The Last of Us: My thoughts on Joel [SPOILERS]

As with last time, SO MANY SPOILERS.

Okay, folks. Last time I went a little crazy talking about all of the things that make The Last of Us awesome. But now it’s time for some more nuanced feels. So today I’m going to talk about two things that sucked, and then more generally about ways that de-stereotyping Joel’s character would have made the game even better.

Things that sucked #1: Joel’s daughter gets fridged

Remember how I said it was refreshing that there was no creepy womanless dystopia? Yeah, it’s because I’m really not fond of the Disposable Woman trope. The game started off so promisingly by having you play as Sarah, Joel’s 13-year-old daughter. Sarah is engaging and “spunky” (much as I usually hate that cliche), someone I could see growing up to be a badass zombie-killer in a post-apocalypse. But no! Joel and his brother Tommy get Sarah out of immediate danger only to have Sarah get shot dead by a trigger-happy soldier and she dies in Joel’s arms. At which point, according to the backstory, Joel pretty much goes on a 20 year murder rampage. And then when the action starts up and he murders a bunch more people because he’s, you know, a bad person on account of his daughter dying (and oh yeah zombies).

Which. Honestly. Yawn. I’m sorry, but girl-shaped-person-death-inspiring-murder-rampage is just about the most commonly used trope ever. EVER. And it just gets fucking old.

Did I cry when Sarah died? Of course I did. But I have a baby, so pretty much anything even tangentially related to the death of a kid makes me cry. Hell, there is a Raffi song on one of my daughter’s favorite CDs that makes me cry every. Damn. Time. Sarah’s death still made me mad.

Yes Joel’s relationship with Ellie is predicated on the loss of his daughter. But there are so many ways that Joel could have “lost” Sarah that didn’t require adherence to the “daughter dies in arms, goes on murder adventures” cliche. Sarah could have grown up to join the Fireflies and gone missing in action. She could have grown up and joined the government forces, forcing Joel to stay away from her or get thrown in prison. She could have simply parted ways after she grew up, unable to deal with the painful memories that Joel evoked of a pre-apocalypse world. There are so many ways that it could have gone that taking the lazy way out was almost a deal-breaker for me.

Things that sucked #2: Joel is the platonic ideal of toxic masculinity

Okay, so don’t hate on me too hard when I say this. I did find the relationship between Joel and Ellie really endearing. I thought it was sad when he told her in anger that she wasn’t his daughter and touching when he called her baby girl. I enjoyed their relationship as it unfolded because it was a nice portrayal of family that you choose for yourself. And yeah, the relationship between them felt like something fresh – new ground for an old genre. But that new ground was entirely broken by Ellie. Joel? Joel is pretty much incapable of expressing any emotion that isn’t stoicism or anger.

Man of many emotions

Meet the new video game male hero, same as the old video game hero.

And you know what? I get it. I get it that game studios don’t want to make games without a white male masculine power fantasy as the lead character. I know that it was a problem for Naughty Dog, and that they were even asked to move Ellie to the back cover and (thankfully) refused. And because of the excellent writing, the relationship between Joel and Ellie manages to shine despite Joel’s status as an emotional cripple. Of course, it certainly helps that we’re culturally conditioned to admire “shitty human beings” (as Tess refers to him) as “anti-heroes”.

Things that would have made Joel a better character: make him a woman

There’s a long and proud tradition of amazing female characters that were originally written as men and then gender-flipped at the last minute. In movies you have Ellen Ripley and Salt – roles that were originally written as male and then flipped. In games you have characters like Final Fantasy XIII’s Fang, who again was written as male and then flipped. Generally, it’s a great way to make an interesting, stereotype-free female character. But Joel specifically would have been so much better as a woman, and here’s why.

1) Ass-kicking grandmothers: Pretty much every Action Girl you see in games or movies is somewhere between 18 and 35 tops. It is a truism[1] that ass-kicking grandmothers can make anything awesome. Female-Joel would be certainly be old enough to be a grandmother, which automatically makes Female-Joel 100% more awesome than canon- Joel.

Photo by Sacha Goldberger, Website here (select “Mamika”)

2) At last! Something new!: Man, aren’t you just so, so tired of stories about mothers who lose their child, become traumatized and emotionally stunted, and go off to have morally ambiguous murder adventures? Man, I am. Because don’t you just see that story everywhere? Except for how you don’t. Female-Joel would be something entirely new in the world of character types for women.

