You would be hard-pressed to find anyone more committed than I am to the thesis that video game story-telling has the greatest potential for impact among narrative mediums. Still, while playing Naughty Dog’s narrative masterpiece, The Last of Us Part 2 (TLOU2), I was forced to pause and consider qualifying my total support for this idea. After several profoundly troubling moments in Ellie’s story, I found myself calloused to the consequences of my actions, and forfeiting one of my most human capacities—empathy.Suddenly, Ellie was more human, TLOU2’s world was more real, and I wasn’t afraid of losing myself in a virtual world anymore.
What I discovered upon closer inspection was that the game itself was training me to feel this way—not with narrative decisions, but by its very nature as a video game. While it may sound ironic for anyone who knows that TLOU is notoriously slow and plodding, TLOU2 falls prey to an unnamed danger of video game story-telling—the need to always be moving the player somewhere.
Video games started as kinetic experiences—stimulating players with new scenarios and new decisions nearly every second. While Naughty Dog has done as much or more than other developers to move forward the story-telling frontier of game development, in TLOU2, this kinetic root reveals its ugly side when existential decisions are followed by a 7 second black-screen and a return to normalcy. Even Naughty Dog, one of the most mature story-tellers in the industry, have opted to keep players moving rather than slowing down to sit with heavy subject matter the way movies, and especially TV shows, often do.
Looking back on the games I’ve reflected most upon in writing (Red Dead Redemption 2 and Death Stranding), I quickly realized they are both known for their slow pace. Each has received criticism for extended portions related to travelling without action. I began to consider, “Is it possible I reflected so profoundly on those games because their design provided the space for me to do so?” I then decided to create that space for my TLOU2 playthrough where Naughty Dog did not explicitly offer it. In order to connect my personal experiences with TLOU2’s harsh reality, I started journaling after every major plot beat.
One page in my journal reads with unusual lucidity, “My heart has learned that there is no time for a breather, so it has shut down its freedom to feel [the weight of this story].” Over the next 45 minutes, after writing down this observation, my heart softened; I questioned Ellie’s quest; tears welled in my eyes; my heart once again felt like my life-source rather than a rock in my chest. Suddenly, Ellie was more human, TLOU2’s world was more real, and I wasn’t afraid of losing myself in a virtual world anymore. Instead, by creating an ink and paper space for discomfort, complexity, and mourning, I was becoming better.
While I am sure many will agree that video-game story-telling can be life-changing, I now believe we need a greater awareness that most video games do not build space for reflection. For me, journaling has been a welcome tool for turning my favorite hobby into a source not only of entertainment, but of edification.