Interactions with the End of the World: An Examination of The Last of Us Through Reader-Response

Video games are a form of art. Like film, music, and literature before it, video games not only provide a form of entertainment, but also provide forms of cultural enrichment. Games have evolved beyond defeating multitudes of faceless enemies in order to obtain the highest possible score. Many games are now narrative experiences, bringing entertainment to the masses while also discussing themes such as life and death, finding love in a difficult world, acts of courage in desperate times, and doing what is right even if the methods are wrong. Better yet, these narrative experiences are able to present these themes in a highly active setting. Unlike films and literature, which have the audience passively observing as the events of their stories undergo, video games require the player to act in order to progress the story, creating an active relationship between the player and the content of the game. These games, which act as narrative experiences, are taken in by the players and fans and it is up to them to engage with the story and create meaning from it. There has been no other game in recent years that has accomplished better than The Last of Us.

Released in 2013 by Naughty Dog, The Last of Us is a heart-breaking story of survival in which the protagonist is pitted against the world in order to protect the one thing he holds dear. Twenty years after a lethal fungal infection decimates sixty percent of the human population, leaving many as shambling zombies, Joel, a hardened smuggler who lost his daughter at the start of the outbreak, is tasked with escorting Ellie, a teenager who is somehow immune to the Cordyceps Brain Infection, to a facility on the opposite end of the country controlled by the Fireflies, an organization dedicated to restoring humanity to its former state. The game forces players to stealthily scour through various environments, gathering scraps and resources, all the while fighting off the Infected and bandits. A recurring theme throughout the game is how far the characters are willing to go in order to do what is necessary to survive. While attempting to get Ellie to a group of Fireflies in Boston, Tess, Joel’s smuggling partner, exclaims, “Guess what, we’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time.” Joel responds, “No, we are survivors!” (Druckmann et. al 2013). During the twenty years before the events of the game, humanity has descended into a shade of its former self. The various governments have collapsed, hundreds of cities are evacuated and filled with Infected, and many of those who are not Infected and live outside of the quarantine zones are forced to commit cannibalism to survive. Joel does not see the violence he perpetrates as a smuggler to be either good or evil; rather, he is doing what he must in order to survive. The morals and ideals of the old world cannot survive in this new and decaying world. Another core concept of the game is to seamlessly create a bond between the player and the protagonist, so much so that the player ceases to be a part of the world around him or her and become immersed within the world of the narrative. Creative Director Neil Druckmann, when designing the concept of The Last of Us, wanted to “’build a whole game around this concept…where two people have to work together, to save each other…You can build that bond over time…and the player can see that bond grow’” (The Digital Fix). The game’s conflict centers not only around fighting enemies and scavenging supplies, but also in the relationship between Joel and Ellie. These two characters play along related cliches: the gruff and hardened, but secretly sensitive, protector, and the rebellious and free-spirited youngster. However, it is in the way that this relationship is presented to the character, amidst fending off hordes of Infected and along a cross-country trek, that really defines how the player connects with the characters. Such a story, populated with and characterized by the relationships between the various characters, is ripe with reader response analysis, filled with various instances in which player/audience interaction and interpretation is vital to the story. The Last of Us utilizes storytelling gaps, empathy, and immersion in order to effectively indoctrinate players into its world and create a one-to-one relationship between the player and the characters.

Before Joel is shown to be a hardened smuggler, he is presented to the player as a loving single-father whose world is pulled out from under him. At the start of the outbreak, Joel and his daughter Sara attempt to evacuate from Texas, when a soldier confronts them and, under orders from his commander, fires upon them (Druckmann et. al 2013). Sara is killed but Joel survives, breeding his initial contempt towards the governmental system. We, as players, instantly feel sorrow towards the event and sympathize with Joel; losing a loved one is among the worst pain one can ever experience. Twenty years after this event, though, we see Joel has changed, and not just physically. He is surly and acts as an enforcer to Tess’s more intelligent approach. Desiring to get stolen merchandise back from the Fireflies, the head of the organization, Marlene, an acquaintance of Joel’s, offers to trade him and Tess back twice the weapons that were stolen from them on one condition: take Ellie, a teenage girl, to “a crew of Fireflies that’ll meet you at the Capitol building…You hand her off, come back, and the weapons are yours” (Druckmann et. al 2013). The first time we meet Ellie is as a business interaction, not as being introduced to one of the primary characters of the story. The player is tasked with taking Ellie to this group of Fireflies, but when the Fireflies turn up dead and Joel has to take Ellie to where the group was supposed to take her, we begin to more fully interact with her. The player learns about how Ellie was raised in the post-apocalyptic, militaristic world, how she’s a fan of literature and comic books, and how all she’s looking for is a friend. Knowing the loss that Joel had with Sara, the player can begin to draw connections between Ellie and Sara’s sassy and sweet nature; Ellie becomes a daughter figure not only in the mind of Joel, but in the mind of the player. The player starts by protecting Ellie simply to get paid, but after saving her from Infected multiple times, the player’s investment in protecting her becomes an emotional investment, as she shows herself to be caring and vulnerable within a world where those emotions can be weaknesses, which often result in death. The game is effective in its ability to create empathy with Joel and have the player care for Ellie because of its immersion; it is not Joel taking care of her, but the player: “Games are particularly well-suited to supporting educational or activist programs in which the fostering of empathy is a key method or goal. This is because they allow players to inhabit the roles and perspectives of other people or groups in a uniquely immersive way” (Belman et. al). Empathetical connections are not the only ways in which the player’s investment matters in the story, however.

