How Naughty Dog Have Integrated Complex Characters, Accessibility, and ‘Still Moments’ into Their Games
From The Last of Us to Uncharted, Naughty Dog's storytelling is not only masterful for its action and spectacle, but also for incorporating human emotion.
*Editor’s Note: Some specific story moments and spoilers from The Last of Us, The Last of Us: Left Behind, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy will be addressed in the course of this editorial.
We all have heard of Naughty Dog; whether you’re a fan of their games or not, there is no denying they continuously tackle hard-hitting topics and have paved the way for some of the most compelling and thought-provoking storylines known in the gaming world.
To me, Naughty Dog is everything I could want in a developer. They are masters of storytelling, and each one of their games are visually and mentally stimulating, but also the subjects they cover (and how they cover them) are pioneering for accessibility within the gaming community.
When it comes to writing a story for any type of game, the pressure is immense. It has got to be captivating and so gripping that the player loses hours of their day to be completely enthralled by the narrative. There are many games where this simply doesn’t work, or it only works for a certain amount of time and then begins to become monotonous as the story goes on. Thankfully, Naughty Dog hasn’t suffered from this issue, thanks to the ways that they have integrated a diverse range of storytelling techniques and emotions.
The Last of Us is arguably the studio’s best franchise to date, but why did it work so well? I can only speak on my personal opinion of course, but I believe it flourished due to how relatable that its characters are. Each of their personal stories can touch, in some way, every kind of player around the world, not only through loss, joy, sorrow, terror, and humor but through unlikely friendships, as seen with Joel and Ellie.
“I struggled for a long time with survivin’. And you—No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” – Joel, The Last of Us
The Simple Complexity of Characters
When Naughty Dog creates characters, they purposefully make them complex, because after all: we as humans are complex. So straight away, we see something in ourselves through these characters, and not just mindless animations wandering around a game who have little to no depth. It was important for the developers to make a simple yet powerful story, but the main emphasis rotating around the intricacy of the individual characters.
We bear witness to the emotions that Ellie brings out in Joel, and vice versa. In one scene from The Last of Us, which you can see below, we watch how scared they both are. Even though they don’t admit to it, it’s for exactly the same reason: they’re afraid of losing each other. As much as fear plays a huge part, the underlying complexity of this setting is love and the need for each other in order to survive, but the constant internal struggle they both have due to how much they have lost.
In The Last of Us’ Left Behind DLC, Naughty Dog didn’t hold back with their exploration into complex characters here also. Naughty Dog accomplished a diverse and compelling relationship between Ellie and Riley, all in a space of two to three hours. Naughty Dog’s skill at writing thought-provoking, believable characters is just as impressive here as it was in the main game, with a narrative that focuses on two teenage girls, something very different than what we had seen in Uncharted with Nathan Drake, which goes to show how diverse the writers are and how they can adapt their skills to any type of situation.
“There are a million ways we should’ve died before today. And a million ways we can die before tomorrow. But we fight… for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether it’s two minutes or two days… we don’t give that up. I don’t want to give that up. My vote? Let’s just wait it out. You know we can… be all poetic and just lose our minds together.” – Riley, The Last of Us: Left Behind
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.” – Cesare Pavese, Italian author/poet
Aside from the amazing storylines and characters that seemingly flow with ease from the fingertips of the writers at Naughty Dog, one of my favorite aspects from their games are their stories’ “still moments” and their ability to move us. I’ve found myself being pulled directly into these profound periods through my gameplay, such as scenes like when Joel and Ellie find a herd of giraffes wandering around. In the midst of all this chaos, pain, and uncertainty, they come together for a brief moment to witness these peaceful, wonderful animals together. Just for that moment, everything is ok.
This is never an easy task to achieve for a developer. To fulfill those “still moments,” you need to be in touch with your community and knowing what they’d want to feel. This takes an enormous amount of empathy and listening skills to pull off, and of course, Naughty Dog did that flawlessly with this section of the game, which is one of the most memorable moments from The Last of Us.
