How does one present a compelling story through a medium in which interactivity is the main focus? How does one maintain a strong narrative when the pacing may vary from player to player? Do narratives even matter in videogames? All of these questions are relevant in todayís gaming landscape. With the evolution of technology and an aging consumer base, games are pushing to become more and more realistic and story-driven, a far cry from the days of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Space Invaders. Those games were single minded in their goal creating interactive challenges to be overcome. Stories were often abstract or completely nonexistent. However in todayís gaming climate, almost every major title includes some story element. A modern game can even be ruined if the story is lacking. Yet there are very few games that present a narrative that ever come close to those found in more story driven mediums. Fewer still are games that use the unique attributes of the medium to tell their stories. This is why The Last of Us is such an achievement.
While the production values are high and the writing and character performances are superb, what sets The Last of Us apart is that the moment-to-moment gameplay experience is intrinsic to the narrative. Many of the ludonarrative pitfalls that games are confronted with are largely avoided in The Last of Us. Player interactivity is consistent with the narrative presented through cutscenes and in-game interactions with NPCs. Joel and Ellie remain true to their character portrayals in the told-narrative. The tense and ultraviolent gameplay is consistent with the tone set by the plot, and even goes so far as to inform the player of more dimensions of the characters than what is seen through the told-narrative.
This is something that even the best games such as Bioshock and Naughty Dogís own Uncharted series, fail to achieve in their stories. For example, Nathan Drake is presented as a wise-cracking, Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter. Heís a likeable hero in the told-narrative, one that the player can root for, yet during gameplay he mows down scores of enemies without a second thought. This has been beaten to death a bit, but itís a relevant example that is common in videogames and films.
In Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog addresses this incongruity through its narrative. While it doesnít subvert the established trope, the game at least recognizes it and attempts to confront it on some level. Other games fair a bit better in tackling this issue. Spec Ops: The Line uses the narrative to confront the player with his or her own actions during gameplay. The game goes so far as to taunt you during loading screens as you progress further into the story. It is a direct shot at not only the player, but at other shooters that refuse to acknowledge the real consequences of pumping bullets into hundreds of human characters.
The Last of Us doesnít have this problem with dissonance between narrative and gameplay. The world is savage and desperate. Joel is a ďby any means necessaryĒ type of character who doesnít shy away from extreme violence. Because of this, the brutality the player displays as Joel is in line with the character presented in the story. The desperation exhibited by Joel and Ellie in the cutscenes is mirrored and somewhat heightened by the gameplay, which forces you to use stealth and forage for precious resources in the environment. The overwhelming feeling of the gameplay sections serves to strengthen the playerís bond with the characters and add weight to the told-narrative. Gameplay becomes crucial to the story, not merely a vessel to move you from plot point to plot point.
Just as essential to game storytelling as ludonarrative congruity is narrative pacing. Whatís unique to videogames is the impact that player agency has on the story. This brings the medium closer to literature than to film or television. When reading a novel, one must parse words into concepts. The narrative is told through joint effort from author and reader. Furthermore, the reader has a choice of when and how to move the story forward. One can repeat a passage or move backward and forward through the novel at will to extrapolate meaning. In this respect a video game is similar in that the player is just as responsible for moving the story forward as the developers. One could get stuck on a challenging gameplay section, get lost -- intentionally or not -- in the level, or engage in world exploration or side quests that break the pace of a story.
The Last of Us overcomes these challenges by, first, giving gameplay an active role in storytelling so that the narrative is always present in one aspect or another. Second, the game allows the player the opportunity to explore the environment as much or as little as one wishes to add layers to the main plot. The world itself plays a significant role in storytelling, and the player is rewarded with nuggets of insight into the narrative as he or she explores. In this way, the story is never derailed because everything fits together. The game is always a unified experience.
Whatís most striking about the story in The Last of Us is how little the game has to compromise in order to attain its narrative goals and still be appealing to mainstream audiences. Games like Journey, Unfinished Swan, and Heavy Rain remain steadfast in maintaining their vision without compromise, but because they veer away from the norm in terms of control, game design, and narrative they alienated gamers that couldnít wrap their heads around the idea that games could be more than killing things. The Last of Us creates a compelling, thought-provoking narrative, on par with other mediums taken far more seriously as a narrative platform, and packages it within a gameplay experience more palatable to the mainstream gaming populace. Naughty Dog should be applauded for this more than anything else.
What does this mean for the future of storytelling in games? It means that it is possible to make titles that approach the level of affectiveness of other media without compromising the identity of the videogame. There exists a happy medium, as it were. While I welcome developers like thatgamecompany and Quantic Dream that bring a unique vision to videogames, I think The Last of Us serves as an example of how to achieve creative vision while remaining financially viable. If only other developers would take notice.
