Despite all the controversy and bullying it tends to circulate, I've been following the increased focus on how women are represented in video games for a while now. I applaud Anita Sarkeesian for the work she's done with Feminist Frequency and her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project. While it's fun to consume entertainment in all its forms, it's crucial to think critically about what's being absorbed up into your sponge of a brain. Otherwise, it's easy to misunderstand the carelessness and/or lack of creativity in gaming narratives.
While they aren't always the most fun to play, I appreciate any game that explores characters and plot devices without depending on cliché stereotypes. Even though I play games like Grand Theft Auto, which exploits gender as well as violence and race for the sake of entertainment and hyperbolic satire, I find myself much more satisfied with games like Journey. Not only does it present a world in which working together is key to success, it steps away from traditional gender roles altogether.
There is a middle ground between these two extremes. If you're going to put both genders in a game, whether they're on the same team or pitted against one another, it's important to keep the balance. The Last of Us walks the tight rope well.
In this console generation, Naughty Dog has released four PS3 exclusive games, all with a beefy budget focusing on story, voice acting, and graphics. Despite the fact that each one of these games features a male protagonist, they haven't been off the rails with their gender discrepancies. The three Uncharted games have strong female characters, but it's with The Last of Us that their balance of gender roles goes above and beyond the industry norm. Spoilers for anyone that hasn't made it to the Winter chapter.
A number of the female characters in this game are just as tough, if not tougher than Joel. The character Tess, Joel's partner and girlfriend at the beginning of the game, is refreshingly capable (and tastefully clothed). I didn't have to worry about helping her up to higher places. She kills more enemies in cut scenes than Joel does. Even her AI is intelligently designed -- at one point I walked into a room full of enemies and started fiddling with the controls, only to have her eliminate all of them for me. The best I ever got from Elizabeth in BioShock: Infinite was seemingly random support when she'd throw me health packs and coins throughout the campaign.
Then there's Ellie, easily the most likeable character in the game for her cunning and bravery despite being only fourteen. Although a number of puzzle elements in the game have you fetching a plank in water because she can't swim, she's leagues above Ashley from Resident Evil 4 or Yorda from Ico, female characters designed without defensive AI who are constantly pulling you out of combat because they've been captured by an enemy and require saving. Ellie's shining moment comes late in the game when she becomes a playable character in the Winter chapter. You'll defeat several waves of the infected in order to get back to a dying Joel with a bottle of antibiotics.
The Last of Us does well to keep its female characters from being air-headed, sexualized bimbos, but it's equally refreshing to see that Joel isn't some superhuman of a man. He shivs, shoots, chokes, and lights fire to humans and zombies throughout the game, but in contrast to Nathan Drake, the protagonist in the Uncharted series whose upper body strength is so ridiculous that he can pull himself through two train cars hanging off the side of a snow capped mountain while bleeding out, Joel is a man of average strength for his stature. Rather than strong-arming his way up a building like King Kong, he requires ladders and objects like dumpsters to get from one story to another. Ladders are relatively light, but with the heavier objects, each one is designed with wheels to emphasize his human strength. He even requires help moving them half the time.
Gender roles in The Last of Us are on par with what men and women in the real world are capable of, but there are a few instances where it feels out of balance. The prologue ends with Joel's daughter being shot by a member of the military. It's not brought up in the game very often, but it does make it easy for a relationship between he and Ellie to build in a father-daughter sort of way. While Ellie is dependent on Joel for companionship, Joel's relationship to Ellie is much less healthy, and he sees her as a second chance to save his long-lost Sarah, making Sarah's death a narrative sacrifice to further Joel's story.
Then there's the fact that there are zero female military members or Hunters, a savage faction of human survivors in the Pittsburg area. To assume that the brutal nature of both the military and the Hunters can only be portrayed by male characters is limiting. Additionally, a number of civillians killed by these two factions are female. Early on in the game, Joel and Tess walk from their house to a secret passage that takes them away from the quarantine zone, and a group of people are forced to their knees. The first one to get taken out is a woman pleading for her life. Again in Pittsburg, a car carrying three Hunters guns down a man and a woman trying to escape. Allowing women to be written as victims and not villains suggests that women cannot be as savage as men.
The writers at Naughty Dog set out to make a survival action game, but they also managed to create a world in which the male and female characters are portrayed realistically. I wasn't playing a game where I was Joel, the hero, and everyone owes their life to my bravery, strength, and capability in a world where humanity has gone to hell. Even though the post-apocalypse storyline has been done to death, The Last of Us is a human story of survival, wherein both men and women shown to be up to the task.