The Last of Us screenshot
The Last of Us screenshot

There's a moment in The Last of Us that's charged with unassuming weight and meaning. It's one that has the power to change how you see and understand the entire game, but it's not a cutscene, a conversation, or an action sequence. Some players may not have even thought it significant at all, whereas for others it would have been the most disturbing moment of all in this story of a journey against the odds.

For me it shattered the expectations and loose connections I'd established between myself, the lead duo of Ellie and Joel and, most of all, the world that they inhabit.

Early on in the game and playing as Joel, I reached out for a rag. I couldn't pick it up. Huh? I'd picked up so much loot already that my inventory was maxed out. To say I was surprised was an understatement. The game had spent so long explaining that resources were scarce, that they should be treasured and that you should be smart in using anything you do find... but now I'm in the envious position of being so asset-rich that my inventory is full. I'm going to have to make a withdrawal in order to make a deposit.

The fact I'd found so much 'stuff' lying around, in this supposedly barren world, that I physically couldn't carry any more shattered my suspension of disbelief. It reminded me that I was playing a game in a world of confusingly conflicting messages.

Following The Last of Us and Uncharted, Naughty Dog is considered the king of the 'cinematic' experience – games able to build and exaggerate a sense of place and fill them with rounded characters that feel real within their surroundings. This cinematic essence is crafted and defined through cutscenes. Unfortunately, in The Last of Us' case, it's also degraded through gameplay.

When the player is in control, as the full-inventory phenomenon demonstrates, the world shown through the cutscene is turned upside down, illegitimatised and forces you to question what you're supposed to believe as 'real'.

This begs the question: is there a justifiable creative future to games like this, or merely a commercial one in which it's easy to sell people a game that looks like a movie? Video games' greatest asset, of course, is the fact that they're interactive. No other mainstream medium has this component (interactive theatre isn't mainstream, yet), meaning games harbour all sorts of unique tools and means of engagement to tell a story and entice an audience.

The Last of Us screenshot

However, so many of today's games are shunning the comparatively experimental realm of story-through-gameplay and relying on story-through-cinema... via cutscenes. The reason for this is obvious: people understand the language of cinema more readily than the language of games, a reality prolonged thanks to so many game designers' refusal to build and focus on genuine interactive storytelling..

The downside is that this approach creates an experience of two halves, one side in which you have your story nicely laid out for you, the other which contains your interactions. One half is movie, the other half is game.

There is some overlap, of course, in that you're in charge of a character that you've seen grow and change through the course of a game's cinematics – potentially heightening any fondness you're likely to develop towards them. Ultimately, however, as seen in The Last of Us, the near-wholesale separation of the two elements impedes on the experience and prevents it from reaching its full potential. Rather than complement each other, the two sides of such games often directly oppose one another.

The resource and inventory management issue in The Last of Us is but one example of a wider problem. You don't have to look far for other examples: each and every one of the Uncharted games uses cinematics to tell us we're playing as Nathan Drake, a loveable rogue with a heart of gold. Yet, during gameplay, Drake ranks amongst the most crazed and relentless of psychopathic killers ever seen in a game. He kills without mercy and without thought, he will always achieve his goal no matter what the cost to human life and he never once stops to question the sanity of that approach. He's genocide with a scarf.

To enhance the disconnect, when the next cinematic pops up Drake seems to have no recollection of the mass murder he has just inflicted as he cheerily kisses the girl or jokes with mentor Sully.

Your only realistic means of believing the narrative (without resorting to giving Drake trauma-induced amnesia), is to pretend that the gameplay didn't actually occur in reality – that you played through events taking place in some kind of alternate and separate world from the Uncharted shown in cinematics.

Speaking to Neil Druckmann, creative director on The Last of Us, it becomes clear that this disconnect is something Naughty Dog is well aware of.

"It's difficult to make [gameplay and story] sing in harmony, for sure," says Druckmann. "That's really the biggest challenge we ever have with these games. When you do get it right it can be something so much greater than a passive medium, though.

"With the main The Last of Us campaign, both in and out of action sequences we were always challenging ourselves with building the bond between Ellie and Joel. That is always in the back of our minds the whole time throughout the whole of the game."

The Last of Us screenshot

Reflecting on Druckmann's comments, it's possible that the world of The Last of Us failed to feel cohesive across cinematics and gameplay because Naughty Dog's intention all along was to concentrate so heavily on the "bond" between Joel and Ellie.

