The Last of Us, the WGA awards, and thoughts on poor video game writing / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

The Last of Us

As I’m writing this, The Last of Us has just been given yet another award, this time from the Writer’s Guild of America. The last award on the list is the “Videogame Winner” for “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing.” Impressive, right? Not really.

The problem with the WGA awards is that they can only be given to scripts written under the jurisdiction of the WGA. With film, this isn’t a major problem since there are a lot of fantastic written works being produced under that umbrella, and even if Before Midnight should have crushed the “Adapted Screenplay” category, Her was as well written as anything that came out in 2013.

Not so in the land of video games. The Last of Us was up against four other games, each of them well into their respective franchises:

  • God of War: Ascension
  • Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
  • Batman: Arkham Origins
  • Lost Planet 3

Say what you want about any of these games, that’s not spectacular competition. Certainly not in a year featuring Gone Home, The Novelist, and those other Indie darlings (all with American writers, I might add). Heck, Bioshock Infinite (ridiculous as it may be) deserved a nod over any of the rest of them.

The “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing” award is a relatively new award, only dating back to 2009, and this is the third time that Naughty Dog has taken the crown (Uncharted 2 and 3 both won). Beside them are two Assassin’s Creed games (Brotherhood and III: Liberation) and… The Force Unleashed.

Still impressed? Didn’t think so.

The problem with the nominees for this award show that the AAA video game industry is reveling in mediocrity. Nobody really thinks that video game writing is all that good. Even the blindest, most rabid game fans understand that thus far there really haven’t been a whole lot of game scripts worth celebrating.

The problem is a bit more fundamental, though, than it is in other media. In TV and film, the writing is excruciatingly important because that’s fully half of what the audience is experiencing. For radio programs, that’s all of it. In games, so much else is vying for the player’s attention that the story can be terrible and many people won’t notice. That has been and continues to be true.

But then there’s a bigger question: what constitutes the writing?

When The Artist was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay, my initial thought was, “What?!” because I was dumb and was only thinking in terms of dialogue. Obviously, there’s a lot more to the screenplay than just the words, and having read part of The Artist’s screenplay, I can’t really complain about it

In a game, things are obviously a bit less clearly defined thanks to the wonders of player agency. In some (many (most?)) games, player agency is relatively minimal, so the flow-chart that defines progression is relatively simple.  Games where choices actually matter to the narrative in some way become much more complicated, and I don’t have the faintest idea what the script for Beyond: Two Souls looks like, other than the fact that it’s 2,000 pages long. (Although, given David Cage’s obsession with the cinematic experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somehow written in Final Draft.)

The writing in a game like Beyond: Two Souls is massively important to the experience, because that’s basically all there is to drive the player (so it’s unfortunate that the writing is subpar). Games like Killzone: Shadow Fall can get away with subpar writing because they’re fun and interesting. That game has a dumb story. It’s gorgeous, fun, and I heavily recommend it, but it’s just stupid and beats you over the head with its narrative while undermining itself through the gameplay.

(Is that ludonarrative dissonance I hear?! Maybe. But that’s another discussion for another day (or several).)

Writing in The Last of Us is important in the same way it is in Beyond: Two Souls, although it’s far less complicated. Everyone sees essentially the same story in essentially the same way. There will be gameplay specific moments that don’t correspond, but these aren’t really emergent narratives like what can come from the gameplay in the Far Cry sequels or other open world games of that sort. For most intents and purposes, the story I experienced is the story that Neil Druckmann wrote.

(It’s worth noting that The Last of Us was the only game nominated by the WGA to feature only one writer. God of War: Ascension had two, Lost Planet 3 and Arkham Origins both had three, and Assassin’s Creed IV had seven. The latter is especially interesting because that team was broken up pretty heavily. Three people worked on the story, then there was one lead scriptwriter, another regular scriptwriter, an AI-specific scriptwriter, and a "Scriptwriter Singapore,” whatever that means. (If it actually means a scriptwriter in Singapore, why is he on the list of nominees in the Writer’s Guild of America? And isn’t Ubisoft French? Black Flag was developed by Ubisoft Montreal. So how come they get nominated and Rockstar doesn’t? That’s as stupid as Killzone’s story. But I digress.)

But the thing about the writing in The Last of Us is that it suffers from being in a video game. For example: early on, somebody (I’m pretty sure it’s Marlene, leader of the Fireflies, but it doesn’t really matter who it was) says to Joel (the player character) something to the effect of, “You can stealth your way through this, but I know that’s not your style.”

