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How Ellie's transformation in The Last of Us speaks to adolescence

The Last of Us - Ellie

Above: Ellie from The Last of Us.

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I’ve read the reason music from our adolescence stays with us is because it’s the first music we choose to listen to independent of our family’s tastes. With both of his older, video-gaming brothers out of the house, I realized The Last of Us — a game my teenage brother has been talking about all year and was insistent that I play — was his first game chosen independent of us.

So I started it with an open mind, expecting about as much as I’d gotten from Sword Art Online and his other teenage fandoms. But I was blown away. Obviously, I’m late to the party here, and much of what I have to say about the game has been said already. But with the “remastered” PlayStation 4 edition having come out recently, I figure it’s a good time to revisit the aspect of the game I expected to be weakest but turned out to be its strongest: Ellie.

While I’d heard that Ellie (a teen immune to the zombie-fungal outbreak that’s taken over the world) was nothing like Resident Evil 4’s Ashley because she wasn’t as annoying or helpless, that didn’t mean she would be a well-developed or even interesting character. So I wasn’t expecting one, and my first interactions with her didn’t change that. She’s a teenager — crass and rude for the sake of being crass and rude. But as with most teens, this turns out to be a facade.

In many ways, Ellie is still a child, experiencing the world for the first time. She fawns over old arcade cabinets, collects comic books, and looks at the world outside of the quarantine zone (where she grew up) with wide-eyed wonder. And in this way, she serves to tug at Joel’s fatherly heartstrings (he’s a smuggler whose daughter was killed at the start of the outbreak). I was worried that however “real” Ellie was, she’d simply serve as a tool for Joel to heal his emotional wounds — an annoying tag-along he’d grow to care about despite the jadedness he’d developed from being a survivor. For this reason, my favorite part of the game was playing as Ellie.

When Joel gets put out of commission by a group of hunters, Ellie takes them on herself, proving she’s anything but helpless. Adding to that, she isn’t just a reskin of Joel. She’s smaller and weaker, and playing her, you lose the various skills you’ve collected as Joel, such as a steadier trigger finger and faster healing abilities. So I was satisfied to see her sneak up on enemies and construct Molotov cocktails as she’d no doubt seen Joel do a hundred times. She’s not made out to be a damsel in distress even though the ending requires Joel to save her. By breaking through to Joel — by giving him a reason to “endure and survive” (the catchphrase in her comics) — she saves him.

In the end, what I appreciated most about The Last of Us was that Ellie didn’t feel like a burden (though she begins the game as a “package” to be delivered) or a partner (though she works with and saves Joel a number of times). She felt like a companion, a heroine equal to Joel, and one whom I was sorry to see go when the credits rolled.