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

Above: Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony
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.

Video games are only about 40¬†years young as a part of our cultural consciousness. They’ve gone through a lot of transitions that correspond with advances in technology — they’re really the only form of entertainment that depends so much on it that each new push forward is a “generation.” After decades of evolution, video games have become the multibillion-dollar, massive business it was always destined to be. It just took a while to get there.

“There” is the question, though. What is “there”? More graphics power? More investment money? More gameplay time? More polygons rendered? More buttons on a controller? Waggle sticks and people leaping around a room trying to get their onscreen avatar to dance? I’m still waiting for more blast processing.

No. “There” is the implementation of story, and, like games themselves, it’s experienced its share of growing pains. For years, games really didn’t have stories as much as they had concepts. You take an idea — say a robot guy with a blaster for an arm who has to fight other robot guys because the evil mad scientist is just an evil mad scientist — and build the narrative around that. Story was secondary because the design of the game was more important.

Expanding priorities

Videogames relies on technology to advance itself in how you play and how it presents its stories. The Last of Us is the apex of that evolution and shows what video games are capable of: not just high-concept stories, but human ones. 10 Years ago, a subtle and beautiful scene about petting a giraffe would have been unreasonable.

Above: Video games rely on technology to advance itself in how it expresses its artistry. The Last of Us is the apex of that evolution and shows what video games are capable of — not just high-concept stories but human ones. Ten years ago, a subtle and beautiful scene about petting a giraffe would have been unreasonable.

Years go by. Technology advances, and expectations rise through stronger stories in games — first with just text and basic character arcs, then with structure and plot twists, then cinematics and cutscenes, and ultimately seamless integration of all those elements into a new design where story is no longer secondary but primary. It slowly became the driving force of where game design would go over hours of gameplay, determining what was to happen and what journey the player would go on. After a good decade of current consoles building up to now, the twilight of another gaming generation, we’ve reached the culmination of all that effort: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

Its story not only corresponds beautifully with the post-apocalyptic action-adventure game’s concept and design but also raises the bar — not for what video game stories “should” be but for what they can be as their own unique storytelling form.

For all that forward momentum of implementing stories into games, the stories themselves were often the problem. Many were convoluted, and developers couldn’t find a balance between pace and gameplay. Most were just poorly written because the people behind them were game designers first and screenwriters second. This past generation, we’ve seen it all elevate to great heights (and new lows), but all these stories were moving forward toward something. We just didn’t know what. It was like trying to think of the words to say when they’re stuck on the tip of your tongue. The Last of Us proves that struggle wasn’t for naught.

Higher standards

My full-time job isn’t blogging and tweeting about movies and video games or wondering why I’m still single. I work 40-plus hours a week in the film and television racket and have for years. It’s fine — pays the bills. It’s not exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I was 12 and reading back issues of Detective Comics and dreaming of inventing cool gadgets and designing awesome mansions with secret caves, but it helped me find an outlet for creativity.

With this job, I read a lot of scripts. Some good. Most bad. My apologies to those who ask me to read them, but some of these scripts make you wonder how bad movies get made at all when the bad stuff rarely gets past some low-rung ladder-hopper like me in the first place. In terms of ratio of bad writing to good writing, it’s 99 to 1. The deciding factor could simply be bad dialogue, unclear action, bad pacing, an idea that’s probably hard to sell, or just an overdone plot to the point of you saying, “Oh, another one of these.”

The Last of Us is good writing. It’s a good video game first, but it wouldn’t be nearly the masterpiece — yes, that’s a word I’ll be using, so deal with it — that it is if not for the writing. Smart writing, clever writing — writing with a humanistic angle rarely seen in a video game, a medium dominated by dudebro gun-toting and anime-action sword-swinging because when you’re a medium this young, mindlessness is the easiest thing to do. Video games have tried so hard to be entertaining and “cool” that they’ve neglect the fundamentals of good writing over the last 40 years trying to find themselves. The Last of Us shows you don’t have to try so hard. You don’t even need to try all that hard to be original. You can take a risk. Instead of being broad with one too many parts to keep track of, The Last of Us uses simplicity, boundary-setting, and familiarity to explore the best parts of its character and theme.

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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