Gaming Logic: Railroads and Sandboxes

Just my standard caveat that gaming is a big tent with lots of people of lots of different experiences huddled together against the rain and lightning storms of the outside world, so YMMV on any of this.

One issue that comes up frequently in GMing circles–by which I mean it’s a never-ending crusade with no clear winner, only a lot of destruction–is the debate between “sandbox” games and “railroad” games.

There is a clear difference, of course, but no game in the history of tabletop gaming has been entirely one or the other, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

All aboard the adventure train!

But first, some definitions.

When applied to a game, “railroad” and “sandbox” are pretty general terms, open to interpretation, but generally:

In its purest form, a sandbox has no set plot or goals—the players can have their characters go anywhere and do anything, and the DM is entirely reactive to the players while the players are the ones making things happen.

The principal strength of a sandbox game is giving the players a sense of agency and freedom, where they can explore whatever and wherever they want, but it frequently leads to two main problems: 1) there’s a lot of pressure on the GM to be able to react to anything at a moment’s notice, often requiring a vast knowledge of the setting, and 2) players can feel overwhelmed or lost in the face of so many options.

“Aw jeez, so many choices…”

By contrast, a railroad is entirely laid out and scripted for players—the plot, NPCs, threats, all of it is planned and executed exactly to plan, and the players are entirely reactive while the DM is the proactive motivating force.

The primary strengths of a railroad game are 1) its ability to give players a strong, cinematic experience, where focus allows you to convey something very specific, and 2) there’s less improvisation needed on the part of the GM, since you’ve got all the answers to the questions that could be asked.

On the other hand, these games have two major weaknesses, which are 1) if something unexpected happens, the game’s inflexibility can mean it’s harder to adapt on the fly, and 2) players can feel stifled, as though they have no real choice in how they proceed.

“What do you mean, what’s my favorite color?” ~ Mass Effect 3, BioWare/EA

Time for Examples

A railroad game might be something like Wolfenstein or Doom: you have a specific goal that requires you to achieve specific goals and milestones. How exactly you do that varies—which weapons you use, whether you’re a little more stealthy or just go guns blazing. And the more these games evolve, the more options they start having. Think of Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider, which allow a fairly wide range of experimentation and customization.

(In the video game industry, “open world” is sort of equivalent to the term “sandbox,” though of course no video game can achieve quite the same level of improvisation you can get at a tabletop game, where your experience is limited only by your imagination, rather than data storage.)

The next level is the Mass Effect series, which is widely seen as a sandbox sort of game. There are lots of things you can do, and your choices make big changes to the way the story unfolds. Though at the same time, there is a particular end goal, and you ARE moving along a path… it’s just how you go along that path that matters.

The most sandboxy game might be something like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, or Fortnite, where the game unfolds entirely without a specific plan, and is entirely up to the players to produce their own story. But those games don’t really have a strong story—as I said, their content is entirely up to the players.

The Spectrum of Gaming

Gaming is like gender–it’s real, but only because we make it real… wait, no, it’s like gender in that it’s on a spectrum.

Whew. Nailed it.

(Y’all knew it was going to come down to “it depends” and “it’s a spectrum,” right?)

As you can tell, “railroad” and “sandbox” are two points on a spectrum of playstyles. Every D&D game is somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes, and it typically has to do with player agency.

Consider: how much of the story is a result of the PCs’ actions as opposed to the GM’s plans?

This is why I say no tabletop game has ever been, nor will ever be, entirely a sandbox or a railroad.

No matter how railroady your game, you as the GM will never be able to plan out exactly what your players will say, do, or otherwise react in any given situation. You might be able to make good guesses, but unless you’re just telling a story without audience participation, the players are going to push on the narrative a bit.

By a similar token, no matter how sandboxy your game, there will always be some planning or at least concepts you’ll have to put in, otherwise odds are nothing will feel like it has any weight to it, and your players will feel as though there’s no real goal to organize the story around.

“Hold up… you do WHAT to the king?”

Wait a second–biased, much?

If you’ve detected a hint of bias, you’re absolutely correct. I tend to lean more sandbox with my games than railroad, and it obscures the drawbacks in my head.

