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What makes a story a good story
At the beginning of January, I put my hands on a dirty cheap Play Station 4 1 because, in the new house, I have no space for a gaming PC. Since then, I decided to make up for a bunch of games I missed in the last years starting from these two: Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017) and The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) .
The reason I am talking about my boring obsolescence is that I approached them with diametrically opposed expectations, and in both cases, my expectations were very wrong. So I started asking myself why. The answers to this question are the topic of this article. In fact, by sheer coincidence, these two games are a textbook example of how a good concept is not enough to provide a good story and vice versa.
The critical insight is: it is possible to have an excellent original concept idea and produce a terrible story. Similarly, it is possible to have a dull and not original idea and yet create an interesting moving story. Therefore, you should not worry too much if your plot concept feels not inspired and not unique: it is the execution that matters.
As we will see in the two examples, the keys to a successful story are worldbuilding and, most important, characters.
WarningThis text may contain massive spoilers of the above two games.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD from now on) is the game I was most excited about. I find the concept of humanity rebuilding again after a world-scale cataclysm that annihilated every civilization fascinating2, and I was eager to live it. Moreover, the game looks impressive, and the lighting compartment is top-notch.
Unfortunately, I think that HZD is a mediocre game at best. It is not bad, especially for a studio approaching the open-world action RPG genre for the first time. But the gameplay gets stale very quickly, the overall design is not inspired, and the RPG elements are butchered.
However, the two things I hated the most were the worldbuilding and the story. The exact two things that attracted me to it in the first place.
First of all, I can only define the worldbuilding with the word: mega-cliche. Even if the basic idea is there, everything else is 1) not developed in a meaningful way, 2) copied from the book of fantasy cliches.
For instance, there is the isolated tribe living according to nature, there is the tribe of metalworkers, craftsmen, known for the steel and technology and that loves money and trade, there is the “imperial/military” tribe with a king involved in a “civil war” and so on. And, surprisingly, it is not The Lord of the Ring.
Everything else in the background makes a little sense3, everything seems just a colossal justification for the gameplay elements, and I always had the feeling that the game was trying to teach me a paternalistic story about how bad technology and human avidity is. But, in reality, everything was no more profound than an edgy teenager video on TikTok.
But what the game is really lacking is the story. Character evolution is non-existent, and at the end of the game, I do not feel attached to anything and anyone! Seriously. A game that tells the story of how the whole of humanity died was not able to give me any feeling at all. Even the ending scene in which Aloy visits its long gone genetic mother felt super weird because the evolution of the Aloy character is lacking. That scene is just a way to force feelings into my throat. Feelings that the game is unable to provide for 50 hours of gameplay.
At the end of the game, I only felt frustration, the idea that the world does not makes sense and a profound sense of relief, like when you complete a lousy book.
The Last of Us
My story with The Last of Us (TLoU from now on) is entirely different. To understand this, you need to know that I hate the “zombie” dystopian post-apocalyptic stories. I found them incredibly annoying, and it is probably the most milked genre of videogame history. I hate it. I really do. It is the most unoriginal concept ever.
For this reason, when the game came out, and I observed all the fuss about it, I did not care.
And, oh boy, I was wrong.
TLoS is a beautiful game powered by a really great story narrated in a beat per beat perfect way.4 Why I liked this game so much even if, on paper, I should have hated it? I think I have three answers.
First, the apocalyptic setting is, well, just a setting. It is not invasive, the story of the world is not what the story is about. Yes, you are carrying a potential “cure” for the horrible disease, but with my surprise, it is not the core of the story. The real story is the evolving relationship between Joel and Ellie. That’s the driving force of the game, and the same story could have as well happened during an alien invasion or a natural disaster..
Second: the story is never trivial. The story is adult, sincere, profound, and with a lot of unpredictable kicks in the guts. Its rhythm inside the game is perfect. Even without the “zombie” aspect, the game raises a lot of questions for the player. Questions that the player will try to solve even after completing the game. Question about human nature, morals, ethics, and relationships.
Finally, on a similar note, the characters are deep and not predictable. Yes, there are mostly two characters, but these two characters are well made. Joel, for instance, is never a “good” character. It is a bad character with a strong motivation to do bad things (and that’s why the player can identify with him) and even when he changes he maintains his “selfish” nature (with a strong motivation to be selfish, and that’s why the player keeps the identification).
The result is that, contrary to HZD, I ended up caring for every character. I felt terrible for Tess; I felt a punch in the stomach on Sam infection, and on the final scene, the one on which Joel tries to find Ellie and then carries her in his arms escaping from the structure (a reference to the opening scene), well, I nearly cried.5
I know this is not a revelation. It is something that any competent writer should already know (even if they may sometime fail to deliver).vNevertheless, it is a mistake I subconsciously do as well. The originality of a concept does not imply a good story (and vice versa), and a story is defined by its characters more than everyone else.
This is a lesson for anyone who wants to go into writing (for games, books, movies, or whatever) but also for people consuming those media: do not make my same mistake, do not judge a thing only by its concept.
Thank you for staying with me for this late review of bloody old games. I appreciate it! See you next time.
Feel free to add me as a friend (name: thek3nger) because my friend list is a bloody desert. ↩︎
So fascinating, that is the basic idea behind a book I wrote in 2015 and that I am recently rewriting. ↩︎
I really do not want to do a super review of the game’s ridiculous worldbuilding. Other people have done it for me. ↩︎
You may say: “Hey, Dave! But TLoU is a linear game while HZD is an open-world RPG! Of course it is easier to have a better story in TLoU!”. It is true. But I can answer that if you think so, then you never played a good open-world RPG with a very good story. So, please take my advice and go playing The Witcher 3. ↩︎
To be perfectly candid, this may be also be influenced by my repressed parental instinct. ↩︎