112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Oh, Baby Girl: Examining the Relationship between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us

Timurhan Ecarma Vengco, San Francisco State University

This paper will argue that Joel’s position as a dominant, male protagonist in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us prevents Ellie, his companion, from finding her own agency, independence, and power as a female protagonist, despite her abilities in combat and survival in this post-apocalyptic, zombie-narrative.


This paper will explore the relationship between Joel and Ellie, the two main characters in Naughty Dog Studio’s The Last of Us for Sony’s PlayStation 3 game console.  The Last of Us takes place across a post-apocalyptic United States that has been devastated by a mass outbreak of the Cordyceps fungus, which infects humans and transforms them into zombie-like creatures.  In typical zombie-narrative fashion, Joel, a survivor of the initial outbreak, is tasked by the leader of a resistance group to transport Ellie, a teenage girl immune to the fungus, to a clandestine medical facility across the country in an attempt to find a cure for the pandemic.

Throughout most of the game, the gamer plays as Joel, an older man who has lost his daughter during the outbreak of the pandemic and who seemingly knows how to navigate the post-apocalyptic environment.  Ellie, on the other hand, serves as a secondary character that occasionally helps Joel (and the gamer) reach different parts of a level or help fend off enemies.  Although Ellie is a vital component of the game’s gameplay, the narrative and the game make it clear that Joel is the most powerful and important character.

Using Alex Woloch’s book The One vs. The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, I argue that Joel’s position as the narrative’s protagonist and main avatar allows him to dominate the character-system in The Last of Us, which prevents Ellie from developing as another main character with the same power and level of agency as Joel.  I will explore key scenes in the game in which this hegemony is interrogated in the narrative.  For example, late in the game, Joel gets seriously injured in the story, and the gamer is unable to play as Joel.  Instead, the player assumes control as Ellie, who has abilities as Joel during gameplay.  Like Joel, she can shoot a gun, craft supplies, and sneak around in the game world.  During Joel’s absence from the narrative and gameplay, Ellie gains agency and power as both the avatar and the protagonist, and sits on top of the character-system.  However, when Joel returns into the narrative and becomes the avatar again, Ellie once again transitions back into the role of the secondary character, which emphasizes Joel’s dominance of the character system.  Joel prevents Ellie from developing her own agency, independence, and power as a female protagonist, despite her abilities in combat and survival.