WARNING: This article contains extensive plot and gameplay spoilers so please avoid reading until you’ve had a chance to complete the game.
The very last place you expect to find the status quo challenged is in a Summer blockbuster. Movies and videogames with enormous budgets tend to play it safe creatively, courting the broadest possible audience in order to recoup their production costs. If anybody understands the conventional wisdom urging this approach, it’s Naughty Dog, the developer of post-apocalyptic epic The Last Of Us, whose offices are located in Santa Monica, just across town from the Hollywood studios that engineered the Summer blockbuster formula in the first place. But for a game so fixated on themes of survival, The Last Of Us seems remarkably unflustered about safeguarding its own well-being, at least commercially. In theory you shouldn’t be able to subvert the traditional male power fantasy this aggressively in a triple-A videogame and live to tell the tale.
The Last Of Us offers a refreshing antidote to the sexism and regressive gender attitudes of most blockbuster videogames, and it manages to accomplish this without feeling like it has some agenda it’s desperate to push. “I tried not to be mindful of too many outside influences…things like the industry, and how women are portrayed,” creative director Neil Druckmann explained in an interview with VG24/7. “I believe that should not affect a person’s writing. It’s about trying to find core truths in your story, and then letting that be the driving force.”
It’s depressing that mainstream games have such an atrocious record with portrayals of women that simply writing your game’s female characters in a humane fashion warrants congratulatory slaps on the back. This ought to be standard practice. But with the inertia pushing so forcefully in the wrong direction, it’s worth taking a moment to examine and appreciate the ways in which The Last Of Us rattles the cage of the game industry’s institutional sexism and moves things forward.
The Last Of Us takes great care to ensure that every female character in its cast possesses some measure of agency. In the opening scene of the prologue when we’re introduced to Joel’s daughter, Sarah – the female it would be easiest to portray as a helpless pawn, especially given her tragic role in the game’s plot – we see her produce a watch that she’s gotten her dad for his birthday.
“Where did you get the money for this?” Joel asks, surprised. “Drugs. I sell hardcore drugs”, Sarah deadpans. “Oh good, you can start helping out with the mortgage then”, Joel replies. It’s a sweet volley of banter, but it illustrates that Sarah is savvier and more capable than you might assume given her young age. The game underlines this point further with a note on the fridge from Joel telling her he’ll be working late and to order some food delivery for dinner. Joel appears to be a single parent and you get the sense this isn’t the first time Sarah has fended for herself at home alone for an entire evening.
Sarah also enjoys the distinction of being the first player-character you control in The Last Of Us. If you’re making a game to appeal to dudebros, you don’t ask them in the very first playable frames to empathise with a prepubescent girl. The Last Of Us takes the ‘us’ idea seriously and has you inhabit three different characters over the course of the game, two of them female. It’s true that you spend the majority of the game playing as Joel, but The Last Of Us feeds the prevailing design manual for male videogame protagonists into an industrial wood chipper.
Joel may be the closest thing the game has to a leading man, but this hardly makes him a leader by default. When the story flashes forward 20 years, we see Joel stumble groggily out of bed to answer the door for Tess, his partner in the contraband smuggling operation they’re running out of the Boston quarantine zone. Her cheek is bloody from getting jumped by a couple of goons on her way back from a routine drop, nothing she couldn’t handle. The stark contrast of Joel snoozing while Tess is out getting shit done sets the tone for the dynamic we see in their relationship for the duration of their journey together.
Joel defers to Tess at every turn, depends on her leading the way and lets her do all of the negotiating when they encounter resistance on their way to find their double-crossing nemesis Robert. More than once in ambient dialogue, Joel asks Tess which way they need to head. Despite having a career under his belt in the smuggling racket, Joel looks suspiciously like it’s his first day on the job and he’s shadowing Tess to learn the ropes. When they encounter resistance, Tess does the talking. When somebody in a cutscene is killed in cold blood, it’s Tess pulling the trigger while Joel looks on. When somebody needs to be bribed for information, Tess doles out the ration card. Again, not exactly the most potent recipe for a male power fantasy. It doesn’t take long to realise that you’re effectively playing as her sidekick.