It also would make the relationship between Ellie and Joel way more interesting. Think about it, women are always stereotyped as nurturing and overly-emotional. So a Female-Joel who lashes out at Ellie for not being her daughter, who tries to cut herself off from her emotions where Ellie is concerned but develops a loving (if profoundly fucked up) relationship with her anyway? Especially in light of the fact that their relationship is explicitly a parent-child relationship, as Joel sees Ellie as a replacement daughter? That’s some awesome stuff right there.

There’s also the fact that Joel’s training Ellie to be a capable hunter would also be way more interesting between Ellie and Female-Joel. When you think of “mother-daughter bonding”, I’m sure that “teaching your daughter to be a sniper” or “crawling through zombie-infested tunnels” aren’t activities that would usually come to mind. Heck, the closest you can get to a stereotyped activity would be “shopping”, ie, rummaging around in junk piles for useful crap.

Lastly, why is it only men who get to go on murder adventures after the loss of a child? Let’s see a woman get in on the murder adventure action, thanks.

3) Men aren’t the only ones who want power fantasies: There are some days when I come home worn down by a shitty day at work, or by personal stress, or by a day full of micro-aggressions that I don’t have the power to respond to. When that happens, I often find myself wanting to get away from my problems by shooting a bunch of stuff in the face for a while.

Female-Joel would have made TLoU a much more entertaining experience for me, because I wouldn’t have had to do the mental work of shoehorning myself into a representation that doesn’t fit me. Yes canon-Joel is a well-written character, and yes the writing and level design make TLoU an engrossing game. But I’m not a middle-aged, tall, muscular dude with Video-Game-Hero-SameFace[2].

It would be pretty cool to be able to play a game where someone who actually looked like me got to star in their own power fantasy. And I’m sure that such a game, done well, would have sold well to the 44% of gamers that are women, if nothing else.

But I guess that’s probably too much to ask for.

[1] First brought to my attention by Elin Dalstal of Gaming as Women, among other things

[2] I could NOT track down an original source for this image. Anyone able to help out with that?

The Last of Us: female characters done right [SPOILERS]

This post contains SO MANY SPOILERS. Fair warning

I actually hate stealth-based action adventure games, and I particularly hate such games made for consoles, and I am convinced that games with guns should always and forever be played with a keyboard and mouse amen.[1] So the fact that I actually finished The Last of Us and hugely enjoyed it is a testament to how incredibly awesome this game is. It is a masterpiece of level design, but more importantly it is the most tightly crafted, well written narrative that I have had the privilege to play in a long, long time.

Refreshingly, unlike most other post-apocalyptic dystopias, the world of The Last of Us is a world populated by women who do an equal share of the dirty work of surviving after the fungus-zombie-apocalypse[2]. No creepy, womanless patriarchy in the post-apocalypse. The women are also refreshingly not sexualized – they actually look beat up, worn down, and (gasp!) dirty. And there’s no weirdly perfect supermodel hair, which is great because seriously, I don’t have time to make my hair look that good now. You think I have time to do my hair when I’m trying to keep fungus zombies from eating me? Bitch please.

such perfect hair

But best of all? The Last of Us manages to be scary, depressing, and grim without any sexual violence, and only one instance of maaaybe(?) threatened sexual violence. (My husband felt that the dialogue between Ellie and David in the burning restaurant battle was threatening sexual violence, I heard it as David being a crazypants cannibal[3] who wanted to eat Ellie for dinner, but I can see how he got that impression.)

And for that alone I want to write love letters to the writing team of TLoU, because shit, people. I am so. Damn. Tired. Of rape being the go-to narrative threat for female characters. Tired of rape as tragic backstory, tired of threatened rape as narrative suspense, tired of rape as character adversity, I’m just tired of it. So getting to enjoy an entire narrative set in a post-apocalypse without once getting jarred out of my enjoyment bubble by the intrusion of rape culture was a lovely surprise.

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise, then, that TLoU had a great cast of well written female characters. Tess, Marlene, and Ellie are characters that have raised the bar on my expectations for female characters in future North American game releases, that’s for sure!

