Friday 5 July 2013

Thoughts on The Last of Us

I have now finished playing The Last of Us and feel it has quite a few things worth discussing. Overall it is a great game and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. Especially noteworthy are the nerve wrecking encounters. When at its best they top even the ones in Resident Evil 4 (2005), which I think features some of the best action gameplay ever. It also manages to use just about every trick in the book to tell its story. It is a very solid package and masterfully crafted. At the same time, while wrapped in an emotional plot, it is really just a game about combat and part of, what I think is, a worrying trend in video game storytelling.

Before The Last of Us can be properly analyzed, we need to go back to the early days of the game industry. At the beginning of videogame history, games were just about doing a few simple actions over and over. These games did not have a recognizable story as such, but simply provided a rough context for the action.

In Asteroids (1979) the visuals consisted of simplistic line drawings, but in the mind of the players they controlled a spaceship blasting incoming chunks of rock. While this thin veneer of story was not really important for the game as such, it greatly enhanced the experience. This was clearly shown in early advertisements where the screenshots are small and concept art showing off this fantasy takes up most of the space.

For the remainder of this article I will refer to this extra high-level concept as the story layer. This essentially refers to any part that does not directly support the core gameplay but is there only there to add an extra sense of purpose and narrative. Important to note is that the gameplay can still incorporate parts of the game's story; all of the narrative experience does not reside in the story layer.

While these high level concepts were (and often still are) very simplistic, it is pretty clear that they are essential. There are very few games that do not share this quality and just go 100% abstract. Even a weird game like pacman has some form of story layer to it.

This slowly gave rise to storytelling in action games. Rudimentary plots were added, for instance a summary of the background story at the start, and this eventually expanded to cutscenes in between the levels. The extra story content was not connected to the gameplay as such but simply provided context and rewards. But while it did not directly influence the gameplay in any meaningful way, cutscenes and an explicit plot could still improve the feel of the game.

The biggest evolution in storytelling came from Another World (1991) where the story layer and gameplay fit almost flawlessly into one another. No longer were the narrative elements superficial, but instead carefully ingrained with the gameplay. Actions that were made in gameplay smoothly transitioned into a cutscene and vice versa. The interactive scenarios were also carefully designed in order to make sense in the games story. Despite this tight coupling, it is important to point out that the focus of all gameplay segments was still about challenge and "fun". The game contained a number of mechanics and each section tested the player's skill in one or more of these. While the non-interactive plot elements improved the experience, they were still not crucial. Were the story layer to be taken way, the gameplay sections would still work fine in their own right .

Another World was a ahead of its time and it took a lot of years before the rest of the industry got up to speed. But when it did, the idea to close the gap between the gameplay and the story layer really caught on. Earlier, the story layer had mostly been seen as an extra, but ultimately superfluous, feature. But it rose in prominence, and was seen as increasingly crucial. Along the way, a host of new ways to add a story layer emerged. The audio logs from System Shock (1994), in-game cutscene from Half Life (1998) and the omnipresent narrator from Portal (2007) are probably the most important ones. All of these provided tools to merge the two conflicting elements. Along the way, the complexity and maturity of the story layers increased as well.

Even though modern action games now come with a wide variety of stories, the basic format is still the same as in the early days. The player is given a narrow set of mechanics that needs to be skillfully used in order overcome the challenges provided. On top of this is an extra narrative wrapping, the story layer, that helps shape the experience into something more meaningful. This is a recipe that most recent high profile games use, including Dead Space (2008), Uncharted (2007), Tomb Raider (2013), Halo 4 (2012), Portal 2 (2011), Bioshock (2007), and many more.

Here is where The Last of Us comes in; it is the latest step in this evolution. It is probably also the game that, so far, managed marry the gameplay and the story layer most elegantly. This makes it into an emotional journey, but it is crucial to remember its pedigree. It is still an action game with an additional story layer.

Just like a number of recent games with narrative ambitions, e.g. Spec Ops (2012) and Hotline Miami (2012), it takes the gameplay as a starting point for the story. This is different from a game like Uncharted where the high concept came first. In Uncharted's case it was to replicate an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie. Because of this, the gameplay's need for constant bloodshed has a hard time fitting the happenings in the story layer. This caused a very noticeable discrepancy in the game's narrative, the so called "ludonarrative dissonance". The game's protagonist would slaughter hundreds of people and afterwards crack a joke and worry about his relationships. But in a game like Last Of Us, the violent gameplay is taken as a given and the whole world shaped accordingly. The game is set in a story where butchering hundreds of people makes sense, giving the holistic experience a strong feeling of consistency.

