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The Last of Us — The Art of Video Game Storytelling


Hi, my name is Neil Druckmann
and I was the writer and creative director of The Last of Us. And this is Lessons From The Screenplay. – [Narrator] Many people
don’t equate video games with storytelling. They might think they’re
simply about button mashing or blowing things up. But video games can tell
deeply emotional stories with rich character arcs that you don’t simply watch
unfold, you participate in. The 2013 game, The Last of Us, from developer Naughty Dog
is one of the very best examples of how to tell a story through the medium of a video game. In The Last of Us, you play primarily as a character named Joel, a smuggler who has to escort a teenage girl, Ellie across a
post-apocalyptic United States. And although the experience of playing a game is different
than watching a film, the writers crafting the story face many of the same challenges. – Writing dialogue on the page is one of the last things and one
of the easiest things you do. A lot of the hard writing is structure. What are the beats that need to happen? How is each beat unique? How is it it all working towards this ultimate message you’re trying to say? Once you have that, then you kind of dive in deeper and say, okay,
what are the tools we have? How do we make these interactive moments tell the story more so than the dialogue? – [Narrator] As a long time gamer, I’ve always been fascinated by the unique experiences
created by video games, and I wanted to know how to create a compelling narrative
in this different medium. So I sat down with writer and creative director Neil Druckmann, who was nice enough to
answer all of my questions. So today we’re going to
look at the differences and similarities between storytelling in film and storytelling in games. To explore the techniques
used to convey exposition, establish character arcs, and teach gameplay in an emotional way, And to examine the way a game can make the player truly experience a story. Let’s take a look at The Last of Us. Ah cool, so why don’t we just
start with, what are some of the differences in
telling a story in a movie versus telling a story in a video game? – In a movie it’s so much about shots and how do you tell the story
visually on the screen. Games are interesting, in that you could have that, right? You have cinematics which
operate like film and so you need to be very familiar
with the cinematic language. Then there is another layer of it which is of course the thing that makes games unique
is the interactive space. [Narrator] The fundamental difference between how the audience
experiences a story in a video game versus a film is that
a film goer is passive, whereas the player has agency. In film you watch characters and empathize by observing their
situation, their desires, their obstacles, their choices. This is true for video games as well, but there’s also a more direct connection. You develop empathy through control. – When you’re playing a character, you connect with them in
this very subconscious level. I don’t even know how to
articulate it, but you hear people say, “I am Joel.” Or that part when they’re finally playing as Ellie is totally unique to gaming, and we watch this over and
over again as focus testers, get to that part. They’re like, “Oh my God, I’m Ellie.” And you see, they change how they play because now they’re seeing
themselves as this child, this teenager that doesn’t have the stature of this large man. And they play differently, and they look at the world differently. And it’s how you can use control of a character to create
such strong empathy. [Narrator] This connection can be used to give the player the
most compelling perspective for different moments of the story. One of the clearest examples of this is in the very
beginning of the game. – We had a very different opening. We had an opening where you played as Joel and you went to
the neighbor’s house, You have to put one of these infected down and then run back and go get your daughter and then you’re playing as
Joel every step of the way. And there was something
about that opening, it just felt very familiar. And then in brainstorming with some of the designers and other people, we had this aha moment of like, “Well, what if you didn’t play as Joel?” – Dad? – [Neil] What if you saw the whole opening through his daughter’s eyes? – You in here? Where the heck are you? – [Neil] People are just
more scared playing a kid than they are a capable adult and as you’re going around the house looking for your dad and you’re
seeing this thing on the news. – There seems to be some
commotion coming from the– – Get the hell out of here right– – What was that? – It just gets creepier and creepier. – There you are. – Sarah, we have got to get out of here do you understand me? – Yeah. [Narrator] As Joel, his
daughter, and his brother try to escape the erupting chaos, the player experiences everything from the point of view of Sarah, until– – Look out! [Narrator] Sarah’s leg
is hurt in the crash, so you now play as Joel,
suddenly responsible for trying to carry your injured daughter to safety amidst the
outbreak of an apocalypse. (screaming) – Keep looking at me baby. – [Man] Come on, run! – [Narrator] During this sequence, you can’t fight or hide, all you can do is keep running
and hope you don’t die. The player feels the stress and fear, because they are the
characters in this situation. (Screaming) – Daddy we can’t leave him. (screaming) – [Narrator] But this sequence does more than simply provide engaging gameplay, it establishes critical
