You may have seen HBO’s The Last of Us showrunner recently comment on how Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic paternal adventure is “the greatest story that has ever been told in video games,” this is wrong. With The Last of Us PC release date coming soon, it’s important to note that it’s a great game with an excellent narrative, but this comment shows how Hollywood and its siblings don’t understand what makes game narratives truly interesting – besides, Elden Ring has a much better story anyway, and FromSoftware didn’t even write it.
This The Last of Us comment came from the show’s writer and executive producer Craig Mazin. While I won’t even dream of telling the person responsible for Chernobyl and The Hangover Part III how to do their job (some of us can only dream of writing The Hangover movies, thank you), I can say that calling The Last of Us the “greatest story” in the medium of video games is just flat out wrong.
It’s an incredibly well-acted and emotional experience, absolutely, but The Last of Us doesn’t use the nature of the interactive medium as well as plenty of other games. I’m specifically comparing it to this year’s best open-world game, Elden Ring.
Elden Ring is the pinnacle of what FromSoftware has been designing since Demon’s Souls, and each of the studio’s games shows how the medium can tell a story in a way unique to it: through the players.
Sure, the first five minutes in The Last of Us speak to everyone who plays it on an emotional level (if it doesn’t you’re a monster), but no other game gets me so excited to see a big ladder and pray that another player left the message on the ground reading “try Snake,” forcing me to sing “what a thrill” under my breath every time I start climbing. I still remember the first time I fell for the age-old pranks of “try jumping” and “invisible wall ahead” messages in the Dark Souls series too, most of which are almost always lying. When they’re not, though, there’s no other feeling like it.
It’s not just all the memes either, as FromSoftware’s deliberately obscure messaging system gives direct power to the players to influence another’s story with just enough ambiguity to make it more eventful.
Messages like “ambush ahead” or “be wary of up” do give you enough information to know that you should tread cautiously, but they can’t tell you what to look out for, or exactly where it is. Like a sphinx with a purposefully perplexing riddle, you still need to take the plunge to get the answer – except there are now Spinxes all over the place giving you different answers, and one in front of a bent-over corpse reading, “try finger but hole.”
With this style of in-game communication being around in FromSoftware games since 2009’s Demon’s Souls, none of this is exactly new, but that’s part of the point. Even after a decade, obscure player-driven floor scrawlings are still an integral part of the experience. It’s just a shame, then, that once servers go down this experience is lost.
Elden Ring’s online message system – and by extension the Dark Souls series as a whole – is emblematic of why video games are such a brilliant and still infantile storytelling medium. Sure we can get games designed to be like movies and TV, filled with stars we know, and they’re often great, but nothing beats interactive meme posts from players using a primitive messaging system, does it?
This type of player-driven storytelling isn’t exclusive to FromSoftware and Elden Ring, but I’m using it as an example considering it came out just this year (I know, right?) and had such a mammoth cultural impact on games as a whole. The Last of Us can easily work as a TV show, it was designed that way, but the interactive community storytelling of Elden Ring could not work in any other medium. That doesn’t automatically make Elden Ring the greatest game story ever, but it does make give it more of a reason to be a great piece of video game storytelling, more so than The Last of us at least.
We also shouldn’t really take the words of a TV showrunner as gospel on what makes a good video game story, but these types of comments do gain traction, so should be addressed. Of course, the writer of The Last of Us TV show is going to say The Last of Us has a great story; it’s not like he’s going to tell the press, “it’s mid,” is he?
As we go into a new year of games though, remember this: If anyone ever tells you The Last of Us has the most grounded story in games, show them a FromSoftware project – the messages are literally on the ground. Checkmate.