Why the opening of The Last of Us is so very effective

Up until recently, I was probably one of only a handful of owners of both the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 4 who hadn’t played The Last of Us. As a long-term gamer and steadfast fan of narrative-driven video games, I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get around to playing what is widely hailed as one of the best games of the decade. It probably goes without saying, but I’m very glad that I eventually did.

Unfortunately, I could not claim to have had no prior knowledge of The Last of Us before playing it for the first time. As a video game journalist and general fan, it was inevitable that I had some exposure. I did, however, manage to stoically avoid narrative and, for the most part, gameplay spoilers.

One particular aspect of The Last of Us that seems to draw special praise, and live long in the memories of players, is the opening section of the game. I therefore thought it may be interesting to look in depth at how the opening section of the game is so memorable, and how it effectively sets up the player for the rest of the game to follow.

Needless to say, if you haven’t yet played The Last of Us, you certainly shouldn’t read this article. There are major spoilers ahead that you should definitely experience for yourself for maximum impact.

The opening of The Last of Us has the distinct feeling of a classic calm-before-the-storm scene, where we are sparsely introduced to the characters of Joel and Sarah, and encouraged to use our imagination and our intuition to fill in the gaps. For example, the opening scene with Sarah on the sofa late at night, with Joel arriving noisily discussing what we take to be work matters, conveys a somewhat dysfunctional family without the support of a mother figure. That Sarah deeply loves her father is apparent, however, as evidenced by the touching birthday present and card in her room.

tlou joel sara sofa

Creative director and writer Neil Druckmann was evidently confident that, provided the player is open to engaging with the story, the sparse story-telling will translate into an immersive, thought-provoking experience. Windows into the escalating situation, such as the newspaper article in the bathroom telling of a mysterious infection, and the explosion in the city, viewed through Joel’s bedroom window, alludes to chaos without ramming it down the player’s throat. We view everything unadulterated through Sarah’s eyes, and so share in her confusion. Her rising panic is entirely believable as she searches for her father. Subconsciously, we are already forming an emotional attachment to Sarah in her time of fear, which makes the subsequent events all the more affecting.

When the deranged neighbour bursts through the French doors and is killed by a desperate, already-bloodied Joel, the shocking event marks the purposefully abrupt transition from slow-paced, uneasy calm to tense survival. The step-change in tone is the starting point of an utterly compelling crescendo of desperate protective instincts and escalating atrocities that culminate in a terrible climax.

Again in an understated manner, the scale of the crisis is expanded during the car ride with Joel and Tommy, as we look upon crashed cars and burning houses. Throughout, the believable dialogue and excellent voice acting keeps us engaged with the unfolding events, and both keen to and fearful of finding out what’s in store for the trio.

Notably, Naughty Dog doesn’t hold back with subjecting the player to shocking scenes. We watch helplessly as people are torn apart by the enraged beings, whose horrific transformations we assume are due to the mysterious infection. Indeed, a feeling of helplessness pervades the entirety of the opening section. The clever design decision has been made to greatly limit the control you have over the playable characters to just simple movement and the occasional prompted button press. Without the choice that you are afforded later in the game as to how you approach a situation, there truly is a sense that you are privy to a very small, personal struggle for survival in a landscape of horrific carnage. Further, the limitation heightens the sense of panic and helplessness.

When the car crashes, player control is transferred to Joel. Sensibly, the Naughty Dog designers do not seek to begin a tutorial for the game mechanics at this point. Instead, cradling an injured Sarah protectively in his arms, Joel’s focus is simply on getting his daughter to safety. The player is caught up in this pure, virtuous motive and, with nothing to detract from it, the bond between the player and the trio strengthens. Of course, our attachment is greatest to the focal characters that we have controlled in some capacity – Joel and Sarah. With all of the narrative focus channelled into making us empathise with the devoted father and daughter, whilst painting a vivid picture of the horrors of the progressive infection, we become deeply emotionally invested in the characters.

