Thursday, August 18, 2016
For the last year or so, I've been learning that narrative design is not necessarily the same thing as game writing. It involves writing, certainly - dialogue and letters and other information - but it's also about how all the aspects of the game come together to tell a story to the player.
I've been playing a lot of different games to learn new ways of conveying interactive narratives - and I discovered one of the most perfect examples of storytelling with The Last Of Us, a zombie/survival game from Naughty Dog.
20 years ago, a zombie outbreak devastated human civilization. Now, the world is a harsh place, with humanity scraping by in isolated outposts, roving gangs, and heavily-militarized Quarantine Zones.
Our protagonist is Joel, a weathered and world-weary smuggler who helps get contraband in and out of the Boston QZ. He is contacted by the leader of the Fireflies, an anti-government resistance group determined to save humanity. They need Joel to smuggle Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of the QZ and escort her to a Firefly base. Why? Because she was bitten by a zombie and didn't die. Incredibly, she's immune to the infection, and could be the key to curing the disease once and for all. All Joel has to do is keep her alive.
What follows is a beautiful, bleak, and poignant story as Joel and Ellie embark on a road trip across post-apocalyptic America in the hopes of saving the world. While fighting off zombies, bandits, and cannibals, they also have to contend with each other. Joel mourns for the way the world was, while Ellie's never known any world but this one. They've both endured horrific losses, so both of them are terrified at the prospect of caring for another person when death is just a breath of spores away. The writing, voice acting, and cinematic animation for these characters (as well as the side characters they encounter) are simply phenomenal.
However, the visual storytelling is just as top-notch. Every environment in this game tells a story - sometimes explicitly with graffiti, signs, and forgotten notes, sometimes implicitly in the design of the environment itself - an abandoned bookstore with posters for book signings still pinned to the wall. A failed attempt to create a human sanctuary in the sewers. A spore-clogged college dorm full of rotting beanbag chairs and forgotten microwaves.
The gorgeous outdoor environments also tell a narrative. Everything is lush and green, covered in ivy and flowers and leaves. Plant life is reclaiming the earth - once it kills off all the humans first. Yes, fungus is responsible for the zombie outbreak. In a clever and realistic twist, the infection is a human strain of the real-life Cordyceps fungi. Infected humans are driven mad and mutate in gruesome ways before eventually dying and releasing infectious spores into the air. Each stage of the infected has different strengths and weaknesses (Clickers, for instance, are fast and vicious but completely blind), and will require different approaches.
Unlike, say, Firewatch (which was a fantastic narrative game but without much in the way of active gameplay), The Last of Us has a fun and clever gameplay system that's consistent with the setting and does a great job of making the player feel like they're part of the story. As Joel, you are a moderately-powered human character, ammo is precious, and gunshots can attract unwanted attention. You'll be required to craft many of your weapons (shivs, pipes, molotov cocktails, nail bombs) from scrap metal and rags and they have a limited number of uses. While you certainly can kill every zombie or raider you encounter, it's not always necessary. Sometimes stealth is all you need. Hostile encounters can be handled in a variety of ways, and I really enjoyed having all those options.
Honestly, though, my utter enjoyment of this game is due to the powerful empathy I felt for Joel and Ellie, and how every aspect of this game helped tell their story - the gorgeous music, the desperate cobbled-together nature of the combat, the melancholy set design, the vibrant environments, and the amazing performances from the whole voice cast. This is narrative design at its finest, and I will try my best to learn from it.