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.