In the eyes of Empire, Naughty Dog’s swan song for the PlayStation 3 represents ‘gaming’s Citizen Kane moment.’ For Games Radar, it more accurately embodies ‘the culmination of what games have been attempting to achieve’ since the polygonal cinematic gameplay of Metal Gear Solid inflamed imaginations almost twenty years ago. Having completed The Last of Us well over a dozen times, enjoying fiction which experiments with the philosophy of morality and ethics, Naughty Dog’s inaugural entry in its newest franchise stands in my mind as one of the finest gaming achievements in recent memory. Its synthesis of strategic gameplay mechanics and nuanced in-game storytelling within wide, varied and detailed environments – a trifecta which naturally reinforces the game’s slow-burning tonal umbrella of oppression and violence – has resulted in an adventure which, even now, four years after its release, has yet to be matched in terms of quality and impact on the industry. Or so it is said.
As time goes on, The Last of Us continues to be mythologised by fans and critics alike for raising our expectations regarding what can be achieved through world building, storytelling and characterisation in the interactive medium. The rapturous reaction to the three-minute PSX reveal of The Last of Us: Part II, with nary a hint of unique locations or new gameplay features, is a testament to this. Yet it is because the original game is so good – and so valued for displaying artistic qualities which somewhat mirror novels and movies – that its significance must be thoroughly critiqued and studied.
Quite simply, what many remember to have made the game special (that is, its story and characters) is not what should go down in history as having pioneered a bold new direction for this medium to explore as it matures. While Naughty Dog’s excellent, nuanced post-apocalyptic narrative has undoubtedly inspired developers to experiment with how game narratives are created, the game’s story should be analysed entirely within the context of game design. The Last of Us is unique not because it brought a novelistic quality to its storytelling, but because its mechanics allowed players to interact with its more cinematic qualities on a moment-to-moment basis.
I believe there is a danger that the presumed lessons of The Last of Us’ character-driven story, following years of accolades and awards, could do more harm than good – especially for developers looking to emulate the game’s successes when producing their own ‘grounded’ narratives and interactive ‘experiences’. Even Naughty Dog, who pride themselves on subtly marrying story with gameplay into an interwoven experience, is displaying a tendency to prioritise characterisation when evolving their games. It appears that they are choosing to polish their now-standard action adventures by concentrating on more human set pieces which only give context to the moment-to-moment gameplay. My fear with this approach is that it will become increasingly shallow and lifeless as the industry broadens its toolkit to produce interactive stories without losing sight of what it means to be a game. Given that certain reviewers celebrated the story in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End yet criticised its poor pacing, not seeing the two as interlinked, it is likely such a trend will continue well into the next generation of games. Although there is plenty of room for every type of game, and Naughty Dog have earned the right to do as they please, this new character-concerned direction caters to what was broadly championed by fans and critics following The Last of Us without fully recognising why the combined impact of tone, gameplay, characters and exploration gave Joel and Ellie’s post-pandemic narrative life.
Ultimately, this essay will argue that Naughty Dog’s survival-action epic made games better by demonstrating how developers of any genre can inject a sophisticated narrative into every aspect of gameplay, rather than having game mechanics be bolted on to emotional character moments and story beats for the sole purpose of drama. I fear the latter may become commonplace as games are unveiled in the coming years which have been in development since The Last of Us attained its meteoric critical acclaim – but have failed to understand why the game’s small set pieces were so successful in their execution.
The most notable reason why The Last of Us made games better is that, in approaching the fascinating and daunting theoretical challenge of game design, it successfully balanced violent gameplay with heart-wrenching drama, whilst even throwing in sporadic dashes of comedy when appropriate. By setting the game at the end of the world, where random (and rare) human interaction means the difference between life and death, Naughty Dog successfully created a universe where standard action-adventure mechanics were ingrained in the very culture of the game world that players were tasked to explore and interact with. If the player behaved violently, the game would not force the player to restart. Such action was a natural product of the world players were exploring. By accepting violence as the primary means of interactivity – especially in the exorbitant triple-A space – and embracing it as the game’s central motif, The Last of Us produced a singular, coherent and unrivalled experience.
