Character (reader) response in The Last of Us

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, … Continue reading “Character (reader) response in The Last of Us”

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.

Broken Mimesis and Unlikely Fatherhood

As mentioned in the first post on The Last of Us, I am intrigued by the mimetic breaks within the game. These moments stop and continue gameplay simultaneously, allowing the player to learn but not necessarily play in the classical video game definition. As I continued to play the game, I realized that many of these breaks … Continue reading “Broken Mimesis and Unlikely Fatherhood”

As mentioned in the first post on The Last of Us, I am intrigued by the mimetic breaks within the game. These moments stop and continue gameplay simultaneously, allowing the player to learn but not necessarily play in the classical video game definition. As I continued to play the game, I realized that many of these breaks occur in moments of emotional intensity for the two main characters, Joel and Ellie.

In my opinion, these moments are tied to Joel’s unlikely fatherhood role in the game. The game’s prologue shows us his dark, fatherly past, that of losing a child. Everything after the prologue distances Joel from this past. On the surface of Joel’s new identity, he is the antithesis of a father. Placed in an apocalyptic world, he serves himself only: everything he does is an attempt to survive. His world has taught him to trust no one and to be self-reliant, not the marks of a stereotypical father figure. And yet, as tends to happen during the apocalypse, Joel is thrown into an entire new situation.

Once again, he must care for a young girl. She is not his biological daughter, but he must serve a paternal role to her. When mimesis breaks within gameplay for the first time between Joel and Ellie, the camera shows us her perspective looking up at Joel. While little is said between the two, this camera angle shift from Joel’s perspective to Ellie shows Joel as a powerful, essential figure in her game world. We see for one of the first times through Ellie; no longer are we in the perspective of strong, masculine Joel, but rather small, courageous Ellie.

Additionally, Ellie is the key to the game. You must get her to the Fireflies to win. You need Joel to do it, but she is essential to success in the game. Looking through her perspective, or breaking the mimetic flow of being Joel, forces us to feel while playing a video game. Just as the indie games we played in class cause thinking and questioning about real world issues, The Last of Us through these mimetic breaks causes empathy and emotions to enter a video game. You no longer don’t care about dying, even though you know you’ll return right back to the screen. Joel, and especially Ellie, have started to matter, because of broken mimesis.

When I play next, I want to keep in mind reader-response theory, because I think these empathetic, caring moments can tie directly into reader-response criticism. Just as texts affect readers and those reactions are legitimate responses, which can and should be analyzed, The Last of Us affects players differently than other video games. Those reactions are what’s special about the game compared to other zombie-apocalyptic games.