(Note: There will be pretty serious spoilers for The Last of Us throughout this article. If you haven’t played it, I’d suggest you stop reading and play the game, because it really does deserve to be experienced as it was intended.)
When Bioshock Infinite launched in 2013, there were some who questioned whether the generic white dude with a big gun on the box art was truly representative of the game found on the disc. Playing said game, it’s easy to make the argument that the story of Bioshock Infinite belongs as much, if not more so, to the non-playable character Elizabeth (not featured on cover) than it does to Booker (ready for his close up). The mind behind Infinite, Ken Levine, was incredibly honest when asked about the fantastically bland box art for the game prior to release; they had to sell copies of the game to justify how much they spent making it, and focus testing told them that to appeal to frat boys and casual gamers they needed a cover featuring a heroic man holding a gun in front of the American flag. The hardcore gamers, it seems, would buy it regardless of the art. They needed to draw the eye of the people who wouldn’t. He didn’t like it, but those were the harsh realities of business. Girls on covers don’t sell games, they said. And that’s why we can’t have nice things.
Later in the same year, the fine folk at Naughty Dog faced a similar issue with The Last of Us. They too had a game that featured a female companion in their story. They too had created a female character that was every bit as important to their game as the male lead. And they too were asked by the higher ups to consider changing their box art to excise the pesky, unwanted girl from the cover. The difference was that, whether down to artistic integrity, or just the fact that after a string of hits Naughty Dog had been given carte blanche by Sony to do whatever they wanted, they flat-out refused to change their cover for The Last of Us. Those mavericks at Naughty Dog demanded that Ellie stayed front and center because they felt that she was just as integral to the story of the game as Joel was. Yes, they risked it all by letting customers know that if they bought the game, there’d be a girl in it. And The Last of Us went on to sell millions. Who knew?
The success of The Last of Us, even after they had the nerve to put an apparently unmarketable lady on the front cover, could be a fluke or an anomaly, or it could just be the latest indication that perhaps the problem with games with girls on their covers selling isn’t as simple as some of the suits may think. The bean counters at big publishers obviously have some basis to justify their opinion that female characters don’t sell games, be it empirical evidence of female-led games and their lacklustre sales figures, or perhaps focus testing done among select groups of gamers indicating that failure and oestrogen go hand in hand. But perhaps their reasoning isn’t as solid as they believe. Maybe girls just need to be given a fair crack of the whip.
When the marketing push behind a game loses funding because the game features a female character in a prominent position, then is it because there’s a girl on the cover that nobody is buying it, or is it because you didn’t bother advertising it as heavily because you assumed it wouldn’t sell? When female-led games don’t do as well as their male-led counterparts, is it because people don’t want to play as girls, or is it perhaps because people don’t want to play as the girls that they’re being given? A couple of years ago, Bioware issued stats suggesting that not many players played through the Mass Effect trilogy as Fem-Shep. Is that because female characters are inherently unpopular, or because Bioware didn’t even acknowledge the female version of Commander Shepard in marketing until the third game in the series? It’s a vicious circle. You can’t give people no reason to embrace female characters, and then blame their gender for their failure to connect with people. You can’t posit the girls as second best and then expect people to treat them as anything but.
I’m not condemning Ken Levine, or anyone behind Bioshock Infinite for their decision to make the cover for their game utterly generic to try and boost sales. The meat of the product, the game behind the cover, was still their baby. They didn’t remove Elizabeth from the game, but rather used the cool-guy-blowing-shit-up-real-good box art as a Trojan horse to get her into the hands of gamers. It’s no different to the marketing of any product – you package what you’re selling in such a way that you feel will make it most palatable to the audience in an effort to maximize sales. Jelly beans wouldn’t be quite as appetizing if they were marketed as being made from bug feces, would they? But while I don’t condemn their decision to relegate Elizabeth to the back of the box in an effort to chase sales, the fact that they even had to make that decision highlights the much deeper issues within the gaming industry that are still at large. Female characters in video games shouldn’t be analogous to bug feces, and they shouldn’t need to slipped in through the back door to avoid causing a stir.
There’s no denying that there’s been an issue with female characters in video games since the dawn of time, and while we’re making strides in the right direction, that issue still hasn’t been resolved. Whether it’s girls in games often being damsels or trophies for the male leads, amounting to nothing more than basic love interests or side characters for our macho heroes, or just laughable cleavage-accentuating armor reducing what should be strong women into eye candy for us sex-obsessed guys that obviously couldn’t have it any other way, when one considers the strongest characters in gaming, ladies likely wouldn’t take up much space on the list. And that’s simply not good enough.