The same can be said of the captivating cordyceps premise. Rather than the fungal crisis being a cerebral affliction merely spoken of by in-game characters, players evade and assault the conditions which wrought civilised society’s end through encounters with Runners, Clickers and Bloaters. Much like Red Dead Redemption, whether the player is hunting, exploring or fighting, violence is not just a mechanic used as a crutch to inject excitement and combat in The Last of Us – it forms the structure of its storytelling. Every input available to the player reinforces the adversarial qualities of the post-pandemic United States – regardless of whether we are ripping off black-market smugglers, evading authorities who operate under martial law, surviving with strangers in a wintered wilderness, or scavenging across open country. Gone is the disconnect which plagued story-focused games like Bioshock Infinite, whose opening and ending felt like they belonged in an entirely separate game. In its place, Naughty Dog’s measured design decisions entrenched the player’s connection to the overarching story by constantly applying natural tension to the gameplay. Having Ellie assist Joel in ways which benefit the player – both in dynamic gameplay moments, as well as structured story sequences – cemented the player’s bond with a character in ways only games are capable of capturing.
Moreover, it is often forgotten that the game itself is exceptionally fun on a mechanical level. Despite certain reviewers levelling unfair criticisms that the ally AI sometimes acts in an immersion-breaking manner, or that the game was outrageously bleak, The Last of Us managed to elevate the improvised stealth mechanics and weapon scarcity found in Rockstar Games’ Manhunt and apply it to a more narrative-focused context by offering exploratory areas of respite. For instance, the cut scene with Bill in the basement – and the following in-game journey to his church – is a genuine release in pressure, finally giving the player a chance to catch their breath whilst learning more about their goal and the predicament in Lincoln. Furthermore, hearing Ellie often talk behind Joel has the simple effect of not feeling alone in the beautiful desolation the player is journeying through. You are always mindful of the fact she’s with you, growing more confident and capable as the narrative unfolds. When she isn’t present, you sense the loneliness and danger as a player – but also through Joel verbalising his apprehension when exploring an environment, hoping Ellie is handling herself whilst he is absent.
In turn, by reducing the number of enemy combatants in a single encounter, and having them often be oblivious to the player’s presence, the gameplay of The Last of Us also allows players to learn about the world through their enemies’ actions and discussions – not just the myriad notes or overused spray painting which adorn most walls in linear single-player titles. Otherwise straightforward decisions, such as having to decide whether you want to use your fleeting materials to craft a Molotov cocktail for offensive manoeuvres, or a medical kit for a more cautious line of defence, convincingly added perceived depth to each combat encounter – even if, in practice, shooting enemies to death rewards players with ammunition. The game even has an unconventional boss fight which uses the player’s own skills against them to great effect, rather than introducing clunky rules at the end of the game to create a false sense of spectacle and drama. Once more, it was by having a persistent and versatile mechanical foundation to the experience which resulted in The Last of Us being so relentless and engrossing, delivering on Naughty Dog’s ambition for players to never put their controller down as they play through the game.
Everything which preceded The Last of Us’ release focused on this rich gameplay; something we just hadn’t played in such a potent format before. From its cryptic announcement in 2011 through two teasers which depicted human society on the brink of collapse and an ant brutally succumbing to a unique strand of cordyceps fungus in Attenborough’s Planet Earth, The Last of Us established itself at the VGAs as a confident new direction for Naughty Dog as a developer – the logical evolution from the days of Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Uncharted. In the year-and-a-half up to its release, the game’s promotion saw its co-directors – an excited, assertive Bruce Straley and comparatively reserved Druckmann – shy away from details surrounding character and story in exchange for promising cinematic, immersive and dynamic one-on-one combat which had not been achieved effectively in the medium before. My excitement – along with the industry at large – was palpable. Inspired by the minimalist nature of No Country For Old Men, The Road, Blood Meridian and Children of Men, as well as the non-verbal Tenzin sequence from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, players worldwide awaited a truly next-generation survival-action game. The lessons it could teach the industry, it seemed, were obvious – assuming the game delivered on its many mechanically-geared promises.