I’m more adept at recognizing the signs of players feeling lost and craving direction in a sandbox game, and so I’ve developed ways to deal with it. I’m also quite happy to just have players vamp for a while, and have entire game sessions where they’re just snarking with each other. That can be real fun.

But eventually, they’re gonna need some goals, and that involves some planning and imposing structure. It might not be recognizably railroady, sure, but giving them a little nudge in the direction you want is something a GM just has to do sometimes.

So what’s the Ideal Balance?

There’s that dang “it depends” thing again. The best TTRPG campaigns find a balance between player action and GM plans that works for and serves the interests of everyone at the table.

I myself prefer my games to be about 70% sandbox, 30% railroad, where the rails are buried in the sand just enough that the players either don’t see them or sometimes catch a glimpse and say “ah, the DM was planning for this!”

Typically when I plan games, I do it week to week based on what the PCs do, but also have potential end goals and big scenes in mind that I’d like to hit as we go. I often play with players who are very sensitive to feeling railroaded, and their tendency is to rebel against the perceived plans, either because they want to preserve their agency or they just want to mess me up… and that can produce fun gaming experiences. It can also derail and mess up a campaign, so that’s a risk you’ve got to be aware of.


Ultimately, the kind of game you should play is the one that works for your table. That might not be clear at first, even if you have a session zero (and you definitely should) to discuss it, but will emerge over time.

And that’s ok. You don’t have to get it perfect straight out of the gate.

Embrace failure and learn from it to make your game better.

Solicit player feedback and incorporate it.

Don’t be afraid to take risks, and be happy if things don’t go quite right–failure is, after all, the best teacher.

You’ll find the balance that works for everyone. Just keep playing.

Happy gaming!

Extra Attack: how does it work? (D&D 5e)

“I’m an eldritch knight and I have extra attack; when I cast a cantrip like green flame blade, so I attack again, too?”

Powering up my sword with some fire! Get ready! (Artist unknown)

Honestly, I see this question come up weekly, and the answer is always the same:


There’s a difference between the Attack action, and an attack.

The Attack action is the most basic and obvious way you can attack on your turn. Anyone can do it, regardless of special abilities or class features. It’s just something you can do.

There are lots of situations where you might make an attack other than the Attack action. As part of an opportunity attack, for instance, or a bonus action off-hand attack because you’re fighting with two weapons, or because your battlemaster buddy used Commander’s Strike.

But if you’re casting a spell, such as Greenflame Blade, then you are taking the Cast a Spell action. This action may involve making an attack, it may not, but even if it does, it is not the Attack action.

What Extra Attack does is allow you to attack additional times (usually once, sometimes more) when you take the Attack action on your turn. It does not grant “extra attacks” in any other context or situation.

Possibly WotC could have come up with a different name for the Attack action, seeing as “attacks” are something you can do at other times, but alas, here we are.

* Note that eldritch knights of a certain level (specifically, 7th level or higher) have the War Magic class feature, which allows them to make a weapon attack as a bonus action after casting a cantrip, in a manner similar to two-weapon fighting. Which is to say, you can only do this when you cast a cantrip (presumably with the Cast a Spell action), and you can only do it afterward.

Review: the Happiest Season

What, a movie review? What?

(Before I get into this, I’m a middle class white cishet guy. And while I know and love a lot of LGBTQ people, I am not myself part of that community. I’m just an ally, one who wants to see more, good representation of my LGBTQ neighbors.)

That said, here we go.

The wife and I watched a Christmas movie this year, as is tradition, and it was Happiest Season, which was rarely happy but very seasonal!

Basically, it’s a slightly watchable Hallmark movie with gay people, and that’s fine.

Aren’t they cute? Oh, it’s gonna get rough from here, though

The first of two narrative problems is that it’s based on the whole “we don’t talk to each other and thus don’t find obvious solutions to our problems”—that’s a pretty common trope and how a lot of stories mine dramedy. It skirts the line of cringe humor, though it’s a lot less ridiculous than what you’d see in an Adam Sandler movie.

The queer content (mostly lesbians but some other representation as wel) is honestly the best part of the movie. It’s a relief from the stifling dysfunction based on heteronormative deception, and honestly, perhaps that’s the main redeeming factor of this film.

(Seriously, it borders on the edge of Get Out at times.)