Over the course of this generation, Naughty Dog has become Sonyís prized quarter horse with the Uncharted series. After three critically acclaimed titles, the developer has attempted to go a full mile with a new intellectual property that serves as a fitting swan song to the Playstation 3 as its successorís arrival looms near. While not perfect by any stretch, The Last of Us claims the title of the finest Naughty Dog Game of this generation.
The Last of Us follows the story of Joel, a grizzled survivor of a fungal pandemic doing his best to forget his tragic past as he lives in a post-apocalyptic United States. Early on, he is tasked with smuggling a young girl, Ellie, out of the city heís called home and the two set off on a journey that could change the fortunes of the human race. It is a tale of desperation, loss, and redemption that draws similarities to such narratives as 28 Days Later, The Road, and Children of Men. Compared to Naughty Dogís previous titles, The Last of Us is unflinchingly brutal, yet surprisingly tender. This is the most affecting story ever crafted by the developer and a shining example of storytelling in the medium. Its one thing when games boast high production values and superb character performances, which it absolutely does, yet what truly sets the game apart is that gameplay becomes integral to the narrative. This is The Last of Usí crowning achievement. Brilliant character performances, finely-crafted environments, and tense, brutal gameplay coalesce to create an enthralling interactive experience.
I must confess that I rarely had fun while playing The Last of Us, yet it wasn't due to poor gameplay. The game so convincingly conveyed fear, desperation, and tension while playing that I felt the same dread the characters felt while traversing this untamed, volatile world.
Any psychologist will tell you that the root of fear is powerlessness, and the gameplay follows this mantra to the letter. To survive the bleak world of the Last of Us, Joel must be cautious and methodical when in combat. This is because ammunition and supplies are limited, and his enemies are smart, powerful, and large in number. In most cases, direct confrontation will lead to a swift death.
Joel will face two types of enemies in the game: human survivors and the infected. This is a meaningful distinction because you must approach combat in different ways depending on the enemy. Humans are smart and employ team work to actively track you down and use intelligent tactics to get the better of you in a firefight. These sections force constant movement and thoughtful strategy.
While fighting other survivors is tense, confrontations with the infected magnify the sense of dread ten fold. What the infected lack in intelligence, they make up for in strength, speed, and numbers. It takes only hearing the distinctive guttural clicking from an aptly-termed, clicker or the rabid snarl of a runner to raise the heart rate and loosen the bowels. Runners are fast and tenacious. If you are seen, prepare to be relentlessly swarmed. Clickers are blind, but use their finely-tuned hearing to track their prey. If you are caught by these horrifying creatures, itís game over. Stealth is usually the best option when dealing with the infected as one false move can be potentially fatal. To aid you in sneaking about and gaining a tactical advantage, you can activate Joelís finely-tuned hearing to view obscured enemies, a la Detective Mode from Rocksteadyís Arkham series. This functionality can be turned off in the options menu should you find that it cheapens the experience.
While the enemies are vicious and horrifying, combat would not carry nearly as much weight if it werenít for the supply management system. Supplies are scarce and as such you will be forced to approach each confrontation strategically. Do you have enough ammunition to engage in a firefight, or should you use stealth to slip by your enemies? Are you low on health packs? Do you have the ingredients to craft more? You must account for questions like these and plan accordingly. You will find yourself meticulously scavenging abandoned homes, shops, and towering, corporate buildings for much needed ammunition and ingredients for crafting offensive and curative items. The items you can craft draw from the same pool, so deciding which item to makeis not something to take lightly. You will also find supplements and munitions parts for upgrading Joelís abilities and weapons. As with item crafting, frugality is essential because there arenít enough resources to fully upgrade everything in one playthrough. An added wrinkle to this system is that the game doesnít pause when crafting, changing weapons, and viewing artifacts found in the world. This makes preparation during quiet moments key because crafting and healing takes time. The effect of supply management on gameplay is that your decisions during an encounter will have unforeseen consequences later in the game. Itís a unique take on player choice that feels organic and further immerses the player in the world.
Speaking of the world, Naughty Dog should be commended for the attention to detail with which they crafted the post-apocalyptic setting of The Last of Us. Bombed out, ravaged cities give way to lush greenery as nature reclaims them. Homes and shops, ransacked and desolate, tell stories of their own as Joel and Ellie find artifacts left behind by a world no longer recognizable. Each nook and cranny is given special care and evokes fascination in the player that largely contributes to the desire to push forward and experience the next segment of the game. Seeing Ellie interact with the environment during quiet moments is reward in and of itself.
Outside of the single player campaign, The Last of Us contains a multiplayer component that feels like an extension of the former. Factions, as itís referred, charges you with choosing one of two sides, then offers two modes of play: Survivors and Supply Raid. Both capture the unique sense of tension and dread as the campaign and elicit a sense of personal responsibility from the player within a team dynamic. Survivors pits players in four-on-four matches within a best-of-seven series. Death in this mode is permanent within a match, so the cautious, methodical tactics from the main game are still requisite. In Supply Raid, players on each team share a pool of lives as they work to drain the opposing teamís life pool. Both modes put the onus on each player to act smartly as no one wants to become the weak link on their respective team.
