For my class on Melodrama (yes, it’s a thing) I want to write about video games, because I can. Particularly Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us and the different ways each game immerses the player to build drama.
In Mass Effect 3 you are Commander Shepard. You choose your first name, you choose how you look, you choose your backstory. Beyond that the game allows you, the player, to choose what Shepard does throughout the game. Say you’re faced with someone refusing to let you past. Are you going to try to talk him into it; or will you hold a gun to his head until he listens to you? The game gives you that choice.
Of course, a lot of Mass Effect is far more subtle than that. Your attachment to your crew is based on your own actions. How much time you spend getting to know them and whether or not you help them out with their side stories is entirely up to you. You’re never obligated to spend to interact with them. But then, the fate of your crew is up to you.
Say you decide to cure the genophage in order to have the warlike krogan on your side in the fight against the Reapers, though also allowing the krogan to become a major contender in the galaxy (and threaten a war), To do so, the scientist (and friend) who delivers the cure will die. He doesn’t have to, of course. You can lie to the krogan Battlemaster (and friend) and say that you tried to cure it while the scientist goes into hiding. Or you can order him not to go and renege on your deal. Or you can tell him to go up anyway, knowing he will die. And if you do, you know it was your choice. So his death (or your betrayal) hits harder because you know you had the choice.
The Last of Us gives you no choices. The player is constantly ushered and ordered along, never given a say in the events. You live out the story that unfolds. Now, The Last of Us owes a great deal of its drama to its deft writing and exceptional acting, but playing as Joel —and allowing his goals to become yours — drives home much of the emotional weight of the game.
One of the strongest examples appears early on (and I’ve mentioned it before) During the game’s opening you play as Joel as he tries to escape with his daughter, Sarah. For a few minutes you’re running through town as Infected close in behind you, Joel’s daughter in your arms. Your goal mirrors Joel’s throughout the scene, get Sarah to safety, which makes her death all the more painful.
After all, you finished the ‘level,’ you got to the checkpoint without dying. By right you should be safe, you should be clear. You should be safe. There’s no going back, there’s no way you can prevent her from dying. Furthemore, the affect of her death is intensified because you, the player, failed too. Your goal was to get Sarah to safety and you failed.
Unlike in Mass Effect 3, The Last of Us, immerses the player through empathy (rather than projection). The player does not direct the flow of the game, thereby becoming the protagonist in the process, rather the player’s mindset is molded to that of Joel’s. They’re two different ways of creating drama that, when used as well in these two games, really work.
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