How The Last of Us Part II brought lesbian representation to gaming
The game pointedly asks its players to remember that not only do lesbians and other queer folk exist in every world but that we deserve to use our lens to tell these new stories.
Cast your mind back to what now feels like a lifetime ago, back to April this year. You might find that you recall shockwaves coursing throughout the gaming world, concerning one of the most anticipated titles to ever grace the PlayStation. The sequel to a beloved story set in a post-pandemic society that had already established a perilously high bar, The Last of Us: Part II, was hit by a worrying number of leaks that threatened to totally unravel a previously ironclad mystery surrounding the story. Hours of gameplay footage burst onto the internet and, as is the nature of reactionaries on social media, soon became almost impossible to avoid, inspiring lengthy -- and, often, hateful -- responses on Reddit and Twitter. Pre-orders were cancelled, and a great many fragile male gamers took to the virtual streets to voice their fury at what had been revealed of the plot. What was it that had made ‘fans’ so incandescent with rage?
It wasn't glitchy gameplay or poor storytelling. Quite simply, it was the tender presentation of lesbianism and other myriad forms of queerness. With the game now on wide release and players having finally been able to journey to a new world built by developers Naughty Dog, it is clear that the David that slayed the Goliath of gaming -- Goliath being the white, straight and cis men that feel entitled and ‘owed’ something from their most treasured games, David being queer protagonist Ellie -- was none other than a thoughtful depiction of lesbian identity, experiences and love.
In The Last of Us: Part II, there lies something unprecedented. Queerness in gaming, admittedly, is nothing new; indie titles developed by smaller studios such as Life is Strange and Gone Home centre around lesbian relationships and lived experiences and have been making waves for years. And in January 2020, GLAAD revealed their work in consultation with developer DONTNOD Entertainment in creating the beautiful, atmospheric Tell Me Why, the first game from a major developer to ever feature a “playable transgender character. With TLOU2, Naughty Dog joined them as one of the only titles in what is known as AAA gaming (games produced by a major publisher with a very high development and marketing budget) to not only feature a queer, in this case lesbian, protagonist; but to put her relationships, her grapples with a growing attraction to the girl she grew up with, and all of the usual complications that come with young, queer love at the core of the story. The narrative at the root of The Last of Us: Part II is driven by Ellie, the deuteragonist of the original game that five years ago embarked on a pan-American odyssey with her father figure, Joel, and was shaped by its infamous morally ambiguous ending. She now steps into the forefront of a new chapter, and her journey throughout Part II is coloured by her affinity for another woman just as much as it is defined by her search for bloody retribution.
Ever since the marketing campaigns for Part II began, there has been no doubt that the ruinous world it puts on display is a bleak, cyclical one in which bloodshed begets bloodshed and where the player’s limited agency does little to neuter the game’s seemingly endless violence. And yet, this is also a world filled with contemplative, understated moments that ensure that Ellie’s lesbian identity is never lost in the debris of a society in collapse. Rather, it is found front and centre at many a turn. Within the first two hours of the game, as Ellie enjoys the semblance of a ‘normal’ life for a 19-year-old in a relatively peaceful settlement, she deals with all of the issues that other young, gay women do. She frets that she might have ruined a relationship by hooking up with a close friend’s ex and she spends a significant amount of time -- familiar to any young lesbian that has ever been in love -- wondering if she has misread the gentle touches between herself and Dina; the woman she tentatively shares a dance with in a quiet moment away from the threats that populate their post apocalyptic lives. Even when the game forces us out of the (almost) comfortable life that Ellie has formed for herself in the wake of a pandemic and sends her on a path of near self-destruction, it never lets us forget that, beyond her blind pursuit of vengeance, she still lives as a gay woman.
When Dina accompanies Ellie on her journey, during times in which they aren’t wringing the blood out of their clothes, the two indulge in easy flirtation and ponder what a future together might look like. They reflect on missed opportunities with each other and, in one lovely scene set in a deserted record store, they echo recent lamentations on queer longing also found in the medium of film, such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Call Me By Your Name. They mourn the time they wasted, time they could have spent in confessing their feelings but instead -- as is so often is the case for LGBTQ+ people -- spent in fear of misinterpreting glances and gestures in a way that straight people never seem to worry about in the same vein.
Ellie’s journal entries, scattered throughout Part II, offer a further intimate insight into her lived experiences as a lesbian and come as a pleasant surprise at unexpected intervals in the game, as she repeatedly details the kinds of crushes on other girls that seem insurmountable as a teenager. There is, in Naughty Dog’s script and storytelling, an honest attempt to place lesbian relationships and identity at the heart of a winding, brutal narrative that otherwise mostly concerns itself with discussions of revenge and its cycles. In this, the developer succeeds -- the player is reminded again and again that Ellie’s sexuality is not some throwaway subplot but, instead, an essential part of her that the game refuses to back down on for the sake of those infuriated by the fact that lesbians exist, yes, in a post-apocalyptic society too.
There should be no underestimation of just how comforting it is for gay women -- and how revolutionary it is within the wider gaming world -- to be able to dive into a major AAA title and play as themselves. The Last of Us: Part II sets a benchmark for the presentation of LGBTQ+ protagonists and their lived experiences to come in the future of greatly anticipated, big budget games and pointedly asks its players to remember that not only do lesbians and other queer folk exist in every world but that we deserve to use our lens to tell these new stories.