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The Last of Us, Video Game
Created by Naughty Dog


Originally posted: 04/04/2014
Last Updated: 05/24/2014

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The Helpful  (7)
1.
Positive Female Representation
2. Likeable/Relatable Females
3. Male/Female Comradery
4. Mostly Avoids Male Gaze
5. Challenges Hetero-Normativity
6. Shows Female Agency
7. Ellie Saves Herself

The Harmful  (15)
1. White/Straight/Male/GenderNorm Canon
2. Female Body as a Commodity
3. Getting the Girl
4. Emotional Constipation
5. Male Emotional Control of Females
6. Disposable Women
7. Damsels Ellie, Hijacks Choices
8. Unprovoked Hostility / Black People
9. Henry does the 'Uncle Tom'
10. Objectifies "Special" Victim
11. Coerced Compliance ≈ Consent
12. Normalizes Female Victimhood
13. Otherizes/Mocks Homosexuality
14. Sensationalizes/Simplifies Death
15. Survival Mentality & Pessimism



Overview...
.  *SPOILERS AHEAD*
The Last of Us does a decent job of positively representing females and female agency, showing comradery between the sexes, and challenging gender-normativity.  While the overall story arch is moving in a noticeably helpful direction from the status quo, the majority of the story is still centered on a white male hetero protagonist.  While it covers the bases of inclusivity by implementing a minority-trifecta of secondary characters (women, black people, and a gay guy), some of the representations of these minority characters are still problematic.  The issues of concern include gender and race relations, gender and violence, “solving” problems with violence, sexual victimization, and sensationalized death.  And finally, the story is ultimately content to say little more beyond a disempowering message of nihilism.




The Helpful....


No.1 Point of Help:  Has female visibility, voice, and positive representation. There are several strong female characters….and they talk to each other about non-gendered topics.

Evidence:   This story passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  There are several instances where two or more named female characters talk to each other regarding socio-political conflicts and other non-gendered topics.  Of these females, one is a leader of a political resistance group, one functions as a street smart badass/former thug, another is a headstrong co-founder of a survival compound, and the last is a strong voiced teen who is the secondary protagonist and eventually temporarily becomes the main protagonist.  There is also diversity among non-central female characters who are soldiers, thugs, political activists, and civilians and many of them can be observed engaging in gender-neutral dialog with comrades. 

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   Giving females more presence in stories fosters a stronger sense of social belonging for females at large.  Showing female characters that are in positions of influence and power demonstrates that they are capable of possessing political and social clout, are able to handle complex situations as leaders, and make tough decisions under pressure.  Having significant, non-male/non-gender oriented dialog between females demonstrates gender autonomy, in that females are voicing an existence and perspective that are not male-centric.  This representation lends more authentic subjectivity to females in society, and encourages women and girls to develop a sense of identity that is not defined by being attached to a male.
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No
.2
  Point of Help:  Female characters are likeable and relatable.

Evidence:   The player must play as Sarah and Ellie at certain points of the game. The dialog written for female characters is mostly indistinguishable from the dialog written for male characters.  Sarah and Ellie both have a down-to-earth, witty sense of humor.  Generally, the character designs avoid implementing any blatant gender markers.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   Creating female characters that are not unlike male characters avoids Other-ization, which is what happens when female characters are written to look, talk, and behave in stereotypical ways.  In conventional characterization, the other-ization of women has been built on a platform of alienating female and feminine features (such as vocal pitch, body and facial structures, mannerisms, and attire) from notions of seriousness, intellect, power, and respect.  The Last of Us creates female relatability by reconnecting these notions with female/feminine features in a positive way.   This is important in building societal empathy for women’s issues, and is a necessary starting point for bridging the gap of social inequality between the sexes.  Likeability does what relatability does to an even greater degree.
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No.3  Point of Help:  Demonstrates a sense of comradery among males and females.

Evidence:   There are many situations throughout the game where male and female characters work together on equal footing, and help each other to overcome obstacles, such as; climbing to high places, moving/removing barricades from doorways, and, of course, overcoming mobs of zombies, soldiers, and bandits.  Tess even saves/protects Joel by aggressively taking out a Clicker (zombie) that was viciously attacking him, for which he thanks her.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   We get to see cooperative interactions between males and females.  This presents an opportunity for the audience to relate to females with a sense of comradery (as opposed to contempt, opposition, or condescension).  Joel is “man” enough to ask for help from a woman.  This shows that Joel acknowledges that not only is Tess perfectly able and willing to assist in physical challenges, but also that, in fact, Joel needs her help and he has no shame in asking for it.  It challenges the idea of “manliness" being defined by maintaining situational control and superiority of capability over women.
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No.4  Point of Help:  For the most part, successfully avoids the Male Gaze.

Evidence: Aside from the scene with Ellie and David (Point of Harm No.10), the rest of the game does very well to avoid sexually objectifying any of the female characters, even the ones who have been or are romantically involved (Tess and Maria).  Throughout most of the story, both the camera angles and character designs avoid any encouragement of viewing the female characters through a Male Gaze.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   The implementation of the Male Gaze in art and media encourages the audience to think of females, first and foremost, as visually titillating objects.  Showing females through a neutral/equal gaze discourages this objectification.
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No.5  Point of Help:  Challenges ideas of hetero-normativity and gender.

Evidence:   Bill is a gruff man to say the least.  He embodies all the stereotypical features of masculinity.  He’s tough, unkempt, doesn’t show emotions (except anger), doesn’t talk about feelings, does talk in a deep and gravelly voice, is a rugged survivalist….oh, and he’s gay.  Turns out Bill had a romantic partner named Frank. 