It should be pointed out that although control is intentionally limited, the majority of the opening section is interactive. In this way, we are not mere passengers in Joel and Sarah’s story, but are made to feel responsible for their welfare. The only occasions when cutscenes play out are for transitionary scenes or when the designers want us to feel completely out of control. The most notable instance of the latter is, of course, the infamous, climactic final cutscene.

tlou joel and sara

I don’t think there is any need to describe the heart-wrenching moments before the credits roll, because if you have played The Last of Us it will surely still be etched in your memory, such is the tragic poignancy. The over-arching reason why the scene of Sarah’s death is so impactful is because everything that has occurred in the opening section up to that point has been building to that moment. The loving relationship between father and daughter has been established, and the propensity for mankind to panic when faced with unknown fears has been demonstrated. We have been in control of both Joel and Sarah. We are their guardians, but there is nothing that we can do to save Sarah.

What’s more, we fully expect Joel and Sarah to escape the city. We have led them agonisingly close to safety when the soldier intervenes so unexpectedly, and there is nothing that we can do during that agonising cutscene. All we can do is watch as Joel nobly tries, but ultimately fails, to protect his daughter, and then as he cradles her desperately in his arms as her life ebbs away. The camera lingers on them for long enough to make us feel not just deeply saddened, but uncomfortable that we are witnessing such as personal tragedy.

When Joel’s heart-wrenching pleas to God and his daughter are abruptly replaced by the simple words ‘The Last of Us’, the player is left in no doubt as to the unflinchingly harsh nature of the game, and the soul-changing backstory that will underpin Joel’s struggles through the remainder. Still shell-shocked, all we can do is listen to the audio broadcasts and announcements that contrast so starkly with the very personal preceding tale.

The opening section of The Last of Us must surely stand as one of the most memorable and impactful openings in video game history. The masterfully restrained exposition, deeply emotional narrative focus, believable dialogue expertly delivered and astute levels of player control all combine to form an experience that successfully bonds the player to Joel and Sarah in the brief run time. When Sarah is wrenched from Joel, and from us, all of our emotional attachment is transferred to Joel. We are left desperate to discover not just what state the world will be in after the infection has taken hold, but what emotional state Joel is in. That is surely the mark of a superlative video game opening.

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An overview of the key methods of narrative delivery in video games

Not all video games feature a distinct narrative component, instead focusing predominantly on the gameplay element to entertain the player. Those that do, however, can use the narrative to immerse the player. A good story may provide another layer of interactivity, and engage the player on another level to the gameplay itself. This article discusses some of the key methods that are used to shape and deliver a narrative in video games, with notable industry examples used for illustrative purposes.

An initial consideration concerns the protagonist. Whether or not the playable character is silent often influences the type of narrative delivery that is employed. The major benefit of a silent protagonist, as often found in first-person games, is that the player is readily able to project their own personality, or assign a personality of their choosing, on to the avatar. In essence, the virtual protagonist is a vessel which can be imbued with a personality. The player then experiences the game world, and by extension the narrative, through the avatar’s eyes. With a silent protagonist, the player will interact with the game world and set narrative events in motion, but is not responsible for the delivery of the narrative.

Narrative delivered through supporting NPCs or a narrator is common in games featuring a silent protagonist. In the acclaimed Half Life and its sequels, for example, supporting characters such as the relatable Alyx Vance complement the design and aesthetics to bring the game world to life. They are largely responsible for compelling the player to progress through the storyline. Often a key supporting character or characters will be the primary drivers of the narrative, and may also occupy the dual role of narrator. To illustrate, the antagonist in Bioshock, Andrew Ryan, acts as a supporting character and quasi-narrator. He gradually builds the narrative through his ruminations on Objectivism towards the stunning climax, whilst directly interacting with protagonist Jack as he moves through Rapture.

