Before we get started, I want to set the tone of the article in the first paragraph to try real hard to head off the haters who are eyeing the comment section like a girl passed out at a party. This is in no way a knock against Naughty Dog. I think they are definitely one of the good guys when it comes to trying to forward the presence of women characters and gamers in the world. Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann famously told The Escapist that they had to specifically request female gamers after their focus testing group didn't bother to include any even though the second lead character is a girl and she's on the freakin' cover of the box.
Druckmann's a good guy, and so is Naughty Dog. That said I watched the latest edition of Anita Sarkeesian's "Damsel in Distress Tropes vs Women" videos literally the day before I started playing The Last of Us, and she has me thinking that there really is a problem with female portrayals in gaming that needs to be addressed. It's a problem that I honestly don't think many game makers, male or female, are aware of because it's so institutionalized.
If you don't have time to watch a 20-minute video on feminine portrayals in video games, let me touch the highlights. Sarkeesian brings up Gail Simone's old Women in Refrigerators list, which was inspired by an issue of Green Lantern where Kyle Rayner found his girlfriend dead and stuffed in his fridge by an enemy. Simone went on to note an embarrassingly long list of incidents where female characters, superpowered or no, were continuously attacked, killed, mutilated, raped, or worse (Don't ask). In every single case the common denominator was that the woman's fate swerved only to evolve the main male character's story. They were emotionally ornamental, depowered, and most of all possessed.
Sarkeesian presents a similar game list, with much commentary on how the tropes have evolved or not, and it's sheer length is as damning as the comic one. Bionic Commando, Castlevania: Lord of Shadows, God of War, Max Payne... it's more than twenty mainstream titles. Each one is concerned with only one thing, and that's using the death or pain of a female as a pawn for the male protagonist's inner journey.
Now, lots of people will argue that taken individually, instances in most of these games make perfect sense from a storytelling perspective. I wholly agree, and think Sarkeesian does a disservice by waving it away so quickly in pursuit of her greater point. As an example, God of War. Yes, I'm using God of Freakin' War as an argument against a feminist point. Don't ever let it be said I'm scared to play the hard setting.Flashback 5 Reasons It's Time for Kratos to Hang It Up
Is God of War an ultra-violent, ultimately misogynistic bloodbath? Well of course it is. It's designed that way on purpose. God of War had two things going for it. One, it was intentionally trying to be a Conan story, and those are all tales from a very different time. To recapture that era while in the same breath empowering women is probably impossible.
The second was that it was clearly inspired by Hercules. Ever wonder why Kratos uses weird, snake-like chained blades? Could it have something to do with Hercules being portrayed so often dual-strangling serpents? Hercules accidentally killed his wife and children in a state of madness, leading to his repentance through the Twelve Labors, which is more or less the template for God of War.
Does that lessen the impact of the series' portrayal of women? Not in the slightest, but it could not also be any other way and remain the game it intended to be.
Now let's look at The Last of Us again. You start the game controlling Joel's teenage daughter Sarah, and since the whole premise of the game involves an older, grim Joel taking care of and teaching another young girl to survive and fight you know it's not going to end well. Sure enough, mere minutes into the game her leg is broke and she dies in your arms after being shot by soldiers determined to hold the quarantine line.
Twenty years later, Joel and a woman named Tess (Who he may or may not be dating but definitely is close to) stumble across Ellie, a equally likable and plucky teenage girl like Sarah who may hold the key to stopping the zombie infection. The three of them begin a desperate escape to leave the quarantine zone, beset by zombies and the totalitarian regime, until they finally escape.
Unfortunately, Tess has been bitten, and has only hours before she turns. Yet such is her faith in Joel and his ability to transport Ellie that she offers to commit suicide by cop to buy them time to make their final getaway. She dies in a hail of gunfire.
It's incredible stuff, brilliant storytelling, but in the end it hits every... single... one of Sarkeesian notes like a Van Halen guitar solo. Woman in a refrigerator? Check. The disposal woman? Check. Mercy killing? Check. Treating a female as a possession to be protected/obtained? Check. Check. Check.
The game, taken by itself, doesn't feel like a cog in a grand violence-against-women-centric media. It feels like a good story because it definitely is. However, the sheer number of games that use these formulas over and over and over again paints a much broader and more depressing picture. It just keeps happening because no one knows they're actually doing it.
Would the game have suffered any if Joel had lost a young son instead of a daughter? Would Tess' death have been less moving if she'd been a father figure rather than a young, hot woman? Would Ellie be worth less as a possible cure if she was a college-aged, but sheltered young man?
I don't think so, and the fact that you're equally quick to identify and aid Joel's middle-aged gay friend Bill in the third chapter proves that Naughty Dog is perfectly capable of making us care about someone even if they're overweight, paranoid, and of no relation to the protagonist. I should mention that at that point in the game Bill is the only single helper character besides Ellie who survives his encounter with Joel. And I haven't beaten the game yet so I have no idea if Ellie makes it out alive.
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As Sarkeesian says, "To be clear here, the problem is not the fact that female characters die or suffer. Death touches all of our lives eventually and as such it's often an integral part of dramatic storytelling. To say that women could never die in stories would be absurd, but it's important to consider the ways that women's deaths are framed and examine how and why they're written."
To that I'll add, before the makers of games tackle the death of a female character they need to ask themselves if she's dying just because she's a woman.