Tess: Joel’s partner, fucking badass, and total Grey Hat

such perfect hair

When we meet Tess early in the game, she is introduced as Joel’s partner. But in truth, Tess seems to be the brains and the face of the operation; throughout the introductory chapter we see Tess making the plans and using leverage on her contacts to get what she needs. She trusts Joel to watch her back and to stand beside her in a fight, but Tess depends on her own strength.

There’s some ambiguity over the nature of Tess’ relationship with Joel. Some of the dialogue before they meet up with Marlene and Ellie is flirtatious, and later when Tess reveals her infection to Joel she makes a final request, saying that “there is enough here [between her and Joel] that [he] must feel some kind of obligation” toward her. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Tess and Joel had a romantic relationship in the past. I’ll admit that’s not an interpretation I care for (their dialogue didn’t strike me as anything more than friendly banter), as I’d really like to see more female characters who just don’t have romantic inclinations toward their fellow male protagonists at all. But whatever the nature of their past relationship, it stays in the past. Tess and Joel in the here-and-now are friends and partners, nothing more.

The other important thing about Tess is that she is a morally ambiguous anti-hero, a type of dystopic character usually reserved for men. She does terrible things and acknowledges that, and the audience still sympathizes with her because she is strong, smart, and funny. Instead of using her questionable morality to turn her into a villain, TLoU uses Tess to highlight Joel’s own antihero status without ever actually dehumanizing Tess. At one point, Tess says “guess what, we’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time”, and Joel has to agree with her. And the game lives up to that. The scene where Tess and Joel torture and kill Robert, their former-ally-turned-betrayer, was a deeply uncomfortable moment to be in as a player.

But for all of that, Tess is still worthy of admiring. Not once does she ever express doubt, not once does she ever express regret over the path she has chosen or try to back out of the deal that she makes with Marlene, despite that it puts her and Joel in mortal danger with questionable chances of success. And right before her death, when it becomes apparent that the job they agreed to is going to be much, much bigger and infinitely more dangerous, Tess uses her past history with Joel to get him to promise to finish what they started together. Because despite her willingness to engage in brutality, Tess is still capable of hope for the future.

Tess’ death is a real loss for Joel, and not in the “tragic loss that motivates the hero” sense. It cripples Joel, in the way that losing a hand or a foot would cripple anyone else. And after Tess dies, Joel forbids Ellie from even speaking her name. So despite that her death leaves a mark on Joel, she’s hardly the tragic spectre that looms over the hero’s every action as she might have been in a different game.

Marlene: soldier and revolutionary

such perfect hair

Marlene plays a smaller, but no less important role in the story. Like Tess, she is a woman prepared to make hard choices, someone who is no stranger to violence. But while Tess uses violence to survive, Marlene uses violence as a way of fighting against totalitarianism in the name of democratic freedom. Despite that Marlene and Tess both present the same hard exterior, Marlene’s idealism is a nice foil for Tess’ cynicism.

When Marlene turns up at the beginning of the game, she enlists Joel and Tess to deliver Ellie to a distant group of Fireflies (fellow revolutionaries) because she has been gravely wounded and it is questionable whether she will even live to escape the government forces that hound her. So despite her strength, I assumed that this was yet another instance of a Disposable Black Person[4]. Which meant I was pleasantly surprised when Marlene showed up again in the last chapter, alive and well.

Something that doesn’t seem to get commented on much is the relationship between Marlene and Anna, Ellie’s mother. Marlene tells Joel and Tess that she had known Ellie since she was born, since she was close with Ellie’s mother. Most of what I’ve read about Marlene refers to Anna as her friend, but the way Marlene talks to Anna in the recorded messages that Joel finds in the last chapter seems to me that they were more than just friends. There’s a real longing in Marlene’s voice when she speaks about Anna’s memory, and about the agony of destroying the only tangible legacy that Anna left behind.

In the end, Marlene does die, which sucks. (Seriously, TLoU. You couldn’t have just one named black person survive? Really?) But even in her brief screen time, she manages to be a well-realized, complex character who uses violence to fight for a higher ideal. So while I’m not thrilled about the end that Marlene met, overall she was a fantastic character.

(And, you know, let that be a lesson about the importance of diversity. If you have a diversity of named characters, you can afford to kill a black character or two or three. But because 100% of the named black characters die… Yeah. That’s pretty shitty.)

