for the terrible person they assume you are.

For my part, I’m still waiting on the game that forces me to confront my own heart of darkness. I wasn’t rooting for the dog to die. Although at some point I will have to come to terms with the fact that I have tormented quite a few chickens.

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