Storytelling Lessons From The Last Of Us

Through all of my years of gaming, few have impacted me the way The Last of Us did.

This is not just the graphics and special effects, although those were spectacular, it was the story. This story impacted me emotionally and continues to stick in my mind even thought it has been years since I first experienced it.

Any storytellers who want to tell a story, especially in the survival or video game niche, should study The Last of Us.

Most people agreed, since the game sold over 3.4 million units, giving it a smashing success as a video game.

Note: This WILL contain spoilers, so anyone who wants to play it through should probably just close out here and know it’s a good game.

For the rest of us, let’s dive in.

1. Establish an emotional connection between characters (give viewers a reason to care).

The game begins with only a few moments of peace. We meet Joel, a tough, rugged type of guy, and his daughter Sarah. There’s a sweet moment and we see the love between them.

This is the first storytelling takeaway: get the audience immediately emotionally invested into the characters. Joel has a total soft spot for his daughter and we learn he’s a great father. Immediately, we are drawn into their relationship and the bond between them.

Traditionally, viewers love to have a hero to root for. Look at almost every single popular movie for the past 100 years (with a few exceptions), and you’ll see that every single one gave us a hero.

It’s up to you if you want to introduce the audience to the hero right away or wait for a bit, but The Last of Us did a great job with making it immediate.

Joel and Sarah have a nice, peaceful evening and then everything erupts into chaos as a neighbor throws himself through their family window. We learn the world has fallen into chaos within what feels just moments.

We do learn that these people are called “infected” and they’re basically zombies.

This brings us to the second lesson takeaway:

2. Throw the characters into chaos immediately.

There are a lot of stories that throw us right into chaos without giving us anyone to root for, which gives confusion to the chaos.

When it comes to survival stories, it’s worth it to introduce chaos immediately because almost the whole story will revolve around navigating the new world. It doesn’t give the audience time to get comfortable. 

Spoilers: in the chaos, Sarah gets shot in Joel’s arms and dies.

Then all of a sudden, we flash forward 20 years, which is a huge jump for any story.

We see Joel and see how bitter, and hardened he is of 20 years of no daughter and living in a world of chaos.

3. Explain why characters view the world the way they do.

Many stories completely skip over explaining why characters act a certain way. When we see that Joel is cold and bitter, we now understand why. Too many stories give us the “tough” character without explaining why they are that way. We see that Joel’s heart has already been broken and understand his aggression.

I won’t go point by point through the whole story, but Joel meets this girl, Ellie, who happens to look like his daughter and is not far off from the same age.

Of course, you can see where this is going, and Joel becomes a father-figure to Ellie, protecting her through the new crazy world which is really the only thing she’s ever known.

We’re rooting for them, we understand how much Ellie truly means to Joel even if he doesn’t say it.

Down the line, I might dive into more storytelling lessons from The Last of Us, but those are the biggest ones to start.