The Storytelling Series: Narrative Mechanics in The Last of Us
This is the second post in a series on narrative in videogames. If you have not yet read the introduction to the series, we recommend you do so here.
Discussions on narrative in videogames often involve the choice and control a player has over the plot and its characters, the decisions they have to make and the consequences of those choices. The form these narratives can take run the spectrum, from branching paths where the player’s choices determine what they experience from an existing source of narrative content, to sandboxes where stories are created from the emergent possibilities of its mechanics. Instead of arguing for the merit of any of these approaches in particular (although I encourage you to make your case in the comments below!), I will discuss the ways in which interactivity, and the resulting immersion, can improve storytelling in otherwise conventional narratives using The Last of Us, developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation 3, as my focus.
A conventional narrative, in this case, is simply the kind we are used to in other mediums – stories that are static, wherein the audience is given no direct power to shape its events or characters. There is a linearity to its content, with a defined beginning, middle and end. These are often difficult to communicate in videogames, as the actions the player is able to perform often do not conform to the story’s tone or are at odds with the character’s intentions. To some degree, these problems will always exist, with designers only able to go as far as pushing the player in a given direction and shaping the sorts of interactions they can have. In communicating the core of the narrative, Naughty Dog’s solution to this problem lies in its use of cut-scenes. Dialogue and plot details are most often depicted in these scenes, and although it will lose much of its nuance and impact, its story could prop itself up and survive on these alone. But it is a videogame, and relying so heavily on that device can be problematic for the medium – and by embodying the player in the world of the story, and forcing them to confront the many obstacles it presents, a depth and intimacy is established that would not exist otherwise.
The Last of Us tells the story of two people, Joel and Ellie, and their journey across a post-apocalyptic United States decades after a zombie-like fungal infection has ravaged its population and left its society in free-fall. Joel, the central protagonist, is a middle-aged man whose small family was torn apart by the outbreak. This puts him in a very different place than Ellie, a fourteen year old girl who was born well after those same events. Their interaction forms the core of the narrative, which primarily takes place twenty years after the virus initially breaks out. The strength of The Last of Us lies not in its ability to show us this upsetting future – to portray the run-down, abandoned buildings in the process of being reclaimed by nature, or the harsh conditions of failing quarantine zones that struggle to impose order; it does a spectacular job of doing so, and we know the magnitude of the events in the story from these images alone. But The Last of Us‘ straightforward narrative succeeds because it lets the player into that world, allowing them to dig through what is left and struggle against what drove it to this point.
Exploring a World Gone By
One of the central gameplay mechanics in The Last of Us is exploration. Largely functioning to pace the intense nature of the rest of its gameplay, the brief moments you are given to explore are invaluable in building the world’s narrative. Potentially at odds with the our expectations of what exploration should be in a game, these segments are limited in scope – the game space is fairly constrained, and players can never deviate from the path clearly laid out ahead of time (typically established in a cut-scene). By limiting what the player can do and see, it allows for a focus on the smaller details of its locales. Instead of roaming through the streets of a large city, exploring in The Last of Us takes place on a more personal level; for example, looking through the contents of a master bedroom in an abandoned home. What you can take note of in these areas builds its own back story – the pictures on the wall, what was left behind and what might be missing. But the storytelling is often more explicit during these segments; letters, notes, and military correspondences left behind detail people’s lives and worries during the outbreak, and context-specific dialogue between the game’s characters reveal pieces of their history and strengthens their personalities. It is entirely up to the player to seek these moments out, but their availability suggests a world larger than them and the characters in the story. There is no area in The Last of Us that seems new or untouched – everything has been lived in and is now wearing away. By looking through these environments, players come to understand that the story of Joel and Ellie is just one of many worth telling.
Those brief sections of reprieve are ultimately compensating for what makes up the bulk of the gameplay: the violent encounters against other survivors or the mutated humans affected by the virus. These sections do the best job of highlighting the most significant theme in The Last of Us –that of survival. Given the state of this world, it is important to its storytelling that the game forces the player to take part in its ugly, violent realities. It wants the player to feel the same desperation as its characters. To allow this, these combat scenarios are where the player is given the most agency. There are several tools and weapons at the player’s disposal, and the level design often allows for multiple paths (for both the player and the A.I.-controlled enemies). Even so, and despite the player’s best efforts, these levels are a messy, imperfect process. Supplies and ammunition are heavily limited by design, forcing the player to take risks by dodging in and out of buildings and rooms, hoping to find just a few more items that might help them. Design decisions are sometimes deceptively simple – the crafting mechanic happens in real-time, ensuring that the player finds the right time and place to craft important resources. The artificial intelligence of the human survivors is just as persistent, searching every room for supplies when unaware of Joel’s presence, and tirelessly flanking him when in full alert. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that relies on improvisation and quick-thinking.
At their best, these encounters are a tense, frustrating process that the player struggles to get through each and every time. The Last of Us often falls short of connecting these pieces to the larger narrative in a seamless way, however. On lower difficulties, the player can easily become too powerful, and the sheer amount of enemies can stretch the believability of an otherwise (relatively) grounded narrative. What is ideally being communicated, however, is that how the player manages to survive and progress in the world is made to be the same worried struggle that it is for Joel.
If The Last of Us is successful in reaching its narrative goals, if the world it creates is a much richer, more intimate one, it is because the player has been a part of it, discovering and experiencing it for themselves. It ideally places the player in the mindset of Joel and Ellie, allowing them to better understand what is at stake, and why the characters will ultimately act as they do. Even so, we can begin to see the difficulties, and limitations, that this particular design has. Player expression is limited to a focus on combat, and as a result the relationship between Joel, Ellie, and the other characters is rarely reinforced through player action. And there is so much more to discuss – the events and characterization itself, to the way parallels are reinforced and built upon not only by these details, but through gameplay and visual storytelling. Even if we find this approach too limited in scope or that the player still lacks agency, we can at least see the potential of interactivity in telling an otherwise conventional story.
Alex Cope is an Innovation Lab Manager and Designer with the Center for Games & Impact Innovation Lab. You can follow him @aecope on Twitter.