As much as I love narrative design in video games, as much as I seek out and champion games with strong stories, strong characterisation, I’m still always left reeling by the ones that get it right. People will @ me with a moment’s notice if I dare to speak ill of, say, The Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn, which I’m choosing to use here as examples of the kind of storylines that compelled me to finish the game – but allowed me the freedom to wander around the world picking flowers and completing menial errands for people first.
But I’m citing those two games in particular when I could really use any narrative-driven game of the last five years. The common denominator of which is that they’re also open world. These days, it seems developers struggle to deliver powerful stories without having to stray fully into RPG territory. Ubisoft do it with almost every release; The Witcher 3, Horizon, Tomb Raider 2012, Rocksteady’s Batman series; Shadow or Mordor… All these titles deliver some powerful story beats, but they always do it at the gamer’s pace. If you don’t want to face what’s coming next, you can bugger around for a while bare-knuckle boxing in a tavern or raiding a tomb for trinkets.
My point is, I’m struggling to think of many story-driven, closed-world games (is that a term? Seems to me it should be), that not only direct you through the story but do so in a way that a) relentlessly compels you and b) hits your feels in a way that only RPGs usually can. Even this year’s God of War, which boasts arguably the best story in the last couple of years at least, delivers its emotional gut-punches and shocking twists around the gamer’s schedule. You can delay a given twist by killing a Valkyrie or freeing a dragon, and meander back to it once you’ve mentally prepared yourself for a kick in the feels.
This, for me, is what singles out Naughty Dog as my favourite storytelling developer.
Take, as a for-instance, the opening scene of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s bleak, post-apocalyptic zombie thriller. Is it a little overly twee, the way single dad Joel cares for his daughter, Sarah? It certainly smacks of the “They’re so happy they could die right now” cliché, but it’s played perfectly. Within the first ten or twelve minutes I could feel it: emotional conflict. As the father of a daughter myself, I could relate to the chemistry between the two of them; I smiled winsomely as they bantered back and forth – I was right there with them.
But I could also sense the undercurrent. I’ve seen enough films, played enough games, read enough books, to know that no one in a story stays so happy. I knew what was coming – I’d seen the trailers. And the knowledge filled me with a cold dread.
When the moment finally came, 15 to 20 minutes in, I was already fully invested. I was Joel in that moment, cradling my daughter’s lifeless body in my arms as the sting of tears burned my eyes. I felt the gut-punch; that she was slain not by the infection ravaging the night, but by the careless bullet of a weapon that should have been wielded in defence of the defenceless. At that point I hated humanity as much as I hated the infection, as much as Joel hated them both. And the real kicker as a gamer? There were no side-quests coming to take my mind off it or dull the emotion, no distractions to remind me that it was all just a game and the pace set was my own. Just more story, and the fear that, after an opening scene like that, Naughty Dog weren’t pulling their punches.
The human element
The theme at the heart of The Last of Us is family and the loss of family. From the moment Joel meets Ellie, she is supplanting Sarah in his mind. It’s not something either of them do intentionally; it simply happens. He has a hole in his heart shaped like a 14-year-old daughter, and Ellie is almost custom-made to fill it up. The fall of the world and the Clicker pandemic has chiselled Joel into a staunch individualist, a hard-nosed survivor, and there’s little room in his life for sentiment – but this isn’t just some random human who needs help: this is Redemption in a ponytail.
You couldn’t save Sarah. You can save Ellie.
The theme of family is further reinforced by the supporting characters. Smuggler Tess, Joel’s “partner”, uses a wall of gruff indifference to keep the world at bay, but the moment events lead to Joel and Tess taking charge of Ellie’s safety, a maternal instinct begins to manifest. While Joel continues to remain stoic and uncaring (or at least continues to appear that way), Tess persuades him to help the girl, and it is Tess who begs him, even as she realises she is doomed, to see the mission through and deliver Ellie to the Fireflies, the post-pandemic resistance who believe her DNA holds the cure.
Later, mechanic and scavenger Bill enters the story, a grizzled uncle figure giving Joel and Ellie a place to stay and provisions for their journey; and then the tragic brothers, Henry and Sam, like visiting cousins, who’s family dynamic ends in one of the most powerful and distressing moments I’ve ever played through.
Humans die. It’s not a lesson any of us need to learn but it’s one that The Last of Us insists on teaching us nonetheless. We’re broken, transient things, and no matter how we live, selfishly or selflessly, bravely or cowardly, we all end up in the same place. The Last of Us never allows you to let go of that sense of loss; it rarely even gives you time to grieve before the next tragedy.
We do what we must
If anything, the gameplay almost feels intrusive. While I enjoyed the combat and exploration in The Last of Us, it always came secondary to the characters. The chemistry between Joel & Ellie, for example, is exceptional. Here’s a father who lost a daughter and unconsciously treats her surrogate just the same, versus a girl who never had a father, who makes her own rules, and won’t even realise how much she needs him until she almost loses him. He teaches her to shoot, to fight, to think, and she teaches him to feel again, to let someone in.
