If you’ve been keeping up with The Last of Us news and trailers, you know that the player will be accompanied by a girl named Ellie. But who is Ellie? Naughty Dog has been pretty close-lipped about her so far, but with the game far off in the future, it only makes sense to keep the level of mystery high. So what do we know?
Well, a recent interview on VG24/7 has shed some light on the little girl in a terrifying world.
The Last of Us takes place on a post-apocalyptic earth, after civilization has mostly succumbed to a deadly fungus. Much like in I Am Legend, nature is reclaiming the city streets, creating a beautiful, but deadly, urban jungle.
The game is a survival/action/shooter with a stealth focus and features Joel, a jaded survivor, working with fourteen-year-old Ellie to survive escape the military and other threats.
Despite the action-filled premise, the developers have stressed that this is more of a family-love story than a zombie game, influenced heavily by Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan’s interaction in the Uncharted series. The game focuses on emotions and the father-daughter relationship of Joel and Ellie.
Ellie, born after the cataclysm, was raised in a quarantine zone – a place fairly safe from the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world. Despite growing up in such a hopeless setting, she still maintains a relatively optimistic outlook on life. This will be important to her relationship with Joel, as her views may change his own outlook on the world.
Ellie is played by Ashley Johnson, who claims that the belief that Ellie will be a shallow kid who exists to cause trouble (a common trope in games and movies, and a reasonable expectation in escort games) is a misconception.
“With Ellie, I know she’s fourteen, but this is the only world she’s ever known. Every day, you have to survive. It’s not like she thinks, “‘Oh, I wake up, what am I going to have for breakfast’ or ‘Who am I going to hang out with today?’” said Johnson in her VG24/7 interview. “She’s not a normal fourteen-year-old girl. When I first got the audition and saw the scenes, I could tell she was wise beyond her years and not your average teen. I didn’t think the whole time we were shooting it, ‘I’m fourteen, I’m fourteen.’ I honestly haven’t been thinking about age.”
Naughty Dog has become known for its portrayal of interesting and layered characters, characters that are deeper and more complicated than they first appear. For example, in a trailer that actually disturbed me during E3, Ellie is shown helping Joel as he brutally murders a group of people in front of her. She isn’t standing there looking squeamish as a guy gets his head bashed in, she is busy trying to see how she can help. And then she throws a brick at a man’s head.
According to Naughty Dog, Ellie’s character is heavily influenced by Mattie Ross from True Grit. She is coming-of-age, and Joel is both corrupting her and helping her gain her independence.
What we don’t know
Naughty Dog is adamant that this isn’t a traditional escort mission kind of game. But if it isn’t, then what is it? Will we get to choose strategies for her? Is she a completely independent AI? It’s clear in the trailer that she can stay out of trouble, but is it possible for her to get caught or killed in combat?
Also, is she always as hardened as she’s shown to be in the E3 gameplay trailer? Because I found it pretty hard to believe that a kid could watch men get beaten to pulp and not at least throw up in her mouth a little. Even grown men are shaken by their first kill or by watching someone get murdered in front of them, so I find it strange that this kid can be so jaded about violent death so young.
The Portrayal of Women in Games
The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann, who wrote the game’s script, said that he tried not to let stereotypes and industry standards effect how women were portrayed.
Johnson, Wersching, and Druckmann all expressed their concern with gender portrayal in games, particularly the negative reputation the industry has.
“Typically they’re [women] either over-sexualized, or they’re the damsel in distress, or simply there to be a love interest. There may even be one female in a game who’s a badass, as opposed to, ‘Just another male character.’ It does bother me, which is another thing that attracted me to this game, and Naughty Dog games in general,” said Johnson.
She and Druckmann went on to talk about how many game companies won’t put women on the covers of games because they’re afraid they won’t sell.
“I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused,” said Druckmann.
And I actually know that to be a true story. A friend who works there told me about the focus group and what was said about the covers featuring Ellie long before this story came out. It is amazing that Naughty Dog is standing up for this character, and I really hope this can be the game that serves as an example to other developers. Naughty Dog is even releasing special editions for both Joel and Ellie, further demonstrating their equal importance.
Between this and the recent Twitter movement, I’m starting to see instances of the industry taking itself to task and trying to create a change in how women are viewed in games. It would be awesome if my nieces end up with strong heroines in their games.
I, for one, can’t wait to get to know Ellie.
The Last of Us comes out May 7, 2013, exclusively on PS3.