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[Content warning: this essay contains references to kidnapping and attempted sexual assault, and spoilers for both The Walking Dead Season 1 and The Last of Us.]
On the surface, The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are similar games: focused on narrative, driven by character, set in a zombie apocalypse, and featuring a middle-aged man and a young girl who have a father–daughter relationship despite not actually being related.
In particular, the arcs of the deuteragonists, Ellie and Clementine respectively, speak to shared themes of autonomy, femininity, and power. Both grow increasingly self-reliant despite the difficulties of their circumstances but are held back by both their situations and identities, until the final acts of their respective games dramatically bring these themes to the fore. By comparing these arcs and how they are framed in the games, their significance becomes clearer than in either game when taken alone.
Both Ellie and Clementine are introduced as companions to the male playable protagonist (Joel and Lee respectively) in positions of vulnerability. The narrative tasks the player character with protecting them. Joel is specifically hired to accompany teenager Ellie across the country for reasons initially unknown, and is reluctant to do so since, as a smuggler, he is accustomed to inanimate cargo. When he learns that Ellie is immune to the apocalyptic plague and he will be helping her to reach the Fireflies, a group who are researching a cure, he is even less pleased and it takes a combination of the dying wish of his partner Tess and an inability to turn back to persuade him. Despite his hesitation, he is framed as Ellie’s protector, immediately saving her life when it is threatened by a military patrol. Lee, on the other hand, runs into Clementine by accident and voluntarily chooses to take her with him since she is a young child of only eight, her parents are gone, and she has no reason to be self-reliant enough to survive alone. Her age and Lee’s reaction make the intent to have him protect Clementine clear.
At first, the differences between Joel and Lee’s personalities and situations create very different dynamics between them and their companions. Joel is controlling, telling Ellie to “do what I say, when I say it,” and going as far as to make her repeat the command. Whilst this is ostensibly for her own safety since their trip will be a dangerous one, it contrasts with Lee’s protective but cooperative nature. Lee listens to Clementine; for example, he immediately agrees with her suggestion that they go somewhere safe but close to her house so that she can meet up with her parents if they return there. It’s necessarily difficult for him to afford Clementine much autonomy both due to the suddenly unfolding apocalypse and because she is eight years old, but he demonstrates its importance in stark contrast to Joel, despite Joel’s being charged with looking after a much older and more capable girl. Taken together, these differences in approach demonstrate the spectrum available within the setting and relationships presented. They are important to the early characterisation of all four characters, but also to get the player thinking about the themes of control and power in the stories.
Whilst these themes come through most strongly in the narrative, the girls’ autonomy is framed early and often in moments of gameplay. In particular the girls are used in puzzle solving, usually by climbing through spaces too small for Joel and Lee. While these moments aren’t forced upon them in any way other than the fact they must happen to progress the game — Ellie chooses to climb through a dog flap in order to unlock the door from the outside, whilst Clementine explicitly agrees to climb through a window for the same reason — it is notable that these earliest and most consistent expressions of freedom and power come from the necessity that the girls help the player character.
This is partly down to story convenience — similarly, many puzzles in The Last of Us are set up purely because Ellie cannot swim — and is likely partly influenced by the backlash against escort missions in earlier games where the secondary character was purely a hindrance. Nonetheless, this convention plays into a gendered trope wherein a male player character is accompanied by the helpful, non-playable (for at least most of the game), female companion. Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, Elena from Uncharted, Maya Fey from Ace Attorney, Ashley from Resident Evil 4, Yorda from Ico… the list goes on. It has the unfortunate effect of situating these characters, in these gameplay moments even if not in the story as a whole, in the same position as the tools — batteries, floatable pallets and the like — that populate the level in order to be used by the player character to solve the puzzle. This probably isn’t the intended reading on the part of either Naughty Dog or Telltale, but it does seem fitting that the otherwise autonomous choices made by these girls are undermined by this trope and its ludic motivations considering the pessimistic message about freedom that these games provide overall.Regardless of whether the player considers this, the narrative soon picks up these issues again by calling the girls’ reliability and self-reliance into doubt; most evidently when it comes to the issue of arming them. Shortly into The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel find a bow. Ellie asks to be allowed to use it, telling Joel that she’s “a pretty good shot with that thing.” She has evidently used one before, but Joel refuses to give it to her even when she points out that it would be better if they were both armed and could cover each other. This is reiterated again shortly afterwards when she tells Joel that she “needs” a gun and that she can “handle [herself]” but Joel insists that she should hide while he takes care of things. She is not permitted to have a weapon until much later, when she saves Joel’s life by shooting a man who is drowning him. Joel snaps that she should have hung back “like I told you to” but Ellie refuses to accept this, pointing out that she saved his life and that he should be grateful. Following this, she asks again to be able to help and Joel finally gives her a gun.
