Shivs are a vital and rare resource in the Last of Us, they unlock doors, allow for quick and stealthy kills or rescue you from the embrace of a savage clicker. They’re a gameplay mechanic in a gritty, fairly realistic world and, if taken too literally, are entirely immersion breaking. This is not a criticism of the game, the mechanic is effective and the game is masterful, it’s just that the more you think about it the less realistic it becomes. Shivs are made by combining a sharp with an adhesive and those resources are pretty rare themselves. Now, a sharp in the game could be a nail, half a pair of scissors and adhesive could be tape or glue and when they are used they break and cannot be recovered. So, shivs are good for stabbing and jimmying open locked doors. You know what else is good at that? Knives. Good knives, the kind that don’t break on the first use. The kind of knife that Ellie (the other protagonist) has for the entire game. How about that knife? Then you wouldn’t be spending the whole game staring at locked doors wondering if you’ll use up a precious shiv when instead you should just be asking Ellie if you can borrow hers for a minute to gather life saving supplies.
I’m being a little silly, of course, I’m thinking about it too much but I have a purpose, so stick with me. The reason that logic doesn’t apply is because this is a game. Game worlds are often slightly distorted by their mechanics if they weren’t it would be a movie or a novel. When we ask our audience to participate in our stories we must also find a way to make that interaction predictable, learnable and fair. That’s exactly what this mechanic is. The WorldCraft Club has generally held a ‘less is more’ perspective with worldbuilding. We’ve found that tone usually trumps consistency, which doesn’t mean we throw consistency out the window but rather that if you must choose one choose tone. When it comes to a mechanic like shivs we look back at the game world, the tone they’re trying to convey:
The Last of Us is:
This means that resources are forever low and managing them is critical, your heart should race as you make the decision in front of the locked door. Do I use the shiv here and risk not having what I need later? That tension is worth the distortion because it serves tone well. The mechanic causes your audience to grapple with the content. This means the mechanic is solid in function. The actual nuts and bolts of it fit firmly within the world. Now for the form. It’s a stick with a sharp bit on the end. I’d say yes for the most part or at least it’s close enough that most people playing the game would not be alarmed by its presence. Had it been a lockpick set I think we’d be less convinced, the stealth elements of the gameplay are present but Joel is too practical and lacks the finesse to use a lockpick set, it seems inconsistent with his character and besides, crafting a lockpick set is just not doable. The form doesn’t fit the gaming the world though the function (lockpicks have stabby parts too) would be fairly similar.
So this mechanic passes the basic tests, it’s flaws can be overlooked because it’s form doesn’t strain plausibility and its function doesn’t interfere with the tone. Both of these elements coincide to create a fairly solid and believable mechanic. The only metric on which it fails is that it is a mechanic and so it will always be a little removed from the new reality you’re creating.
What other gameplay mechanics distort the reality they’re in? When you look at them deeply do they pass the ‘form and function’ test?
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.