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

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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

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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

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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. MANY. FEEEEELLLLLLSSSSS.

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

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[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.

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