The game also utilizes gaps, in order to make the player feel more involved and allow for new interpretations of the story. Gaps, according to Wolfgang Iser, are defined as the missing parts of dialogue which “stimulates the reader into filling the blanks with projections. [The reader] is drawn into the events and made to supply what is meant from what is not said. What is said only appears to take on significance as a reference to what is not said” (Iser). The audience gains a greater role within the story, filling in the purposely-missing information with their own thoughts and ideas based on context clues. At that moment, the audience bridges the relationship with the text and becomes fully immersed within its world, being a part of it and supplying their own information and interpretations to the events. This technique is present in The Last of Us, specifically in the scene where Tess resigns herself to die after being bitten by an Infected. Cornered by the military in the abandoned Boston Capitol building and without an idea of where to go, Tess begs Joel to take Ellie out west to find where the Fireflies wanted to bring Ellie. She implores him, saying, “’Look, there’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me,’” getting close to Joel’s face and speaking softly (Druckmann et. al 2013). The relationship between Joel and Tess is never completely defined; we’re introduced to Tess having completed a trade which she and Joel were both supposed to be present at, and come to know her as a smuggler who, like Joel, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to complete the business. This moment she shares with Joel, before she buys him and Ellie time to escape by sacrificing herself, is one of the only moments of vulnerability the player ever sees from her, and so it’s up to the reader to interpret how this interaction changes the dynamic of their relationship. Though they act as business partners when the player first meets them and later as friends as the player sees their interactions, Tess, in this moment, reveals that the relationship between her and Joel may be more intimate than initially considered. The softness of her voice and the choice of her words suggest that she and Joel were engaged in a sexual relationship, too, if not a romantic one; most likely the first and only Joel had experienced since the death of his daughter. However, the game doesn’t try to beat the information into the heads of the players, allowing it to flow naturally throughout the story instead and give the player the ability to fill in the gaps for himself or herself. A different player may interpret the interactions between Tess and Joel differently, due to a difference in interpretive communities and subjectivity, but that is the point of such a moment: to leave the interaction open enough for the player to fill in the gaps with their own information, giving the player the power of interpretation and allowing them to be fully immersed within the story.

Over the course of an in-game year, Joel and Ellie travel across the country searching for the Fireflies, interacting with eccentric characters and surviving dangers together. The player sees the two take care of one another and grow affectionate towards each other. Nearing the story’s conclusion, Joel begins to see Ellie as a replacement to his deceased daughter, Sara. In Ellie, Joel sees a second chance to raise a daughter and take care of her,; he blames himself for Sara’s death and sees a redemption of-sorts in Ellie. So one could imagine Joel’s shock when he learns of what is to happen to Ellie when the two finally reach the Fireflies. Talking with Marlene, the head of the Fireflies, after reaching the organization’s research base in Utah, Joel learns that in order to study Ellie’s immunity to the fungal infection, the Fireflies have to kill her and perform tests via autopsy. Joel then goes on a rampage throughout the facility, killing the Firefly soldiers and making his way to the surgery room (Druckmann et. al 2013). Upon entering the room, the head surgeon tries to attack Joel with a scalpel, but the player defends himself or herself by shooting the doctor. The player, still in full control of Joel, can choose to kill the other surgeons, even though they do not attack Joel. They cower in the corner, begging for their lives, but the player can choose to walk over to them, pull out a gun, and shoot them for being implicit in the surgery that would kill Ellie. There is nothing stopping the player from doing this, or from just taking Ellie and leaving without further violence, but it is completely up to the player to do so; the game is not making a choice for them or showing a cut-scene to watch, but gives the player complete control of the situation. At this point, the player has seen Joel commit acts of violence all in the name of protecting Ellie, the acts becoming arguably more and more unjustified. Whereas at first Joel kills the bodyguards of people attempting to kill him, Joel now kills soldiers and doctors who are attempting to create a vaccine to the fungus infection that has plagued the planet. The player does not questions such questionable morals, however, because the player has been slowly drawn into Joel’s mindset and sense of morality throughout the story: “By combining individual experience with the symbols on the page, the reader can then begin to have a transaction with the text resulting in an emotional response. The same type of emotional response can result when a gamer has a transaction while gaming…the characters [are] a true part of them” (Sanders 123-124). The player, when playing a game, becomes a part of the character, ceasing to see the separation of the real and digital worlds and instead becoming immersed within the world of the game. The game developer can, then, manipulate the player in any number of ways through this relationship, even going so far as to make Joel, a rather villainous character, the protagonist and giving players the choice to protect a young girl by killing defenseless doctors. It is this type of interaction between the character on-screen and the player which bridges the gap between the player and character; the player ceases to recognize his or her own morality and instead follows the morality of the character. All of this emotional interaction and filling-in-the-gaps culminates in the game’s conclusion.