LGBTQ people have struggles, and maybe seeing them on the screen will convince a few straight people who’ve never (knowingly) met a real-life LGBTQ person to give it some more thought. Which is good.

Also, Kristen Stewart does a great job with the material she’s given, as does Aubrey Plaza (of course), and they are just utterly adorable.

See what I mean? Also, how is anyone confused about Abby (right) is waaaay into ladies?

As for the movie itself, I want to say it was cute and inoffensive, but… well, there was plenty to object to there. Some of it is extremely silly and some of it might be quite traumatic. (Especially how cruel Harper is to Abby and to Riley, who really should have ditched her and got together, see the Den of Geek review, below.) Though some of it is indeed uplifting, and it ends on a high note.

Its high point—the sapphic perfection of Kristen Stewart, who is just amazing—is also key to the second main narrative problem, which is that she has much better chemistry with the inestimable Aubrey Plaza… but perhaps that’s part of the point. Her character has options that are easier and more comfortable, and it makes it clear that love and relationships are a lot of work. And this particular one exceeds her limits on more than one occasion.

Shoutouts to Victor Garber and Alison Brie, of course, who are both pretty solid in their supporting roles.

Ultimately, it’s a movie. If you like it, great. If not, that’s cool.

Two wreaths out of five.

A genuinely happy photo that the movie sort of earns

Further reading:

Den of Geek review

Roger Ebert review

Final Round(?): FIGHT

Today is the third round of my butt surgery. My abscess developed into a fistula, which had a 50/50 chance of happening, so now I’m going into surgery to get that dealt with.

It should be fine. My surgeon has that sort of god-like confidence you want in a surgeon, and I anticipate everything will be fine.

One thing I’d like to point out, however, is that I had basically a two-week waiting period between every step of this part of the process, and that seems, well, ridiculous.

We KNEW there was a good chance I’d need surgery after the colonoscopy back in October, but I still had to wait until early November to have a consult with a colorectal surgeon, and THEN it was three weeks until my actual surgery could be scheduled.

Why, you ask?

Because our health insurance system is crap.

They left me lingering in near-constant pain for almost exactly a month while “pre-authorizations” had to happen. I started a new job in the interim and couldn’t be at my best because of the pain and/or painkillers. Somehow I managed it, whilst also fulfilling my responsibilities, but this was an unnecessary amount of struggle.

Don’t get me wrong: health insurance is ESSENTIAL. My abscess surgery and hospital stay ran $75,000 or so, of which I’ll have to pay $4,600. (Still ridiculous, but at least I’m not financially ruined because my butt decided to implode.) And now, having met my annual maximum for out of pocket expenses, this surgery will be essentially free for me.

But here’s the thing: we pay these exorbitant premiums for healthcare that lets us scoot by without becoming homeless, and that’s essentially it. We’re still in pain, we still dread actually making a claim, and we still live in terror of needing the doctor.

There’s a better way than this. We have the money, we have the infrastructure. All that’s left now is the will to do it.

Wish me luck everyone, and moreover, wish our COUNTRY would get off its ass and, y’know, fix its ass.

Seriously. Let’s figure this out.

Keep Ruin Fiction

Over the next week, and probably on Election Day itself, I will finish the proofs for my fourth and final (for now) World of Ruin novel.

And that’s not a coincidence.

I started writing the novel that would become the World of Ruin series in the first year of Bush W’s presidency, at age 18. I was writing about our world—the World of Ruin is the world that conservatives want.

I was young and righteously angry and not all that great a writer—now, nearly 20 years later, I’m older, better as a writer, and still just as righteously angry. And I’m tired, but more on that later.

I still see it that way.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting of the World of Ruin is the dark, broken reflection of the world that came before—the World of Wonder. It was, if you listen to the tales in the dusky taverns of Tar Vangr, a utopia, where folk were happy and didn’t have to work and lived lives of equality and luxury.

And then it ended in a worldwide magical war that people could only survive by hiding underground for centuries while they awaited the day the broken environment would become livable again.

Some people misjudged this, listened to their bad leaders, and came out of isolation too early, and the magical radiation killed most of them and warped others into ravenous monsters.

Sound familiar?

