Amid the hype and controversy leading up to the release of The Last of Us Part 2, Neil Druckmann’s statement regarding the Naughty Dog approach to combat has been praised and criticized in equal measure. After all, despite being a defining aspect for the medium, it’s clear that the development studio treats gameplay as a means to an end, rather than something to be indulged in purely for the enjoyment of it.
“For us, with The Last of Us specifically, we don’t use the word ‘fun’. We say ‘engaging’, and it might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one for us.”
– Neil Druckmann, creative director and head co-writer of The Last of Us
Given the serious narrative and gritty atmosphere the game is known for, “fun” wouldn’t be how most players would describe the gameplay of The Last of Us. On the other hand, fun is a subjective concept, and gameplay is only one factor that contributes to whether or not a game is entertaining. One could argue that being engaged by a gripping story while empathizing and growing attached to its characters is essentially just another form of fun.
No matter how you define the idea, this emphasis on engagement over fun is an integral part of Naughty Dog’s current design philosophy. It’s what makes their games such critical and commercial successes. However, it’s also what makes The Last of Us (and, to an extent, the Uncharted series) so polarizing compared to earlier Naughty Dog games.
Gameplay Freedom vs. Narrative Consistency
As far as story-driven games go, periodically taking control away from the player — in order to deliver narrative beats and exposition via cutscenes and scripted sequences — is a fairly common practice, one with its fair share of benefits and drawbacks. The segregation of story and gameplay gives the player more freedom, but at the risk that their actions will contradict or undermine the story told through scripted events.
Restricting player freedom by minimizing gameplay is a drastic approach that can bridge the gap between story and gameplay. However, games that adhere to this formula (eg. Telltale games) risk being dismissed as “interactive movies” by more gameplay-focused players.
Blurring the Lines
Naughty Dog games are unique because they blur the line between these two different approaches. Specifically, they are restrictive, heavily scripted experiences that masquerade as standard action/adventure games. How players feel about this design choice — if it is even noticed — is the reason why Naughty Dog games are so divisive.
When examining Naughty Dog games purely from a gameplay perspective, the illusion of choice becomes most apparent during the key moments when player agency dissipates.
Linear action/adventure games typically have the player explore locations in a predetermined order, completing a set of mandatory objectives as a part of their scripted narrative. This does not change during repeat playthroughs. Instead, the replay value of such games lies in the moment-to-moment decisions that players make to overcome enemies and obstacles, which will always vary based on player preference and AI behavior.
The Illusion of Choice
With the release of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog sought to mitigate the criticisms levied against the gameplay of Uncharted by expanding upon several of its most-praised features. Specifically, the team doubled down on the cinematic elements that were praised in the original release while scaling back enemy waves in favor of more scripted encounters. In many ways, this made The Last of Us a sort of spiritual successor to the Uncharted series.
Stealth from the later Uncharted games, which was mainly used to thin enemy numbers before engaging them directly, was also expanded upon and more heavily emphasized. Furthermore, the introduction of makeshift weapons and crafting not only diversified the player’s attack options, but also incentivized exploration.
On paper, this resolved the issue of restrictive gameplay that pervaded the Uncharted series; players could choose to tackle enemies quietly, shoot their way through with the slower, more deliberate gunplay, or turn to melee attacks when things got intimate.
However, there are moments when the game exposes the man behind the curtain. One such situation arises during a particular segment in The Last of Us where the player has to move from cover to cover in order to flank a sniper holed up in a house at the end of a narrow suburb road. No matter your range, the sniper is invulnerable to all weapons and can only be dispatched through a QTE once you’ve snuck up behind him.
It’s a classic case of Naughty Dog suspending freedom of choice in order for the player to experience the story exactly the way the developers intended. Nonetheless, it’s at these times when the action/adventure mask slips that players begin to question just how much agency they have in Naughty Dog games compared to their contemporaries.
Engagement Over Fun
It could be argued that without its highly polished presentation and narrative, The Last of Us offers little more than barebones stealth and third-person shooting mechanics that appeal to fans of neither genre, interspersed with mundane “fetch the ladder/pallet” puzzles. So what exactly do Naughty Dog games excel at to warrant such critical acclaim? The answer to that lies in their design philosophy, hinted at in the initial quote by Neil Druckmann.
Naughty Dog shines at creating immersive interactive experiences with engaging narratives featuring casts of memorable, three-dimensional characters. Every aspect of the games the studio develops exists solely to achieve this goal.
Picking off scores of raiders and Infected becomes a thankless task because the player isn’t supposed to enjoy it. Reminiscent to the twist in Drake’s Fortune, Joel and Ellie’s rising dread for what they may encounter, and their attempts to cope with what they are forced to do in order to survive, is made tangible through gameplay. Eventually, the player grows weary at the prospect of facing another onslaught of enemies, and increasingly indifferent to how they neutralize them.
Similarly, the pallet and ladder puzzles serve as more than just an interactive means to grow attached to your companions during the narrative’s quieter moments. Their repetitive nature flirts with your expectations of what could befall the protagonists during each instance. It’s a persistent Chekhov’s Gun that’s invoked and subverted at several points throughout the story.
Looking Beyond the Veil
Such an approach to gameplay, while bold, is not without its disadvantages.
Naughty Dog’s blueprint turns gameplay into a more passive process than most games, encouraging players to comply with an implicit script and set of rules rather than be proactive and use the tools given to them to progress. This drastically reduces replay value, even by the standards of most linear games.
Furthermore, disguising such a heavily scripted experience as a typical third-person stealth action/adventure game attracts players with a set of preconceived expectations for games of those genres, none of which The Last of Us fulfills.
To players unable to see past these smoke and mirrors, Naughty Dog games appear to be some of the best ever made, constantly setting new standards for video game storytelling.
To players who look beneath the surface, yet find themselves unable to overlook basic or restrictive gameplay, reactions to Naughty Dog games can range from “overrated” to “pretentious walking simulator that’s regressive to the medium.”
But to players who are able to see past this illusion of choice — those who can appreciate the games because of their gameplay and design choices rather than in spite of them — Naughty Dog games almost seem to be in a genre of their own. They offer incomparable cinematic experiences and enthralling interactive stories, provided that you’re willing to go along for the ride.