Updated: Jun 20, 2022
Videogames tell stories—unique stories, ones that are far more interactive than films or books, and that have the potential to take you through some truly heart-wrenching narrative experiences.
The Last of Us is one such experience. Actually, it’s arguably the experience. With over 200 award wins and nominations, The Last of Us holds the podium as the most decorated video game of all time, and for good reason.
For those unfamiliar, The Last of Us is an epic post-apocalyptic journey through an America ravaged by a cordyceps fungus that turns people into zombies (albeit with more mushrooms). The journey focuses on Joel, a smuggler, as he tries to transport a young, immune girl named Ellie across the country to a revolutionary organization who think they can use her to create the cure.
While Naughty Dog’s vision of a destroyed society is beautifully rendered, and the gameplay itself is challenging and fun, it’s the writing, the story, that makes the game so astounding.
With the recent release of The Last of Us Part II, we wanted to take a look back at the first game, analyze what made it so great from a writing perspective, and distill those reasons into something that can help you with your own writing.
Because analyzing great art is often the best way to improve your own.
1. CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS & EMOTIONAL RESONANCE
First, at its core, The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie’s relationship—and, by extension, human relationships in general. How we survive and persevere through terrible tragedies and odds, how we forge new connections and retain our trust for each other despite wallowing in the most depraved, cut-throat of circumstances, circumstances in which people could turn on us at any moment.
Joel and Ellie start the story distrustful of each other. They are forced into a professional/service relationship. But over the course of the game, they bond through the awful experiences they overcome together—they find the tiny kernels of light inside the darkness that has nearly completely consumed their world—until at the end, they are unbreakably linked.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Joel’s daughter dies in his arms. Twenty years later, when he meets Ellie, she’s an orphan close to the same age. It’s this coincidental alignment of their tragic circumstances, rather than an established one, that makes the pay-off at the end—a bond similar to father/daughter, but more unique—so rewarding once it’s reached, considering how much it’s fought for, given in grinding inches from the pair of them.
If the game had begun with Joel and Ellie as father and daughter already, what would be left to develop over the course of the story’s events? And how much less unique would it have been? We expect love between a father and a daughter—but from a smuggler and a wise-ass girl who’s paired with him, and expected to save the world?
That’s something an audience hasn’t seen before. That’s a development that an audience doesn’t see coming, so when the emotional wrecking balls come swinging in, they’re so much less prepared.
So try to find the unexpected angles in your story’s relationships. Instead of starting with something established, try to push two opposing characters from different situations together. Not only will doing so naturally spawn conflict between them, but those situations are often the ones that will reveal the most unique landscapes, the scenery that hasn’t been explored, and that will create the most moving experience for your audience.
2. AUTHENTIC WORLDBUILDING & THE WORLD AS CHARACTER
The Last of Us is a unique world, a vision of a future that’s been destroyed like countless others have in movies, games, and books—a vision that holds both the best and worst of the human condition.
And it’s this human condition, though, that makes the game feel so uniquely real. Every setting, every moment, every enemy that you fight against. . .all of them are motivated from fighting to survive in their new reality, against the world. . .
Because the world is a character itself—a living, breathing character. One that organically affects not only our characters, but everyone else as they traverse the world throughout the course of the story. Since the majority of humanity is dead or infected, nature gnaws through buildings, collapsing routes so that Ellie and Joel must find alternative paths; the fungus exhumes toxic spores in tunnels, forcing them to wear masks; food production is no longer existent, so in areas that the devastated and cruel military don’t control, raider groups ambush civilians and strip them of their possessions.
Everywhere are examples of the world fighting to defeat everyone in it in various ways, and that everyone fighting back to survive. Treating your world as a character like this—an active antagonist, or perhaps the protagonist of its own story—means that you can see the plot from a different point of view, and construct barricades for your characters in more inventive and natural ways, rather than just whatever might happen to cross their paths as they travel.
Build a world, but think of all the ways it would grow and spread separate from your primary characters. If it’s a post apocalyptic story like The Last of Us, consider what caused the apocalypse, then examine how that cause would affect every aspect of reality—the buildings, the trees and plants, the most vulnerable, the governments and politics, what people value and what they’re now afraid to lose. All of these should be established before your characters step foot inside it—even if they’re part of its collapse, like Joel was.
If your story isn’t post-apocalyptic, the point still stands. If your character is a pirate woman sailing the seas in the 1700’s, they’ll likely face a different world and different challenges than a woman in feudal Japan—the key is discovering the interesting ways that the world would try and stop them, from the other pirates, to the storms, to disease, to the gender norms, to the way relationships are perceived and built inside this time and place.
Think of the world as a character. One doing everything it can to live, too—and wanting to ruin your character’s life in the process.
3. THE IMPORTANCE OF CHARACTER-DRIVEN NARRATIVES
The plot of The Last of Us is simple on the surface: Joel must get Ellie from A to B to collect his payment. But it doesn’t end up being that easy. The original revolutionary group contacts that he was supposed to hand her off to are dead upon their arrival; his partner is infected and killed; they must acquire a car from a friend one town away to drive cross-country to the next meeting point; they are ambushed by raiders and forced to traverse a deadly city they never wanted to enter in the first place.
The best plots are the ones that are set up to be simple, but in reality turn out to be anything but. What makes The Last of Us plot so engaging, so successful, is these set-backs, these failures and side turns that you least expect. . .
And, most importantly, the way these characters react and respond to change.
If you have active characters, then they should influence the directions the story takes. These are called character-driven narratives, as compared to plot-driven.
Character-driven narratives often mean that when shit hits the fan, like when Joel and Ellie find out that the people they’re supposed to meet are dead, then what happens next primarily results from what the characters decide to do—in this case, Joel decides to get the car from his friend so they can reach the next meeting point.
By having the plot hinge off character decisions, it can flow organically and authentically; everything that happens feels like it happened naturally.
In other words, Joel decided to take the audience to the next area in the game, not the writer. And that feels real. It feels like the story is happening in real-time. That anything can happen at any moment. This keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.
So try to build strong, active characters, then hit them with every obstacle and set-back you can. Not only will you have a story loaded with conflict, but the way your characters solve that conflict will surprise you—and your audience.
While these aren’t all the writing concepts contributing to The Last of Us’s position as arguably the greatest game of all time, they’re three of the most important we could identify. We hope that they help you write something.
Who knows? Maybe what you write will take that title.