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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ijs52's Avatar

ijs52

When will men learn ?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge's_law_of_headlines

"Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word 'NO'"

..quote: "The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bull*****, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it"
Posted 16:21 on 15 February 2014
Njeezy's Avatar

Njeezy

I haven't played the last of us so can't comment on how well its narrative works but I do agree that games that tell their story through gameplay are considerably more immersive.

The two examples I would use that contrast in style would be Max Payne 3 and Portal/Portal 2. Max Payne had some really interesting story points and showed a journey from start to finish but the sheer length of the cutscenes made the experience feel kind of disjointed and took you out of the moment as was suggested in this article in The Last of Us, whereas in Portal the story was your experience, the narrative was entirely through gameplay and I never felt distanced from the narrative. Portal 2 had some cutscenesque moments but never took control away from me enough for it to dent my immersion and I always felt involved in the narrative arc.

I think this article is more pro gameplay narrative than anti Last of Us or Cinematics and purely gives some examples of how the author found himself feeling distanced from the narrative at times. But that's just my opinion.
Posted 16:07 on 15 February 2014
Vixxy's Avatar

Vixxy@ JMan240

Good points. I don't feel as strong as you about the gameplay storytelling though. Notes, for example, are a lazy idea that too many games rely on to add a bit of depth.with the situations people find themselves in in many of these games would the character really stop to read a journal? especially in last of us when youre told to work your ass off to get to your goal.

if the game is 'meant' to be played slowly then that s a failing that it isn't made more obvious.if you're 'meant' to experience it in a certain way then they should have made a film out of it so they had total control over the pace that people watch it at

i dont read this as an article bashing the last of us, i think its talking about a more general problem using the last of us as an example because its a popular game and thed dlc has just come out
Posted 15:45 on 15 February 2014
JMan240's Avatar

JMan240

I'd like to point out a few things, and this is going to be really long because I'm thorough and this type of discussion warrants thoroughness:

First, a lot of players hoard things in games. I hoarded things during The Last of Us, I hoarded things during Demons Souls. The author could have done the same, I do it all the time without realizing it. You could make the argument that the game should have required players to use that stuff more often, but that would be arguing for a much harder game - which can be found on the hardest difficultly setting because there's no such thing as a full inventory there. That harder version of the game, where scarcity was a serious issue, wasn't necessarily better though. There's not much fun in running up against a wall because you've accidentally misappropriated vital resources and can't get more of them. Not much fun in dying over and over because you're forced to stealth past enemies and can't defend yourself against them.

The author is also fixating on rags and simple supplies that would be abundant in an abandoned world. I've got plenty of rags in my house and plenty of old clothes to make more. Go to a department store, check out all those clothes, more than enough to make every rag in The Last of Us and then some. In most areas of The Last of Us you could have made every rag in the area from about 5 shirts judging by their size. I don't remember healing items being super pervasive, nor do I remember ammo being strewn all over the place. When I got over my hoarding and started using stuff there was always room for something else and I never had a fully filled pack or ammo, even on normal difficulty. That also seems like a relatively small thing to pick on in a game that was really tight from a narrative standpoint, like saying the drapes in some movie depicting the 1950s weren't period accurate and that subsequently ruins the entire thing. The Last of Us, in my opinion, told a better, more complete story than almost any other game around. I don't know what to say if something as simple as a full inventory in a game ruined the experience. It's not wrong to have that reaction, because its an experience based opinion, but maybe the author was expecting a little too much from a game that never pretended to be anything but a game.

There's plenty of storytelling through gameplay in The Last of Us, so I have absolutely no idea what the knock is there. The story from the university, Ellie's segment, the tunnels, and Pittsburgh were all done mostly during gameplay. There was a lot of story told rummaging through things, through what the characters said as you walked through rooms and what you saw as you did so. There's lots of notes lying around, extra spaces to be discovered that have their own little narrative and moments as with Ellie in the toy store when she waits until Joel isn't looking to snag the toy. There's a lot of stuff in there that you'll miss if you're just hamfistedly bumbling through it like it's just another action game. I missed some of that before I realized that the game is meant to be played very, very slowly. Much more slowly than something like Uncharted, which makes Uncharted a rather bad comparison outside of gameplay - even then The Last of Us is far more complex from a gameplay standpoint. There's little in the world to tell a story in Uncharted, but The Last of Us is packed with that stuff.

