On female protagonists and the cowardice of AAA publishers

While it’s clear that there is still a long way to go in terms of evening the playing field as far as representation of women in AAA gaming is concerned, undeniably things are (slowly) getting better. Recently I’ve written about female representation in games previewed at E3, as well as the amazing and rich focus on women’s stories in Life is Strange – so there is tangible evidence that things are indeed changing! Unfortunately, one thing that really isn’t helping is the, sadly still quite prevalent, myth that female protagonists are bad for sales.

You see, despite women now accounting for half of video gamers and the clear majority of all consumer purchases, AAA Game studios are terrified of female-led titles, because marketing to the 18-34 white cishet dude is how it’s always been done. And much like Hollywood, big-budget games have such large budgets that the big studios are reluctant to try anything “new” that might stray outside of their already-proven sales formulas – even if that “something new” is making games that star protagonists that look like half the people on the goddamn planet.

There are developers out there who are bucking the trend and managing to get female-led games published. But the resistance that they face in finding AAA publishers who are willing to publish and distribute these games can be… formidable. Things may be changing, but that change can fairly be described as glacial, and there are still a lot of publishers out there who prefer to make their money the way it’s always been done. (Read: by not publishing games with women in them)

So on the rare occasion that there is a development studio working on a game that features female protagonists, all too often what they hear from the publishers they attempt to court is that they need to make the protagonists male. Take, for example, Dontnod Entertainment – the developers behind both Remember Me and Life is Strange. Both titles were conceived of as stories with female protagonists from the beginning:

dontnod
LEFT: Niln, Remember Me RIGHT: Max and Chloe, Life is Strange

Predictably, when Dontnod started approaching developers about both of these games, the very first response was “looks great, but you need to make the protagonists male”. Because, of course, men are relateable and universal while women are weird with only limited niche appeal.

Seriously! Check this out:

When Dontnod started showing Remember Me to publishers, some of them refused to publish the title simply because people would playing as a woman in it, and because that could reduce the game’s sales potential.

“We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,'” said Moris.

–Source: Polygon – Remember Me dev says publishers balked at a female lead character

But wait! It gets even more damning than that, as witnessed by this quote here:

“We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'”

— Source: Eurogamer – Why Publishers Refuse Games Such as Remember Me

Thankfully, things seemed to go a little better for Dontnod while they were shopping around for a publisher for Life is Strange, in that nobody said anything quite as boneheaded. (Or at least, nobody said anything that Dontnod quoted.) Still, Squeenix was pretty much the only one willing to run with a story about two teenage girls for Life is Strange:

“Square is basically the only publisher that didn’t want to change a single thing about the game,” Dontnod co-founder Jean-Maxime “J-Max” Moris says in the video. “We had other publishers telling us ‘Make it a male lead character,’ and Square didn’t even question that once.”

–Source: Kotaku – Publishers Wanted to Change Life is Strange’s Protagonists Into Men

Which, okay. I’ll admit that I’ve been deeply, deeply disappointed by the increasingly misogynistic visual design of Squeenix’s single-player Final Fantasy titles. However, as awful as Squeenix’s character design has gotten in Final Fantasy, the writing for their female characters has always been top notch[1]! So it does make a certain amount of sense that it would be Squeenix that would wind up publishing Life is Strange.

However, it’s also worth noting that this was also well after the runaway success of The Last of Us – Naughty Dog’s survival horror game about a grizzled man and a young girl on a harrowing mission in the fungus-zombie apocalypse. While Joel was the primary protagonist of TLoU, the story was about both Joel and Ellie. Furthermore, Ellie is actually playable for a large chunk of the game, and repeatedly saves Joel’s life.

last-of-us-ellie

The Last of Us totally killed in terms of sales numbers. In the first week alone, The Last of Us sold 1.3 million  copies! Perhaps because Naughty Dog is an established studio with a proven track record of franchise-spawning hits, they didn’t face pressure to remove Ellie from the game (although the cynic in me says that’s because she was the secondary protagonist, and thus not a threat to Joel’s primacy). However, they did wind up fighting a lesser version of that same pernicious battle, as their publisher made efforts to get them to remove Ellie from the cover art, or at the very least push her to the back of the box:

During the making of The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog “flat-out refused” to move Ellie — one of this title’s two central characters — to the back of the game’s cover art, during discussions over whether female-led game covers sell fewer units, creative director Neil Druckmann told VG247.

