Some disagree that The Last of Us was as progressive as many claim it to be. Chris Suellentrop of The New York Times applauds the game for its artistic merit in his article In the Same Boat, But Not Equals. “There is indirect characterization, unexplained subtext, and acting without talking. The climax avoids easy judgments about who is right and who is wrong. (All of these elements are virtually nonexistent in video games.) The score, by Gustavo Santaolalla—who won Oscars for his work on Brokeback Mountain and Babel—is beautiful and effective. Naughty Dog, the studio behind this game as well as the excellent if overpraised Uncharted series, might be the most skilled maker of interactive drama in the world.”
Suellentrop goes on to reiterate that because of the game’s impressive artistic accomplishments and attention to cinematic detail, it makes the representation of women all the more jarring. “Its artfulness and its intelligence make its treatment of women all the more frustrating. In the game’s resistance to allowing the player, for much of the story, to control—or, to use a more accurate word, to inhabit—Ellie, The Last of Us casts her in a secondary, subordinate role.” Suellentrop claimed that Ellie was the much more unique and interesting character, and found himself hoping that Joel would die off so that the player would be able to primarily play Ellie more often. Joel fits the mold for the scruffy white man character type who beats people up, and Suellentrop much preferred the unique experience of playing a character with a different set of skills and advantages.
“For a brief time, The Last of Us does become Ellie’s game, and the player is asked to direct her journey. As you would expect—it is the magic of the medium—I identified more with her character when I was playing as her. I became more interested in her. Her feelings became my feelings. And then she—or at least my ability to inhabit her—was gone. For a second time, the game surprised me, did something wonderful, and then took it away.”
It is true that you are able to play as Ellie at certain points. According to Alexandria Neonakis, a member of the team that created The Last of Us, these are the most important plot points, as quoted earlier. Suellentrop applauds the inclusion of a powerful girl character but laments the lack of ability to play her as often as he would like. He also recognizes Joel’s character growth as well before ending his review with: “Perhaps it is unfair to visit the sins of the medium upon a work as well-made as this one.”
Alexandria Neonakis wrote a rebuttal to this review in the ArtsBeat section of The New York Times. She speaks about a comment in Suellentrop’s article that claimed the game was made for men, by men, saying that it “has the potential to be very damaging. It perpetuates the idea that this is not a world for women. Young women reading this review who are considering entering games as a career could feel justified in their fears that this industry is not for them. If this thinking is to stop, we need to promote partnership and not continue the cycle of men versus women.”
She goes on to acknowledge Suellentrop’s ability to recognize Joel’s growth, however, “he failed to recognize Ellie’s growth. Her journey from a damsel in distress to a fully capable and complex character is made clear through the relationship she develops with Joel. Likewise, Joel’s growth could not have happened without Ellie. This was not a game ‘about men.’ It was about a mutual relationship and about how people need one another.”
The claims that The Last of Us was made for men become more unfounded given the stances they took on hurdles thrown at them from marketing. Naughty Dog had to specifically request that women game testers be used when they found out the firm they were working with only planned to use men as game testers. “The company’s creative director Neil Druckmann explained how the studio stepped in after discovering the notion of polling female gamers for their take on the upcoming apocalyptic adventure game wasn’t on the table.” This gives us an interesting insight into how the belief that video games are for men gets reinforced in the industry by specifically looking to see if men, and only men, enjoy the game. This practice is undoubtedly driven by the idea that men would spend the money to buy the game. So, it becomes a part of the age-old frustration where companies do not create content for women because women don’t buy it, but women don’t buy it because it wasn’t created with them in mind—and so on and so forth.
According to Luke Karmali in the same IGN article, that unnamed firm “also wanted to push Ellie off the front cover of the game and onto the back of the game’s box art.” The voice actress for Ellie, Ashley Johnson, spoke about this in a Destructoid article. “I feel like they don’t put women on the covers because they’re afraid that it won’t sell […] It’s all gamers really know—and I don’t want to be sexist by any means—but I get the feeling, generally, that they think games won’t sell as well with a woman on the cover, compared to some badass dude on the front.” Druckmann agreed with Johnson’s assumption on the reasoning behind asking to move Ellie off the front cover. “I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less. I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused.”
The article goes on to suggest that there might be a group of people—of unknown numbers—who would chose not to buy the game because there was a girl on the box art, and that the marketing firm was aware of this. The decision to play towards that group of people rather than the entire demographic of women is debatable. The article closes by saying that, “Kudos to Naughty Dog for being in a position to stay strong and then follow through. The norm isn’t going to change if everyone sticks with it. Frankly, the bigger issue seems to be having more well-written female protagonists in the first place. We’ll get there, eventually.”
The fear that the game would flop due to its treatment of women was equally unfounded with incredible reviews from critics and players across the world. Empire Online ranked it number one on its list of the best video games of all time. “The impact of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was Earth-shattering for gamers and game-makers alike. An over-the-shoulder stealth shooter, but one like no other, this was a game that you never wanted to end, that shook you to your soul that you really, genuinely, honestly cared about. With more 10/10 reviews than you could shake a shiv at, it scored highly in all aspects: combat, crafting, acting, script, sound design, art design, graphics, and more.”
The success of the game is due in large part to the incredible talent behind the gameplay mechanics and environmental aspects of the game. However, what pushes the game from great to excellence is the equally impressive attention to storytelling and characterization, something lacking in the industry in its current state. “You can see why people really like the game. The animation is nearly photorealistic. The characters’ eyes are full of life and emotion, with none of the vacancy gamers so often confront. Their eyes give Joel and Ellie, the two characters that the player spends the most time with, a weight and a reality that surpass all other video game characters” (Suellentrop).
In terms of entertainment history, the video game industry is very young. It took the film industry over 100 years to reach the level of artistic merit and cultural significance it now holds. Comparatively, gaming is likely to catch up in a much shorter timeframe. The level of positive lady representation that is present in The Last of Us is almost as rare in film as in its own medium. It is possible that we will look back on the horrifically sexual and violent characterizations of women in games the same way we look back on the horrifically racist and bigoted representations of race in culturally important films (such as Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind).
Every entertainment medium that reflects our cultural values will also reflect our moral failings at the time of each piece’s creation. The fact that every mainstream source of entertainment lacks positive representation or any representation at all of women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community demonstrates our society’s lack of respect and value towards those groups of people. When a piece of work that comes from one of the most infamously hateful and not-so-diverse industries portrays all three aforementioned groups in a manner that is not pandering or mocking, it is cause for admiration. Only time will tell if a precedent has been set by the critical and monetary success The Last of Us. Until then, lady gamers and women in the industry can only endure and survive.