character backstory. – Our characters have their own wants, needs, obsessions, loves. And we’re saying when
you’re playing our game, we want you to tap into who they are and play the game
as them, not as you, as them. [Narrator] The Last of
Us, like most films, is a story about a protagonist
on a journey of change. – It’s my daughter, I
think her leg is broken– – Stop right there! – [Narrator] And like many
protagonists, Joel has a ghost, a traumatic event that
makes him afraid of change. (gun firing)
(screaming) In this opening, we’re
living through Joel’s ghost. – Oh no, Sarah? Sarah? – [Narrator] After the title sequence, the game picks up twenty years later. After briefly meeting Joel’s
smuggling companion, Tess, the player takes control of Joel as they make their way to
recover some stolen weapons. Here, the game uses
environmental storytelling to provide exposition. – [Announcer] Required to carry an ID at all times,
compliance with all city– – [Narrator] What the
player sees and hears while moving through a space
provides critical details about the world and how it operates. There’s a good summary of this section in the script for The Last of Us, which allows me to quickly answer one of the questions I had going into this video. What does the script for
a video game look like? The answer is, it depends. Depending on the purpose of the script and the personal preference of the studio developing the game, the script format can range from proprietary story software to massive Excel spreadsheets. – For The Last of Us, once
the game was completed, all of the various story documents were conflated into a single script. In this final script, the cinematics and key story moments are written in traditional
screenplay format, while the gameplay is summarized in prose. Here’s the prose for
this section of the game. “The city is under constant martial law with soldiers posted at street corners” “In another section of the city, suspects are lined up on their knees with their hands on their head. A medical solider with a
handheld scanner goes down the line, scanning people
for the fungal infection. A woman tests positive and argues that she’s not infected. Soldiers hold the woman down while the medical soldier
injects her with a syringe. The woman convulses before dying. Another man on his knees
stands up and runs away. Without hesitation a
soldier raises his rifle and shoots the man.” (gun firing) It’s clear that this world
is a dangerous place. So how is the player supposed
to navigate all of this? The Last of Us uses the narrative to teach gameplay mechanics
in an emotional way. – So usually when we start
production on the game, the beginning is one of
the last things you work on because that’s when you have
locked down your mechanics, okay, now we need to train them. We have to expose the player to each thing their character can do, but you don’t want to
just throw a big text box on the screen, that’s your last resort. It’s like, are there ways
through the narrative that you could teach them? – [Narrator] In the game, as
Joel and Tess are on their way to recover their stolen weapons there’s an explosion
in the quarantine zone. (Explosion) So they have to run and
heal their injuries. – Patch yourself up all right. – [Narrator] Following Joel and Tess along their usual smuggling
path gives a sense of their routine and
provides an opportunity to learn how to reload weapons. – All right Texas, boost me up. – One of my favorite ones that we did was, all kind of shooters have, you
press L2 to aim, R2 to shoot. I’m like, “Okay, what’s an
interesting way to teach that?” And in the opening of the
game it’s like Joel and Tess are trying to get to this guy, Robert, they’re using
their smuggling routes. One of them has Infected in it. – Hold up, spores. – And as they crawl through, they see a guy on the
ground, another smuggler, some of the environment
has collapsed on him and he begs you to kill him because his mask broke and
he breathed in some spores. – My mask broke, don’t leave me to turn. – and then this box comes in, it’s like press L2 to
aim, press R2 to shoot. Then they’re like, “Oh, that’s how you’re
gonna teach me to shoot.” So again, it’s a way to
expose you to a mechanic, teach you it and put some emotional weight behind it and show you this
is the world that you live in. – Poor bastard. – [Narrator] After some
unexpected complications, Joel and Tess learn that the only way to get their weapons back is to smuggle some very unusual cargo. – Joel give me a hand with this. Ellie, a fierce fourteen-year-old girl, charges out from a nearby
room, switchblade in hand. – Get the fuck off of her. [Narrator] Tess catches Ellie’s arm, Ellie struggles to get free. – Let her go. – [Narrator] The relationship between Joel and Ellie
is established quickly in their very first cinematic. – I want you all to watch over her. – Bullshit I’m not– – Ellie. – Going with him. Cinematics are the part of video games that are most similar to
film, and I was curious when and why they choose to use them. when do you use cut scenes? when do you not? Is there any kind of logic or decision making that goes into that? – Yeah so usually cinematics is for specific emotional turns where we wanna slow things down or we wanna look at someone’s face. Get a nuance of a closeup performance that you can’t during game playing. So for example, Joel
coming home and talking to Sarah and her giving him a watch, there’s not gonna be a lot of