There are still a few problems between of the story layer and the gameplay, but on the whole the played narrative is quite coherent. It has been rightly celebrated for doing this, but few voices have been raised by the troubling development it is part of. If we agree that The Last of Us represent a high note of videogame storytelling, an example to follow, then our boundaries for telling stories are very narrow indeed.

The game has a lot in common with the recent Spec Ops: The Line. Both feature a dog-eat-dog world, takes place in the destroyed remains of a city, and have you play as violent and deranged characters with no qualms about butchering countless people. Both of these games have also been praised for their mature and intelligent storytelling. And sure, they both feature deep and nicely portrayed characters, but what it all really boils down to are neat ways to justify a lot of violence. If this represent the future of videogame storytelling, then we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists.

When faced with the problem of reconciling a character like Uncharted's Nathan Drake with the massive violence, the proposed solution is simply to make the character better fit with the killing. I find this close to giving up on the problem altogether. In a way games like Uncharted are, despite their gameplay and story layer discrepancy, much more interesting as they try to be about something other than raw survival. Embracing that videogames is all about violence feels very cynical and uninspiring to me.

It is also crucial to keep in mind that the core gameplay has not changed much over the years. These games are still about doing a few actions over and over. When these actions do connect to the story, like they do in both Spec Ops and The Last of Us, it is not so much because they are proper narrative devices, but that the story has been shaped to fit with them. The repetitive action is still king, the need to have a massive body count is still a must. This is not bad as such, I thought Last of Us was a great action game. But, I have problems with it being seen as good interactive storytelling, it is really just good usage of the story layer. This might seem like play of words, but there is an important aspect to have in mind: Like games of the past, The Last of Us would have worked very well with its story layer removed.

When taking a closer look at The Last of Us, its action heritage is quite evident. It is very clear that at the core lies a straightforward game about looting, sneaking and killing enemies. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The goal of the player is always to go forward to a place highlighted early on. Once there, a cutscene takes over and reminds you of your next goal. It is basically a modern incarnation of the the ancient "walk left to right"-mechanic.
  • Every non-combat challenge of the game is a combination of a few simple elements: ladders, planks, pushable dumpsters, floating pallets and generators, all used in predictable and streamlined ways. This is typical of what you see in old actions games; there are a few well tested puzzle devices that gets reused throughout the game.
  • During gameplay, NPCs turn into combat objects and are streamlined to support the action above everything else. This is evident in how they do not affect your ability to sneak, can stand a lot more damage than the protagonist, have infinite ammo supplies, etc.
  • The game features plenty of looting and crafting which is just a revamp of what we have seen in Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and many more. It is there to give the player something to do when going through the world and is used as a way to provide more variety to the combat. 
  • Environments where combat encounters occur are almost always crafted in such a way that it is possibly to know that a fight will ensue long before it actually happens. Strategically scattered bottles, carefully placed cover spots and early depots of ammo are among the things that hint that the game is now all about making sure the core mechanics of an encounter work.
There is more that can be pointed out here, but I think this is enough. The takeaway is that this is the core of the game; all of these elements are what sum up the game's underpinnings and what provides the central experience. I think it is an incredibly important point. Before we speak of the game as some highpoint in storytelling we must realize where it comes from - it is an old fashioned action game. And if we do not realize this, we will be stuck in a dead end, because there is not much in terms of storytelling that can be done with this. The Last of Us probably represent as far as you can go with stories that are based on this foundation.

This is when things get interesting. We can now see that the emotional narrative is not part of core gameplay, but comes from a totally different direction. Here The Last of Us has a lot that can be learned from and be inspired by.