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   Male homosexuality is still something that is widely portrayed in the media by a manifestation of feminized qualities, which not only serve to mark and Other-ize gay men from straight men, but also alienate the idea of straight men being capable of possessing feminine qualities.  The status quo polarizes sex, gender, and sexuality into a binary system of ‘male=masculine=attracted-to-female’ and ‘female=feminine=attracted-to-male’.  And when a character is homosexual, they are typically made to behave in the same way the opposite sex is expected to behave.  Sex, gender, and sexuality are all separate human aspects on a fluid continuum that do not fit into this standardized dichotomous notion.  These completely constructed ideas of hetero-normativity are the foundation for sexism and homophobia.  They create a stigmatic canon that causes tremendous harm to the bodies, minds, and identities of the many individuals that do not fit into these polarized boxes.  Bill’s character in The Last of Us does well to break one of the strongest stereotypes about men, gender, and sexual orientation. And it happens in a nonchalant way that makes him relatable and does not play into any homophobia.  (The story does however mock Bill’s sexuality a bit and others him in a more subtle way, see Point of Harm No.13).
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No.6  Point of Help:   Incorporates female agency into gameplay dynamics and storyline.

Evidence:  During combat gameplay, all Non-player Characters (NPCs) that are comrades are programmed to take initiative in engaging mobs (enemies) and the player/main character has virtually no control over them.  This programming is the same for both male comrades and female comrades. Also, we get to see many instances of female agency throughout the storyline: Tess leading the way through a myriad of hostile zones, Tess and Marlene actively engaging in negotiation, Ellie fending for herself in the wilderness when Joel is injured, and Marlene proving herself a force-to-be-reckoned-with in her power struggles with Joel.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  It’s not uncommon, in gaming, for female sidekicks to be programmed to function as an extension of the player character (who is typically male), by which the sidekick can be sent into action with the press of a button.  This Press-X-to-Female-Character dynamic implies that the female associate is less of an autonomous thinking character/person, and more of an appendage or tool that exists solely for usage by the central character.  The female character is literally being reduced and marginalized on the game interface itself.  The implications of this interface dynamic are inherently harmful, despite what types of characters are present. This message then becomes even more dangerous when it is imbued with predominant ideas of sexism (or any type of systematic oppression, for that matter).  So, The Last of Us does well to avoid utilizing this dynamic within its gameplay. The female agency shown throughout much of the storyline demonstrates female autonomy, strength, and initiative.  This exemplifies active roles for females, and encourages a view that sees women as equal participants in society at large.  Well done. (Unfortunately, there are other places in the story where female agency is undermined, see Points of Harm No.2, 35, and 7).
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No.7  Point of Help:  Ellie saves herself.

Evidence:   In the scene where David is assaulting Ellie, in attempt to kill (maybe rape?) her, Ellie manages to get ahold of a knife, power David off of her, climb on top of him, and face-hack him to death.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   It’s great that the story shows a young, female victim fighting back and winning, as opposed to being saved by the manly man (Joel).  This message does well to empower victims (particularly females) to take situations into their own hands stand up against victimizers and oppression in general.  Although, I would encourage writers to be very careful with this type of scenario because it creates a double edged sword, in that another (very dangerous) message might be implied.  A message that blames victims for failing to defend themselves or for engaging in coerced compliance. (see victim blaming in Point of Harm No.11) Also, Ellie is unfortunately damseled in a later situation (see Point of Harm No.7).
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The Harmful....


No.1  Point of Harm:  Upholds the status quo of Male/White/Hetero/Gender-Normative as the default centralized character.

Evidence:   Joel, our main guy, is white, straight, and masculine.  The story is told from his perspective for the majority of the game.  We learn his backstory and are meant to relate to him most of all.  Although, Ellie’s character steps into the center briefly, we ultimately know very little about her backstory.   The story is really about Joel and his struggle to secure want he wants.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   While the white/straight/masculine/male perspective is not inherently problematic, the fact that it historically stands as our culture's predominant perspective definitely presents an issue.  The stories we tell in our culture both reflect and inform ideas about humanity through representation and expansion.  The number and diversity of characters that represent any type of person in a story, both symbolize our cultural perspective of that type of person, and inform how we continue to think about that type of person.  In our popular cultural narratives, most centralized characters over-represent maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, and gender-normativity.  Not only is this type of character centralized and over-represented within most narratives, but it is also expanded and diversified into sub-types that demonstrate different ways of being for this type of person.  Typically what we see is a bunch of White-Straight-Masculine-Males that all have different personalities, different styles, different skills, different backgrounds, and different philosophies on life.  From this we learn to see the White-Straight-Masculine-Male perspective not only as the expansive default, but as the absolute perspective (and questioning, challenging, and criticizing this “optimal way of being” is met with huge backlash).  Additionally, we learn to see the differing perspectives of all “others” as deviant, quirky, and misguided at best, and at worst, as unnatural or even sinister (see xenophobia).   Of course, the opposites of Centralization, Over-Representation, and Expansion are Marginalization, Under-Representation, and Reduction.  Marginalization in fiction is when a type (or types) of characters are pushed off to the side of a story and their importance in story-telling is diminished.  Under-representation is when a type (or types) of characters are barely present or not present at all in story-telling.  Reduction is when a type (or types) of characters are presented with very limited ways of being a person (this is most commonly refer to as stereotyping).   In popular stories, the types of characters that are typically given the marginalization, under-representation, and reduction treatments are ones that are not male, not white, not straight, or not gender-conforming.

How to Change the Story?:   There are a lot of different possibilities here.  Although, I find it difficult to contemplate this issue without ultimately finding myself looking at the underlying power structure of the entertainment industry that, more often than not, has white/straight/male/gender-normative in the driver seat.  It’s not enough to just promote and encourage more diversity in story-telling.  We can’t very well expect any changes to take hold so long as the status quo is being upheld.  This means it is absolutely necessary that the existing power structures move over in order to make equal room for others to equally participate in their rightful place at the creative table.  So, I suppose the real starting point is having writers and directors that bring more diversity of perspective to the table….and actually listening to those writers and directors, making equal “floor space” for the narratives of various minorities, and having that “floor space” be free of pre-fab narratives (stereotypes).
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No.2  Point of Harm:  Situates the (young and vulnerable) female body as a valuable commodity that must be procured.

