Endure and Survive: Women and The Last of Us

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There is no denying that Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us is an important marker in video game history. Games like this, among others, helps usher the industry into artistic credibility to the degree of film, literature, and theatre. With the advancement of video games as a source of mass entertainment, it is to be expected that they will be put to the same level of critical analysis other artforms are subjected to. To understand how the The Last of Us differs from other games in terms of female representation, it is important to understand the atmosphere surrounding women within the gaming industry today.

The importance of video games in American culture is growing exponentially. More and more people are becoming involved in this new medium. “Sales of video games already exceed Hollywood’s box office revenue, with console games generating $25 billion in the U.S. in 2013, compared with $10.9 billion for movies” (Kolhatkar). However this medium faces similar challenges to film in terms of representation and diversity in their content. Anita Sarkeesian, a Youtuber, would take it upon herself to discuss gaming through a feminist lens. “The videos last about 20 minutes to 30 minutes each, with Sarkeesian narrating, often using dense terminology imported from feminist theory (‘building off of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on objectification theory …,’ etc.). She focuses on the darkest, most violent and sexualized parts of the games and the limited range of their female characters, whom she terms ‘nonplayable sex objects’—often barely dressed streetwalkers, pole dancers, and barmaids spilling out of their corsets; helpless mistresses outfitted in shredded dress-bits with double-D cleavage; and the ongoing parade of women who are stabbed, shot, and mutilated in service of plots about heavily armed male antiheroes” (Kolhatkar). While much of the attention gained by Sarkeesian has been supportive, unfortunately the violent opposition makes itself known. There is a collective of individuals comprised of males that look to threaten Sarkeesian with graphic detail. “Each time a new video comes out, the harassment spikes. People impersonate Sarkeesian, creating fake accounts with her photo. Some spread false information… She gets private messages and pictures showing her image being raped by video game characters, some with her face Photoshopped onto porn stills, in addition to the standard threats and insults” (Kolhatkar). The controversy surrounding Anita Sarkeesian and her videos would set the stage for what would become ‘gamergate”.

Zoe Quinn fell victim to the mass of violent gamers and their threats after her ex-boyfriend posted a 9,000 word essay about how Quinn had a sexual relationship with a video game critic.  This essay went viral even though  Depression Quest [Quinn’s game] had never been reviewed by the critic in question. Quinn became the target of rape and death threats, obscene calls to her father, and online petitions to try to sabotage her career. The campaign grew and morphed,  gaining a new name: ‘gamergate’ (Kolhatkar). This incident grew into a national phenomenon, gaining the attention of many major news outlets. The discussion on women within the industry became a common discussion topic across the country with very strong opinions on both ends. This campaign raged with Quinn in the middle of it. “Quinn fled her home in Boston and hasn’t been back in months. She periodically gets reports that strangers are lurking outside. She’s working with criminal prosecutors and the FBI on some of the more serious threats, but she says that her life has been practically destroyed. ‘I talk to my therapist,’ Quinn says, via Skype from London. ‘She says, ‘I don’t even know what to tell you, this is so f—ing far outside anything I’m aware of’’” (Kolhatkar).

But why are these women being so aggressively threatened by male gamers? It is possible that these males consider themselves disenfranchised; the real victims. They are very protective of video games, considering it theirs, and they are fighting back against it becoming a mainstream form of entertainment. However, it seems that there are a few working inside that medium who recognized that becoming mainstream, and consequently more diverse to appeal to larger audiences, isn’t just a good thing, but a necessity. “In March 2013, game designer Cliff Bleszinski, a creative force behind Gears of War, the post-apocalyptic game that features female soldiers who fight alongside men, acknowledged as much when he wrote on his website of a ‘cancer’ plaguing the industry. ‘[I]f we’re going to grow up as an industry, we’re going to need the consumer to grow up a bit as well,’ he wrote. ‘The latent racism, homophobia, and misogyny online are black marks on an otherwise great hobby. Anonymity is the gasoline on the fire of hate that flares up on forums, chat rooms, and Xbox Live on a daily basis’” (Kolhatkar).