First of all, the game uses just about every trick in the book to get the story across outside of the cutscenes. And not only that, pretty much every one of these elements has an excellent implementation:
  • Notes. The game feature scattered diaries, audio logs, manifests, letters and more, almost all of which have believable content and placement. They also have great length so they feel very fluent to pick up and read through. 
  • Overheard conversation. This can either come from hostiles in combat situations or from the characters in one of the few non-violent section with other people. They are effectively used both to convey the state of the world and to give more information about the characters.
  • In-game cutscenes. In a few areas, events takes place as you walk past them. For instance, at one location the military can be seen rounding up infected people. And if you go in for a closer look, the armed personnel act accordingly and push you away. This makes the scene feel alive instead of becoming some kind of carnival ride (as was the case Bioshock: Infinite (2013),  for instance). What I also think makes them work is that the game use these events sparingly and make sure they happen in appropriate places. For instance, in the above military scene it makes perfect sense why the player cannot get close to the civilians.
  • Artifacts. Various artifacts can be picked up that tell something about the world. These are things like maps, dog tags, photos, etc. All help to build up setting and are lot easier to fit in than notes (which easily feel contrived).
  • Protagonist and partner banter. As you walk through the environment there are conversations back and forth between the protagonist and his partner (for most of the game a teenage girl). This is also one of the few places where some of the responsibility is placed on the player. Once a conversation starts, the protagonist can be made to go off in whichever way; it is up to the player to act in a way that makes sense. Because of this a lot more and varied content can be put in these dialogs.
  • Graffiti and billboards. Here and there, texts are placed on the walls that help explain what has happened to a place or to just give some more texture to the environment. Survivors scratch words of warning, a settlement have lists rules and so forth.
  • Environments. The environments themselves is a great source of the storytelling. Abandoned homes, fortified warehouses, etc, all help to build up the world the game takes place in and tell the story of what has occurred.
None of these are new or revolutionary tricks, but they are put together really well and are never overused. It is so easy to just use one trick for everything, but Last of Us show restraint and use its devices where appropriate. Much of the time these devices work in tandem and that is when they really shine. A common example is walking around in a derelict building while the characters comment on the surroundings and notes found; this really increase the sense of presence and feeling of being inside a narrative. 

One has to have in mind that the world of Last of Us fits perfectly for the above devices, but there is no inherent problem with using them in just about any sort of story. Also noteworthy is that, apart from the overheard conversations, the narrative devices have very little connection to the core gameplay; they are all part of the story layer. It is incredible how many elements that make up this layer now. What began as a simple intro text or just a painted image is now a large collection of systems. While the story layer was once a fragile structure, merely having a supportive role, it is now so complex that is can pretty much stand on its own. In fact, that is just what it does a few times in The Last of Us. And it is now that we enter the really intriguing territory. We have now come to a point in the evolution of videogames where a once upon nonessential element has gotten enough substance to branch off and become something in its own right.

The best example of this is The Last of Us' opening. Here the player takes on the role as a young girl who finds herself home alone while it becomes increasingly apparent that something terrible is happening in the outside world. Just about all interactions here has something to do with the story and minor details like the girl's animations help set the scene. It features just about all the narrative devices mentioned above and uses them to tell the player a story through play. 

The opening is also a good showcase for how and when to use cutscenes. I normally see the goal with interactive storytelling is to let the player play from start to finish. However, in order to play certain parts properly you need to be in the right mood and have certain background information. The opening cutscene helps establish just that, and makes the gameplay so much more effective. While I still feel that cutscenes should be used sparingly, I am thinking more and more that it is wrong to dismiss them entirely. Many interactive scenes are not just possible to jump right in to, but require some kind of setup. Many times this setup is just not possible to play through, and needs to be carefully directed. In these cases a cutscene is required and lets the player play through a scenario that would not be possible otherwise. I think the main rule is just to make sure that the interactive part is where the engaging actions occur. The cutscene should not be the main attraction, it's role is merely to be there as support. It is also worth mentioning that the opening cutscene works so well because it happens at the start of the game; the player has not become used to being in charge yet and is much more willing to be passive.

The next great story layer sequence is the deer hunting scene. Here you are hunting a deer in order to get food. The first arrows are not enough to bring it down, so you need to find it again and take additional shots. As you are doing this, you will eventually figure out that the best way to find it again is to follow its tracks. Having hit it once the deer will also leave a trail of blood, making tracking easier. While following the wounded animal you will eventually find yourself right outside a previously unseen building, the deer lying dead nearby. By letting you track the deer, the game has managed to lead you into finding a new location all on your own. This transition is really awesome and great way to progress the story simply by playing.

One could argue that this scene use the combat system and therefore part of the core gameplay, but I argue that is not really correct. It does use some combat mechanics, but the scene itself contain none of the dynamics of an enemy encounter. Therefore I think it is okay to say that this is scene is almost purely part of the story layer.

The final sequence I want to discuss is the giraffe scene. Like the previous scene, it is quite simplistic but extremely effective. It starts with the protagonist's companion, the teenage girl Ellie, getting excited over something she has seen and then running off. This starts sets up a mystery, and gets the player curious over what it is she has spotted. She continues to run ahead of you, seeing the mystery object more times and getting increasingly excited. You run after her, but are never able to get a peek of what it is she is seeing. Finally you come to an opening and see that what she spotted is a herd of giraffes. It all ends with a serene scene as the couple watch the herd walk among a city block overtaken by trees. The build-up and final comes together very nicely.

Worth mentioning is that part of the power comes from all the hazards you have had to face earlier, but I do not see that as evidence that the core gameplay played an important part. These hazards could just as well have been made using other techniques.