Evidence:   Ellie is very important in the storyline of The Last of Us because she has the cure to the zombie fungus epidemic.  But she does not possess knowledge or skill that is vital to finding the cure, she simply has some kind of anti-zombie antibody in her biology that came about by no innovation or volition of her own.  She IS the cure…well, her BODY is, and it is made the goal of the male protagonist, Joel, to transport and deliver the cure (Ellie’s body) to the agency that can implement her inadvertent biology to save the world.  Who Ellie is or what she knows is of zero consequence to finding the solution of the zombie problem. She could’ve literally been unconscious the whole game, and that would not have conflicted at all with solving the zombie problem.  Actually, if anything, her attitude is demonstrated as ‘getting in the way’ of Joel delivering her.  “Do you even realize what your life means?”, Joel says to Ellie after she runs away.  Even when a controversial situation arises (extraction of the cure would end Ellie’s life), the writers put Ellie in an incapacitated state and removed her character from even that decision making processs (see Point of Harm No.7).  Ellie does not have an active part in creating (or deciding on) a solution, she is simply acted upon by conflicting third parties (Joel v. Fireflies).  She is a tool….a tool with a sassy and witty personality….but still a tool.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?: The elements of this story are in alignment with harmful patriarchal values, in that, the female body is being treated as a resource.  Many other popular stories out there present characters that possess the solution to whatever devastating epidemic is at hand.  However, when those pivotal characters are male, they are typically made to possess some special ingenious knowledge, skill, idea, or consciously controlled power that can save the world.  But when the character with the solution is female, the solution is often fostered in her body (which conveniently situates her to be proprietized and damseled).  Her knowledge, ideas, personality, or skill is of little importance to the plot’s development towards a resolution.  This idea stems from patriarchal values which don’t consider the female mind to be important in fixing the world’s problems.  These values do, however, consider the procuration, protection, and utilization of the (young) female body as paramount to salvation.  This perpetuates the idea that men must strive to assure the safety and sanctity of the female body in order to save the world from tragedy.  Men are valued for their minds and actions, women for their passive bodies (typically as sexual and reproductive tools, though in this case, Ellie is a medicinal tool.)  Women are objects to be acted upon….and strong minded women are portrayed as a problem in wanting to be allowed to control their own bodies…excuse me, I mean, the objects that they inhabit.

How to Change the Story?:   The easiest fix, here, would be to have Ellie make the executive decision in regards to if and how the cure is applied.  This could’ve been done by allowing Ellie to choose for herself what her fate (and the fate of the world) would be.  Another way the message could be changed is to have Ellie develop an ability to control or somehow employ the anti-body that lies within her, maybe by having her administer the anti-body to others through her own actions and ideas. Or she could be a brilliant prodigy that discovered a cure by experimenting on herself, or by concocting the cure externally.  Or Ellie could even be an older and/or more capable person who is striving alone to get herself to the doctors, making her the main character.  All of these possibilities would require her effort, and her mind, to be involved in the process of saving the world. 
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No.3  Point of Harm:  Limits male character’s motivation to ‘Getting the Girl’.

Evidence:   Other than just surviving, the only objectives driving Joel through the story are a half-asked, post-romantic obligation to Tess and, ultimately, his need to reconcile his daughter’s death by having Ellie as his replacement daughter.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:  All of the Damsel tropes (including Disposable Woman) work off of the establishment of a masculine protagonist that is motivated into action by his “need” (angst) to secure a (romantic or platonic) relationship with a feminine character.  The contrast in gender is key to the function of this trope, which requires Otherization of the pined for feminine gender.  The relationship between Joel and Ellie is ultimately founded on this patronizing formula.  (While a similar version of this trope is commonly employed for feminine characters “needing” to passively attract a masculine other, the message coding and socio-behavioral consequences play out differently).    Characters can be driven by a multitude of different motivations within the scope of human relationships (let alone the world).  The overuse of ‘Get the Girl’ transmits messages about gender-relations that have harmful social consequences for both males and females.  For one, it doesn’t afford males much emotional or intellectual complexity in their representation.  Also, it enforces the idea that ‘getting the girl’ is paramount to a man’s sense of self-worth and is, ultimately, what his self-worth should derive from.  It presumes that anything else a male does just becomes a means to that end. And if that end is not achieved, then the meaning and value of all their effort crumbles, leaving males to feel like dejected failures, despite what they may have accomplished in and of itself.   Further, not only does this trope teach males to invest their sense of self-esteem in the conquest of feminine others, but it also presumes males to be “the pursuers”, and encourages them to take action in order to obtain said prize(s).  It is in this way that the trope’s message then becomes harmful to females.  Because possessiveness is being equated with love and manhood, this formula for selfhood encourages males to engage females with a desperate desire to control them preceded by an obsessive need to “figure women out” as an enigmatic and collective Other.  This entitled approach imminently results in males feeling resentful when females behave as unique and autonomous individuals, (see Men’s Emotions Controlling Women, Point of Harm No.5) , which then feeds into a broader culture of misogyny.

How to Change the Story?:   Joel could be motivated by a desire to help save the world, and maybe to honor his companion’s (Ellie’s) independently chosen destiny….I think that’s enough.
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No.4  Point of Harm:  Upholds role models of emotional constipation.

Evidence:  Emotionally speaking, Joel had an understandable episode of diarrhea contingent upon his daughter’s brutal death….and he has adamantly refused to poop ever since.  He never comes to terms with the loss of his daughter.  Bill isn’t much better in this regard, as he “unremorsefully” cuts the rope from which his dead partner hangs.  Even the female characters are, for the most part, held up to this standard of the “[Act like a] Man" Box, which divorces the idea of emotional personhood from manhood (or “ideal” human-hood).

