Let’s talk gaming for a minute. Video games have come a long way from Donkey Kong and Bard’s Tale. The game studio Naughty Dog, made famous and wealthy by the wildly successful and acclaimed Uncharted trilogy which is as much a playable action move as a first-person shooter, came out last year with The Last of Us.
Hold on, you say, I’m interested in bread or beer or parenting or whatever silly thing I regularly post here. Just wait, this isn’t about pixels or body count or weapons, it’s about story-telling. I imagine Naughty Dog had been hoping to make a game like this for a long time but needed the success and time to be afforded the opportunity. How do you lead a video game with story-telling and emotion when the market demands strategy, shooting, and cheap scares? You start with the characters, making them human, complex, and sympathetic. In this game we have a middle-aged man who lost his daughter and a young girl who has nobody left in her life. These two have to make it together in a world 20 years after it has fallen apart after a plague wipes out most of the population and left the rest as rabid fungal-headed zombies. But this isn’t a zombie game, or a survival game, or a shooting game. In fact, it feels less like a game and more like an invitation into the lives of two people, a chance to spend time with them and experience their struggles to survive and understand each other.
So how did they do it? How is this game unlike any other? I rank it higher than any game I’ve played and higher than many movies I’ve seen. You start with incredible concept art. Games and movies utilize concept artists to predict some of the feel and look of a production but with The Last of Us, the concept artists captured the emotion, the sense of loss. Here are three of my favorites, the first two by the artist John Sweeney and the last by Aaron Limonick, and via Concept Art World here:
You can see both these artists and much more on the fantastic “Grounded: The Making of the Last of Us” found here. There are many, many more fantastic images that convey loss, fear, and the hard scrabble for survival. Much of this concept art IS the game, making it whole cloth into production. Ultimately the game is about the relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, and you can see how much effort Naughty Dog made to have every single aspect of design reinforce this. Even the music is stunning and haunting, guitar and strings by Gustavo Santaolalla, the emotive master composer/performer of works ranging from Brokeback Mountain and Babel to the Motorcycle Diaries. If you’ve heard a few ghost-like notes on a guitar make you feel true sadness and longing, you’ve heard Santaolalla.
I can’t recommend this game for everyone because not everyone likes post-apocalyptic zombie settings. But I do want to shine light on an incredible example of emotional game play that is redefining the genre. Goodbye Pac-Man and Duke Nukem, so long Donkey Kong, see ya Sonic, there’s a new way to tell stories that isn’t about points and high scores, it’s about connecting with the heart of every player. I can’t wait to see what this studio does next.