How The Last of Us and Others Captured The Heart of the Road Trip

The road trip story is a tale as old as time. Two pals taking off on the open road, nothing to preoccupy them but their own stories and the occasional chance encounter with a stranger. It’s a classic.

But why have games — which obsess over movement across open spaces — largely ignored the road trip story?

Some games, like The Last of Us, Kentucky Route Zero, and the recent Final Fantasy XV,  touched on the magic of the great American road trip, but as games continue to use the same genres and stories, it might be time to hit the open road. It might be time for a road trip.

The Story Remains the Same

The road trip story – or road story – has been around for a while. In a way, Odysseus’ epic journey was a road trip story for the sword and sandals age.

The OG road trip story. Photo credit: Huffington Post
The OG road trip story. Photo credit: Huffington Post

Although the setting has changed since the days of epic tales, the story remains the same. A character embarks on a journey in search of something. That character encounters trials or challenges along the way and ends up changing in some way over the course of the journey.

In other words, the road story is a classic hero’s quest. However, the road trip story, as people know it today is — more than anything else — an American story.

Sacred Symbols

In the years following World War II, the American auto industry boomed. Travel by car became a much more common thing, and the U.S. government encouraged cross-country and interstate travel with massive interstate highways. With an engine, four wheels, and a steering wheel, people could travel across the entire country. Cars became a symbol for freedom and personal identity.

Those two themes – freedom and identity – are at the core of any good road story. The growth of youth counterculture in the 1950s and 1960s coincided with a lot of these themes. Films like Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider and books like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road made the open road into a haven for outcasts, rebels, and vagabonds.

Let's ride. Photo credit: The Artifice
Let’s ride. Photo credit: The Artifice

Motorcycles, leather jackets, and Route 66 became sacred symbols. The road trip story was about escaping the mundane and finding freedom, or something else, on open stretches of empty highway. It was, and still is, about discovering a little bit about yourself. The road was a way to test and prove yourself.

Freedom and Focus

Even though the road trip story became an international genre, it’s heart remains in the roadside diners, backwoods roads, and chance encounters of Americana.

Filmmakers and authors have adapted the road trip for every setting and genre, from post-apocalyptic car chases (Mad Max: Fury Road) to Great Depression-era gangster action (Bonnie and Clyde).

But why then have games largely stayed away from the road trip story?

It’s the kind of story that sounds tailor-made for games as a medium. The road trip story is a way to show a change in character through a change in geography. The main character grows through constant interaction with friends or episodic encounters with strangers and side characters. Sound familiar?

Open world games ARE a road trip
Open world games ARE a road trip

Side quests and constant movement are already at the foundation of most open-world games. But while road trip stories are always about character and personal growth, open-world games can lose track of the protagonist in the midst of all the exploration and mechanics.

Freedom and character need to go hand in hand. And that’s perhaps why games have shied away from the road trip story. It requires both the sense of scale or open-ended freedom of an open world game and laser-focused character dynamics of a more linear narrative-driven experience. That’s a huge undertaking, and some developers have a hard enough time nailing one of those things.

Games That Hit the Open Road

This isn’t to say that games haven’t tackled the road trip story. There are a handful of games that have used the genre in interesting ways.

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was an intense and dramatic post-apocalyptic road story. It was a linear experience that captured the evolving character dynamics of the best road trip stories. The Last of Us leveraged the relationship between two central characters, stuck together on their journey. As the landscapes changed so did Joel and Ellie’s relationship. It shifted and grew, as they traveled across the game’s hostile American wasteland.

At least there's no traffic. Photo credit: Amazon
At least there’s no traffic. Photo credit: Amazon

Kentucky Route Zero, a surrealist point and click adventure by Cardboard Computer, took a much stranger approach to the road story. Kentucky Route Zero uses its story of an antique shop delivery man to shine a light on the long-forgotten spaces of Americana. The game is all about episodic, magical realist adventures on back roads and the glorious emptiness of America’s rust-covered ghost towns.

Just another gas station. Photo credit: Game Church
Just another gas station. Photo credit: Game Church

Final Fantasy XV came closer to adapting a straightforward road trip story than any recent game. It uses an open-world setting as the backdrop for a classic road trip. Four bros travel past Japanese interpretations of retro American diners on their way to a friend’s wedding. The camaraderie between the four characters is the focus here, but their car – the Regalia – becomes the fifth member of this cross-country bachelor party.

Four dudes and a car. Photo credit: RPG Site
Four dudes and a car. Photo credit: RPG Site

The game has a remarkably relaxed approach to open-world design, even letting the player sit back in the passenger seat for large stretches of open road. Despite its flaws, Final Fantasy XV nails a sense of scale, freedom, and good company.

Escape

Each of these three games captures some part of the road trip story. The relationship dynamics of The Last of Us, the episodic weirdness of Kentucky Route Zero, and the scale and pace of Final Fantasy XV are all essential.

But imagine all of those things taken together. Perhaps no game can really capture the sense of freedom and escape that comes with a genre like this.

The games mentioned here learned something important from the road trip story — the road less traveled is worth a shot every time. Games shouldn’t ignore the empty spaces, abandoned homes, and open stretches of road. They should embrace them.

Cody Mello-Klein
Cody Mello-Klein is a writer, gamer, part-time baller, and full-time shot caller from Boston. He's a sucker for a good story and is still waiting for another Cormac McCarthy novel. He has worked as a narrative designer and has an interest in the ways games can tell unique, emotional, and provocative stories. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer for occasionally witty remarks.

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