Friday, 5 July 2013

The Sexism Of The Last Of Us

This post contains major spoilers about The Last Of Us. Only read on if you've already completed the game or don't care about knowing what happens.

I wasn't looking forward to The Last Of Us while it was in development. I've bought games based on the promise of a good story and beautiful environments in the past and been disappointed with them. Lately, I've stuck to Japanese RPGs, solely based on the fact that I know they'll last longer than ten-to-twenty hours. I feel like I've moved past the stage where I can be impressed by developers showing off their graphics, story or environments. Oh, and if it has a cover system, count me out.

So like I said, The Last Of Us wasn't thrilling me during development but a friend let me borrow his copy a few days ago, I played it and I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I was impressed with the way Naughty Dog combined the cover system with the stealth, much like they did in Uncharted with the climbing/platforming. They're one of the few developers I can trust to do cover systems well. I really enjoyed the item crafting, scavenging and weapon upgrading. They added some depth to what I figured would be a very linear game and I wish I'd heard more about it during development.

The story, on the other hand ... hit-and-miss.

To fans of The Last Of Us, I will say that it isn't really sexist against men. Comparing it to something like Heavenly Sword or Lollipop Chainsaw, it's not even in the same league. There were a few things that stood out though. I don't want this to seem like a review of The Last Of Us but I feel like I have to criticise a few things about the game in order to properly explain my points.

First of all though, the story; the game stars Joel, a father whose twelve-year-old daughter is killed on the first night of a zombie outbreak. Twenty years later, when the world is in a post-apocalyptic state, he meets Ellie, a teenage girl who is immune to the infection that has consumed the rest of humanity. Joel is tasked with taking Ellie to a group called the Fireflies, who have been searching for a cure to the infection.

One of the problems I had with The Last Of Us is that almost everyone in the game is a scumbag. Almost everyone. The only real exceptions are Joel's brother, Tommy, some friends and coworkers of his that he's trying to rebuild a small town with and a young boy called Sam. Everyone else, for one reason or another, has an unpleasant quality or two that makes them hard to like. It isn't all bad though and, in fact, in a world where everybody is a scumbag, Joel comes out of it rather well. That's a credit to Naughty Dog's writers; Joel may murder people in cold blood and torture others with knives before killing them too ... but in this world, where everyone is a scumbag, the fact that he eventually grows to show a fatherly instinct towards Ellie actually makes him surprisingly relateable. It's a remarkably positive portrayal of fatherhood.

The Last Of Us does a good job of switching gender roles for the most part. While Joel is a compassionate character (eventually; he's stony when we first see him twenty years after the outbreak but he softens over the course of the game), his female partner at the start of the game, Tess, has some of the qualities of typically (but not always) male anti-heroes, such as stoicism, resourcefulness and facing death with determination and anger rather than fear. She also doesn't bat an eye at killing helpless, unarmed enemies that she dislikes but that seems like a given in The Last Of Us. Later on, Joel and Ellie meet a pair of brothers called Henry and Sam. By this point, Ellie has already handled a gun and saved Joel's life but Henry -- the older brother -- refuses to let Sam do the same. In most aspects, Sam is a male version of Ellie, being born after the outbreak began, being unable to swim but he's also more shy and reserved. It's been noted that it's usually female characters occupying Sam's quieter, more passive role. Plus, the final character killed in the game -- and main "villain", if you can call her that -- is female. Her death is just as graphic as anyone else's too.

It's certainly not perfect though and I had as easy a time spotting the differences as I did the similarities. For one thing, the game falls into the old trap of featuring both men and women as heroes but the only female enemies we see being fought (not including zombies) are Marlene, the aforementioned "villain", and a surgeon that the player can choose to kill at the very end of the game. For the entire rest of the game, men make up the murderers, enemy scavengers and cannibals that the player is tasked with killing. People have put forward the idea that the enemies likely rape and/or kill any women they find, so they're kept out of sight and off the front lines but isn't it just a lazy cliché to assume that all the bad guys are murdering rapists and use that as a justification? There was a lot of hype over at least one positive female character during development -- and the game certainly provides several female characters on the good side who are handy with guns, such as Ellie, Tess and Maria (Tommy's wife) -- so why fall back on a typical stereotype when it comes to deciding the sexes of the good and bad guys?