But importantly, beneath the surface, having worked with Amy Hennig on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2, creative director Neil Druckmann had additional intentions: that is, deploying a narrative he had tried to get off the ground since his days at college. Druckmann has gone on record with Edge as wanting to personally elevate storytelling in gaming, having found it ‘disheartening’ to hear how games ‘that are fun and exciting and get visceral things right’ are deemed by games reviewers to have ‘an amazing story’. At Naughty Dog, he felt, we ‘try so hard … to push things.’ Through The Last of Us, therefore, Druckmann sought to use Ellie – a heroine who undergoes her own action-hero origin story of sorts – as a way of setting the standard for narrative in gaming. This would be his most significant contribution to the medium.
And this he did – along with his team, let’s not forget. In popular memory, it is the game’s narrative which has been lauded over every other strength – as evidenced by the bizarre stage presentation of The Last of Us: One Night Live, which featured the game’s actors only performing cut scenes, and every post-game interview with Druckmann almost entirely focusing on ‘story’ and ‘character’. The currently-stagnant Raimi-directed and Druckmann-penned film adaption of The Last of Us solidifies an impression that the lessons learned from the game’s success surround dialogue and how it was directed – with gameplay serving only to surround this more cinematic heart, rather than define it.
I would argue that Druckmann’s ‘simple story’ with ‘complex characters’ truly comes to life outside of cut scenes and core narrative, with verbal and non-verbal responses to the player’s actions giving the perception that allies and enemies are human beings pushed to the absolute limit. In-game moments like Ellie raising her hand for a high five, which the player can either indulge or monstrously deny, and her being lost in thought as Joel routinely positions a ladder, are infinitely more masterful than a sombre exposition dump or an explicitly violent scene featuring children which easily elicits an emotional response from players. These smaller, intimate moments are peppered throughout gameplay – whether they follow combat, occur during exploration or after the solving of puzzles – rather than taking centre stage. They wash over you and are more effective because of it.
But it is because these strengths are all so seamlessly imbued into game design – with the game even going so far as to develop Joel’s character when he and Ellie disagree over the outcome of a letter the player has picked up – that they are in danger of being taken at face value by fans, critics and fellow developers. And herein lies the problem.
The Last of Us’ twenty-hour journey has wrongly become synonymous with story in games. Players walk away from the experience thinking how they have never played a game before that was that well-paced, that consistent, and that watchable. For a time, I too thought “that’s how you do it; everyone should be looking and taking note.” Its impact is especially apparent amongst the Writer’s Guild Foundation, of which Druckmann is the only videogame writer to be given a seat. After the opening twenty minutes with Sarah were shown to support Druckmann’s presentation on writing in videogames, the entire board of representatives was reportedly in tears – clearly not having realised that games could be used as a medium for such powerful, emotional and necessary storytelling. The board’s consensus, thanks to Druckmann’s fielding of questions, was that games rightly have the potential to ‘connect with characters … more strongly and more powerfully than even in passive mediums like film or TV.’
But two things must be drawn from this prologue. Most notably, there is no gameplay – at least not gameplay which is indicative of the core mechanics used when building a genuine bond with Ellie over time. The player is expertly whisked from location to location, be it through the guiding hand of Joel into the backseat of Tommy’s car, or behind Joel’s back so he can protect you (thereby not giving the player an opportunity to screw up the first combat encounter of the game). Secondly, though suspense and intrigue is genuinely built by unexpectedly controlling Joel’s daughter in the most impactful opening to a game I’ve played, the true emotion comes from seeing a teenage girl get shot and scream in her father’s arms. This pivotal turning point in Joel’s character is captured through a cut scene which directly apes techniques captured in film. Hana Hayes’ harrowing performance breaks players’ hearts in an instant. However, the question is this: would similar emotions be stirred in a film adaptation? If the answer is yes, then does this scene reveal the real benefits of games as a writer’s medium? No. But this is the direction most appealing for developers to pursue moving forward, as evidenced by the killing of the deer in God of War’s first showing at Sony’s 2016 E3 press conference and the five-minute ‘swim’ in A Thief’s End.