If you said “Fallout” or “COVID-19”, you are correct either way. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but neither should any of us be surprised that the least responsible president ever has overseen the downfall of our country and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

And of course, the current series is about the impending downfall of the last remnants of civilization, victims of both external threats and internal pressures, and offers a whole host of bad guys who are bad for the same reason they are in our world: they’re sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist pricks who get off on exploiting and harming others.

The World of Ruin series is about the cycle of apocalypse. Here’s the thing: the World of Wonder wasn’t great either. It faced escalating environmental havoc and the loss of resources, increasing economic disparity, and pointless international tension between ethnic groups. Toward the end, its governments rapidly gave way to fascism, as we humans tend to do when approaching an existential crisis. And instead of fixing its problems, they fell to infighting and dysfunction and finally global war. All that technology, privilege, and wisdom, and they couldn’t save themselves from xenophobic, power-hungry assholes who blew it all up.

And that’s the road we’ve been on as long as I’ve been alive. And I’m tired of it.

Book 4 is the culmination of that cycle repeating itself. Of evil people trying to fuck over everyone and gobble up power for themselves. And the resources to oppose them are becoming scant.

Next week’s election is one of our last chances, if not THE last chance, to save our country in specific and the human race in general. We are rapidly approaching the point of no return on the environment, 225,000 Americans are dead of a virus our government continues to dismiss as a hoax, and our economy is on the brink of yet another devastating collapse because of wealth inequality.

We are heading toward the World of Ruin, because that’s exactly what the powers that be want. God knows why—too many people are too tough to control, maybe? They don’t want to share their ill-gotten wealth so much they’d rather kill everyone? Or maybe they’re just too ignorant and driven to satisfy their own prurient needs to look even a LITTLE ahead.

Now is the time to stand up and fight.

Your world needs you.

Don’t let it fall to ruin.

Cover to book 4 forthcoming!

More Butt Stuff (SFW, I promise!)

So in the ongoing chronicles of my butt, I hopped on the colonoscopy train yesterday (I’m 37, so it’s a bit early) for diagnostic reasons and we found… nothing obviously causing my issues, no Crohn’s, no obvious pre-cancerous growths, etc. So that’s the good news!

The prep for the colonoscopy wasn’t so bad, btw. The meds they gave me tasted like really flat lemon La Croix, which, while not great, also isn’t too bad. The worst part was getting up at 4am to do my prep (which has to be finished at least two hours in advance), then driving to the hospital for my 8am procedure… only to realize, right then, that my appointment was actually at 12:30. Woo!

The less good news is that my abscess from September has developed into a fistula (we identified that on an MRI a couple weeks ago), so I get to get THAT resolved with another surgery. Yay…

Anyway, I’m optimistic that we’ll get this resolved and I’ll find some relief. I’ve basically been in varying levels of butt pain for the past few months, and it’s down to the 1-3 on a 10-point scale, but it’s still there and I’m hoping resolving the fistula will resolve the pain.

Right now, I can eat again, and I have a bunch of leftover pizza and video games. (It’s the little things.)

Anyway, thanks for listening, thanks to Chadwick Boseman, and here’s to a pain-free 2021!

The lighting makes it look like I have distinguished executive hair—in fact, I haven’t started to go gray yet, though 2020 *would be* the year…

Final (not female) Fantasy

Y’all know me. I’m a lifelong Final Fantasy fan.


Grimdark man is both grim and dark

From the reveal trailer, I’m not convinced, and I’ll tell you why.

Once upon a time, FF produced games of rich stories, genuine emotion, and—importantly—significant female characters.

Heroines you could play, who had a significant impact on the plot, and either WERE the main character or at least matched and even exceeded them at times. FF games were not just sausage-fest “boys’ adventure” games.

We can debate the quality of those characters, Whether they’re actually feminist, empowered, etc. Obviouslt, FF has had issues with specializing female characters in crass and/or ridiculous ways, but we can say this for sure: women existed in the games, women were important in the games, and women MATTERED in the games.

Can the same be said about FFXV, for instance?

Basically, it was an absent princess who gets fridged eventually and a cowgirl gas station attendant who hasn’t bought clothes since middle school and has grown mostly out of them.

