Among the most acclaimed video games of all time is 2014’s “The Last of Us,” which tells the story of Joel, a middle-aged smuggler, and 14-year-old Ellie as they journey across a decimated, human-mutation-infested United States. Lauded for the touching relationship between Joel and Ellie and the ultra-realistic graphics and gameplay, the Playstation 3 game sold over 20 million copies worldwide and is being adapted for an HBO series. Its sequel, “The Last of Us Part II,” was released June 19th, with Ellie taking the lead role.
Ellie, a soulful teenage girl whose DNA holds the key to ending the mutation pandemic, is memorable for her empathy, strength, and vulnerability in the face of a horrible tragedy. But she has another facet that makes her stand out as one of the great modern game characters. Ellie is gay.
In a 2014 interview with the web site GayGamer, Neil Druckmann, “The Last of Us” creative director and writer, said: “Now when I was writing [“Left Behind,” the game’s prequel] I was writing it with the idea that Ellie is gay, and when the actresses were working they were definitely working with the idea that they’re both attracted to each other. That was the subtext and intention that they were playing with from the opening cinematic when they’re holding each other’s hands for too long, or when Riley bites her on the neck; there’s that chemistry there from the get go…”
In Part II, the story contains even more diverse characters and concepts than usual for a big-budget console game (independent games have been historically more diverse), including bisexual and trans characters as well as explorations of homophobia, xenophobia, and other salient issues. Ellie has a new girlfriend in the game, Dinah, and the two share a deep kiss in a game trailer released at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, one of the largest video game events in the world.
While underrepresented, LGBTQ characters in video games are not new. As mainstream culture has grown more accepting of the community, so has the video game industry. But what makes Ellie truly stand out lies in the game’s lifelike design, voice acting, and gameplay. Characters in the game flinch when light is shone in their eyes and they limp when they’re wounded. The nuances in their speech shift depending on the situation. The graphics portray incredible facial and bodily detail. When Ellie and Dinah kiss, Ellie’s eyes remain open for a brief moment, as if she’s questioning the reality, the joy of what is happening, before she fully embraces the moment. That questioning is something every queer person has gone through, and it’s refreshing to see, whether in a film, TV show, book, and especially a video game.
Visibility is one of the ways to grow acceptance. It took time for LGBTQ characters to find their way into mainstream culture. In the mid-1990s, when video game creators began to pay attention to plot and character development, the rare queer character was usually forced to be coy about their attractions if they weren’t relegated to being a full-on stereotype. It’s a far cry from today’s games that feature more gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and gender fluid characters. And while plenty of adults play video games, it’s encouraging to see such diversity in a medium consumed by young people. It’s not a far cry to believe, just as queer characters in books and on screen have done, that Ellie has saved lives. Young queer people can see themselves in Ellie, see their story being shared, and know that they’re not alone.
The world of “The Last of Us” is not a friendly one. People have to fend off not only a dangerous mutation but the exhaustive wrath of each other. Meeting the basic necessities of day-to-day life is exceedingly difficult. One might think, in a world where humanity is holding on by a razor-thin thread, that sexuality would take a backseat. But perhaps, as we have learned with so much turmoil happening in real life right now, that it is within such a world that who we are matters the most.
“The Last of Us, Part II” is available now for the Playstation 4 console.