A friend of Druckmann’s, former Senior Editor of PlayStation at IGN and co-founder of Kinda Funny, Colin Moriarty, stressed his frustration that no other studio in the industry can create fleshed-out narratives and gameplay experiences to the same degree of sophistication as Naughty Dog. And he’s right. Other than Rockstar Games, who push game mechanics as a way of exploring story in an open-world environment, it is difficult to picture another studio producing something like The Last of Us. Aside from the obvious questions of ‘should they be expected to?’ and ‘do they even want or need to?’, the more pressing issue comes from whether it is possible to reproduce this type of storytelling when it is so firmly rooted in the mechanics of combat and violence.
Other than perhaps a puzzle game like Portal 2, it is difficult to conceive of a storied triple-A game which does not use violence and combat as its core mechanic. As has been said, the reason why The Last of Us works is because violence is the story of the game. In the recent Tomb Raider reboot, the young graduate who is thrust into a world of violence does not undergo a slow transition into someone capable of defending themselves. We only ever control Lara as a survivor, so the shift to controlling a killer isn’t difficult for the player to make once a gun is put in their hands. Ellie’s arc is similar to Lara’s, but it is achieved from afar whilst the player controls Joel. For Lara, as soon as one enemy is dispatched, the ‘game’ kicks in and players are shooting enemies for XP. The same goes for Booker Dewitt, Nathan Drake and even Niko Bellic – though at least the latter’s motivations are rooted in money and a connection to the character’s ethnic-religious atrocities in Bosnia following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Unless the mechanics reflect the world, as seen in John Marston’s violent but historically-commonplace attempts at redemption, sophisticated stories often fall apart for betraying their gameplay.
Following the success of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has experimented with other ways in which ‘character’ can be communicated through gameplay without using violence. The experiments which worked, such as those found in Left Behind, were successful because they fed into the game’s mechanics but ultimately subverted players’ expectations. Using the stealth combat for a water fight, earning optional conversations through a brick-throwing contest to ask a poignant question of your own choosing, scavenging from a Halloween store, and imagining what a videogame would look like by using the inputs on the cabinet in front of you – every instance shines as a great example of adding to players’ expectations of what it would be like to live in the quarantine zone of Boston as a teenager. Yet, even though these moments were using core mechanics, such activities were contrasted with dynamic combat encounters which pitted Runners and Clickers against David’s men as they searched for a ‘crazy man’ travelling with a ‘little girl’. Tension is never truly relinquished – not because of the game’s genre, but because it is a game first and foremost.
Conversely, in exchange for less combat, whether you are swimming through the ocean, being slowly escorted through a prison, collecting food and sitting with your wife at dinner, walking around a boat during your day job, or simply sitting at your computer looking over some files, the non-violent gameplay moments in Uncharted 4 exist to establish Drake as a human being. For reviewers, this in-game characterisation was the logical extension of The Last of Us, producing a more ‘grounded’ experience – pursuing themes of marital troubles, the monotony of everyday life, and ambition devolving into obsession and eventually addiction. Of course, given that all these ideas are rarely – if ever – explored in this medium, Naughty Dog’s approach is very respectable and highly ambitious.
But these ‘scenes’ were all for the sake of backstory; minimally interactive cutscenes which sought to capture an emotion or story beat, and not something which added depth to the gameplay experience. Throw away the Crash Bandicoot nostalgia and the entire dinner scene with Nate and Elena is one large cutscene which adds to another half hour of footage players had already watched. This early chunk of Uncharted 4 is completely isolated from the actual gameplay of Nathan Drake. It exists for story’s sake. The scene with Elena in Madagascar, where it looks like she is going to divorce Nate, might have made you think, and might even have made you cry, but such moments happened with a character in a cutscene that – at the game’s midpoint – the player had hardly interacted with in-game.
