Before I get started, I’d just like to clarify a few things. First of all, this is not a “click-bait” article. Secondly, if you read the title and decided this article’s not for you, I’d prefer you just skipped over it, instead of coming to start arguments in the comments section.
Also, I’m not here to flame either – I am (hopefully!) going to give a reasoned argument, in a positive light. I am all in favour of feminism (or egalitarianism, which makes a better name for the movement), but – full discretion here – I am male. No, I’m not a “white knight”, that whole thing is absurd. I’m just a guy who would like everyone to be equal. That’s not such a bad thing.
One final thing: there will, of course, be spoilers. You have been warned. I think that’s about all the preamble covered; on we go with the main event!
Twenty Years Later
I have seen a lot of articles about The Last of Us lately. This isn’t exactly surprising – tipped for Game of the Year status already, it’s an amazing experience. A bit of personal opinion here: it’s one of the best games I’ve played in many years, and a moving, gripping story comparable to any other form of media.
It’s understandable that so many outlets would choose to write an article on such a game. The sting in the tail of The Last of Us is a more subtle ending than we’re perhaps used to – no giant final boss, no clichéd zombie twist, no shocking revelations of any sort. Just a simple lie. We all knew Joel wasn’t going to let Ellie die, and though the way in which it all unravelled may have been surprising, it was that little lie at the end that was the shocker. And to cut to credits on such an unassuming moment… It was designed to give you something to chew over.
One of the more commonly-occurring viewpoints of those recent articles looks at The Last of Us from a feminist approach. There are loads of ways to look at a book, a film or a game – post-colonial or psychoanalytical, for example – but the feminist viewpoint is probably the most common, when it comes to videogames at least. This is for a simple reason – the games industry is still overwhelmingly male, and as such, women are often forgotten about when it comes to major roles.
One article that discusses the issue is this one from The Guardian, written by Keith Stuart, posits the idea that The Last of Us (and Bioshock Infinite, for that matter) is an allegory for a father-daughter relationship, and this is certainly evident – Joel loses his biological daughter, then “adopts” Ellie, before doing everything in his power to stop her getting hurt.
And this great article from Leigh Alexander for Gamasutra (which references the above Guardian one) very much echoes the sentiment.
The two articles are both positive overall, but there is an undercurrent of, for all that it may have done, The Last of Us has still not done enough. They share the view that the game is very much about Joel, shooting down the notion that it is Ellie’s story as much as it is his.
And this is where I have to disagree.
The Last of Us begins with you controlling Sarah, Joel’s young daughter. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me, and I’m sure many others feel the same. This risky way of opening a story allowed us to see from a different viewpoint than the one that was expected, and, though it was perhaps to contrast Sarah’s young frailty with Joel’s gruff protection, it still made the decision to make the playable character a female.
This may not seem like such a step, but in a time when not so many games starring female protagonists are available (Remember Me, Time and Eternity, Tomb Raider and er…), it is certainly one in the right direction.
But no, you’re right, this is not enough. It’s a good job, then, that The Last of Us continues in that same, progressive direction. The women in The Last of Us are all incredibly strong characters – Tess is arguably more head-strong and determined than Joel, and sacrifices her life to save him and Ellie. Marlene is the head of the Fireflies, a rebel group and arguably the only “good” faction left in the United States; she kicks off the whole story and strives to save the human race, ultimately dying in vain.
Then there’s Maria, Tommy’s wife. Though we don’t see all that much of her, we can tell she’s not your average videogame eye-candy, much like the rest of the prominent women in the game. She is in charge of the group that lives inside the hydroelectric plant, and does whatever it takes to get the job done.
As you can see, you can’t really argue that these are your stereotypical videogame women – they are leaders, fighters and survivors, and each of them has a well-developed, individual personality. They’re not “women in refrigerators”, as the old trope goes.
What You Say Goes
Another complaint that’s cropped up once or twice is the fact that this is a game about parenthood, and though there are three children present in the game, there is not one mother. Although, yes, that is true, there are a couple of extra facets that need to be looked at.
