How the Last of Us Uses Interactivity to Cultivate Empathy through Control
The Last of Us game series is a striking example of the level of emotional connection the interactive medium is capable of. The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II use carefully crafted interactive and narrative techniques to build relationships, cultivate empathy and allow players to understand the character's actions from another perspective.
In my view, both The Last of Us titles are fundamentally about how empathy is the last hope for humanity. By extension, they are about why humanity needs love. Many related themes are explored throughout both games such as the experience of grief and the cycle of violence. The game takes a relatively dark path to explore its themes. However, the power of the series truely lies in how developer, Naughty Dog employs interactivity to express those themes, cultivate real emotional connections and create empathy through control.
This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II
A World without Empathy
The Last of Us is told against the backdrop of a disturbingly believable version of our reality. A world in ruin. The game takes place roughly 20 years after humanity was devastated by a fungal pandemic. This was not destruction by human hands but by an indifferent monstrous threat. Cities stand empty like ghosts and a sense of melancholy permeates the air. This imagery reinforces the reality that a central venue to build and cultivate empathy has collapsed : our collective society. The bleak and unforgiving setting is a portrait of a world without empathy.
Humanity has become consumed with personal and tribal survival and have all but given up on changing their fate. This atmosphere fuels hate and violence. This is a dangerous existence and reminders of what humans once were is dominant in the landscape. Throughout the game, players experience the sparks of love and compassion that persist.
These moments of light are bittersweet as they are fleeting and often all but snuffed out by hopelessness and greed. That atmosphere is meant to be depressing and suffocating because this is humanity at its darkest moment.
Permeating throughout both games is imagery in the form of the firefly and the moth. Finding and seeking small sparks of light in an environment engulfed by darkness.
The Last of Us Part II's loading screen shows moths searching for the light
Players recite in real life the rallying cry used in the first game by the Fireflies, a militarized group of survivors with the noble goal of restoring society to what people once were.
“When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light”
Searching for the light in the darkness is an underlying theme across both games.
The player hears this reinforced via the Fireflies throughout the first game and then more subtley in The Last of Us Part II via environmental stories. A good example is Rabbi Saunders' Letter found in the synagogue :
As the old saying goes, "it takes but one candle to dispel the darkness."
The world of The Last of Us originally sees the light in the darkness as Ellie, there is hope that her immunity from the Cordyceps Brain Infection will save humanity. That hope is the firefly, a distant light that is alive - piercing the darkness. Throughout the experience as Joel and Ellie the player begins to learn that the Cordyceps infection is not truly the darkness humanity is engulfed by. As the player follows Ellie in Part II, she becomes further plunged into the oppressive depths of human hatred. She is the moth desperately seeking any light in the darkness.
Ellie's tattoo design is somewhat brazen in using the moth imagery
In both games, Ellie represents hope for humanity. The hope that humanity can return from the brink of absolute darkness to become what they once were. The focus on Ellie’s immunity added potential meaning to her suffering but as its importance wanes into The Last of Us Part II - Ellie and the player grapple with a crushing thought - what makes life is worth living in a world with no hope? Joel tells Ellie at the end of the first game, that "you keep finding something to fight for." For him, its Ellie. The end of the first game is bleak. People with the best of intentions may have doomed humanity.
By the end of The Last of Us Part II, it seems that Naughty Dog's writers ultimately do suggest that there is hope even in the darkness. Showing that humanity is deeply flawed but that redemption is possible even after we have lost everything. Connection, empathy and compassion are what will bring us back from the darkness.
This is a nuanced message and it cannot land emotionally if delivered bluntly or simply told to the player. For the player to feel it, they must experience connection to humanity and also the depths of our darkness to understand the power of returning from it.
Why The Player Feels It
Many The Last of Us fans have deep personal connections to the characters of Joel and Ellie and when terrible things are happening to those characters it can feel like a direct personal assault. The now infamous scene in which Joel is murdered early on in The Last of Us Part II is gut-wrenching and horrifying on its face. Its more powerful due to the player experiencing emotional empathy for both Joel and Ellie. The player has lived their perspectives and formed a relationship together as both of these characters. They've experienced their growth, their trauma and their bond. Joel's death becomes emotionally as real as a game can make it.
While this moment appears later in a flashback most players felt that this kind of feeling was torn from them with Joel's death
This results in a real and intense reaction of hatred for Abby, his killer. Without litigating the story details - Naughty Dog wanted an inciting incident that boiled the player’s blood and takes them personally to the deep darkness of hatred and revenge that permeates the world. Its a terrible, sickening feeling. Players are not meant to like it and the angry reactions throughout the internet are not surprising. While emotionally manipulative, it is extremely effective. Many players were devastated and their grief was so powerful that they refused to empathize with any other perspective - a very human reaction. Even in causing it, the game does empathize with the player's struggle through grief and anger.
