In David Mason’s “Video Games, Theater, and the Paradox of Fiction,” Mason writes “What seems to be different about video games is the active and direct participation the medium allows its audiences” (Mason, 113). Unlike a play, where an audience member observes and exists in the play’s world, a video game player can affect said world, making it theirs. Mason also argues that many art forms make the reader or viewer feel real emotions even when we know what is happening is fictional (Mason, 1110). Yet, in video games, because of our direct participation, that emotional response is heightened.
Keeping this heightened emotional response and reality in mind, The Last of Us’ power grows exponentially. Yes, the game is a first person shooter game where the player kills zombies. But, really, it is a game about surrogate fatherhood/daughterhood. The player gets to control both Ellie and Joel, building our “active and direct participation” in these characters. In an earlier post, I discussed “watching” The Last of Us, due to its cinematic qualities. While that reading still applies, it neglects Mason’s point about the larger emotional power of video games. We do not just watch Ellie and Joel; we are Ellie and Joel.
What meaning or character (reader) response comes out of this being? Well, the way one interprets a text, or video game, reveals his or her identity (Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism). For me, as a heterosexual male, I constantly felt more when playing as Joel. Though playing as Ellie provided a good second perspective on the game, emotionally I was much more invested in Joel and his constant desire to protect Ellie, which became my intense desire as well. Being Joel showed me this game was not about survival, but about connection. The game developers had to make the game exciting, i.e. getting to kill lots of zombies, but the game’s real power was building a relationship between Ellie and Joel that the player comes to care about.