Firstly, there is only the one father present, and that’s Joel. Sarah’s mother – Joel’s wife – is spoken of in passing, and though there seems to be a storied past there, she never appears. The assumption is that she’s dead. Henry is Sam’s older brother; nothing is mentioned of either parent. Ellie’s parents are mentioned once or twice, but neither are seen.
However, it could even be said that there is a mother in the game – Marlene. She appears to have adopted Ellie, promising her biological parents that she’d take good care of her. In this way, she has become a mother figure; something that many critics said was missing from The Last of Us.
What Are You Scared Of?
Now it’s time to deal with a subject that’s been rather controversial in the videogame world of late: sexual assault. Before the recent reboot of Tomb Raider came out, a trailer was released which implied that our favourite heroine, Lara Croft, was going to get raped. This was to be the catalyst which hardened her as a person, the reason behind her vengeance.
This did not go down well. Why can’t a woman be strong, be vengeful, be heroic without having to get sexually assaulted first? It is exactly this sort of (male) narrow-mindedness that causes all sorts of problems in the games industry – a woman can’t be a hero unless she’s suffered at the hands of a man.
The Last of Us has a scene of sexual assault, or at least an attempted one. In the latter section of the game, a Hunter – David – attacks Ellie. Although nothing is explicitly stated, the implication is there that he is going to sexually assault her, before killing her (in an earlier cutscene, we are told that Ellie is David’s “new pet”).
The differences between the scene in this game and the scene from Tomb Raiderare massive. First and foremost, the assault is not Ellie’s transformative moment – she is already a strong woman at the start of the game; she has her own desires, her own motives, her own flaws from the outset. It is certainly an important milestone in Ellie’s life – the ordeal causes her to become withdrawn by the next section of the game – but it is most assuredly not her defining moment.
There is a stark contrast between the scene in The Last of Us and the type we often see in popular media. No knight in shining armour turns up to save Ellie; she fights David off with her own strength. Although Joel does show up, he ends up pulling Ellie off David, instead of the other way round – she has killed him with a machete, and is venting her aggression on his corpse.
Ellie does not need saving; she is perfectly capable of fighting her own battles.
Goodnight, Baby Girl
This segues neatly into my final section. The most common complaint is that the game is not Ellie’s story; you play as Joel, Joel is the main character, it’s about Joel’s evolution. I respectfully disagree.
All through the game, Ellie is there, fighting alongside you. From the scene right in the opening hours of the game, where her stabbing the soldier allows the three of you to make a swift escape, she is more than pulling her own weight. She saves Joel’s life on a number of occasions, just as Joel saves hers.
When Joel gets injured at the end of Fall, we transition to Winter, and suddenly we’re in control of Ellie. The focus has shifted. I genuinely had no idea this was coming, and I was shocked. We see how she has been surviving the harsher months (hunting), and that she has been caring for her incapacitated father figure all this time.
She is more than capable of standing on her own two feet. We play as Ellie for quite some time, killing a stag, fighting the Infected, killing David. This section is entirely about her. The story is as much about Ellie as it is Joel, and Ellie is as protective of him as he is of her. Neither of them is any “stronger” than the other – apart from the age difference, they are equals.
The very last portion of the game is played as Ellie again. We walk, we talk, Joel lies. The game ends. In this, the entire story of The Last of Us is bookended by women – we begin as Sarah, and end as Ellie. There is absolutely no way to avoid seeing this world from a female perspective. The story is Joel, and the story is Ellie.
Yes, the game does fall back on a few of the clichés – for the majority, you’re a gruff man killing the bad guys. But Ellie does her fair share of killing and protecting, and the cast features a number of incredibly strong female characters.
Apparently Naughty Dog had to fight to keep Ellie on the cover. This story was a bit of a double-edged sword for me: although I was happy that they were willing to stand up for their beliefs, I was incredibly disappointed that anyone should have to put forward a compelling argument to try and convince someone that a woman on a game box is not an inherently bad thing.
The Last of Us is a great game, with a powerful story. Although it may not revolutionise the portrayal of women in AAA videogames, it has certainly taken a large step in the right direction. If this is what the future of gaming will be like, you can sign me up now.