The Last of Us – Redefining Storytelling

Here we are in day two of our Last of Us journey. Today we’re going to look at how Naughty Dog has evolved their storytelling techniques from their early days with the Crash Bandicoot series up to their latest, The Last of Us.

Years ago videogame storylines were fairly simplistic. Rescue the princess and have a good time while doing so. When role-playing games were introduced stories became much more epic in design. Suddenly scripts went from being a few lines on a loose-leaf paper to hundreds of pages. Platformers were one genre that never really advanced much through the art of storytelling. All that evolved was the fancy computer generated full-motion video shown before you started to play.

When Naughty Dog burst onto the PlayStation scene with the very first Crash Bandicoot in 1996 the storyline, while humorous, was more or less just like Super Mario 64, ultra simplistic. Sure there were a few cutscenes to show the “power” of the PlayStation’s CD, but more or less the story focused on saving Crash’s girlfriend. Nothing too extravagant. As the series progressed the way the stories were told remained more or less the same, although the plots got somewhat more intricate.

When Naughty Dog moved to the PlayStation 2 and created the Jak & Daxter series, the way in which they told their story started to evolve, especially with the second part of the series. Here NPCs would give some back-story as players walked by them. There was the main storyline revealed by cutscenes, but also additional elements players had to discover on their own.

It wasn’t until the PlayStation 3’s Uncharted series that Naughty Dog really expanded their storytelling abilities in a far greater degree. It made sense too, here they created an action adventure series in the same vein as Indiana Jones, and without a good story to link everything together the series wouldn’t have been as successful as it has been. From the core storyline revealed through cutscenes to the banter between Nathan Drake and the other characters around him, players were constantly moving the story along, delving ever deeper into the mysterious world. Artifacts and other hidden goodies also expanded on the background of wherever players happened to be exploring. It was the smart use of dialogue that really pushed the boundaries because Nathan and friends felt like real people. The fantastic voice cast did an incredible job of making the scripted dialogue feel completely natural, and that sucked players in more than anything else.

With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has come full circle. Not only do they have real-time cutscenes that slowly reveal what’s going on, but for the most part the story is told through the eyes of the characters you play. You live the story. By walking around the game’s massive world you can listen to conversations, watch old programs or read newspapers to give you all the back-story you require. What’s so interesting about this system is that it’s left up to the player to decide just how much story they want. The game will push players along so that they know main objectives and the overall story arc, but those looking for more have easy access to it.

The dialogue is equally as impressive as it was in Uncharted, but because you’re much more involved in the storyline, it’s even more natural. You really feel like you’re part of this changing world. From the moment you start the game, everything comes together in such a way that you’ll want to keep moving forward to learn exactly what’s around the next corner, and why such and such is happening.

What caused the outbreak? Who are the infected? Why are Joel and Ellie even together? What’s the purpose of the game? Those are general question you’ll have to work through the game to answer, but there are so many more once more characters are introduced. What is the motivation behind the actions of these characters? What would you do if you happened to be placed in this insane world?

Naughty Dog has perfected the art of storytelling, and come June 14th you’ll be able to experience it for yourself!

7 thoughts on “The Last of Us – Redefining Storytelling”

  1. Sounds interesting. Very Metroid-ish but with what Naughty Dog learned over the years. I’m still not fully sold on The Last of Us yet. The Uncharted series has not been my cup of tea, because I felt the games were playing themselves and I wasn’t too devoted to the characters and plot despite how well produced they are. The Last of Us seems to be a more survival-horror type game though, which may have a lot more meatier gameplay than Uncharted…but then again I’m not a survival horror fan, too. We’ll see how my feelings change as I read along these impressions, but right now it doesn’t sound like the type of game I’ll finish to the end.

    1. There’s no question that like Uncharted, The Last of Us is linear. There’s really only one way to go, but the different here is in the way you overcome your obstacles. For example, let’s say there are five enemies in a room, you can use stealth (which is a huge part of the game) to get by them, or you can use your limited resources to take them all out. Sometimes taking out all enemies is worth the effort because you can find a wide assortment of goodies used to enhance your weapons, or to craft new items. That’s the biggest difference here, that you have a lot of choice in how you play the game, except getting from point A to point B is linear.

      In which way did you find Uncharted played itself, in its linearity?

      As for the whole survival horror thing, this isn’t a survival horror. I’m now at least half way through the game and it’s a survival action game, if that makes any sense. You’re not supposed to get scared, and there have been zero cheap scares as of now. The idea is for you to worry about every encounter primarily because you have so few supplies. I can only imagine how difficult this will be on a harder difficulty setting. On normal I’ve yet to actually run out of anything, but I’ve also used stealth to take down just about every enemy, or skip encounters completely.

      1. Yeah, Jarrod. In it’s linearity. It’s not that I hate linear games. I’ve enjoyed some of them. It’s just that Uncharted didn’t motivate me much to keep going. Something with the first one turned me off. I’ve played some of the 2nd. Same thing. So I didn’t bother with the 3rd.

        Yeah, survival action does make sense. Resident Evil 4-like. The stealth/all guns blazing choices do sound interesting though, but I’ve yet to see if anything’s going to blow my mind. I’m sure the narrative and setting are captivating enough, it’s just gameplay that worries me. Does it basically wind down to clearing rooms from enemies or sneaking by them? Then loot their remains and the environment for stuff? Or is there more to it?

        1. Right now gameplay is broken down into different sections like exploring the environment for story/items. There’s a creation system here where you can make med kits, shivs, Molotov cocktails, etc. Don’t explore and you’ll run out of equipment extremely quick. There are enemies in these areas as well, although not as much as the “closed off” areas. For the most part no areas are closed off, and therein lies the difference between Uncharted and The Last of Us. Here you can sneak by all the enemies if you want, with only a few areas forcing you to “room clear” as it were, I really prefer this system to Uncharted because at least I can decide which route I’m going to take (areas are open ended so players can decide exactly how they want to progress through an area). I suppose you could simplify it down to clearing an area and moving on, but I find it more than that this time around. With Uncharted you had no choice at all, this time you do. I tend to explore and ignore enemies as much as possible to conserve ammo and health.

          As for the horror aspect, yeah there are creepy parts, but this isn’t a die-hard survival horror game at all. For the past few hours I haven’t seen a single infected. I’ve been going up against other human stragglers who are just trying to survive in this harsh land. Like you said, the setting and narrative are absolutely spectacular.

          I’m going to do an article on Uncharted vs. The Last of Us specifically looking at how the two games differ in terms of gameplay. The Last of Us often has more in common with MGS than Uncharted, but at the same time never looses that sort of Uncharted feel, if that makes any sense.

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