• Make the setting unique and make it it’s own character.
• Take common ideas and tweak them just a bit.
• Prologues can have a huge emotional impact on readers.
• We care most about characters who care about each other, are proactive, and have loving relationships. This can be established quickly if executed well.
• Every major character needs a character arc, where they grow or face their own conflict.
• Four part structure can provide a good framework for plotting.
The Last of Us is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. For that matter, it’s one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever experienced. In writing my post on video game storytelling, it inspired me to dive deeper into the Last of Us as an example.
The Last of Us is essentially a post-apocalyptic zombie game that follows an old man, Joel, transporting a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, across the United States. Ellie is immune to the zombie virus and may provide a cure. The setting is breathtaking, the characters well developed, the plot fantastic, and the emotional engagement is brutalizing. The game can show us a lot of what to do in creating our own fictional worlds so I’ll go through a few things I learned when reviewing the game.
The Last of Us primarily takes place twenty years after the initial zombie outbreak. The military has taken control of the US government and most of the civilized world lives in walled off cities controlled. However, this isn’t a deserted wasteland. Without mankind, nature has fought back with a vengeance and most of the environments are lush with flora and fauna. Ruined cities are covered with green. Raging rivers flow down highway tunnels. Waterfalls from heavy rain pour through skyscrapers as the protagonists move through them. The world outside the walled cities is vibrant. The setting feels alive and it comes out of every scene we’re in.
Scarcity is another huge aspect of the game. Joel and Ellie continually have to scavenge to find supplies (although it doesn’t feel overdone). Unlike many games where ammunition is plentiful, every bullet in the Last of Us counts. Many guns can hold no more than 10 rounds, meaning there’s constant switching of weapons and tactics to defeat the hordes of bandits and zombies.
The enemies are unique as well. These aren’t just regular zombies. They’re based on a real-life parasitic fungus (genus cordyceps) that turns ants into zombies. The game takes that a step further and makes the fungus mutate so it controls humans. Many of them have fungus growing out of their faces, which is interesting by itself. Some of them maintain bits of their humanity and run screaming at you. Those controlled by the fungus for a long time are called clickers, whose heads look like cauliflower. They use sonar clicks to find you, adding another element of horror to the setting, especially since they can one hit kill you and are hard to take down. The zombie fungus is spread through bites (like normal) AND through fungal spores which are airborne (unique). You see the spores and you’re like “Oh no! Infected!” The main character, Joel, puts on his gas mask to prevent infection and you know it’s all downhill from there.
In a similar fashion, we as authors can take setting and develop it into its own character. Add some scarcity. Add some flavor to each location and make it breathe. You can also take a normal idea (like zombies) and change it just a bit to make it unique (like making them fungal based). For instance, in Larry Correia’s novel, Hard Magic, the zombies are immortals who feel all the pain they receive which drives them mad (Correia also decks his zombies out in cool gear, including a zombie elephant with armor plating in his Monster Hunter International series). 28 Days Later had running zombies. World War Z expanded on this idea and had the zombies form human pyramids. It makes something normally redundant come alive.
The Last of Us has one of the best prologues ever written, period. Seriously, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and watch the first 10 minutes of the game. The only other prologue that rivals it for emotional engagement is Up by Disney/Pixar. The beginning seems cliché: the main character, Joel, is shown to have a loving relationship with his daughter, Sarah; when the zombie apocalypse breaks out, Joel loses his daughter and makes us empathize with him.
It’s super tropey but the execution of phenomenal and here’s why. We feel the characters are real. We start off seeing Sarah, age 12 or so, asleep on the couch when her dad comes in. Joel asks what’s she doing up so late and Sarah surprises him with a birthday gift. There’s some banter back and forth then Sarah falls asleep while they watch TV and Joel tenderly puts her to bed. It’s a small story about a girl wanting to make her dad happy.