Taking Ellie from the Firefly facility, Joel drives the two to the compound where his brother has set up a functioning town, with a garden, stables, and even electricity. In order to get this far, Joel had to kill his former friend Marlene and convince Ellie that the Fireflies were unable to create a vaccine. Before entering the town, Ellie tells Joel that she wasn’t alone when she became infected; she was with her best friend, Riley, and the two believed that they would “’wait it out…and just lose our minds together. I’m still waiting for my turn’” and Ellie makes Joel “’Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true’” (Druckmann et. al 2013). Joel lies to her and swears that he is telling the truth, to which Ellie simply responds with, “Okay,” as the credits begin to roll (Druckmann et. al 2013). There isn’t much room for interpretation at this point: it is easily assumed by the player that Ellie knows that Joel is lying and the sacrifice which she was willing to make didn’t matter. But, as shown throughout the game, the truth is much more complicated than that. Months after the game’s release, Naughty Dog made a piece of side-content called The Last of Us: Left Behind, which tells the story of how Ellie and Riley got bit. When the duo realizes that they have a few hours until they are supposed to turn, Riley presents her best friend with two options: either they commit suicide and prevent themselves from turning into Infected or “’we fight for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether its two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up’” (Druckmann et. al 2014). This sentiment is repeated by Joel upon the game’s conclusion: “’No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for’” (Druckmann et. al 2013). This interaction with Riley completely changes the interpretation of Ellie’s acceptance of Joel’s actions. Instead of resenting Joel for what he did, it can be interpreted that Ellie understands why he did it and, though it’s difficult to accept, she has found another reason to keep fighting for another day. Joel found that reason in Ellie, and now, Ellie finds it in Joel. Of course, other interpretations are now opened up through the clarification of the downloadable content, but what’s important in this is that the player’s interaction with the game can change and the complexities of the game’s themes are what the player must wrestle with, in order to create meaning.

Video games are a transactional form of entertainment and “Meaning is created during the transaction and is an organic process occurring as the reader and text connect in a specific moment in time” (Sanders 113). Not only does the game obviously impress upon and influence the player, but as shown within The Last of Us, the player influences the game. The game may create the emotional investment the player feels between Joel and Ellie, but it is up to the player himself/herself to create meaning within the story’s gaps or to interpret the emotionally difficult ending of the game. It is these complex moments, where a character dies or someone lies to protect someone else, which the player comes to terms with and creates meaning from. Unlike other forms of literature or entertainment, the player is able to interpret meaning from the story of the game because the game requires direct interaction in order to progress. Like a Möbius strip, the relationship between the player and the game flows into one another; meaning cannot exist without one. The Last of Us tells a tale of the apocalypse without relying heavily on action and cliches, but on emotional investment and character-driven conflicts, as well as asking important questions of the player, such as “For what reason do you keep fighting, when all hope is lost?” and “Is this world beyond redemption?” It is these aspects which make it a paragon of reader-response in video games.

Works Cited

Belman, Jonathan, and Mary Flanagan. “Designing Games to Foster Empathy.” Cognitive Technology 14.2 (2009): 5-15. Mary Flanagan. Web.

Druckmann, Neil, and Bruce Straley. The Last of Us. 14 June 2013. Video Game. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Druckmann, Neil, and Bruce Straley. The Last of Us: Left Behind. 14 February 2014. Video Game. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Iser, Wolfgang. Interaction between Text and Reader. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York City: W.W. Norton, n.d. N. pag. Print.

Sanders, April. Parallels Between the Gaming Experience and Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory. Thesis. University of North Texas, 2013. Denton: U of North Texas, 2013. UNT Digital Library. University of North Texas, May 2013. Web. 19 May 2014.

“The Last of Us: An Interview With Naughty Dog.” The Digital Fix. Poisonous Monkey Limited, 2013.