— Source: Polygon – The Last of Us developer refused to push female lead to back of cover

Thankfully Naughty Dog stuck to their guns, because AAA gaming has more than enough cover art featuring grizzled white dudes looking grimly into the middle distance, thank you very much.

The same could not be said of Irrational Games, who caved to pressure to push Elizabeth, the protagonist’s companion and partner, to the back of the box. Worse, the cover art itself was one of the blandest renditions of “white dude with firearm in front of explosions” that I have ever seen grace the cover of a video game.

Subsquently, when there was a flap over Elizabeth’s exclusion, Ken Levine – Bioshock Infinite’s creative director – gave the most weak sauce explanation of why they HAD to make their cover so bland.

Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly. I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business.

— Source: Wired – Ken Levine Explains Bioshock Infinite’s Bland Box Art

Their hands were tied! Honest! There’s just no way that they could ever have made a business case for putting a fucking woman on the cover of a game that she features prominently in! Because reasons! Salad dressing reasons!

(I’m sure there are more examples of this sort of shenanigans that I’m not aware of, given that I don’t tend to closely follow the politics of game development in the AAA industry, but going further would be beating a dead horse.)

So now we have a landscape in which games like The Last of Us and Life is Strange (which cracked the top five Playstation games in February of this year) have started to blaze a trail towards AAA publishers finally pulling their heads out of their asses and realizing that yes people will still pay to play games starring women. And yet, the studios smart enough to actually start moving in this “bold” and “new” direction are engaging in so much whinging about how MAKING GAMES ABOUT WOMEN IS HARD AND REALLY SCARY YOU GUYS that it’s enough to make me want to punch someone.

Case in point: just about everything I read coming out of E3 about Sony’s upcoming title Horizon Zero Dawn featured Sony execs simultaneously trying to sell the game on its merits while also fearfully apologizing for having the temerity to make a game with a female lead. Frex:

“She’s a female lead character,” he said. “That has always been the vision by the team, but we had a discussion. Is it risky to do a female character?”

In fact, once development was underway, so many questions were asked about the protagonist internally, that the company brought in a marketing team to do some focus testing.

“The concern came after the game was in development,” he said. “We started to show it to many more people internally and they had questions about it. So we worked with our marketing groups to do this focus testing.

“We wanted to see how people would react to some of the things: open world RPG, the set up of machine versus primitive weapons and the female protagonist. All of those things.”

— Source: Sony was worried about a female protagonist in Killzone dev’s new IP

“We’re just… we’re just so worried. I mean, we have this great concept for a killer game with entertaining game play, and we have an obscene budget for graphics, but we’re just worried that no one will buy it because cooties. So, you know, we did lots of focus groups and they all told us that cooties aren’t a thing, but that doesn’t square with our industry experience that gamers won’t buy games with women because they don’t want cooties. After extensive research, we’re pressing forward, but we just want to say that we’re really, really nervous about cooties.”

OH MY GOD JUST SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UUUUUUP.

Look , you’re making a game about a wildling woman fighting robot dinosaurs in the post-apocalypse. THAT’S AMAZING. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Herd.0

If you’re going to publish games about women, just fucking do it and spare me the hand-wringing apologies, because honestly – this level of cowardice is pretty hard to stomach when all we’re talking about is making games that happen to star a fucking woman.

Okay? Okay. Now get out there and make me some more games with female protagonists, pronto. I’m all caught up on Life is Strange and I’m jonesing for more games like that, please.

[1] With the notable exception of Lightning Returns, which was garbage.

 

I enjoy having unpopular opinions

There’s this weird thing that happens where something I wrote a year ago (or two, or three) doesn’t get much attention at the time that I write it, but then someone on Reddit (or Twitter, but usually Reddit) finds it and posts a link and all of a sudden I get a flurry of views and nasty comments about GOD HOW WRONG AND AWFUL I AM.

This has actually happened a few times with my post about the ways in which The Last of Us could have been better, which is especially amusing given that I wrote that post after writing my post about the reasons why I loved The Last of Us to little bitty pieces. But apparently, expressing criticism of a thing completely invalidates any other statements you might make about the thing and I should have known that. Because saying “here’s how thing thing I love could have been even better” is the same as saying “here is a thing that should be destroyed with fire and if you like it you should feel bad because you are bad.”

And I thought that if people are determined to misread me writing about a thing that I actually really, really liked, well shit. Why don’t I at least give these guys some decent ammunition?

