The Subversion of Avatar-Attachment in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us

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The focus on narrative in the video game medium has been increasingly emphasized in recent years as game design becomes more sophisticated. Games are now able to more succinctly implement affecting stories to create greater meaning in the player’s experience. Titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead (2012), 2K’s BioShock (2007), and CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt (2015) all focus heavily on core narratives, which drive and anchor all other elements within the game. This focus on employing rich storytelling to frame ludic elements (and vice versa) has created new avenues for meaning making, taking advantage of the immersive effects of playing a game to create experiences richer than the sum of their parts. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is a gold standard example of such games, and creates a significant player experience through its rich story and gameplay, but more than that, subverts the usual player attachment to create conflict with the very process of avatar-attachment itself. This process is unique to games due to its dependence on narrative and ludic convergence, and in this employ is specific to The Last of Us, which I have labeled the “Process of Avatar-Attachment Subversion” (PAAS), occurring over four stages: 1) The creation of avatar-attachment through arresting narrative; 2) The enhancement of avatar-attachment through immersive gameplay; 3) The subversion of avatar-attachment through a “twist” or unexpected narrative/ludic element; 4) The resulting conflict between the player and their avatar-attachment, which creates an intrinsic meta-analysis of the previous attachment’s formation. This process is the crux of player meaning-making in The Last of Us, and elevates the game’s ability to affect a player to that of high art.

The first stage of the PAAS, where avatar-attachment is formed, is perhaps the most important, since all subsequent stages and their effects are relative to the strength of initial connection. In The Last of Us, this formation primarily occurs during the game’s “Prologue” sequence, and is heavily reliant on the narrative to create “identification with avatars and user-avatar similarity… as well as a positive moral evaluation of the primary character’s behavior” through the events that lead to the death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah (Elson et al. 528). By forcing the player to begin the game as Sarah before switching to Joel, the game exploits the initial attachment to Sarah to highlight the meaning of her death. This anticipates the bond a player forms with an avatar, and illustrates how inventive game design can take advantage of our tendency to deeply immerse ourselves in a game world. As Folkerts notes, when “we play a game we not only transfer ourselves into the virtual world, but also into our game character, the avatar: we imagine being somewhere else and someone else”, and consequently “in our private mental space the [avatar] very much owns projected personality traits, including a moral and reflexive consciousness” (107, 112). This “reflexive consciousness” is especially key here, since it induces player empathy for Joel and his actions within the post-apocalyptic world he inhabits based in Sarah’s death—and due to our involvement in this event through avatar-attachment and interactive play, it therefore becomes easier to understand (if not advocate) Joel’s actions through most of the narrative.

While this attachment is firmly rooted in the “Prologue”, it is nonetheless expanded upon for the duration of the game. Once Joel unites with Ellie and has no other option but to continue on with her to find the Fireflies (and thus, to try and save the world), the player and avatar are united in the undertaking of this grand mission, which allows for approval of Joel’s brutal tactics and survivalist nature in achieving it. When Joel bashes someone’s face into a wall or sets them on fire with a Molotov cocktail, the player creates “strategies to morally disengage from objectionable [avatar] behaviors…by arguing that those behaviors are necessary in order to win”, thus accepting the game’s brutality as a necessary evil to get Ellie to safety and develop a vaccine to rebuild the world (Elson et al. 532). But while this is the heroic thread the game uses for its throughline, as the player progresses they will find themselves more and more focused on the localized bond forming between Joel and Ellie, which eventually begins to supersede the main objective. As Joel starts to see Ellie less as something to smuggle and more as an analogue for Sarah, he opens up to her more readily and defends her more fiercely, and through the bond of avatar-attachment the player begins to feel similarly.

