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The Last of Us Part 1: Narrative Game Design

The Last of Us is hailed for its storytelling and is a masterclass in narrative game design. From combat to convos, it does an amazing job of conveying story through gameplay.

Game Developer

August 3, 2020

9 Min Read

Narrative Game Design - What Is It?

What, in the name of worldbuilding, is narrative game design? Well, this job is all about making the gameplay mesh with the story and vice-versa. Yes, narrative game designers contribute to writing the story, but they are not primarily writers. In Writing and Narrative Design: A Relationship, a GDC talk, narrative designer Molly Maloney and writer Eric Stirpe help distinguish these two roles. Writers are responsible for creating the story beats, character arcs, and dialogue while narrative designers create supporting mechanics, and emphasize player choice within the narrative. In a nutshell, writers get the story making sense and feeling good while narrative designers make the story playable.

The typical job description for a narrative designer involves creating dialogue systems, guiding voice-over sessions, and they prioritize player autonomy within narrative structures. Responsibilities will vary between studios but their primary goal is to communicate narrative through gameplay rather than cutscenes or lore dumps. That said, games can still include cutscenes, audio diaries, and other more direct means of conveying story. The Last of Us employs all of that and to great effect, but it goes further. It leverages a multitude of mechanics, environmental props, and gameplay systems towards telling its narrative. That is narrative game design.


Narrative Systems in The Last of Us

Nearly all interactions in The Last of Us serve to propel the story, set the mood, and more importantly build the relationship of Ellie and Joel. The looting system is often used as a vehicle for narrative. Take for instance the chapter Bill's Town. The door hanging wide open in the image below is used to attract the player's attention. The game will do this continuously to signal a looting opportunity. As with any new territory, the player has to be on high alert. There could be runners, clickers, traps. However, there may also be valuable crafting materials. These items will help the player arm themselves for battles to come, but that is not the true purpose of this lure. No, the open door is an invitation to further develop the titular relationship of the game's narrative. When you enter, you will indeed be rewarded with a few scraps and crafting components but you will also encounter The Turning, an old arcade game that nods to Ellie's relationship with Riley (a criminally short-lived relationship that players can experience in the Left Behind DLC). Through this interaction, players learn more about Ellie and her character arc progresses.

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The game will lure players in with promises of loot and then spring story on them again and again. A little further into Bill's Town, players will encounter a steaming door with something banging against its frame. Players don't have to enter, but when they approach, the banging will cease and beyond the door is a dark and ominous stairway. Now, not only is there loot to be gained but there's a mystery to be solved.

When using Joel's enhanced hearing would typically help players spot runners in the distance, the one lurking here cannot be spotted. This is a particularly good example of how a game can break its own rules for the better. Joel can't hear this runner because he's not supposed to. This event is specially crafted to keep the player on their toes. Once you enter the living room, the runner will emerge from the bathroom flailing and spitting all over the place. If this is your first playthrough, then it's a terrifying and unnerving experience - and it should be! This is a zombie apocalypse! The tone that The Last of Us aims to set is a dire one and this is reflected in many ways throughout the game. Joel openly comments on his lack of confidence in keeping Ellie and himself alive during their journey. At one point during this chapter, Ellie tries to whistle, a noise that is frightfully unwelcome when there are two clickers outside and the noise of their cackling mushroom mouths can be scarcely distinguished from Ellie's failed whistling attempt. In the video below, Joel is ambushed by a clicker, further cementing the dangers of this world and this happens endlessly throughout the game.

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All of these interactions happen in-game, sans cutscene, and don't even utilize the notes system to convey powerful emotional beats while developing the world and its story. Yes there are cutscenes, yes there are notes, but the primary way that players experience story is through gameplay. That's a masterclass on narrative game design and the game keeps doing it!


Environmental Storytelling

Nearly everywhere the player goes in The Last of Us, they encounter ruin, rot, and remnants of human society. Abandoned military zones are riddled with firefly graffiti and anti-government sentiment. Buildings are looted and in many cases actively crumbling as you try to navigate through them. Runners, clickers, and hunters (the game's enemy survivors) are found all throughout these otherwise abandoned zones. Where they are absent, you will find dead bodies that serve as a constant reminder of the turmoil previous inhabitants have endured. Even more disturbing are the children's toys and empty cribs that players encounter. Children have suffered the same trials as Ellie and Joel and that is the dark world that the player is in. These visual cues should hit hard and drive home the dire apocalyptic nature of the world.

