Sorry, film nerds: Naughty Dog, a video game company, is putting out the most exciting stories on the market.
You may recall that in our 2016 end-of-year trailer rankings, the #1 trailer we selected was not for a movie. It was—gasp!—for a video game. That video game is Naughty Dog's The Last of Us Pt. II, and to this day, it is still one of our most-anticipated upcoming releases.
This begs the question: What happens when video games reach the same level of technical acumen as films, while also delivering equivalent emotionally resonant experiences? Or, rather: What happens when playing a video game actually exceeds the cinematic experience?
There are a lot of great games out there, but there is one developer, in the opinion of both myself and Film Radar’s Daniel Netzel, that truly takes the cake. Of course, it's Naughty Dog.
Naughty Dog's first release was also one of the first video games I ever played, PlayStation's insanely fun platformer Crash Bandicoot. When the PS2 was released, the company went onto make another instant classic trilogy in Jak and Daxter. But as Netzel wisely notes in his video essay, there came a point when Naughty Dog truly became "next-level."
When the technology allowed for it, Naughty Dog decided to abandon its cartoonish characters and focus more on human stories. (Specifically, they told the story of treasure hunter Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series.) While they may have been fantastical in nature, these stories featured real human conflict and emotion as the driving point for the gameplay.
"It was like playing a game built by filmmakers."
It was that decision that allowed Naughty Dog to break through the threshold of video games and to enter the realm of cinema. Indeed, the game that ended up transcending both mediums was 2013’s zombie apocalypse epic, The Last of Us. This is a game that truly employs what Netzel has deemed “cinematic literacy.” In his experience, as for many others, “it was like playing a game built by filmmakers as opposed to your typical video game developers.”
Cinematic literacy all starts with a focus on the character and the story. Each character is fully developed and all have their own separate intentions and obstacles. In film, the conflict that any character encounters while trying to reach their intention is what drives the story forward. Naughty Dog is well aware of this; the company creates characters that you end up deeply caring about, whether it's Nathan, Sully, Ellie, or Joel.
Running Uncharted 4 on the PS4 is nothing short of breathtaking.
The characters are brought to life by the performances of real-life actors, filmed on camera, working together on sound stages in motion-capture suits. While this practice may seem like a no-brainer for video game companies, Naughty Dog truly pioneered the method of capturing performances for the original Uncharted. The company realized that splitting up the actors so that both ended up doing separate voice over work only results in stale, unemotional characters with which no player can empathize.
Of course, all of these performances mean nothing if you don’t have a talented animator to bring them to life. And Naughty Dog has plenty. With each game, it truly pushes the boundaries of the console’s graphics capabilities. What comes out is nothing short of a work of art. The Last of Us boasts graphics that, even on an older generation, look better than many of the games that come out today. Running Uncharted 4 on the PS4 is nothing short of breathtaking.
In the end, Naughty Dog uses every storytelling tool to its advantage, just as a film would. The company even goes so far as to incorporate principles of cinematography: shot composition, lighting cues, color grading, and even focus pulls and camera shake. All of these elements come together to produce an immersive experience that you simply can’t get from any other medium of entertainment. It's more than a movie— it’s a playable movie.