Why the Last of Us is Art: Ellie

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW

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Last time, I picked apart why Joel was such a great protagonist. He was emotionally complex, morally ambiguous and fundamentally flawed, but still relatable, allowing us to connect with him as he learned and developed throughout the story. But while Joel was a great leading man, much of the success of The Last of Us stems from Ellie. In many ways, though we control Joel for much of our playing time, the game was more Ellie’s story than Joel’s and she has quickly become one of the most beloved characters in gaming.

Perhaps the main reason why Ellie resonated with the audience was the fact that she was so relatable on so many levels. People understood why she did things, people understood and sympathised with her actions and her struggles. Even though Ellie grew up in a world completely different to the world that the audience grew up in, the echoes of our world still linger with her. She’s not so far removed from our reality that she’s alien and it makes sense to us that this is the kind of girl that the post apocalyptic world of The Last of Us would produce. She’s tough, smart mouthed and quick witted but thankfully she manages to stray away from the “strong female character” trope that so many games and films abuse so gleefully. What I mean by this is a female character whose entire existence and entire personality revolves around the fact that she’s “strong”, the fact that she kicks ass and takes names (Resident Evil’s Alice being one of the main culprits) with no semblance of any real character traits beyond being a bad ass.

Ellie isn’t just a “strong female character”, she’s just a good character. While she may be tough as nails, she has a personality. She has a wry, decidedly goofy sense of humor (“I used to be addicted to soap … but I’m clean now”) and a love for reading. She’s brave, but has her vulnerabilities. She confesses that her greatest fear is being alone as everyone she has ever cared about has died or left her. She is fascinated with the relics of the old world such as comic books, magazines, videogames, toys and approaches these with a child-like wonder that seems at odds with her usual hardened exterior. What I’m getting at is that she’s not just a bad ass cardboard cut out like so many heroes, she is complicated, multifaceted character that actually feels like a person, complete with her own likes, dislikes, fears and aspirations.

One of my favorite scenes in this game or any perfectly sums up Ellie’s character and why she’s so appealing. After a rough couple of days, Ellie and Joel have almost reached their goal. But there seems to be an impending sense of dread, as if they both know that once they get there, things will not go as planned. You take control of Joel and watch as Ellie seems to withdraw into herself as you travel through the ruins. All of a sudden, she perks up and runs off, leaving you to dash after her. This leads to a scene that is both uplifting and melancholy, one of the most emotionally resonant sequences in gaming history. You’ll notice that this particular scene was the inspiration for the whole decor of this blog.

We’ll have more more on Ellie and The Las t of Us as well as other great games in the next few days!

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