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Grounding the Experience

The Last of Us makes every effort to keep players grounded in its dark, gritty reality. For instance, there's no "magic pockets" effect where your unlimited arsenal somehow fits in your back pocket. Joel can be seen carrying the pipe he picked up, arrows sticking up out of his backpack, pistol on his hip, and shotgun on his shoulder at all times. There very well may have been other reasons for this aesthetic choice, but intentional or not it helps ground the game in reality.

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Naughty Dog is also known for using landmarks to guide the player which remain visible throughout levels to make the world feel real and connected. The water tower from Bill's Town is still visible when you reach the sewer entry in The Suburbs chapter. This serves to reinforce distance and scope for players, again grounding the game in reality. The levels are made to feel like real locations rather than designed virtual spaces. The apocalyptic nature of the game is a part of its narrative and creating this sense of realism is key to maintaining the tense vibe befitting this game. Likewise, your journey with Ellie wouldn't feel very real or very dangerous if you didn't get mauled by a zombie every now and then.

Notice that this is the first time I've referred to runners/clickers/bloaters as zombies. The Last of Us avoids this word entirely. I have not found any justification for this in talks or interviews with Naughty Dog, but I suspect that this serves to reinforce the tone of the narrative. The game calls its zombies infected and references the cordyceps fungal virus because this makes everything feel authentic. The cordyceps virus is based in real science and to call the infected by the somewhat more supernatural term "zombies" would undo all the developer's hard work in setting the tone. The developers truly went to great lengths to support their narrative through every aspect of the game from the moment-to-moment gameplay to the in-game terminology. Verbal cues also serve this purpose.

Consider how other games tell you that you're getting damaged. In games like God of War (2018) and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, circular dials point towards incoming attacks and flash different colors to indicate power. Plenty of games also include healthbars and other indicators of damage done which all serves to reinforce a particular style of play. All of this is absent in The Last of Us because it would subtract from the core experience - its narrative. Instead, the game uses callouts from Ellie and other buddy AI to warn the player about incoming damage. This mirrors how these encounters would play out in real life and minimizes the distracting UI onscreen which would, contrary to the developer's goals, create a much more "gamey" aesthetic.


Modeling Desired Behaviour

Grunts, groans, and head nods do a surprising amount of legwork in The Last of Us to set the tone. By displaying emotions through Joel and other NPCs, the game models the behaviour it expects from its players. Joel is audibly frightened when turning a corner to find a clicker lying in wait. He screams "Oh shit" when they sneak up on him and Ellie is similarly vocal about what she perceives. For a good portion of the early game, she will yell out "Jesus Joel" and "Oh my God" as the player bashes in enemy heads with a barbwire bat. She's disgusted by what they have to do to survive and the player should be too.

Body language can be an equally powerful tool. When Joel has a fight with Ellie over using a gun, her general disposition changes post-cutscene. She's more distant, less talkative, and is visibly hurt. This makes an impact on how the narrative is received because the relationship between Ellie and Joel is such a large part of that narrative. The game covers the struggle of humanity as a whole, but Ellie and Joel are the lens through which players see that struggle. Moments like the ones captured below are critical and are used to contrast the father-daughter relationship the two characters have by the end of the game.

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Narrative can be conveyed in many ways and in The Last of Us, every system employed has its place in delivering story, setting tone, and providing context for the player's actions in the world. Even the combat serves this purpose. Bashing in hunter heads with bricks and burning people alive with molotovs is gruesome, but its what they need to do to survive. Scavenging for materials can be tedious, but when you're surrounded by clickers with only 3 bullets in the chamber, you feel the same relief Joel does stumbling upon a medkit and some ammo. If you'd like to learn more about narrative game design then GMTK has an amazing video on it with dozens of quality examples. You can also check out some of my videos, like the one on worlbuilding in God of War (2018) or making a game into an experience. Or, watch this great video by Lessons from the Screenplay. Thanks for reading and please, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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