What short story writers can learn from video games’ depictions of grief and loss
Modern storytelling takes many forms, and although TV and film has regularly mined the seam of novels for great success, video games have traditionally proven far more resistant to effective big-screen adaptation. Whether this was a structural issue, cultural snobbery or poorly picked projects is still debated, but the first series of The Last of Us has perhaps moved the dial away from the first possibility. The gritty, chilling, desperate depiction of post-apocalyptic America twenty years on is true to its source material, demonstrating the evolution and complexity of a sector often written off by those who haven’t picked up a controller since Super Mario was an apprentice.
In spite of some truly heart-wrenching set piece moments, though, the scene that has stayed with me isn’t violent, or emotional, or visually compelling. It’s an exchange between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, about plane travel. Ellie, born after the pandemic, cannot grasp what it was like to fly while Joel tries to describe in-flight meals and tray tables with limited success. For all of the blood and guts, the emergency broadcasts and sudden goodbyes, it was this everyday loss that has stayed with me; that sense of something so mundane and unremarkable as plane travel suddenly becoming elusive and impossible to recapture or experience again.
A writer’s ability to sketch out the impact of loss, to etch it on their character’s souls, is undoubtedly easier when civilisation has collapsed and any remnants of the ‘before times’ can be extemporised upon for maximum effect. However, as I’ve grown older and as life experiences add up, it’s the ability to capture these subtleties and meditations on grief and loss that can move a work of fiction up the scale for me. The only example I can think of from fiction – Grief is the Thing with Feathers – is a heart-stopping piece of writing and imagination, but perhaps to be expected from a modern classic that focuses entirely on the emotions that arise from grief rather than picking it up tangentially.
As one of life’s optimists, and not somebody prone to wallowing, maybe I’ve just not sought out these themes as much as others from my reading. On the other hand, for writers looking to weave more pensive reflections into their short stories, maybe your parents were wrong when they told you there was nothing to learn from video games…