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Thoughts and links on “The Last of Us”

In my last blog post, I wrote about my gaming experience and my perception of violence in video games, especially The Last of Us. I found more articles worth reading that focus on the violence and gender aspects which I’d like to share.

Spoiler warning! Most of the articles, quotes and my comments contain spoilers and reveal the ending.

In the Same Boat, but Not Equals: In the Video Game The Last of Us, Survival Favors the Man

While a lot of players see the game focussed on Ellie and like her complex and strong character, several articles point out that story-wise, it’s not her game and she is in fact just secondary. It turns out the story relies on widely used sexist narratives that Anita Sarkeesian, among others, has criticized in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series.

The Last of Us aspires to be an interactive, mixed-company version of “The Road,” in this case the story of the relationship between an older man and a 14-year-old girl as they try to survive in an oppressive and deadly wasteland. Almost throughout, however, it is actually the story of Joel, the older man. This is another video game by men, for men and about men. …

[In contast to games that feature the “damsel in distress” trope] The Last of Us … is neither crude nor unsophisticated. Rather, 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 … Ellie, The Last of Us casts her in a secondary, subordinate role. …

Ellie is such an appealing and unusual video game character … that at one point I found myself rooting for Joel to die so that The Last of Us would become her game, a story about a lost young girl instead of another look inside the plight of her brooding, monosyllabic father figure.

For a brief time, The Last of Us does become Ellie’s game, and the player is asked to direct her journey. … 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.

What does it mean that Ellie is playable?

Ellie is a playable character for a short part of the game after Joel got severely wounded. I would like to have a closer look on this chapter because I don’t think it is “wonderful”. It is indeed a step forward to her independence. But what’s happening in this part? How does it change Ellie? Why did the writers chose this particular sub-plot for Ellie’s character advancement?

The chapter named “Winter” starts with Ellie carrying bow and arrow, hunting deer for food. She encounters two men who want to take the deer body. She agrees to trade it for anti-biotics for Joel. While the other guy gets the medicine, Ellie and the guy named David are attacked by Infected and need to fight together. Later she learns that David is the leader of a group they fought against in the previous chapter (and killed a lot of them). This fight also caused Joel’s injury. Ellie immediately wants to leave. David lets her go even though she has killed his men.

The story so far is plausible, but then it gets rather weird. David orders his men to track Ellie and get her back alive (why exactly?). David’s men rather want to see her dead. David manages to catch her alive, claiming to protect her from his men.

David argues that he isn’t immoral and acts exactly as Ellie and Joel: “You kill to survive, and so do we.” David is creepy, calculating and ruthless, but he’s got a point. Ellie and Joel don’t hunt on humans to eat them like David’s cannibals do. Apart from that they aren’t morally superior to David’s group of thugs. David tries to win her confidence and to convince her to join his group. But she distrusts him and tries to escape. So David decides to “chop her into pieces”.

The player’s control of Ellie ends with a tough boss fight between her and David in a burning steakhouse. Ellie almost kills him, but both pass out for a while. The perspective changes and the player controls the somehow recovered Joel again. He tries to find Ellie after having tortured, interrogated and killed two of David’s men. In a partly-interactive cutscene, you see Ellie and David regain consciousness. Ellie finally kills him brutally with his machete. In this moment Joel comes in, grabs and comforts her.

In the course of the chapter, David becomes the main antagonist of Ellie. This conflict is narrated as a test, as a rite of passage. So what’s the role of this sub-plot in the whole story?

Obviously, the main point is that Ellie learns to take the lead and get along on her own. This means learning to distrust, kill and survive. There isn’t a special moral here, just a repetition of the moral that motivates the whole game: There’s no alternative to violence and egoism in this post-apocalyptic world.

In the beginning of the game, Ellie is just “cargo” Joel and Tess have to deliver. She hides while they do the killing. She quickly asks for a gun, but Joel denies her carrying one for a long time. Later she gets a gun after saving Joel’s life in a fight he was about to lose. The “Winter” chapter is the finale of this development. In the subsequent “Spring” chapter, Ellie is absent-minded, depressed and somehow traumatized by the events, afflicted by nightmares.

This inner plot teaches us the same lesson as the whole plot does, but applied to Ellie. This is the very aspect of the game that earned criticism, see for example The Guardian comment I had also linked in my last post.

The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and The Walking Dead … all tell the same story of men coming to terms with violence and the responsibilities of fatherhood – and they all do it in such a way as to confirm the masculine status quo. Self-sacrifice in combat, ruthless violence, the sanguine acceptance that there is no other way. …

[There] is little challenge to the video game archetype of the apocalypse…: that the future will be ruled by men of violence and fervour, and that we have to become them in order to survive.

In my opinion, this also applies to the “Winter” sub-plot: Ellie has to become like Joel, she has to come to terms with violence and accept that there is no alternative. Indeed, in this linear story there are no other options.

