This article contains major spoilers for The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is a 2013 video game developed by Naughty Dog, written and directed by Neil Druckmann. It has been praised for its unique narrative and excellent writing, winning awards for its story, performances, and overall quality. Recently, a sequel, titled The Last of Us Part II, was released in 2020, also winning many awards including Best Narrative, Best Performance, and Game of the Year. Each of the games utilizes its creative medium to touch on important issues.
The first game tackles handling grief, survivor’s guilt, the negative impact of a “move on” attitude, and many more. The second game goes further, highlighting the value of human life, the negative feedback loop of violence and revenge, and even what it means to be in the LGBTQ+ community. By using storytelling and the interactive element of video games, each game is able to convey important social messages applicable outside of gaming.
Ever since its original release, The Last of Us has been a constant topic for discussion due to its unique narrative direction and unparalleled storytelling ability. With the recent release of the sequel, discussions have continued and have reached a new level of critical analysis. Often when discussing The Last of Us, a common topic is how the narrative creates memorable characters and a compelling story. However, why the narrative chooses to highlight certain moments or make certain decisions is rarely considered.
This article studies how the writing of The Last of Us influences how players think about the characters. I want to figure out how video game writers use story elements, dialogue, and gameplay to craft a compelling story in order to understand what makes an interesting story with characters players can care about and how I can write compelling stories in the future.
For those unfamiliar with the story…
The story starts in 2013, where an outbreak of a mutant Cordyceps fungus spreads across the United States, turning its human hosts into zombie-like creatures known as the Infected. Joel Miller, along with his daughter Sarah and brother Tommy attempt to flee Austin, Texas at the start of the outbreak. However, Sarah is shot by a soldier and dies in Joel’s arms.
Twenty years later, civilization has dramatically changed. Survivors live in heavily policed quarantine zones challenged by the rebel group known as the Fireflies. Joel works as a smuggler and is hired to smuggle a teenage girl, Ellie, to a group of Fireflies outside the quarantine zone. Along the way, Ellie reveals herself to be immune to the Cordyceps infection, something that may lead to a cure.
In the fall, Joel and Ellie find Tommy at a fortified settlement. He tells them the Fireflies are in Colorado. Upon arrival, they discover the Fireflies have moved to Salt Lake City and Joel is severely wounded while fighting bandits. In the spring, Joel and Ellie arrive in Salt Lake City and find a Firefly patrol. The leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, tells Joel that in order to produce a vaccine, they must remove part of Ellie’s brain, which would kill her.
Not willing to let Ellie, whom he now sees as a surrogate daughter, die, Joel fights his way to the operating room and escapes with an unconscious Ellie. Outside of the city, Joel lies to Ellie, claiming the Fireflies found many other immune people but have stopped trying to make a cure. They travel back to Tommy’s settlement, Ellie expresses her survivor’s guilt and Joel swears his story about the Fireflies is true.
Every Scene Is Important
A key aspect Neil Druckmann had in mind while writing The Last of Us is the “less is more” mindset. Something unique to The Last of Us and a few other games is their excellence in writing. They know they don’t have to verbally describe everything because they trust their players enough to pick up on what a scene means or at least the impact it has. For example, the night before Sarah’s death, she gave Joel a watch. Even though the watch is broken twenty years later, he still wears it, showing he is mourning Sarah’s death all throughout The Last of Us.
As the story progresses and he starts seeing Ellie like a daughter, he starts acknowledging his watch more. For example, after Sarah’s death, the first time he even looks at his watch is right after the first time he and Ellie really get along. In the final cutscene, once Joel really sees Ellie as a surrogate daughter, when he is telling her something a father would tell their child, he rubs his thumb along his watch. It is such a subtle detail, but we know now that Joel doesn’t see Ellie as cargo he needs to smuggle; he sees her as a daughter. When Druckmann tells a story, he knows that by not explicitly describing everything it will feel more genuine and real, allowing him to convey his messages in a way that is not overbearing. In an interview, he brings up the question he had on his mind all throughout development.
What is this scene really about? What’s the least we have to say or do to convey that and no more?Neil Druckmann
Druckmann recognizes the impact of telling a story minimally and making each scene impactful. When every scene is important to the story, it is vital the actors capture the emotion their characters are feeling perfectly. Neil Druckmann’s directorial style has enough power to evoke intense emotion in his actors. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson – who play Joel and Ellie respectively – understand the importance of showing genuine emotion in each scene. For example, in the motion capture session for Sarah’s death, the actors were still crying even after the cameras stopped rolling.
In another scene, Ellie brings up Sarah’s death to Joel, and when Joel responds, there is a very slight shakiness in his voice, indicating he is still mourning her death. Later in the same scene, Ellie expresses how much Joel means to her and how scared she would be with anyone else. During this line, her voice cracks in such a way that would only happen when someone is speaking from the heart. When emotion plays such an important role in the narrative, it enhances the impact each scene has when the emotion can be captured perfectly.
