There is no denying that Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is an important marker in video game history. Games like this, among others, helps usher the industry into artistic credibility to the degree of film, literature, and theatre. With the advancement of video games as a source of mass entertainment, it is to be expected that they will be put to the same level of critical analysis as other art forms are subjected to.
The game is focused on a man, Joel, who finds himself responsible for a 14-year-old girl, Ellie. They must travel the dangerous, post-apocalyptic version of America to reach a group of rebels called the Fireflies who need Ellie for an important mission that could help restore society. The game achieves the status of excellence through the cinematic storytelling, honest acting, and a goal to be character-driven rather than environmentally-driven. In the behind-the-scenes documentary, Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us, the creative director, Neil Druckmann, spoke on how the voice actress Ashley Johnson helped characterize Ellie:
“The most important thing that Ashley brought is a sense of capability to Ellie’s character that wasn’t there in the beginning. […] She needs to be more capable than we initially thought she would be, and that made us go back and rethink combat and rethink a lot of the areas in the game and now she was going to take a much more active part.”
This is an example of how Ellie started to gain more agency in the story. She was vulnerable, but capable of handling herself despite Joel’s protests for her to remain inactive and thus safe in combat situations during their travel. But in a world full of zombie-like infected people who are looking to eat you, you need to utilize every resource available, including letting a young teenage girl help you murder cannibals and deviants despite what it will do to her innocence and psyche.
Alexandria Neonakis wrote in her article Game Theory: The Last of Us, Revisited that, “Ellie’s power comes from her bravery, ingenuity, and determination throughout the game. It was also shown in her ability during the game’s final moment to accept Joel for all of his flaws and forgive him, because she understood that he needed her more than she needed him. She was ultimately the hero of this story. She’s powerful the whole time, and it had nothing to do with wielding a gun or physical ability.”
While the game is very graphic in its depictions of violence, it is to serve the plot. As Neonakis stated, Ellie is powerful not because of the violence she is capable of committing. Rather, she is powerful despite it. Throughout the story, her choices and emotions directly affect the plot rather than having the plot affect her choices and emotions. Neonakis comments that, “In an industry that more often than not represents women as either a damsel in distress or a male character in a female body, this was a triumph in storytelling and representation. Ellie is an entirely playable character. It was not by coincidence that the moments you play as her are the most impactful in the game.”
Media studies can attest to the importance of representation in our art and culture. This is true of video games as well. Ellie is a character who so many women can identify with. We were all frustrated teenagers who have been told time and time again that we are fragile and that we are to remain passive. At one point in the narrative, Ellie has to fight a character named David, who has been implied to be a pedophile. “Watching Ellie cry and slash at David, a man trying to take what was hers away from her, was like watching me slash away all of the problems I’ve faced as a woman trying to make it in this industry. Trying to find my role. Trying to prove that I can do this too and that I don’t need your help—that I just need your support and respect. I was so proud of her, of [the developers of the game], and even of this industry in that moment” (Neonakis).
There have been some opinions that the game cannot be considered “feminist” due to the inherent nature of a relationship between an adult man and a teenage girl, one obviously retaining more power and authority over the other. It is important to note that this is also a relationship based on age, and that if Ellie were a 14-year-old boy, the dynamic would be similar. In regards to which character was portrayed more realistically or three-dimensionally, many consider them equally characterized and connected to each other. “In our medium, the change needed in female characters is not about women being portrayed as stronger as or more capable than men, but about being portrayed on equal terms. I don’t want to be treated like I’m more important than my male co-workers. I want to be seen as equal to them. I want to rely on them as much as they rely on me—a true partnership. We have that at Naughty Dog. Our game was made by men and women, some of the most talented in the industry” (Neonakis).
Druckmann’s careful characterization of Ellie played a large role in how the entire game would represent its women characters. Stace Harman of The Telegraph says he didn’t just write “strong female characters, he just wrote strong characters full-stop.” There is much debate and controversy within this particular medium of entertainment on how to write strong women, especially since video games are so guilty of over-sexualization and violence towards them. Harman provides a thoughtful explanation on how The Last of Us got it right: “Swap the gender of all of the characters in the game and discover that the personalities, relationships, and dynamics would all still work thanks to the relative lack of cliché.” However, this does not mean that gender wasn’t taken into consideration during the writing process.
The choice to pair an older man with a 14-year-old girl was made to set up expectations. “Druckmann talks of a desire to have the relationship between the central pairing appear at the outset to be a typical case of a strong, gruff man protecting a precocious, but ultimately vulnerable young girl, before later tearing down that carefully constructed image” (Harman). In its own subtle way, The Last of Us deliberately constructed a storyline to challenge the audience of a medium that holds such dangerous notions of gender. “There are hints that, despite her youth, Ellie possesses a strength of character and determination of higher purpose that her supposed guardian lacks; Joel may have the tools to survive this world, but it’s Ellie who has the capacity to find meaning in it” (Harman).
The characterization of other important women in The Last of Us are also relevant to the game as a whole. Tess is the first adult woman we meet, and is partners with Joel in their smuggling pursuits. During the time that we spend with her, it is made very clear that between the two of them, Tess is the more dominant and powerful character. Other disenfranchised civilians of the small community they inhabit regard her with respect and fear, sometimes threatening Joel until they see that he is with Tess, thus granting him the same respect that would have been given to her. The first scene she appears in, she speaks of being jumped by opposing smugglers. Joel asks if they bandits were “still with us?” Tess shakes her head, confirming she killed these men herself. This is not the last time Tess proves to be just as violent as Joel.
Marlene is another powerful woman in the story as well as a powerful person of color. She is the leader of the terrorist/rebel group the Fireflies. Not only does she command an army of men, but she also retains her air of authority while alone and wounded. She is just as violent as Joel, but she is also more intelligent with a grander vision for the world. She has her own agency and makes plans that challenge Joel, forcing him to make a decision.
Both of these women—who so easily could have been written as men—are portrayed in non-sexualized clothing, which is more impressive than it should be. However, that’s the nature of the industry. The game has a deliberate intention to show how gender roles are social constructs, and that they shatter as soon as the society that created them do. However, it also acknowledges the severe issues women face in their lives, like sexual assault, without exploiting them for the sake of character sympathy or as easy plot devices.
The industry itself has a long way to go, proven by the fact that a well-written and woman character is such cause for excitement and study. However, The Last of Us was a much-needed step in the right direction. “For all of the ill-conceived decisions that result in poorly-written or non-existent female characters throughout the medium, there are encouraging signs that suggest we won’t have to wait for the next apocalypse to meet characters, of both genders, of which we can be proud” (Harman).