When the gameplay begins, we play as Sarah, which is a unique point-of-view as she ends up dying. Her uncle, Tommy, calls, waking her up and frantically says he needs to speak with her dad but the line is cut off. So she starts wandering through the house looking for Joel. We get more insight into their love for each other (Sarah forgot to give Joel a birthday card) and start getting more indications of something bad happening (a newspaper talking about increased infection rates, a TV broadcaster reporting on some attacks, an explosion in the distance, dogs barking then suddenly silenced, etc.). It goes on from there but the story is focusing on escalating dread in small bits (such as an infected neighbor attacking Sarah and Joel killing him). All of this really drills in Joel’s loving relationship with his daughter, Sarah.
There’s a POV change to Joel later on when Sarah is injured and the group has to escape a city overrun with infected. When Sarah finally dies, it’s heartbreaking. It destroys me every time I play the game or watch it on YouTube. Why? Because the game made me care about her, even if it just took 10 minutes or so. It showed her being proactive (staying up late even though she wasn’t supposed to in order to celebrate her dad’s birthday; picking out a gift he’d like; moving about the house to search for him), having banter with her dad and uncle, showed Joel taking care of her (putting her to bed, carrying her when she’s injured), put us in her perspective (even though she dies). We saw colorful weaknesses, like her forgetting her homemade card for her dad, that helped empathize with her more. It’s a masterpiece and you should definitely watch it to see what they do right.
Every major character needs an arc. In the prologue, Joel is a decent father who’s trying to get by. When we see him 20 years after Sarah’s death, he’s turned into a bitter old man, who doesn’t hesitate to kill innocents to get what he wants. He’s brutal, borderline sadistic, and is completely emotionally shut off. His only friend is a woman named Tess, who is even more hardcore than he is. Joel refuses to discuss anything about his past, especially about Sarah, though he still wears the watch she gave him for his birthday. When he gets the job to transport Ellie he just wants to get rid of her. His arc shows him changing from an embittered man into actually caring about Ellie, going so far as actually sacrificing what possibly could be the salvation of mankind in order to keep Ellie alive. He’s complex, wounded, tragic, and his growth is as real as it is profound.
Joel’s grief has an arc. At first, he’s unwilling to talk about Sarah at all, even refusing an old photograph of them together. By the climax, he accepts the photograph and by the epilogue, he’s openly talking about her in relationship to Ellie (that they would have been good friends). Sarah is made a constant presence in the game. We learn more about her as time goes on (e.g. from the photograph, we learn she played soccer).
Ellie starts off as a hard nose girl who wants to be involved. She continually tries to help even though Joel won’t let her (there’s the importance of proactivity again). When she finally gains Joel’s trust, she has to face her own emotional torment and becomes traumatized by bandits. As Joel is softening, Ellie becomes hardened. We see the change happen as she witnesses death after death of side characters, with Joel unwilling to discuss any of it. She eventually goes back to her happy self but becomes even more determined to see her mission through.
The side characters have arcs. Tess, Joel’s partner in the beginning, is tough-as-nails but softens when she believes Ellie is immune to the virus. It’s she who forces Joel to go on with Ellie even when Joel initially refuses. Henry, a survivor Joel and Ellie meet along the way, goes from happy-go-lucky to taking his own life when his little brother is turned into a zombie. Bill, a crotchety man living by himself, goes from cantankerous to grudgingly helpful, and the game throws in his own subplot of dealing with the betrayal of an ex-lover. The point is that each of these characters have some sort of change or conflict, even if it’s small.
The main plot takes place during four seasons, excluding the prologue: Summer (the longest section as it’s an introduction), Fall, Winter, and Spring. The main plot always revolves around Joel and Ellie’s relationship, as well as Joel’s grieving process.
Summer-This is the intro section where the setting and main characters are established so we spend a lot of time here. Tess and Joel have an initial problem outside the main plot, getting back their shipment of guns which as stolen from them. Along the way, they reach the catalyst (inciting incident), in this case, getting the job to smuggle Ellie outside the city to a research facility. Things go from bad to worse when Tess is infected and dies, tasking Joel to take Ellie even though he doesn’t want to. This is essentially a journey story and relationship story (Joel’s relationship with Ellie; Joel’s relationship with his dead daughter, Sarah). They meet a few other survivors along the way. Joel starts allowing Ellie to help, going from not letting her use any weapons to teaching her how to use a pistol. The section is ended when one of their new companions, Henry, kills himself after seeing his little brother turn into a zombie.
