A while back, we started to discuss whether we should add stories to games and just how deep down the rabbit hole we wanted to go. It can be argued that all games had stories. “You are playing ping pong. Be the paddle.” (Pong) “Aliens have landed. Protect the base from the invasion.” (Space Invaders). The story doesn’t have to be told, but it does exist. The other camp said that players didn’t want interactive cinema, they wanted games.
For a while, we started to see interesting stories and amazing graphics, but began to notice that these were being used as covers for mediocre game design. Lair is a perfect example of this. I waited forever for this game and it was a good part of the reason that I bought my PS3. When I got the game, the physics were just terrible. Assassin’s Creed might also fall into this category simply by virtue of incredibly repetitive gameplay.
Now, we seem to be trying to decide whether or not some of these narrative-driven games belong in a new genre: interactive cinema. Some are arguing that games, such as The Walking Dead, don’t belong in the category of “games” because there is very little actual gameplay. Keith Burgen put that argument to rest for me. A game, he says, is "a system of rules in which agents compete by making ambiguous decisions." This definition works for me, so I’m not here to argue that The Last of Us is not a game. As narrative-driven as it may be, I doubt anyone would seriously consider making that argument anyway. I hope not. The shooting, sneaking, rules and light puzzles alone make it a game. The Walking Dead is a point-and-click adventure in which the player makes very meaningful decisions. It fits the definition. Hopefully, that argument can disappear from player complaints on down.
If we wish to start calling things “interactive cinema” or “interactive experiences,” we need to redefine those terms. Maybe we just need to define them, period. Walking around a virtual art museum and looking at things is an interactive experience. It has exploration but deciding which display to look at next is hardly a meaningful or ambiguous decision. Walking through a home on a real estate site or a proposal for a new architectural space is interactive cinema. Exploring the Rainforest, The Grand Canyon, or even Chicago on Google Maps is an interactive experience. Narrative-driven games are, just that, games.
And, all games are experiences, really. We do things within them that we might not otherwise get to do; or choose to do. We play them to feel something within ourselves. This could be as simple as unwinding at the end of a long day. It may be something that wakes us up or makes us think, or shows a new perspective on an issue. Sometimes we play a game we’re not all that interested in because our friends are playing and we want the camaraderie and, well, to see what their experience of it is. No matter what we take away from any game, this is part of the reason that we play.
The Last of Us is an incredible play experience. The story is brilliantly told; the characters are all well-developed. We are taken on a journey that shows us a change in Joel, Ellie, and in humanity. The graphics are stunning. The environments tell a story of their own. There are layers of story underneath the main story. It is so worth playing just to experience it.
Is it the Game of the Year, though? Is The Last of Us a great game? I don’t think the hype surrounding it and Bioshock Infinite should make them surefire winners nor the only contenders. The Last of Us has basically one mission type: “go through the town and kill all the things.” It could be restated “sneak past all of the things” but this only works if the game allows it. You might also attempt to sprint past all of the things. No matter what, however, you’re left with “all of the things.” You have three basic tools: sneak, kill, run. Well, and loot.
The basic premise is the same for the entire 20-30 hours that you play. Sometimes you have companions to assist you; sometimes you don’t. These companions add a lot of interest to the story, but the gameplay remains basically the same. The enemies, from beginning to end, are the same basic four zombie types and the aggressive humans with guns. The puzzles are all basically the same simplistic option. We are treated to a sprinkling of minor gameplay changes: Joel as a sniper, Ellie as the endangered ingenue. We are also gifted with the ability to craft helpful items and upgrade our weapons, although this system seems a little tacked on.
When we, as fellow developers, are looking at The Last of Us as a game design to emulate, what is our takeaway? What does it have to offer in the form of brilliant design? I would offer that it does one thing extremely well: It brings companion NPC’s into our journey and releases them seamlessly in the experience. This is one of the most brilliant uses of helper NPC’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. But, if I were trying to pitch a concept to someone, there is little else to draw from. The repetitive gameplay left me bored long before the end of the game; it was only the story that kept me playing. Imagine the potential of a play experience this stunning if we actually took the time to mold it around outstanding gameplay. I think we can do better.