The scenes I have described takes up a tiny part of the The Last of Us. Most of the game is about combat, looting and solving repetitive puzzles, elements that you are expected to find in a classical action game. But these sequences and a few others shows that there is much more to this medium than repeating a core gameplay mechanic. The truly poignant and yet fully playable moments of this game is a testament to this.

So when talking about how well The Last of Us does storytelling, it is not productive to discuss how consistently it manages to merge its gameplay and story layer. I hope to have shown that this is a dead end. What is important are the other things, the elements that used to be fluff but has now become a force to be reckoned with on its own. There is a lot to learn from The Last of Us, but it is important that we look in the right places. It might be an classical action game at heart, but also contain elements that show the way forward.

In case you are in need of more info on the game, wikipedia is a good place to start.
To get some more insight into the workings of Spec Ops: The Line, I recommend this Errant Signal Episode. It is an excellent overview of how the game uses its violence to send a message.
In case you enjoyed this critique of The Last of Us, you will probably also like my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. There are a lot of similar topics discussed.

  • My history of videogames is a very quick and dirty overview. For instance some early games like Project Firestarter have some of the story integration seen in Another World, but I skipped those in order to make it a bit more clear. Also, many of these early games never really caught on and did not have nearly as much influence as the games I mention. I would have liked to do a more in depth article on the history of violence and storytelling in games, but not sure I will have the time in the near future, so this will have to do for now.
  • Once the story layer got more prominent the discussion about "story" versus gameplay started to grow. Many people thought that the extra story segment was really distracting and that games should only focus on the core gameplay instead. I cannot recall this discussion ever being about the incoherence between the two, but simply that the extra story elements were not very engaging. It took a lot longer for the idea to pop up that there was a sort of friction between the story layer and the gameplay.
    It was not until the story layer had grown quite a bit until the idea of "ludonarrative dissonance" was brought up. First coined by the Far Cry 2 (2008)  lead designer Cliff Hocking, the core issue that it address is that the storytelling layer and gameplay disagree with one another. This of course has always been the case, but in a game design equivalent of the uncanny valley, it did not become apparent until the gap was small enough. So while the problem is true, the whole idea is kind of a truism. The gameplay and story layer has always been separate elements, and are conflicting in their very nature. I am not really a big fan of the term, as I think it is a bit backwards way of thinking. If the goal is to do interactive storytelling, all is already lost once you start dividing gameplay and narrative into different categories.
  • As I played The Last of Us, it also hit me that sometimes cutscenes work best when you there is no need for interaction. First of all, it makes the project so much easier to manage. Scenes with extensive dialog often require quite a lot of preparation and if they are to be highly interactive, then there is a constant need for tweaking. If the interaction is very simple (like button mashing), or not present at all, then you can evaluate these bits of the game at a much earlier stage and save a lot of headache.
    It may also be good for the narrative if the player does not have anything to do during certain sections. In most cases a real life dialog is not a very active experience as many utterances come almost automatically. So not having much for the player to do might actually feel more natural. Also, if the player is forced to perform actions then it might detract their attention from what is being said. So instead of trying to make the dialogs highly interactive, it might be better to just make sure they are short and keep them free from gameplay.
    This is actually an approach that we are taking with our new Super Secret Project. We scrapped many of the more wild initial approaches because they were too hard to do and often made dialogs less engaging.


  1. Very interesting and genuinely intelligent thoughts. This blog is a goldmine.

  2. Have you, Thomas, played any of Thief game? Because as for me personally that's the best example of how to properly balance between game and storytelling. It's nearly an alive universe, exclusively immersive one, extremely detailed. I am just really curious what do you think about Thief thrilogy... well, if you played any of Thief games.

    1. Played it a bit, but not really thought about it enough to give some summary here. There are elements that I like though, like how you listen in on conversations. A feature that is The Last of Us too.

    2. Basiacally you should test at least one exact Thief level, because objectively it's one of the scariest game-in-game of all times. Here's a PC Gamer review of that one (!!!) single level, but extremely big, lasting for 4-5 hours

  3. Tomb Raider (2013) had such a great moment when Lara kills for the first time, it was shocking and intense. But then a few minutes later you're running down a hill and spraying bullets on everyone you spot. That really got me thinking.

  4. Very nicely written, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I am honestly surprised that you did not consider how much The Last of Us needed Heavy Rain in order to be successful with its story layer and more movie-like production. Heavy Rain has similar characteristics to The Last of Us in interweaving story and gameplay, but does not get overly repetitive.

