Permit me the redundancy of being the millionth person online to sing the praises of The Last of Us HBO series – it’s probably one of the best things on television right now, in fact I’d go so far as to say the show is better than the game. I’m aware that I’m dancing on the edge of blasphemy by saying that, and I’m afraid things are about to get worse: not only do I think the show surpasses the game, I think the show was inevitably going to surpass the game.
It comes down to a difference in mediums: The Last of Us is the sort of story which was always going to lend itself better to a linear, cinematic narrative. And I won’t lie: I’m almost disappointed in the game industry because of that.
Why Is The Show Better?
Playing For The Story
To be clear, this isn’t a matter of adaptational polish, though I’m sure it helped. Neil Druckman got the opportunity to do something very few creatives do: he got to tell his story a second time, with the benefit of hindsight. Invincible, over on Amazon, made great use of a similar opportunity.
HBO’s The Last of Us feels all around more nuanced, expansive, and complex than the game it is based on, and it manages these feats with about ~10 hours of runtime, compared to the game’s 15. It’s more story in less time, for the simple reason that the plot doesn’t have to pause periodically for Joel to kill things or solve puzzles.
“How can this be?” You might say, “The Last of Us is one of the most celebrated stories in the medium. It’s acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. It’s inspired a whole host of other narrative games to follow in its footsteps. It was already comparable to prestige television before it became prestige television.”
Exactly. The game was already akin to an HBO drama. It was a long, linear narrative largely devoid of player choice. As well crafted as the gameplay of The Last of Us is, it also hues close to the industry standard for cover shooters, and has little to no impact on the narrative, which is the game’s primary selling point. The Last of Us is, frankly, a game you do not play for the gameplay.
Walk, Shoot, Listen, Repeat
If you’re going to point out that a great deal of games, lauded for storytelling, are also linear sequences of cutscenes and dialogue broken up by shooting and/or slashing galleries, you are once again making my point for me.
I am not here to argue these games are not good, or even great: I like them, for the most part. My intention here isn’t to question their overall quality as art pieces, but to examine how much, if at all, they take advantage of the video game medium. I want you to ask yourself: do games like The Last of Us need to be video games at all?
The Limits of Linearity
The Ghost Train Ride
Legendary critic Yahtzee coined the term ‘ghost train ride’ to describe these types of games.
To tell you the truth, part of what makes me bitter about this is the fact that there are so many games with great stories, every bit as meaningful as prestige television, which emphatically do need to be games.
Industry blockbusters like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Witcher, Fallout: New Vegas, Dark Souls, Knights of the Old Republic I & II, or Persona. These games offer choices to the player that change the fates of characters we come to love, sometimes even whole fictional settings.
More niche games are no less ambitious in narrative: The Wolf Among Us, Divinity Original Sin II, Undertale, Disco Elysium, Papers Please, Shadowrun Returns, Tyranny, or Pillars of Eternity. Some of these games take narrative interactivity to a whole new level. Original Sin II lets the player loose to complete quests in whatever circuitous way they can cobble together from its systems.
Classics like Fallout 1 & 2, System Shock, Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, or Morrowind all demonstrate that this isn’t even a new development:. Games have always been a medium for great storytelling. The popular culture was, as is often the case, just too damn set in its ways to take notice.
So it’s not that I think The Last of Us or, say, the new God of War aren’t great experiences in their own right, it’s that I question whether or not they should be the example audiences and new creators look towards when trying to appreciate what makes video games artistically unique. They are going almost nowhere cinema has not already explored.
Speaking From Inexperience
The fact that The Last of Us works just as well, if not better, when you strip it of all interactive elements kind of proves my point. During an Inside the Episode feature, the creator of the HBO show calls The Last of Us the ‘most beautiful story’ that video games have ever told. I do not know this man, or how many games he has played. But that line made me do a double take, for the same reason a literary professor would justifiably wonder how many books I’d actually read if I told him Darth Bane: Path of Destruction was one of my favorites.
If he were worth his salt, I imagine he wouldn’t dismiss the book itself, or simply assume I didn’t know what I was talking about. But he would probably ask if I’ve read War & Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Moby Dick. He might even think Path of Destruction was every bit as good as those three classics, but he would question whether or not I had seen enough of the medium to confidently declare any favorite.
He would wonder if it was a coincidence that my favorite book was short, easy to read, and an extension of a hugely popular franchise. Maybe I’m more of a Star Wars media generalist than I am a bookworm.
Well Written ‘For a Video Game’
I think we as gamers are all familiar with the subtle frustration of having somebody else, who doesn’t play games, finally play through one of our old favorites and act surprised they were emotionally engaged by it, saying something like: “I’ve never felt this strongly about a video game story.”
Of course you haven’t – you’ve never paid attention to one. There’s an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism and incuriosity on all sides of the video game discourse. A general audience who have only recently accepted that video games are more than childish playthings, and a gaming public seemingly unwilling to stop supporting the industry juggernauts we nonetheless can’t stop complaining about.
(D)Evolution of the Medium
An Issue of Exposure
Keanu Reeves, bless his heart, recently mentioned how he appreciated that technology and storytelling are evolving in video games. Is storytelling evolving in video games? Are the most visible, most well funded game stories any more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago? Personally, I can’t think of a single AAA release over the past decade that has eclipsed the likes of KOTOR or Mass Effect. If anything interesting is happening with storytelling in games, it’s happening in the indie space, where casual observers like the talented Mr. Reaves are less likely to see it.
Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain
There’s a really interesting video essay about The Last of Us Part II, wherein the creator describes himself as having a ‘Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain.’
In it, he describes how he has little patience for the methods that many ‘prestige’ games have for telling their stories. And I can’t help but notice that, with almost all the games he shows examples of, I find myself in agreement. But I’m about as far from a twitchy action addict as you can get. Most of my favorite games are 30+ hour RPGs with eight novels worth of dialogue.
I agree that having the player walk behind an NPC for 20 minutes is boring, I agree that pointless stealth missions where you pick up clues are boring. But that isn’t because I don’t love storytelling in games, it’s because these methods of storytelling are, to my mind, simply unsuited to the medium. The fact I am expected to stop engaging with the gameplay so abruptly and for so long would be jarring even if the writing was of higher quality. I am being distracted from the story by my desire to keep playing the game.
I’d much rather have the story delivered through the interactive mediums of conversations or environmental exploration than an unskippable cutscene. I suspect the reason RPGs don’t cause me to recoil from their narrative is that the foundation of gameplay in that genre is choice, and dialogue trees are just an extension of that core experience – making choices.
More Than Cinema
To my mind, the reflex so many AAA games demonstrate, to make so much of their stories non-interactive, smacks of insecurity, the mindless aping of cinema, without appreciating what makes games unique. I have gladly read through pages upon pages of unvoiced dialogue in titles like Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall, partly because it was well written, but also because I knew it would matter how I responded – the story itself was reactive enough to itself qualify as a gameplay feature. There was no obvious distinction between play and story.
I can’t blame Nakey Jakey for thinking so much of storytelling in games is boring if Assassin’s Creed tailing missions are his only example of it. And why wouldn’t they be? Ubisoft are one of the largest game companies on earth. We all keep buying their games. Most of the titles that use the linear narrative formula of The Last of Us don’t boast sophisticated enough writing to be mistaken for prestige television.
As an audience we should ask ourselves what it is we really want. Do we want movies which occasionally pause for us to mow down mobs of enemies? Or do we want thoroughly interactive experiences no other medium can conjure; storytelling only possible in a video game?