Ellie: from traumatized child to capable survivor

such perfect hair

Ellie starts out as being merely a plot objective, a person-shaped McGuffin, the long-sought-after missing ingredient needed to complete a cure for the fungus-zombie-plague, if only they can get Ellie to The Plot Destination. And most other teams of developers would have left her that way, a helpless teenage girl with no agency of her own, dependent on the big, strong, square-jawed hero to do all the heavy lifting. Which is why I am so, so happy about Ellie, because as a character she just shines.

On the face of it, her character arc is one that wouldn’t seem unfamiliar in many games; she starts off as a scared and traumatized kid who can’t take care of herself and gradually grows into a tough, strong survivor who is a hero in her own right. But the character in that arc is always a teenage boy, never a girl. And the game is better for it. Instead of being just like every other teenage-boy-turned-hero in just about every video game ever, Ellie represents something new – a breath of fresh air.

And of course, one of the best things about Ellie is the relationship she develops with Joel, a relationship of mutual love, trust, and dependence. Despite that Joel tells her that she’s “not his daughter”, that’s exactly what she becomes, what both of them needed. And wonderfully, that emotional need for a parent isn’t painted as weakness. Ellie’s love gives her strength and courage. She is at her toughest and most badass when she risks her life to save a wounded Joel from being captured by hunters.

Ellie’s writing is just so wonderful. She’s tough and traumatized and engaging and silly, and you can’t help but feel attached to her as a character in her own right – which is one of the biggest reasons the last chapter is so gut-wrenching, and why TLoU is such a good game. After all the struggles, everything they go through to get her to the lab where Ellie can be used to create a cure, Joel finds out that creating the cure will require killing Ellie. And that moment is such a horrible moment exactly because Ellie is allowed to be a person instead of a girl-shaped plot object.

Instead of a vague dissatisfaction at losing a useful game tool, the revelation of the necessity of Ellie’s death comes as a real gut-punch. And much as I found myself begging Joel to stop even as I played him through that final level on his way to stop the operation, I felt a sense of relief when he succeeded in rescuing her and getting her away safely. Because the bond between Joel and Ellie is just so well written, so well acted, so well realized that it’s easy for me to believe that Joel would let the world burn to keep Ellie alive. And it’s easy for me to understand why he feels that way.

such perfect hair

So I hope you’re listening, game devs. This is why female characters matter, and this is how you do them right.


[1] I’m half-anticipating backlash on this one, but I say to you that game devs who make shooting games for consoles are evil and sadistic.

[2] That work involves an awful lot of shooting people in the face.

[3] Every apocalypse needs cannibals, amirite?

[4] Something which TLoU was very guilty of. I noticed that most of the human bandits I killed were black. And the only other two named black characters die in very tragic circumstances.

Deep Down followup: clueless, whiny women not needed in games. SO THERE.

Responding to the flap over the omission of female characters from Deep Down, Vox Day – author, noted misogynist, and professional troll – wrote a post on his blog about “why we don’t put girls in games”. (I’m not going to link to his blog here, but it should be easy to find. Just be warned that it won’t make for pleasant reading.) In it, he leads off by saying:

Yet another clueless wonder is yapping about the absence of the unnecessary from video games

Oh yeah. I can tell this is going to be good. Please, do go on, good sir! Educate me on just why it is that women are so very unneeded in games! I’M ALL EARS.

Because logic.

Right. HISTORICAL VERISIMILITUDE. Okay. So apparently Vox Day finds it easier to believe in trolls and goblins than he does to believe in, you know, women.

historical versimilitude
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Orc by elhero, found here; Conan by Frank Frazetta; Dwarf Hunter, World of Warcraft; Goblin from d20 SRD; Troll from LotR: Return of the King


Then again, as was pointed out on my Google+, Vox Day is a notable misogynist and racist. His blog’s FAQ contains the following gem, which shows what a paragon of reason and intellect he is.

And now I need a shower.

Whoops, I’m sorry. Did I say paragon of reason and intellect? I meant terrible human being. (It’s so easy to confuse the two.)

Capcom can’t include female characters in Deep Down because reasons. (Many images)

Well, I had made a good start on writing my first post since the re-launch as a Patreon-supported blog – a 2-parter about The Last of Us because OH MY GOD SO MANY FEEEEEELS. But then it came to my attention, thanks to the wonderful Brenna Hiller, that Capcom will not be including any female playable characters in Deep Down, their free-to-play dungeon delving game, “because of the story”, which is some Grade A bullshit.

Image taken from deviantart user sherlockshivernshake, found here.