The player as Ellie murders hundreds of people throughout the journey and mercilessly hunts down Joel's killers. The anguish she feels, the cost of her hatred and the weight of her decent into darkness is palpable
Struggling with Character Actions
The Last of Us Part II wants the player grapple with the impact of their pain and grief. What some players likely miss is that the goal does not always need to make the player care for others or even sympathize at all. Understanding the events from someone else's viewpoint and in effect to see their own actions in a new way - is enough. The act alone of challenging a perspective results in growth and a more compassionate understanding.
The player doesn't have to care about Abby (and likely won't) to learn that from her perspective, Ellie's revenge is mostly unexpected and for her - feels heartless and brutal. Similar to how Joel's death felt to Ellie and the player.
Forcing a change in character control breaks the sense of subjective self so that player directly experiences events from an alternate perspective. Specifically, the most opposite possible viewpoint. This is important. Specific pacing criticisms aside. Players often ask "Why do we need to play as Abby for 10 hours?" They get it. She has good reasons to kill Joel, she lost her father, she has friends and lovers, she has a dog - she is not so different from Ellie - "Did that require ten hours?" Why not show or tell this in a cut-scene so the action returns to Ellie quickly.
This is precisely the point. The player needs to spend the same amount of time in Abby's shoes. Forcing the player to control Abby for an extended period of time requires the player to cast themselves as Abby, like it or not. It cultivates empathy through control.
Its common to mistake empathy for sympathy. There is an important difference. Sympathy is concerned with taking part in someone's feelings and engaging with them - making the player give a shit.
Empathy is more complicated. Empathy is simply a person’s ability to understand another person's perspective or feelings. Empathy is a complex form of self-preservation. Humans evolved to survive by taking on threats together (sounds pretty good for surviving in a deadly pandemic). Empathy is the mechanism with which humans form their "in-group". Its the group that they care about and will protect.
The mechanisms in the brain typically implicated when harming others become less active when the violence against another group is seen as justified or the person is not a member of an in-group. The well-being of humanity ultimately requires people to see every other human as members of their "in-group". Without it, humanity cannot band together to take on species-sized threats.
Empathy comes in two main flavors : cognitive, the ability to understand someone's else perspective and affective also called emotional, the ability to emotionally connect with that perspective. Affective empathy is usually what leads to formation of feelings like guilt which usually gives way to sympathy and eventually solidarity.
The Journey with Joel & Ellie
Ellie's journey is driven by her survivor's guilt. She survived when Riley, her first love did not. She needed her immunity to be important, to make her loss and her pain meaningful. She says as much at the end of both games. Joel also suffers from survivor's guilt. Sarah was killed and he survived. Its not just Riley and Sarah, the player also experiences losing Tess and Jesse as well as many friends along the way.
The player has been on this journey. We were there when Riley died. We were there when Sarah died. We are there from the beginning all the way to the brink of Ellie’s darkness at the end of her violent, grief-stricken rampage where she nearly kills Abby. What happened? Why didn't she kill Abby? Its a game about revenge and hate right?
Well. Revenge does not heal. Empathy is what reconciles guilt. Google it. Empathy and compassion is really how people manage guilt.
Guilt is emotional distress felt after doing something wrong or failing to do something. Guilt is meant to propel us to change ostensibly to survive and adapt.
Ellie was finally able to change - she realized that she could forgive Joel. She reconciled her anger with him because she empathized with what he did. In the final scene with Joel, we see the connection land (played masterfully by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker). Ellie finally understood why Joel took that choice from her, why he murdered the Fireflies, why he lied and why he continued to protect her.
In a flash of clarity, she understood that killing Abby would not heal her guilt because her pain wasn't about Joel's death, not really. Its about the forgiveness she failed to give him while he was alive.
The Last of Us is Ellie’s story. Its about her trauma, her guilt, her decent to darkness and ultimately her return to hope. It is something we as humans and players are meant to share. Throughout the narrative the player controls Sarah, Joel, Ellie and Abby because it is essential for the player to experience multiple perspectives to tell us three intertwining tales of guilt and grief. This is all in service of gaining understanding of humanity's struggle with finding meaning and hope in the darkness through the love of others.
Empathy through Control
Naughty Dog employs a narrative technique that is only possible in interactive media - control of a character rather than being told what they did. As with games like Mass Effect, there is shared agency with the player but full-control is not given. It doesn't need to be. This is not the player's story but it is one they are meant to share.
