Compelling narrative in video games is still a relatively new concept if you think about it. I look back to my gateway to the medium, which like for many young gamers, was Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s hard to say exactly what the original intended narrative of that game was, if one even existed. The first bits of dialogue (and more or less the only dialogue before the game’s closing moments) don’t occur until you’ve completed World 1-3, and even then it consists of a mushroom capped person telling you your princess is in another castle. If you had no preconceived knowledge of the Mario Universe before that moment in the game, this would actually be your first clue that your goal is to rescue anyone at all, and it still doesn’t explain who the chump with the shroom hat is. I guess the 8-bit era was the genesis of things like gameplay and level design, and though plots did occasionally lend themselves as devices by which we enjoyed games, they were stifled by the capabilities of the systems on which we played them. It’s safe to say we’ve come a very long way, and as I recently had the opportunity to play through Naughty Dog’s foray into the zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us, that became as present as day.
Story is integral to The Last of Us. In fact, after playing it I would be inclined to argue that this game’s original concept was as a vehicle for the tale it told. Naughty Dog, as a studio, has actually started garnering a reputation for their cinematic approach to game design. While that might not be as present in their earlier works, like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, the Uncharted series was noticeability characteristic of filmlike qualities. Those games were a giant-sized step into changing the way stories were told through games, but after playing The Last of Us, it’s clear that Uncharted was simply the studio developing its chops.
The Last of Us is a deeply moving, devastatingly tragic story. It centers around a man named Joel, and his personal experience as a fungal infection begins spreading through the country (and probably the world), turning people into mindless zombies. The longer a person is infected, the more extreme their fungal mutation becomes. It’s quite a mess, but the game is more focused on Joel and the people he meets. It turns out, as you might imagine, that Joel is to play a pivotal role in the larger scale.
The game opens with a bit of cinematics. I know what you’re thinking, cutscenes are nothing new, and they sometimes do more to take the player out of the game than to pull them further into it. While there is a fair amount of cutscenes in The Last of Us, they’re normally very short, and most of the game’s cinematic elements occur during play. The player not only has to realize their environment is being changed, but they have to react to it. It makes me wonder if, because of their interactive nature, video games are a more effective medium for storytelling. It’s easy to question whether or not Michael was right to kill Fredo in the Godfather, you aren’t Michael so you can judge him impartially, but in video games you become your character. When Joel was faced with decisions, even though I personally didn’t have a say over his choice, I was more invested in them. The Last of Us did a remarkable job of making me understand why Joel did the things he did, and agree with them even when there was a question of morality involved. You understand what is important to Joel as a character, and because you’ve been experiencing everything with him, these things are important to you as well.
The opening cutscene is also a very important plot element, that without going into specifics and spoilers, carries weight through our entire understanding of Joel’s character. The events of this opening segment, which coincide with the initial outbreak of the infection, completely define him later in life.
Once you’re placed inside the world, and the infestation is in full swing, you find out that Joel has adapted to the new world, and is working as a smuggler. You end up being paired with a young girl named Ellie, and your task is to smuggle her across the post-apocalyptic landscape (there’s something very, very important about her.) As you can imagine, Joel takes on this task quite begrudgingly, but the further the two travel together, the more their relationship develops. They become a team, and they become two people who care about each other. This doesn’t happen overnight, however. The game’s narrative provides you with experiences that shape the relationship’s development in a very believable way. It’s hard not to feel the same emotions as Joel throughout the process. It’s one of the most solidly built relationships in game history.
That isn’t the only element that The Last of Us does extremely well. The game shows the progression of time in a very simple, but very effective way. Rather than being separated into numeric chapters, levels, or simply giving you the date, the game separates its sections by season. Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. After the initial outbreak, where the game actually jumps years ahead, there is very little time elapsed between these sections. Just enough to get the characters to their next stage.
The Last of Us also approaches its story in a way that very few, if any, video games have done. it effectively causes us to question right and wrong, and whether or not those concepts are even relevant anymore. It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape. The weight of the decisions Joel has to make carry remarkably heavy consequences. You are presented with the distinct possibility that humanity’s future rests on whether or not you are successful. That being said, you have some morally questionable roadblocks, and as Joel mulls them over, it’s nearly impossible to be sure of what’s right. It isn’t cut and dry, it’s a very blurred line. Sometimes in order to do something good, you also have to do something completely horrible.
I understand that story is not important to everyone, and even the best plots are irrelevant if the gameplay isn’t smooth, fun, and well thought out. Lucky for those types, though the plot is engrossing, well written, and thought provoking, The Last of Us is simply a fun game to play. The plot and cutscenes don’t distract from the play at all. It makes use of game mechanics like weapon upgrades, environment searches, and incredibly satisfying combat. Even if the story had been watered down a considerable amount, I would still call the Last of Us a game worth playing. It’s the mix of playability and worthwhile storytelling that make this game exceptional.
This game has to be played. The ending was perhaps its strongest moment. I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t played the game, but as the credits began to roll I set my controller down, and sat silently reflecting. It stays with you.
Simply put, The Last of Us is a new level of storytelling in interactive media. It will change the way developers approach game writing, and it will change the way gamers consider plot elements within games. If that argument doesn’t convince you, Sony has just announced that they will be making a film based on The Last of Us, so there must be some substance in there, right?