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   Save for anger, our culture has not only barred males from expressing emotion, but from even accepting that they have them.  Masculinity has been defined in such a way that males are encouraged to psychologically paint themselves into a corner.  The “Act like a Man” Box leverages shame against emotional personhood.  It trains males (and essentially all of us) to treat the emotional part of the psyche like a disease by blocking it off from the “logical” parts, and stuffing it into a cognitive quarantine zone.  This cognitive self-lobotomy is a strategy for feigning interpersonal invulnerability….an interpersonal “invulnerability” which is demanded by the very culture of social/emotional warfare that it perpetuates.  By this ideology, the sheer idea of examining emotional states comes to be feared much in the way we might fear opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box.  It is a formula that fails at both regulating and communicating internal affect, and therefore, fails at getting interpersonal needs met, interpersonal boundaries respected, or ensuring psycho/social wellbeing for individuals or groups.

Emotions are an intricate and integral part of our biological senses.  Research is finding that emotions and empathy have evolved within us as a survival tactic.  This is because we are a fundamentally social species and, for roughly 2 million years of our evolution as foragers, cooperation was necessary for our survival.  Because of this, interpersonal relatability was important (the ability to not only sense and communicate our own internal states, but to also be receptive to the internal states of others, a.k.a. empathy).

Nowadays, when examining human problems on an individual or societal scale, ultimately we are faced with struggling to understand the complex underlying causes of human behavior (particularly undesirable behavior).  Quite often we give up on trying to understand, and we resign to concluding that it’s some enigmatic force of “human nature” that must be to blame (which is really less of an argument and more of a cop-out).  But what is this “human nature” but unexamined, underlying emotional mechanisms that are dysfunctioning?  Nevertheless, we are conditioned to keep ignoring our emotions (and the emotions of others) as if denial would cause our internal affect to devolve to the point of extinction.  This is clearly absurd…and, ironically, illogical.  Emotions don’t just vanish when we refuse to express them.  Much like poop, they get backed up and compacted, sometimes to the point where they stop trying to push their way out, or even become difficult to expel, and eventually it leads to behavioral and/or functional problems.

Understanding our own inner workings is paramount to social problem solving.  We’d be hard pressed to realize viable solutions to fundamentally human problems without the ability to empathize with others.  And we can’t very well empathize with others, if we are unable to empathize with ourselves.

How to Change the Story?:   Everybody emotionally poops, man.  Even from a basic storytelling standard, Joel really should come to terms with Sarah’s death.  Additionally, this would demonstrate how manhood and emotional personhood are not mutually exclusive states or identities.  This would be an extraordinary opportunity to start deconstructing, broadening, and revolutionizing the definition of manhood…nay, humanhood. 
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No.5  Point of Harm:  Normalization of men’s emotions obstructing women’s freedom.

Evidence:   Although there are practical reasons why an adult might hesitate to give a firearm to a teenager they barely know (Has she ever handled one?, Do I have the time/patience/ammo to teach her if she hasn’t?), it is heavily implied that the real reason Joel won’t let Ellie have a gun is because of his daughter’s death-by-gun many years before.  The emotional intensity of Joel’s behavior toward Ellie further supports this notion.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   The obstacle to overcome is not Ellie learning how to protect herself.  The obstacle is Joel emotionally wrestling with the idea of Ellie handling a gun.  While he does eventually decide that she should be allowed to have a gun, the story is being told from Joel’s perspective and justifies the fact that, ultimately, it’s his emotions (more than her abilities) that are dictating what she is “allowed” to do.  Joel doesn’t ask himself “What am I feeling and why? And is this really her problem or is it mine?” (see Emotional Constipation, Point of Harm No.4), rather he just redirects his fear and anxiety into controlling Ellie. (So, if we are sticking with the emotional poop analogy of Point of Harm No.4, Joel refuses to emotionally poop, save for shitting on Ellie, but the bottom line is he isn’t owning his own shit.)  The inherent problem with this message is that it encourages anyone to see their own fears and insecurities as justification for restricting the freedoms of others.  Additionally, the gender-relation implications of Joel and Ellie’s relationship exemplify culturally condoned practices of emotional power disparity, in which males are taught to consider their own emotions as truly the burden of females.  While these dynamics can be observed in all directions involving all different types of characters, in the cases where a woman is controlling a man, the narrative most often demonizes the woman and depreciates the abused man.  However, when a male character is controlling a female character, as in the case with Joel and Ellie, we are conditioned to see it as “normal”, acceptable, or even ideal.  Socially, the learned intrusive and controlling behavior, on the part of males, fosters interpersonal environments where females are expected to act (or abstain from action) in accordance with the emotions of men.  This pressure causes females to internalize a responsibility for making males happy, and their sense of self-worth becomes directly correlated with the “happiness” of the males in their lives.  The sexism taught by this cultural double-standard is manifested in many other ways on a societal level, namely in the impediment of Women’s Rights, the cultural scapegoating of women (especially mothers), and the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes.

How to Change the Story?:  In the very least Joel should not obstruct Ellie’s right to protect herself. Actually, it makes even more sense for Joel to want Ellie to carry and use a gun, because he could realize that Sarah’s death could have been prevented if she had had a gun (I mean, it's not like Sarah shot herself).  Or, Ellie could already be a skilled gun-totter when we meet her.  Frankly, I find it hard to believe that a character like Ellie could have been raised so sheltered and na´ve in a world such as this, and honestly, I find it quite patronizing that the writers made her so.
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No.6  Point of Harm:  Employs the ‘Disposable Woman’ trope to establish and advance the plotline.

Evidence:  Joel’s daughter Sarah dies within the first 15 minutes of game play, setting the emotional stage of our male protagonist.  Tess, a former romantic partner of Joel, dies early on in the game.  Both deaths function to propel the storyline forward and build a dramatic angst (Point of Harm No.3) in the male protagonist.  No male characters that are emotionally connected to the protagonist are killed off with the same bearing.  The only deaths in the game that are pivotal to the advancement of the story are the deaths of Sarah and Tess, both female and both emotionally connected to the male central character. 

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   The ‘Disposable Woman' trope is harmful because it considers the deaths of female characters to be tragic not so much because they are human beings whose right to life and freedom has been taken, but more because a man has lost an emotional, sexual, and/or reproductive resource.  This, of course, perpetuates regressive sexist ideas about gender relations, degrees of personhood, and human rights (women’s rights).
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No.7  Point of Harm:  Ellie gets damseled and her right to choose gets double hijacked.