Naughty Dog did not invent controlling a character but the developers use this interactive framework in an extremely unique way. They mimic how real relationships are formed so that emotional connections land and therefore trigger real responses. They allow and sometimes force the player to spend quality time in a character's shoes and also with other characters. Not simply watching them but allowing the player to cast themselves as that character. Control of a character even in a limited way causes the projection of the subjective self onto the character. The player can't mentally say they are Joel when they make Ellie walk around.
Its not the kissing or romantic scenes that make Ellie and Dina feel like a real couple. Time in-game spent between Ellie and Dina is given room to breathe and is carefully crafted to communicate chemistry, create relationship tension and allow the two to grow as friends and lovers
So, how are real relationships formed? Speaker and author, Simon Sinek has a clear way of explaining it. In his concept, “Do you love your wife?”, the underlying question shows how it is impossible to pinpoint the moment that people fall in love. Relationships and connections are a series of interactions built-up over time. There is no shortcut. No one moment creates attachment. Humans are designed to reinforce connections specifically to learn lessons and survive. The way one might go about learning something is by repetition. Reinforcing specific actions strengthens them. Put another way, relationships are cumulative.
Naughty Dog’s narrative approach fundamentally understands this. The Last of Us ensures that the player spends an extraordinary amount of time in the perspective of its most important characters. It could be argued that this results in pacing issues but again, there is no shortcut.
The short amount of time for a character like Sarah is more relevant due to what the purpose of her perspective is. The player gets exposition and character building that the game certainly could have delivered in a short opening cut-scene but instead it takes about fifteen minutes of interactivity.
The opening allows the player to experience Sarah's perspective and spreads dozens of pieces of exposition and relationship building material over a natural progression of time
We spend closer to ten hours as Joel which relative to film or television, is an extravagant amount of time. The beauty of this approach is that The Last of Us revels in human moments and the game relies on player control to create more connection. A player cannot feel the impact of the story or characters as deeply simply by watching all the cut-scenes in The Last of Us. A bulk of the game's dialogue is delivered while the characters are in transit to the next plot point.
Certain portions of the game take far more time than a film or cut-scene would be allowed to spend. The player experiences unscripted moments, mundane quips, conversations and interactions that slowly build the relationships between the characters. The player has agency in these moments as many of them are off the beaten path, optional or even hidden. During these portions of the game the player doesn’t often lose control of the character or even see their faces so their role as that character is reinforced.
Its easy to forget that life is made up mostly of mundane events and not cinematic moments
The Last of Us is often praised for its environmental storytelling which uses carefully crafted environments, notes or collectibles left behind and visual elements that show events that transpired. Usually telling small, unimportant human stories (at least relative to the plot). The interactivity inherent in discovering these details is another method of giving the world a feeling of realism and weight that cut-scenes would not be able to.
Referencing real places contribute to the player's ability to ground their understanding and cast themselves as the character they control
There is a lack of generic or repeated places. Insane attention to detail is given to even the most incidental environments. These levels are usually just open enough and just restrictive enough that it creates an organic nature to these character moments. These elements all combine to create a natural paradigm that goes to stunning lengths to build familiarity with the world and its characters: the feeling of “being real”. It must be played to be experienced, there is no shortcut. That is the power of this technique.
Actually Walking a Mile
In the original game, the empathy by control technique is mostly used to create powerful connections. For the player to understand the full weight of Ellie’s journey they must experience parts of it from outside her perspective. There are multiple goals. To give insight into two sides of one relationship. To show events with an entirely different context and even to challenge the objectivity of absolute right and absolute wrong.
The Last of Us intentionally casts the player into opposing perspectives meaning that each character must look at their previous persona directly. This forces them to break their sense of self and their sense of others. This is sometimes called "ego-death" or a "complete loss of subjective self-identity". To simplify, it creates mental friction as the player struggles to think of themselves as Joel when they are controlling Ellie. Of course, this is also used when the perspective switches to Abby.
Even though the player may want to return to another character's perspective they are no longer casting themselves as them. The longer the player spends controlling a character, the harder it is to maintain attention on another's perspective. This is why the player spends ten hours as Abby.
This is a use of Naughty Dog's narrative approach that challenges the player to build empathy and context for their subjective emotions (as Ellie) because it becomes mentally difficult to cast themselves as the singular hero of the story.
