If the exceptional ratings for HBO’s “The Last of Us” are anything to go by, viewers have latched onto this rendition of Naughty Dog’s 2013 game. As far as video game adaptations go, few compare: Most episodes in this series have received critical and popular acclaim for incredible performances and sharp writing. While HBO’s prestige television treatment introduces the narrative of “The Last of Us” to a wider audience, the video game itself achieved something the show cannot: players’ personal investments. Critics should recognize this unique ability of video games to place the audience directly into the characters’ narratives, especially as a way to elevate the entire artistic experience.
Historically, video games have not been considered of the same artistic caliber as their film or television counterparts. Film critic Roger Ebert was well-known for maintaining video games were not art. Truthfully, in some cases the creative team behind a game aims to do nothing more than entertain. While talented artists often help to realize their vision, these titles offer little more than a fun competition or way to burn time — think “Mario Kart” or “Pong.”
Perhaps Ebert was correct that these games may not be art. He was wrong, however, in identifying player choice as a flaw for all video game stories. In fact, the interactivity of video games often enhances their creators’ goals. For example, “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” from Insomniac Games, forces the player to manage several competing stories. With numerous villains running amok, Peter Parker struggles to help his aunt, support his girlfriend, and manage his role as a hero. This balancing act aligns the hero’s challenges with the player’s, distilling Spider-Man’s all-consuming duties into the mechanics of the game. When Peter is forced to let go of one of those threads, the player is forced to let go too — along with the hours they have invested.
This type of mirroring effect allows players to experience these feelings alongside the characters. Gamers become an actor in the world of the game, rather than an observer. When the plot threatens the playable character, it threatens the player themself — an experience television and film can never replicate. For as much tension HBO’s “The Last of Us” can create for its viewer, it will never acquire the same immediacy for its player — and by extension Joel and Ellie — as the original game does. For many games, these moments of danger themselves are carefully plotted; authorial intent oozes through in pacing, characterization, and worldbuilding.
Unshackled from the primitive technologies of early consoles, modern video games often set out to guide players through a carefully crafted narrative experience. From AAA titles like “God of War: Ragnarök” to indie darlings like “Firewatch,” developers offer stories reflecting human anxieties and hopes, just as television and film do. Yet, video games create scenarios by which player engagement elicits these feelings. Only through player investment in the game world can these stories continue — a deliberate choice made by game designers.
Adapting video games to the screen, however faithful and well-funded, removes a major part of the game developers’ authorial intentions. While HBO’s “The Last of Us” has navigated this by bringing aboard Neil Druckmann, one of the game’s writers, to guide the plot, the show’s story should not be elevated above the game’s own artistic merit. Instead, viewers and critics alike should recognize the important storytelling contributions video games themselves can make to the existing media landscape by including the player directly into the narrative — and enjoy whatever new stories spin out of them.