The Deeper Messages
Druckmann has clear messages he tried to convey when telling The Last of Us, one of those being the negative impact of violence. When designing the game, Druckmann did not want to romanticize the combat. Instead, he wanted to make it uncomfortable. In an interview, he discusses his philosophy behind this:
We don’t want to make it sexy. How do we make it real? How do we make it uncomfortable because art at times should be uncomfortable?Neil Druckmann
Druckmann has a clear idea he wants to convey: violence is ugly. The second game delves deeper into this message, considering the negative loop violence creates. In the winter portion of the first game, Ellie encounters a cannibal named David. After discovering she killed some of his men earlier in the game, he captures her and intends to eat her, but she escapes and kills him in a gruesome way, traumatizing her. This was a deliberate decision by Druckmann to highlight how violence can only lead to more violence and to show how art should be uncomfortable at times.
The Last of Us also conveys other important messages shown in the narrative. One of these messages is the negative impact of a “move on” attitude. Even twenty years after her death, Joel still mourns Sarah and is still emotionally closed off about it. During the early stages of the game, he is closed off and is not willing to talk about it with anyone. However, after Ellie is traumatized by her encounter with David, Joel notices the impact this “move on” attitude has had on Ellie:
I don’t think that this decision was made to highlight Ellie’s trauma. Instead, I think it was done to highlight Joel’s reluctance to confront trauma. His ‘things happen and we move on’ attitude, how clearly it isn’t working for Ellie resurfaces how it has not worked for Joel.Tim Hickson
Later, once Joel acknowledges this mindset is doing more harm than good, he is willing to talk with Ellie about Sarah and is more open about his feelings. Druckmann is conveying the message that closing off feelings and not acknowledging them will only cause more pain.
Why Druckmann Chose This Story
Each factor mentioned thus far indicates how The Last of Us has an impact, but now the most important part is why Neil Druckmann chose to tell this story. To convey his messages of how art should be uncomfortable sometimes, the ugliness of violence, the negative impact of a “move on” attitude, and coming to terms with grief, he needed a story able to capture each one of these.
Druckmann knew he had to create a story with likable characters in a setting that forces them to work together, otherwise, the audience would not be receptive to his ideals or they may miss them. The Last of Us relies heavily on violence as a key aspect of the story. If the game was not focused on action and violence, he would not be able to convey his core messages about them. He specifically created this story not only because it was interesting, but also because he could convey his deeper messages.
Perhaps more importantly, The Last of Us had to be a video game. The story would not work if told as any other creative medium, it had to be a video game. This is due to a multitude of factors, a key one being the interactivity of video games.
When you’re playing a character, you connect with them in this very subconscious level . . . this is totally unique to gaming, we would watch this over and over again as focus testers get to that part. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m Ellie.’ And you see, they change how they play because now they’re seeing themselves as this child . . . and they look at the world differently. And it’s how you can use control of a character to create such strong empathyNeil Druckmann
This aspect of connecting with a character through control is completely unique to video games and enhances their ability to tell stories in a way that can not be described. Other games also use their interactivity to their benefit.
…that by giving players the responsibility of decision, popular war-themed games such as Metal Gear Solid can better conve the themes of their narrativesMelissa Somerdin, The Game Debate: Video Games as Innovating Storytelling
Their interactivity lets players connect to video games on a level that is not possible with any other medium. Creating The Last of Us as a video game allows it to push the expectations of the medium.
[Video games] represent our society’s efforts to push the boundaries of story-telling in meaningful waysJonathan Ostenson, Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative
Another key aspect is the amount of time spent with a video game. Compared to a movie or television show, audiences typically spend more time with video games as they are able to keep the audience’s attention for a longer span of time. The typical length of the game is usually 12 to 14 hours. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to shorten that to a couple of hours for a movie without losing the narrative’s message and impact. Additionally, the pacing of video games is unique so it would be incredibly difficult to translate the story to another creative medium. If the game were another form of media, it would lose nearly all impact.
I have a lot of thoughts about The Last of Us, far too many for a single article, but I do think this game has the power to change people. I cannot recommend playing it highly enough and I wish I had additional time to explore the messages behind it more. There are things I had to exclude, including some metaphors or pivotal story moments, not to mention the entire second game.
Hopefully, I have inspired someone to do more research about the games, Neil Druckmann’s writing, or play the games for themselves. I can’t convey the beauty found within the game so I strongly recommend playing it for yourself, hopefully, then my ramblings will make sense. Video games are often perceived as mindless time-wasters unable to convey any applicable messages. Ideally, that perspective will fade over time as more and more people recognize the role video games can play in our society. They have the potential to change people.
Video games are an extremely unique storytelling medium. Due to their interactive nature, players are quicker to relate to and empathize with the characters and stories that would not have been able to be conveyed otherwise. They have the potential to tell captivating stories with rich character arcs that players do not simply watch unfold, they participate in. Neil Druckmann understands the potential video games provide and uses them to tell a story with a deeper message than simple entertainment. The Last of Us is a creative and narrative masterpiece that conveys important messages about handling grief, confronting negative mindsets, and the negative feedback loop of violence.