Reflections on “The Last of Us” and How It Could Shape Your Narrative Improv

The Last of Us (Naughty Dog) Ellie looks out the truck window while Joel drives; both are covered in the grime of surviving a post-apocalyptic world
The Last of Us (Naughty Dog) Ellie looks out the truck window while Joel drives; both are covered in the grime of surviving a post-apocalyptic world

The Last Of Us – Two Versions

I’ve started playing through the “remastered” The Last of Us game by Naughty Dog after a few episodes of the streaming tv series by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. I’m trying to be careful of “spoilers” as I game — story information I would only discover on first experience — because my partner and I are experiencing the show together; I’ll extend the same courtesy here by talking at a very high level

On one hand, some of the suspense was spoiled, as I played through the game scenes, because I knew some plot points from the show. On the other hand, the show has embraced the game storyline and characterizations as well as furthering the inclusive writing and casting choices

I’m slightly past the televised plot points with my gaming and so I’ve paused. In pausing, I got reflective about my concurrent enjoyment of The Last of Us in both mediums. Naturally improv came to mind

In the video game, the player’s (lack of) success with the puzzles, resource management, and dealing with jump scares accentuate the suspenseful plot. In the show, the characters don’t get an opportunity to respawn — so the suspense comes from their choices matter and how they affect each other. The two versions of The Last of Us are telling the same story, effectively using their mediums to help the audience invest in the outcomes

The Leaf’s Path (Ken Hall)

In some of my workshops, I’ve shared how Ken Hall provides a metaphor of a leaf floating down the river, for one of many ways of looking at narrative longform. Sometimes the leaf is carried by the flowing water, sometimes it gets caught in an eddy near the river’s edge. I love the ability for the metaphor to go deeper and be expansive beyond the binary. Simply: Neither trajectory is wrong or stronger for exploring the leaf’s journey

I’m impressed with the Last of Us game and show for employing both perspectives, across mediums, to build the bond between character-plot-audience

Narrative river current: Getting from Point A to Point B
River eddies: The historical references (to our time, mostly) through books, posters, and decor

While the game spends time following the current, to maintain player engagement and adrenaline, clearing an area creates an eddy of silence, checking and rechecking for supplies, taking in the remnants of the decayed post-apocalyptic world

While the show spends time in the eddies through relationship building — learning the motivations and history of secondary characters — the constant pressure of raiders (human and otherwise) keeps the characters moving down the current

Your Narrative Improv

Your narrative improv scene might be epic — triumphantly overcoming an insurmountable task like storming the castle for (or with) the audience! Maybe there are eddy moments, where we felt the joy or pangs of emotions in the character’s growth or loss. Maybe the scene drove down the river of Justice Served, with eddies reflecting our frustrating reality. The scene might go back and forth betwixt the two styles, or be equally satisfying spending time with just one style

How the story ends

Sometimes there’s a philosophical conflict in satisfying endings of improv scenes. For some people, the plot matters more than the characters, for others…

“It’s Not the Destination, but the Journey That Matters”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m in the latter camp most of the time. I’m not worried about how the The Last of Us game or show will end because it’s been a satisfying journey. Factors that invested me in that journey:

  • Post-apocalyptic plots have a tragic trajectory. The creators and performers stay true to the psychic energy of the genre;
  • The world remains consistently unfair for everyone not just a pile-on or benefit for the protagonists
  • The character arcs — their changes and resistance to change — are consistent and believably (il)logical
  • The plot currents and eddies balance each other and strengthen the storytelling

Likewise, when I improvise, I’m keeping all of those factors in mind and in care

Collaboratively creating together, being present, being open to the flow of the story — helps you and your audience invest in your characters and their journeys. Being resistant to that often leaves troupe members wondering who will be The Last of Us

Which leaf path would you like to explore in your next improv scene?

Postscript: There was one scene in The Last of Us that when I got to it in the game, triggered me as much as the televised version. That scene could get its own post someday. In the meantime, I’m open to talking about the show, the game, the value of sensitivity readers, or even improvisation in a private message, DM, or masked in-person

Published by thedukers

Velvet Duke is a Black autistic queer entertainer from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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