Evidence:   After being knocked unconscious, Joel and Ellie are captured by the Fireflies.  Ellie (still unconscious) is taken straight to surgical prep to extract the vaccine from her.  It is made very clear that she was not informed of the life-ending consequences of the surgical procedure about to be done to her.  The choice was made for her by Marlene.  Upon finding this out, Joel muscles his way out of armed captivity and commences Operation: Save Ellie, and kills every Firefly along the way, thereby, eliminating any future options of world-saving-sacrifice for Ellie.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   While Ellie does save Joel’s life by playing nurse girl, one could hardly say that Joel was being damseled in that circumstance.  However, Ellie being held captive and needing to be saved by Joel is using the classic Damsel in Distress trope.  This trope is problematic in that it boils females down to helpless bodies without agency that need to be won and possessed by an active character (who is typically male).  See Point of Harm No.3, ‘Get the Girl’.
Regarding choices, Ellie would’ve had two, given the circumstances that we are made aware of (even if she is not).  Those choices are: A) Choose to sacrifice herself to potentially save humanity, or B) Choose to forego the sacrifice and continue to live her life.  Both of these choices are obstructed by the active interference of third parties (Marlene and Joel).  The implications of blockading a female character from having a choice over the circumstances of her own body and life grossly reflect and reinforce predominant cultural beliefs that circumvent women’s rights over their own bodies and life choices.  
Additionally, the character rationalization of Marlene doesn’t even add up.  The story shows us how responsible Marlene feels over Ellie as an adoptive care taker.  And we see (via journal entries) Marlene struggling with the idea of Ellie’s life potentially being sacrificed to save humanity.  It doesn’t stand to reason that Marlene would then bypass Ellie’s consent, incapacitate her, and use her body/brain (and life) to save the world.  The writers basically changed Marlene’s character profile in order to “justify” Joel re-hijacking (and annihilating) Ellie’s right to choose her own destiny.

How to Change the Story?:   This story had an amazing opportunity to explore the power of choosing one’s destiny, and the virtue of relinquishing control over the one you love to allow them freedom and autonomous happiness.  Joel could fight for Ellie’s right to choose and find a way to sneak her out of the facility without murdering Marlene and destroying any future chance for Ellie to choose self-sacrifice.  Or Marlene, feeling deeply torn, could even present Ellie with the opportunity to make an informed decision for herself.  The main struggle then, would be for Joel to learn that Ellie doesn’t belong to him, and if he really loves Ellie, he would honor her right to decide for herself what is best.  And if she chooses to sacrifice herself, Joel must learn to let her go.  He could even be proud of Ellie, and also come to terms with his loss of Sarah.  And Ellie should wrestle with the decision too.  She could be uncertain as to whether she is ready to end it all for the sake of returning the world to something she’s never experienced first-hand.  She could be scared and sad, and yet be brave enough to make either choice.  Brave enough to choose self-sacrifice, or brave enough to choose life for herself.
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No.8  Point of Harm:  Legitimizes social assumptions of black people being a threat until proven otherwise, and permits elevated aggression when engaging black people.

Evidence:   After trying to sneak through a military area together, Henry (a black man) abandons Joel and Ellie because soldiers were closing in, and Henry panicked.  The next time Joel sees Henry (who has been quite helpful and hospitable to Joel) Joel aggressively assaults him and holds him at gun point.  Joel’s (so called) reason for this extremely hostile behavior is that Henry “left [Joel and Ellie] to die out there”.  Henry explains himself, Joel throws the gun on the ground next to Henry, and walks away.  Joel does not behave this aggressively toward any other friendlies in the story.  The narrative never questions Joel’s reasoning in the incident. Nor do the other characters hold Joel accountable for his “assault first, ask question later” approach toward Henry.

See that look? That's the closest thing to an apology Henry's gonna get.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   First of all, ditching people for any reason does not establish one as a direct threat to others, and does not constitute being approached as such.  The degree of hostility that Joel aims at Henry, for this supposed reason, is completely unwarranted and unjustified….and frankly, it doesn’t add up.  While the narrative doesn’t blatantly say that Joel’s increased aggression is because of Henry being black, the story does, however, put the elements of this event in alignment with prevailing cultural notions about the blackness of another indicating a potential threat to one’s personal safety.  Therefore, the story potentially plays into, and inadvertently reinforces, the problematic assumption that black people are a danger (until explained otherwise), while never questioning the default, self-fulfilling logic behind engaging any group of people with heightened aggression.  These prevailing cultural notions play heavily into issues of Law Enforcement and Racial Profiling.  So basically, while the narrative isn’t saying “black people are dangerous”, it is saying “it’s understandable why you might think black people are dangerous” and “it’s ok to assume that they are so, until they explain/prove themselves”.

How to Change the Story?:   It is understandable that Joel would be relatively upset about Henry leaving them behind.  Based on Joel’s established character profile, it makes sense for him to level with Henry much in the way he leveled with Ellie earlier in the story, which is by sitting down and having a “hard talk”.  Or he could, in the very least, say exactly what he did say to Henry, sans-gun…and sans-assault.
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No.9  Point of Harm:   Henry does the “Uncle Tom”.

Evidence:   From placation, to remission, to generosity, to adulation, and finally…..admiration.   When Joel unduly assaults Henry and points a gun in his face….Henry does placate Joel by explaining himself.  Henry does not return violence or hostility or get defensive (as one may reasonable do in his position).  When Joel calms down and backs off, but doesn’t apologize….Henry does show calm remission by being friendly to Joel and saying “I’m really glad we spotted you”.  Henry does not confront Joel’s deadly mistake or express any outrage over the matter.  Next, Henry does generously invite Joel to come with him to a new place with supplies, and he does playfully adulate “You’re gonna be really happy you didn’t kill me”.  Henry does not completely avoid Joel for the violent psychopath that he clearly is, nor does he show any hesitation/fear toward Joel, nor does he require Joel to explain himself or apologize.  Finally, when Joel shares some personal story of glory (involving riding across the country on Harleys)….Henry does show Joel great esteem, wonderment, and admiration by marveling at his story.  Henry does not share his own awesome story that would lend his character subjectivity and autonomy.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   This narrative exemplifies classic power disparities in racial relations in a way that continues to normalize them.  It is clearly catering to covert beliefs of white supremacy.  It smacks of appealing to a privileged class of people that want to feel validated, respected, and forgiven by those who are marginalized, while at the same time not wanting to examine how they themselves (the privileged) contribute to or benefit from oppression, and all the while refusing to validate the experiences of the oppressed.

How to Change the Story?:   All those things that Henry didn’t do? Try having him do some.
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No.10  Point of Harm:  At the critical moment of violation, the narrative retreats from the “special” victim’s Point of View (POV), and partially takes on the sexualized POV of the perpetrator.

Evidence:   
After a violent scuffle with David, which knocks her to the ground, Ellie rolls over and sees a knife, which she crawls (slowly and painfully) toward.  While she’s crawling, the camera angle shows Ellie through a medium shot from behind, framing up a clear Male Gaze view of her back side in doggy position, suggesting sexual notions of the victim.  David kicks her to the ground, and then the camera moves with David using a follow-shot technique as he climbs on top of Ellie, which forces the audience into alignment with David’s perspective (we are literally moving onto Ellie with David).  In the next shot, which is wider and shows both of them from the side, David grabs Ellie’s head and shoves it face-down to the floor.  But because this (otherwise neutral) camera angle immediately follows the camera’s alignment with David, it still leaves us with a lingering partial identification with him (the perpetrator).  Other neutral camera angles do not keep the audience in Ellie’s (the victim’s) perspective, and rather, take on the perspective of a third party voyeur.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   Partial identification with the perpetrator is created by the (almost unnoticeable) follow-shot used with David as he climbs on top of Ellie.  Follow-shots are used to establish audience affiliation with a character.  This reorientation to the violator’s perspective allows room, on some level, for the audience to sadistically and voyeuristically enjoy Ellie being overpowered in a sexually suggestive way.  Also, it is irrelevant whether David’s character was written to actually have sexual intentions or not.  The idea of rape is still put into our minds by the narrative, and causes us to view the victim and events through that context.  
But despite identifying with the perpetrator, other critical camera angles still lose the victim’s perspective during the pivotal moments of trauma.  This allows the audience to momentarily escape from identifying with the victim, thereby Othering her.  We, the onlookers, are removed from the moment of desecration and are viewing the event from an outsider’s perspective.  For a moment, we see ourselves as different from the victim in attempt to deny our own vulnerability.  This same phenomenon is seen in our broader cultural tendencies to Other-ize victims (especially ones of sexual assault) when we focus our attention on the actions of the victim and what “they did wrong”.  The other-izaton of victims leads directly to victim blaming.  This often occurs because we don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless as we actually are and accept that the same terrible things could happen to us despite our own actions or inactions.  Our resulting cognitive dissonance (fear of our own helplessness) is redirected by focusing on the behavior/character of the victim in a way that disassociates them from us. This cognitive self-preservation tactic forges social beliefs that place some (or all) of the responsibility of violation in the hands of the victims themselves.  Victim Blaming is counterproductive to prevention or reduction of victimization at large because it both fails to hold perpetrators accountable for their own actions, and fails to examine the underlying social influences on criminal behavior.

How to Change the Story?:   The camera shot of Ellie crawling toward the knife could be moved slightly forward so that we are looking over her shoulder.  This would avoid sexualizing her.  When David climbs on top of Ellie, don’t track the shot with David’s movement.  Instead, it could be shown as a close up shot of Ellie’s face (connecting the audience with her) and David could be shown climbing onto her in the out-of-focus background, the blurriness would communicate the disoriented and shocked state that Ellie would likely be experiencing at that moment.  When David pushes Ellie’s face to the floor, show it as a close-up shot of her face (we don’t need to see David on her, we already know he’s there.)  This keeps us relating to Ellie throughout the traumatic event. Try to have as many of the shots from either her first-person POV, positioned as a close-up on her face, or from over her shoulder.  These are all camera angles that would affiliate the audience’s view with hers.
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No.11  Point of Harm:   The double-edged sword of showing sexual-assault victims overcoming their attacker is that it can imply that submission nullifies victimization.  Doesn’t differentiate between consent and coerced compliance.

Evidence:   Ellie fights her captor/attacker, adamantly refuses his suggestions of giving up, and then brutally overcomes him.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   While the positive message here is that victims are being encouraged to stand up for themselves, fighting back is not always the best thing to do, nor is it always possible.  In many situations of assault, attempting to fight off your attacker would be putting your life in greater danger.  Sometimes submission is the sensible option when you realize you are out gunned or caught off guard.  This would be what is known as coerced compliance. This is not consent.  This does not make one less of a victim, however it is commonly thought to.  Another problem with narratives that hail the ever resistant victim (who may audaciously tell her assaulter to “go fuck himself” and spit in his face) is that it paints a very clear black-and-white picture that does not accurately represent the nuanced psycho-social entanglements that often exist between victims of sexual assault and their perpetrators.  It is out of this black-and-white idea of sexual victimhood that paradoxically harmful concepts like the “willing victim" are born, as well as its problematically redundant counterpart “forcible rape”.  Terms like these further confuse notions of consent, and cause real life victims of sexual assault to have to explain themselves to questions like “Why didn’t you fight back?”
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No.12  Point of Harm:  Normalizes female victimhood.

Evidence:   After Ellie fights off David (who was trying to kill her), Joel rushes in to calm and comfort her and he says “shhh, shhh, baby girl…”.  Also, in the scenes leading up to the assault, several characters repeatedly refer to Ellie as The (little) Girl.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   While the comment by Joel is a blip in the overall scene, it does fundamentally communicate the idea that Ellie’s sex/gender is not only relevant, but a crucial part of her being a victim, thereby reinforcing preexisting cultural ideas about sex, gender, and victimhood.  Associating female-ness and/or femininity with victimhood is problematic in two ways.  For one, it normalizes females as victims of hate crimes, so that when we hear statistics like “females in the U.S. are 5 1/2 times more likely to be assaulted in their lifetime then males”, we are complacently sad, but not outraged.  When any idea is normalized it is granted a discernible amount of acceptability.  This is because we’ve come to see the common victimization of females as “natural” and due to their “inherent weakness and vulnerability" (aka femininity), rather than attributing the higher rates of victimization to higher rates of females being targeted specifically because of their sex.  The latter realization would force us to examine the actions and perspectives of the perpetrators and how our broader culture condones their misogynistic behavior and violence against a target minority.  Instead, we see the victimization of females as something that comes with the territory, as an unavoidable force of nature that can only, at best, be guarded against by the potential victims themselves through self-restrictive behavior or having a “protector”.  Secondly, this genderization of victimhood ignores the fact that males are just as vulnerable and victimizable as females.  Just because males are statistically not targeted as much, doesn’t mean that they aren’t equally as targetable.  Our culture maintains that males are invulnerable and are always capable of defending themselves.  We still hold on to this archaic idea because men are marginally taller and stronger on average than women (key term ‘on average’, key term ‘marginally’).  We even generalize this notion to children, despite the fact that, before puberty, sex differences in size and strength are non-existent.  But the absurdity of this reasoning becomes even more clear when it is pointed out that, for millennia now, we’ve been living in a world were weapons easily trump brawn.  Yet our culture still insists that men and boys are (or should be) robust and impervious to victimization.  But it simply isn’t true, and all this does is build an additional layer of stigma for male victims on top of the victimization itself, driving them even further into shame, silence, and denial.

How to Change the Story?:   The simplest fix is to have Joel say something like “shh, you poor child”, and to have the other characters refer to her less often as “The Girl”, and more often as “The Kid” since she is the only kid around.  And/or include evidence of some of the previous victims being male children.
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No.13  Point of Harm:  Mocks homosexuality and applies notions of the “other” marker.

Evidence:   After Joel and Ellie part ways with Bill, Ellie pulls out a PlayGirl magazine she stole from Bill’s place.  The audience’s knowledge of Bill’s sexual orientation is solidified by this.  She makes a comment about one of the model’s penis size, “How the hell would he even walk around with that thing?”, and then she jokes about the pages being stuck together (with semen).

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   Admittedly, this scene is quite funny, however, if Bill had been a straight man (who had just lost his female significant other to suicide) this level of mockery directed at his sexuality and masturbatory behavior would likely be considered disrespectful and inappropriate….and a gross violation of privacy.  Also, the probable reason for the writers to have this magazine scene take place at all, is likely because the writers didn’t want to leave the audience uncertain of Bill’s sexual orientation.  This scene functions as an “other" marker, in this case Bill is being marked as an “other” because he is gay.  Marking homosexuality is a function of hetero-normative beliefs that not only alienate gayness from ideas of normality, but also assume that the public has the right to know someone else’s sexual orientation (when they are not straight or gender-conforming).  This “need” to know insists that individuals of “other” sexualities be identified and distinguished from the established hetero-normativity.  In this case the marker is not a visual one placed directly on the character himself, but one that takes the form of a mental-note about the character in the minds of the audience. 

How to Change the Story?:
 
 The whole magazine incident could just be omitted.  Or if the writers are still so inclined to satisfy our “need” to know, then there are plenty of other ways of confirming Bill’s gayness without making a mockery of his masturbatory habits.
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No.14  Point of Harm:  Surrounds the player with a plethora of shocking, superficial death, yet does not adequately examine the traumatic effects of death, nor the complexities of suicide. 

Evidence:   The story barely develops relationships between the main protagonist and the about-to-be-killed-off characters. The narrative throws in just enough interpersonal substance at the last minute so that the deaths have trace amounts of meaning.  Joel’s relationship with his daughter, Sarah, can be boiled down to a watch, a joke about “selling hardcore drugs”, and Joel tenderly tucking Sarah into bed….oh, and a birthday card that glosses over some possible feelings of neglect and resentment:

Dear Dad,  
Let's see... You're never around, you hate the music I'm into,
 you practically despise the movies I like, and yet somehow you
manage to be the best dad every year.  How do you do that? :)
Happy Birthday, pops!  <3 Sarah

Joel never comes to terms with his daughter's death.  We are meagerly given a few romantically suggestive lines between Tess and Joel just moments before she’s killed off.  And Joel shows virtually no grief after Tess’s passing.  After Henry is forced to kill his infected little brother, Sam, the story had a tremendous opportunity to examine the complexities of shock (PTSD/ASD), depression, bereavement, grief, regret, remorse, guilt, and the essentially conflicted path to suicide…..but instead the writers decided to squash that in 33 seconds flat and just have Henry impulsively off himself.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   The relationship between Joel and Sarah belies the complexity of real parent-teen relationships.  The birthday card message completely down plays the feelings of bitterness that Sarah apparently has towards her father, as many teenagers have towards overburdening and neglectful parents.  To have Sarah express these problems in a way that says “but, I’m okay with it”, seems to be trying to create a fantasy that doesn’t examine parenting choices, but rather, suggests that children should just not have negative or conflicted feelings towards their parents.  Also, we are being encouraged to see Sarah’s death as significant solely because she is an “angel” who harbors no animosity.
After Tess’s death, Joel is a shining example of emotional constipation as he shows no observable signs of mourning (see Point of Harm No. 4).  We only know that he’s upset because he adamantly refuses to talk about her thereafter.
In regards to Henry and his suicide, the writers’ choice to have Henry so abruptly kill himself is a gross misrepresentation of how suicide comes to ideation and completion.  It lacks demonstration of (or even time for) suicidal contemplation, or the deeply conflicted and agonizing road to attempt/completion.  It’s clear that it was written this way purely for the shock value, and is based on common misunderstandings of the suicidal.  This is incredibly harmful, and perpetuates society’s fear of the “enigma” of suicide by supporting the myth of suicidal impulsivity (and this).  I’m hard pressed to believe that hours and hours of zombie-killing game play couldn’t be cut down by a few minutes in order to incorporate a more developed and examined story for Henry, his relationship with his brother, and how Henry might emotionally struggle with the traumatic event and thoughts of taking his own life.  Would these subject matters be too depressing for the audience?…..Maybe.  Are the writers concerned about the story feeling too heavy and bumming the players out?  Perhaps.  But then again, they don’t have to be telling a “realistic” story about apocalyptic death, destruction, and tragedy.  So…since the story is already here (at said place of tragic apocalyptic destruction) why not actually examine these issues of death and loss in a more genuine and meaningful way? 
This  popular, sensationalized way of telling tragic stories amounts to what I like to call Tragedy Porn, in that it puts forth a simplified, exaggerated, and inauthentic representation of a human experience mostly for the sake of instant gratification/entertainment (as opposed to the sake of creating a deeper understanding of that human experience).  The aim of Tragedy Porn is to take the audience to the borderline of ambiguous discomfort, show them an unfortunate or tragic event, let them revel in the drama, attach no significance to the event(s), let the audience surmise their own meaning of the event(s), and fool them into thinking that they have experienced something real and profound.

