WARNING: The following text contains spoilers from The Last of Us, The Last of Us II, Firewatch, Hellblade, Florence and Death Stranding.
The Last of Us Part II ends with a drowning attempt. And it’s only an attempt, rather than an actual drowning, because of the core concept the game revolves around: the cruel futility of cyclical violence. Over the course of thirty hours, Part II takes its audience through the pain of witnessing the murder of a loved one, a trauma that feeds an unrelenting thirst for revenge, which results in a chain of exponential death, to ultimately reverse course and put players in the shoes of the very person toward whom they had directed their anger. Abby Anderson, instigator and target, is later revealed to be yet another victim of the moral quandaries that shape the world of The Last of Us. She’s a broken woman not so different from Ellie, the protagonist. Yet she’s still human enough to spare those who had come after her, thus breaking a spiral of retribution and hatred. This is the same conclusion Ellie reaches at the end of the game. At last able to take revenge, she decides not to follow through. But she does this moments after the player had commanded her to hit a helpless Abby one last time. That triggers a cutscene, where Ellie finally does let her go. It’s the only logical outcome of the story, yet there’s a hint of irony in the last prompt of a game about forgiveness urging players to deliver a coup de grâce.
This is in no way a critique, and to be clear, The Last of Us II is one of the finest examples of interactive drama by a long mile. It does take significant risks as both a narrative game and as a philosophical piece. Reversing the audience point of view halfway through a story would be a tricky enterprise in any medium, but it can be particularly taxing in a videogame because of the strong bond between audience and character that results from direct interaction and decades of unwritten rules about gameplay. Still, the reversal ultimately made the implicit moral of The Last of Us II even more poignant, and proved that games can take advantage of their distinct features to communicate human feelings in ways unique to them.
Ever since they started taking more adventurous approaches to storytelling, videogames have experienced a string of consequences that have been slowly chiseling classic design conventions away. Shooters have seen the recurrence of their shootouts limited. Trivial concepts such as mixing cocktails or typing in a chat room have become gameplay mechanics in their own right. The role of player’s input, in turn, has shifted from being a largely empty automated response to a conscious move capable of delivering an array of actions with emotional weight. It’s because of this that the very last shot fired in the original The Last of Us, for instance, towers above every other bullet spent in hours of vicious combat prior to it.
At the end of that game, Joel, Ellie’s surrogate father, bursts into an operating room ready to do anything in his power to save his daughter’s life. The players, by now completely aligned with him at an emotional level, do the one thing that’s expected in the context: shoot the surgeon who stands between them and Ellie. Design wise, the game prevents you from circling around the doctor if you happen to attempt a peaceful rescue, but that’s sort of incidental. At that point in the story, the majority of people will pull the trigger without even questioning themselves because they have been psychologically conditioned to do so, and that fateful shot that years later becomes the catalyst for The Last of Us II is fired because their heart demands it. It’s instinctive, careless and dreadful. Had it happened in a cutscene, the story would still have worked and The Last of Us would most likely still have been celebrated as a narrative landmark of gaming. But the moment would’ve had sort of an anticlimactic feel to it. By providing the audience with the opportunity to participate in the action, its impact reaches much deeper.
In truth, the decision to limit user input to aggression during Ellie and Abby’s duel from The Last of Us II probably responds to cinematic needs. Dramatically speaking, the moment of giving up on the murder works better if it comes at the time of the drowning, with Abby’s head submerged in water and Ellie’s hands wrapped tightly around her neck. But expecting people not only to stop pressing a button, but of doing so at just the right moment to trigger the desired reaction, was probably too much of an editorial gamble to take. A few seconds too early, and the struggle would have lost its energy. A few too late, and Abby would not have conceivably survived. In any case, players spoke of a prevailing sense of discomfort in the moments leading up to the fight in the wave of conversations that followed the release of the game. For the most part, it seems like no one wanted to attack Abby — I certainly didn’t— when the time came to do it. The development team at Naughty Dog probably anticipated this, and the fact that people felt conflicted at all is a testament to the strength of the story and a direct consequence of the emotional journey characters have experienced up to that moment. Just as we are predisposed to shoot the surgeon in The Last of Us, the ending of The Last of Us II seeks to afflict players with the same feeling of guilt that eventually prevents Ellie from murdering Abby when she has the chance. And that’s the true point of the sequence.