At one point while Joel, Tess and Ellie are navigating through a hole in the wall of a Boston museum, a beam collapses, separating Joel from his female companions. The game sets up what appears to be a classic rescue-the-damsel scenario, however in an amusing subversion of the formula, Tess frees herself from her infected assailant right as Joel bursts through the door to save the day.
Druckmann’s script implies that Tess and Joel are romantically involved, but the fact that it never explicitly confirms this fact bolsters her aura of independence from Joel. Even if they are lovers, she doesn’t have a key to his place, hence the banging on his door after returning from the drop. They live separately. She’s not beholden to him. At one point on their journey through the slums, they even bump into a former lover of Tess’s that she refers to as “an old headache” (it’s not hard to guess who dumped whom in that relationship).
Naughty Dog resists the urge to sexualise any female characters in The Last Of Us or serve them up as eye candy for male players to ogle. Neither Tess nor rebel leader Marlene have any use for revealing clothes. There’s no Chloe from Uncharted sporting jeans so tight they practically look painted onto her legs and ass. You can tell that Tess is attractive but she also looks like she hasn’t showered in – well, ever. It’s not important that she clean up well. She serves a far more meaningful role in the game than mere sex object.
Another member of the game’s female cast, Marlene, is a tough-minded leader. She holds the highest ranking position in the Fireflies, a network of guerrilla militia groups that spans the entire country. When we meet her, she’s still on her feet despite an abdominal wound that would cripple your average person.
Strong female characters aren’t just a grasp at gender-equality bonus points for The Last Of Us. The game’s world demands such consistency in characterisation. With two decades standing between the game’s present day and the initial outbreak of the infection, you’d expect the Darwinian struggle for survival to have rooted out the weak. The dainty and vulnerable simply wouldn’t survive. Marlene will fully recover from the wound she’s nursing in those early stages of the game. She’s a fighter in the medical sense too.
The Last Of Us avoids the common trap of the token female. When the game introduces Ellie for the first time, it’s in a cutscene discussion involving three key female characters and a single male, Joel. It’s important to mention here that the goal of equality isn’t a quota system, tallying up the number of male and female characters on screen (as we’ve just done), or in the game, or counting the number of minutes each gender is playable. The goal in world-building is to create a universe in which gender becomes a less important signifier, where a character’s options aren’t constrained by what anatomical features they do or don’t possess.
Even in the circumstances of her death, Tess never feels like a hapless victim. She actively chooses to stay behind and confront the pursuing guards to buy Ellie and Joel time to escape. And when she is finally, inevitably gunned down, the scene plays out off screen. There’s nothing pornographic about the way in which she falls. A typical game would romanticise the role of her death in the story. Not only would we see her death, it would happen in dramatic slow motion as heart-wrenching strings marked the occasion. Joel would cry, gnash his teeth and deliver an impromptu eulogy about fighting on in her memory or swearing to visit vengeance upon her killers.
Not in The Last Of Us. When Ellie brings up Tess after she and Joel have escaped, Joel snaps at her, making it clear they won’t be discussing the subject, then or at any point to come. Tess simply dies and the gears of the plot grind on without her, in the same way the natural world spends no time mourning the extinction of any other individual creature’s passing. In zombie games, some people survive and others don’t, that’s just the way it goes.
The game does a commendable job of portraying Tess and Marlene with depth and complexity, but the most encouraging sign of how the game prizes gender equality is Ellie. It would have been easy to make her a subordinate character – the precocious teen girl that Joel must babysit on their long journey. But what begins as an escort mission gradually turns into a partnership of two equal halves. Sure, Ellie’s a bit younger, but Joel’s also a bit older and past his prime. She saves Joel’s life multiple times before he ever decides to break her out of the hospital and save hers. You may not literally see the world through each of their eyes, but at least you get to shoulder surf both of them.
Naughty Dog doesn’t leave any room for confusion on this point: Joel and Ellie are co-protagonists. They appear together on the game’s official box art, though Druckmann confesses that Naughty Dog had to fight pressure to scrub her from the canvas (it’s a common conception in the industry that females on game boxes hurt sales). In terms of gender equality, there’s something almost more symbolically potent about seeing a man and woman share the box art. They’re partners and not even the weight of a thousand marketing consultants could pry them apart. Well, unless you choose to buy the special Ellie edition of the game, in which case Ellie is the only character on the front of the box. Perhaps you picked the Ellie edition because you have something against beards. You’re not beardist, are you?