Warning: Spoilers for Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, and Star Wars below.
The Likable Character.
In books you are introduced to a character, this character is generally called the protagonist and it is someone you can relate and connect to. Someone you learn to care about through the book. This is true of some of the best books of all time (read: Invisible Man, The Idiot, Don quite, and even The Divine Comedy) and some of the best series of the last 100 years (read: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time). In Harry Potter we meet Harry, form a connection to him, and care about his adventures and who lives or dies.
This is also true of movies. In Star Wars you are introduced to Luke Skywalker, an average guy who just wants to join the academy, when suddenly he gets thrown off into an adventure. He is a fish out of water in the story and that allows the audience to relate to him even more. Because of this we care about him when he faces Vader, when he finds out he is Vader’s son, when he loses his hand, when he blows up the Death Star. We care about this protagonist so we want him to succeed. If a movie or book fail to relate the audience to a protagonist then it is harder to get them to want to watch or read your product.
In video games, while there are main characters, for the past few decades the protagonists have gone from being almost all silent to some being down right annoying. More recently games have improved upon this flaw and have actually gotten the players to care about the person they are playing. They relate to them because of the story, because of what happens to them throughout the course of the adventure. One of the most recent examples of this is Tomb Raider. In it Lara Croft gets stranded on a mysterious island where a huge amount of crazy shit happens to her. She gets stabbed, burned, covered in blood, and just generally beaten to a pulp. And every singly hit, every singly shot that mortally wounds her is something the player cares about. And when she eventually gets off the island alive you care about that too. This isn’t necessarily because of the gameplay, or the setting (although they definitely help), but because of the writing and superb acting.
Perhaps the best and prime example of this is Naughty Dog’s most recent game, The Last of Us. In it you play as Joel, a survivor and victim of an apocalypse type scenario. A fungus infects the human population and turns them into clickers, beasts that hunger for something to eat. Throughout the story, as Joel and Ellie travel to try and get to the firefly base to find a cure, you start to care about him. You learned at the beginning of the game that his daughter was killed at the beginning of the infection and you begin to realize that Joel is starting to treat Ellie like his kid. You can tell he loves her just like he did his own daughter. And when Joel eventually saves Ellie from the fireflies in order to save her life you manage to see how much he adores her.
Story is needed.
The gameplay was tense, the graphics were phenomenal, yet all of that would be for naught if it wasn’t for the superb writing and acting. Without writing that makes sense, that makes you feel like a lump of pixels is a real human being with emotions and a life, the game would have just been another zombie game. In all of the greatest books of all time you see this sort of writing, and now games have reached the heights of some of the best experiences in our modern society.
Now there will always be the games that have terrible stories or that make you hate the main characters, just like there are always the terrible romance or fantasy novels. However, all the mild to excruciating experiences are made worth it because of the fantastic experiences. The ones that make you feel like you’re really there. The ones that you will never forget. You may not be able to relate to experiencing the apocalypse in the case of The Last of Us, but you can relate to the feeling of pure helplessness. Of feeling like your life is completely meaningless.
Writing is key.
The writing is what made the last of us. The phenomenal game has been compared to Citizen Kane as the story that would make the news media take us seriously like they did to the movie industry. However, I don’t think The Last of Us was the Citizen Kane of games, I think it was better. With how video game stories are progressing and the level of interactivity that the video game industry provides it won’t be long until we have a true massive award show, until everyone pays attention and their grandmas to games, until video games are taken just as seriously as movies. Until The last of Us becomes the first of us.