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“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”

For stark examples of narrative delivered primarily through a narrator, then look no further than independent games Dear Esther and Bastion. With no more than the most fundamental gameplay mechanics – essentially movement – Dear Esther is quintessential interactive storytelling. The narrator periodically exposes snippets of information as the player progresses through the game world, placing the onus on the player to piece together who their character is, how they came to be on the island and uncover the mysteries that it holds. Bastion, from Supergiant Games, delivers much of its narrative through the gravelly-voiced Ruckus, who alludes to the Kid’s thought processes as he progress through the game world whilst also uncovering the backstory. Dear Esther was predominantly praised for its thought-provoking, open-ended narrative but criticised in some quarters for its bare-bones gameplay. Bastion, however, was met with critical acclaim, as it backed up its compelling narrative with solid gameplay mechanics.

One of the key benefits of relaying narrative primarily through a narrator is that the player experiences the storyline dynamically as they progress through the game. Executed well, the systematic exposition prompts the player to really engage with the narrative in order to form an interpretation of events, and then enhance this with their own imagination. On the other hand, with a silent protagonist and often disembodied narrator, there is always the risk that the player feels detached from the characters.

The flip-side of a silent protagonist is, of course, a voiced one. Often but not always in the third-person perspective, iconic protagonists such as Nathan Drake, Lara Croft and Commander Shepherd do not just witness the story flow around them, they are integral to it. Although it is more difficult for the player to project themselves on to a fully fleshed-out character, they are often more memorable. Characters such as Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us are unforgettable because they are so well rounded, and develop throughout the game, rather than remaining unrealistically mute. Such protagonists actively participate in the story, and are central to it. The intention is that we, the players, can relate to these characters. We form attachments to them as we guide them on their adventures and witness their experiences, but we do not become them. The narrative can then rise to another level of poignancy as the player becomes emotionally invested in the events that impact on their characters.

joel and ellie
Lump firmly in throat.

Other games deliver their narrative through more than just a single or couple of playable characters. A wealth of JRPGs, for example, primarily deliver their narrative through a party of characters – typically playable ones. As the party members interact with each other and forge in-game relationships, so too might the player empathise with the characters and start to develop attachments. Such party-delivered narratives, however, are highly-dependent on the strength of characterisation and in-game chemistry. Final Fantasy X, for instance, succeeds in telling an emotional tale of love, loss and sacrifice due to its believable, developing characters that the player accompanies on their journey through Spira.

Of course, it would be incorrect to suggest that the majority of video games featuring a distinct narrative only employ a single method of delivery. Narrative writers may bring in multiple approaches in support of the primary one, if it exists, in order to enhance the believability and potency of the narrative through variety. Supplementary methods of narrative delivery can add detail to the game world and the narrative, which may otherwise be cumbersome or tedious if relayed through characters. Increasingly, the boundaries between different approaches are blurring. Text may be used to offer greater depth to a game world if the player wishes it, but audio logs have recently become a staple form of secondary delivery, such as in the Bioshock and Fatal Frame franchises. Often optional, they provide the player with background details on the game world, characters and narrative without obtrusively halting gameplay and jeopardising immersion.

Whichever delivery methods are employed in video games, there is an abundance of industry evidence that a strong narrative can be a key factor in securing player engagement. Talented writers and designers may seamlessly blend multiple methods of narrative delivery to facilitate the development of attachments between the player and in-game characters, be it the protagonist, supporting characters or a party of characters.

A successful video game narrative complements the gameplay to provide a unique interactive experience for the player. It is not simply about telling a story; the narrative writer must always keep in the forefront of their minds how the narrative can be relayed through gameplay mechanics. The discrete methods of narrative delivery are constantly being re-interpreted, explored and merged to tell ever more involving tales. With hugely successful titles such as The Last of Us and the Mass Effect games often discussed more for their narrative than their gameplay, the future will hold exciting challenges for video game writers and, hopefully, ever-more immersive experiences for the players.