Naughty Dog’s writers use these narrative tools primarily as way to build real relationship between Joel and Ellie. I mentioned that this is Ellie's story but Joel is who the player controls for the majority of the first game. There is a story and arc to tell about Joel that is unique and important. What is it in service of? His story is really about his love for Ellie. It is vital for the player to empathize with Joel to understand Ellie's pain and grief. The dramatic risks The Last of Us Part II takes simply would not have had any chance of working otherwise nor would the end of the first game have worked.
20 years after the outbreak : Joel is a broken man, fighting to survive. Any sense of the wonderful father the player was introduced to - is gone. The game wants to ensure that player experiences the redemption arc of Joel personally from rock-bottom to rediscovering his humanity and eventually grappling with his grief through his need to love Ellie. Returning to Simon Sinek - at what point does Joel start loving Ellie? The characters certainly don't start that way.
It's an impossible question to answer because through the roughly 10 hours the player spends with Ellie as Joel, there are hundreds of moments that slowly bring them together. The Last of Us Part II uses a similar overall set of techniques to build the relationship between Dina and Ellie but that is a whole other article.
Man...I shot the hell outta that guy, huh?
Some notable moments are shown in cut-scene such as when Ellie saves Joel multiple times or more miss-able moments of game-play such as when Joel recalls the taste of coffee while passing a dilapidated shop in Pittsburgh. There are many moments that Joel learns about Ellie’s love for comics and even game-play created due to Ellie’s inability to swim. Some are guided while others are completely optional. The player has agency in a majority of how Joel and Ellie’s relationship forms.
Don’t you dare leave Ellie hanging.
A personal player memory of The Last of Us recalls these moments differently for every person and blends together to form powerful connections because the player has cast themselves as Joel and effectively fallen in love with Ellie as their daughter. It's not just the technique, Ashley Johnson’s likable, quippy portrayal of a teenager born into a dark world makes for a textured, entertaining character and Troy Baker’s nuanced delivery of a broken man, rediscovering being a father who is living in anguish - helps to land the narrative technique. No one will contest that it comes together beautifully. It isn’t just played for story, playing as Joel ensures that player’s feel his weight and strength which leads to the brutality and violence that characterizes the incredible lengths that the player as Joel has gone to protect Ellie. Comparatively, when control switches, the player feels Ellie's agility and smaller frame. The power of the interactive medium to help the player feel a character.
After it all, the investment of time to build their relationship feels earned. Near the end of the game, the player emotionally connects with Ellie through Joel but doesn’t yet connect with Joel through Ellie because they have not experienced her perspective.
Late in the first game, Joel is seriously wounded and the player switches to control Ellie in a desperate attempt to save Joel during a harsh winter. The player plays a large portion of this section as Ellie, again breaking the player's sense of self as Joel and experiencing Ellie's fight to save him directly. After a number of set pieces and an inciting incident, the sequence uses Joel and Ellie's different perspectives to build emotions into a crescendo culminating in a catharsis.
This effect is achieved by rapidly switching back and forth between Joel and Ellie’s perspectives which ramps up the connection as the game builds to their paths re-crossing. The player is able to understand themselves as both Joel and Ellie - they are able to connect to the desperation and anger of Joel as he increases his brutality to find Ellie and the desperation and fear of Ellie to survive the cannibal group leader, David. This culminates in Joel finding Ellie and a visceral emotional reunion that results in an even deeper bond that the player now feels between both characters.
You can feel this moment.
Of course, we can't talk about dual-perspectives without talking about Abby's story. We have mostly described how the The Last of Us frames characters in the player’s mind using interactivity and uses extensive moment to moment storytelling to build emotional connections and perspective.
Abby’s story is not about nessesarily about building an emotional connection. It is mostly about empathy and perspective. I previously mentioned how sympathy and empathy are different. Naughty Dog pulled some dirty, emotionally manipulative tricks to make the player as Ellie hate Abby to the depths of their soul.
They want to absolutely shatter your sense of self as Ellie. Plunging the player into the moments and minutiae of Abby’s life is effective in showing how Ellie’s rampage is experienced from basically everyone else in the game.
For the entire three days in Seattle. Abby doesn’t even know Ellie’s name. The narrative pokes at the impact of Ellie's actions but Abby is embroiled in her own drama and redemption story. Perhaps most importantly, Abby’s tale does allow the player's to experience someone that was successful at revenge.
The player takes control of Abby after she has successfully exacted her revenge on Joel. It gives her no closure. The playe constantly experiences her nightmares of her father’s death. Her obsession with Joel and her pain continues to plague her. Relationships with her friends deteriorate, she loses sense of meaning. It's not until she embraces empathy through Yara and Lev that she finally comes to terms with her father’s death and begins to find her humanity.