Maybe “boys road trip” was great, maybe the lads had cool personalities (and I’m always down for good male relationships in media), and maybe that was what you wanted. And that’s fine. But it’s just not for me, nor does it honor the legacy of the series. And that game has given me series reservations about the future direction of the series.

It doesn’t look like FFXVI is honoring that legacy either.

In this sense, FFVII Remake is the most final fantasy thing Square Enix has made in years, and that’s mostly because it’s based heavily on a pre-existing, much beloved game. They had no choice, really, but to include these awesome female characters, and to their credit, they amped UP their internal lives and personalities. Which was great.

So we know they CAN write female heroes… the question now is WILL they?

I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into it. But that trailer is NOT promising. I’m very wary.

Eliminate Excellently

So, I had emergency surgery this last weekend, and I’ve come away from it with a very important insight I wanted to share with everyone.

Based on my current experience, I’m gonna be really honest and tell you something that possibly no one told you, which you should apply to your own life and also teach your kids:

Don’t be ashamed of pooping.

Honestly. We all do it, it’s just waste product, maybe a little smelly. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I think a lot of us are in danger of developing shitty habits (pun intended) and they can cause us problems later in life, because there’s this overrriding cloud of shame and “ew, don’t talk about THAT” about pooping.

Heck, stereotypically, a lot of us dudes have terrible cleanliness habits because, well, it’s awkward to talk about so they never really learned any better. We’re just expected to figure it out ourselves.

And, of course, the media is all over us with jokes and routines and BS about how it’s funny and embarrassing and gross and all that has a silencing effect.

So here’s some guidance, based on my own experience:

Whenever possible, defecate naturally. Don’t strain.

Don’t hold it for ridiculously long periods. When you need to go, find an opportunity and go.

DON’T strain.

Don’t be a dick about other people’s butts either. We all fart and we all poop. Don’t shame anyone (including yourself) for being human.


Straining, for point of reference, is how you develop hemorrhoids that complicate into perirectal abscesses, which is why I’m recovering after a stay in the goddamn hospital with a gauze-stuffed hole in my butt. (Go read about it if you want. It’s WILD.)

Yeah I’ll be fine, but it was a LOT of pain and discomfort that led me here. Oh, and during recovery we have to change my gauze plug periodically, and that is HORRIFIC. So.


As a kid, I was an anxious eliminator—a shy passer of the log, if you will.

I didn’t want to do it in public restrooms—I would only go in my home toilet, no matter how long I had to hold it or how hard I had to strain to get it out. I never talked about it with anyone because, well, movies told me it was gross and shameful, and I was embarrassed.

Over the years, I developed intestinal problems, irritable bowel syndrome, a requirement to read and eventually watch Youtube videos while on the John in order to actually go, and going number 2 became even more fraught until, well, I strained myself into the hospital.

Right now, I’d rather I was a little embarrassed than having to fix it with surgery.

(You wanna talk about embarrassing? Try learning to poop correctly after 37 years of developing bad habits. Oh, and having other people stick gauze up the extra hole in your butt. Which, did I mention, is also VERY painful.)

Don’t be a grumpy, gurgling doofus like me. Relax. Take it easy.

It’s ok to poop, and it’s best to poop naturally and without effort.

Other tips:

  1. Eat lots of fiber: the primary tool to fix your stool, including vegetables, oatmeal, etc.
  2. Hydrate: good for your health and good for your cycle of waste management.
  3. Talk with your family and doctor: don’t let this fester. Have an open, honest, awkward conversation now, and it’ll lead to much less suffering over the long term.

Good luck, and remember: Eliminate excellently, my friends.

Hey, at least it’s not a picture of my butt.

How Chadwick Boseman Saved My Ass

In the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s passing, I just want to share a personal story about it. I don’t want to center myself—if anything, this is to THANK Boseman for one last indirect act of heroism.

You see, Friday night when I saw the announcement, I had been in significant anal/rectal pain for around a month and a half. At first, back in July, my GI diagnosed an internal hemorrhoid, which I thought was fair enough. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my intestines for most of my life, and it’s only got tougher over the last decade.

