The Last of Us is important
The Last of Us is super important, okay?
I really, really like video games and I really, really want to be better at them. I have this idealized version of myself in my head where I’m super awesome at video games and can definitely beat them all on medium, if not hard. I mean, beating all video games on hard is just absurd, I have to be realistic about my expectations.
But the reality is that I’m bad at video games. In my adult life, I’ve played through a total of three games that don’t feature Mario as a character. The BioShock franchise is the only thing I’ve been able to play through and not for lack of trying. I just ragequit nearly every game I begin because I don’t know how to be sneaky and I don’t know how to conserve ammunition. This is why BioShock works for me. It’s hard to be sneaky when you’re a lumbering Big Daddy. And playing on easy? Basically means you can blindly shoot at anything that moves without aiming and you’ll probably hit and kill them. If not, you can just buy more ammo at the ammo machine four steps away.
Which isn’t to say they aren’t great games. Holy hell, I could write epic novels on how much I love the BioShock franchise. But not being good at other games makes me feel like I’m missing out on things, so instead I’ve taken to watching the really good games as if they were movies or TV shows in their own right. And The Last of Us? Was a REALLY goddamn good game. So while someone else played, I watched, and though I was hugely emotionally connected to Jack, to Atlas (oh, that reveal still makes me mad to this day), to Subject Delta and Eleanor Lamb and Booker DeWitt, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what Joel and Ellie (and later Riley in the DLC Left Behind) would do to me.
BY WHICH I MEAN THEY BASICALLY RIPPED OUT MY SOUL.
It’s probably not possible to watch all games the way I watched The Last of Us, mostly because the voice acting in this game is beyond incredible. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson both gave performances I wish could be nominated for a thousand awards. I also watched parts of Arkham Asylum and just… no. No. In comparison, it was kind of painful to try and watch that one, but The Last of Us is like watching an extremely emotionally engaging and very lengthy movie that you can never get over because it’s going to destroy you. It’s actually going to destroy you. I mean, you should go play it, because as I mentioned above (and I’m getting to that part soon!), it’s super important, but just know you’re going to actually come away from it with a broken heart.
So even as someone who might not be comfortable calling herself a gamer, I can see all the reasons why The Last of Us is SO vital. We hear more and more talk about why representation is important and it IS. I’m not even going to sit here and tell you all the reasons why it’s important, because you should know. If you’re a decent human being with the slightest sense of compassion, YOU SHOULD KNOW. And so The Last of Us is so crucial to this conversation, because even though you play the majority of the game as a tragic middle-aged white dude (because that’s never been done before, amirite??) you’re still given chances to play Ellie. And not only are you given chances to play her, she’s thrown into the same situations as Joel and there’s no holding back. She fights and she kills and she survives and it’s so important to see this teenage girl doing these things.
More than that, it’s important to see her doing these things without being sexualized. (I’m looking at you, BioShock Infinite. What the hell was up with that costume change? Did we really need a full introduction to Elizabeth’s boobs to make her a more interesting character? NO, WE DID NOT.) Ellie is a girl and yeah, she’s grown up in a world filled with cordyceps and she’s being touted as this saviour of mankind, but she’s still just a girl. A rich, interesting, three-dimensional character the likes of which are rarely seen in games. (Remember what I mentioned earlier about Arkham Asylum? I spent a good chunk of the game rolling my eyes so hard at Poison Ivy’s costume that it HURT. The woman is imprisoned in the same institution as all these men, so why is she the only one wearing a barely there shirt and a pair of underwear made out of leaves? You know what would have made her scary or intensely interesting? Making her an actual CHARACTER. Who are you catering to when you make games like that?)
But Ellie’s designed to be so much more than that. She makes jokes and she sings and she gets excited over comics. She expresses disgust or sometimes admiration and awe when Joel does horrible things to the clickers and even to other men. She learns from him. She saves him. Ellie SAVES Joel. He saves her over and over again, sure, but Ellie saves Joel back. She’s not there to be his damsel and she’s not there exclusively to push his storyline forward, which is a trap she could have easily fallen into given her storyline. Ellie’s been infected by the fungus that has turned men into clickers and bloaters, fungus covered monstrosities that are strong and hard to fight. Ellie’s the only person who hasn’t turned into one after being bitten and so she’s more or less mankind’s last hope for a cure. Joel’s job is to get her to the resistance group known as the Fireflies and the game is built around this journey, but the journey itself is what becomes important, not the end game. Ellie could have been nothing more than a pawn to drive Joel’s story and there are ways in which she falls into this, but I can forgive these lapses because she’s such a rich character on her own with her own equally important story.
