The Last of Us and gaming’s narrative evolution

I’ve been racing through the PS3 horror survival game The Last of Us at a blistering pace over the last few weeks. Unlike almost every other console game I’ve played, I’m doing so because of the game’s great storyline, not its gameplay.

Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists of The Last of Us, propel the narrative forward. Both characters are morally flawed and have depth; they grow and evolve significantly throughout gameplay. It’s a progression that’s more impressive than a lot of what I see on TV today, especially when you factor in the relatively short in-game cutscene time. We’re not talking Mad Men levels of development here, but for a video game this is a huge accomplishment. Overall, I feel invested in these characters and can’t wait to find out what happens to them next.

There are other ways that the The Last of Us’ narrative has similarities to a great TV or movie screenplay. There’s no excess exposition; characters rarely talk about how they feel or unnecessarily recall earlier events to fill in the audience (e.g. no character says “tell me again about…”). Instead, nuanced actions convey emotion. Elle slightly changes her stance when she gets agitated. Joel glances at his broken watch to recall a tragic backstory.

In addition, The Last of Us doesn’t front-load the story with clumsy, overly direct details such as intro voiceovers, a common mistake among action games. Instead, the game fills in the blanks on its post-apocalyptical setting along the way, mostly in the action’s periphery: two characters have a throwaway conversation about a summer barbecue before the infection spread. Loudspeakers shout ominous warnings from FEDRA, the militaristic remnants of the U.S. government.

Unlike a lot of games, gameplay violence has serious consequences that aren’t glorified or fetishized. Gun fights are short and deadly. Enemies (and their victims) are dispatched in brutal, realistic ways. Joel and Ellie obviously rack up an unrealistically high body count (it’s still an action game), but are far from unstoppable super heroes. Thanks to excellent sound design and motion capture, both characters are often weak, scared and tired during battle. With all these factors in play, “fun” combat ironically ranges between feeling uncomfortable to flat out dreadful. Consequently, extended gaming sessions are hard to handle. But I think the game developers would argue that’s exactly the point.

Overall, The Last of Us shows a real maturity in its narrative, an evolution past what we normally see in gaming. It’s fitting that the game is one of the PS3’s last tentpole releases. Here’s hoping the next generation of gaming, from the XBox One and PS4 to the iPhones and PCs of tomorrow, will push their respective stories to even higher levels.