Fall-This is the segment where Joel’s relationships are forced into the open. They meet up with Joel’s brother, Tommy, who tries to get him to talk about Sarah. Joel also tries to get Tommy to take Ellie to the research facility as he doesn’t want to take care of her anymore. It escalates into a super bitter fight between Ellie and Joel. His emotional journey comes to a head when he decides to take Ellie on, and it’s a signal that he’s letting himself care about her. We see him starting to open up as a father would, teaching her the rules of American football, gathering comics she likes, etc. The memory of Sarah remains prominent in this section. It ends when they finally make it to the research facility only to realize it’s gone (first main task turns out to not be the real goal). Then the worst possible thing happens and Joel is severely injured, leaving Ellie to care for both of them.
Winter-This is the worst part of the story, where the worst worst things happen. Ellie tries to take care of Joel (role reversal where the weak must be the strong, the strong becomes the weak, etc.) but is captured by cannibal bandits and becomes traumatized from it. We see Joel go berserk and torture/kill his way through hordes of people to get Ellie back. We also see get a personal view of the bandits Joel has been killing, giving some great moral ambiguity to Joel. It’s a disgustingly brutal section and ends with a traumatized Ellie traumatized by a Joel who will stop at nothing to rescue to save his loved ones.
Spring-This is the beginning of hope section, where Joel is completely open to Ellie, telling her all the things they’ll do after this is over–how he’ll teach her guitar, how to swim, etc. Ellie recovers from her trauma after seeing a group of giraffes who have somehow survived all the destruction. In the bleakest of moments, we gain some hope and this can be absolutely important in a game this dark. We see them working as a team, the best they’ve ever been, to get past a large horde of zombies. THEN THE ABSOLUTELY WORST THING HAPPENS! They find the research facility, which is run by a group of good people looking for a cure but will have to kill Ellie in the process. It’s something Ellie would go along with. Joel’s character arc comes to a head and he is forced to make the ultimate decision–walk away from Ellie and let the researchers create a cure that might save mankind, or forcibly stop them from operating on her. He chooses the latter and kills most of the researchers including the leader and the medical staff. He takes Ellie back to his brother, Tommy’s settlement, and lies to her about what happened, saying she wasn’t able to give them a cure. It’s a brutal ending to a brutal game, replete with morally gray areas and it really makes Joel’s character shine.
He’s been shown as a man who will do anything to keep his loved ones alive. Initially, he won’t let Ellie get emotionally close and refuses to discuss his daughter with anyone. By the end, and despite his own best efforts, he actually cares. And because he cares, he knows he won’t be able to go on if he lets Ellie die, so he does the one thing he knows how–he kills everyone standing in his way then lies to Ellie to hide the truth.
I personally think he made the wrong decision, (although it’s nice to see the normal sacrifice-for-the-greater-good story turned on its head) but I can see why he made it. And that’s a huge lesson we can learn as writers. Character’s motivations need to be justified, at least to themselves. Joel’s actions make perfect sense when viewed from his perspective/experience, as do Ellie’s actions, as does everyone else’s.
So going back to plotting, we have a four-part structure (more or less) with each segment doing important things (1) introducing characters, setting, the catalyst that starts the journey; (2) forcing the main conflicts to come to their first big confrontation; (3) having the worst of the worst happen and flipping sides so that the secondary character must protect the primary character; (4) starting to have new hope, heading to the main resolution, and bringing all the conflicts to a head with their final consequences/outcomes. It’s a structure that can be used in our own novels.
There’s a lot to unpack, and I’ll do another post where I go through the entire detailed story to show relevant things that the Last of Us does right. Overall, this game is an amazing example of storytelling. I would recommend everyone play it or watch YouTube compilation videos (between 3 – 6 hours long) that show the entire story. It’s definitely worth the time.