Speaking of Uncharted, no one seemed to have a problem when Indiana Jones was mowing down hundreds of Nazis and defiling graves while goofing around in the same way. Why? Because they're Nazis? That doesn't make sense, because the people Drake is going up against aren't much better by all accounts. At least Joel used a gun like you would expect a normal human being to, and wasn't a deadeye while hanging from a sign 30 feet off the ground. Joel is also a really mean, nasty, not very nice dude who was at several points in the story ready to leave Ellie for dead and go his own way. He's not a good dude, he's a murderer and he acts like it and the game lets players see that. Sure, there's a bit of a disconnect there, but it's a far, far cry from Nathan Drake levels of revelry following a shoot out with 20 or so people. He's not getting busy with a lady friend after gunning his way through a war torn city; he's brooding in a corner and getting in arguments, and being mean.

The Last of Us' gameplay loop isn't nearly as small as stealth or fight, that's absurd to suggest and a disservice to the article's point and the game it's arguing against. Did I stealth through areas undetected? Sure. Did I fight through areas? Sure. I also started a fight by lighting a man on fire with a molotov, creating a distraction before laying an explosive trap, and drawing them into that trap while I sneaked away to the other side of the room. I baited clickers away by making a sound and hiding, then left them to their own business as I hurried through the door they were blocking. I stealthed through an area until I hit a group of tightly packed enemies that were asking for one of Joel's pipe bomb things. I chose arrows over guns in open combat so I could save my better ammo and stealthily hide while still actively engaging my enemies. Just because you approached it in one of two ways, doesn't mean there are only two ways. And if you did approach it as I did, and you still boiled it down to just two options... then you would have to boil down every game with similar mechanics to just two options.

You could boil a lot of things down to something that simple if you're trying to obfuscate what the game does to weakly support an argument. It's disingenuous in my opinion, and it's fluff taking the place of proper, solid support. If The Last of Us is as simple as stealth or fight, then The Elder Scrolls is the same thing. You're either fighting or using stealth, and in most cases fighting even though you tried to use stealth. Halo in that sort of description is just fighting, making it more simplistic. Resident Evil would be fighting or running. Metal Gear Solid would be fighting or stealth. Gears of War is just fighting. Final Fantasy is just fighting. Dishonored is fighting or stealth. Thief is just stealth. Anything can be boiled down to something that simple, but that doesn't make it an accurate representation of what the games do. You can't sum up such complex entities with two words. Also, there was a boatload of unpredictability in The Last of Us. Enemies were smart, and getting cornered is easy. At least for me, I found myself in positions I didn't anticipate fairly often. (And I challenge anyone to find a game without random encounters in which players can't predict the frequency with which enemies show up after playing them for a while. Fixing that problem would take more effort and resources than is even remotely reasonable at the moment.)

Also, I wouldn't call it wholesale separation of cutscenes and gameplay when a lot of the cutscenes blend seamlessly into player control.

Just a couple more things, sorry it's long I like to back up what I say with plenty of support. "John Robertson argues it's nowhere near the best the medium has to offer." No he doesn't, because that would require him to give an example of a game that does this stuff better than The Last of Us. I don't even seen an example of a game that wasn't made by Naughty Dog, even as support for the idea that people might follow The Last of Us template instead of the one that the author of this piece thinks is correct. There are no better alternatives given anywhere; which begs the question of what exactly the author finds to be a better example of storytelling but also won't use as support in an opinion piece. (This isn't me saying there aren't better options, just that I would like to see the author present them if he feels there are any... which he certainly does.)

As for the headline, I sort of agree with Neon-Soldier32. It's kinda a click-bait headline. The article barely discusses whether or not The Last of Us is harming the industry, it just sort of rags on the game for what the author thinks its not doing well enough; in fact it suggests that the game's newest DLC is a more complete piece and the very notion that the game is spawning this discussion at all - even if I feel the basis for this piece is grasping at straws - unequivocally suggests the exact opposite of the title.

The article doesn't even support its ragging on The Last of Us by presenting examples of ways the game could have done things better - it just says that narrative needs to become more based in gameplay but never really explains what that means. I'm assuming it means less cinematic stuff, but as I previously mentioned The Last of Us tells plenty of story through elements that aren't just canned cinematics and the author hurts the idea that narrative through gameplay is super important by noting that Left Behind still relies heavily on cenematics and acting like that's less of an issue in that DLC for some reason. For me, that's a more conflicting message than a full inventory in a game, with a relatively small inventory, where scarcity is implied.