    1. Good point.

      In fact, the Taxidermist DLC for Heavy Rain is very much like the non-gamey parts of The Last of Us. The big difference is that Heavy Rain relies on a clumsy control system that requires constant and complex input prompts. The Last of Us pulls off similar things with using a much simpler and intuitive control scheme.

      I wonder how much an inspiration Heavy Rain has been for Naughty Dog when doing some of the scenes.

    2. "Heavy Rain has similar characteristics to The Last of Us in interweaving story and gameplay, but does not get overly repetitive."

      I disagree with that, Heavy Rain might not be repetitive for the characters you play, but it felt extremely repetitive to me as a player. They use the exact same quick time events for basically everything.
      While this approach actually does move gameplay and story closer together - the story can change quite a bit because of your actions - it also ruins the gameplay as well as the immersion.
      In my opinion Heavy Rain consists almost exclusively of the story layer. The core gameplay is reduced to the simplest thing there is in video games: pressing buttons.

  6. I'm not sure if i understood the article correctly.

    In short:
    You compliment the game having great story elements.
    On the other hand you criticise the lack of innovation considering gameplay, because there are only basic "action game"-elements.
    That is what you call a "dead-end".


    1. Not really. The summed up thesis is something like this:

      For the longest time, games have been trying to fit their core gameplay (a repetitive task) together with an extra story layer. This is an impossible task, since at the outset you divide the two and make them almost per definition incompatible. Despite this, more and more technics have been figure out in order to bridge the gap, and game stories have become better and better.

      What we have ended up with now is a story layer so complex that it has outgrown the core gameplay, and can now stand on its own.

      The dead-end is to continue meld the two separate elements, the gameplay and the story layer, instead we should embrace the story layer in its own right and build games based upon that.

      Important here is: I do not criticize the game at all really. I just point out that doing this kind of storytelling cannot take us much further. The problem is not with innovating gameplay, the problem is in the basic approach to game design.

  7. Great post.

    The Last of Us was a big thing for me. Simple, but fun gameplay with a fantasticly immersing story. (Well, to be honest, the encounters were very unnerving and quite difficult on the first playthrough, but after that it's just a load of fun.)

    I really connected with Ellie so to speak, and basically at the last mission my adrenaline was pumping, my heart was beating faster, etc, and I just felt like nothing is coming between me (Joel) and Ellie.

    I'm not really good with words as you can see, but I'm just trying to say that I really liked the story and basically the whole game. (Of course I had little problems with some things, but they were very very very minor, non-important things.)

    Anyway, what would you say was your favourite part of the game if you have one?

    1. "what would you say was your favourite part of the game if you have one?"
      The ones I mention in the article is good overview of my fav moments.

  8. I like how almost all of your complaints with the gameplay can also be used against any Frictional title.

    1. Not entirely, since our games are more of adventure games pedigree and this was about action games. Adventure have a host of other problems too though, many of which I have explored before. Here for instance:

      That said, our game do share some of the action game heritage, especially the first Penumbra game that had a large focus on its combat system. But Amnesia too has these issues. At its core there is a stealth system that much of the game is based around and made extra "gamey" due to stuff like tinderboxes, health, etc.

      I do not think it is fair to say it is exactly the same as the core of something like TLoU though. The reason is that Amnesia would work at less well without all of the extra story layers. But still, there is a core there that is distracting and one that should not have nearly as much prominence.

      And that is the main reason I write this stuff. To figure out how games work and what can be done to improve them.

  9. I praise you opinions stated in this post, but I can't believe you praise Resident Evil 4, because in my experience, that is probably the worst game I ever played.

    1. Its generally accepted as the best games in the last generation. Gameplay wise RE4 is one of the best. Calling it the worst game you've ever played sounds completely off the mark

  10. So, what are *all* the layers? :)

  11. Very good post; you were able to articulate my feelings on TLoU much better than I could have... Have you tried The Swapper? It is one of those rare gems where the core gameplay mechanics tie directly into the theme of the story.

    1. While I did like The Swapper, I did not feel the gameplay did not fit very well with the high level story stuff. The mechanics do tie into the thematics (just like in Braid), but the narrative is not very consistent with the core play experience. For instance I cannot take the game's swapping mechanics at "face story value".

  12. It's interesting to me that you perceive The Last of Us as being primarily about action-violence with moments of storytelling. I suppose that's true in terms of time spent, but when I think back on the game, I primarily recall these story moments.

    The giraffes, Sam and Ellie playing darts, hunting the deer, Ellie exclaiming about things in the environment, trying to escape town with your daughter. To me this was the game, and at times I would roll my eyes when more zombies would be in the way.