interesting gameplay in that but we still need to
establish a relationship with characters, we’ll
use a cut scene there. – You like it? – [Narrator] Setting up the
contentious relationship between Joel and Ellie is
an important plot point. In fact, it’s the inciting incident of the game and being able
to see the performance of the characters faces
allows for nuance and subtext. – What are you doing? – Killing time. – Well what am I supposed to do? – I’m sure you’ll figure that out. – Your watch is broken. – [Narrator] As soon as the characters get outside the quarantine zone, it’s revealed that Ellie
is immune to the disease, that within her might be the cure. It’s now up to Joel to protect
Ellie and get her to safety, and we know from having
played the opening sequence, where he was unable to
save his own daughter, why this is such an emotional task. – So much of the game is the relationship between Ellie and Joel. If we don’t succeed and make you care about this relationship, make you feel these
characters love each other the way a father and a
daughter can love each other, this unconditional love,
we will have failed. Everything is depending on that. – Is that everything you hoped for? – Jury still out but man,
can’t deny that view. – [Narrator] But if a game
simply used cinematics to display the relationship
between two characters, it would just be a movie. So the question is, how do you make the player
feel a relationship? – When you’re playing the game, again with the statement of, we need you to care
about this relationship, we need these characters
to rely on one another and so much of our game is action and combat. And if Ellie’s just hiding
and not participating, then you don’t care as much about her. She starts feeling more like a burden. [Narrator] In The Last of Us, the player is constantly
trying to overcome obstacles. Everything from solving puzzles
to fighting off infected. As you play, you’re accompanied by Ellie, a NPC, or a non-player character, who literally helps you
overcome these obstacles. – You have two characters
and you constantly have to think about how do I
have to rely on one of them. So I might have a gate
that I can’t get past. – Shit, it’s jammed on the other side. – [Neil] If I’m with Ellie I
can boost her over the gate, she can open it from the other side so I’m learning to rely on Ellie. If I came on this gate
and I didn’t have Ellie, I’d have to find a different solution. – Okay, ta-da. – [Narrator] Since the
player is constantly in life or death situations, Ellie
literally helps you survive. – Ellie can save you, Ellie can pick up a brick
and throw it at a dude and give you just enough opening for you to put him down and survive. Likewise if someone grabs you
and pins you against the wall, Ellie might, if she’s around, jump on the guys back and stab
him to give you that opening, again, it’s this feeling very unique thing to games of like, I’ve learned
to rely on this person, now when they’re not
around I want them around. But Ellie isn’t there simply
enhance game mechanics, there is performance happening even when you’re just walking around the city. – The way she’s talking, and the way she’s experiencing the scene, and her demeanor is gonna
change how you feel about her. So for example, after Ellie and Joel get in a fight in the hotel in Pittsburgh. – Why didn’t you just hang
back like I told you to? – You could see her, she’s
crossing her arms more. She’s more standoffish, she’s talking less than she’s used to. Where again, in a film, you can control the pacing and the exact shots here just like oh, this person that’s walking with
me is behaving differently. This is what it feels
like to be in a fight. – [Narrator] The behavior of the NPC changes how
you feel about them. So now that we’ve covered
all the various ways the game makes the player experience
Joel and Ellie’s relationship, I want to look at one last sequence. It’s one of my favorites in the game and I think it demonstrates how all these pieces come together. Toward the end of the game, Ellie has a traumatic experience where she’s taking by a group of cannibals and narrowly
finds a way to escape. – She grabs this machete and she kills David in
the most brutal ways. Just hacks him, and even past
the point where he’s dead, and you’re seeing this effect now, her being on her own, fighting all these people
killing, murdering. It’s having a toll on her. And we leave them just as Joel
comes in and pulls her off of David and holds her and embraces her like his own daughter. He even calls her baby girl, the same phrase he used for his daughter. – Oh baby girl, it’s okay, it’s okay. – [Narrator] The game cuts
to a few months later, but the weight of Ellie’s
experience remains. – Where Ellie, the whole game
has been the optimistic one. The peppy one, she does jokes. She’s the one that calls
Joel on his bullshit. She’s just got all this energy, and you’re coming in, and
she’s quiet, and she’s distant. – You know, once we’re
done with this whole thing, I’m gonna teach you how to play a guitar. Yeah, I reckon you’d really like that. What do you say, huh? – She doesn’t respond, and you get this interactive
prompt above her head that you’ve had the whole game where you can talk to her and be like, and you hit it again, Ellie. And you hit again, Ellie. – Ellie, I’m talking’ to you. – Huh? Oh yeah, sure that sounds great. – But you can tell something
is really off with her. And that was important for us
to show that Ellie has an arc, that Ellie starts as this