Trying to do too much narrative legwork in a game that is (relatively) short would perhaps result in confusion or a sense that no single element has been satisfactorily explored. Playing as Joel, your bond with Ellie is reinforced during gameplay through subtle actions such as putting your arm around her when hiding in cover or worrying about her safety when she's not visible during a combat situation.

This creates a dilemma, though, in that it's those very combat moments that disrupt and undermine the overall narrative of the world most of all. In theory, their construction may make Joel and Ellie feel more connected, but their predictable occurrence rate and simplistic nature (choose stealth or attack) make them feel forced and unrealistic within this world of supposed unpredictability and misdirection. Their frequency undermines their own purpose.

Additionally, the authenticity of Joel and Ellie's relationship means anything less than an equally believable world feels wholly illusory and detached.

Druckmann explains that the team pushed themselves when it came to having comparatively fewer combat sequences in The Last of Us, saying that they went out of their "comfort zone" - action being something they're well-practised at delivering with their past games. However, Naughty Dog was given confidence in its approach when players didn't complain over the quantity of action.

"The worry is that you'll lose people's interest while they're playing," Druckmann continues, when asked about why action-based gameplay is important. "If you don't have high tension the whole time then you do worry and think about whether players are going to check out of the game and get bored or stop playing.

"I really hope that there is a shift in mindset where [games] aren't seen as just mindless fun, that you can be engaged by a slower-paced experience... for lack of a better term, a more 'subtle' and 'intelligent' experience. And certainly a more emotional one.

"Once the expectations shift to that side then we can really start to experiment more and explore more in that area. That's something we really tried to do with Left Behind, was invest a lot of resources outside of the action sequences to build mechanics that serve up an emotional relationship."

Left Behind, The Last of Us' recently released DLC offering, is certainly a big step in the right direction for these kinds of 'cinematic' experiences. Not only does Left Behind contain less combat, but it takes more risks when it comes to telling a story through gameplay.

The Last of Us screenshot

Cinematics remain the chief means of telling the story, but in this case the true meaning (at least, your most overt taste of that true meaning) comes from the way gameplay is constructed - with a reliance on putting you in charge of events that would be classified at extra-curricular, non-essential, in most games of this ilk.

What Left Behind proves most of all is that Naughty Dog is genuinely thinking about the problems that a separation between gameplay and cinematics produces and are creatively seeking ways to engage players through interactions, rather than passive video.

The challenge for the studio, and its imitators, is to now show the courage required to take the successful narrative direction of Left Behind and transplant it into a full-fledged game. Naughty Dog has been smart in using DLC content as a test bed to determine what fans of their games can reasonably enjoy in terms of interaction, but a test is only as useful as the results that it spawns. The concern is that, for all Left Behind's good work, it's The Last of Us that will still be the template.

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User Comments

Pliskin's Avatar

Pliskin

I think it's unfair to suggest that the pursuits of one gaming studio to make a game in their image is "harming" storytelling in games. I loved every moment of The Last of Us. Maybe I am sucker for emotional cutscenes in games, for beautiful scenery and exquisite dialogue. However, I felt that when playing TLOU it gave me a well rounded experience of gaming, story, music, character dev and most of all FUN! I enjoyed fighting in it, I enjoyed the stealth approach, I wanted to be a perfectionist even in a "world" which wouldn't require such a trait. It still carried that same gaming value that has kept me gaming for the last 16 years, FUN!

Yes it was surrounded with sad moments, dark music, bleak scenery and more but games need this, games need more atmosphere. I feel it's wholly unfair to say that because the makers of TLOU pursued their idea for this title that they may be harming storytelling. In my opinion they reinvigorated it by showing people that a small amount of empathy for a character can change how you feel about the outcome of the game. I felt attached to Joel by the end of this game, like I had made all the choices.
Posted 11:16 on 18 February 2014
MHL's Avatar

MHL

I think that this is an issue that is highly important as games evolve as a medium. However, I believe that The Last of Us is not the biggest culprit, but instead it is the best attempt yet at solving this problem. I found the gameplay and cutscenes to be separated, but they were closer than in any other game that I have seen. This problem will be solved one day and I don't think that The Last of Us will be looked back at as being a failed attempt but more as an important step forward.
Posted 20:39 on 17 February 2014
Evenon's Avatar

Evenon

I think the broader point you're trying to make has merit. Especially in Uncharted. Once storytelling is so heightened that characters are alive with personality, suddenly gameplay where you shoot 500 people in cold blood before the next cut scene seems anachronistic. It doesn't mesh. I also feel this way about Grand Theft Auto games and Max Payne 3 for a recent example.