  13. Thomas, I loved this because I wrote something along similar lines last month (was on the Rock Paper Shotgun Sunday Papers) which takes a different tack: I traced the evolution of the dominant shooter mechanic and pointed out the pursuit of photorealism will be the death of the genre. Shooters cannot survive if they keep marrying cutting-edge visuals to touchy-feely stories.

    I chose Half-Life as the game which everything pivots around, but that's only because I was concentrating on shooters. Another World is most definitely a standout moment in the progression of narrative design.

    I haven't played The Last of Us - I'm a PC owner - but I've seen enough on YouTube to get how well it works.

  14. I would say that TLOU is the most fully formed, mature expression of gaming as art. However, I think it would be entirely incorrect to say that the industry has a narrow idea of exploring games as an art form. I mean just last year there were so many intriguing experiments with telling storys in games outside of the indie-sphere (Journey & The Walking Dead Game come to mind). Before that we have masterpieces like Dark Souls/Demon Souls and ICO/Shadow of the Colossus, which all explore alternate (and fascinating) ways of telling storys using interactivity. Even LA Noire and Heavy Rain (though deeply flawed) took very ambitious alternatives to explore the story and to call them anything less than triple A would be just be lying.

    Ultimately, I am glad TLOU nailed the art-house action game so well, because this is something we have been struggling to accomplish for a long time. Bioshock (the original, not 2 or infinite) and Spec Ops have probably come the closest to it, but now that we have a true gold standard, we have a great model for telling different kinds of storys within this template. However, I don't think it will diminish the pursuit of our exploration into the bounds of interactive storytelling in the slightest.

  15. Thomas, what do you think about Oculous Rift?

  16. I get that the discussion about stories in games should go beyond a layer, but then, I don't think story gameplay integration will go beyond mere layers anytime soon. going beyond that means abandoning a lot of gameplay standards. Removing any visible core mechanic to hide the gaminess only will appeal to a niche market that can recognize such things. For the rest, it means less shooting, less looting and less puzzling, so no interest.

    1. Given how many people liked, and bought, Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, I do not think that is the case. Once the massive amount of people get into narrative games, I think this audience will grow even more, far beyond the current classic "harcore" one (which, judging by blockbuster sales, is really just around 20 million, a small number compared to other media).

    2. Yes, there is a lot of people interested, but the adaptation will be slow. I think games like The Last of Us exist because, even if there is interest going beyond traditional forms of gaming, it's not big enough yet.
      There is a lot of merit in your insights anyway. I'm waiting for the new Frictional's game to see the practical side of them.
      And your 20 million doesn't count the part that doesn't pay. I live in South America and here like hardcore games. It's like people have to play a lot to see this things. I make my friends play a lot of different games, but they still are interested in things like gta, Dead Space or Assassin's Creed (they couldn't stand five minutes of Amnesia, or play something like System Shock or grim Fandango, too different for them).
      Time will come, surely.

    3. Thomas, I've been playing Planescape: Torment lately; this game follows your game-story's integration theory.
      Even if it's based in D&D's ruleset, battle is not something repetitive (the core mechanic), it's a side mechanic that serves narrative purposes (in the first dungeon you can go killing everthing in sight but it has more sense to talk to everything, even the zombies; you kill when you feel is necesary or if the NPC you interact becomes hostile, but always there is a justification behind).
      Even the inventory management becomes a tool for narrative (examining objects allows to access new quests, puzzles or text bits).
      Dialog options include flavor text for everything you do, so you can fill the gaps in the minimalistic animation (undead monsters have varied descriptions; they are described as truly morbid, but you can't see it).
      Now I'm convinced of your theory. And given the demand for games like Torment (there is the a Numenera's ruleset spiritual sucessor), it seems that is not as niche as I thought...

  17. What about finish aamfp, it have been delayed for so long now and i seriously need a reason.

  18. Personally, I'm tired of killing humans (or enemies akin to humans) in various ways being the overwhelmingly dominant mechanic of games with stories that are not about the act of murder.

    That's not to say I'm against extreme violence and gore in games, and I'm also fine with stylised hyper-violence: two of my all time favourite games are Silent Hill 2 and Hotline Miami, for example. The personalities of the player characters are entirely consistent with their brutal, violent roles in the gameplay.

    In fact, Hotline Miami is one of the few murder simulators that is honest about what it offers, at one point directly asking the player "Do you like hurting other people?" If you continue playing this game, the answer must be yes, on some level. The same can be said of any game with the act of murder dominant in the gameplay, but games frequently use the story to shield you from what you are doing, presenting your murdering as justifiable, inconsequential, or both.