Despite the raging abuse from a community of male gamers, a shift in opinion is becoming apparent. “‘People are talking about women and games seriously; people are taking the critiques seriously,’ Sarkeesian says as she stirs her tea. ‘It’s been a huge shift. This discussion is becoming more mainstream’” (Kolhatkar). Evidence of this shift is everywhere. One example is the backlash that came with the release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Many people, both women and men, spoke out about the lack of female playable characters in the game. Ubisoft, the company releasing the game, claimed that it would be more difficult to animated another, female walking sequence, in addition to the male one they had already created. This response met just as much backlash, with consumers pointing to games, such as The Last of Us, as to why it was indeed possible and profitable for playable female characters to be featured. In the next Assassin’s Creed installment, the main playable characters are a set of twins, male and female, with a whole section of their press conferences at E3 2015 (an expo for game developers and journalists) devoted to showcasing her existence off.

Which brings us, finally, to The Last of Us. The game is focused on a man, Joel, who finds himself responsible for a fourteen year old girl, Ellie. They must travel the dangerous, post-apocalyptic version of America to reach a group of rebels called the Fireflies, who need Ellie for an important mission that could help restore society. The game achieves the status of excellence through the cinematic storytelling, honest acting, and a goal to be character driven rather than environmentally driven. In the behind-the-scenes documentary, Grounded:The Making of The Last of Us, the creative director, Neil Druckmann, speaks on how the voice actress Ashley Johnson helped characterize Ellie. “The most important thing that Ashley brought is a sense of capability to Ellie’s character that wasn’t there in the beginning… She needs to be more capable than we initially thought she would be and that made us go back and rethink combat and rethink a lot of the areas in the game and now she was going to take a much more active part”. This is an example of how Ellie started to gain more agency in the story. She was vulnerable but capable of handling her own, despite Joel’s protests for her to remain inactive and thus safe in combat situations during their travel. But in a world full of zombie-like, infected people who are looking to eat you, you need to utilize every resource available, including letting at young teenage girl help you murder cannibals and deviants despite what it would do to her innocence and psyche.

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Alexandria Neonakis wrote in her article ‘Game Theory: The Last of Us, Revisited’ “Ellie’s power comes from her bravery, ingenuity and determination throughout the game. It was also shown in her ability during the game’s final moment to accept Joel for all of his flaws and forgive him, because she understood that he needed her more than she needed him. She was ultimately the hero of this story. She’s powerful the whole time, and it had nothing to do with wielding a gun or physical ability”. While the game is very graphic in its depictions of violence, it is to serve the plot. As Neonakis stated, Ellie is powerful not because of the violence she is capable of committing. Rather, she is powerful despite it. Throughout the story, her choices and emotions directly affect the plot, rather than having the plot affect her choices and emotions. “In an industry that more often than not represents women as either a damsel in distress or a male character in a female body, this was a triumph in storytelling and representation. Ellie is an entirely playable character. It was not by coincidence that the moments you play as her are the most impactful in the game” (Neonakis).

Media studies can attest to the importance of representation in our art and culture. This is true of video games as well. Ellie is a character that so many women can identify with. We were all frustrated teenagers who have been told time and time again that we are fragile and that we are to remain passive. At one point in the narrative, Ellie has to fight a character named David, who has been implied to be a pedeophile. “Watching Ellie cry and slash at David, a man trying to take what was hers away from her, was like watching me slash away all of the problems I’ve faced as a woman trying to make it in this industry. Trying to find my role. Trying to prove that I can do this too and that I don’t need your help — that I just need your support and respect. I was so proud of her, of Naughty Dog [the developers of the game] and even of this industry in that moment” (Neonakis).

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There has been some opinions that the game cannot be considered “feminist” due to the inherent nature of a relationship between an adult man and a teenage girl, one obviously retaining more power and authority over the other. It is important to note that is also a relationship based on age, and that if Ellie were a fourteen year old male, the dynamic would be similar. In regards to which character was portrayed more realistically or in three dimensions, many consider them equally characterized and connected to each other.

“In our medium, the change needed in female characters is not about women being portrayed as stronger or more capable than men but about being portrayed on equal terms. I don’t want to be treated like I’m more important than my male co-workers. I want to be seen as equal to them. I want to rely on them as much as they rely on me — a true partnership. We have that at Naughty Dog. Our game was made by men and women, some of the most talented in the industry” (Neonakis).