The cinematics are all exposition and character building, but the gameplay is all dumb fun that the character would never engage in. But I don't think The Last of Us suffers from this syndrome. Often, gameplay leads directly into a cutscene (like Joel being out of breath from the fight you just played) and vice versa. Joel absolutely killed those people you killed. The game then turns this seemingly anachronistic violence on it's head when David reveals that from his perspective Joel is a crazy man who murdered his people.

As to inventory management; if you were playing with a full inventory, so much so that it took you out of the experience, you were probably playing on a low difficulty and weren't using the crafting system. In which case the game is only so responsible. It is a game after all. Suspension of disbelief and whatnot. The moment you had while playing is akin to watching a movie and thinking the guy shot too many bullets without reloading. It's a symptom of fiction, not a big issue with Naughty Dog's style.
Posted 16:51 on 17 February 2014
wellhiddenmark's Avatar

wellhiddenmark

My problem with The Last of Us is that it's a film I wouldn't particularly be bothered about watching, awkwardly mashed up with a type of game I'm not particularly bothered about playing... but the hype, the hype... the hype.
Posted 16:26 on 17 February 2014
xbox72Op's Avatar

xbox72Op

oh you had more resources then you could carry. well play on a hard setting you gimp. don't tell me you got bought off by Microsoft like all them sell out youtubers. (if your unaware microsot were paying people to give the xbox 720p good reviews)
Posted 15:26 on 17 February 2014
essex1212's Avatar

essex1212@ Nxs

Agree 100%


TU
Posted 11:52 on 17 February 2014
Bloodstorm's Avatar

Bloodstorm

"As someone said earlier "This is a provocative piece more suited to Kotaku" "


Click for Image
Posted 19:11 on 16 February 2014
Victim's Avatar

Victim

This article just made me hate this site. You clearly state that it is a GAME and therefore you must understand games have RULES. But if you want to go all RP: How much stuff could you carry while running for your life?
Posted 15:20 on 16 February 2014
AchievedGaming's Avatar

AchievedGaming

I just got a Minecraft premium card code for free! :D http://freeminecraftgiftcode.net
Posted 07:39 on 16 February 2014
Markey010's Avatar

Markey010

I was really starting to like VideoGamer.com then I came across this click-baiting article... really? Come on guys, I've grown to expect more from you.

As someone said earlier "This is a provocative piece more suited to Kotaku"

I come to respect videogamer 'cause they don't usually have these hidden agenda riddled pieces, posted maybe to ignite a flame war. =/
Posted 05:30 on 16 February 2014
Njeezy's Avatar

Njeezy@ ijs52

The headline to your post can't be answered by the word "NO" :P
Posted 22:40 on 15 February 2014
Syme's Avatar

Syme

I still think cut-scenes are necessary for some games, there's so much more you can do with close-ups of facial expressions and staging. The Last of Us in particular will often communicate so much with just a look someone gives.

I don't think for instance telling everything from a 1st person perspective makes things inherently better. I tend to find the method that Half Life encouraged of awkwardly standing and walking around while people are having a conversation regardless of what you're doing to be just as immersion breaking as taking control away from the player. I really don't find there to be any problem with that if it's not taken to ludicrous metal gear solid length cut-scenes.
Posted 19:20 on 15 February 2014
IronMit's Avatar

IronMit

I like the content of this article. It's very well thought out...but what's with the title? How can you even begin to ask the question the title poses before other games have even had a chance to react to it?

Anyway-

For me, Half of melding story with gameplay, is like those spinning plates analogies;
you want a resource mechanic, but you also want to balance the game. It's a pretty difficult illusion to sustain for the length of the entire game.
Some of TLOU's mechanics don't go as far as lets say fallout 3...where you can carry everything if you want, but then you would get really slow and noisy. But maybe it should have been? maybe not.

Positive steps TLOU took;

The combat is not just a 3rd person shooter template. The violence and visceral nature of the combat is reflected in the themes of the story. The HOW is very important here, the panic, the poor aim, the bricks, molatov's, listening, noise etc. Unlike bioshock infinite's, 'Booker is violent-so FPS template justification achieved'.

The blending of action, stealth and transitions between when you play cat and mouse with enemies. The resources mechanic tie'ing into the approach to these situations.