Joel’s relationship with Henry and Sam is that of a man who has forgotten what it’s like to have friends, who’s spent decades struggling to survive by relying on himself and those just as callous. With Henry there’s a kinship, and just as Joel begins to care, Henry and Sam are torn away. It’s a painful reminder for Joel that in this world, you can’t afford to care about anyone.
His ruthlessness is alluded to when he reveals that innocents have died as a direct result of his actions or his own hands, though it’s not shown fully until the closing few minutes – but Joel is a man in constant turmoil. The awkward reunion with his brother, Tommy, and the strained relationship with Firefly leader Marlene highlight Joel for what he is: a survivor to whom the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. He may argue it, he may even state that his philosophy is directly opposite to that, but the simple truth is that, when the chips are down, Joel does not – cannot – focus on the bigger picture. He sees what needs to be done there and then, and he acts. His is not the long game.
When he is wounded and we assume control of Ellie, the dynamic of the game shifts. Ellie has no ward to guide, no one to impart her wisdom to. Instead her primary focus is on saving Joel, avoiding the despicable attentions of David, who’s twisted community initially offers to help Ellie before she learns their true plans. Even in this, The Last of Us holds nothing back, becoming a fight for survival between a 14-year old girl and the perverted murderer she thought she could trust.
What we leave behind
While Naughty Dog bounce us from tension to tension, story beat to story beat, we’re barely given time to stop and stare. Remember the scene with the giraffes? Of course you do, because it was one of the only moments where The Last of Us eased its foot up off the gas. That moment, that one single, transient moment, is both our and Ellie’s solitary glimpse of beauty in the whole torrid, heart-wrenching adventure. What I wouldn’t have given for a simple fetch quest to keep me in the sunshine, in sight of those majestic beasts for an extra few minutes.
Just as the opening scene rocked me to the core, so too did the ending. Joel finally reaches the Firefly facility and delivers Ellie to Marlene, only to learn that they plan to kill her, to carve up her brain and from it synthesise a possible cure. But these are not Bond villains. It’s not some nefarious scheme nor the brutal murder of a minor – it’s humanity’s last hope and a fate for which Ellie has prepared herself. By her death, the world may be saved. Marlene acknowledges this reluctantly, not maniacally.
Little girl dies, humanity lives – fair trade.
But not in Joel’s eyes.
And here’s the thing, right: not in my bloody eyes either. I’m not a hero, or a survivalist, or a particularly macho man. But I’m a father, and I don’t think – I don’t believe – I could let my child suffer that fate, not even for the whole of humanity.
All that remains
The dynamic shifts again, at the instant Joel bursts into the operating room and takes aim at the doctors – doctors who, I will remind you, are in the process of saving the world, doctors who know exactly what they’re doing and aren’t maniacal despots or butchers, but people resolved to the thankless, heartbreaking task of killing a teenager in what amounts to cold blood. But, by God, when I squeezed the trigger I fucking meant it.
If The Last of Us has a single fault, I’ve heard it argued, it’s that you aren’t allowed to make that choice as the player. But why should you be? It’s not an RPG, it’s not a game about choice; it’s a game about doing what you must to survive. At this point Joel is a father again and, like before, it’s humans trying to take his daughter, not the infected. How could he have acted differently? How could a man who has spent two decades doing whatever is necessary to stay alive, not pull the trigger on the doctors, or on Marlene, or on anyone else who poses a threat to his little girl?
You’ll notice I’ve barely talked about the actual gameplay. I could. I could wax on for some time about the stealth, the over-the-shoulder gunplay, the crafting, the weird sixth sense Joel has to see through walls. But the truth is that it wasn’t the gameplay I remembered when the credits rolled. It was the story, the characters, the choices they made on my behalf – the lie Joel told to Ellie that burned in my throat as surely as if the words had seeped from my mouth and not his.
The Last of Us has been bettered since its release, unquestionably, but in my opinion only in terms of gameplay. I preferred Horizon: Zero Dawn’s sweeping open world; I’ll never forget The Witcher 3’s incredible narrative branches; and Sony’s God of War sequel has perhaps the finest combat I’ve ever played. But I have never played anything that has stayed in my heart for as long as The Last of Us. It affected me deeply as a human being and as a father, because I truly believe it has some of the best writing I’ve seen in a video game. It wasn’t just well-written; it was brave. Imagine any other scenario where killing the 14-year-old protagonist is the easy narrative choice.
Will it be topped? Eventually. Has it already? Not in my humble opinion. Not yet. But that’s precisely why The Last of Us endures. Because mechanics will change and be improved upon game after game – but to capture that level of human emotion in a story-driven video game is something that will happen once, maybe twice a generation.