Another moment of many is when Chloe and Nadine in Uncharted: Lost Legacy rescue an elephant who has been trapped by a boulder, and they end up inadvertently riding its back after they rescue it, making its way through the dense jungle. This moment captures such beauty, not only from the lush undergrowth and picturesque scenery from the tall mountains of the Western Ghats, but also from the conversation between Chloe and Nadine that follows.
During this section, Chloe opens her heart to Nadine about the death of her father. This moment is especially important, given that these two were once sworn enemies, but now they are seeing each other as humans with tragedy in their past. This moment from The Los Legacy shows another brilliant example of how well the writers, as well as the animators, at Naughty Dog had exceptional foresight into what makes a scene feel real, by tapping into the emotions of the player and making them want to care about these characters.
A particular scene in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was probably one of the most realistic and humorous that I’ve seen in depicting a romantic relationship, and it’s one that I’m sure a lot of us can relate to with our own partners. In the scene, Nathan and Elena are casually eating dinner on the couch, talking and laughing like many other couples do, and then Nathan plays a round of Elena’s favorite game Crash Bandicoot, in which Elena teases Nathan on his inability to beat her score.
I found this to be extremely touching and again, one of those moments that Naughty Dog does so well in allowing you to relate to what you’re seeing. You can easily see yourself and your partner lounging on the couch after a long day like Nathan and Elena, casually chatting and then playing a game, mischievously giving digs at them that they couldn’t beat you.
Through moments like this, Naughty Dog has done an outstanding job of making us believe what we are seeing feels genuine and real and gives us, the player, something to take away with us when we turn off the game. As we think about our own lives, what we could do to make it better, and how we should always have these “video game moments” in real life too, it becomes not “just a game,” but you are invested in these characters’ lives. You care what happens to them, and no matter if you play The Last of Us, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy or Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog has mastered the skill of storytelling and captivates players with those quiet moments in a way that only a few studios have been able to capture.
“Accessibility allows us to tap into everyone’s potential.” ― Debra Ruh
Naughty Dog hasn’t stopped at solely making their games immersive and compelling – they’ve also worked hard to deliver those types of experiences to every gamer, regards of their mental and physical capabilities. Accessibility in gaming has been a hot topic for quite some time, and rightly so. Gaming should never be exclusive, and this is something Naughty Dog have worked hard to achieve, especially in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Just a few years ago, D.A.G.E.R. (Disabled Accessibility for Gaming Entertainment Rating System) editor-in-chief Josh Straub met with UI designer at Naughty Dog, Alexandria Neonakis and explained his unfortunate experience playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and how he couldn’t beat it, as there’s a series of doors you have to button-mash through at the end because of a physical disability that limits the use of his hands.
“I was faced with the reality that I had played this entire game; I had spent $60 on it, and I could not get any further without the help of an able-bodied person,” exclaimed Josh Straub.
With this information, Naughty Dog went straight to work on implementing specialized design features to assist with accessibility in Uncharted 4. With this new feature, they fixed the camera movements so that when Drake is in cover and in combat, it would help highlight enemies and toggle a lock-on feature so that the aiming reticule would fix to a specific target, and the studio also made improvements to the multiplayer side of the game, too.
I could probably write about this amazing gaming company for many more paragraphs, but what I’ve written so far are some of the most important aspects on why Naughty Dog will always be my favorite studio when it comes to the games I want to play, the stories they tell, and also from a moral standing.
While I’ll always have a love for Naughty Dog’s past games, I can’t tell you how excited I am to get my hands on the upcoming The Last of Us Part II, as I know there will be more of those quiet moments, more exceptional dialogue, more in-depth, complex characters than we have ever seen, and hopefully the best storyline that we have witnessed from Naughty Dog to date. The only question now to ask is: when can I get my hands on it??