The damsel in distress plot is one of the oldest and longest running in video game history. The player takes control of a male avatar and goes on a journey to save a princess, saving the kingdom along the way. It’s a story that reduces women to objects—prizes for the male hero and trophies for the player. It has been decades since we first stepped into the shoes of Mario or Link in order to save Princess Peach or Princess Zelda, and all the countless games that followed of rescuing damsels have led us to one place: The Last of Us.
On the surface, The Last of Us seems familiar, especially on the heels of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Bioshock Infinite, both games that feature a father-daughter spin on the damsel concept, rather than a romantic one. We play (for the most part) as Joel, a bitter, jaded old man who survived the apocalypse, and outlived his daughter. Then we meet Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl who is immune to the infection that destroyed human civilization as we know it. Joel has to get Ellie across the country to the last science lab in North America capable of studying her immunity, and hopefully, using it to make a cure.
We protect Ellie for the same reasons that we rescue Zelda—saving the girl means saving the world. But over the year that they spend together, and the hundreds of miles traveled, Joel and the player both come to love Ellie. We want to protect her because in the absolutely hellish craphole that the world becomes after the Cordyceps infection, Ellie still has hope. She is hope, in both a metaphorical and literal sense.
But more than that, Ellie is a person, a girl with dreams and desires, virtues and flaws. She’s funny and smart and hot-headed. She feels real in ways that most video game characters don’t, especially women. She doesn’t let anyone put her on a pedestal, she demands to be taken seriously, and learns to protect not just herself, but Joel, too. Ellie and Joel save each other equally throughout the story, both physically and emotionally.
So when we come to the end of the game, when we finally reach our destination and hand over this girl that we love like our own daughter, we are told that in order to save the world, Ellie has to die. And we can’t accept that.
I have not met a single person who would have chosen differently than Joel did, myself included. Even though Ellie’s choice was to sacrifice her own life, and saving her ran counter to her every desire; even though it doomed the world, no one I know would have chosen to let her die. In that moment, no matter how we had felt about him previously, we were all Joel. At the end, we turn Ellie into a damsel in distress. We kidnap her as surely as Ganondorf kidnaps Princess Zelda, and humanity’s hope dies in the operating room with those doctors and nurses.
It feels somewhat strange for me, as a woman, to agree so whole-heartedly with Joel overriding Ellie’s choice. That agreement is a testament to the game’s success at making the player feel a connection with Ellie, at making her feel like the player’s daughter. The fact that Joel is not Ellie’s biological father makes it even stronger. With Sarah, Joel’s daughter introduced in the game’s prologue, we only have our empathy and compassion to fall back on—as cute as she is, the player has no time to know her. We mourn her death for Joel’s sake. Ellie is different in that she is initially a stranger to us, but we grow to love her just as Joel does. So in the end, in the heat of the moment, I didn’t think about Joel as a man stealing away a young woman’s agency, I only thought about my own deeply maternal desire to save the girl that I had come to love, as well.
Even when you replace the gender-based protective drive with a parental one, there are still problems. Though she is only (at most) fifteen, Ellie is unquestionably an adult by the time the game ends. Her world and the events of the Winter chapter have forced her to mature past her physical age, and treating her like a child at the end does a disservice to all that she has suffered and endured. Even knowing this, we cannot bring ourselves to let her go.
Immediately after beating the game, I read dozens of excuses why “saving” Ellie was the right choice: there was no promise that her death would absolutely lead to a cure; if there was a cure, there was no way to distribute it; maybe someone in Africa or South America had already created a cure and it just hadn’t made it to North America yet, so humanity wasn’t really doomed; or even going so far as to say that Cordyceps introducing a new apex predator and destroying much of humanity was the best outcome for an overpopulated world, and that curing it would be irresponsible. Over a year later, when memories have grown fuzzier, some people remember Joel’s lies about other people with Ellie’s immunity as the truth, because it’s easy to believe that we did the right thing for the right reasons. That’s what video games are for, after all.
The truth is that we’re all selfish, and that we loved Ellie too much to let her make her own choices, because for all the good they might do, they would cause us pain. So many people died to get Ellie to where she needed to be, a trail of dead crossing half a country, and we can’t bring ourselves to let her join their ranks. We dress it up in lies and say that we save her, just like we saved all those other girls in other stories, but what we did was make ourselves into the dragon, not the knight.
In the end, we take away the thing that drew us to Ellie in the first place—her hope. You can hear it die in her final line, when she asks Joel for the truth and he gives her another lie, and all she says is “okay.” Her hope is gone, her trust in Joel is gone, and the reason that she had found in her life and her immunity is gone. Everyone in this world suffers from some form or another of survivor’s guilt. But Ellie had taken hers and comforted herself with the idea that at least her survival, when her best friend had died in her arms, could be used as a weapon against the thing that killed her. Ellie coped with her life by clinging to the idea that at least no one else would have to suffer in the way that she did. By taking away that possibility and purpose, we made her like Joel, bitter and jaded, existing for no purpose other than to continue to survive.
The damsel in distress trope really only works when the damsel is a passive, indistinct figure, more like a trophy than a human being. Often, her only major attributes are her femininity and a few decidedly female-oriented virtues, like purity or compassion. This allows her to serve as an icon, an ideal—by saving her, we prove not only our own strength and nobility, but our goodness, because the only thing morally better than a paragon of good is the one who can save her from overwhelming evil. In The Last of Us, there are no such ideals. The doctors who sought to save the world were not evil, and Ellie wasn’t a trophy—she was a person, a good one. By ignoring her wishes, we ignore her very personhood, and try to force her into a box that is far too small to contain such a complex young woman. In the end, we turned her into an object to be saved and then we failed to save everything about her but her life.