So the chapter isn’t about Ellie as an independent person, Ellie just takes the place of Joel for some time in the game. The story writers apply the same pattern to her character, she choses the same path that Joel has chosen. This brings us to the second role of this part: It concludes the father-daughter relationship. Both Joel and Ellie care (and kill) for each other and they developed a bond.

While Ellie isn’t a typical “damsel in distress”, the threat of her death fuels the tension of the whole game. The player feels empathy with her and wants her to survive. She isn’t victimized or objectified like in other games, but she is patronized and subjected to “adultism”. Stepmother Marlene and the Fireflies want to cut out her brain to find a cure for humanity, father-figure Joel wants her to live.

The story doesn’t allow Ellie to control the situation herself and decide on her fate. While these events unfold, she is unconscious. After killing a lot of Fireflies, Joel rescues her to a safe place and lies about the actual events. In this crucial moment, why is Ellie just the object of the action? Again, because the game isn’t about Ellie, it’s about Joel. Ellie seems to know that Joel is lying, but there are no consequences told.

So there is a short “coming-of-age” part that focusses on Ellie, but in the end, it doesn’t make a difference. She adops is the logic that Joel carries out the whole time. It is nice that Ellie is playable, but this isn’t allowed to add a new perspective. Like several decisions in the game, this seems like a missed opportunity for me.

The Last of Us and Grading on the Gender Curve

This article discusses whether The Last of Us is a step forward regarding gender representation. It’s a rebuttal of another article that claims so.

Joel is yet another emotionally distant white male protagonist, one in a long, long line of such characters. …

The Last of Us as a story that operates within the same template as stories like God of War and Max Payne, stories about men whose lives are forever changed by the deaths of women and girls they care about and feel a responsibility to protect. Joel is the central character here, and as is so often the case in games, the life of a girl is spent in the narrative to fuel his development, setting in motion the character arc that gives the story of The Last of Us its shape.

Several women are killed so the story may proceed the designated way. (And as I said, the potential death of Ellie drives the whole story.) Does it have to be this way? The story could have taken other ways:

Ask yourself what this game might have been like if Tess had been the central character, and Joel had filled the role that Tess fills here. That would have brought the game a step closer to "subvert[ing] the traditional male power fantasy," as Killingsworth claims The Last of Us does. Instead, Tess becomes another casualty of the narrative, another woman who … dies to push the story forward. …

[There’s] a tremendous diversity of potential stories that continue to go untold as games fall back on this particular template time and time again, so it also doesn’t make sense to applaud it as a progressive portrayal of women in games.

The article praises the character of Ellie, but…

Ellie, like all the women in the game, is important less in and of herself and more because of the impact that she has on Joel’s life. … You do play as Ellie for a time, but in the end, this is still the story of how Joel is changed by his experiences.

The article concludes with:

There’s nothing wrong with stories about men, and how they are changed by the things they go through. But these stories about men – usually white men, usually violent men, often angry or emotionally distant men, whose lives are impacted by the violent deaths of women – are so prevalent in games today, and you can’t tell such a story while simultaneously subverting the framework these stories follow …

If we grade its handling of women on a curve relative to other games, The Last of Us is a success. It’s somewhat better than most of what’s out there. But we’ve let our notions of what’s possible become limited by what’s available. Instead, we need to evaluate games and how they handle gender based on their actual merits, not in relation to other games. We need to smash that curve with a sledgehammer.

The Last of Us: Moralizing Death in a Violent Medium

The following two articles reflect on the meaning of death and murder in The Last of Us. Both condemn the way the game tries to moralize the killing of people but subvert this morality at the same time because it forces you to kill innocent and leaves no alternatives.

The Last of Us feels like an answer to the criticisms that [Nathan Drake from the Uncharted franchise] is too bloodthirsty and happy-go-lucky in a time where violence and its moral murkiness is at its most dangerous. It gives us the best reason possible for a person to kill, and then it forces us to make a decision that eradicates that reason. It puts a brick in our hands and tells us to kill enemies who fear death. Who scream to stay alive. And it makes us kill them anyway.

The Last of Us: Superheroes Dealing Death

This article describe Joel’s brutality accurately and claims that it isn’t motivated by the circumstances because of a “major disconnect”:

The Last of Us is attempting to assign meaning to death. It’s set in a dystopia that resulted from the decimation of society after a zombie plagued killed lots of people, and it’s a world where individual human lives don’t mean a whole lot. …

Joel and Ellie are supposed to be Real People who struggle with Real People issues and limitations and emotions. But, no, they are more than capable of facing off directly with one large group of men after another who are far better armed than they are. They kill so many non-infected people that death is rendered meaningless in this world. We want to pretend that a death in a cutscene is far more meaningful than a hundred deaths caused by the player directly in the course of gameplay, but it really isn’t. …

In the end, The Last of Us isn’t about the struggles of Real People trying to survive in a dystopia. It is just another video game power fantasy, and that, ultimately, robs it of the intellectual weight it is trying to hard to grasp on to.