This process is subtle, beginning with Joel seeing Ellie as “just cargo” and ending with his use of the term “babygirl” to refer to Ellie—a pet name he used for Sarah. Early on, after crossing between buildings in Boston and watching Ellie admire the cityscape, Joel thoughtfully looks at his broken watch (a gift from Sarah). As they’re about to leave Bill’s town of Lincoln, Ellie notes that she “won’t let [Joel] down”, invoking the need for approval a child has with a parent (The Last of Us). After arriving in Pittsburgh to a human “Hunter” ambush, Ellie is the target of the primary attack until Joel overpowers her assailants and crushes a man’s face against the lip of a desk, illustrating his protective parental instincts in the level of his violence. Later, Ellie comments on a worn “Dawn of the Wolf” movie poster, which was also displayed on the wall of Sarah’s bedroom. By the time the pair leaves Tommy’s Dam, with Joel having chased after and reconnected with a runaway Ellie, their bond is strengthened, with Joel even allowing a brief conversation about Sarah, whom he normally will not discuss at all. These moments are small and nuanced, and so they often slip by unnoticed by the player in regards to their collective meaning, yet nonetheless the growing bond they exemplify—especially from Joel’s “broken-man” perspective—becomes the central focus of the game. In experiencing these quiet moments between the tense brutality of the game, the player is inclined to encourage this bond between Ellie and Joel, as it is a notably cathartic relationship for both of them—which is why when Joel becomes injured and Ellie is captured by David’s group a new sense of urgency and commitment is injected into both the narrative and the gameplay. After the sequence concludes, and Ellie has killed David, her bond with Joel has notably changed.

It’s important to note here, after the player has spent this sequence playing as Ellie, that their bond too has changed. While Joel from this point on becomes more protective, and more focused on his role as a father figure (he speaks more openly, more carefree, focused on the life they’ll have “once we’re done with this whole thing”), Ellie has become more distant from him, whether because of the trauma of dealing with David, or more directly, the weight of the world on her shoulders, as evidenced by her dream:

So, I’m on this big plane full of people. And everyone is screaming and yelling ’cause the plane’s going down. So I walk to the cockpit, open
 the door, but there’s no pilot. I try to use the controls but…I
 obviously have no clue how to fly a plane. And right before we crash, I wake up. I’ve never been on a plane. Isn’t that weird? (The Last of Us)

Here Ellie is voicing (perhaps subconsciously) her apprehension about being unsuccessful to foster a vaccine, as she continues to Joel a moment later:

After all we’ve been though. Everything that I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing. Look, I know you mean well…but there’s no halfway with this. (The Last of Us)

With the player having formed more direct attachment Ellie as an avatar during the “David” sequence, it becomes easier to reunite with her cause to help humanity, and this distance between Joel and Ellie and the player and Joel begins to increase, reaching a precipice once they reach the Firefly hospital, where Joel ultimately acts against the will of Ellie, the Fireflies, and indeed the world itself. It’s this narrative arc and the player’s investment in it, that drives the avatar-attachment, but it is nonetheless supplemented by the elements central to a game itself: gameplay and mechanics.

The second stage of the PAAS, how gameplay supplements the narrative, is how the player is able to use their avatar-attachment to affect the game world in meaningful ways. In The Last of Us, “the [game] narrative is also shaped and enhanced by players’ interaction with the game through the use of mechanics” (Elson et al. 530). Where “typically, game narratives are at odds with gameplay itself,” and the two “are, in a sense, opposites”, in The Last of Us “without narrativity there is no game” (Costikyan; Folkerts 107). When looking at the intersection of narrative and gameplay, Elson et al. found “games with high-quality gameplay and sound were associated with greater satisfaction of autonomy and competence, which were in turn associated with enjoyment. The satisfaction of relatedness and insight that determined the appreciation of a game, however, largely depended on its story” (524, emphasis mine). In The Last of Us’ gameplay, multiple aspects work in tandem to intensify the player’s attachment to the protagonists as they operate within the game’s narrative framework.

Combat in The Last of Us is integral to gameplay, and forms the core of what drives player interaction. The player can face off against human and/or infected enemies and utilize a range of weapons and explosives to dispatch them, similar to many other games. These moments heighten tension immediately, since by definition they are sequences that risk the lives of the characters and prevent progression until they are overcome. In The last of Us, however, there is a notably brutal quality to the combat, which serves to underline the game’s realism and helps to prevent desensitization against violence itself, forcing the player to consider their actions more meaningfully and to better understand the emotions driving the violence. In many areas, it is possible to progress past enemies using stealth to avoid combat altogether, but in others the game forces the player to violent action. Supplies and ammunition are always limited, and more often than not the player must resort to adaptive strategies to get past enemies that often outnumber and outpower them. These are the sequences that inevitably require repetitive play to surpass, where “the opportunity to repeat the same challenge over and over again…enables [the player] to freely examine and consider the intrinsic or implied possibilities and outcomes” (Folkerts 113). Player frustration with difficult challenges is balanced by the ever-present tension between the task at hand and the desire to progress in the game’s narrative. One such scene involves Joel hanging from a booby trap, where the player must shoot at approaching infected enemies while swinging upside down, all while protecting Ellie from the incoming swarm. While many horror elements inform the gameplay, with grotesque monsters constantly threatening Joel and his companions’ lives, the game mechanics find a happy medium between inducing fear and determination, and the further the player progresses in the game, the more invested in achieving its end goal they become.