    A great example of a murder-free game is Fez, an outstanding platforming/puzzle game in which you never kill anything. Nothing. It's a completely pacifist experience, which is wonderful in a story of journeying, exploration, and discovery. It's a game with real heart and integrity, and the absence of violence enhances rather than detracts from the experience.

    I think the approach to games design that Thomas proposes is very important in a number of ways. Firstly, it promotes a mature attitude to death and other serious topics that, in my opinion, is noticeably lacking in the medium of games overall. Games designers aspire to discuss death seriously in their game should ask themselves: "How much is another human life worth to the player?" Often, the answer is very little. I think this is a key factor in why many people still view games as juvenile experiences.

    Additionally, it's more intellectually honest. Murder based gameplay is not motivated by heroism or survival, but by bloodlust, and I think recognising that is an important step towards treating the subject of death maturely (of course, I am assuming that is the designer's primary objective here).

    Finally, it will be new. I haven't heard anything like it proposed anywhere else, and I'm really looking forward to a "pure story" game. The new project from frictional should be a very interesting one if they follow this design ethos.

  19. @Thomas
    Great article.
    I'd like to point out a few things, though. When progressing from the usual ways games are designed and eventually played, there's always the challenge of communicating to the players how they are expected to play the game and what general approach/mind set to adopt - and therein lies the art of doing this type of innovation.
    You see, it's all about figuring out the best way to develop a new gaming culture (of sorts) amongst the target audience. With previous, familiar approaches to game design, comes a familiar way of playing and thinking about the game and the gameplay - and this is usually a great advantage. This familiarity comes from what you described as "getting stuck in the same old ways" - i.e. a form of high level standardization. Sure, details change, but overall, certain types of games are designed to be played in generally the same ways, so after years of practice and experience with such games, players don't need to think about how to actually play them, and can focus on other things - which means that the developers also can focus on other things (as opposed to, say, making tutorials). Everyone who has at least a modest PC gaming experience knows how to move with WASD and a mouse. But this comes from what I called gaming culture - I once let a friend play Amnesia only to find out that he was having incredibly hard time navigating the virtual 3D environment (!?), as he only played casual games before.
    So, when you want to "get unstuck" and try something radically different, you have to come up with a way of doing it without the game requiring a manual in order for someone to play it. That is, you need a way of communicating the required mind set in a non-obvious, yet intuitive way, and this is, of course, hard - probably why we don't see it often.
    Just think about it: even with Amnesia, which only requires a slight change from the usual mind set, namely "don't try to kill the enemies, just run", you felt the need to explicitly communicate this to the player - in fact, it's the first thing the player sees; a short set of instructions on how to approach the game.
    So, that is an important challenge, I think. But also note this - the need for such a mind-set setup exists only as long as the design approach is new and rare; once it's adopted by the developers, and once there are many games that use it, the "how-to-approach-playing" kind of instructions become redundant.
    So, it is also about recognizing how familiar to the audience the design philosophy of your game is in the given point of time/history.
    - Cthulhu.

    1. Totally agree, it is an interesting challenge. However, given that people are able to enjoy games like Proteus, Dear Esther, The Path, Passage, Everyday the same Dream, etc I think that it is already shown it is possible to both get the normal players to embrace this and for new players to be able to play these.

      The standard controls are confusing, but I think that can be solved with optional tutorials and/or a slow start of the game. My father is able to play Amnesia, so there is some hope there :)

      Having these rules upfront might be something that is always needed actually. Since games is a sort of performance, the player needs to know what sort of mindset they should be in. And even if many people are into more diverse experiences, it might still be required to be up front of how they should act.

      Added to that, a slight change might actually be harder to get across than a totally different one. Amnesia looks like a normal shooter in many ways, and you need to make sure the player does not think this. But a game like Passage looks like nothing at all, and thus the player instantly becomes more open minded on what the experience will entail.

    2. Oh, I agree that there are examples out there that demonstrate that this is possible; don't get me wrong - I absolutely would like to see more developers and studios experiment with new things, and I would really love to see more games that push the design philosophy in this direction.

      I'm simply trying to look at this from the developer perspective. I guess what I was trying to say is that the more novel and different is the thing you are doing with your game, the more you need to make sure not to forget, as a developer, how important is the way you introduce the game (and the gamepaly), and build the required mind set for the player. This includes various aspects - tutorials (which may, "undercover", extend something like halfway in the game), then the learning curve, modifying the game based on feedback from testers, even the way you construct the gameplay and the narrative. To me, it seems that, when taking a radically different approach, it is important to recognize that all this mind-set setup stuff has to be planned for from the start, rather than letting it be an afterthought. Basically, it should be an integral part of the design and development process. Otherwise, the number of people who will be willing to struggle through the unknown in order to actually experience and appreciate the game will be small; it seems that accounting for this need from the start should eventually result in the reasonable size for the target audience (I'm not saying that the game should be made for everyone (a.k.a. dumbed down); I'm just saying that it should appeal to almost everyone in the target audience, rather then making most of them frustrated).