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Druckmann’s careful characterization of Ellie played a large role in how the entire game would represent its female characters. Stace Harman of The Telegraph says he didn’t just write “strong female characters, he just wrote strong characters full-stop”. There is much debate and controversy within this particular medium of entertainment on how to write strong female characters, especially since video games are so guilty of over sexualization and violence towards women. Harman provides a thought experiment explaining how The Last of Us got it right. “Swap the gender of all of the characters in the game and discover that the personalities, relationships and dynamics would all still work thanks to the relative lack of cliché”.  However this does not mean that gender wasn’t taken into consideration during the writing process. The choice to pair an older man with a fourteen year old girl was made to set up expectations. “Druckmann talks of a desire to have the relationship between the central pairing appear at the outset to be a typical case of a strong, gruff man protecting a precocious but ultimately vulnerable young girl, before later tearing down that carefully constructed image” (Harman). In it’s own subtle way, The Last of Us deliberately constructed a story line to challenge the audience of a medium that holds such dangerous notions of gender. “There are hints that, despite her youth, Ellie possesses a strength of character and determination of higher purpose that her supposed guardian lacks; Joel may have the tools to survive this world but it’s Ellie who has the capacity to find meaning in it” (Harman).

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The characterization of other important female characters in the game are also relevant to the game as a whole. Tess is the first adult female we meet, who is partners with Joel in their smuggling pursuits. During the time that we spend with her, it is made very clear that between the two of them, Tess is the more dominant and powerful character. Other disenfranchised civilians of the small community they inhabit regard her with respect and fear, sometimes threatening Joel until they see that he is with Tess, thus granting him the same respect that would have been given to her. The first scene she appears in she speaks of being jumped by opposing smugglers. Joel asks if they bandits were “still with us?”. Tess shakes her head, confirming she killed these men herself (The Last of Us, 2013). This is not the last time Tess proves to be just as violent as Joel.

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Marlene is another powerful woman in the story as well as a powerful person of color. She is the leader of the terrorist/rebel group, the Fireflies. Not only does she command an army of men, but she also retains her air of authority while alone and wounded. She is just as violent as Joel, but she is also more intelligent with a grander vision for the world. She has her own agency and makes plans that challenge Joel, forcing him to make a decision (The Last of Us, 2013).

Both of these women who so easily could have been written as men are portrayed in a non-sexualized costume, which is more impressive than it should be. However that’s the nature of the industry. The game has a deliberate intention to show how gender roles are social constructs, and that they shatter as soon as the society that created them do. However, it also acknowledges the severe issues females face in their lives, like rape, without exploiting them for the sake of character sympathy or as an easy plot devices. The industry itself has a long way to go, proven by the fact that a well written and portrayed female character is such a cause of excitement and study.  However, The Last of Us was a much needed step in the right direction. “For all of the ill-conceived decisions that result in poorly-written or non-existent female characters throughout the medium, there are encouraging signs that suggest we won’t have to wait for the next apocalypse to meet characters, of both genders, of which we can be proud” (Harman).

However, some disagree that the game was as progressive as many claim it to be. Chris Suellentrop of the New York Times applaudes the game for it’s artistic merit in his article “In the Same Boat, But Not Equals”.  “There is indirect characterization, unexplained subtext and acting without talking. The climax avoids easy judgments about who is right and who is wrong. (All of these elements are virtually nonexistent in video games.) The score, by Gustavo Santaolalla — who won Oscars for his work on Brokeback Mountain and Babel — is beautiful and effective. Naughty Dog, the studio behind this game as well as the excellent if overpraised Uncharted series, might be the most skilled maker of interactive drama in the world”. Suellentrop goes on to iterate that because of the games impressive artistic accomplishments and attention to cinematic detail, it makes the female representation all the more jarring. “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 — or, to use a more accurate word, to inhabit — Ellie, The Last of Us casts her in a secondary, subordinate role”. Suellentrop claimed that Ellie was the much more unique and interesting character, and found himself hoping that Joel would die off so that the player would be able to primarily play Ellie more often. Joel does fit the mold for the scruffy, white man who beats people up character type and Suellentrop much preferred the unique experience of playing a character with a different set of skills and advantages. “For a brief time, The Last of Us does become Ellie’s game, and the player is asked to direct her journey. As you would expect — it is the magic of the medium — 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”.  It is true that you are able to play as Ellie at certain points. According to Alexandria Neonakis, a member of the team that created The Last of Us, these are the most important plot points, as quoted earlier. Suellentrop applaudes the inclusion of a powerful female character but laments the lack of ability to play her as often as he would like. He also recognizes Joel’s character growth as well before ending his review with: “Perhaps it is unfair to visit the sins of the medium upon a work as well made as this one”.