Intense areas of combat, which are often initiated without any warning, are countered by quiet and even contemplative sequences in the game world. Ruined cities and idyllic natural settings feature prominently, and allow the player to both digest the sequences of combat to give them appropriate weight, as well as form a deeper attachment to Joel and Ellie, as these moments are where scripted dialogues often occur organically, while the player is interacting with the game world. There are also optional dialogue sequences the player can trigger with Ellie, and these moments (Ellie reading Joel jokes from a book, Joel educating her about the world before the pandemic, etc.) both add to the relationship of the characters and the player’s feeling of involvement in nurturing that bond, leading to a deeper attachment to the avatars and higher level of enjoyment in playing the game.

The design of this “game space”, the areas that Joel and Ellie specifically traverse, is also an important aspect that helps mask the game’s inherently rigid linearity. Through clever placement of ruined buildings, overgrowth, and derelict cars, the path to progression for the player often becomes something to discover, rather than an obvious and restricted one. While the game spaces are limited in how the player can move through them, they nonetheless feel expansive enough to evoke the “principle of minimal departure”, where the player is able to fill in the blanks of what’s missing in the game world (i.e., that which can’t be seen beyond the inhabited game space) with their knowledge of the real world (Juul 123). Employing the high level of realism that The Last of Us does, this becomes easier to achieve given the natural lightings, realistic rendering, and intelligent pathway design that all adds to the immersiveness of the game, and therefore the avatar-attachment of the player.

The game’s score and sound effects also add substantially to the dichotomy of tension/contemplation that the game’s pacing creates, and sparse music by acclaimed composer Gustavo Santaolalla (winner of an Academy Award for his Brokeback Mountain score) elevates the moods of the game in an emotionally cinematic way. The sounds of the infected, however, which can be heard long before the enemies are seen, have a profoundly psychological effect on the player, and added nuances like sounds coming directly out of the PlayStation controller speaker add to this. Gunshots, punches, and explosions, likewise, all have a particularly impactful delivery that also contributes to the realism of the game, thus furthering player immersion and tension.

A final note on The Last of Us’ ability to enhance narrative through gameplay regards the lack of overtly defined level goals or mission recaps. Juul notes how explicitly assigned quests in games can provide a bridge between game rules and fiction, and yet in The Last of Us it is the lack of such clear goals that accomplishes just that (17). The player, more often than not, is progressing through the game in much the same way the characters within the narrative are: cautiously exploring, looking for ways to leave one area for another, and trying to avoid or engage with enemies that often abruptly appear. The player is never told in explicit terms “Cross the rooftops” or “Find a way through the sewers”, but instead is allowed to naturally come to these conclusions due to the intelligent design of the game spaces. This allows for minimal intrusion on the suspension of disbelief, which only directly occurs through the game’s HUD (head’s up display) that shows health and ammunition levels, as well as short prompts on how to use new items, but nonetheless even this system is also discreet within gameplay.

The third and most important stage of the PAAS is where avatar-attachment subversion occurs, and where all the aforementioned elements converge for a particularly meaningful effect on the player. Here is the implementation of what Elson et al.’s calls a device to create player meaning by “disrupt[ing] the increased attachment to a game’s protagonist by having them act in a way that the players might find morally questionable”, specifically in the moment Joel decides to slaughter the occupants of the Firefly hospital and “save” Ellie from the surgery that could save humanity (533). Joel (and thus, the player) is told of the intractable situation that has arisen since Joel was knocked unconscious—the only way to salvage a vaccine from Ellie is to sacrifice her in the process. This is a tragic and heartbreaking turn, given the journey that led to this moment, but one that nonetheless coincides with Ellie’s notion that “this can’t all be for nothing… there’s no halfway with this” (The Last of Us). Yet the surrogate-daughter attachment Joel has found with Ellie, which evokes a renewed reason for living, is too strong to let go of, and thus he responds (and forces the player to respond) in the only way he understands how—with violence.

