There was once a time when film was not considered a credible artistic medium. In it’s infancy, purists claimed that there was no possible way movies could ever be viewed within the same class as the diverse works of Leonardo da Vinci, or a Vincent van Gogh masterpiece. Thus, early filmmakers set out to prove their naysayer’s wrong—film could be an artistic medium of that level. They did this, and the early studios fostered it, under the collective belief that if the product was good enough—if the art was good enough—people would pay to experience it, in the same vein in which people paid to gaze upon the works of the Renaissance masters.
What spawned from this “drive for credibility” were some of the most prominent, influential, and classic movies that the world over has come to love and embrace. Early mainstream endeavors like Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz are just a few of the names instantly recognizable from this drive to prove the integrity and legitimacy of film as an artistic medium.
Then… decades later, something happened. The winds began to shift. More and more movies were seeing their scripts adapted from not just books, but comic books, older films, even board games. Reboots of old TV show concepts were greenlit purely for the sake of getting a monetary return based on the utilization of the show’s namesake as the film title. Sequels became hackneyed efforts with little to any care as to whether or not the story made sense, with a simple numerical difference slapped onto the original title under the assumption that if it made money, the audience wanted to see the same thing in a different wrapper.
With nothing left to prove as far as it’s artistic medium merits, film started to become a lazy, festering sore of a storytelling medium.
Yet, as the grand flow of life dictates: when something falls, inevitably something else shall rise.
When I saw World War Z earlier this summer, I couldn’t enjoy it, to the slight chagrin of the friend I went to see it with. It wasn’t exactly a bad movie per say, but I didn’t find it to be a good one either. It was—to me—a microcosm of Hollywood’s outlook on what’s acceptable for it’s products in a nutshell: forgettable and rather bland. It seems like it doesn’t matter if we really care about the characters or story driving their actions, as long as there’s something like a recognizable title that can be easily marketed. The assumption of emotional investment due to a pre-established franchise seems to be the biggest downfall most Hollywood movies currently suffer from.
I couldn’t enjoy World War Z because I didn’t care. I remember skimming through the source material (the novel of the same name by Max Brooks) at a Barnes and Noble one day, and noticing the themes present within that intrigued me, such as critique of government efficiency, and humanity’s frequent inability to grasp the true gravity of situations. The film featured none of these commentaries. The story lacked any sort of honest emotional depth, instead telling us to care about what was happening simply because the victims were human. It was a paint by numbers affair, devoid of any attempt to truly connect with the audience, existing solely for the public to watch thousands of CGI zombies clumsily scramble over one another like someone just told them there was a free all-you-can-eat breakfast at Denny’s. Not once was there any reason given to me as to why I should see any of the characters as nothing but two-dimensional foils to get to the aforementioned zombies. Essentially, it—like so many mainstream films released today—didn’t give me a reason to care.
It wasn’t until I sat down recently that I realized why I couldn’t enjoy World War Z. It was because I had witnessed the story done better, in—of all things—a video game.
Of course, my attachment to the story could be easily attributed to the obvious concept that the required interactivity of a video game naturally puts forth a certain level of commitment. As we all know, films tend to be very stoical experiences: you go in, and the events unfold with no say from the viewer. Then, you collect your things and return to the world when a piece of text appears to remind you who directed the picture.
Yet, this overlooks the fact that both mediums must properly engross their viewers for the story presented to truly make it’s mark. With video games, this fits to illustrate my earlier point: with doubt and naysay of a creative outlet, innovation and a devil-may-care attitude of what others think of the end result can emerge. The blasé passing over of an artists work due to antiquated thought processes seems to embolden creators, causing the best to stand up and say “You’re wrong, and I’m going to show you why”. It is in this moment that the height of expression on certain mediums seems to hit a collective peak. At the time of this writing, there isn’t a better game to use as a comparison point to my disappointment with World War Z than the one that’s currently making giant waves within the gaming community known as The Last of Us.
The Last of Us tells the story of a man named Joel, who is tasked with the undesirable job of escorting a 14-year-old girl named Ellie across a post-apocalyptic United States. He does so twenty years after a mutant strain of the Cordyceps fungus cripples the human population, turning those infected into ravenous killing machines. The game sold 3.4 million units over the first three weeks of it’s release. That equates to roughly $204 million U.S. dollars in revenue—under the assumption that every unit sale equated to the United States MSRP of $60. A figure that rivals most films box office takes, which echoes my earlier concept on film, “if the art is good enough, people will pay to experience it.”
The development studio that created The Last of Us, Naughty Dog, uses techniques perfected within the film industry, along with processes that have been around in the gaming industry for decades to perfectly marry cinematic visual immersion with interactive raw emotion.
Whether a story has the luxury of 10-30 hour gameplay length, or the potential detriment of a time crunched 90-180 minute film run-time, the first 15 to 20 minutes is critical in either case. This initial time frame sets the universe and precedent for what we can expect to be plausible within the story, as well as planting the seeds of initial character development. The same rules of film apply to video games here—you must engage emotionally engage your audience within the first half hour of the story.
Within the first 15 minutes, The Last of Us does just that. A deep emotional chord is struck with main character Joel during the prologue, which illustrates the zero hour of the Cordyceps outbreak. The pacing isn’t rushed, nor is what we’re supposed to be feeling shoved down our throats to artificially get us to understand the character. The pain we feel through the empathy is organic, the hurt pulled from the very core of our humanity. We project our own experiences with loss and fear onto the scenes, making our understanding of Joel as a person genuine. Thus an initial bond—no matter how small—is immediately formed with the character we will spend the majority of the story with.
That is where the success of this and other cinematic / narrative-driven games has come to fruition. Developers are striving to make the viewer believe that these aren’t just attractive bodies beyond a window, they are people—people whom we will grow to care about, whom I felt I understood, and who’s collective fate usually rested solely within my experienced, yet none-the-less quivering hands. Naughty Dog realized and attacked the very essence of why we tell stories—understanding, introspection, and above all, connection. We tell stories to connect with others through our experiences and trials through life; to help us try to understand both ourselves and the world we live in. That’s the key to it all. Not only that, Naughty Dog also understood the difference between someone fearing for a character, and someone genuinely caring about a character. When you fear for a character, the writer placing them in mortal jeopardy gets you to sit on the edge of your seat for fear of pain or death befalling them. When you care however, you want them to succeed so desperately that every little setback the story throws their way hits you as if you have stumbled or failed. Not just as a gamer who made a bad decision, but as a person who didn’t assess the situation properly.
With these simple understandings, the game’s writer and creative director Neil Druckmann had me invested in the outcome of Joel and Ellie’s story. He evoked love, anger, remorse, guilt and pity from me throughout my journey with them simply by having the gall to push the envelope within the video game storytelling landscape. Through his work, he essentially said, “No, we are going to trust that if our audience can pick up the controller and select the ‘new game’ option, they can understand this story’s message and it’s themes without breaking it down to the simplest terms.”
Through this respect of the audience, and the aforementioned drive to show that his medium should be taken seriously—as both a storytelling medium and an artistic one—Druckmann got me to worry about the horrors that awaited my beloved protagonists around every dystopian corner. He got my heart to sink when they hit another roadblock in their journey. He got me to despise characters who betrayed or sought to hurt my characters as if they were actual people who had betrayed me personally, or declared war on a member of my family. He got me to immerse myself within the world of a Cordyceps-ravaged 2033 wholly and completely. Most important of all though, by putting forth something tangible for my emotional core to latch onto, Druckmann and the team at Naughty Dog got me to do something I couldn’t do with World War Z: they got me to care.