Over more than a century, cinema developed its own codes to convey emotions, part of which videogames borrowed by necessity. But for a time, a focus on redundant mechanics distanced them from richer forms of expression that they have only recently begun to develop in earnest. In film, choices don’t happen on a whim, and if an element fulfills a role that was already being covered by another, it is often removed for concision’s sake. The focus is not so much on technique, but intent. This encouraged both filmmakers and audiences to not take things for granted, and to question the ever changing language of movies to register ideas and feelings. A fade to black can have endless connotations on screen. But when prompted to press a button, there is still the fear that players will press first and think later, dissociating the action from its meaning. As if using the command always had to be a means rather than an end of itself: Press A to turn the page and continue reading. It can be a bit of a throwback to the naiveté of arcade machines, back when most gameplay doubled as various hand-eye coordination tests to pass in order to beat a level. But practice makes perfect, and as videogames widen their range of narrative expression, the function of their gameplay diversifies too.
In the psycho-horror adventure Hellblade, the protagonist follows an arc not too unlike Ellie’s in The Last of Us II. Tormented by the death of her lover at the hands of a Viking host, Pict warrior Senua embarks on an delusional journey to hell itself in order to hold Hel—the Norse goddess of the underworld—accountable for her suffering. With no discernible means to enact justice and an impossible goal in mind, Senua’s odyssey soon turns into self-inflicted agony, with each new step pushing her further toward the edge of insanity. As with Ellie, the only way out of her nightmare is through surrender, abandoning a destructive behavior before it’s too late. Similar to Naughty Dog, developer Ninja Theory took their chances when choosing how to transfer their character’s inner struggle to the audience: during the final fight before Hel, as players struggle to keep an overwhelming horde of demons at bay, the only way to complete the game is to be defeated. This can happen either after taking enough damage or by making the choice to give up, but the outcome is fixed. Fighting is futile and healing comes only through the acceptance of death.
Expecting players to perform an action that goes against the routine they have internalized through hours of gameplay is a daring move at best. But when the option exists as a means to telegraph their feelings, the effect can be cathartic. Climatic scenes, because of their very essence as dramatic hotspots, suit the approach particularly well. Shoot or not shoot the surgeon. Drown or or spare Abby. Continue fighting for hours to no avail or accept your defeat. If the story has hit the right notes before these moments arrive, the character choice in each of them should come naturally. Especially for those people fully immersed in the narrative.
Firewatch, Campo Santo’s fire lookout romance, was filled with instances where players’ input reflected the effect the story was having on them. The game follows Henry, a middle-aged man who spends a summer working for the Wyoming forest service as a means to soul search after his wife is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Throughout the adventure, his only companion is the voice of Delilah, a woman that regularly checks on him via walkie-talkie and who slowly develops a flirtatious friendship with him. From there, players can choose to reciprocate her advances or act distant, with quite a selection of subtle interactions designed to mirror their mental state. One morning, people might notice that Henry left his wedding ring lying on the table, or that a photograph of his wife got knocked down overnight. These are the kind of things that someone who’s been seduced by Delilah wouldn’t notice, but to those that remain troubled by their tragedy back at home, they become readily apparent.
Mundane actions like picking up a photo or putting a ring back on thus turn into expressions of sentiments, and they can have a direct influence on how players behave later on. During a nighttime conversation between the two leads halfway through the game, Campo Santo give their audience the ability to remain mesmerized by the flickering light of a distant fire, or to distract themselves messing around with various trinkets in their lookout. However, they can also look back to Delilah’s watchtower in the opposite direction. At one point, she will ask Henry whether he’s still watching the fire. And if he happens to be looking at her watchtower, it’s possible to respond with the all-meaningful comment “no, I’m looking at you.” This way, Firewatch weaves a relationship that can go in either direction depending on player disposition, but which ultimately leads to Henry breaking out of his summer spell to reassess the love for his wife and confront an uncertain future with her.
Gameplay choices like those in Firewatch can be a hard sell among audiences that are more interested in the competitive side of gaming, or those looking for non-narrative experiences. This is the reason why derogatory terms like ‘walking simulator’ became commonplace to describe an entire subgenre of story-driven games, reducing the use environmental design and specific actions charged with meaning to superfluous features in worlds without goals. As a criticism, it’s quite a spectacular way to miss the point, disregarding a whole school of thought that’s been quietly pushing videogames forward as decisively as the most groundbreaking platform level design or inventive combat tactics. In the end, the problem stems from wondering what exactly makes a narrative game a game, when asking such a thing only distracts from all the actually relevant ideas that developers are focusing on to craft better stories. Examples abound.