The player, however, will find themselves hesitant about these choices as Joel ascends the floors of the hospital, killing more and more soldiers in what one describes as a “massacre” (The Last of Us). These are the people the player has searched for the entire game, and with them suddenly being deemed the enemy, the same justifications for killing hunter-humans or the infected no longer apply, making the actions Joel undertakes—and therefore, the actions that the player undertakes—outright murder. This is the enacting of the PAAS, the core of the subversion of the avatar-attachment, where the goals of the avatar no longer connect with those of the player, and the game begins to play “with the expectations and motivations of a player, or subverting their intrinsic needs through the mechanics of a game”, which by Stage 4, and even within Stage 3, becomes “thought-provoking and enriching” (Elson et al. 535). By forcing the player to work against the grain of the perceived narrative outcome, the game takes on a more layered meaning, and interrogates the attachment to an avatar overall.

The more significant perspective comes when the player encounters a series of recorders along the way to the operating room, two from Marlene and one from the head surgeon, detailing both the difficulty of the decision to sacrifice Ellie and the singular importance of doing so. Marlene discusses how she “really doubt[s] [she] had much of a choice…this is what we were after”, echoing what she says to Joel when he wakes in the hospital: “There is no one else…there is no other choice here” (The Last of Us). The surgeon likewise remarks:

We’re about to hit a milestone in human history equal to the discovery of penicillin. After years of wandering in circles we’re about to come home, make a difference, and bring the human race back in control of its own destiny. All of our sacrifices and the hundreds of men and women who’ve bled for this cause, or worse, will not be in vain. (The Last of Us)

And yet the result of the “gift” Marlene hopes to bestow upon the world is a hospital full of dead bodies, including the surgeon and (depending on the player’s actions) his assistant and a nurse who begs for her life. The penultimate blow of this subversive sequence occurs when Joel attempts to leave with Ellie through the parking garage, where Marlene intercepts him and says, “It’s what she’d want…and you know it”, to which Joel has no rebuttal, but only a guilty look (The Last of Us). Any validation the player might have been entertaining for the carnage in the hospital is nullified by this line, and this look, and then emphasized when Joel murders Marlene and lies to Ellie, whereby it becomes a certainty that “success or winning [in a game] does not necessarily involve a positive outcome” (Elson et al. 527). As such, the deep and carefully wrought attachment the player has formed with the avatar is disrupted by having to then use that bond (to control the avatar) to follow an immoral pathway.

This leads to the fourth and final stage, where the player is implored to consider the subversion, knowing now that it was the intended effect of the game all along. What individual players will make of this unique narrative and gameplay pivot can’t be alleged, but it’s a safe bet to assume that because of this process they will have had a singularly unique experience within a video game. Folkerts asserts that “playing (some) videogames also involves playing with meaning and meaning construction, and forces us to look at ourselves. It puts a mirror in front of us, which not only shows our own identity, in a certain way we can even get to shape it” (Folkerts 111, emphasis original). Through the process of subverting avatar-attachment, the players of The Last of Us are invited to ponder their own identity, motivations, and attachments. More than “winning” the game, it will be this process, and how narrative converging with gameplay created artful self-analysis, that will be the lasting impression of the game.


 

Works Cited

Costikyan, Greg (2000). “Where Stories End and Games Begin.” Game Developer, September 2000.

Elson, Malte, et al. “More Than Stories With Buttons: Narrative, Mechanics, And Context As Determinants Of Player Experience In Digital Games.” Journal Of Communication 64.3 (2014): 521-542. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Folkerts, Jef. “Playing Games As An Art Experience: How Videogames Produce Meaning Through Narrative And Play.” At The Interface / Probing The Boundaries 69.(2010): 99-117. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Print.

The Last of Us: Remastered. Naughty Dog, Inc. 2014. Video Game.

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