Should video games be more like TV?
It’s no secret that art is shifting towards a serial nature. One look at the current spectrum of pop culture ─ what with Walter White’s meth formula being more popular than international relations ─ will tell you that consumers revere serialized storytelling. Think about it: Arrested Development, lauded by many, was once removed from the artistic atmosphere. In 2013, it made its comeback on the internet, using a paid service supplemental to the TV package that most people already have, and yet it was still watched by many. People are willing to shell out extra bucks for continuity, and both TV and comic books have been taking advantage of this for years. So isn’t it about time video games start, as well?
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is fantastic. I, myself, have not had the opportunity to play it all the way through, but I’ve played parts and seen videos adding to my comprehension of the overall story. Dominic Sheard loved it. He said, “the astonishing start of the game builds up the setting and attitude for what to expect from the rest of The Last of Us’ 14-hour adventure, and this dark and gritty world never gives up showing the punishment and pain the survivors of the fungal infection have to deal with over the game’s year-long story arc.” In other words, The Last of Us supplies players with a complete story built into one package, which is designed to be played all as one. Similarly to the way Arrested Development’s new season works better as a complete whole, The Last of Us, like most video games, shines as one road, with no bumps along the way, but no detours in sight either.
It’s a fair argument to say that The Last of Us ─ from a story perspective ─ is the greatest achievement of this generation. As a sixty dollar purchase, you get a breathtaking arc that wraps up the story of both Joel and Ellie nicely, even though it might leave things open for a sequel. But sequels do not matter in serialized storytelling. Actually, they are the antithesis of a serial work. Sequels eschew continuity for a specific whole, which is why movies are never serial in nature, but rather packages sometimes delivered as trilogies or quadrilogies. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy can be looked at as a longform arc for Batman across three narratives, but when it comes down to it, there are three separate stories, with very little continuity in between.
In Sheard’s review, he compares The Last of Us to The Walking Dead game, which has a very specific serial story. Released over a number of months in specific episodes ─ using the season concept that makes TV work ─ The Walking Dead allowed players to digest the game periodically. It was an exciting game with a very interesting concept, and the addition of the choose-your-own-story mechanic worked to its advantage.
But why don’t more games use this? The Walking Dead is in its own camp, because it has ties to the AMC series and comic book, so the serialized nature makes sense in comparison. Still, why should it be limited to just this game? When delivered in small, yet periodic packages, creators are allowed to do more. What holds a game like The Last of Us back ─ and it handles this better than anyone ─ is the fact that we can’t just follow Joel and Ellie to a new world without some method of transition. Otherwise, we lose the comprehensive idea of a long form story arc. But if a game is serial, players can pick up these characters in different moments of their life, providing short arcs within a longer story, but with more diversity than anything that’s come before.
Comic books are my favorite medium. Essentially, they divulge beautiful stories wrapped up into tiny bite size packages, and when done well, a book can be read monthly or as a whole, and can be enjoyed the same way. Serialized storytelling is taking over the universe. The entire world is caught up on Breaking Bad, and if the election was this year, I’m pretty sure Walter White would be a candidate. Imagine if every game industry was putting out franchises like The Walking Dead ─ imagine Naughty Dog with the freedom to pump out short games every month or so, like an author making enough cash off their short stories. The argument against serialization is interest, namely, players won’t be interested in these stories if they come out monthly. Last night, I stayed up until two trying to finish Parks and Rec season two, because the thought of not being caught up by the time season six arrives terrified me. It’s a different world, folks, and it’s time for video games to be the reflection of that.