So with that in mind…

Unpopular opinion the first: Violence is boring

VIOLENCE IS BORING.

And games where the system or mechanics exist only to create violence? Those games are boring as shit. Hell, I’ll go even further and say that any piece of media centered on violence and/or murder and nothing else is just really, really dull.

For example – this weekend, at the insistence of a friend, I watched John Wick, which is basically 20 minutes of Keanu Reeves being sad about his dead wife (always with the dead wives[1]…) and then like 1 hour of Keanu Reeves just straight-up murdering like a jillion guys, interspersed with people speaking subtitled Russian. Except it was even more boring than how I made it sound, because he didn’t even go on a murderfest because of his wife, it was because someone killed his dog and stole his car – which for some reason inspired this total murderpalooza that happened while Keanu Reeves displayed absolutely no facial expressions. ACTING! And Christ it was So. Goddamn. Boring. It wasn’t shocking or edgy or any of that. It was just the dullest fucking thing I’ve watched in at least a year.

Increasingly – how I feel about John Wick is how I also feel about games.

I’m not saying because I think violence in games is evil and it should go away forever! I was part of the first generation of people to grow up playing video games with explicitly graphic violence beyond just a few red pixels[2] – so it’s certainly something I’m used to seeing.  Plus I’m addicted to Final Fantasy and BioWare games, which means I’ve played a lot of games that feature violence. But unless a game brings some significant not-violence gameplay to the table along with the “murder a ton of [bandits / orcs / demons / robots / aliens / zombies / whatevers]”, I’m just plain not interested.

Call of Duty? Counter-Strike? Hell, even any of the Hitman games? Yeah I have less than zero interest in ever playing them. BioWare at least brings relationships, romance, sex, diplomacy, and alliance-building to its games, and advancing the game means you have to take breaks from murdering all the things in order to deal with the talky bits – which are just as important as the murdery bits. And even despite my deep-seated love of BioWare games, I’m finding the gameplay of Cities: Skylines more engaging and compelling than Dragon Age: Inquisition right now[3].

The same goes for tabletop games. If the rules support only killing things and maybe taking their stuff? I’m just not interested. So things like Warhammer? War Machine? Yawn. No thanks. And even D&D I find I’m increasingly bored with. There’s very little room for innovation in tabletop murder/violence-simulators these days. The design stuff that excites me are the people working on different ways of telling stories that aren’t centered on violence.

But wait, there’s more!

Now that I’ve said I don’t like violence in games, that’s pretty much the same as admitting that I’m not a real gamer, right? However, I’m still concerned that these might not be grounds enough for you to dismiss me, here are some additional opinions that I hold that you can use to completely discount anything I have to say from now on.

I am bad at being a gamer (in the spirit of #badatfandom)

We ❤ Katamari is a better game than anything made by Ubisoft

For that matter, so is Bejeweled Blitz.

So is Angry Birds.

Hell, so is Triple Triad.

I hate every Final Fantasy before 7.

I didn’t finish FF6 because I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.

Final Fantasy X-2 is a fucking masterpiece and I will cut anyone who says it’s not.

Payne forever and always.

I would rather play Chocobo Hot and Cold for three hours than play a tabletop minis game.

I would rather do laundry than play Warhammer.

I would rather clean my bathroom than play StarCraft.

I hate playing D&D and wouldn’t be sad if I never played it again.

That said, point buy all the way. Random stat rolling is for chumps.

Larry Elmore’s art is okay, I guess, but it’s really not my cup of tea.

Despite having written for Vampire, I’ve never played a tabletop WoD game and I don’t really mind that.

Steampunk is not a genre, it’s an aesthetic, and a baffling one at that.

No BioShock isn’t some deeply philosophical journey. It’s just Ayn Rand plus bazookas.

I enjoy things inspired by Cthulu far, far more than I enjoy anything that actually adheres to the mythos. For that matter, I don’t ever intend to read any Lovecraft.

I only buy one or two roleplaying games per year, and I’ve only ever backed two KickStarters.

I think origin stories are tedious and boring.

I would kill Ashley every time. In a heart beat. EVERY TIME. Don’t like Kaidan? Don’t care. At least he’s not some xenophobic asshole.

I romanced Kaidan.

Peter Molyneux’s games aren’t that great.

The last decent fighting game was Soul Calibur 2. Everything after that is dead to me.

I’ve never played a Zelda game.

Kirby is more interesting than Link.

I only played 3 hours of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I found it tedious and boring.

