The video game short story is increasingly becoming a popular, effective form of the medium. For the past decade game stories have grown longer and duller. Some of them don’t even end. Games like Gone Home and Papers, Please prove that what we thought was the future of games is wrong. Games can be two- to three-hour features with just as good, if not better, and often more personal, stories. There’s still room for the strategy games, the competitive multiplayer games, the puzzle games, and others that exist less as authored, narrative origami but instead as emergent, complex machines. Now, sitting right beside them, we get games driven by fewer, powerful ideas.
When you’re playing a game like Gone Home, the developer is almost omnipresent. Not in a totalitarian way as most big-budget, triple-A games feel, but in a way that enriches all the individual working parts. You know that for at least one out of the small team that made it, that thing was probably a significant part of their life at some point, and that they did all that work for you to see it once. The fingerprints of the massive, 100-person teams that work on the latest blockbuster are, in comparison, much harder to identify. Which is fair, Gone Home has nothing on the millions of copies big-budget games sell.
The Last of Us, in all its glory, is still a blockbuster game. It’s just one of the rare ones that bothers to peer down from its towering budget and give what the little guys are banking on a try. It’s filled with things that perform one function, things that only appear once or twice. But it still has the benefit of being a Sony-funded game from a studio that’s shown it can meet the demand for action games and still find a place for story. A lot of people are impressed, and a lot of developers, I bet, are jealous that Naughty Dog is allowed and fully capable of doing what it does. It’s not alone, though. Games like BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto 5 occupy a similar space, but both of them can’t touch how earnest a Naughty Dog game feels. It’s not a developer that is making use of its money, its earning every cent of it. And that, in an industry that too often fetishizes money, is admirable.
The Last of Us: Left Behind is Naughty Dog fully adopting the short story form and decimating the assumption that a studio of similar stature can’t do what a developer like The Fullbright Company did with Gone Home. So much of Left Behind feels personal in a similar way that Gone Home does. It’s quieter, poignant, and narrower in scope. It still has shooting and sneaking and stabbing, not to remind you it’s a game, but to challenge main character Ellie’s perseverance and to remind her of the world’s lurking futility. It combines that with a story of two young women appreciating the smallest joys they can in its post-apocalyptic world.
And those moments aren’t a long cutscene. Each one is unique and exists to fill in a relationship, not to pad the clock on the total hours of content per dollar scale that has plagued the gaming audience since the introduction of DLC and smaller games. Left Behind is dreadful and tense, and it also has some of the funniest, happiest material in games that isn’t at the expense of the player in some weird meta commentary on the medium as a whole. There’s a book of puns and several more minutes of accompanying voice acting than I predicted. Left Behind is human; pure like a lot of other, smaller games with far shorter credit sequences.
Even when Left Behind challenges you with an enemy encounter, be it stealth or action, its aim is more about finding a tone than prodding you with feedback. Encounters with the infected, zombie-like humans, for example, cloud your view with a thick haze of spores. It doesn’t help that you’re severely weaker than the infected and if they see or hear you, you’ll wish you were a space marine with a flashlight and a shotgun. These scenarios are quiet, with only a faint hint of the soundtrack and sometimes nothing but your rising heart beat. If you screw up–when you screw up–the score stampedes through the gunfire. And victory, in the world of The Last of Us, is rewarded with more dread. The subtle brilliance of Left Behind is that it puts you through two vastly different scenarios that are quiet. It’s just what you do in them that changes everything.
It’s this ownership Naughty Dog has over every working piece that gives Left Behind its voice. That and the excellent, one-man script–another rarity in games–by Neil Druckmann. Once you finish The Last of Us, it’s clear it has something to say, but its buried underneath all the egregious game-isms you’re forced to stomach for several hours and particularly near the end. In a lot of ways it was a fascinating compromise. Left Behind is not. Instead, everything in it is driven by one, noble idea: that games can tell good stories.