Good versus evil. Journeys of discovery, rebirth and retribution. Write the Talk’s Ru Sedar explores how storytelling isn’t just reserved for fine literature or boxsets – but can be found in the most popular video games of all time, too.
As a full-time copywriter and part-time adult, it may (or may not) surprise you to learn I have a favourite video game studio: Naughty Dog. They’re the ones behind console classic Crash Bandicoot, the five-part treasure-hunting romp Uncharted, and my all-time favourite, The Last of Us. So what’s the link between storytelling and video games?
Games have always had stories. Whether the plot revolves around a missing princess, time travel or a good old-fashioned shoot ‘em up, for years we’ve sat a couple of feet away from the screen furiously jabbing buttons to keep the story going. How Naughty Dog incorporate story into their game franchises is clever, funny and empathetic. Let’s take a peek at how they bring those stories to life.
The characters feel real
Nathan Drake, the protagonist from the first four Uncharted games, is a bit of a scoundrel. You never find out if he has a proper job – it seems that discovering, raiding, then accidentally destroying ancient civilisations is kind of his forte. He’s the male Lara Croft; Indiana Jones with questionable hair. Everyone in the Uncharted stories earn their place without being a tired trope or having a deliberately wacky personality. The companion characters are as well-rounded as the protagonists and have storylines and defining characteristics of their own. They demand as much respect as the characters in your favourite Netflix drama. This means that…
It’s time to talk about my favourite. In The Last of Us, a survival game released back in 2013, you travel with characters Joel and Ellie through a post-pandemic USA. The aim is to survive the odds against violent creatures called ‘the infected’ (they don’t use the Z-word) the last humans and various renegade groups – all of which are out to get you. The emotions are palpable thanks to clever motion-capture techniques, but the production alone isn’t why you become attached. The story of the game keeps slogging along, at a real, everyday pace where very little changes until something catastrophic happens. It feels desperate, determined and sad. There are brief moments of humour where you’ll laugh, but nervously, waiting for the next disaster to strike.
It goes beyond just playing
Empathy with characters isn’t reserved only for great literature or classic cinema. Although like films, the games have parts called cut scenes that play out cinematically and usually provide dialogue and important exposition to keep the story moving. Being able to interact with cut scenes has always reminded me of shouting at characters in films who are making terrible decisions, like trying to get away from danger by running upstairs. Wrong. But instead of helplessly yelling at a character onscreen to move, you can actually move them yourself.
By keeping characters physically moving, you can make them dodge that oncoming attack, perfectly time the opening of a trap or kick the windscreen out of the burning car – all while the story is still playing out. And the story is often so convincing and absorbing that you don’t realise you’re supposed to be doing something, which can lead to disastrous consequences and frustrating reloads to checkpoints you left ten minutes before.
Endure and survive: getting stuck in
Like the best stories, games have a script, character arcs, promises of redemption and moments of sheer horror. You come to recognise traits in the characters that are built slowly and carefully over the time you spend with them. And it is pretty time-heavy: The Last of Us has between 12 and 16 hours of gameplay, depending on your gaming style and ability (I’ve done four full runs on Normal mode – don’t judge me, I’m obsessed with collectables – and my quickest time was 13 hours).
“Thirteen hours?! That’s a long time!” I hear you cry. Calm yourself and compare that time to how long it takes to read Jane Eyre or Crime and Punishment, for example, and you’re committing roughly the same amount of emotional weight and time. But you also get to kill zombies. So.
Story is everything. It talks to an old, primitive part of your brain that lets you see the world differently. So, whether it’s a book, film, play or binge-worthy series, a great story will grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go.
3 things I couldn’t justify including in the main blog:
1. This game makes me cry every time. And I’m not a weepy person. It’s just intense.
2. The score is gorgeous. It’s by classical composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who also did the score for Netflix’s 2018 hit Narcos: Mexico. I’ll often listen to it when I’m on a deadline.
3. I am a magpie gathering pieces of shiny information on when the sequel is coming out. If there’s a rumour, I’ve heard it. If there’s a theory, I’ve explored it.