by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff
-trigger warning for discussion of scenes of violence against women of color
The videogame the Last of Us has been out for a few months now (June 14th, 2013), and there’s been plenty of general and feminist discussion about it. The game is a zombie game, with the main character Joel attempting to guide Ellie, whose blood carries a potential cure, to the Fireflies, an organization who may be able to synthesize a cure from Ellie. The game does a lot of things well, and a lot of things just average. In July, Carolyn Petit wrote this great article discussing that while the game features women characters who are treated as human beings, and while this is sadly shocking, this standard should be the bare minimum narratively. Petit also points out that while game critics and reviewers have lauded The Last of Us for its women as people stance, the game nonetheless presents players with yet another “emotionally distant white male protagonist.” I too would have liked, as Petit presents in a hypothetical, for Joel’s partner Tess to have been the protagonist, with the game building up to a mother-daughter salvation narrative rather than yet another father-daughter one (which, as I will point out, there have been a lot of). But of course, Tess has to die, because, as Petit points out: “Far from subverting the typical game narrative about violent men, The Last of Us reinforces the notion that stories about men are more valuable and meaningful than stories about women, and that women are often important not so much for being fully-fledged people in their own right, but for what they–and often, what their deaths–mean to the men of the world. “
Petit’s points are all superb, but I would like to build on the article a bit, and discuss which women get to live through the narrative, as well as push Petit’s point about Joel as generic hero (so basically, if you’re reading on, you need to read that article first).
The Last of Us comes on the heels of two other father-daughter narratives: Bioshock Infinite (March 2013) and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead (April- November, 2012). These two games also feature a man growing to be a father figure and protecting their adopted daughter against grave danger. The Walking Dead and The Last of Us even feature similar scenes of teaching the daughter figure to shoot, and of rescuing the daughter figure from zombies when she’s trapped with them behind a metal gate. However, the Walking Dead succeeds far more than either The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite, which are more alike to each other than Walking Dead.
In the Walking Dead we also get a father-daughter duo, and in my opinion it’s a more equal partnership than in the other two games, and features far better characters. Clementine’s needs are sometimes at odds with Lee’s, from something as tremendous to wanting to find her parents, when Lee knows they’re dead, to something as small as her needing to use the bathroom while Lee is arguing with other characters. Of course, their needs of survival and kindness are also always aligned. Clementine has her own agency – even if it results in her being separated and kidnapped from the group – she still nonetheless exhibits her own desires. The two games’ teaching to shoot scenes are indicative off their differences: Lee/ the player teaches Clementine to shoot in a quite intimate moment when its just the two characters, netting both character building and a sense of connection between the two characters, as well as between the player and Clementine. Joel teaches Ellie to shoot without the aid of the player, and without the player seeing her for the duration of the scene, by just giving her a gun and telling her to cover him/the player during an intense combat scene. No real character building, just Ellie as item to help the player progress.
At the start of the game, Lee has lost his wife, similar to how Joel has lost his daughter, but Lee still starts off the game a caring man – there’s no question about whether he’ll look after Clementine, he just does, as opposed to Joel and Booker of Bioshock Infinite, who essentially have to be cajoled into caring. Lee does much better what Joel’s character supposedly attempts to do – buck the trend of videogames’ stagnation or as Petit quotes Jason Killingsworth saying, “feeds the prevailing design manual for male videogame protagonists into an industrial wood chipper.” Not only is Lee a black male protagonist, rare in a game that does not feature gangs or inner-city violence (because videogames think whiteness is universal, but blackness can only exist in crime-ridden cities), but Lee is also a caring male protagonist, in an industry where emotional disconnect is the second item on the checklist of “how to make a videogame character” – right under number one: “Man.”
The game also follows an almost identical plot to Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men (2006) (haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to that). In the film Theo most guard Kee, the first woman to be pregnant in two decades, as he guides her to the safe medical facility of the Human Project, similar to Last of Us’ Fireflies. Theo lost his wife and is emotionally withdrawn, much like with Joel’s loss of his daughter Sara, but through the movie opens up to an emotional connection with Kee, and acts as a paternal figure. The film suffers in some of the same ways Petit points out The Last of Us did: while the player can control Ellie for a short segment, Joel is who the vast majority of the player’s experiences are routed through. In Children of Men, it’s the same thing. Theo is the point-of-view character, not Kee, and both her and Ellie, while given scenes of humanness, more often than not function as plot-items to be dropped off (interestingly enough Children of Men also features a woman companion, Miriam, similar to Tess who accompanies for part of the way and is then killed). The plot of both the game and the movie could be simplified down to a fetch-quest: get item A, drop off in location B. To be fair, both pieces do give Ellie and Kee some agency, and portray them as actual humans. Yet they are also both indicative of a trend where women rarely get to be protagonists, and are reduced largely to plot items to be guarded – similar to the Ring in Lord of the Rings, or a flag in capture-the-flag PvP in World of Warcraft. Women are just reduced to The Cure, even when the narrative is portraying as real human characters, but still largely characters devoid of real agency, and whose story is not their own, but is instead the story of That Guy who carried The Cure to the safe-zone and saved humanity (or didn’t, as is the case in Last of Us).