The proliferation of insultingly stereotypical or woefully underdeveloped female characters, combined with the assertion that female characters don’t sell games seems to indicate that perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with girls being inherently unmarketable, but rather with what the gaming industry gives us to work with. It’s not that gamers don’t want to play as girls, but rather that gamers don’t want to play as these girls. Too often female characters in video games are so utterly unrelatable, sometimes offensively so, that their ultimate failure to connect with people is obviously not down to their having tits, but the mistaken belief that their tits are their only marketable asset.
While the state of female characters in video gaming has certainly improved in recent times, the fact that I’m even having to bring up what a revelation Ellie in The Last of Us is reminds us that we’re not there yet. That a well written, well developed and completely relatable character that’s also a girl is a novelty in 2015 is a sad commentary on how far we’ve still got to go, but it’s also a beacon of hope. Naughty Dog didn’t go back on their decision to make Ellie the focus of the cover for The Last of Us, and the game went on to be a huge success, with Ellie as a character almost uniformly praised by critics and gamers alike. Ellie is, undoubtedly, the star of the show in The Last of Us, and that raises hope that other publishers will see that and take note.
The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where society has all but fallen, with the few remnants of civilization still present in the former United States scattered across the country as walled-off safe zones. The walls were created to keep out the infected – victims of a parasitic fungus that causes the host to become enraged, biting and scratching other people in an effort to spread their infection. Inside the walls, those with food and guns wield the power, while everyone else just does their best to survive.
It’s a grim world, and Joel, our playable character, is a man built for it. Still grieving the loss of his daughter during the onset of the outbreak twenty years ago (spoilers: it’s heartbreaking), Joel is cold and ruthless, a man shaped by twenty years of relentless death, blood and terror. He teams up with a friend (possibly with benefits) named Tess, and the two survive making a living as couriers. When they’re betrayed on a deal and have to get real nasty to make amends, they happen upon Marlene, a member of a small rebel group named the Fireflies, who offers them a deal; she’ll give them enough guns and ammo to survive a dozen deadly fungal outbreaks, but in return, they have to transport a young girl named Ellie across the country. Soon into the journey, a couple of the infected get a little too up close and personal with Tess, and she goes out in a blaze of glory to try and buy Joel and Ellie some time to escape. And so one of the finest stories in video gaming begins to unfold.
The Last of Us tells a story that is neither wholly original, nor particularly daring on paper. We’ve all seen the set-up before. But where The Last of Us excels is in making the player care about the characters, lending a lot more power to a story that is, at it’s core, built upon genre tropes. Indeed, one of the truly remarkable things about The Last of Us is just how many genre tropes Naughty Dog managed to fit into the game while still somehow managing to keep it fresh. Zombies? Yeah, with mushrooms on their heads. One girl potentially holding the cure? Yep. Humanity posing just as much of a threat as the monsters? In spades. Cannibalism in the post-apocalyptic wasteland? You got it. The guy who gets bitten but keeps it from the group? Oh you betcha. The heroic death to buy our heroes time? Oh, we’ve covered that. It’s all things that have been done before, but in The Last of Us, they’re done so well, and with characters so well realized and believable, that they’ve rarely been done this well. Leading the charge in this regard is the character of Ellie, who isn’t just one of the best female characters in a video game, but one of the best characters we’ve seen in gaming full stop.
Ellie is fascinating right from the get-go. Part of the appeal of her character comes from the fact that, at fourteen years old, she’s only ever existed in the post-apocalyptic world. Unlike Joel, and the player, Ellie has absolutely no point of reference as to what the world was like before it all went to hell. We sometimes forget that as we’re playing, and that often leads to amusing moments in the game. Everything Ellie knows about life before the outbreak comes from what she’s been told, or seen, or read. And so when she naively asks Joel if everybody used to own boats, it’s funny and endearing. When she reads the diary of a young girl and asks Joel if all girls used to worry about was dresses and boys it’s a frightening reminder of just how much we take for granted.
If this aspect of Ellie’s personality seems somewhat alien, then in other ways she’s equally as relatable. While Joel is distant and uncompromising for much of the game, Ellie brings an element of playfulness and frivolity to the proceedings. Her love of puns, awful jokes and comic books provide some of the only real moments of levity in an otherwise relentlessly bleak fifteen-or-so hour campaign. She swears like a sailor, she’s tough but somewhat vulnerable, and as someone who is apparently immune to the infection that has brought the country to it’s knees, she’s possibly the only hope humanity has of survival.
