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Narrative Elevation

Posted on July 24, 2013 at 12:05 AM


Narrative Elevation

The Last of Us is the Apex of Narrative Integration and Quality Writing...

...but it shouldn't be a "standard."



Allow a moment for a quick history lesson: video games are, roughly, only about 40 years young as a part of our cultural consciousness. Out of every other form of entertainment options available, it’s still the youngest unless you’re counting the modern internet as an entertainment form rather than just an avenue to other entertainment forms. Video games have gone through a lot of transitions that correspond with advances in technology, really the only form of entertainment that has such a technological dependence that redefines it with each “generation.”  After decades of evolution and growing pains, video games have become the multi-billion-dollar, massive business that it was always destined to be. It just took a while to get there.


“There” is the question, though. What is “there?” More graphics power? More investment money? More gameplay time? More polygons rendered? More buttons on a controller? Waggle sticks and people leaping around a room trying to get their on-screen avatar to dance? I’m still waiting for more blast processing.


No. “There” is the implementation of story into video games and, like video games themselves, it’s had its share of growing pains. “There” wasn’t even a “thing” in the past, it was an afterthought. For years, games really didn’t have “stories,” as much as they had “concepts.” You take an idea, say a robot guy with a blaster for an arm and he has to fight other robot guys because the evil mad scientist is just an evil mad scientist, and build the story around that. Story was secondary because the design of the game was more important.



Video games rely on technology to advance itself in how it expresses its artistry. The Last of Us is the apex of that evolution and shows what video games are capable of – not just high-concept stories, but human ones. Ten years ago, a subtle and beautiful scene about petting a giraffe would have been unreasonable.



Years go by, technology advances, expectations rise through stronger stories implemented in to games. First with just text and basic character arcs, then with structure and plot twists, then cinematics and cutscenes, then seamless integration of all that to a new design where story was no longer secondary, it was primary.  It slowly became integral and the driving force of defining the direction that game design was to go over the hours spent playing, what was to happen and what journey the gamer would go on. After a good decade of current consoles building up to now, the twilight of another gaming generation, we reach the culmination of all that effort: The Last of Us.


Now, not only was there that seamless integration and drive of the story corresponding beautifully with its concept and design, The Last of Us raised the bar of what video game stories can be. Note: not what they “should” be, but what they can be as their own unique storytelling form.


For all that forward momentum of implementing stories in to games, the stories themselves were often the problem. Many were convoluted, many couldn’t find a balance between story pace and gameplay, most were just poorly written because the people writing were game designers first, screenwriters second. This past generation we’ve seen it all elevate to great heights (and, admittingly, low-lows) but all were moving forward towards something. We just didn’t know what. It was like trying to think of the words to say but it’s stuck on the tip of your tongue. Then it was said, and the Last of Us shows that it wasn’t for nothing.



Standards Inflated


My full-time job isn’t blogging and tweeting about movies and video games or wondering why I’m still single. I work 40+ hours a week in the film and television racket and have for years. It’s fine. Pays the bills. Not exactly what I dreamt of doing when I was 12 and reading back-issues of Detective Comics and dreaming of inventing cool gadgets and designing awesome mansions with secret caves, but it helped me find a new direction of creativity.


Through this job, I read a lot of scripts. Some good. Most bad. Apologies to those that ask me to read them, but some of those scripts can make you wonder how bad movies get made at all when the bad stuff rarely gets past some low-rung ladder-hopper like me in the first place. In terms of ratio of bad writing to good writing, it’s 99 to 1.  It could be simply bad dialogue, unclear action, bad pacing, an idea that’s probably hard to sell or just overdone to the point of you saying “oh, another one of these.”


The Last of Us is good writing. It’s a good video game first, of course, but it wouldn’t be nearly the masterpiece, yes that’s a word I’ll be using so deal with it, that it is if it weren’t for the writing. Smart writing. Clever writing. Writing with a humanistic angle rarely seen in a video game – a medium dominated by dudebro gun toting and anime-action sword-swinging because, when you’re a medium that young, mindlessness is the easiest thing to do. Video games have tried so hard to be entertaining and “cool” that it neglected the fundamentals of good writing in the process over those forty years trying to find themselves. The Last of Us shows you don’t have to try so hard to try and be “cool” and “complex.”  You don’t even need to try all that hard to be original. You can take a risk and just try and be good. Instead of something broad and with one too many parts to keep track of, the simplicity, boundary-setting and familiarity of the story of The Last of Us allows for the exploration of its best parts of character and theme.



The benefit of such a young medium: The Last of Us is derivative, but not necessarily when it comes to video games. It took elements we’ve seen before in film and books and refined them because it just wanted to tell us a good story. It did. If it were pitched in Hollywood, nobody would have greenlit it.



If ever there was a good parallel to the quality of video game writing, you can just look at Hollywood. Yes, that racket I work in. Studios aren’t really concerned about a good story or some character study, they’re concerned about turning a profit and the easier something is to market, or the “cooler” they can make it look to the audience (as in dudebro gun-toting), the more likely they’ll greenlit that puppy and shove it out there. Probably starring Ryan Reynolds or a talking animal, as if there’s a difference. It’s all flatlined in to this swill of blockbuster movie-making mentality. “Get that action shot” or “get that gunfight” or “get that gory scene.”