Without needing to care, the player can understand her devastation. She may be killing machine and much more of a solider than Ellie but Abby is not a psychopath. She lost everything and it destroys her. Owen was a man she loved and he is taken unceremoniously. One of the few positive relationships left in the form of Manny is also brutally stolen from her in the blink of an eye - his blood is literally sprayed on her. She wasn't able to save Yara after literally fighting a horrifying monster to save her. Her community and safety in the WLF is gone. Empathy through control is used to ensure that the player doesn't just see Abby as a cartoonish, one dimensional villain. Like or hate her, she isn't.
When the player finally returns to the moment that we left Ellie’s story and are cast into it as Abby. The player understands - Abby let Ellie live and she killed all her friends. She killed Owen, she killed Mel, who was pregnant and she even killed her dog, that monster! Again, the player doesn't have to care about Abby to gain perspective. Now, the player is no longer able to identify as Ellie or Abby - the sense of self is gone or struggling.
Attacking Ellie is not fun at all but the player experiences what a terrifying enemy she is. Even Abby's infamous "Good" line when she nearly kills Dina makes contextual sense because we understand that she believes Ellie did the same to Mel. It is only Lev that brings her back from the brink of darkness and we understand from experiencing her story - why he is able to.
Revenge didn't stop Abby. Violence didn't stop her. Guilt didn't stop her.
The rest of game the game plays out primarily for the player to experience Ellie's redemption. While its easy to say that the farm scenes exist to show what happiness Ellie could have if she simply let go of her revenge. Her underlying trauma is not gone. Her survivor's guilt is even stronger now that every person she has ever loved, save Dina has died in front of her. Ellie has not changed yet and she is still searching for the light in the darkness.
Again, the player experiences the end through dual-perspectives. Abby's is presented as a much different character who has healed substantially and her obsession is gone. Further, she once again believes that there is hope - the player learns that she is searching for the Fireflies.
The final sequence from Ellie's perspective communicates that Ellie's guilt has consumed her - she is gaunt, forces herself through a serious injury to hunt Abby, kills anyone in her path and when she is finally about to get what she believes is closure for herself and Joel, she finally realizes why revenge will not heal her.
Hope but Left to Interpretation.
Players experience the final scene as Ellie returning to the farm to find Dina and J.J. gone. A common interpretation is suggested that Naughty Dog's message is that revenge has cost Ellie everything.
But, it doesn't. Thats objectively not true.
Dina and J.J. are still alive. She has a chance that she didn't have with Joel. The game makes it clear that Ellie loves them and will likely return to them. Maybe she goes off on her own, maybe not. While we may never know, it is believable that especially in a post-apocalyptic setting that a couple that loves each other and went through incredible trauma and loss together could mend their relationship. There are even fan theories that speculate that the final scene actually takes place after they have reconciled.
However, whether Ellie and Dina actually repair their relationship is immaterial to the story.
The only items left in the house are Ellie's jacket from Seattle and a room of what are mostly Joel's belongings that Ellie kept. There are some ridiculous details that Naughty Dog included in this scene such as Ellie wearing Dina's bracelet that she was given in Seattle and Ellie's drawings and paintings of Dina and J.J are notably missing. In this room, most importantly is Joel's guitar. The jacket and guitar are symbols of her guilt and her trauma.
Experiencing Ellie's inability to play the guitar due to her bitten-off fingers is bittersweet and Joel and Ellie's final conversation before his death is finally shown. This is where the player is shown that Ellie finally understands Joel's perspective.
Its easy to forget that the we as the player understand Joel better, because we experienced his journey directly, we were Joel. We felt Sarah's death, we murdered the Fireflies to save Ellie.
But, Ellie never experiences those moments. She knows they happened, but she didn't understand Joel's anguish at losing Sarah or his decent into darkness and how she became his hope.
The moth imagery is somewhat obvious
The final shot leaves Ellie's guilt behind (literally and figuratively in the form of Joel's guitar). She is no longer the moth searching for the light. She goes off into the distance with hope to live or maybe return to Dina and J.J. but this is the happiness Joel wanted for her.
At the end. Joel finally saved Ellie.
Ellie, Dina and J.J. are alive with hope to rebuild their family. Abby and Lev are alive with hope to join the resurrected Fireflies ( the New Game+ title screen suggests they are successful ). Hell, even Tommy and Maria are only taking a break.
Through all the bleakness, hate and violence. This is ultimately a hopeful game. Naughty Dog was able to deliver on these thought-provoking themes powerfully through interactivity. It was a massive risk on their part and it was meticulously crafted.
Regardless whether you loved or hated the game, it will make you feel human.
“When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light”