Those who endured days of extreme distance hiking in Death Stranding may have already forgotten about half their pratfalls through bogs and fens in the Nordic landscapes of post-apocalyptic America, but they will likely remember their final march to the Capital Knot City incinerator to the sound of Ludvig Forssell’s soundtrack. After weeks of trekking alongside a plucky newborn girl named Lou, protagonist Sam Porter Bridges accomplishes the unlikely feat of bringing the United States back together in a dystopian future where individual bonds had ceased to exist. Unfortunately, the baby’s days happen to be numbered, and victory celebrations are soon marred by her death. Therefore, Sam is forced to take her to the local crematorium and bid farewell. But doing so is painfully difficult after having shared such an extraordinary adventure, and in consequence, Sam refuses to go ahead with the process in the last minute. He instead scoops the baby back up in his arms, managing to invoke a timely resurrection through a convenient deus ex machina. It’s a predictable yet tender denouement, which wouldn’t have felt the same without the climatic sequence that precedes it. A sequence where players do nothing but walk, of all things.
In some ways, Death Stranding could be defined as the mother of all walking simulators. Players spend most of their time traversing miles of barren land in order to get from A to B. Yet that’s the least peculiar aspect in a game so bizarre that it’s hard to describe to the uninitiated without making it sound like a delirious ramble. Quite literally, it’s a seventy hour long epic about package deliveries that includes ghosts, giant squids, male pregnancy, floating highways and entomophagy. There are also a few shootings and the occasional fist fight, although violence is mostly centered around dreamy war flashbacks whose whole purpose is to condemn humanity’s armed conflicts. Because more than anything, Death Stranding epitomizes a type of allegory-centric approach to design seeping straight into large scale productions. As a game, it aims to spread an optimistic message about the need for global harmony. And it does so through a wide range of gameplay ideas that come to signify bonding, such as soothing a baby after stressful encounters or diffusing a tense conversation of world-ending consequences with a hug.
For the longest time, interactive storytelling has been all about concepts like dialogue options and branching narrative formulas. Those devices, commonly seen as a videogame hallmark, have proven to be so popular that they even made it all the way to television in productions like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. In the right hands, they can produce narratives as rich as The Witcher or The Walking Dead. But while they do play a role in crafting experiences that subvert traditional entertainment, an over-reliance on them can also distract from all that’s important. Playthroughs with alternate paths or multiple endings often risk devolving into guessing games where wondering what might have happened under a different choice becomes more interesting than the dramatic implications of the story itself. This is because too much of the focus is placed on the logistics of plot development, rather than on the emotional payoffs. When that happens, the story is no longer a story, but a puzzle. Design approaches that aim for a more personal connection with the audience tend to leave a greater mark.
Every stab into the hulking body of a colossus in Shadow of the Colossus, each eraser swipe in If Found, and every keyboard stroke in Emily is Away have as much of an emotional purpose as a mechanical one. Florence, the award-winning love story by studio Mountains, included some of the most touching visual analogies seen in any recent game. Through a handful of illustrated scenes and some minimal animation, it tells the universal tale of a young couple and the time they spent together, from the excitement of the day they first met to the moment everything falls apart. Its gameplay explores happiness, boredom, inspiration or regret, although it’s perhaps at its most inventive when repurposing several puzzle mini-games to suggest the couple either growing close to each other or drifting apart. During conversation scenes, players need to arrange fragments of speech bubbles that are easier or harder to connect depending on how comfortable the characters feel around each other. In a particularly moving reveal, another puzzle featuring a drawing of both lying in bed turns out to be impossible to complete, heralding the end of their relationship.
Moments like those can take the form of individual vignettes, as with the existential quagmires peppered through the ocean floor in the sci-fi adventure Soma, or they can be tailored around specific actions, like in Death Stranding or Hellblade. At the end of The Last of Us II, Ellie loses two fingers in her left hand, leaving her unable to play guitar ever again. Playing songs was the last way she had to connect with those she had lost, which makes her injury even deeper. As a metaphor, this would have worked just as well in a novel or film. But the fact that players had been able to play that guitar themselves over hours of gameplay makes the connection feel even closer. It is through ideas like these that videogames shine brighter as vehicles for engrossing narratives. As creative platforms, they can actually do far more, and wear an almost infinite amount of hats. But only recently they have started to explore the world of human emotions in a really deliberate way. And within a decade, they have already won a number of victories that place them at the forefront of dramatic storytelling in animation. Only time will tell how much higher they might reach. For now, it might just be enough for them to continue reaching from within.