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Alexandria Neonakis wrote a rebuttal to this review in the Arts Beat section of The New York Times. She speaks on a comment in Suellentrop’s article, that claimed the game was made for men, by men saying that it “ has the potential to be very damaging. It perpetuates the idea that this is not a world for women. Young women reading this review who are considering entering games as a career could feel justified in their fears that this industry is not for them. If this thinking is to stop, we need to promote partnership and not continue the cycle of men versus women” (Neonakis). She goes on to acknowledge Suellentrop’s ability to recognize Joel’s growth, however “he failed to recognize Ellie’s growth. Her journey from a damsel in distress to a fully capable and complex character is made clear through the relationship she develops with Joel. Likewise, Joel’s growth could not have happened without Ellie. This was not a game ‘about men.’ It was about a mutual relationship and about how people need one another” (Neonakis).

The claims that The Last of Us was made for men become more unfounded given the stances they took on hurdles thrown at them from marketing. Naughty Dog had to specifically request that female game testers be used, when they found out the firm they were working through only planned to use male game testers. “The company’s creative director Neil Druckmann explained how the studio stepped in after discovering the notion of polling female gamers for their take on the upcoming apocalyptic adventure game wasn’t on the table” (Karmali). This gives us an interesting insight on how the belief that videogames are for men get reinforced in the industry by specifically looking to see if men, and only men, enjoy the game. This practice is undoubtedly driven by the idea that men would spend the money to buy the game. So it becomes a part of the age old frustration where companies do not create content for women because women don’t buy it but women don’t buy it because it wasn’t created with them in mind and so on and so forth.

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According to Luke Karmali in the same IGN article, the same unnamed firm  “also wanted to push Ellie off the front cover of the game and onto the back of the game’s box art”.  The voice actress for Ellie, Ashley Johnson spoke on this in a Destructoid article. “I feel like they don’t put women on the covers because they’re afraid that it won’t sell […] It’s all gamers really know — and I don’t want to be sexist by any means — but I get the feeling, generally, that they think games won’t sell as well with a woman on the cover, compared to some badass dude on the front”.  Druckmann agreed with Johnson’s assumption on the reasoning behind asking to move Ellie off the front cover. “I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less. I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused” (Devore). The article goes on to suggest that there might be a group of people, of unknown numbers, who would chose not to buy the game because there was a female on the box art, and that the marketing firm was aware of this. The decision to play towards that group of people rather than the entire female demographic is debatable. The article closes by saying “But kudos to Naughty Dog for being in a position to stay strong and then follow through. The norm isn’t going to change if everyone sticks with it. Frankly, the bigger issue seems to be having more well-written female protagonists in the first place. We’ll get there, eventually” (Devore).

The fear that the game would flop due to its treatment of women was equally unfounded with incredible reviews from critics and players across the world. Empire Online ranked it number one on its list of the best video games of all time. “the impact of Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us was Earth-shattering for gamers and game-makers alike. An over-the-shoulder stealth shooter, but one like no other, this was a game that you never wanted to end, that shook you to your soul, that you really, genuinely, honestly cared about. With more 10/10 reviews than you could shake a shiv at, it scored highly in all aspects: combat, crafting, acting, script, sound design, art design, graphics and more”. The success of the game is due in large part to the incredible talent behind the gameplay mechanics and environmental aspects of the game. However, what pushes the game from great to excellence is the equally impressive attention to storytelling and characterization, something lacking in the industry at its current state.  “You can see why people really like the game. The animation is nearly photorealistic. The characters’ eyes are full of life and emotion, with none of the vacancy gamers so often confront. Their eyes give Joel and Ellie, the two characters that the player spends the most time with, a weight and a reality that surpass all other video game characters” (Suellentrop).

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In terms of entertainment history, the video game industry is very young. It took the film industry over 100 years to reach the level of artistic merit and cultural significance it now holds. Comparatively, gaming is likely to catch up in a much shorter time frame. The level of positive female representation that is present in The Last of Us is almost as rare in film as in it’s own medium. It is possible that we will look back on the horrifically sexual and violent characterizations of women in games the same way we look back on the horrifically racist and bigoted representations of race in culturally important films (such as Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind). Every entertainment medium that reflects our cultural values will also reflect our moral failings at the time of each piece’s creation. The fact that every mainstream source of entertainment lacks positive representation or any representation at all of women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community demonstrates our society’s lack of respect and value towards those groups of people. When a piece of work that comes from one of the most infamously hateful and undiverse industries, portrays all three groups mentions in a manner that is not pandering or mocking, it is cause for admiration. Only time will tell if a precedent has been set by the critical and monetary success The Last of Us. Until then, female games and women in the industry can only endure and survive.

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