This post will contain massive spoilers for the video game, The Last of Us. If you haven't played it but intend to, I would recommend giving this one a pass for the time being.
My husband has a tendency to surprise me with video games. I've been an avid gamer all of my life. Between work and school, I don't have as much of an opportunity to play, so besides lonely hours putting off a paper or during the summer, I tend to read more about games then I get the chance to engage. Two weeks ago, he dropped The Last of Us on my lap. Awesome.
I played through it in four sittings. At some points I felt like I was in front of that television from Videodrome and everything would swallow me whole. I would welcome such a bizzaro reality. Because, holy hell, this is decidedly feminist.
When approaching a text from a feminist perspective, we have to do a balancing act of considering what we want to see versus what is reflective of our own reality. It is common enough to critique and to notice patterns of discrimination: swallowing the image of physics-defying breasts even in worlds where you would assume that, if fighting for an ancient demon sword and restoring the order of the world in historical costumes is your lone motivation, that breast augmentation might be a confusing choice. Yet Ivy Valentine does Ivy Valentine, and Soul-Caliber is what it is.
What is more difficult is to come up with a plot that challenges our notions of the characters and stories we are retold ad nauseum. We need these kinds of narratives because while certain people argue until their throats are about to bleed that violent media encourages violence, should we also not consider that our media reflects the world as it stands right now, and violence, sexism, racism and all the rest are realities.
Gamespot argues that The Last of Us simply presenting women as non-sexualized, competent characters is nothing to be praised; this is the bare minimum that we should expect from games. Okay, yes, but further analysis of the plot is essential for a critique: although this fungal apocalypse is a strange and sinister world, it mirrors out own, and in that reflection we see the ultimate injustice of the emotionally distant white male.
The Last of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie who, along with other helpful characters, over the course of the year travel across the United States, from Boston to the West Coast. A fungal infection, a sort of plant-zombieism, has spread across the States, possibly the world, and has decimated the population and forced them into government or militia controlled quarantine zones. Yet even with all this batshit intense stuff going on in the background, it isn't really about that.
It's the story of two people who have suffered loss. For Joel, it is the loss of his daughter, Sarah. For Ellie, it is her best friend, Riley. Rile could have also been a potential romantic interest, but any exploration is wickedly cut short. Sarah dies early on during the outbreak, a misfire from the military under orders to shoot. Riley and Ellie are infected while revaluating their relationship in an abandoned mall. Ellie, both a main character and the McGuffin, learns she is immune when she does not change.
Unlike many other games such as the popular Mass Effect series, choosing to be good or bad or morally neutral is the selling point, yet The Last of Us is plot based, with events unfolding in a linear fashion. The player is pulled along with Joel's choices regardless of whether we want to or not. The only actual choice the player has is early on in the game where he has the option of mercy-killing or letting live an inflected, injured man. The choice is inconsequential and feels like optional target practice. After that, like Ellie, we are tugged along with Joel.
There are moments when the white male savior narrative breaks down, and those deserve closer inspection. After Joel is injured in a firefight, we finally get to play as Ellie, who proves to be as resourceful as her protector. While hunting a deer, she stumbles across a man and his adult son, David and James. She bargains, while pointing her bow at them, the meat for medicine. When James leaves to retrieve some penicillin from his group, David and Ellie are beset by the infected, and fight together to survive.
Seemingly benign and kindly, David is a twisted version of Joel. He desires to protect her, but his motivations are ultimately perverse: after Ellie learns that his group has resorted to cannibalism and makes suggestive motions towards her, she rejects him, and he attempts to slaughter her. She escapes only to ultimately be trapped by him in a burning building. In David's final scene, he attempts to rape her.
Though we play Ellie's survival narrative and Joel's journey towards the camp to save her storyline, Ellie is the one who saves herself. Joel shows up only after David is killed with what is a very satisfying machete to the face. Joel's power as the savior is subverted by Ellie's actions. Had she not killed David, the timing of Joel's arrival indicates that he would have come too late. Thank goodness that Ellie can take care of herself.
We can certainly read Joel as a shadow of David. There are hints of this throughout through the way that Joel treats Ellie. He commands her, tells her he does not care about her opinion (though that changes as he gets to know her and, presumably, folds his feelings for his lost daughter into Ellie) and refuses to give her a rifle until a fight that he cannot win without her giving cover fire from a safe distance. As Ellie turns from an object to be managed to a person whom Joel values, it's Joel who maintains all the power in the relationship.
