It’s exceedingly rare that an in-game sidekick draws more attention than its lead character, but wherever conversation regarding The Last of Us pops up, Ellie is always front and center. This is completely at odds with conventional (read: outdated) wisdom that for an action game the player is the most important character, and you get bonus points for every burly soldier type or wise-cracking bro you can squeeze in. But when it comes to Ellie, the fact that she exists at all is helping to change what it means to be the face of a videogame franchise.
She’s not a trained mercenary with years of experience and a twisted past. She’s not a grizzled veteran pulled out of retirement to aid you in your quest. In fact, what makes Ellie unique isn’t what she is, but what she isn’t.
In The Last of Us, Ellie has lived her entire life in the post-apocalyptic wake of a deadly fungus that has ravaged humanity. Having no recollection of the world as it once was, Ellie’s outlook on existence isn’t shrouded in memories of the good old days. As Naughty Dog Creative Director Neil Druckmann explains, this backstory is the main driving force behind the character, overriding everything else. “Ellie being young and having lived her whole life in a military-run quarantine zone was much more influential in how to write for her than her gender,” Druckmann tells us. “When Ellie confronts a choice in the story, I don’t find it useful to ask ‘What would a girl do in this situation?'”
And that influence is already obvious in the pre-release footage that has been shown. Ellie doesn’t hide in the shadows and she doesn’t run or scream in the face of danger. As the player-controlled Joel – Ellie’s partner and protector – darts around cover, attacks enemies, and occasionally flees from overmatched odds, Ellie stands strong. She unleashes gunfire at intimidating bad guys, makes tactical decisions as she moves about, calls out useful information, and she even occasionally saves Joel’s ass.
This would be some pretty impressive stuff even if Ellie fell in line with most gun-toting character stereotypes, but she doesn’t. She’s not a trained mercenary with years of experience and a twisted past. She’s not a grizzled veteran pulled out of retirement to aid you in your quest. In fact, what makes Ellie unique isn’t what she is, but what she isn’t. She’s young, but not weak. She’s a female, but not a love interest. She’s 14 years old, a survivor, and she’s not what we expect from our videogames.
However, while Ellie can hold her own alongside the main protagonist, Joel, her age did present Naughty Dog with an opportunity to add depth to her character in a way that most games have never broached. “It was difficult to strike the right balance between her beyond-her-years maturity due to the harsh environment she’s lived in and her child-like wonder that wants to come out throughout the journey,” says Druckmann. “It was very important to show that there’s still a kid underneath that tough exterior.”
Joel’s relationship with Ellie begins in earnest when he agrees to look after her and facilitate their escape from the quarantine zone in which they both reside. As they share no past and start out with a completely blank slate, the player gets to see their bond built from scratch. “As far as Ellie and Joel are concerned, that relationship changes and evolves over the course of the game,” he explains. “It starts out with them not knowing each other and develops into something much deeper. The goal for the project has always revolved around making the player experience a parent/child relationship, but instead of starting at that point (by making them father and daughter) we wanted it to develop organically using story, art, and gameplay.”
This decision has given Ellie an identity that goes far beyond simply being Joel’s offspring. Assigning a family member label to Ellie could have potentially made The Last of Us “that game about a guy and his daughter.” Instead, it’s the story of Joel and Ellie. This distinction has given the characters their own unique flavors and allowed gamers to view them as completely separate personalities, rather than Ellie simply being an extension of Joel. But rather than attaching their adoration to Joel, as certain focus testing might have predicted, fans have decided that Ellie is the star of the show, regardless of the fact that we won’t be playing as her.
Ellie’s newfound popularity isn’t lost on Naughty Dog. In fact, in light of such a positive response to Ellie, a comic series is being published that details her background prior to the events of the game. Titled The Last of Us: American Dreams, a total of four issues will be made available, and the debut issue was just released.
While Ellie has been welcomed by fans with open arms, there’s no denying that fighting infected creatures and scavenging a decimated landscape is what will ultimately make or break The Last of Us for the majority of gamers. How Ellie will be remembered after all the last disgusting monster is dispatched is still up in the air, but when asked if Naughty Dog would consider seeing Ellie’s story continue – either in DLC or in an entirely separate adventure – Druckmann didn’t seem averse to the idea. “If we do decide to tell another story in the world of The Last of Us, it’s possible that we would further explore one of the existing characters’ lives.”
“So yes, there’s a chance.” He added.
The Last of Us is scheduled to launch June 14 worldwide.