I was diagnosed finally with IBS, I aim for a low FODMAP intake, and recently I’ve been having a good deal of trouble avoiding straining to eliminate. So hemorrhoids seemed like an embarrassing, self-inflicted condition that “might as well happen.” Even though I’m not yet 40, let along 50, we also scheduled a colonoscopy for September 10, just to see if there’s some underlying issue and to get to the bottom of my IBS stuff, see if I have Crohn’s, etc. Why the delay? Well, I’m doing some traveling to accommodate a bathroom reconstruction, and having a working toilet seems like a good thing for all this.

The thing is, even after the course of treatment, even after I drove the 12.5 hours down to California, they didn’t go away. Or, more accurately, the PAIN didn’t go away, and I (foolishly) thought “hey, it’s probably just the hemorrhoids—I can make it to my colonoscopy on September 10.”

Wow, was I wrong.

But hey, I was tough. Resilient. Stoic. I’m a guy, I can deal with my shit (no pun intended, but welcome). I try not to be toxic in my masculinity, but every guy out there will be able to relate: you want to maintain some control over your own body and your own choices. And I figured, “I got this.”

The pain, however, had other plans. It just got worse and worse, especially this last week. On Friday, I was in really bad shape, and that’s when I saw the news about Chadwick Boseman.

Boseman’s last tweet

Our King had been fighting an all but hopeless battle against Stage IV colon cancer for four agonizing years. And during that time, he produced such art of such beauty and power as to place him among the rising, shining stars of our era. He wasn’t that much older than me, and I was proud to have a role model like him. And colon cancer ultimately claimed him, long before his time. He should have had so many more years to develop his talent and climb to new heights. He has left a bright mark on history even as it is—imagine what might have been without that dragon, cancer.

Chadwick Boseman, role model of non-toxic masculinity. Absolute legend.

Anyway, the announcement did something particular to me. Made me sad and angry, yes, but it also reminded me of something. Something I had realized twenty years ago, but had apparently forgotten: sometimes, there are challenges in life we simply cannot defeat, and if we can defeat them, sometimes we can’t do it alone, no matter how tough or willful we think we are. We need to be able to ask for help.

And so on Saturday, when I woke up in more pain than ever, when I could barely stand or walk or sit, when I had to lean on things and my legs shook and I soaked in sweat from the pain, I did it. I asked for help. I asked my parents to take me to the hospital.

Where they discovered, though digital assessment and a cat scan, both good news and bad news: my hemorrhoids (assuming they were ever really there) had gone away, but I also had a perirectal abscess that would need surgery to resolve. No amount of warm baths and willpower would have fixed that. Also, if I’d waited just another day or two, that abscess could have burst—it was apparently already starting to open up when they got me in the stirrups at the surgery yesterday (Sunday).

(Hey, uh, maybe this is obvious, but don’t try to tough things out. Get checked and sorted early. It’s always the better call.)

Anyway, I’m on the mend. I have a new hole in my butt—well, a temporary one—stuffed with gauze that needs to be changed every day, and it’s gonna be painful and embarrassing to deal with. But I am alive, I am healing, and I can finally let go of all that pain.

Hand IVs are pretty cool, btw

So thank you, Chadwick Boseman. Thank you for your art, that inspired me and so many others. Thank you for your strength, to do what you loved despite impending doom. Thank you for being a light for so many in a world that seems to get darker by the day.

And thank you for saving my ass.

You’ll always be a hero to me.

Chadwick Boseman Forever

The Last of Us Part 2: Empathy by Perspective

(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Seriously, you should play and/or watch the game first before reading.)
This is an odd review for me to write. The Last of Us (part 1 or part 2) isn’t really my kind of game. I get too anxious to enjoy playing a game like this. I’m more of an RPG player, though I’ve flexed a little over the years (it started with Mass Effect, which is a FPS/RPG hybrid, and I can play the recent Tomb Raider games). But the story here really spoke to me, and I feel like I have to talk about it.
So, I haven’t actually, technically played either the original The Last of Us or part 2. I’ve watched them both on YouTube, and the reason I can do that is that I have a good YouTuber to watch: TheRadBrad (link below). Watching this game has been an amazing experience, and it’s also been a fascinating journey watching and listening to his unfolding understanding and interpretation of this game.

So my review isn’t from the perspective of someone who physically played it, but since these games are so much like movies, it’s from the perspective of a professional storyteller who was really, really moved by this story.

