Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us (little ones), the Left Behind DLC for The Last of Us (big ones), and, well, 1987’s Metroid.
If you’ve read any of my other posts on The Last of Us, you know I’m a huge fan of the game. But after playing the Left Behind DLC a few years back, Naughty Dog gave me a whole new reason to love the game. To explain why, though, I need to go back over a quarter of a century…to Metroid.
Metroid is an awesome game. It was in August of ’87, and it is now. The fighting is fun, the level design is good, it offers open exploration and multiple endings (which apparently helped spur the advent of speedrunning as a thing, since players wanted to see the different endings, which depended not on in-game actions but on completion time)…and all of this in 1987. But what I’m interested in today is the reveal in the fastest three of those five endings: the realization that Samus Aran, player character and galaxy’s best bounty hunter, is a woman. This was groundbreaking in an era when female characters were almost exclusively princesses to be rescued or similarly passive, secondary roles. And it was made possible by the developers asking themselves, quite late in the process, “Why not? Why can’t it be a woman?” The manual already said “he” in a bunch of places, but they thought it might be cool to have a female badass, and they didn’t see any reason why the hero couldn’t be a woman, so they did it.
There’s a long history of awesome feminist game design of various kinds, just as there’s a long history of sexism in game design—often in the same game. This is because neither sexism nor feminism is the kind of things where a game or person is bound to always be in the right or in the wrong, sensitive or insensitive. Look no further than Metroid for an example—despite the female-positive stuff I’m about to describe, the game also rather crudely rewards the player for speedruns by presenting Samus with progressively fewer clothes on. So, you know, it’s kind of a mixed bag as far as feminism goes, but the bad doesn’t mean the good isn’t legit (or vice versa).
That being said, Metroid’s Samus reveal is a particular kind of awesome in that its message it’s not a game that’s about gender or sex or women’s empowerment. It’s a game that just quietly goes about the business of having a badass save the galaxy and then lets you know at the end, kind of in passing, that she happens to be a woman. The effect is (or can be) to suggest that one doesn’t have to stress that a strong protagonist is a woman because why wouldn’t she be? If it surprises us, it’s because of our own expectations, not because anything Samus was doing was inherently unfeminine. It’s one of my favorite moments in 80s gaming. This is because, like the 1979 movie Alien—whose design was a big influence on Metroid’s development and whose protagonist was also originally written as potentially male before they decided there was no reason a woman couldn’t do all that awesome stuff at least as well—it says that women being awesome doesn’t have to be what a game with awesome female characters is about, because it shouldn’t be any more surprising or unexpected than men being awesome. And I say right on.
The Left Behind DLC did the same for sexuality. You see, Left Behind reveals that Ellie, the co-protagonist of the main game (and of the DLC), is gay (or is written as such—just going on the game, there’s more interpretive leeway than just a binary ‘gay or straight’ reading). But by introducing this information in DLC, it retroactively reminds us that the entire original game was NOT about Ellie’s sexuality—it was about Ellie and Joel’s relationship, which didn’t really have much to do with who either of them preferred to smooch. This, to me, is equally awesome to the Metroid reveal. It’s a reminder that a given aspect of an individual’s personality isn’t going to be the most important thing about them in every context. So Samus is a woman? That’s cool and all, but it’s not as important as the fact that she’s really good at Mother Brain extermination, which belongs a bit higher on her bounty hunter resume. Ellie is gay? Okay, fine, but (as The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann points out) that didn’t get addressed in the main game because it had nothing to do with that game’s story. The Last of Us is an incredible game with two protagonists whose different sexualities are equally irrelevant. It says that non-heterosexual characters are more than just their non-heterosexuality. And I say right on.
P.S. What, I hear you ask, about retro and modern games where you pick the sex of your player character at the beginning? Check out my article about Fallout, Resident Evil, and Dragon Age: Origins for more on that!