'The Last of Us' and How to Write Great Video Games
The Last of Us is one of the most compelling storytelling experiences of the past decade. And it's a video game. What makes the story so powerful?
It used to be that video games got no love when it came to storytelling. But as the medium gets more and more respect, we're starting to champion the games that truly envelope the player in a new world with new experiences.
One of these games is The Last of Us.
This post-apocalyptic story puts two people trying to cross the United States together. One a surrogate father, the other a replacement daughter.
Both with the desire to survive.
So how does a video game become one of the most engaging stories in modern society?
Lessons from the Screenplay sat down with the minds behind the game and chatted.
See their analysis and let's go over some crucial details.
Dissecting the Video Game Storytelling in 'The Last of Us'
The Last of Us was created by Naughty Dog and became one of the biggest games of all time. Players loved the non-traditional take on a zombie-esque outbreak and the incredibly emotional storyline that dealt with PTSD, societal collapse, and paternal instincts.
The story follows Joel and Ellie as they travel across the post-apocalyptic USA.
While that kind of sounds like the logline behind a hit film, this one is focused on a hit game.
One that put a ton of effort into creating realistic graphics and a story that drew you in and never let you go.
What are the challenges of games as opposed to movies?
Every game has the same main challenge as a movie; keep the viewer entertained.
But games have several layers in which they can accomplish that entertainment. They have both the written story and the gameplay story. But with universes where characters wander around, how can you make them compelling and interesting over and over?
These are some of the big questions game developers tackle week in and out.
Where does interactivity enter the story?
When creating a game a ton of time is spent detailing every beat and moment. This is because you have to figure out the headspace of the player and of the character. They should align, or at least pull empathy from the player to the character.
In The Last of Us, the game begins with a cold open where we see Joel lose his brother and watch his daughter die from the infection.
These moments are gut-wrenching, but they're told in an interesting way.
In order to capture the right feelings, we don't open the game as Joel, but as his daughter.
This makes the player feel vulnerable right away.
They learn the controls and the story (like a child) as a child.
After she's injured, the POV switches to Joel.
This ability to switch empathetic vessels is what makes games so interesting when it comes to storytelling. Since we can embody many characters, we also can embody many points of view.
That's why all this stuff gets planned before the dialogue is written.
Games thrive on experiential elements carrying you the way dialogue helps carry movies.
What are the differences between film and gameplay?
We often refer to film as a visual medium. It's a story we're shown on the screen that can transport us elsewhere. Games are also a visual medium, but games use the cinematic language we know and love and also allow you to control it.
Both mediums have desires, obstacles, and choices, but you develop empathy through the control of characters.
This control also allows games to get a ton of exposition across. Since you are actively exploring to find answers, games can hide exposition in plain sight or deliver it directly. You're seeking it out and they're providing it.
Similarly to movies, games also want their characters to arc. The best games, like The Last of Us, take those arcs very seriously. In a game, you can establish how certain other levels or set pieces can haunt your character as they go.
In The Last of Us, Joel is haunted by the opening where we played as his daughter and she died. When we take over as Joel, that arc haunts us as well.
What does the script for a video game look like?
It depends on who you work for and the format they prefer. Games can be written in any one of your screenwriting software choices or might be compiled in an extensive Excel spreadsheet that is more indicative of beat by beat storytelling to help the programmers know what to animate.
For The Last of Us, they used traditional script format but added cinematics and choices in as action lines.
Each of these lines is carefully crafted to take you on an explicit part of the narrative. Despite the ability to wander a world, game designers and writers always have to take you back to where you began,
The narrative teaches gameplay mechanics juxtaposed with emotions. When a character gets injured, they have to heal. We learn how to take care of them as controllers of the character. We learn how to find resources, use the controls, and explore their world.
This passive learning device is what truly separates games and other mediums.
But games still rely on film
Cinematics are the part of games where you cut away from playing and watch a short film that advances the plot. They are in almost every complex narrative game. Sometimes you're allowed to skip them, but watching them further enhances the mission you're about to go on.
Cinematics are not used by chance. They are for specific emotional turns of both the character and the story.
They can highlight a big change or emotional moment that needs your attention.
Obstacles are the most important thing in games and movies, and cinematics help establish the emotional journey of overcoming those obstacles, big and small, so you appreciate that part of the gameplay.
One benefit of games is that the stakes are constantly life or death. You have a meter telling you when you being hurt is a threat to the experience. This keeps people hooked and makes every choice you make an edge of your seat experience.
What is the future of gaming?
The future of the gaming industry is the continual seamless meshing of cinema and interactivity. We've seen the rise in VR take us closer and closer to this kind of interaction, but I predict we land somewhere near Ready Player One within the next 10-25 years.
Imagine being able to watch your favorite films as the main character?
Or actually live them, making different choices than the ones we've seen on screen.
I think the gameplay also opens up a ton more opportunities for original storytelling.
People flock to games because they deliver an experience unlike anything else. That experience is not usually adapted off something else. While franchises like Star Wars and Batman have had successful gaming runs, these are exceptions to the rule.
Original voices and stories are lauded in the gaming world.
This is where new franchises are born.
The sequel to The Last of Us will debut in May of 2020, and while we have no idea how it will blend cinema into its world, we do know it's another step toward a fully immersive gaming world.
As long as a zombie outbreak doesn't kill us all first.
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