In January, TheFilmSchool will host John Williamson at our First Tuesday Event, where he will discuss storytelling in video games, and the unique challenges and opportunities present in the medium. If you’re interested in video games, or curious about the narrative challenges it provides, learn more on our event page!
Truly remarkable narratives can come in many forms, from oral traditions told around a campfire to worn and beloved paperbacks to summer blockbuster films, and video games are no exception. Looking forward to January’s First Tuesday, I decided to take a closer look at one of my favorite video games, The Last of Us, and examine some of the narrative techniques present in the game.
Released last June by game developer Naughty Dog, The Last of Us has garnered near-universal praise for the quality and depth of its narrative. The storytelling accomplished in The Last of Us has undeniable cinematic qualities to it, yet distinctly remains a game. Revisiting the narrative, I found several notable aspects worthy of mention.
While film and games are separate mediums, the two also share a great many strengths, and storytelling in both often rely on the same techniques. Video games, including The Last of Us, quite often utilize the three-act story structure that is prevalent throughout cinema.
The major components of a three-act structure are present in the story of The Last of Us. The call to action, midpoint turn, cave scene, and climax are all easily identifiable. However, certain challenges of the video game medium present themselves in crafting the structure of the overall narrative.
With an overall run time much longer than a feature film, completing The Last of Us can take 16 hours or more, sustaining the rising and falling action of the story requires a fragmentation in the pacing of the narrative arc.
Often realized in less sophisticated games as ‘levels’, the story of The Last of Us is broken up into sequences, each with their own rising and falling action. Each sequence has its own clear narrative arc, and the higher-level pacing between them clearly emerges only near the end of the game.
Video games are certainly not alone in doing this. Most films do this on a scene-by-scene basis. However the distinct breakup of sequences in The Last of Us, is more episodic in its approach, and because of the length of the sequences requires a high degree of coordination to utilize without detracting from the coherency of the master narrative.
Perhaps the single most significant difference between storytelling in video games and doing so in any other medium is the role that the audience has in the creation of the story. A person playing a video game, unlike someone watching a movie or reading a book, has a degree of control over the course of events in the diegetic world.
This creates unique opportunities, as well as challenges, for a video game’s creator.
Allowing the audience any amount of agency over the story necessarily results in a corresponding loss of agency on the part of the creator. When writing the plot of a video game, the storyteller must allow for the fact that the player has a choice, and even when acting out a prescribed course of events the participation of the audience is necessary to complete the narrative.
However, allowing the audience agency can also increase investment in the story. The involvement of the audience can heighten emotional stakes as players take on the role of the characters in the game and close the emotional distance between themselves and the diegetic events of the narrative. This increased emotional investment, in turn, can assist in the conveyance of meaning to the audience through the story.
In the opening moments of The Last of Us, the protagonist’s daughter dies in a tragic accident. The player is given control of the character as he struggles to save her and almost succeed, only to have her life snatched away.
This already powerful scene is made more impactful by the direct participation of the player who, because of their involvement, feels that they themselves have failed.
Like movies, video games are a visual medium, differentiating them from novels or spoken word. The direct representation of the diegetic world creates opportunities for storytellers to bring their vision of the world directly to the audience. Sight and sound not only convey information, but set the tone of a piece and create a complete world.
When coupled with player agency, these sensory cues can minimize the player’s awareness of the physical self, creating a sense of immersion in the events of the narrative.
Immersion is a helpful tool for storytellers. Like player agency, immersion helps to increase the investment of the audience, heightening the emotional impact of the narrative. Increased awareness of the diegetic world also allows for mood and tone to be conveyed with great efficiency.
However, the presence of these possibilities creates additional potential for a story to fall short, as well. If the visual aesthetic of a game feels incomplete or incongruous with the story, it has the opposite effect, drawing the player out of the game and calling attention to its textuality.
The Last of Us skillfully uses aesthetic in a number of ways. The narrative relies heavily on multiple instances of carrying on after devastating loss. The game supports this motif by immersing you in a world in which life has continued after death, mirroring it in the ruined buildings of abandoned cities juxtaposed with the thriving new plant life which has overgrown them.
The game also utilizes seasonal changes within the diegetic world to signal shifts in the narrative arc. The story’s initial call to action occurs during the spring, the mid-act turn in the second act occurs at the shift from summer to fall, and the cave scene occurs during the winter. The climax of the game then takes place during the spring again, creating a complete cycle as the narrative comes to a close.
If you’re interested in learning more about video game storytelling, come out to Roy St. Coffee for our First Tuesday event January 7th at 6:30 pm. RSVP here!