The Last of Us: Storytelling Methods Across Mediums

A look at the storytelling techniques used in The Last of Us and how director Neil Druckmann developed the game

The Last of Us: Storytelling Methods Across Mediums

Besides being vice-president of game developer studio Naughty Dog,  Neil Druckmann was also a writer and creative director on one of the greatest games of the decade, if not of all time, ‘The Last of Us’.

‘The Last of Us’, an action-adventure game, deals with Joel, a smuggler, having to help transport a young girl, Ellie, across a post-apocalyptic United States.

While the premise seems simple enough, the way the story unfolds, exploring themes such as parenthood, the greater good, morality, survival, and interpersonal relationships, is incredibly well-told and nuanced in a way a game almost shouldn’t have the right to be.

The Last of Us: Storytelling Methods Across Mediums
The opening scene in The Last Of Us

Recently, Druckmann spoke to Lessons From The Screenplay about ‘The Last of Us’, storytelling techniques, exposition methods, writing character arcs, and the difference between stories told through different mediums.

Note: spoilers for ‘The Last of Us’ follow from this point on

Druckmann noted that the main difference between storytelling in film and storytelling in games is the interactive element.

While both have the visual, cinematic aspect, a game inherently involves the viewer in the story, in essence making them both a spectator as well as a participant.

“You can use control of a player to create empathy.”

A film viewer, on the other hand, is a strictly passive onlooker, an omniscient yet powerless presence within the world the story constructs.

On being able to control both Joel and Ellie, each one at different points in the story, Druckmann said: “You can use control of a player to create empathy.” This is also in reference to Joel and Ellie having different statures, different capabilities, and different experiences.

These factors were shown to actually influence the player’s approach, implying that the character’s personality and personal traits became ingrained in the player’s mind throughout the story’s progression.

The Last of Us: Storytelling Methods Across Mediums
Children Of Men (left); The Last of Us (right)

However, as mentioned above, the reception of information from visual architecture and taking actions is not a binary situation in games. Both coexist and feed off each other.

The screenplay of ‘The Last of Us’ contains large sections of prose. These sections detail how the environment will look like and what background or foreground action will take place while you march on towards the next objective or location. This allows for the conveyance of important information to the player without the need for explicit information-sharing.

The Last of Us: Storytelling Methods Across Mediums
The Last of Us (script excerpt)

Further, think about a movie character. How do we know who they are and what they’re capable of? Often, the opening scene in your run-of-the-mill action movie involves the protagonist having to deal with what is for them a routine problem.

Through the fairly swift resolution of said problem, the audience becomes aware of the protagonist’s skills, their equipment, their resources, their team, their approach, and so on.

In a game, however, the prologue involves not only the viewer finding out what the main character can do, but also have to learn how to do it themselves. This is achieved in a similar way, with an often routine and seemingly straightforward objective.

This will involve the player having to use every basic skill the protagonist is capable of so that the player is aware of what they can do as the story progresses. This is more natural than simply providing a manual. Druckmann says: “You don’t want to just throw a big textbox on the screen. That’s your last resort. Are there ways through the narrative that you can teach them [the player]?”

“You don’t want to just throw a big textbox on the screen. That’s your last resort.”

Regarding cinematics, scenes in which the player cannot interact with their environment and are strictly spectators in a scene, Druckmann explains: “Cinematics are for specific emotional turns where we want to slow things down or we want to look at someone’s face. Get a nuance of a closeup performance.”

The Last of Us: Storytelling Methods Across Mediums
Joel and Ellie

Druckmann goes on to describe that the developers and game creators cannot simply rely on cutscenes to flesh out a relationship and provide emotional depth. To make the player have an emotional connection to a non-playable character such as Ellie, certain things are added to the gameplay experience.

“Cinematics are for specific emotional turns”

These include scenarios in which the player can only progress with the help and cooperation of Ellie. Druckmann explains: “How do I have to rely on one another?” This not only develops the increasing importance of Ellie but also subconsciously makes the player value the non-playable character’s presence.

This is because Ellie being in close proximity could be the difference between surviving a scenario or not. In turn, the bond and relationship between Joel and Ellie are further enhanced as they help each other in a variety of ways dictated by the story.

You can watch the full interview of Neil Druckmann in the video below:

‘The Last of Us Part II’

‘The Last of Us Part II’ is the sequel to the 2013 original. It takes place five years after the events of the first game and the player controls a 19-year-old Ellie.

The game was announced in December of 2016 and is set to be released on May 29, 2020. The game is PlayStation 4 exclusive.

by Kyriacos Nicolaou



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