I see The Last of Us part 2 as being about pain, coercion, and loss, just as the first one was, and one of its major tools is PERSPECTIVE. The first game forced us to sympathize with Joel by putting us in his shoes—if we’d seen his villainous turn before we played him, it would be just like playing Abby’s story. I could hear him warming to her and figuring out story options that would make her more sympathetic.

There’s this narrative out there where “it’s hard to care about Abby”, and I don’t think that’s true. If we could care about Joel–a person in hard circumstances, birthed in tragedy, who cares deeply about others and forms a particularly tight bond with a child who needs protecting, who then does one really terrible thing–then we should be able to care about Abby, about whom all of that is true.

Abby is essentially the opposite of Joel: whereas we built empathy for him from the beginning only to see his heel turn at the end of the first game, we see Abby’s villain moment at the beginning and can only build empathy afterward.

And the game gives us plenty of grist for seeing Abby as a person worthy of our sympathies. Her flashbacks show her cute, snarky, caring side, establishing real relationships with a bunch of people… people we, the player, have ruthlessly murdered earlier in the game. People we thought were the enemy.

And they were… from that perspective.

Why do we dislike Abby? Because we see her kill Joel, a bad guy we’ve been conditioned to view as the hero, and cause pain to Ellie, who we sympathize with for similar reasons, but in Ellie’s case, she’s relatively innocent. She hadn’t done evil the way Joel did at the end of the first game… but throughout this one, she’s constantly struggling with that impulse, and for entirely understandable reasons.

The reason we love Joel is we played as him for so long, we saw how much he loved Ellie, and we saw how much she loved him. If you assess his actions not in that context, he’s an absolute villain.

The only reason we don’t hate Ellie too is that she’s (initially) ignorant of the terrible things done to and for her, and Joel lies to her to preserve her innocence. (Though we ultimately learn she knows the truth.)

Why do we hate Abby? Because we love Joel, and she kills him. That’s how we meet her. We don’t see the context—she’s just a cruel villain. If we had known about the context beforehand, we wouldn’t have nearly the same emotional reaction, and that was what we needed to have. The game does this 100% intentionally.

I don’t see this as a weakness in the game but a strength—inviting you the player to sympathize with someone who is an utter villain based on our initial introduction to her. At first, we see her as a goddamn monster and we can sort of assume what her vengeance is about, but later we viscerally SEE it. Why she hates Joel so much, and at the end of the day, can you really blame her?

Yes, probably. And no, at the same time.

If we had seen this story from her perspective from the beginning (as Cosmonaut points out in his video, link below), we’d think SHE is the hero, and Joel the villain and Ellie his villainous sidekick. And we’d be right, too.

And if we had, then we wouldn’t have conceived the love for Ellie we needed to make the first half of this game work.

Joel WAS a bad guy: a mass murderer in the context of the game, because of reasons, yes, but he was a violent monster. And his choice at the end of the first game was totally understandable and also totally wrong. He basically dooms the world by extinguishing its one last chance. If you ask utilitarian philosophers (or Spock for that matter), he did great evil, sacrificing the desperate needs of the many for the good of the one. Heck, even ELLIE condemns him from taking that choice away from her, in the flashback at the end of this game.

That doesn’t make us not love him, nor does it diminish how good he is as a character.

What the game is inviting us to see is that these are just people forced into impossible, violent situations. None of them are good, all of them are bad, and what really matters about them is the tiny bits of humanity we get to see as their stories unfold and crash into each other. They are violent and at times really dark, but human.

The game invites us to stretch our empathy.

This was exactly what we got from the first game, only expanded upon. Taken to the next level. The next step.

It’s harsh, it’s brutal, and it’s cruel, and JESUS is it traumatic, but what we’re seeing is humanity. Mostly the darkness and vileness, but sometimes little spots of joy. We’re invited to sympathize with people we thought were the absolute worst.

And at the end, when Ellie doesn’t kill Abby, it shows that she has learned the lesson Joel couldn’t: that the world isn’t black and white, and continuing to brutalize each other only hurts all of us.


