Ellie and Clementine — Autonomy in the Apocalypse

[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.

Ellie and Joel

Ellie and Joel [source]

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.

Lee and Clementine

Lee and Clementine [source]

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.