This is a key point at which the games diverge; the sequence of events occurs backwards in The Walking Dead. Clementine is unarmed for the first half of the game as she is, unsurprisingly, inexperienced with weaponry. However, a hardened (somewhat Joel-like, in fact) character called Chuck chastises Lee for this fact and he agrees that in this changed world she needs to be able to protect herself. Clementine doesn’t like learning how to use a pistol; in fact she asks Lee if she has to and Lee tells her “yes, you do.” This is one of the few times where Lee outright overrules Clementine, rather than giving her at least the illusion of choice. His insistence in this case demonstrates the situational lack of autonomy of the apocalypse wherein an eight year old girl has no choice but to know how to use a gun if she wants to survive.
This same situational necessity also applies to The Last of Us; Ellie only knows how to use — and subsequently want — a weapon because of the setting. The thematic demonstration is the same: these girls’ freedom to act their age is destroyed by the violence and danger of the situation they’re in, with Joel and Lee’s control also being layered over the top. The game calls both of these factors into question: The Walking Dead has characters both agree and disagree with Lee’s decision to arm Clementine, and the player is likely to feel ambivalent too since there is no delineated “correct” answer. And whilst The Last of Us frames Joel as being in the wrong for refusing to arm Ellie by vindicating her capability when she does get her hands on a gun, it is still made abundantly clear that killing Joel’s attacker emotionally affects Ellie. It would therefore be difficult to play either of these sequences without being forced to confront the fact that neither girl has had any real freedom of choice despite their opposing narrative structures.
On the other hand, another key examination of the girls’ autonomies plays out in almost identical parallel: upset with their relative protagonists for making a decision about them without their consent, they leave them. Shortly after this they end up kidnapped.Clementine’s arc here is simpler than Ellie’s. Lee must at some point break the news to her that they cannot try to find her parents, who are very likely already zombies. His previous rhetoric is player determinant but most responses are placating without being outright lies, such as “we’ll look for them if we have time.” This is again a situational lack of autonomy that puts Lee in an extremely difficult situation; however, Clementine, feeling betrayed, runs away to find a man known only as the Stranger who has promised her that he will do what Lee would not and search for her parents with her. Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, the Stranger turns out to be a traumatised and mentally ill man who kidnaps Clementine in order to trap and kill Lee. Clementine’s choice to leave was not particularly autonomous, then, thanks to the influence of the Stranger, and it immediately backfires.
On the other hand, Ellie runs away of her own volition after learning that Joel is planning to pass her off onto his brother Tommy for the rest of the journey. She is let down and upset as she has not only grown close to Joel but considers him the only person who has been a point of stability in her life, and Joel feels that Tommy would do a better job of keeping her safe thanks to his own insecurities. Neither is particularly in the wrong, and the scene brings their relationship and emotions to the forefront. Following a frank discussion, Ellie agrees to return and Joel agrees to continue accompanying her.
However, not long after this, Joel sustains a serious injury and is incapacitated by blood loss and infection. Once again, situational lack of autonomy puts Ellie in a position where she has no real choice other than to look after them both. Ellie becomes the player character for this sequence, and her story is again influenced by her gender as she is framed in a care giving role, speaking to the expectations often placed upon female characters (and real women).
Moreover, whilst gathering food, Ellie meets David. David, much like the Stranger, feels that Joel has been a menace and needs to be stopped. However, kidnapping Ellie also has a secondary motivation: David calls her “special” and hopes that she can “come around.” When he tries to hold her hand through the bars of her cage, Ellie breaks his finger. She then escapes a literal chopping block, fighting her way through the village until she becomes trapped in a burning building with David.
Both games consciously attempt to avoid the damsel in distress trope during the girls’ escapes from captivity. Clementine will hit the Stranger over the head whilst he is distracted talking to Lee, giving Lee the opportunity to overpower him. If the player fails a quick time event she will even shoot the Stranger to save Lee. Ellie will fight David alone and will ultimately brutally kill him after he attempts to sexually assault her.
Though they both regain their relative levels of autonomy, they are clearly traumatised. The games explicitly comment on what it has cost them; and, crucially, these moments do not only demonstrate the perils inherent in the games’ settings, but also in childhood and femininity. The experiences of Ellie and Clementine in these sections have nothing to do with zombies; the violence is entirely carried out by humans and, whilst exacerbated by the breakdown of society, does occur in real life, usually to women and children. Whilst having these girls participate in, or carry out entirely, their own rescues subverts a tired trope, the demonstration of their trauma serves as an exploration of the lasting effects of violated autonomy, and they are deliberately framed to have implications beyond fiction.
Moreover, these penultimate events do not lead to freedom in the denouement. Ellie and Clementine are reunited with Joel and Lee, ostensibly their protectors and, when at their best, enablers of their autonomy through creating safety and stability. But in their final acts, it is the downfall of these two that strip the freedom from their respective deuteragonists.
Prior to playing his part in Clementine’s rescue, Lee is bitten by a zombie. Knowing that he will soon turn into one himself, he is motivated to find Clem quickly and to make arrangements for who will look after her when he can’t. However, he is overcome before he can return with her to trustworthy people. Clementine is therefore forced to deal with the situation. First, she must kill a zombie in a scene (coincidentally) reminiscent of Ellie killing David: violent and traumatising. Then she is tasked with either shooting Lee or leaving him to turn.
