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The Last of Us masters storytelling in ways only a few games should

This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.
Editor's Note from Stephanie Carmichael:
Stick with Jeremy's article to the end -- it's worth it. The piece isn't about The Last of Us itself but what it means to the quality of storytelling we should expect from all mediums, especially games and movies, and why we should strive for excellence but also appreciate the variety of entertainment in front of us.
Ironically, if that script and story was pitched to me, I wouldn't have bothered because there's plenty of post-apocolypse scripts floating around, many specs on the market and the adaptation of The Road isn't that old. That's the benefit of such a young medium, The Last of Us is derivative, but not necessarily when it comes to videogames. It took elements we've seen before and refined them because it just wanted to tell us a good story. It did.

Above: The benefit of such a young medium, The Last of Us is derivative, but not necessarily when it comes to video games. It took elements we’ve seen before in film and books and refined them because it just wanted to tell us a good story. It did. If it were pitched in Hollywood, nobody would have greenlit it.

If you ever need a good parallel to the quality of video game writing, just look at Hollywood. Yes, that racket I work in. Studios aren’t really concerned about a good story or some character study. They’re interested in turning a profit, and the easier something is to market or the “cooler” they can make it look to the audience (as in dudebro gun-toting), the more likely they’ll greenlight that puppy and shove it out there — probably starring Ryan Reynolds or a talking animal, as if there’s a difference. It’s all churned into this swill of blockbuster movie-making mentality: get that action shot or gunfight or gory scene.

Video games had been that way for a while. There are some descent stories out there and certainly some nice plots, but very few feature actual good storytelling. (I mulled it over and could only think of about four or five.) Again, this is something The Last of Us excelled at. It’s bold. It’s well written. But it also found that sweet spot of incredible narrative pacing that, quite honestly, I didn’t know I would ever see done so well in a video game. Even Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series has some peaks and valleys in terms of pacing, but the developer’s The Last of Us game never loses a step and, more importantly, never loses its focus — not on an objective point or enemy representing a red dot on a map but a focus on characters. They’re written so well that it blinds us in realizing these are just digitized people. Naughty Dog was able to reach beyond that and find that human angle that video games usually never bother with.

Stories with meaning

But this isn’t about movies. This is about that fledgling entertainment form still finding itself.

I’m not going to detail the meaningful themes and ideas Last of Us touches on nor the strong character arcs. The fact that I can say it does that is more than enough because video games rarely tell us anything worthwhile, much less impact us on an emotional level. No, not a “bring tears to your eyes” level but rather one that involves understanding the purpose of all those themes and ideas in the first place. The Last of Us doesn’t give us a story that’s fresh and new even in the video game sphere, but it takes an angle on it that no other game really bothers with. It actually wants to make the human condition relevant. There’s no big action “set piece” in the game. The set pieces are entirely character and the insight into their being, which in turn makes us reflect on ourselves. If that’s not elevation of video game narrative, then I don’t know what is.

Videogames have a long history of, at least, touching on very human stories, but never in such a complete and emotional fashion as The Last of Us.

Above: Video games have a long history of at least touching on very human stories, but never in such a complete and emotional fashion as The Last of Us.

My enjoyment of The Last of Us didn’t come from the gameplay though I liked each well-designed segment, the graphics, and the audio. Instead, it came from wondering what the game was going to say next and where it was going with its story. It’s a game that speaks on a lot of levels, and the deep exploration of all those ideas and themes was what kept me playing. It’s the same reason I love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with which it shares the themes of generations, mortality, and human nature. If someone wrote a blog back in 2006, when The Road was published, comparing it to a video game, most probably would have laughed at the idea.

But here it is. Right there on my screen. I played it. I’ve thought about it and what it has to say, which in itself is rare for a game to get out of anybody, and I started thinking about all those bad scripts that people try to get me to read. Then I started to think about The Road and quality of writing in general, and then about how I had an urge to write some op-ed piece about a video game — more specifically about how that game exceeded the medium’s narrative assumptions. It’s not a good video game story. It’s just a good story.

Call it nuanced, call is smart or clever, but no matter what label you choose for The Last of Us to describe the writing, it all boils down to it being so spectacular that it’s well beyond what we expect out of video games and, perhaps, what we should start expecting — if not then demanding — more of in the future. My days of enjoying another badass hero with a gun and saving the world are well past me. It could be because I’m older, but most likely it’s because I’m burnt out on all of those same old notions with a no-new-angles approach to video game stories. How many times can I really run in to a horde to stop some alien thing and shoot whatever doesn’t look human with no motivation to do so other than because it’s the mission?

Yet I still understand that there’s a place for that mindlessness. Well, I understand that’s the best way to make money first, but when it comes to any art form, variety is key. If everyone starts painting like Vincent van Gogh, then what makes Van Gogh distinct is lost.

Appreciating the rarity

It might be fun to assume that this elevation of storytelling will have some sort of ripple effect on the industry. It probably won’t, but that’s a good thing. In fact, I’m hoping it won’t. The minute that every other developer tries to emulate what Naughty Dog has achieved with story and approaches its own with some sort of societal commentary on the human condition to evoke strong emotion from the player is the minute games like The Last of Us are no longer special. Not everything needs to move us or have us debate the morality of killing versus the necessity of survival, just like not everything needs awesome giant robots beating the hell out of awesome giant monsters. Sometimes, you just have to let everything find its place and strive to do what you want the best way possible. Don’t say, “These guys are doing well with The Last of Us, so we should try that.”

It’s common practice to emulate something that’s popular. Just ask Japanese role-playing game developers after Final Fantasy VII or any movie studio after The Avengers or Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it all ends up as diminishing returns as more and more studios try to reproduce that success and often miss the point entirely, saturating the market to the brink of killing the whole thing. As much as The Last of Us is an achievement, it’s not something everyone should be striving for. We just need to appreciate games like these the rare few times they actually emerge.

So make room and accept those games that don’t aim for those heights. It’s what gave directors like Michael Bay or musicians like The Black Eyed Peas careers because there’s always going to be movies or games that won’t ask the tough questions, engage you on an intelligent level, or emotionally hook us. Sometimes, we want stuff to just blow up without having to think about the consequences. As the years go by, those fade from memory, and we cling to the best among the worst — games like The Last of Us.

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