Sadly even moments of gameplay succumbed to deliberate, author-led set pieces which simply played themselves, including the jail-yard brawl in Panama and the two fights with ‘badass’ Nadine. Sully tells the player she’s a badass but the game never gives us the challenge for her to prove it and for us to fail. It’s a far cry from the risks Naughty Dog took with Ellie’s exhilarating encounter with David. In these moments, the gameplay is not even a means to reach a cut scene… it has become the cut scene; a glorified quick-time event which the games media claims to hate. The director doesn’t want you to fail these sections and miss out on the comedy or drama. And after that, what’s the reward? Well, back to climbing, of course. Why? Because the pacing needs to be slowed down after having engaged in all the excitement you, the player, have just experienced (that is, watched).
Ultimately, by straying away from The Last of Us’ fundamental strength – that is, using violence as the story’s central motif to tie everything back to the player’s interaction with its hostile world – Uncharted 4 is guilty of writing scenes which flesh out the characters but do not support the game. This hurts the overall impact of the story players are playing (not passively viewing). If anything, A Thief’s End proves how story for story’s sake is obtuse. Perhaps because Naughty Dog is unrivalled graphically and in its attention to characterisation, the industry does not challenge them to do better. Awarding the game constantly for distinguished categories of ‘animation’, ‘visuals’ and ‘narrative’ doesn’t particularly help learn lessons which will make the developer improve over time, either.
I’m perhaps of an unpopular opinion that Uncharted 4 was a side step for Naughty Dog. I do not think it will be a game that is remembered as one of the great PlayStation 4 exclusives. It’s a fun ride whilst it lasts, and as long as you don’t break its story sequences by doing something it isn’t expecting, but despite its gorgeous graphics, superb performance capture, and interesting epilogue (which similarly reinforces everything I have argued about bolting story onto gameplay rather than having gameplay provide the means for an engaging interactive narrative), it’s a game which tells us to like and appreciate it, rather than convinces us to do so. Moreover, I think it is safe to assume that a lot of its more unique features are merely tests for Part II – whether it be driving a car through ‘wide-linear’ environments as Ellie and her allies scavenge for resources in ruined locales, rather than Madagascar’s out-of-place temples; being intimate with a loved one in a goofy but truly loving manner; or simply sitting with an old friend – not a complete stranger – and contemplating your shared regrets over the years.
More broadly, if this emphasis on narrative, which has been rewarded by the industry without being truly understood, continues, then what can we expect for Part II? Other than the bark on the tree, a quivering, almost spasming hand affecting Ellie’s movement, and an elaborate tattoo masking Ellie’s infected wound from those she lives with, viewers are presented with very little gameplay hints. The first thing which struck me was the setting. A wilderness very reminiscent of that found in Tommy’s Dam. Sure, it’s just a teaser trailer, but one of my reservations for a sequel to the original game was that the core narrative covered so many different locations. We visited a functioning quarantine zone, abandoned quarantine zones, a camp of cannibals, a community of more righteous individuals. We visited schools, and towns, and cities. We visited the beach, Ish’s sewers, a hospital. And we even traversed these locals in sunshine, rain and snow. When we saw Uncharted 2’s reveal trailer, we were teased with a brand-new setting, environment and mode of transportation. Here, we just see more of the same. Yes, Left Behind added a mall, but I’m willing to wager that most players remember the Halloween shop and the arcade above all else, forgetting the mall itself and even the highly-scripted end chase. And even then, gameplay lasted about an hour with the other half of the DLC focusing on an environment we’d more-or-less traversed. Will we see Los Angeles? Will we explore abandoned carnivals, or other locales to see more quirky character-developing gameplay ‘scenes’? Will these locales be enough to excite after such a complete entry first time round?
My thinking is that, by contextualising the Firefly tease within the last game’s ending and Ellie’s prequel comic, American Dreams, the sequel will focus on communities and groups in the fallout of there being no cure for the pandemic. This could help differentiate otherwise standard settings players have visited before by imagining them in a more sophisticated, cultural light – and provide unique gameplay opportunities by having Ellie actively hunt groups down, or work alongside multiple people who each are looking to achieve their individual goals. At the very least, it is only logical to expect something great due to the world of Joel and Ellie being rooted in the mechanics of survival first and foremost. The teaser reaffirms as much. Much like Druckmann said at the recent PSX panel for Part II, moderated by Game Informer‘s editor-in-chief, Andy McNamara, when reassuring fans that the original game’s story would not be underserved in the sequel: have faith in us, for ‘we will do right by you’ when tackling the themes of what is right and wrong in the duality of a world in ruin and the embers of something new.
In Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed the World, The Guardian’s games editor Keith Stuart rightfully noted how game developers are getting older and therefore what interests and inspires them to create has grown more mature and more nuanced – especially given that technological capabilities are now available to realise their visions. The same is true of players and critics. As we continue to witness developers capitalise on hardware to create open-world collectathons, which omit the painstaking approach employed by Rockstar Games to make environments feel real and fun to lose yourself in (as Danny O’ Dwyer confronted to great effect in an episode of The Point), we are now on the verge of a new era of linear games which focus on echoing long-form human storytelling found in HBO boxsets. Exciting times lie ahead as developers experiment with issues which matter to them.
Resident Evil VII struck me recently for being a fantastic game in which every interaction the player had with the Bakers’ Louisiana plantation reinforced the need for survival. Having admittedly bought the game with low expectations, VII has genuinely surprised me in a way few games have in recent years. Yet it did not open with Ethan and Mia living their normal lives before her three-year disappearance. Could it have? Sure. Although the basic setup given was more in keeping with the survival-horror genre, background knowledge on the pair’s relationship would have made me care more about finding Mia during those early hours. But how would such a sequence have been played? How would the game’s director have made me care about the characters, whilst keeping the core mechanics at the heart of the experience?
Above all else, when reflecting on The Last of Us’ impact on myself and the industry more broadly, I walk away from this experience believing that mechanically-focused storytelling is critical to the AAA action-adventure space. Contrary to what we might believe, story and gameplay cannot truly merge; story must be embedded in gameplay mechanics for narrative to be at the heart of this industry. For some, this is so-called emergent gameplay. For others, it’s making up your own world. But linear games must abide by this principle also. Although there is no one way to tell a story – especially not in an industry as divergent as this – experiments and misfires are healthy, for they are how we learn and improve, as with all walks of life. Seeing the transition from The Last of Us to Uncharted 4, lessons must be learned as Naughty Dog begin to develop entirely new franchises.
In conclusion to this excessively-long first attempt at writing about this medium, is The Last of Us successful because its story is about game violence? Yes, I believe it is. If the game wanted to tell the story of two people who are strangers that become allies over time, perhaps in a more modern setting as a police officer and a runaway, without the mechanic of violence syncing every player interaction to the world they occupied, the game would not have worked. They would simply have been playing out a bunch of different scenes. What, then, does this mean for stories in so-called triple-A games? Must violence always be at its core, seeing as that is the main form of interactivity games use? Given that The Last of Us: Part II is described as ‘a story about hate’, with no mention of gameplay at the time of its announcement, it certainly looks that way.
Still, I want to be proven wrong. And I know this industry will prove me wrong. Too many seriously intellectual minds work in it and are drawn to it. A better Naughty Dog is better for everyone, as 2013 demonstrated beautifully.
After years of working towards my own career, with aspirations in the back of my mind being to one day work in the games industry in some capacity, I’ve finally been stirred this year into starting somewhere small by reflecting on why certain games have such an impact on my thinking. The Last of Us is one of those games. It’s an interesting task to understand how a game’s core mechanics sync with one another, all whilst pushing a singular narrative, and it illustrates the extreme amount of thought and creativity on behalf of those that tirelessly work towards putting such experiences together for years at a time.
With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog proved that it was not ‘grounded’ storytelling which connected with audiences, but mechanically-grounded storytelling which connected with gamers. Although the benefits of this approach have not entirely made themselves apparent in the games industry quite yet, due to the sheer difficulty of having every component of a game be in sync with one another, it certainly has the potential to. What comes next, once the difficulty of this challenge is deconstructed and embraced, really will produce experiences of the future. I for one cannot wait to reap the rewards.