And finally, we get to the end of the Last of Us, on its own, not compared to Bioshock or Children of Men. The game ends with Ellie being given over to the Fireflies – who, it’s revealed, in extracting the Cure for zombies from her bloodstream will have to kill her. Cue Joel/the player going on a killing spree, rescuing Ellie and leaving the building, only to meet Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies and the woman who helped raise Ellie after her mother died, in the parking garage. Joel shoots her. He shoots her, and there is narrative dissonance. I believe the game is trying to make us question Joel as hero near the end, I really do. I believe they were trying to do something above the ordinary with this game. But, as Petit points out, the game is fairly run of the mill character-wise up until this point. Nothing distinguishes how much the player is meant to trust Joel’s point of view than from the level of total trust given to 99% of every other emotionally withdrawn white guy protagonist with a beard, up until this point. After Joel runs into Marlene, he accuses her saying “It [Ellie’s death] ain’t for you to decide.” Marlene responds “It’s what she’d [Ellie] want. And you know it,” during a cinematic cutscene. Joel pauses for a second, his brow furrowing as he thinks about what Elle would want, perhaps even on the hypocrisy of him telling Marlene that it isn’t up to her to decide Ellie’s fate, when he himself is also deciding Ellie’s fate without her input. But then the moment passes. The game does end on a somber note, with no cure, no salvation, and with Ellie perhaps knowing that Joel is outright lying to her about the fate of the Fireflies and the cure. But this ending is less then ten minutes, less then ten minutes of questioning the character who up until now has been the player’s main point of reference.
The Last of Us wants to ask Big! Important! Questions with its ending – are Joel’s actions justifiable, at what point do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, has Joel merely replaced Sarah with Ellie or perhaps in some way gained closure, at what cost has Joel rebuilt a family, what does family mean, do the ends justify the means? But the decision of the game to use Joel as the protagonist – Joel, who looks like almost every other videogame character in the past 5-10 years – undermines its desire to ask questions. Will the average player, used to playing white dude with stubble, used to white dude with stubble always being portrayed as the hero, as just, as unquestionable even if a bit unsavory, used to having a black-and-white power fantasy, will that player catch that Joel is a slightly different white dude with stubble, a white dude with stubble who is maybe less than heroic? How many players will actually question Joel’s decision to shoot the only woman of color in the game as she begs for mercy, when Bioshock Infinite also asked the player to distract woman of color Daisy Fitzroy long enough for that game’s daughter figure to stab her, and then presenting that murder as a moral good (because aw yes, the game writer’s just happened to write in Daisy murdering a white child during her revolution, but for the most part write in less physical violence being enacted by white folks, except for the lottery at the beginning)?
As Petit points out “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….” Not just in games, but in fiction in general. Its so prevalent to the point that many of us are desensitized to it. Male violence is the norm, its expected; it has to try really hard to be shocking. And this, this reason is why Joel’s execution of Marlene is horrifying. His white male violence enacted against a black woman is normalized that I doubt that the majority of viewers/gamers would question it. His execution of Marlene is presented as 100% a moral good by larger narrative frameworks about white male violence present in videogames and popular culture as a whole. The game may be asking the player to question this – Should it have been Ellie’s choice to make whether she sacrifices herself? Are Joel’s action’s here inherently selfless or selfish, or somewhere in-between? Would Marlene actually have left them alone if allowed to live, making her death a meaningless assurance? I think the game wants the player to consider these things, and some certainly did, but media has trained us to not question white male violence, and the game did not do enough to shake the majority of folks out of this training. The player acts as Joel for most of the game – the player comes to view him as an extension of themselves, or at least as the sole viewpoint. He is not depicted as super morally reprehensible, or even morally shady – just as withdrawn and full of angst and rage. The game does not ask the player to question Joel enough for the player to begin questioning right at the end, especially when considering the aforementioned media over-saturation and desensitization.
Joel is just another Booker facing the death of another Daisy, who is just another in a long string of violent male protagonists (Booker is himself his own long string of violent male protagonists, what with that poorly handled narrative divergence plot). The Last of Us may be infinitely better constructed than Bioshock Infinite, but at its core is the same: an emotionally distant white man learns to love his daughter, which can only occur after the violent death of a black woman.
The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are both zombie games. Want to discuss more about gender and race in not only the zombie genre, but also the monster genre as a whole? Come to Sugar Free Feminism – Bride of Frankenstein: Gender and Race in the Monster Genre at the Women’s Resource Center (UMC 416) Wednesday, October 30th, from 1:30 -3:00.