How to Change the Story?:   Exploring authentic strife within parent-child relationships can afford great depth for the characters and storyline, and make the deaths of those characters more meaningful and impactful.  Also, Joel could show some form a grief after losing Tess.  I mean, he doesn’t have to cry (being a man’s man and all), but he could show something, like exasperation, needing some time to think alone, or expressing remorse.  Additionally, examine the complexities of Henry’s (said above) shock, bereavement, depression, grief, regret, remorse, and guilt…. and to mention, his struggle with suicidal pain and the eventual erosion of his will to live.
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No.15  Point of Harm:  Maintains moral nihilism, commends a survival mentality, and propagates a pessimistic philosophy about human relationships, suffering, and societal problems at large.

Evidence:   There are so many nuanced elements in this story that communicate a survival mentality and pessimism that I couldn’t list/describe them all.  But generally speaking, a perspective of survival colors the entire narrative, and Joel resolutely speaks of being a “survivor” on more than one occasion.  A philosophy of Cultural Pessimism is expressed mostly through the writers’ choice to vilify the Fireflies and make their world-saving aspiration one that is based in moral hypocrisy.  Philosophical pessimism and moral nihilism are also communicated by the many scenes throughout the game that demonstrate social conflict, yet are left unframed in such a way that the narrative basically feels absent.  And then there’s this line delivered by Marlene… “You can’t save her. Even if you get her outta here, then what? How long before she’s torn to pieces by a pack of [zombies]? That is if she hasn't been raped and murdered first.”

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:  It is not necessary for a narrative to choose a side or take a strong stance on any moral/ethical issue in order to examine the nuances of human conflict and conflict resolution.   However, stories that completely lack meaning and present a bleak outlook on the world encourage a fatalistic attitude that disempowers people from advocating for their needs, rights, and desires, or those of others.  This type of message tells us that we live in a world that simply is the way it is and can’t be helped, instead of seeing that almost every aspect of the world we live in has been conceptualized, designed, and constructed by people, and therefore can be deconstructed and changed.  The disempowering message is… "Life is fucked up, and there’s nothing that can be done. Therefore, anyone who tries to do something about it is a hypocrite that will (and should) fail.  So you best not foster any ambitions beyond surviving the status quo."  
One of the truly problematic (and ironic) aspects of post-modern survival mentality is that it increases the exploitability of labor populations.  In a time when advances in technology have created an abundance of resources, the distribution of, and access to said resources still maintains huge disparities among the population (huge disparities that individual work-ethic variability, alone, cannot account for).  Labor populations that subscribe to a survival meritocracy become easier to exploit because the merit-ization of their own survival encourages them to lower their expectations of life and living.  Thereby making them less likely to fight for their rights, rebel, or push for the betterment of their society.

And Marlene’s line about Ellie’s future being full of rape and murder?…..What the fuck is that about, writers?  Like anyone could know that the only thing a zombie-proof girl in that kind of world could grow up to be is mangled, raped, and murdered?  How could an empowered and righteous leader of a political resistance group even think like that?   Hasn’t Marlene been introduced to herself?

Additionally, the writers aren’t even presenting Joel (or the audience) with any real moral dilemma.  They turned the Fireflies, at the last minute, into a bunch of evil, brain-stealing villains that can’t be reasoned with, leaving our protagonist with “no choice” but to kill every last one of them…and, of course, take Ellie.  Even at the end, when Ellie tells Joel what she would’ve really wanted, the audience may (or may not) be pondering the ethical conflict, but Joel himself continues to demonstrate ZERO moral dilemma…and just lies his way back into securing Ellie as a surrogate daughter for himself.  This seems to be only discernible point of the whole story, when we realize that Joel is happy because he ‘got the girl’….he successfully conquered the feminine Other (Point of Harm No.3).  
Aside from all this, the overall narrative just floats around making lots of dots, but never connects most of them into any cohesive or intelligible message(s).  Leaving choice moments open to interpretation can be a powerful story-telling technique.  But when nearly everything is left unexplored it just feels like a lazy, flippant, apply-your-own-damn-meaning adventure.  This is not only impotent at encouraging critical thinking about the conflicts that the story itself is presenting, but it also communicates that life and living are essentially meaningless, and resigns to advocating an every-man-for-himself type of social dis-organization (this is different than the less problematic view that sees no inherent meaning in life, yet acknowledges that the meanings we create are substantial, even if they are completely man-made.)  Beyond that, any potentially bigger purpose for the story gets muddled in a meaninglessly violent clusterfuck.
So I guess, Moral of the Story=Survivin’ + Girl Gettin’ ¸ Fuck Your Hopes.

How to Change the Story?:   See story-change suggestions in Points of Harm 2, 3, 4, 7, and 14
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Contributor: Lianne Neptune

 A lethal dose of Fuck Your Hopes.


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