Kazunori Sigiura, one of the game’s producers who gave the interview prompting this story, has not offered any explanation for this other than the lack of female characters is “for reasons tied to the core narrative”. However, I did some digging and managed to find this description of the game’s plot:

The stage of the story is New York in 2094. A member of the Ravens with the ability to read the residual thoughts that dwell on items earns his livings by clarifying the story from archaeological sites of ancient cultures. At one point in an excavation in the Czech Republic some ruins from the late 15th century are found. The presence of a mysterious city and the memories of an ancient civilization can be found in the site. The hero receives the request to investigate the ruins and to read its memories.

So let me get this straight. You’ve written a story set in 2094, where psychometry is a thing that exists and is well-enough-known that it is put to commercial use. And that story features people who, despite all of the future tech, wear plate mail and hit things with medieval weapons, because psychics. But that story can’t have any women because… because……..because………….


Oh right. The story. It’s not Capcom’s fault. They wanted to include female characters, only that nasty story wouldn’t let them! Honest! It’s the truth! Would Capcom lie about something like that?

Chun Li’s broken spine sphere-boob panty shots are so, so feminist.

All sarcasm aside, this is an incredibly asinine and disingenuous reason to completely omit half of the world’s population from possible player representation. Stories are things written by people – they don’t spring out of some magical thought vacuum. Neither are they things that are received from on high, perfect and immutable, that must be transmitted without any change from its original form. If you’re incapable of telling the story you want to tell while also including female characters, that says a lot about how you look at the world as a creator, none of it good.

But much as I’d love to write a gloriously sarcastic screed about the fact that Kazunori Sigiura and the rest of the Deep Down team do some soul searching about how deeply, deeply fucked up they are for being “unable” to write a story that features any female characters at all, Brenna Hiller has already covered that territory better than I could. (Yes I linked it twice. That’s because her piece is amazing and you should go read it.)

I could also play the numbers game and cite why completely ignoring female gamers as a huge potential market is stupid and short-sighted. Forty-four percent of gamers are women, women control 80% of household spending, women make the majority of consumer purchases, etc etc etc… But you know what? The types of people who try to claim that there “aren’t enough” female gamers to justify making games less shitty toward women are operating entirely on confirmation bias. I’ve written enough about the business reasons for not wanting to piss women off. I don’t need to go there again.

I’m sorry. It’s so hard for me to restrain my sarcastic use of memes sometimes.

Nope. Instead, I’m going to provide a(n incredibly non-exhaustive) list of dungeon-y games that have still managed to include playable female characters, either as avatars or party members, as a way of illustrating how incredibly not hard it is. (I mean, come one. One. One character. Even that is better than none, guys.)

Games that somehow(!) manage to combine dungeons and wimmenz*


Not my art! This amazing image made by deviantart user davienvalentine, found here.


Oh, and…



Phew. That was SO HARD.

* Many thanks to my Google+ peeps who helped with suggestions for titles when all I could come up with was “UH FINAL FANTASY. ALSO BIOWARE”.

The re-launch of Go Make Me a Sandwich as a Patreon-supported blog

Go Make Me a Sandwich now has a Patreon!

Well, folks. I’ve decided to jump on the Patreon bandwagon. I’d like your help to make re-launching my feminist gaming blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich, a financially viable activity.

Why start a Patreon when I used to blog for free?

Let’s face it, the economy is tight, and with a toddler in the house I have to maximize the financial return on my creative output. As much as I love blogging, I just can’t justify the amount of time and energy that it takes away from paying work such as the freelance writing I’ve done for White Wolf or my own independent game publishing projects.

But I still feel like I have important things to say, so I’m turning to you, oh reader, to help make blogging a financially viable activity for me.

Paying for a blog? How does that even work?

Everything written for my blog will be published free of charge for the internet-viewing public. When you pledge money, that supports me in devoting creative bandwidth to creating content for my blog. Each time I publish a post, I receive money according to your pledge amounts.

But have no fear! You can set monthly limits on your pledges, so if I have a month where I’m feeling particularly voluble you don’t wind up breaking the bank. In fact, if it helps you feel comfortable with pledging, I encourage you to do so! Also importantly, this is not a permanent commitment. You can withdraw your support at any time.

Quality criticism of game and game culture is important. Any amount you care to give in support will be so, so appreciated. Thank you.