We are still only a little over halfway through the year, but there have already been a couple of serious contenders for the title of game of the year, if not the generation. With this article we take a look at the storytelling within these two games, their similarities, their differences, what makes them so great and what legacy they could leave in their wake.
Upon its cross-platform release in March, Bioshock Infinite was immediately showered with a healthy helping of worthy praise from critics and gamers a-like. The title marks the pinnacle of a game style that Ken Levine and friends had arguably been honing since System Shock 2, last millennium!
The Last Of Us was released as a PlayStation 3 exclusive last month and received fractionally more praise, applause and worthy showers. Developers Naughty Dog took what they learned with the brilliant Uncharted series and applied it to an entirely new subject matter with powerful results.
Le’ts start with the similarities between the two-the most obvious being that they both involve shooting people or at least trying to hurt them in some way. This is no surprise, as the gaming industry has been based around this basic premise almost since its inception. This is the mechanic that drives the narrative of both games, with Ken Levine even stating he would rather just tell a story, but had to do it through a shooter.
Both games star two main characters with a focus on the relationship between them. Each story begins with the protagonists being not too fond of each other and we observe how this dislike develops throughout the story. The two narratives take two very different directions as the story unfolds.
The settings for each story are alternative versions of our natural world; Bioshock portrays an altered past and The Of Last Us as an altered future. There are many other similarities, including scavenging for supplies, and upgrade system and half from the other character, but let’s move onto the stories…
It is in the story-telling in which the games take two very different approaches, not just thematically but in their approach to utilising the medium. Bioshock explores what can be done within the gaming medium. In short, it’s a story best told through a game. In Bioshock we play in the first-person, taking control of a character who speaks and is able to interact with others. Throughout the game we are left as confused as our protagonist. There is nothing that our character knows that we don’t. The confusion is all wrapped up in a surprisingly neat knot during the games triumphant ending. A story of parallel universes, we play through areas again and again, figuring out what suddenly becomes obvious. The experience-raising questions about player choice and embodied nature of gaming are something that would not have such an impact if told through a book or movie.
The Last Of Us takes a different route with its storytelling and is a little less “gamey”. The story of Joel and Ellie could be told through any other medium, with little to no loss of impact. The Last of Us is played in a third-person perspective, allowing the player to alternate (although given no choice as to when) between the two main characters. It feels as though we are observing their story and their struggle through the post-apocalyptic world they inhabit. Although we might control them, we are still watching them on their journey. At some points, information that our character knows is kept from us, which creates suspense and excitement for players. The Last Of Us ultimately feels more similar to the story-telling of a book or film when compared to Bioshock.
The Last Of Us shows that the gaming medium is able to depict deep and powerful stories that we have come to expect from the film industry through engaging characters and compelling story lines. The Last Of Us borrows heavily from the older mediums of print and film to tell its narrative. Bioshock, on the other hand, creates something new altogether. It is a narrative that really fits the gaming medium and demonstrates the strengths of telling a story through aspects that are unique to games.
The direction games should be taken in remains to be seen. Bioshock treads new ground in the world of gaming, showing that the medium provides unique attributes of immersion and embodiment. At the same time, it runs the risk of confusing new users. The Last Of Us expertly treads ground we have seen before in other mediums, showing that gaming can tell narratives just as well as other formats. Borrowing from other mediums might be good to entice those who criticise games, but borrowing too much could leave the industry stale.
Which direction do you think is best for the medium?
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This article was first posted on July 9, 2013