When I heard that, two things happened:

  1. I wanted to throw a brick through my television.
  2. I lost literally all respect I had had for the game’s writing.

Because that is the stupidest line of dialogue in the history of forever (and I’m only being slightly hyperbolic). But it’s not just that it’s an extraordinarily stupid line, it’s that it’s an extraordinarily stupid line in a game that wants you to believe it’s not extraordinarily stupid. It’s a line that a game that doesn’t receive an “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing” can get away with because most video game writing is garbage. And I’m sure I’ve heard lines just like it dozens of times. But just in case you don’t understand how stupid that line is, I’m going to break it down for you.

(Remember that this may or may not have been paraphrased slightly, but the message is the same.)

“You can stealth your way through this.”

Ugh. I shouldn’t even need to explain how dumb the message of this is. I mean, imagine a human being saying that to another human being. How did the voice actress not look at that line and say, “Uh… nope. That’s stupid, Mr. Druckmann. I appreciate you and everything, but… nope”? That is a line of video game dialogue, and considering it comes around the same time as the tutorial that explains to you how to stealth things, it’s even worse. Leave the video game exposition to the floating words that only I can see. Don’t break the attempts at immersion by having the character say something that only a video game character would say. Or something a condescending teenager would say to a child. This is a game for adults, and I think those adults would appreciate being treated as such. Being given a mature story isn’t enough: give them some goddamn respect.

And you know what else you shouldn’t do? Break your player’s connection with their character.

“I know that’s not your style”?

“I know that’s not your style”?!

There are approximately an infinite number of things wrong with this sentence, but let’s focus on the two big ones:

  • You don’t know me.

What do I mean by that? I mean that you, the fake character in this video game that I am now all-too-aware I am playing, are telling me, Alec Kubas-Meyer, how I play video games. She may be talking to Joel, but, again, these aren’t things human beings say to each other, so she’s talking to someone else: me. The player. And she has no idea what she’s talking about, because for the purposes of The Last of Us, stealth is absolutely my style. And claiming otherwise leads me to:

  • You're breaking the game's reality.

With that one little line of dialogue, it is now established that a character who has known Joel a hell of a lot longer than I have believes that he does not stealth his way through things. She believes that he shoots his way through things. She would know far better than I how Joel does things, or she would if this were an actual world that actually existed. Which it’s not, and I’m all-too-aware of that because I’m about to completely ignore the fact that apparently my character likes wasting bullets.

When I stealth through that section, I am taking control of a character who has a history and has built up relationships with people and is going to build new relationships. Over the next however-many-hours, I need to feel like those relationships have meaning or else there is no reason I’m doing it. Joel isn’t supposed to be some empty shell that I’m putting myself into. He is supposedly a real character. But how am I supposed to believe that’s the case when these characters talk to him in such a way that fundamentally disagrees with how I am now going to take control? If the line said, “We should tread quietly here” or something (that’s not a great line, but it’s better), you know who would have had a problem with that? Nobody. That’s who. It recommends stealth as an option without sounding so stupid (even though he would know damn well that they should tread quietly) and it doesn’t create any conflict within the player.

But it could create narrative conflict if the player decided to go in guns blazing anyway, triggering some kind of cutscene where that person is as incredulous about his actions as I was about that line being uttered.

So maybe this would be better: “How we doing this thing? I’m right behind you.” It gives you the illusion of choice (to kill or not to kill probably should be a narratively meaningful choice, but it’s not), and there’s no more character conflict. You get to choose who Joel is as a character, and there’s an establishment of presumably long-standing trust between the characters. In the game world, there would presumably have to be a reputation that the characters built up, but that kind of vague thing would allow it to remain invisible to the player and let them take the reigns.

And sure, by now, they likely would have figured out a system and wouldn’t be talking in earshot of a bunch of armed bad guys, but at some point (I guess) we have to accept it’s a video game and that there’s going to be something weird and dumb about it.

(Is that ludonarrative interference I’m thinking about?! Yeah it is! That is another series of discussions we’ll be having. Don’t you worry.)

If I had to guess, Mr. Neil Druckmann spent all of zero seconds coming up with that line. I like to believe that’s the case, anyway; that among the tens of thousands of lines of dialogue featured in the game, it was just a throwaway line.

But the problem is that, in a serious narrative-driven environment, every line means something. Every bit of incidental dialogue will hit the player’s brain, and it will shape the way they view the world. The Last of Us is about building a world and showing what has happened to humanity within it. There can’t be a throwaway line, because it could hit someone the wrong way and make them realize that the whole thing is a sham. That it is just writing and not being.

The writing, then, has to be essentially invisible. It can’t draw attention to itself. Talking to the player, even indirectly, draws attention. Saying things that human beings don’t say draws attention. The attention should never be on the words. It has to be on the world.