Naughty Dog is, undeniably, a pioneer in the discipline of video game storytelling that seeks to achieve - and transcend - cinematic mastery. After hands-on time with The Last of Us at a press event last week, I firmly believe that the vast unknown through which the storied developer sails will soon change the industry. Jacob Minkoff, lead game designer on The Last of Us, agrees with me.
Shortly after my hands-on demo, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Minkoff and discuss the studio's role as the foremost leader in advancing games as a narrative art form. Minkoff first shared an amusing anecdote: "People were like, 'What do you want to do with this game?' and [Neil Druckmann, Creative Director] said, 'I want to change the [expletive] industry, man.'" He continued: "We all play games, right? And, we LOVE games, and it bums us out when we play a game that has great gameplay and it's trying to tell a story, but you don't buy into the story because they don't know how to make your emotions parallel the character."
To clarify what he meant by parallelism in storytelling, Minkoff explained, "There's a cinematic term called an 'idiot plot.' An idiot plot is when a character makes a choice that the audience wouldn't make. It's like, don't go through that door! And it's very important to us that we do it right, that we make you - every moment - buy into what the characters are feeling and make you feel the same way."
"Our dream would be for every great game that's trying to tell a story, to do it with proper pacing and character-driven and all of that. If we can do it, if we can prove that it can be done, then people can learn from us."
That's all well and good, but what can Naughty Dog teach other developers if the hard-hitting post-apocalyptic drama has been done before, and very, very well? I cited Telltale Games' The Walking Dead as an example of excellent zombie fiction, and asked Minkoff if Naughty Dog is prepared for comparisons to recent media. "We know that those comparisons are going to happen," he assured. "We don't really need to care about them, because we know that if we tell a story that is compelling, with characters that you invest in, and gameplay that's fun, and graphics that are beautiful, it doesn't matter."
"Just because something has been done many times doesn't mean that it can't be done better than anyone else has ever done it."
Naughty Dog hopes that The Last of Us will change the industry as the greatest piece of post-apocalyptic fiction ever produced. You can judge for yourself when the game hits store shelves on May 7.