But Ellie isn’t just a damsel in distress. She’s introduced to the player as someone to escort à la the President’s daughter, Ashley, in Resident Evil 4. She tags along, she helps Joel with puzzles, and she takes cover when the gunfire starts. But where Ashley shrieks and screams her way through Resident Evil 4 while Leon takes care of business, Naughty Dog subvert the norm with The Last of Us and gradually transforms Ellie into a character that we grow to rely on. She begins the game as a bit of a nuisance, but later proves far more valuable, and capable in battle, and as a consequence, the times when she’s away from Joel we actually miss her, rather than thank God that we’re getting a moment’s peace.
As the road trip continues, and months fall off the calender, we see the relationship between Joel and Ellie become closer, and with Ellie in particular, her character develops significantly. She learns valuable lessons from Joel in what it takes to survive outside of the safe zones, and eventually he begins trusting her with a gun. All of this leads up to the highlight of the game in which Joel is gravely injured and incapacitated, and the player must take over as Ellie. Having spent most of the game learning the art of survival from Joel, Ellie must now become his protector. She hunts for food and medicine, and treats Joel’s wounds. While out searching for supplies, Ellie ends up captured by David, a pedophile, and being a fourteen year old girl, that puts her in a bit of a pickle.
At this point the player picks back up as Joel, waking up, still groggy from his time on a sickbed, realizing that Ellie is gone and in danger. He heroically struggles to his feet, and valiantly fights his way through the harsh weather conditions to save the day. When he finally catches up to Ellie he finds her stabbing David to death in brutal fashion. Joel comes to rescue the damsel in distress, but by the time he gets there, she’s saved herself. It’s a meaningful and impactful reversal of the norm, that is equal parts gratifying and harrowing, and entirely engrossing throughout.
As the game moves into the final chapters, and the player resumes control of Joel, the roles of the two main characters have completely switched. Joel, who begins the game as the protector, has grown to care so much for Ellie, whether it be genuine affection or because she’s a surrogate for his daughter, that he’s weaker because of it, ultimately making what many deem to be an appalling decision at the end of the game. Whether you agree or disagree with Joel’s decision to potentially doom humanity to save Ellie and then lie to her face about it, his reliance on her as an emotional crutch is indisputable. Conversely, Ellie, who begins the game as what amounts to a package to be delivered, ends the game as a strong, wise beyond her years, survivor. Joel needs Ellie more than she needs him.
Upon release, some people argued that Ellie should have been the playable character throughout the whole story, but instead was pushed to the sidelines in favor of the same old grizzled white man we’re used to. While I understand the concern, I would argue that the story is Ellie’s, but playing as Ellie would ruin that. We have to watch Ellie develop for it to make an impact. In the Tomb Raider reboot, we watched as Lara Croft nearly threw up after being forced to kill a man for the first time. Then we watched as she killed 1,000 more over a weekend and didn’t bat an eyelash. It was ridiculous, and jarring, and that dissonance between her character development in cut scenes and the absolute carnage that transpired in gameplay undermined the emotional foundations of the story. Naughty Dog wisely side-stepped this problem by making Joel, the player, the mass-murderer while Ellie maintained a slow burning development from the sidelines. When she killed someone, it mattered. And by the end of the story, it still mattered.
Whether you think that The Last of Us is so perfect that Naughty Dog should leave it as it is, or you think that the world they created is ripe for more stories, given the success of the game it’s likely that there’ll be a sequel. While I don’t necessarily need a second game, and love how the original ended, if there is to be a sequel featuring Joel and Ellie, that would be the time to switch player control over to her. We’ve seen her develop and grow and survive over the course of the first game, and now playing as her would make sense.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the fine work of Ashley Johnson here, voicing Ellie, and bringing her to life. While the character was created by Naughty Dog, Ashley Johnson does an impeccable job, flitting between the various facets of Ellie’s personality in a way that feels believable. Between Naughty Dog and Johnson, they have created a complex character that doesn’t adhere to any stereotype, a person that is at once strong, vulnerable, sassy, and endearing. She’s funny, capable, and smart. She’s tough, and she’ll do what it takes to survive. But more than that, she’s relatable, because she’s real. She’s not a plot device, or a trophy. She’s not shrieking and helpless, or Rambo with a vagina.
With Ellie, Naughty Dog have created something special. They carefully crafted her development over the course of an entire single player campaign in a way that few other studios have even attempted, let alone succeeded at. Then they released the ‘Left Behind‘ DLC mission, delving into Ellie’s past and revealing that she’s gay, all handled more deftly than any video game has tackled the subject before. If there are to be more adventures from Ellie in the future, there’s no reason to suggest that Naughty Dog wouldn’t treat those with the same care and respect that they have so far. Given what a popular character Ellie has become since The Last of Us and Left Behind launched, a sequel giving her a starring role could easily see her become one of the most beloved video game characters of all time.