The parts where you are walking around slowly scavenging whilst the story unfolds (not always needing the cutscenes).

The lighting and use of torches

Ellie getting more involved in 'battles.'

'Limitations';

The AI in the demo reel was so much better. Enemies would run away from you and hide when you outmatched them. The 'are you the good guy' theme would have been much more intense if you were hunting down cowering enemies.

The resource mechanic-
finding random gears? not being able to pick up every bottle. Not being able to pick up every bullet? Make a better algorithm or something where you just don't find bullets when you are near full. It's not that difficult to sustain the illusion here.

Upgrade system-
gaming trope that this game should be better than. Why would a veteran need to 'level up'.

I would prefer fewer smarter enemies to add to the realism other areas of the game manage to achieve.

For me, TLOU has taken some real positive steps in game storytelling but in getting some things so right it makes other limitations/tropes etc painfully obvious. Hopefully we build on this or maybe the success of the TLOU will make others think this is the pinnacle and thus game stories in the future 'could' stagnate.

Uncharted

I feel like people are missing the point when they bring uncharted up in a 'game story' conversation.

Uncharted is a fantasy adventure love letter to Indiana Jones. Just because it's full of cut-scenes doesn't mean it's story is the main sell. It's just there to justify whatever location you are visiting or puzzle you are solving. It's the Micheal Bay of video games.
Posted 17:36 on 15 February 2014
Nxs's Avatar

Nxs

Am I the only one who found The Last of Us to be just a linear mediocre game?

Maybe it is just me, but I don't play games for the story and skip it whenever possible. Games should be about the game play not the story, in my opinion. There is no game that I have played, and that is a lot, that I felt compelled to keep up with the story.

Zero!

I understand that for a lot of gamers story is an important part of it, but there is a lot of that really do not give a rats butt about it. We want to play and play hard!

Games like The Last of Us and Beyond do nothing for me. They seem to be a $60 interactive movie than a game and that just doesn't float. Hell, even the two hour DLC got praised for basically nothing more than watching a movie.

Personally, I do not want games going in this direction. A story is fine, but the gameplay should be the meat of the game.

That is all! :D
Posted 17:06 on 15 February 2014
KamSage's Avatar

KamSage

Gamers are more readily able to let these facts slide. Especially after playing so many games without a plot, the friction between cutscenes and gameplay becomes less of an issue.
Films may be better at immersing viewers at times, but even they realise changing camera angles, fade ins and outs, all the stuff that kind of breaks that immersion.

Having recently watched the latest Hobbit film, i'm reminded of an immersion breaking scene change. The heroes split up so far into the movie, Gandalf goes off by himself, leaving the dwarfs and Bilbo to continue on.
From here, we follow the dwarfs for something like 20-30 mins. A lot of stuff has happened, action, drama, journeying and so on. I'm hooked righ tin there, waiting for what happens next. Suddenly, the scene switches to Gandalf and in the middle of the cinema I go 'Oh Yeah!' having completely forgotten about him. My immersion was broken. And it took me a while to get back into it again.
Cinema isn't perfect at its craft, much like gaming, every dev has a different team of abilty and direction for their game.

Actually another puzzling game vs storytelling mechanic that David Gaider of the Dragon Age series commented on was in Dragon Age II. The story highlights constantly the conflict between Templars and Mages, with the city of Kirkwall, being at the center of it. Templars hunt and keep mages locked up. You can play as a mage or have mage companions in your party, all of whom live in Kirkwall.
Even though you regularly talk to Templars and openly fight with magic, none of them will arrest you for your conduct or even acknowledge it till near the end of the game. Gaider openly stated how they realised late in development that this was such an obvious but missed fact (because story writing and gameplay mechanics rarely overlap). It was too late to change the story they'd written and just had to go with it. But I never realised this until he pointed it out. The game had me hooked just enough.

We're still in a relatively new age when it comes to games storytelling. Cinema has had over a hundred years to tell proper stories, whilst games have had maybe 20-30 years. Even cinema has templates to film genres, like Romcoms, action, war films, etc. Things will get better as the medium evolves. Indie devs are always experimenting with how to tell interactive stories and AAA companies are always looking for the next big thing. It will change, it will develop.
Posted 16:38 on 15 February 2014

Game Stats

Release Date: 14/06/2013
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: Action
Rating: PEGI 18+
Site Rank: 132 17
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