The bar has been raised by Santa Monica’s latest game for everyone else- including Naughty Dog.
God of War, which launched earlier this year, probably stands as the greatest realization of Sony’s vision for what video games should be yet. Sony wants to define games as a storytelling medium, and the games that it publishes or favors are typically games with a strong storytelling component to them.
The thing, however, is that video gaming is a very young medium (and even more so when it comes to video gaming as a medium for actual storytelling)- so far, there have been various issues with trying to reconcile story (by definition a sequential series of events that restricts agency for narrative progression), storytelling (mostly relying on uninteractive exposition dumps, commonly known as cutscenes, in juxtaposition with the interactive, gameplay bits), and the actual interactive gameplay and mechanics. Games have been sorely unable to reconcile all of these- usually, a game that focuses on mechanical expansiveness will have a story that recedes into the background, and is at best told passively, if told at all (Bloodborne, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild). On the other hand, games that actually focus on storytelling have to restrict themselves to a limited set of mechanics, and a linear, pre-defined sequence of progression, limiting player agency (The Last of Us).
"Games can still be good all around- the story in Bloodborne is great, it’s just de-emphasized to such an extent people don’t even know it’s there, while The Last of Us plays great, but no one will ever pick it up and play for its shooting mechanics. One aspect has to be sacrificed for the other routinely to have that marriage of gameplay and storytelling. "
In both cases, the games can still be good all around- the story in Bloodborne is great, it’s just de-emphasized to such an extent people don’t even know it’s there, while The Last of Us plays great, but no one will ever pick it up and play for its shooting mechanics. One aspect has to be sacrificed for the other routinely to have that marriage of gameplay and storytelling.
Some third party games have actually managed to straddle this line better than Sony’s own have so far- stuff like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or the Persona series, both offer player a set of expansive mechanics, a lot of agency, while also providing them with compelling and engaging stories told well. However, Sony themselves have reached the zenith of their vision with Santa Monica’s latest.
Santa Monica’s latest is a hugely expansive game- it’s got a vast world, packed with secrets for players to uncover, it’s got multiple mechanics and systems in place, it allows for a lot of variation in how players approach it, ad it gives players agency to define their own experiences for themselves at their own pace. And, miraculously enough, it does all of this while never once diluting its emphasis on its core narrative, or its storytelling. Kratos and Atreus’ journey to reach the highest mountain peak in the realms is always the focus. The two characters, and their interactions with one another, are always at the forefront. The lore, mythology, and backstory of the world and its characters is always being built up and moved forward. You can spend hours just screwing around in the Lake of the Nine- and yet, you are always inevitably moving forward in the story, learning more about Odin and Thor, about Kratos and his relationship with Atreus, about the world around you that you find yourself in.
It’s a fantastic compromise between giving players a lot of freedom and agency, while also telling a great, emotional, affecting story- Sony has never pulled it off this well before. Which means that the bar has now been raised for Sony Worldwide Studio games that similarly aspire to meld stories with interactivity going forward.
"Santa Monica’s latest presents a fantastic compromise between giving players a lot of freedom and agency, while also telling a great, emotional, affecting story."
Chief among them, of course, will be Naughty Dog. For years, Naughty Dog has been Sony’s premier, prestige studio, who have continually raised the bar in terms of story and storytelling in games not just for Sony games, but for the entire industry as a whole. 2013’s The Last of Us was Naughty Dog’s finest moment, and the clearest realization of their vision of telling a story in a video game, marrying interactivity to narrative. And it was great- but God of War is on an entirely different level. Where The Last of Us funneled players through a pre-determined linear sequence of events with no room for deviation, and only a handful of mechanics, Santa Monica’s latest gives its players a full world, and a series of interlocking systems, all while never taking the foot off the pedal when it comes to the story. Any future Sony game will automatically be compared to how God of War did things, just like for five years, they were all compared to The Last of Us.
And it is here where Naughty Dog face the challenge of upping their game with The Last of Us Part 2– they must, they need to. While what they do is great, it is also a generation behind what Sony Santa Monica has managed with God of War, or even what Guerrilla achieved with Horizon: Zero Dawn last year. These games have shown us that Sony is capable of letting its players have some agency, without diluting the story or storytelling. Naughty Dog thus far has offered exemplary storytelling, with the tradeoff being a limited set of mechanics, and linear progression with zero deviation possible- until now, we didn’t realize it was possible for games to do better, at least not Sony’s games. Now, we know that is not true.
"And it is here where Naughty Dog face the challenge of upping their game with The Last of Us Part 2– they must, they need to."
Going forward, then, it will be important for Naughty Dog to be mindful of what Sony’s other studios have achieved in the interim between Uncharted 4 and whenever The Last of Us Part 2 will come out. Horizon, God of War, the upcoming Spider-Man, Days Gone, and Ghost of Tsushima all look like they will let their players actually play the game, rather than funelling them down a set path- all while delivering great stories with memorable characters in well realized settings. We already know Naughty Dog is hugely talented, and more than capable of matching all of those games, if not outright exceeding them- now let’s hope that they actually do it with The Last of Us Part 2, and blow our minds, just like they did with The Last of Us in 2013, and Sony Santa Monica did this year with God of War.
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