Infecting Our Emotions Through Immersion In The Last Of Us

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Playing video games is personal. Sitting down as you clutch the controller in your hand manages to evolve into a unique experience that evolves from your own personal choices. Our perceptions shape how we view the experience as a whole, and this can be seen at work constantly through the power of film. A great movie creates a sense of immersion that manipulates your emotions into caring for the hero, condemning the villain or even simply cheering for love. The worlds that filmmakers create drag us out of our own realities and allow us to buy into a suspension of disbelief that provides a powerful sense of emotion which infects our minds with the struggles of the characters, but most importantly, we empathize with them through every hardship they endure.

There’s no denying that video games have attempted to capture the power of cinema over the last few years. As a result, gaming has seen leaps in terms of narrative design and experiences that immerse your senses in awe-inspiring worlds. Places that shatter preconceptions of what gaming can accomplish. BioShock: Infinite and The Walking Dead are two games that immediately come to mind. Both of these games attempt to build a link between your emotions and connection to characters within the world in order to make your emotions intertwine with the struggle of their protagonists.

Games can be heart shattering, not simply because of a greater focus on the quality of writing in games, but rather a total shift in understanding the complexities of immersion within the interactive space. The controller controls our character but our suspension of disbelief brings an unprecedented level of connection that film is unable to achieve. BioShock: Infinite’s focus on first-person shooting is rightly contrasted with The Walking Dead’s point-and-click adventure style, yet both titles manage to tap into our emotional reserves. We can draw from this that drastically different gameplay experiences are capable of creating significant emotional experiences by utilizing the crucial element of immersion.

It should come as no surprise then that Naughty Dog’s post-pandemic adventure title, The Last of Us, is aiming to capitalize on the power of immersion by evolving upon an ongoing fusion of emotional storytelling with interactivity.

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A Nation Torn Apart

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Two decades after the Cordyceps fungus evolves to infect humans, killing millions in the process, we are thrust into the world of The Last of Us. Civilians are corralled into quarantine zones ruled under strict martial law where if you are revealed to be infected you are immediately executed. The weight of the infection bears heavy on any survivors that remain as they are seemingly lost in a world surrounded by a sense of decaying beauty and overwhelming fear that each day could be their last. Desperation and struggle are key elements that emphasize a strong importance in bridging our sense of immersion into the game world.

The scariest notion resting beneath the decaying nation is what will become of the last of us once the world collapses? What horrors will we be faced with once the lives we’ve lived before have been shattered, and what will those growing up in this new world become? Sure, these questions have been explored for a long time, but they’re ones that we continually become infatuated with. The Last of Us is attempting to answer these very questions by manifesting an entirely new world that begs for your to step inside and become immersed in the beauty of a depopulated world. Naughty Dog’s work on the environments can easily be compared to the landscape painted by the cinematography in 2007′s, I Am Legend.

Testaments of mankind’s abilities are crumbling around you as nature’s lush greenery reclaims rightful ownership of the land. City streets have become overgrown with greenery, stagnant water pools in crumbled streets while underground tunnels have flooded completely. The melancholy feeling evoked by witnessing the world in ruin impressively creates this sense of beauty. It allows you to become immersed in a seemingly abandoned world where remnants of society can be viewed for what they are, impressive feats of mankind. Unfortunately, you won’t be the only person alive to admire them, and the world of The Last of Us presents survival through the same lens as much post-apocalytpic fiction does, desperation.

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Desperation: Survival By Any Means Necessary

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What would you do to survive? How far would you push yourself to save the ones you care about? These are questions that we all must face when considering the possibility of society’s collapse and it’s a series of questions that is answered with violently unrivaled brutality in The Last of Us. Spilling blood is not only an option, but it’s a necessity for survival. Naughty Dog’s post-pandemic world is clearly utilizing violence as a means of conveying the narrative as accurately as possible, by focusing their attention on creating a visceral combat system that emphasizes the limits that Joel and Ellie must push themselves past in order to survive.

It’s a fight for survival. Every step that the pair takes further into the world is a step that may lead them into the hands of scavengers prepared to do any and everything in order to survive another day. Desperation creates the tension that drives each bloody encounter. Naughty Dog wants players to feel the tension and danger that arrives during each encounter with both the survivors and infected. This danger, ever present in the world, pulls us in and immerses us by feeling that any mistake we make truly means the end of Joel and Ellie’s journey. Of course, we are all well aware that Joel will respawn and get another shot at survival.

However, this doesn’t mean that the tension is felt any less. We are constantly in a state of suspending our disbelief in order to feel as if we are the characters. That is why when you see something brutal happen to your avatar on screen you cringe. It’s not that the fictional character is truly being killed, but rather that you imagine yourself being ripped out of a car, brutalized, and left with the reality that you failed the one person relying on you to save them.

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Moulding Emotional Complexity Through Characterization

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As we’ve seen before, the world of The Last of Us is littered with the reality of brutal violence and destroyed beauty. We are given a taste of what may be left for us once the world collapses. Beautifully rendered environments immerse us in feelings that evolve from observing the crumbled ruins of society and the pure desperation that directly influences the game’s sensational brutality. Yet there is a key element that factors into the formula in order to provide players with the powerfully emotional narrative and it arrives through the relationship between Joel and Ellie.

During the beginning of the game, Joel and Ellie aren’t quite acquainted but as they continue on their journey we begin to see how the pair rely on each other to survive. In bouts of combat, Ellie provides Joel with support by distracting enemies or even attacking them directly. We feel as if Ellie is alive. She’s the rambunctious kid that’s learning from her mentor how to survive in the ruthless world of the present. Ellie depends on Joel for safety but it would seem that Joel becomes reliant upon Ellie to save the last parts of his humanity after living in a world where brutal ruthlessness is required to ensure that you live to see another day.

The dynamic between Joel and Ellie immediately resonates with us. There is a beautiful relationship that grows between the two and players are able to feel this grow naturally over the course of the game through moments of exposition. By utilizing these moments of in-game interaction we are provided crucial pieces of backstory that allow us to further immerse ourselves into their struggle. We hear Ellie’s longing to have known the old world and Joel’s nostalgic trip down memory lane. We get a clear view of the tragedies and traumas Joel has endured surviving in the new world while exemplifying Ellie’s innocent understanding of what it truly takes to survive. Most importantly, these moments in-game represent the power that games have with immersing players into an emotional narrative. We can gain a greater understanding of who these characters are, and as a result, we are able to empathize with the brutal reality of their lives.

The Last of Us is attempting to provide a touching emotional narrative for players by utilizing the power of immersion and interactivity. It aims to leave you with an experience that resonates in your mind for some time to come. Overwhelming images of a nation consumed by mother nature reclaiming its land with an aesthetic of destroyed beauty, manifests a feeling of melancholy as you stand in the remnants of society. This very collapse and sense of desperation for survival results in the brutal violence players will be expected to enact over and over. Yet the violence is a necessary evil and one that you will be forced to execute when you imagine yourself in Joel’s shoes. You suspend your disbelief and you remember that you’re simply surviving. You’re protecting Ellie.

Film has long been our escape into the reality of other characters but a change has been arising for quite some time. The power of immersion and interactivity have allowed game developers to craft experiences that push the limits of what video games can accomplish. Now, we become immersed in worlds that paint vivid depictions of what humanity can become in the face of desperation, while posing critical questions that can resonate with everyone. In the face of society’s collapse, what will become of the last of us?

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