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 today’s 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 today’s 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 Dog’s own Uncharted series, fail to achieve in their stories. For example, Nathan Drake is presented as a wise-cracking, Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter. He’s 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 it’s a relevant example that is common in videogames and films.
In Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog addresses this incongruity through its narrative. While it doesn’t 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 doesn’t have this problem with dissonance between narrative and gameplay. The world is savage and desperate. Joel is a “by any means necessary” type of character who doesn’t 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 player’s 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. What’s 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.
What’s 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 couldn’t 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.