By the end, we learn that Ellie must die to save the rest of the population. Whether or not the population is worth saving is another debate, considering only about ten percent of them are not trying to kill you at any given moment, but the player is denied the choice. By Joel's will be done, he rushes in to the operating room where her brain was to be cut out and slaughters the doctor standing over her. As he reclaims his role as a father, he cradles Ellie and destroys any opposition that might take her from him.
Now here is where things really get interesting. In the final moments of the game, we are brought back into Ellie's consciousness. We walk alongside Joel as he tells both Ellie and the player that the cure is a lie: there were others like her, immune, and they were unable to create a vaccine. The options for violence are taken away from Ellie as well as the player: we have no choice to rage against him, we are left in a helpless state of walking along-side him and swallowing the ultimate falsehood. Ellie tells him that saving everyone was what she would have wanted, even if that meant her ultimate sacrifice. She makes him promise that he is being honest. He says he is.
"Okay," she says.
We all know that it is not okay.
In similar-other games, this decision to save the one person he cares for above the plight of others can be read as a romanticized version of the white-savior complex. If he cannot or will not save everyone, he can save one of the few people left worth saving, and the game certainly goes out of its way to make you fall in love with the shit-talking teenager. Yet that ultimate choice is made cruel, and we cannot see Joel as much more than a weak and selfish man who puts his own desires of another chance at fatherhood above the welfare of others. He is benign David. He takes away Ellie's ability to decide what she wants to do with her body.
How the hell is that feminist? I know that, for some, invoking the name Anita Sarkeesian is like calling upon the devil herself, which is probably why I avoided mentioning her until this far down in the article. In one of her Women Vs. Tropes videos, she lays out a particular plot that would serve a traditional feminist narrative, a deconstruction of the kidnapped princess. Whereas in (a game like) Braid, we see the princess escaping her would-be savior, she is still a symbolic representation of the object of Tim's desire. Sarkeesian offers an alternative. Why doesn't the princess save herself? Erase the hero-knight or let him be someone who can be saved himself. Hey, that's not a bad idea. I'd play that.
Still, feminist narratives should not merely be about presenting an alternative view of the narratives that we swallow up again and again, but also about wiggling around to show how problematic the narratives we accept wholesale are. Even though Ellie is relegated to a secondary character in Joel's story, we see the cracks in the savior's armor through her eyes. How is it possible to get to the end and not feel betrayed by Joel?
The emperor is naked before us, and he is selfish and weak.
Yet, how can we not also sympathize with that selfishness, that weakness? We don't want to see Ellie die, either. Perhaps what we can take away from The Last of Us is a critique of the hypermasculine protagonist. Spec-Ops: The Line plays around with a similar rhetorical challenge to our gung-ho savior heroes, and while it is brilliant in its own way like its influence, Heart of Darkness, it is ultimately an intellectual exercise of the depths of the inhumane and madness. The Last of Us purposefully seeks out a core of human emotions for the player to tap into, and so it is harder to forget that we love Joel, and we love Ellie, but loving both means that we have to accept the injustices that one does to the other.
Maybe the real commentary this game puts out is that sometimes we love those who hurt us, and raging against them means raging against a part of ourselves as well.
Instead of a happy ending, we are left morally uncertain about whether forcing Ellie to live was the right thing to do, because as in real life, our decisions are not always clear cut, good or bad, and too often we don't get to decide at all. Like Joel's decision to deny Ellie her autonomy, so too does the game deny the player autonomy. Button-rage all you want, it's going to go forward exactly as Joel wants. We are ultimately powerless, forced to watch it all go down with the terrible burden of knowing the whole truth.
Perhaps you found the ending unsettling. Good. Because it is unsettling to have to actually live in those moments outside of a game.
Much as it would be super-duper fun if suddenly we were given a bunch of games with women triumphing above all odds and coming out unscathed, or having no gendered violence done to her, those narratives tend to read a bit false. They have to take place in a world that is so distant from our own it is hard to see our own bodies and futures take root there. I'm fine with gendered violence, but for pity's sake, make sure it serves to unsettle those amongst you who don't know what it looks like firsthand.
If they do plan on making a sequel, I hope we get to see more of Ellie, and I really hope we get to see her faced with Joel as he is: a false father who gained a daughter out of deception. She'd have to struggle against her love of him as well as the knowledge that she really is the one who can save us all. What will she choose? I really want to find out.