The only thing in the entire piece that even touches on the topic of its title are the last two paragraphs. The rest just seems like its taking pot shots at The Last of Us for no other reason than to shout down people who think its actually a good bit of storytelling. That's also hurt by the five or so paragraphs of Druckmann quotes in an OpEd, space that could have been better used fleshing out the article's argument instead of just saying it isn't good enough. If it does address the idea of The Last of Us not being the best example around, it only does so by kicking it in the ribs enough to make people who hold that belief feel so bad about it, and liking the game, that they might guiltily change their opinion.
Posted 15:35 on 15 February 2014
Syme's Avatar

Syme

I don't disagree with the gist of the article, but the game did do a lot to try and address the issue of "ludo narrative dissonance" (sorry) I mean the game does actually show how Joel physically carries each new gun he picks up rather than suddenly just magically appearing from the same source. And yes that does mean sometimes you have to pass by resources that would be useful because there's only so much you can carry.

It does get a lot more gamey as it goes on, but I still found myself scrounging for ammo and worrying about wasting bullets for the most part. So I think it actually made a good effort in terms of addressing the differences between cut-scenes and games. Ultimately though I'm just never really bothered by these things as a lot of people seem to be. I don't mind the small leaps of logic you have to make sometimes. It's something that's worth thinking about how to address, but until then, I can happily put up with it.
Posted 15:27 on 15 February 2014
Vixxy's Avatar

Vixxy

I think this is actually more of an issue than the other comments suggest.

Playing on a harder difficultly (might) solve the inventory thing mentioned in the article, but it doesn't solve the other problems. I don't think the article is saying that the inventory problem is the other thing that disrupts the storytelling.

The gameplay in the last of us really doesn't match with the cutscenes. Why are there so many enemies, for example? how are these enemy groups so well armed and so well fed in a world that is basically destroyed? why does ellie run all over the place during action scenes but the ai doesn't even spot her?

also, i played through the last of us on easy mode because being killed all the time made it feel silly when the good bit about the game is story. dying all the time ruins the story, so raising the difficulty isn't a solution.

someone is sure to say 'you should be playing differently on harder difficulty' but that isn't the point either - i don't want to have to play a 'different' way just to get the most out of the story. no matter what difficultly you play on the story and the game itself should still give you a lot of entertainment. especially in a naughty dog game that is going to be played by lots of people that are not good at games

and, yeah, joel can only carry a certain amount of stuff but there's so much of that stuff in the world he could fill 20 backpacks. liek the article says, that doesnt match with what were told in the video sequences.
Posted 14:55 on 15 February 2014
SnaptController's Avatar

SnaptController

All this tells me is that you should've been playing on a harder setting 'cause your skill outweighed the need to use things that would be needed rather than optionally used.

This is a provocative piece more suited to Kotaku where the readership would start flaming the piece or supporting it 'cause they want to mindlessly clone COD with every release.
Posted 14:18 on 15 February 2014
Woodfella's Avatar

Woodfella

Remember being really careful and conserving ammo, it's post apocalypse is bound to be sparse right?

Oh, I've been caught in a trap which has magically given me infinite ammo and now I have to murder about 40 men.

No idea why they did that. Really stupid, completely took me out of it. The Last of Us seems to be punctuated with daft bits that prevent me from loving it.
Didn't really notice the inventory thing when I was playing, but as people only have a certain amount of room in their backpack does it not make sense to be forced to prioritise, or leave stuff behind. *edit- but yeah there is bare stuff about I suppose. Every now and then you'd come across a big pile of stuff and Joel got really grabby, the grabby animation is funny*

That difference between gameplay and cutscene/ story is an issue in a few games though, GTA 4 for example . Niko doesnt like being forced to kill people but is willing to do anything to help Roman. 10 secs after a cutscene ends and he's stamping on a woman's head and strapping a bomb to a taxi because it knocked his hat off. But all that is player choice you dont have to stamp on the heads of women and shoot scallies in the balls! But you do, dont you? In my first playthrough of Red Dead Redemption I never killed any innocents because I thought, Jon Marston wouldn't do that.
Posted 14:16 on 15 February 2014
Neon-Soldier32's Avatar

Neon-Soldier32

A real click-bait headline. To which the answer after reading the article is a definitive no.

A decent way around the prescribed problem could be to have Joel be slower to move, occasionally drop resources and be louder when moving. But still, everyone can only carry so much stuff so it seems weird that this would be such an issue...
Posted 13:43 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: 88
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