Video games had been that way for a while. There were some descent stories out there, certainly some nice plots, but very few with actual good storytelling. (I mulled it over and could only think of about four or five) Again, this is something The Last of Us exceeded at. It’s bold. It’s written well. But it also found that sweet-spot of incredible narrative pacing that, quite honestly, I didn’t know I would ever see done so well in a video game. Even Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series has some peaks and valleys in terms of pacing, but their Last of Us is a game that never loses a step and, more importantly, never loses its focus: not some flag to be raised or someone to be killed signified by some red dot on a map, but a focus on characters. Characters written so well that it blinds us in realizing these are just digitized people. They’re able to reach beyond that and find that human angle that video games usually never bother with.


But this isn’t about movies, this is about that young, fledgling entertainment form still finding itself.


I’m not going to detail the various themes and ideas Last of Us touches, nor the strong character arcs and the ability to take a standard plot and make it actually mean something. The fact that I can say it does that is more than enough because video games rarely have anything to tell us that’s worthwhile, much less impact us on an emotional level. No, not a “bring tears to your eyes” type of level, but a level of understanding the purpose of all those themes and ideas in the first place. The Last of Us doesn’t give us a story that’s fresh and new even in the video game sphere, but it takes an angle on it that no other game really bothers with. It actually wants to take those ides and make the human condition relevant. There’s no big action “set piece” in the game, the “set pieces” are entirely character and insight in to their being, which in turn makes us look at ourselves in the process. If that’s not elevation of video game narrative, then I don’t know what is.


The Last of Us’s enjoyment for me didn’t come in the gameplay, though I always enjoyed each well-designed segment, or the graphics, which ranged from gorgeous expanse to intimate subtlety, or the audio, which could turn frightening at any given moment. It’s enjoyment wasn’t even “wow, I wonder what will happen next” in terms of story or what will happen to these characters, though I was certainly invested in both.



Video games have a long history of, at least, touching on very human stories, but never in such a complete and emotional fashion as The Last of Us.


Instead, my enjoyment came from wondering what the game is going to say next and where it was going to go with its story. If that doesn’t show the evolution of story driving game design, then I don’t know what does. It’s a game that speaks on a lot of levels, and the exploration of all those ideas and themes from that very raw and emotional level was what kept me playing. It’s the same reason I love Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which the game shares a lot of similarities in a lot of things especially the theme of generations, mortality and human nature. If someone wrote a blog back in 2006, when “The Road” was published, comparing it to a video game, most probably would have laughed at the idea. But now, you, me and everyone else don’t even second-guess it.


But here it is. Right there on my screen. I played it. I’ve thought about it and what it has to say, which in itself is rare for a game to get out of anybody, and I started thinking about all those bad scripts that people try to get me to read. Then I started to think about “The Road” and quality writing in general, then about the fact that I had an urge to write some op-ed piece…about a video game…more specifically about how that video game exceeded video game narrative assumptions. It’s not a good video game story. It’s just a good story. A good story told well. A good story that doesn’t waste your time trying to impress you, it simply is.


Call it nuanced, call is smart or clever, call it balanced and subtle, but no matter what label you choose for Last of Us to describe the writing, it all boils down to it being so spectacular that it’s well beyond what we often expect out of video games and, perhaps, what we should start expecting, and if not then demanding, more of in the future. My days of enjoying another “badass hero with a gun” and “saving the world” are well past me. It could be because I’m older, but most likely because I’m burnt out on all of those same-old-notions with no-new-angles approach to video game stories. How many times can I really run in to a horde to stop some alien-thing and shoot anything that doesn’t look human with no motivation to really do so other than to say “it’s the mission?”


Yet, I still understand that there’s a place for that mindlessness. Well, I understand that’s the best way to make money first, but that when it comes to any art form, variety is key. If everyone starts painting like Vincent van Gogh, then what makes van Gogh distinct is lost.



Optimism Deflated


It might be fun to assume that this elevation of storytelling will have some sort of ripple effect on the industry. It probably won’t, but that’s a good thing. In fact, I’m hoping it won’t. The minute that every other developer tries to emulate what Naughty Dog has achieved with story, and approach every single story as some sort of societal commentary on the human condition and evoke strong emotion from the player, is the minute games like The Last of Us are no longer special. Not everything needs to move us or have us debate the morality of killing versus the necessity of survival just like not everything needs awesome giant robots beating the Hell out of awesome giant monsters. Sometimes, you have to just have everything have its place and strive to do what you want to do the best you can do it, not try and say “well these guys are doing well with this here Last of Us, we should try that.”



If every game tried to put you through the emotional ringer the way The Last of Us does, then there is no such thing as a "the standard" or "watermark." It's all just "the same."


It’s a common practice to emulate something that’s popular. Just ask Japanese RPG developers after Final Fantasy VII or any movie studio after The Avengers or Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it all ends up as diminishing returns as more and more try to emulate it and more and more often miss the point entirely and oversaturate the market to the brink of killing the whole thing. As much as The Last of Us sets the bar high, it’s not something that everyone should be striving for. We just need to appreciate it the rare few times it actually emerges in this young entity known as video games. It’s an evolution of gradual elevation, it needs to be slow and steady otherwise the appreciation will dissipate quicker than audience’s appreciation and fear for vampires and zombies.


So make room and accept those games that don’t strive for those heights. It’s what gave directors like Michael Bay or musicians like The Black Eyed Peas careers, because there’s always going to be those things that won’t ask the tough questions, engage you on an intelligent level or emotionally put us through the ringer. Sometimes, we want stuff to just blow up and not think about it and there will always be a place for it, and as the years go by those fade to obscurity and we still cling to that emotional rollercoaster a game like The Last of Us puts us through, which is the true testament to whether or not something was for nothing or not.



Plus, there's always sequel potential...

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