      But, the catch is that all this "hand holding" shouldn't feel like handholding. This is why I said "undercover" tutorials. Another way to achieve this is (in part) to make the control scheme very intuitive, 'cause then you can reduce the related tutorial-info to a minimum; Amnesia itself is a great example (as are the Penumbra games), with the physics-based mouse movements for opening doors, pulling levers, and turning wheels, etc. I suppose the same concept (making things intuitive) can be applied to other things as well (like level and puzzle design). But when that's not easy to do, you wanna make sure that you have the right learning curve, while also integrating the tutorial content with the game and the story in a seamless and meaningful way.

      Another interesting problem with this is related to retro-gaming. Suppose that in the future the new gameplay style becomes widely accepted; then, for a retro-gamer, early games of the same kind may seem to have too much hand holding (even if they did their best to hide it) - it would be great if that effect could be avoided, or at least minimized. On the other hand, such games would be perfect choices to introduce new gamers to to the particular genre/gameplay-style.

      P.S. Good point about minor changes being harder to get across! On further reflection, this depends on how crucial was the thing that was changed to the original gameplay-style; but you are correct in principle. I guess it makes sense; when you see something familiar, you expect it to behave (or to work with it / play through it) in the same way as it did before, with the previous incarnation - so you have to be informed of the change.

    3. P.P.S. Oh, I'd also like to add this:

      You are correct - with story-heavy games, there's always the need to guide the players into a certain mind set, but the purpose is different; this puts them in a certain frame of mind which enables them to generally experience the narrative in a certain way intended by the developers.

      With doing novel things, aside from doing this, you in addition need to put them in a certain mind set, but for a different reason: you want them to interact with and "exist" in the game's world in a certain way, and not the other. In other words, you want them to "role-play" in a different way than what they are used to, so you need to communicate to them how (sure, they are free to "misbehave", but failure to communicate this to them means that, in general, they don't get the chance to play along at all, cause they don't know how).

  20. Ah, looking forward to reading your piece on video game violence. Being a pc owner I can't say anything about TLoU but the post is entertaining as usual.

  21. Thomas, I have a question: would these 'pure story layer' games have the possibility of failure?

    1. Yeah I think so. I am usually against fail state, but have come to the conclusion that one might need them for:

      - happenings that are hard to do continue from (like being badly hurt)

      - happenings where it is too costly, or just interesting, to branch from.

      Normally dying in a game is past of the ancient mastery loop (try again until you are good enough to continue. But fail states can also be seen as a way to keep the player on track. It is just important to have this in mind and design accordingly.

  22. Thank you for creating posts like this, they seem to take a lot of time to write. I'm an aspiring game creator, and wish to create immersive stories and environments as best I can, and these are quite helpful and inspiring. I also loved reading The Self, Presence and Storytelling, it was quite an amazing collection of insight between games and psychology.
    In summation, please continue to write these posts, and thank you for taking the time to do it.

  23. Thomas, there is a very interesting video from Vsauce that explained different kinds of fear. I think it'd be interesting to see a future blog about games and usage of all these kinds of fear. Well worth the watch.

    1. He's definitely seen that, he posted a link to it on his twitter. Great minds think alike!

  24. I'm sorry, I know this isn't the right place to ask, but I can't find any answers anywhere and can't find where to ask about it. What happened to Penumbra Black Plague and Requiem on Steam? Why were they removed? I tried looking in the frictional games forum, but it's been closed.

    1. See "The game was removed from Steam because there is a technical issue with transfer the game to us from Paradox. It is transferred to us because the publishing agreement for the Windows version of Black Plague has come to an end. We don't know when it will be solved and are not able to do anything to solve the technical issue. "

  25. What do you think about xbox live gold or new rayman

  26. No offense intended, but why doesn't Frictional Games develop any games that are perfect narrative- and storywise if you so clearly can point out all the shortcomings in modern games?

  27. I recently finished an analysis of the entirety of The Last of Us, chapter by chapter, as it could have been with Ellie as the player character.

    This post was one of the inspirations for it. I think you would be interested in it, as I found a lot of the problems you mentioned are dealt with quite easily by switching to Ellie. I tried to see if, without changing the game, the "traditional" game elements can be married with the story layer more efficiently, and I believe they can.

    1. Oh Cool! Long post though, will save it for later!


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