Then there's Ellie.

One of the big appeals of The Last Of Us during development was the promise that Ellie would be a strong and relateable female character. Since the game's release, reviews have been praising her as "likeable" and a positive portrayal. Personally, I couldn't disagree more.

I came to a few realisations about Ellie; one of them was that female characters can get away with a lot more than male ones and still be considered likeable. There are lots of little qualities that Ellie has that I suspect would have a gender-flipped version of the character branded as a burden or an annoyance. Being unable to swim. Being foul-mouthed. Making snarky comments about a man's weight (and imagine if he was gender-flipped too and it was an attractive male teenager mocking a woman's weight instead).

Speaking of which, that was the moment Ellie stopped being likeable to me. Joel and Ellie are travelling to meet up with a man called Bill, a paranoid survivalist who they think will be able to help them acquire a car. They meet up in the middle of a chaotic scene with a dozen zombies or so and, since this is before Ellie learns how to use a gun, Bill helps the duo fight their way to his safehouse. Once inside, he handcuffs Ellie and begins searching Joel for zombie bites (which Ellie has on her arm, but she's immune to the infection). Ellie escapes her handcuffs quickly and starts beating Bill with a pipe, simply because he handcuffed her. Obviously she was petrified about her bite mark being discovered and if it was just that single attack, I'd be fine with it ... but she maintains her snarky attitude until Bill disappears from the story. This, in spite of the fact that he saved her and Joel from zombies, gave them shelter and helped them find a car. This wasn't pointed out during the game. Later on, I also felt like she ignored Joel's wishes and overstepped her bounds when talking about his deceased daughter, Sarah, so my opinion of her dropped several notches when that cropped up too.

The thing is, while female teenage characters may have a reserved personality like Sam's more than male ones do, it doesn't necessarily mean male teenage characters more frequently have Ellie's brash and snarky personality either. Or if they do, it can instantly make them unlikeable (specifically, I'm thinking of John Connor in the first half of Terminator 2. Not that Ellie was as unsociable but she certainly had a few choice curse words here and there, as well as a rather unpleasant description of something she found in a pornographic magazine).

Then there's the whole chapter with David. While Joel is injured, Ellie searches for food and antibiotics to help him recover. She meets up with a man called David, who, long story short, turns out to be both a cannibal and a pedophile, with an attraction towards Ellie. Ellie ends up killing him after a stealthy boss fight by violently -- although the camera focuses on Ellie, to spare us from the gore -- slicing away at his head with a knife shortly after David tries to rape her. Joel, now on the mend, arrives in time to pull Ellie off him and comfort her.

Now, I'm not one of those people who says that rape doesn't have any place in video games. While I don't think it's as good a threat as death during gameplay -- it'd be a very dark game that had the player escaping rape instead of escaping death -- I think it has its place in a story. Looking at it in the larger context of The Last Of Us though, I think it comes off worse than if it was on its own. For one thing, although The Last Of Us isn't crawling with villains, the male ones, especially David, come off worse than the lone female one; believing that she can find a cure for the infection by operating on Ellie's brain, Marlene authorises some of the Fireflies' surgeons to do so, knowing that it'll kill her. However, not only does she think that curing humanity is worth Ellie's death (which is possibly justifiable in itself), she agonises over it. She's sincere when she talks about how much it hurts her, because she's known Ellie since she was born and was a close friend of her mother's.