I was generally pretty impressed with all the female characters throughout the story, women who were there because, SURPRISE, women exist in this world. They weren’t there just to fill a quota and they weren’t there to just BE the female characters Naughty Dog felt they had to put in in order to satisfy their female fans. It’s a nice feeling, looking at something like that, and feeling included rather than catered to in a way that makes it clear they’d rather not. They weren’t the token female characters, they were characters who happen to be female.
But even with other great characters in the story, it’s Ellie we see, it’s Ellie we stick with and Ellie we come to love. That she has her own story line is so important. That you can play as her is so important. When Joel falls and is stabbed through the torso by a rebar, I was so excited, not because I didn’t love Joel, but because I knew it was going to give us a chance to travel with Ellie for awhile instead. To see more of her, to watch her on her own and to better understand her motivations.
Joel, too, despite being the typical tragic male figure, is a character I fell for because he’s also more than that. I think that’s what Naughty Dog has done so well with The Last of Us. Tropes are far from the end of the world and all characters in the media we consume fall into many of them, but when tropes become all a character is, they get boring. Joel fits so many tropes (Anti-Hero, Made of Iron, One-Man Army, Heartbroken Badass, there are SO MANY), but there’s something about his particular combination of tropes that makes him interesting rather than another stereotypical story.
Ellie motivates Joel in a lot of ways, because of his daughter’s death, but that’s not the only reason she’s there and that’s what I keep coming back to. Ellie’s purpose isn’t to save Joel’s humanity. In the end, her presence in his life is just another indicator of all the dark things Joel is capable of and the end of the game might have left some people feeling unsatisfied, but it only felt right to me. In this story, Joel is a man who needs saving more than Ellie does. He’s a man who needs to find his way again, who needs to be grounded and Ellie does this for him in unexpected ways. I spent so much of the game waiting for Joel to warm up to her more, to see her as a daughter figure, but what I didn’t expect was for this to happen and to still have Joel be the ruthless man he is. And I LOVED it.
I have even more feelings about the DLC Left Behind and why its entire story line is one of the most important things I’ve ever seen in a video game. There’s something so lovely about it, so beautiful and even though you know how it’s going to end if you’ve played through (or in my case watched) the main game, you can’t help but root for these girls anyway.
Left Behind introduces us to Riley, Ellie’s best friend, another teenage girl, but one who’s being brought into the Fireflies. Left Behind is a farewell to a lot of things; to childhood friendships, to innocence, but even though it ends with Riley’s death, a story Ellie tells Joel in The Last of Us, there’s a sense of hope, too. There’s the acknowledgement of things that are sweet and good and beautiful even in a world that’s completely fallen apart. (Like the giraffes in the main game, oh my god, don’t even get me started on the giraffes. The last time I cried that hard at something was the season 3 finale of Being Human.)
But beyond being a sweet side story, it does things most other video games won’t even touch on. From the first moment, I kept saying, “This is a date. These girls are on a date.” And even if they didn’t know it, they were. I honestly wasn’t sure if I believed a kiss would happen. The game had done a lot of amazing things with characters and it stood out for me as being superior in a lot of ways, but I didn’t believe any game makers were willing to take that leap yet.
I was so glad to be wrong. When it happened, when Ellie kissed Riley just out of sheer joy and love, I don’t even know, man, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. It was sweet and it was real and it felt like exactly the right thing that was supposed to happen in that moment. They weren’t there to be the sexy lesbians making out for the pleasure of male characters (or male gamers), they were two girls who loved each other very much and who were discovering just what that love really meant. Ashley Johnson spoke about watching a video on youtube where a girl was playing through and how emotional she was. That she had to stop playing. That she said, “If I would’ve been able to play this when I was this age, it would’ve made life easier for me.”
How do you argue with that? The magnitude of such a simple gesture, a kiss shared between two teenage girls who clearly love each other is astounding and why is that? Why can’t this be the norm? Why are people so goddamn scared of showing something that isn’t THEIR life? We’re told the same stories over and over again in media, the same stories that feature the same characters who all look alike and think alike and who don’t represent the entire population by any means. It seems especially bad in video games, where no apologies are ever made about the disturbingly impossible proportions of female characters or their skimpy costumes or the simple lack of them in general. Video games with story lines featuring women and queer characters don’t sell, huh?
Pretty sure Naughty Dog disagrees (over 6 million units worldwide as of March, 2014) and I’m excited to see games taking these first important steps into having more representation. (Hey, Ubisoft, take note. Naughty Dog managed to animate a whole bunch of women without making a big fuss about how ‘difficult’ is it.)
So who’s played this? Talk to me about it. Tell me about other games you know that might make me feel this way. And who else watches video games like this? It’s kind of amazing, because I don’t need to do any of the work, but I still get to experience the pay off.
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