Medium Should Be A Fundamental Story Element
A Case Study of The Last of Us For the Future of Video Game Adaptations
Craig Mazin and HBO have done it again, and with a video game adaptation, no less. The Chernobyl creator is positioning The Last of Us to the forefront of cultural consciousness and leaving audiences in awe of its captivating storytelling. Like Arcane before it, it’s a seminal, sigh-of-relief moment in the frustrating evolution of video game adaptation. However, more significant than its accolades, a particular aspect of The Last of Us reveals a cataclysmic perspective with strong, rippling effects in video game storytelling. The story’s protagonist duet is an analogy for a new way of looking at the fundamental elements of story and argues for the reassessment of “delivery medium” as a creative concept, redefining its role and significance as a delivery mechanism.
The Last Us revolves around Ellie, who has the potential to impact the fictional world more than any other character. Hands down, she is the most important character. However, Mazin’s HBO series, and the game’s co-creator Neil Druckmann, establish Joel as the main protagonist. We experience his tragic backstory. We learn of the characters he cares about and watch his journey intersect with Ellie. This creative choice is simple and significant: Joel serves as the action-heavy medium for Ellie's narrative, forming a symbiotic relationship more potent than the sum of its parts. Just as Joel’s choices and actions affect Ellie’s narrative, so does the story's delivery medium fundamentally affect a story.
Creators like Mazin and Arcane’s showrunner Christian Linke understand that the medium needs to be adapted just as much as the source characters, setting, tone, and other narrative elements. In The Last of Us, the medium side of its fictional universe naturally merges with Pedro Pascal’s character, Joel. In Arcane, the medium better adapts to the characters’ abilities or ability sources, a la Shimmer and Hextech. Think of Powder’s ill-fated attempt to use explosives (ability), resulting in the death of lead characters (affected story). The defining takeaway is that the medium—be it a game console or narrative device—directly affects the story, which separates a quality adaptation from transposing game action to film action. Looking at you, Uncharted.
Conventional lists of basic story elements leave out the crucial ingredients that make up this line of thinking. Character, plot, setting, conflict, theme, point of view, tone, symbolism… (it gets a bit muddy after that) are taught by every respectable visual and language arts institution. However, interactive stories were not in the picture when story academics established their lists. When it comes to storytelling, it's rare to see something that truly shakes things up at a fundamental level. But interactive experiences and their adaptations are just the shake up we've been wrestling with all these years. Whether we knew it or not.
Netflix and HBO are revolutionizing how we experience non-interactive stories based on interactive experiences and drafting a template for bringing these stories to life outside the gaming world. Whatever the formula looks like when developing a story, it’s clear the medium is not only important; it’s fundamental.