How ‘The Last of Us’ Unearthed the Ugly Side of Playing Protector
But Naughty Dog’s sequel has the chance to flip the standard protector/protectee roles, giving Ellie the power to keep her closest friends safe.
Above: screenshot from the recently announced 'The Last of Us Part II' courtesy of Sony
This article contains immediate spoilers for The Last of Us and, later, Watch Dogs.
Your climactic rampage through the hospital in Salt Lake City is, for me, the most powerful moment in The Last of Us. Without overt, post-modern winks to the audience, a la Spec Ops: The Line, it is a resolute denigration of violence. Empowering and cathartic, for both players and the game's characters, it is also contextualized and understanding.
After spending so many hours together I, playing Joel, was determined to protect Ellie. And in light of Sarah's death, bookended in the game's opening, I sympathized with her significance to him. Joel is fighting not just to save Ellie, but also to exorcise the guilt he feels over his daughter's death, and re-establish himself as a father.
The physical fight mirrors our emotional conflict. As a player, I wanted Ellie to live and for Joel to forgive himself, but was uneasy with the process. Ellie's death could preserve all of humanity, and if Joel saves her, it is largely to gratify something within himself. He couldn't defend Sarah, and Tess didn't need his protection at all. In the stoic, paternal sense, Joel wants to once again feel like a man—and to do so, he has to prove himself by rescuing a young woman.
But his emotions—relieved though we are to see them, since he has spends most of The Last of Us repressed and wrestling with something internal—are destructive. He kills Marlene, he dooms humanity and, most tragically of all, he steals from Ellie a meaningful death—the one thing she wanted—and then lies to her. Joel is protective. But the compulsion is self-serving, and satisfied at the cost of everyone around him.
The Last of Us is not judgmental. Guiding players to a position whereby, at the climax, they want to kill everybody and save Ellie just as much as Joel is its crowning achievement. But compared to so many of its peers, it questions and mitigates the role of protector.
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When you see an object in a game, you want to point at it, click on it and for something to happen. You want feedback. Thus, shooting is a common mechanic. Aiming a gun, pulling the trigger and seeing something in-game explode or drop dead is gratifying because it feels as if the game is listening to us, and responding. Everybody takes pleasure from being recognized and heard.
The role of protector, explored in games like The Walking Dead, ICO, Resident Evil 4, Enslaved, Uncharted, The Division and myriad others, is an abstraction of the same feeling. By making us directly responsible for the life of another character, games inculcate within us feelings of power and importance. If shooting gives us physical agency, playing protector provides a solid, cogent and significant narrative and emotional role. When given a gun, we know how we must use it. When accompanied by a protectee, we know what we must do.
Secondarily, the dynamic between caregiver and care receiver works simply for video game writers: The character's roles are fixed, their relationship to one another is easily established. It also creates, in regards to game mechanics, myriad opportunities.
Defending an "objective" against enemies, managing healing, and other items and even small moments like boosting over a wall can all originate from the protector/protectee dichotomy. In base game-making terms, it's a useful device, beneficial to both brief storytelling and varied action. Unfortunately—and as a result of both its apparent simplicity and direct appeal to the assertiveness of players—the role of protector often goes unquestioned and, almost uniformly, to men.
In Watch Dogs, when his sister Nicole kills somebody—something he's done himself innumerable times—protagonist Aiden Pearce laments, "I worked so hard to keep Nicky shielded from everything and now... she's killed someone. I need to get her away, safe." The statement is clear. Men are fighters and doers. Women are clean and fragile.
It sounds almost benevolent, but the tacit implication is that women must be protected from the awful things that people do; they mustn't sink to the level of people; they are not people. Because games are often (and, considering all market research, incorrectly) targeted at men, the protector role, the main role, is given to a male character.
All the Dead Rising games, the fourth of which is just released, revolve around rescuing and safeguarding other people; and all the Dead Rising games are fronted by men. Final Fantasy takes place across various fictional universes, wherein even the rules of physics don't apply, and yet Cloud must protect Aerith, Zidane Garnet and Tidus Yuna. (Though this is flipped in Final Fantasy X-II, where Yuna spends the bulk of the game attempting to rescue Tidus.) Each bestowed with mythical powers, even more directly than Watch Dogs' Nicole, these women are all something better, or rather other, than persons.
"Games in which you play the protector almost ubiquitously cast women as morally unimpeachable angels, whose frail goodness and optimism must be ruthlessly preserved."
It takes different forms. Clementine, in series one of The Walking Dead, is a child and so more innocent than a fully formed adult person; Resident Evil 4's Ashley Graham is the president's daughter and thus more precious. But games in which you play the protector almost ubiquitously cast women as morally unimpeachable angels, whose frail goodness and optimism must be ruthlessly preserved.
So magical are these women than their protectors' actions, the man's actions, are plainly justifiable: we do what we do in these games because we are protecting something godly. And so the fantasy of power is complete. You are a man. This game is targeted at you, because we care about you. What you are protecting is inhumanly valuable (and might have sex with you) so anything and everything you do is permissible.
But it doesn't take (or maybe, in the pervasively crude world of video games, it does take) a particularly keen understanding of gender to see in this paradigm an underlying iniquity. These types of games tell men that their behavior, however gross, is not only acceptable but in service to a high purpose. More significantly, they say that women emanate from, and belong to, a secreted, special place. In short, they are a separate species to men, and thus should not access the same things men do.
The role of protector—or to be specific, though the canon of contemporary games hardly demands it, male protector—is less about protecting a woman, and enabling her to be, and more about safeguarding an archaic gender divide. Sexism of this kind is particularly infiltrating because it wears a velvet glove. Superficially, the desire to protect is almost noble, the depiction of women as wondrous, moral beings seems something close to kind. But assigning the protector/protectee roles based on gender so consistently, and then neglecting to debate exactly what that implies is simple adherence to stereotypes.
The Last of Us remains distinctive because it not only questions but confirms whether Joel is interested in Ellie's life or his own male self-image. Similarly, although she is quasi-childlike and, insofar as she's immune to the cordyceps virus, a magical figure, Ellie is far from frail or pure. She talks about shitting her pants. She admires the dicks in Bill's gay porn mag. She hacks David's head open with a knife. And when Joel literally steals her away from the chance to do something of her own desire, and forces her back into the position of protectee, using violence, it is a tragedy. Their roles, ostensibly, revert back to when they first met.
Above: 'The Last of Us Part II', reveal trailer
But actually, by the end of The Last of Us, we regard Joel and Ellie, just as they regard each other, very differently. Their relationship and the gender conventions underlying it have in fact been flipped. During the game's Left Behind DLC, and for a short wintery section of the main game, she is the protector when Joel is gravely wounded. It's up to Ellie to find him food, to keep him safe while he is helpless. At that point, the roles were reversed. So, the end of the game, Joel is the frail one. We hear it in his voice, during the epilogue. His senses of fatherliness and masculinity hang on Ellie's closeness to him. To protect that, Ellie shoulders an enormous burden—she accepts his lie, "okay", and becomes a stronger person than the man before her.
The Ellie we see in the reveal trailer for the game's sequel emphasizes that strength, sternly telling a visibly tired Joel her violent intentions for whoever "every last one of them" are. With The Last of Us Part II Naughty Dog has an opportunity to shift mainstream video games' preoccupation with male dominance in the protector role like never before, while respecting the unique scars that both leading characters are now made to carry. Whether they fully take it or not, we won't know for some time yet.