I played 10 hours of Skyrim. I found it tedious and boring also.

I played in a Vampire LARP for 12 years and I still think that the system is complete fucking gibberish.

The “dumbed down” gameplay of Civ 5 (before the expansions) was better than any of the Civ games that came before it.

Xenogears/Xenosaga are terrible terrible games and I would rather do just about anything than play them.

The exploration in Dragon Age: Inquisition is way, way more fun than the combat.

Describing something as “gritty”, “dark”, or “grim” is the perfect way to get me to never ever play it

[1] Jesus. It’s enough to make me say that any movie where a wife/mother dies in the first 20 minutes is automatically a bad movie. That shit is so overused it’s just plain BAD WRITING.

[2] I remember specifically promising my mother to never become an axe murderer if she would let me buy Mortal Kombat.

[3] Though to be fair, that’s probably because DA:I is hands down the worst PC port I’ve ever played. The UX is SO SO BAD.

Male Protagonist Bingo: A study in cliches [MANY IMAGES]

Over in the comments on my post about Joel from The Last of Us, I had occasion to write the following:

Secondly, I’m not saying that TLoU was badly written, or that Joel is a bad character. Far from it. But you know what? I’m so, so, so endlessly tired of the “gritty” white male action (anti)hero. With his angst! And his violence! And his moral ambiguity! And his managing-to-be-sympathetic-while-doing-terrible-things-because-he’s-doing-them-for-LOVE.

I’m just SO. FUCKING. TIRED.

and this:

I want to see stories with characters WHO LOOK LIKE ME. I’m tired of stories, even good ones, about white men being the only options I get. And sure, I can enjoy them in the moment. But ME. ME PERSONALLY. I am TIRED of not being represented. I’m not being “superficial”. I’m being FUCKING TIRED of not seeing myself in the games I play EVER EVER EVER.

and this:

We live in a patriarchal society where the dominant narrative is that men are protagonists and women are scenery. When an entire society has been constructed to tell your story, it’s easy to say “oh well I don’t mind other stories so why are you so hung up on gender/sexuality/race/whatever” – because you have the luxury of knowing that the overwhelming majority of stories that you want to consume will still be about you.

As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Despite that I have been playing video games for well over 2 decades, there are exactly 4 female characters in games that I have played that I would say are universally awesome and positive protagonists whom I don’t feel critical of on some level. FOUR. (Yuna, Lightning, FemShep, and Ellie, if you’re counting.) And Jesus, I’m white, cis, and straight – so I’m sure there’s shit I’m missing.

So you know what? Fuck realism. I don’t care if a female character “feels” “truthful”. If we can believe in worlds with dragons and zombies and magic and future tech, WHAT IS SO HARD about believing in a world where women can be protagonists?

This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. Just last night I was bitching to my husband about how unbelievably DONE I am with stories about MANLY MEN PUNCHING THINGS AND BEING MANLY BECAUSE THEY’RE MEN.[1] So I decided to write a post about how unbelievably unoriginal most games protagonists are, but I didn’t know the best way to do it. I hacked away at it for a while and wound up with an outline that would have been 3000 words.

No one wants to read 3000 words. Hell, I don’t want to WRITE 3000 words.

And then I thought – bingo card! Let’s make an amusing feminist meme work for me! A picture is worth a thousand words and all that. …well, okay. Ten pictures is worth 3000 words. It’s the exchange rate.

So here is the bingo card itself. Please feel free to use it how you see fit – just please don’t crop out the credits. (Wheaton’s Law, guys. Removing attribution is a dick move.)

CLICK THROUGH FOR LARGER VERSION
CLICK THROUGH FOR LARGER VERSION

Then I ran ten male protagonists from major video game series against the bingo card, because why not? Including Joel, since I’d spent so much time arguing about him recently.

Bingo-SolidSnake

Bingo-Shepard

Bingo-Riddick

Bingo-MaxPayne

Bingo-MarcusFenix

Bingo-Kratos

Bingo-Joel

Bingo-Batman

Bingo-Altair

Bingo-Agent47

Yup. NO UNORIGINALITY HERE. Nope. No siree! Because this is proof that game devs are SO, SO ORIGINAL.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be crying over here in this corner.

[1] And he was like “Yup. Yup. Yes. I agree. Uh-huh.” Not to be patronizing, just because he’s heard the same rant approximately five million times. I guess I repeat myself when I get mad.

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.

AWESOME GRANDMOTHERS ARE AWESOME
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

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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.