This woman is PISSED, for reasons both righteous and wrong, but always relatable

A couple specific things:

1) About Ellie, whose arc in the first game was already great, and this just expands on it in a fantastic way. She is becoming Joel, and sometimes in the game that is VERY clear. It is also remarkable to see a woman who unabashedly loves women, and that being a source of strength for her, not weakness. I am not a woman, let alone a lesbian, but I suspect if I were, Ellie would give me hope.

Also her relationship with Dina is fantastic and core to the story, just as was the he relationship between Joel and Ellie in the first game. Only now, they’re more equal—they’re friends, rather than parent and adopted child. And that changes how it develops and how it ends.

2) About Abby, it is distracting how meaty she is—not because that’s bad (quite the opposite), but because it’s so unusual in a video game. We just don’t see female figures with believable functional strength like hers. Abby looks like a goddamn powerlifter, not a body builder or a gymnast, and she loses not a single bit of her female identity in the process. She’s so much like Ellie (above), and yet so different at the same time. She’s a pretty great character, even more so BECAUSE you hate her so much at the beginning. By the time the stories smash into each other again, you might still be hating her, but you probably can’t honesty tell me you don’t sympathize even a little with her.

3) Lev and Yara: I said earlier that I was reserving judgment on the trans stuff in the game until I saw it myself, and now that I have… mixed feelings. Which I gather is how the trans community views it as well.

On the one hand, having archery badass Lev in a triple A action game with this much hype and cultural resonance puts trans stories on a MASSIVE stage, and that should be applauded. And I find it refreshing that Abby respects his boundaries—one great exchange is when the psychotic cultists are deadnaming Lev, who then asks Abby “do you want to ask me about it?” and Abby says “do you want me to ask you about it?”, at which point Lev considers, says no, and Abby agrees. Only when Yara explains a little more later do we get the context. We shouldn’t be applauding Yara outing her brother as trans, but it’s mitigated by the fact that she asks Abby what Lev has already told her, and they share the understanding that Abby already knows. And still, the word “trans” isn’t used.

On the other hand, I wish they hadn’t gone to the “trans teen cast out of family” narrative. Perhaps they couldn’t think of another way to code the character definitively as trans, like including a gay character with a same-sex love interest, because that’s the most obvious way to say hey “this character is gay” (and not pull a Dumbledore). Also, yes, that’s a common experience for trans people, and a lot of us cis people just don’t understand or sympathize on a visceral level, so maybe the game can offer a way to engage with this story in a way that makes us empathize more.

And yes, obviously one shouldn’t have to see people’s pain on display to empathize, I agree. I’m only looking with despair at the low likelihood of cis people engaging in media that contains trans stories, and this might open up some minds.

Is that the purpose Lev serves? To provide representation and engage the game’s largely cis audience with a narrative they might have heard of but not really understand? Or is it a token inclusion to make us cis people feel better about doing so?

I think the key is the quality of the character: the writing and the mechanics. Which are, generally, pretty great. At no point is Lev a burden or an annoyance, and he is pretty great pretty much all the time, including his contribution to the moment when Abby has the chance but doesn’t kill Dina or Ellie. He is a reminder of empathy, of the growth Abby has made over the course of the game–and of the growth Lev himself has made, even as a relatively minor, supporting character. Whether they did well or not, Naughty Dog certainly took their effort here seriously, and it’s perhaps promising to see a AAA studio taking these things seriously.

And while the voice actor for Lev is indeed a trans man, I wish the industry in general hired a few more trans designers, particularly but not only for trans story content. Indeed, our games could use some more perspectives to enhance and expand their stories, and the trans experience is one we cis people ignore to our peril and, mostly, that of trans people. Trans people need to be included at the table. They need to be not just welcomed but ACTIVELY INVITED to participate in safe, mutually respectful contexts.

4) Last but certainly not least, a very important related point: Naughty Dog has a long-running problem with crunch and an oppressive culture for its designers. We can and should enjoy the fruits of their labor, but we should not lose sight of the suffering that brought it into being. I’ll include some links below.
Further Viewing/Reading:
TheRadBrad’s walkthrough of the game, which has some good insights from his perspective. His game movies tend to be really solid:
A largely spoiler-free review that’s pretty darn positive:
A video about the game saying many of these same things but in more detail, especially about empathy:
About Lev, from a different trans writer, a bit more positive:

Curio’s analysis of the game and the discourse: