Narrative is one of central catalysts to creating entertaining and emotionally captivating media. Films such as inception left us reeling, with complex ideas on consciousness and the implications of tampering with an individual’s memories. While what some call, the golden age of television, has brought forth gritty drama’s that lead us to empathise with drug dealers (Breaking Bad), fear other people more than flesh eating virus’s (The Walking Dead), and question who’s death is most imminent (Game of Thrones). Both film and television have adapted and evolved the ways that they tell stories over the last 20 years. Yet there is one medium that has seen far more narrative growth than any other. Video Games.
20 years ago narrative was all but non-existent in video games. John Carmack, one of the founders of id software (creators of seminal games such as Doom (1993), Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Quake (1996)) once said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important,” (Kushner, 2003). I strongly disagree with Carmack and believe this to be an outdated view about an ever changing genre. I believe Carmack is referencing the importance of gameplay and level design over storytelling. But by comparing modern games with relics of the past we can see that narrative has become just as important a factor.
Naught Dog is a video game development studio based in Santa Monica, California. The studio was initially founded by Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin in September of 1984 and was originally called Jam Software. However it was in the mid 90’s that they really came into their own and began a long term relationship with console manufacturer and publisher Sony. This piece will focus on the development of narrative within Naughty Dog’s games over the past 20 years. From Crash Bandicoot (1996) to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016), each product they have produced has reflected both their own growth in maturity and storytelling finesse but also the state of the industry as a whole.
Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Crash Bandicoot (1996) was released just a year after the Launch of Sony’s first console, the PlayStation 1. Crash became a sort of mascot for the PlayStation, as if to show consumers an example of what this next generation of hardware was capable of. The game was one of the first of the 3D platformer genre. It had a linear narrative, the player moving crash from one level to another in a predetermined direction. There were no diverging paths or different ways the narrative could pan out. Each level had to be played consequently in the order the developers planned.
The games plot revolves around the confrontation between Dr Neo Cortex and Crash Bandicoot. Cortex aspires to build an army of animal super soldiers, whom he views as tools to exact revenge on those who criticised him. You play as the titular character Crash, and the latest of Cortex’s failures. Crash escapes Cortex’s lab by jumping out an open window. However in doing so he leaves behind his girlfriend Tawna Bandicoot. Crash must then progress through several stages, over the course of three islands. Completing simple platforming tasks, collecting floating fruit and fighting the occasional boss battle. In the end you return to the castle, defeat Cortex and you and Tawna fly off into the sunset atop an enormous bird.
The narrative structure of the game is weak at best. Naughty Dog give the protagonist purpose and provide a driving force to move the player and narrative forward, but there is a substantial amount the game is lacking. As the player we have no exposition or context for why we should care about rescuing Tawna. We never witness any significant character development or any form of narrative complexity. Crash is very much a relic of the time. The narrative in its simplicity compares to that of a kids cartoon. This makes sense, as during this period most video games were still viewed as toys for children. Crash continues to perpetuate many video game tropes. From the need to face a “Boss” type adversary at the end of a stage, to collecting countless amounts of some obscure object, to having the protagonist rescue a helpless damsel in distress. Crash Bandicoot was followed by two sequels and a cart racing spin off, which was once again very much a trend of the time. Crash was Naughty Dogs first true success, but as a narrative experience with such a minimalistic story, it taught me very little about narrative while growing up. My inspiration for writing still stemmed from books and films. Crash is very much the gameplay focussed product many conjure up when they think of games.
Jak 2: Renegade (2003)
After creating four games in the Crash Bandicoot series, Naughty Dog decided to invest in a new IP for the PlayStation 2. There first entry into the Jak and Daxter series was Jak and Daxter the Precursor Legacy (2001). The Precursor Legacy, although a technical marvel, was very much the kid friendly, video game cliché filled experience we had come to expect. However its sequel Jak 2: Renegade (2003) showed both a shift in narrative complexity and a transition taking place in the industry. Much of this transition coincided with the release of Grand theft auto 3 (2001). GTA 3 promoted one of the first true open world experiences, where players could move around a living, breathing environment, in whatever manner they desired. It also caused mass controversy with its mature and often graphic themes. GTA 3 proved to be a massive success, and the rest of the industry was paying close attention.
Jak 2 had a much darker tone that its predecessor, with the main character being ripped from the lush, beautiful environments of the previous game and tortured within the confines of a prison cell. The game technically also copies much of GTA 3. Sprawling open worlds, a focus on hijacking vehicles and a more aggressive combat system, none of which was present in The Precursor Legacy. Despite the fact that many of the choices made in Jak 2’s development were stolen directly from Grand Theft auto 3, it showed a massive progression for the studio in their focus on narrative.
Jak and his sidekick Daxter travel from their world through a portal into an alternate universe. Jak is captured by Haven City’s police force, the crimson guard, and imprisoned and tortured for 2 and a half years. Jak is injected with a substance called Dark Eco, which causes him to transform into a deformed creature when overwhelmed by emotion. Upon escaping, he seeks to track down the man who imprisoned him, Baron Praxis. In reality this simple tale of revenge seems very similar to that of Crash Bandicoot. Yet if you look deeper, there is more to this narrative than Naughty Dog’s past titles.
There are far more ups and downs to flesh out the narrative and keep it interesting for the entirety of the 20 hour campaign. You’ll build relationships with the local resistance, come to understand the powers you now possess, and learn the secret connections between this grim city and Jak’s home world. Jak is also fully voiced for the first time, which helped bring a massive amount of depth to his character. By hearing Jak interact with other non-playable characters (NPC’S) we could garner more of who he is as a protagonist. Plus with the open world setup it provided some choice within the narrative. Occasionally you’d be given the option to choose which mission you wanted to approach first. This meant you could meet certain characters in a variety of orders. By hearing their perspectives on the world and others in one way, your perception of the story could be altered compared to if you tackled the missions in another order. Jak 2: Renegade’s narrative felt like it was targeted towards the angry 14 year old in me. I as a young teen related to texts such as these and would write angst ridden sci fi tales similar to Jak’s. Jak 2 created a strong bridge between the gameplay focussed, upbeat kid’s games and the realistic, narrative driven, gritty adult games the industry was beginning to embrace.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the second game released by Naughty Dog on the PlayStation 3. After finishing off the Jak and Daxter trilogy Naughty Dog once again wiped the slate clean, when they moved their focus on to the next console generation. Uncharted: Drakes Fortune released in 2007 and two years later they released their biggest critical success to date, in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The Uncharted series took Naughty Dog back to its linear roots. They left behind the mythical open world of Jak and took on a more realistic, third person shooter experience, with a pulpy cinematic narrative.
Uncharted 2 continued the story of charismatic treasure hunter Nathan Drake. He ventured from country to country, uncovering historical clues while simultaneously racing a psychotic mercenary and his army to the temple of Shambhala. A variety of colourful characters came along for Drake’s tale. Sully the cigar smoking, Hawaiian shirt wearing mentor. Elena the pestering, but independent reporter/ ex-girlfriend. For the first time we also saw Naughty Dog stepping away from the rest of the industry. From Resistance: Fall of Man (2006) to Gears of War 2 (2008) to Fallout 3 (2008), the games industry seemed to relish melancholic, hopeless tales of war and drab lifeless environments. While Uncharted 2 embraced light-hearted humour, colourful vistas and hyperbolic action sequences. Uncharted abandoned much of the narrative structure they had established with the Jak series.
There was no longer an open world to leisurely be explored, or a one mission at a time based narrative structure. You experienced the narrative through limited exploration and tightly choreographed action sequences. Uncharted became a hybrid between a video game and an action movie. Crash Bandicoot and Jak had felt like toys whereas Uncharted finally felt like something more. Yet even though this was a grand step in growing games as a medium it didn’t necessarily mean the narrative was perfect. The story was witty, and at times tense but did not have enough power to effect someone emotionally. Characters no longer one dimensional, but still hollow Hollywood tropes. The story still felt like a needed justification to funnel the player between one shoot out and the next. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in hindsight can be seen as a prototype. A valiant step in progressing the medium narratively. Personally I once again did not see my style or taste in writing reflected in video games. I had grown up, and wanted to write about things that mattered, that others could relate to on an emotional level. Uncharted and video games as a whole weren’t ready to reflect something that deep.
The Last of Us (2013)
The Last of Us was something special. It was the fourth and final game to be released by Naught Dog on the PlayStation 3 and is considered by many to be their greatest achievement. The Last of Us was one of the first times a video game had something meaningful to say. Its overarching plot is as straightforward as that of Crash Bandicoot or Uncharted. The world was molested by a viral epidemic. A fungal infection that incubates within the human brain has turned much of the earth’s population into rabid, zombie like, predators. You play as a man named Joel, escorting a young girl named Ellie (who may hold the cure to this virus), across America to a group known as the Fireflies. However The Last of Us reflects the growth of both the industry and its audience. Those who enjoyed Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter as children have grown into adults. And now look for experiences that will accommodate their more mature tastes and challenge them technically and ethically. Joel and Ellie stray across many individuals along their trek. While with an old friend of Joel’s named Bill, they find the corpse of Bill’s lover, strung aloft by a noose. Several hours later, Joel and Ellie are run off the road by a community of survivors in Pittsburgh, who unable to find food and democracy, turned to cannibalism. There are some truly horrific moments within the Last of Us’ narrative, each one holding meaning, and urging the player to think.
However the true signs of narrative innovation come from the implementation of story within gameplay. In Uncharted the story was merely there to logically funnel you from one segment of gameplay to the next. However in The Last of Us, the story and gameplay is one cohesive whole. Towards the end of the narrative we play as Ellie, trying to escape the clutches of a man named David. David pins Ellie to the floor in a cut scene and as the player we expect Joel to burst in at any moment. To save us from imminent death. But he doesn’t. David molests both 14 year old Ellie and the player. The player watches, unable to do anything, as Ellie, while sobbing, grabs a butcher’s knife on the floor and hacks away at David’s face until he slumps over. Joel eventually arrives but is too late. In the next gameplay sequence Joel and Ellie explore a hotel. As the player walks across the room, as Joel, they are prompted to give Ellie a boost so she can pick something up for the player on a higher level. This is a common gameplay mechanic used countless times throughout the game. Yet for the first time ever, Ellie doesn’t come. Initially you are confused, thinking it may be a possible glitch, but then you see Ellie is instead standing and looking out the window, a look of anguish on her face. Ellie’s emotions over what happened with David have an impact on the actual gameplay of the game.
Another point where we can see a clear evolution in the narrative of video games, is in its treatment of female characters, and the depth to character relationships. Joel is a man ravaged by grief, a grief that has pushed him to isolation. While Ellie is a strong, opinionated fourteen year old who has been subjected to continuous abandonment. In their journey they both play a key role in each other’s growth. Joel acts as a mentor and protector for the young girl. While Ellie helps Joel release some of the emotional anguish he subjects himself to. Ellie embodies the transition of females in games from overly sexualised victims to idolised heroes. In Crash Bandicoot Tawna is merely a plot device to move the narrative forward. In Uncharted 2 reporter Elena isn’t necessarily a damsel in distress but is still seen as not much more than an annoying pest turned love interest. She is more robust as a character than Tawna but still holds very little significance. Ellie however is positioned as a duel protagonist alongside Joel. Rather than only considering Joel’s perspective, their relationship as a surrogate father and daughter is the focus. And at times Ellie proves to possess far more strength, than the hulking man with a haunted psyche. The Last of Us’ narrative is moving, tragic and complex. Naughty Dog manages to tell a story through cinematic cut scenes and thoughtful gameplay, in a manner which invites female audiences to enjoy a genre dominated by white males and older gamers to grow alongside their childhood passion.
The Last of Us had a significant impact on my writing. From the darker tones, and troubled characters I created. To a new motivation to tell stories in innovative and intuitive ways.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the first game released by Naughty Dog on the PlayStation 4 and the newest game in their portfolio. Uncharted 4 is an accumulation of everything Naughty Dog has learned over the past 20 years. In Crash Bandicoot they proved they could create a successful game. By following the trends of the rest of the gaming industry they added a gritty narrative to Jak 2. They then in Uncharted 2 created a game that felt just like an action movie. Then somehow managed to tell a mature story of sacrifice and pain in the Last of Us, by ingeniously merging narrative and gameplay. And in Uncharted 4 Naughty Dog manages to ask some truly poignant questions about life, which resonate to a deep degree with players.
Uncharted 4 continues the story of Nathan Drake. It has now been several years since his last adventure. He has retired from the treasure hunting profession and settled down with his wife, Elena. However when his brother, whom he thought had been killed year’s earlier resurfaces, Drake is forced to secretly return to his old life.
Despite utilising the same cast as the previous three Uncharted titles, these Hollywood stereotypes now feel like genuine people, to cherish and empathise with. Elena is no longer the annoying reporter. She is still a doting companion, but exhibits her own wants and demands. Sully is still the wise cracking mentor we grew accustomed to, but for the first time he genuinely seems to care for Nathan’s wellbeing. And Nathan Drake no longer feels like an enigmatic action hero. He is a man troubled by doubt, with a longing for his old way of life.
Voice acting is phenomenal, the soundtrack and writing have been masterfully crafted, and through the use of motion capture character facial expressions feel as real as if we were watching the actors themselves. Naughty Dog has turned these characters into genuine people we care for. The narrative balances story telling with explosive action sequences in a manner that conveys a convincing tale but still remains fun to play.
Within Uncharted 4 Naughty Dog has continued to look into how to imbue all aspects of gameplay with plot. As you traverse the cliff sides of Scotland, plains of Madagascar, and deserted towns of a pirate colony there are peppering’s of story. As I explored a waterfall off the beaten path of where I was meant to go, I discovered a corpse. Within the pocket of the corpse I found a note. I was momentarily transported to the thoughts of one of, Pirate Captain, Henry Avery’s crew. These small notes provide snippets of character motivation and exposition for the greater story. They aren’t necessary to enjoy the basic plot, and are instead, easy to miss rewards for those who want a richer narrative experience.
The narrative urges both Drake and players to consider some thoughtful questions. How far are you willing to go to fulfil your dreams? Is it ok to lie to protect the ones you love? Are you using the notion of helping others as a veil to get what you want? When do you stop and value what you have, rather than yearning for more. For the first time after beating a game I walked away considering aspects of my own life. Uncharted 4’s tale had a powerful effect on how I view the world, and myself. When playing Uncharted 2, I felt my writing had matured beyond video games. But Uncharted 4 taught me I had so much more to learn in regards to writing. I learned a lot about how to use convincing dialogue and character intent to create living breathing people within my work.
The differences between Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the original Crash Bandicoot enlighten us to many things. The substantial evolution of complexity and maturity within video games. The powerful effects this ever changing genre can have on players. And how video games have gone from an interactive toy for children to a unique and revolutionary way of tackling narrative. They have taught me so much about both storytelling as a whole, and where my own strengths lie in writing.
By Chris Bowring