Since Lee is the player character and this is truly the player’s decision, the narrative frames this as Lee telling Clem whether or not to shoot him, but if the player waits too long then Clementine will choose herself based upon previous events influenced by the player. Regardless of the outcome, this is not much of an autonomous choice to have. Clementine can only be left frightened and alone, as demonstrated by the brief epilogue.
Though The Walking Dead: Season 2 forms a separate arc for Clem, it is worth a brief examination here as it picks up the theme of autonomy and carries it forwards. It centres her as protagonist and player character, and, narratively speaking, she is able to make all her own decisions since she no longer has an authority figure in her life. However, these decisions are extremely limited: she is unable to survive alone due to her age and environment; her companions die frequently and it is often either unpreventable or turns out to be her fault; and she is kidnapped once again. In Season 1 her choice to carry out normal activities for girls her age is demonstrated often: drawing, using a swing, and playing pranks. She has no such choices in Season 2, and her justified childish naïveté is eroded by consistently being punished for trusting or supporting other characters.
The game uses this to develop Clementine’s ability to survive and make difficult decisions up until the final choice in the game, which is the only one that truly matters to the plot, but this means that it’s fair to say that Clementine is less free for the majority of Season 2 despite her framing as the protagonist and the player making the choices in the story through her. As a final note on Season 2, consider how Clementine’s story continues to be gendered: to quote Ian Danskin’s We Don’t Talk About Kenny (which goes deeper into Clem’s autonomy in Season 2 for the interested): “It’s part of that disturbing trend making its way through video games right now, the one that says a female character only becomes strong by suffering at the hands of men.”
As for Ellie, her final chapter begins with Joel telling her “we don’t have to do this.” His reluctance is clear, as is Ellie’s insistence that “all we’ve been through, everything that I’ve done: it can’t be for nothing.” In other words, her decision is made and she wants to use her immunity to find a cure for the zombie virus. Shortly after this, the pair fall into some fast flowing water and Ellie is hauled to shore by Joel. He begins performing CPR on her when the Fireflies, whom they have been searching for all along, stumble across them. Joel is knocked out by one of them and awakens some time later inside the Firefly facility where he learns that Ellie is being prepared for surgery that will kill her, but may lead to a cure.
When Ellie wakes up at the very end of the game, she asks why she is wearing a hospital gown, implying that she did not consent to this procedure (presumably because she was unconscious from drowning). However, Joel equally violates her autonomy to choose (and it is implied by her “it can’t be for nothing” statement that she would have chosen to undergo the surgery had she been asked) by killing most of the Fireflies, including an unarmed doctor, and driving away with a still unconscious Ellie. Not only does he undermine the choices that both he and Ellie have made throughout the entirety of the rest of the game, he forms half of a deadly conflict that puts Ellie in a powerless position, neither side of which considers her choices relevant.
Joel also lies to Ellie, telling her that the Fireflies had found many immune patients but that none of them had led to a successful cure and they had therefore stopped looking. Ellie asks him to swear that he’s telling the truth and he does. It is widely accepted that Ellie does know that Joel is lying — she shows a deep emotional intelligence throughout the game in which she often replies to Joel’s subtext rather than his statements — but decides to forgive him regardless. Whilst she would be within her rights to forgive him or even be grateful that he saved her life, she also doesn’t have a lot of options. The only relatively safe place she knows is Joel’s brother’s compound, and this is where both she and Joel will be staying for the foreseeable future. It will be fascinating to see whether and how this arc is carried into The Last of Us 2 — even if Ellie does truly and completely forgive Joel, she will have to explore how she develops her autonomy going forward, in particular since the destruction of the Fireflies means that she will have the relative freedom provided by the safety of the compound, but seemingly no longer has a choice available to her about the impact of her life.
To conclude, these two arcs are inseparable from the girls who go through them; their stories simply would not make sense applied to adult men. Certainly, exerting autonomy is harder for anyone in the post-apocalypse, but there is no shortage of games (and other media) in which the aim is to conquer the wasteland — think Fallout or Mad Max. Instead, these games chose to tell stories in which the characters struggle with their setting and ultimately lose. This goes for Joel and Lee as much as it does for Ellie and Clementine, but the examinations of autonomy fall on the shoulders of the latter pair and are told in ways specific to their femininity and childhoods. They examine father-daughter relationships and the balancing of choice with responsibility. They tell coming of age narratives that are marked equally by the necessity for violence and for care taking. And they shed their settings when necessary to demonstrate violations of autonomy that can and do also occur in reality.
Ultimately, these games present pessimistic views of the level and meaning of the autonomy afforded to their deuteragonists. By bringing them together, the implications are laid out clearly: Ellie and Clementine share a story because they share an identity. Their gender and age (as well as Ellie’s sexuality and Clementine’s race) would afford them less freedom regardless of the apocalypse, and their struggle against this gives the player context in the unfamiliar setting by making the girls’ struggle recognisable through real world parallels. Using this as a springboard, it asks the player to consider that, ultimately, the girls have no route to recourse. Even the player, ostensibly “in control” of the game, can offer them no alternative; they are controlled by the narrative as much as Ellie and Clementine are. Using this fact to make players uncomfortable and reflective, The Last of Us and The Walking Dead invite us to question and confront these issues both in the games and outside of them.