very innocent, naive person. And you can’t survive in this world without it corrupting you in some way without it having some
toll on your personality. – [Narrator] Here, the behavior of the NPC you’re paired with, is once again revealing character. Moments later you’re in a bus station and need to boost Ellie
up to grab a ladder, something you’ve done time
and time again in the game. – Maybe we could use that ladder? – [Narrator] You’ve done it so much, that now the game can
subvert your expectations. – So there’s a ladder on top of a ledge, and you call Ellie, and you
click it and Ellie’s not there. – Here we go. Ellie. – And you turn around and you
see she’s just there sitting, despondent. – Ellie. – What? – The ladder, come on. – Right. – [Narrator] It’s hard to convey how surprising this is without
actually playing the game, but it’s one of my favorite moments in any game I’ve ever played. A perfect example of how to use gameplay mechanics
to convey emotion. You feel what a toll this
journey has had on Ellie. – [Neil] And then you boost her and she starts lowering this ladder and something catches her off guard. And she’s like, “Oh my God.” And she just drops the
ladder and runs off. – Oh my God. – And now your panic starts
to say, “What did you see?” You yell out to her. She doesn’t respond. So you have to pick up the ladder, climb up and then go find her. – Ellie! – [Narrator] Here, empathy
through control kicks in, the girl you have to
protect may be in danger and it’s up to you to see if she’s okay. And that’s when this happens. – You see this? Shh, don’t scare it. – I won’t, I won’t. – The giraffe moment is very much a result of really tight structure. We just came from a sequence where we want to show the
toll of all the violence, the trauma it has on Ellie. You just feel so bad for
her, this kid is gone. Maybe she’ll never
recover and Ellie is just over the moon seeing these giraffes and you can go up to them
and you can pet them. – Hey there. So fucking cool. – And the reason that that is there is to bring the child back, is to show she still has that innocence. She still has that hopefulness. She could still smile despite all the horrible things these
characters have experienced. She still has life within her. – [Narrator] We get the
briefest of cinematics where we see their faces during this emotional turning point. – Is it everything you were hoping for? – It’s got its ups and downs but You still can’t deny the view, though. – [Narrator] And we are one step closer to the completion of Joel’s arc. – The kind of life that Joel
has suppressed and shut down, comes through with Ellie. And then it’s like, that’s
probably the happiest moment. Coming from such, the dark of winter to this really happy moment, that already sets us up for the darkness of what we need to head into. To me, great story structure
is constantly doing this. And that was what we were
after for the sequence. – [Narrator] This quiet, happy
moment sets the player up for the games darkest sequence yet. What is your goal when creating a story? When creating a game, What experience do you want
people to walk away with? – What we wanted was to have
the player be entertained. I think if it’s not entertaining, and it’s boring, you’re
not gonna stick with it. Love these characters
the way we love them, understand them, and
just making you reflect on these choices and question like, “What would I have done?” And I think you only feel the weight of that question if you
experience a whole journey with these characters. – [Narrator] Joel and Ellie’s
journey is not just fun to play, it’s a powerful story experience that cleverly uses the tools of its medium to deeply affect the player, making sure we won’t forget our experience playing The Last of Us. If you’re interested in
doing your own storytelling in games, it would obviously be good to know as much as you can about both how to tell stories and how to make games and One of the greatest resources for learning new skills is Skillshare. Skillshare is an online
learning community for creators, with thousands of classes in game design, writing, filmmaking, and more. Premium Membership gives
you unlimited access, so you can join the
classes and community’s that are just right
for you and your goals. If you’re looking for a fun way to get a glimpse into working with 3D modeling and animation software, I recommend checking out
Gustavo Torres’s class, “Motion Graphics in Cinema 4D: Design an 80s-Inspired Animated GIF” In the class he uses Cinema 4D, Photoshop, and After Effects to make a
cool 80s-style animated gif. You can start the class today for free by heading to the
link in the description below. An annual subscription is
less than 10 Dollars a month, and by signing up with that link you get
two months for free. So head to Skillshare
and start learning today. Thanks to Skillshare for
Sponsoring this video. Hey guys, hope you enjoyed the video. I want to say thank you to Neil Druckmann and everyone at Naughty Dog and Sony who helped to make this
interview possible. We actually talked for
about forty minutes, so there were parts of the
interview that had to be cut. But, I’ll be releasing these
extra clips to our Patreons. So if you wanna help support
the channel and get access to exclusive clips from
my interview with Neil, head to the Patreon for
Lessons from the Screenplay. Thank you as always to
the Patreons on Patreon and supporters here on YouTube for making this channel possible. Thanks for watching and
I’ll see you next time.