Furthermore, each match has implications for your fully-customizable avatar within the interesting metagame that pervades the mode. Your avatar is the leader of a band of survivors and the outcome of each match, collecting items, and completing certain one-off missions effects the efficacy of your group. This provides a unique way for you to measure your success outside of the normal win/loss/kill ratios in other titles. Itís nice to see that care was taken in the multiplayer to mirror the experience of the campaign, however superfluous it might be to enjoyment of the game.
With all the praise The Last of Us deserves, I did come across a few frustrating bugs and took issue with the controls and button layout. In more than a few instances during my time with the game, Joel would get caught on pieces of the environment, and contextual prompts to interact with objects wouldnít trigger; this was especially frustrating during tense chase sequences when time and precision are of the essence. Equally frustrating were instances when Ellie and other AI partners would stall in front of doorways, ladders, and windows, making progression impossible when infected are hot on your tail.
Locomotion itself is a bit clunky. For example, turning Joel around requires extra input from the X button as you move the stick backwards. It may seem small, but in the heat of conflict, needing extra input for an action as simple as turning around is disorienting. Furthermore, and perhaps this is merely a personal gripe, button layout felt less than ergonomical. For a player like me with motor impairment in my left hand, sprinting mapped to the left trigger was a bit of a challenge when in conjunction with moving the left stick. I grew accustomed to it over time, but the option to remap that function to another button; X perhaps, would have been appreciated. This issue; however, did not elicit nearly the frustration of the technical bugs.
It was clear from the outset that The Last of Us was reaching for higher plateaus than Uncharted ever did, or could, with a captivating opening sequence that few games can match. It set the tone for the entire 14 hours spent with the game that left me emotionally drained and relieved when the credits rolled. It was a deftly crafted experience that rivals the effectiveness of the best films and novels. While technical snafus and curious design choices might frustrate some, The Last of Us is the finest example of every element of a game presenting a unified effort to create lasting experience.
Two weeks ago, I played The Last of Us for review, which you can find here: http://www.destructoid.com/blogs/mlsa/the-last-of-us-review-257256.phtml . After taking more time to ruminate and take in othersí thoughts on the game, Iíve found that The Last of Us raises interesting questions about video games as a medium and what players expect from a game. In the first of a series of articles, I hope to answer a question that may seem a bit oxymoronic: Does a game need to be fun? And, if so, is it still a game?
I mention in my review that I rarely had fun while playing The Last of Us. I stand by this statement, and upon reflection, I donít think I was meant to. Let me clarify by saying that I did enjoy this game, and that I donít think ďfunĒ and ďenjoymentĒ are the same thing. I enjoyed Requiem for a Dream, but in no way did I have fun reading it. In fact, Requiem and TLoU were very similar experiences. Both were dark and brutal throughout, with a thick layer of tension and despair that never dissipated. I was never comfortable, as there was always a new horror waiting on the next page or corner. In both cases, I had to take frequent breaks because of the overwhelming sense of dread that gnawed on me. Upon finishing Requiem and TLoU I felt a sense of relief, as though an emotional weight was suddenly lifted. I have similar sentiments toward re-experiencing these media. While I love both of them, I donít plan to revisit either one for a long period of time.
My experience with Requiem, while intense, did not surprise me. Iíve had many similar experiences with literature. The Last of Us, however, rocked me to core. It was the first game that ever came close to eliciting the same kind of emotion. I would even go so far as to say it trumped similar experiences in other mediums because of the added element of interactivity. Iíd never played a game that, by design, was not intended to be fun. I think there is an inherent expectation that all games are designed to be fun. If they arenít, then something went wrong. Yet, for the most part, The Last of Us is solid on a technical level. The game is not fun because Naughty Dog wanted it that way. Because of this, the game presents a unified narrative experience, something that canít be said of Uncharted. Had the gameplay in TLoU mimicked the successful formula of its predecessor, the narrative impact would have suffered.
So what does this mean for games in the future? Is it okay for a game to forego fun in order to present a unified narrative experience? As someone who values narratives in games, I think so. Though others find fault in a game that isnít necessarily enjoyable to play. I think this is another symptom of the gaming communityís difficulty in seeing beyond the standard rubric of what constitutes a game. Itís the same community that laments over the lack of originality in the industry, yet decries a game for not meeting the arbitrary standard that its grown accustomed to.
This generation has seen more games that subvert the gaming standard than any other. Games like Journey, Unfinished Swan, and Flower may soon require a revision to the definition of a game. I would put The Last of Us in a similar category because it adheres to the dictum of presenting a unified experience above all. The Last of Us may signal a new era in videogames, one where a game doesnít need to compromise its vision in order to be relevant to mainstream audiences. I hope to see more developers take notice of this gameís success and dare to reach higher plateaus in the medium.