The male villains, on the other hand, don't get any sympathetic or morally justifiable reasons for doing what they do. We have Robert, a gun-runner who was supposed to sell guns to Joel and Tess but sold them to the Fireflies instead. He opens fire on them when they came to talk to him, runs away like a coward and makes excuses for why he sold their guns. He ends up having Tess hit him in the leg with a pipe, Joel break his arm and finally gets shot in the head while he's unarmed, injured, helpless and pleading to make a deal for his life. See what I mean when I say that almost everyone in the game is a scumbag? They're supposed to be the good guys. The only other notable villains who receive any focus are an all-male group who fake injuries in order to mug and kill unsuspecting travellers who take sympathy on them. They can hardly justify their actions morally and David, cannabilistic pedophile that he is, speaks for himself. The only hint we get that David is perhaps an extreme example is an enemy conversation that can be overheard that describes how tired his "townspeople" are of indulging him.

David's death irritated me too. People have been saying that it was good that Ellie could handle herself and that, I agree with. She was never a damsel in distress. However, hacking away at David's head with a knife just before he intended to rape her was far too reminiscent of a Lifetime Movie of the Week, in my opinion. Again, on its own, it would be fine but combined with the fact that David was a pedophilic cannibal who attempted to rape Ellie right before being killed makes it seem a bit ... cheap. A bit too blatant an attempt to make the player feel something, if that makes sense.

It's interesting because I had an idea about what I thought would happen that the game's writers decided not to go with; this is off-topic but at one point, David goes to strap Ellie to a table in order to kill her and use her to feed his community and Ellie bites him. She shows David the bite mark on her arm in order to try and trick him into believing that she's infected (and therefore David would be too) but David is too smart to fall for it; not only has he known her for too long that she would've shown signs of becoming a zombie but, as he says, "nobody infected fights that hard to stay alive". Ellie manages to escape in the kerfuffle. Now, I figured that Ellie biting David would lead to his townspeople turning against him and killing him to make sure he didn't become a zombie, while Ellie stealthily made her escape. David's friend, James, had already shown himself to be more gullible than David regarding the bite on Ellie's arm (and given that he'd never met anyone immune to the infection, understandably so) so it wouldn't be a big stretch to assume the townspeople could feel the same way. Even Joel and Tess doubted Ellie's claim that her bite mark was three weeks old when they met her. All that didn't happen though.

I don't want it to seem like I'm too down about The Last Of Us because, like I said, it actually exceeded my expectations. It even has a positive portrayal of a father in Joel and, if feminist gamers and critics are happy with Ellie, fine with me. There are a few pitfalls that the game stumbles into though and at least one of them -- all-male enemies but male and female heroes -- seems very basic to me. Still, it flips a few character archetypes on their heads ... and who could be annoyed about that?

Why, Carolyn Petit, of course! Dismissing the deaths of male characters because they damage her argument that women die to fuel a man's story. Sam. Henry. Robert. David. James. The two guys Joel tortured and murdered (and how likely do you think it is that we'll ever see women receive that treatment in video games?). The many, many male enemies. I'm not going to go into it any more than that but I highly recommend reading the comments (and sorting them by popularity). Aside from the occasional transphobic comment (which I do not approve of at all), members of Gamespot aren't short on common sense. This is another no-win situation Carolyn Petit has created and the long-time members who've seen this from her before are happy to call her out on it. She's basically sending the message that no matter how hard a developer tries -- and believe me, Naughty Dog tried their hearts out -- it'll never be good enough for her.

For a better feminist opinion on The Last Of Us (albeit one that I still don't entirely agree with), Memoirs of a Soulless Ginger has a more balanced, less entitled viewpoint.

Oh, and before I forget, a new anti-feminism-and-gaming blog has made an appearance that is a fantastic read. It's called Virtually Anti-Feminism and it's written by a female programmer in the games industry. Check it out. Her first blog post was about an Anita Sarkeesian happening that I didn't write about because it seemed to slip under everyone's radar and I thought that was a good place to leave it. As it happens though, the post she wrote was longer, more in-depth and better-written than mine would've been, so I highly recommend it and I've already added a link to her blog in the sidebar.

By the way, has anyone else noticed that The Last Of Us is basically a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested version of The Happening? Think about it!

As always, feel free to leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at