Reader Comments

  1. Amazing video, but very disappointed that they didn't talk about the ending. It was really strange that they mentioned how the giraffe scene sets the player up for the ending, and then didn't even say a word about it. You could say it's because of not wanting to spoil it, but come on, they already spoiled major plot points, and who would watch this video without having played the game first.

  2. If you ever get the chance, would love to see a video essay on Days Gone. It blew my mind how real and full of heart it felt in comparison

  3. Watching the video about The Last of Us is a hit towards all our hearts and minds for how the video game makes us feel these different kinds of emotions. I'm glad to have watched it.

  4. For me the most powerful turning point is at the Epilogue of the game. All the truth about Ellie's nonexistence cure is what makes their relationship simply a lie that will probably lead them through Part II.
    This is the most powerful and the darkest moment where the balance could tip more on hate between them than the love and friendship they have created during this adventure

  5. One of the first things I noticed while playing The Last of Us the first time was just how much walking I did as Joel. Normally, games are large enough that the player is accustomed to running everywhere they have to go because it quickly becomes boring to just try and walk there. But in TLoU, I found myself walking, wanting to walk because it afforded me the opportunity to experience my relationship with Ellie. Unless enemies were about, there was no need to run or hurry through an area and I was able to just enjoy the scenery, explore the surroundings and feel as though I were sharing them with Ellie. No other game has ever made me feel that way.

  6. I've played The Last Of Us like eight times and I'm still emotional about it, how is that possible?

    Can't wait for Part II…

  7. "The full weight of that moral question"
    Bitch if you even doubted for a second about whether or not to save Ellie you are completely dead inside. It still baffles me that some people were like "hm, this feels wrong" when that moment comes. I was like full on killing spree, we need to protect this girl at all costs.

    THAT is the full power of empathy and connection you can get with the medium of video games.

  8. I'm saving this so I can watch it in peace. Never have I even been so excited to watch a YouTube video. Thanks for the quality content and appreciating the potential of story telling through videogames. I haven't watch the video yet, but I can already tell it's gonna be great.

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