Where most girls her age begin to wear makeup, she wears grime. Ash. Blood.
She can't spare a second to wipe it away, let alone notice it. That time could mean the difference between dying and not. There are so many ways: A bullet in her head, a glass shard in her gut. Then there's that most insidious end: In the grip of some staggering, incoherent subhuman, whose bite would condemn her to rebirth as one of them.
Avoiding that death has become her life. So she surveys, she sneaks, she loots. Those are the easy days. When she can laugh at a bad joke like "The frustrated cannibal threw up his hands," it's a beach vacation.
Usually, though, there's just violence: Shooting those demons right in their deformed skulls at the crest of her arms' nervous quivers. Plunging into their flesh whatever sharp object she can grab the fastest when they creep too close. Treating wounds with her teeth clenched tighter than her hair is tied to keep it out of the undead's clutches.
That's just the monsters. To also survive the men who'd cut her throat for a night's shelter, she has to use greed and deceit with as much skill as a shank.
That's no life for a little girl, they say. And yet it is — for not one, but two of gaming's newest heroines.
Ellie in Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us" and Clementine in Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead" are spiritual sisters. Sure, we control them differently — it's like operating a forklift versus a GPS. And purists of post-apocalyptic fiction could talk your ear off explaining the differences between the rising "Dead" and the fungal plague Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann drew up for "The Last of Us."
But for Clementine and Ellie, life is pretty much the same doomed grind. And they both endure it.
Not only do they brave similar worlds with superhuman backbone, but in doing so, they redefine mainstream gaming as more than a brig of stubbly bruisers. They make the post-apocalypse a girls' club. And in their latest outings, "The Walking Dead: A House Divided" and "The Last of Us: Left Behind," the two grow even more alike in their grit.
Ellie's the only playable character in "Left Behind" — Joel is incapacitated — so she strikes out from her big brother companion just like Clem did from Lee. While Ellie scours a destroyed mall for medicine, flashbacks to a few years before her and Joel's cross-country odyssey cast her as an even hardier youngster than the one who bow-hunted deer in the main game's haunting winter chapter.
This DLC also shows us Ellie as a regular girl. That's because we meet her friend Riley, whose surprise return to Ellie's life sets off as much of a frolic as two girls can enjoy in a quarantine zone: lobbing bricks at junked cars, trying on masks in a Halloween shop. It's frivolous, sure. But it lays the foundation for more serious moments in young Ellie's life. After seeing what hell she's gone through, you'll never play "The Last of Us" the same way again.
"A House Divided," meanwhile, finds Clementine at her most empowered. She's easing into the new group of survivors she met at the end of "All That Remains." Like Ellie, she even befriends a girl her age. But another huge weight falls on Clementine when the survivors meet a group led by a familiar face from the first season of "The Walking Dead." As tensions mount, mirrored by a coming wind storm, Clem has to play peacekeeper.
"The Walking Dead" has always been gaming's best empathy machine, coaxing words and actions with more of a mind for the consequences than any other game asks, and in "A House Divided" there's less room for error in that machine than ever. If there's one thing distinguishing Clementine from Ellie, it's the oneness you feel with Clem after making those decisions and battening down the hatches.
Not coincidentally, Clementine and Ellie have one last thing in common: They're both stars of two of the best games of this decade. When it comes to game play, these two latest additions don't try to fix what isn't broken. In that regard, the survival action of "Left Behind" and the point-and-click crucible of "A House Divided" are fun as ever, but far from revolutionary.
The two girls you experience that as, though, most certainly are.