Playing the Villain: A Reflection on the Value of Different Character Perspectives in Simulation-Based Technologies
By Dave Peloff
Dave Peloff is Associate Director and Senior Program Director for Emerging Technologies at the Center for Technology in Education. He also teaches the graduate course ‘Gaming and Simulations for Learning’ for JHU’s International Teaching & Global Leadership program.
Spoiler alert: This article reveals important story elements from the games ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘The Last of US, Part II.’
My good friend and colleague, Linda Carling, recently wrote a wonderful, inspiring article titled A Disney Villain Became Our Hero: How Tapping into My Autistic Son’s Interests Helped Him Engage, Learn, and Grow.
“What made Jafar become a villain?” That’s the question Linda’s son asked Jonathan Freeman, the actor who played the character on Broadway. It’s a powerful question, and I have to believe there’s something profound to learn about empathy and humanity by asking it. Linda’s piece reminded me of my own recent encounter with a fictional villain.
It was early summer, 2020. The COVID-19 lockdown was in full force, along with all the anxiety and confusion that came with it. Like many of you, I sought refuge in television and movies. My college-age daughters and I poured over the libraries of various streaming services looking for enjoyable ways to safely kill time in our COVID bubble. Tiger King was an early, low-rent diversion. Money Heist was a perfect binge watch. And the timing of The Last Dance on ESPN was a gift from the sports gods, with every league in the world on indefinite shutdown. All that was great, but at some point, my PlayStation 4 began calling to me.
It had been a while. My PS4 and I, with some input from my wife, had agreed it was best if we spent some time apart. But with no end of the quarantine in sight, I decided it was time to saddle up. Duty was calling, so to speak. (Sorry).
Not exactly coincidentally, there was the fortuitous timing that a video game I’d been eagerly anticipating was finally being released. The Last of Us, Part II from Naughty Dog is the sequel to one the greatest games of all time. In 2013, The Last of Us, with its themes of loyalty and revenge and redemption, was the first game I’d played where the story and visual design rivaled anything you would find in a Hollywood production. Without going too deep down the narrative rabbit hole of that first game, suffice to say we experienced a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested but beautifully rendered world from the perspective of a man named Joel: a rugged, gruff, jaded, no-nonsense, middle-aged white guy with a troubled and tragic past. In other words, Joel fit the mold of a classic, reluctant protagonist.
But then The Last of Us did something interesting. About halfway through the story, when Joel becomes gravely injured, the game switches perspectives. Suddenly, we, the player, become Ellie: a 14-year-old girl that Joel has been traveling with and protecting. Ellie is now alone, trudging through snow, hunting for food, and fighting for her life. From that point forward in the game, we see the world and experience the action through Ellie’s eyes.
I remember at the time getting a kick out of that change in perspective — an unexpected curve ball the developers at Naughty Dog threw at their audience. I wondered how a stereotypical player of action games (who are predominantly young and male) would feel about playing the game from the perspective of a young girl. (This was a full year before the ‘Gamergate’ controversy). But as interesting as that twist was, it did not prepare me for what happened in the game’s sequel.
Back to June, 2020. If you haven’t played The Last of Us, Part II, and you are interested in doing so, I suggest you stop reading now.
Ok, we’re back.
The story picks up five years later, and the player is still seeing the world through Ellie’s eyes. She remains our hero, our central protagonist. The game’s developers challenge some slice of their audience early on, when we learn that the now 19-year-old Ellie is gay, and that her sidekick for much of the adventure to come will be another young woman: her best friend and potential love interest, Dina. I once again had to smile as I thought about some of the less progressive members of the gaming community being forced to fight for survival as a young, gay woman. Naughty Dog didn’t care. They must have known their game was so expertly crafted, the graphics so realistic and beautiful, and the gameplay mechanics so much fun, that very few — if any — gamers would put down the controller based on offended sensibilities. No, in all likelihood they would play on.
But that narrative wrinkle was nothing compared to what came later. Let’s just say something very bad happens to someone that Ellie loves, while she watches helplessly. And the perpetrator of that very bad thing is a woman named Abby. The character of Abby is a hulking, violent, vicious, angry woman with a physique that Thor would admire. Abby leaves Ellie alive, but barely. And as you might guess, Ellie vows revenge. For most of the rest of the game, we, as Ellie, track the murderous Abby across the country, eventually catching up to her in the plague-ravaged city of Seattle. But just as we think the game is coming to its inevitable conclusion, in which we, as Ellie, finally avenge the very bad thing that happened, the game switches perspectives again.
We are now Abby.
I just about fell off my chair when I realized what the scoundrels at Naughty Dog had done to me. At first I assumed it would be a quick gimmick, they would give us a brief look from Abby’s evil perspective, a taste of her monstrous existence, before we switched back to Ellie’s viewpoint for the end-game. But no. It turned out there were still hours, MANY hours, left in the game’s narrative. And over that time, we totally and completely become Abby. We meet her friends. We learn about her past. We see how others love and respect her. And most importantly, we learn why she did the bad thing that she did. By the time the game comes to its wild conclusion, which I won’t tell you about, I reluctantly found myself on Team Abby, fighting for survival against Ellie, our original hero.
The perspective whiplash that The Last of Us, Part II employed with such incredible effect left me a smoldering, emotional wreck. I kept thinking about how brilliantly the game had set up my perception of the villain, then forced me to see the world through her eyes. If the game had given me the option of playing as the villain (as some games do), but not forced me to do so, I never would have done it. I like to believe that most of us gamers (at least those who are not sociopaths), prefer playing as the hero, or at least an anti-hero with a moral compass. And while video games are often criticized for their violence (and it’s true, both Last of Us games have their share of guns and gore), we are the ‘good guy,’ and let’s face it, the villains have it coming. Then a game like The Last of Us, Part II comes along and turns all that on its head.
Is there any practical application to any of this? Could perspective-bending games and simulations play a role in the social and emotional development of young people? What about doctors, police, or teachers? As the technologies become more accessible, could hyper-realistic gaming engines, combined with immersive storytelling, become a common component of our education and professional training? A mechanism to help us see and understand the world through the eyes of those with vastly different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences? It seems worth thinking about. We might even get to know some misunderstood villains along the way, find out what makes them tick.