Ludonarrative Dissonance in The Last of Us Part II: Attempting to Create Empathy with a Villain
Authors: Ambra Ferrari, Paolo Soraci
Abstract: In Story-based videogames, the Author has an intended story he wishes to communicate to the player and carefully constructs it to arouse specific sentiments, such as empathy towards characters, which support the development of the narrative as he had imagined it. However, the main obstacle of interactive narratives is reconciling intended storylines with the players’ always unique sense-making of the narrated events. In this paper, we investigate this matter by analyzing the post-apocalyptic videogame The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog, 2020). The plot unexpectedly sees Joel, the main character of the first installment and fatherly figure to co-protagonist young woman Ellie, killed by a woman named Abby under Ellie’s eyes. After the murder, players suddenly switch from controlling Ellie to playing as Abby for a long section of the game, with the authorial intent to show them her side of the story. After about 10 hours, the game reaches a climax in which the player is forced to attempt to kill Ellie while still controlling Abby.This videogame is particularly interesting in the attempt of creating empathy towards videogames characters, as the intended target of the sympathy (i.e., Abby) was initially introduced as a villain in the story. To study this matter in-depth, we have selected the three most viewed gameplay videos on YouTube commented by English-speaking players and the three most viewed commented by Italian speakers. Successively, performance and discourse analysis were performed on the gameplay sections immediately before and during the climax. We have independently analyzed the six videos and identified shared recurring themes.In the section before the climax, players are shown the bodies of Abby’s friends killed by Ellie: a dog, a man, and a pregnant woman. Remorse was often demonstrated by players at the sight of the dog’s body, yet some players justified the human killings. Interestingly, five out of six players manifested their dissent with the authorial choice of the climax, verbally and physically refusing to harm Ellie. Most players across the two languages engaged in verbal protests and self-sabotage, such as intentionally running out of ammunition, making noise to be discovered by Ellie, and ultimately and deliberately seeking death as Abby, leading to multiple intentional game overs. Besides, most players praised Ellie and her craftiness, skill, and speed. This indicates that these players’ empathy towards Abby, however present to some extent, was apparently not strong enough to justify killing Ellie.These results give relevant insights about storytelling in videogames and the creation of empathy, underlining the importance of discriminating between the creation of cognitive and emotional empathy. That is, even though players cognitively commiserated Abby because of the suffering she endured, they were apparently too emotionally attached to Ellie to let this feeling prevail. Finally, the climax section can act as a starting point for an interesting discourse related to breaking the contract between an author unintentionally disincentivizing the player to do well and a player who refuses to play according to the rules.
Keywords: empathy, story-based videogames, ludonarrative
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