The Last of Us Part II’s representation of queer folk is expansive, more expansive than most video games, given the focus that’s put on three of the main characters being queer. Ellie is homosexual, Dina is bisexual, and Lev, who shows up later in the game, is a trans man. Though this wide representation is uncommon, I wouldn’t consider it groundbreaking for, although we have a plethora of physical representation, The Last of Us Part II is in no way a queer narrative. This fact isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is something we can work to make better.
Ellie, the main protagonist for both this game and the first, is a lesbian. Although the first game doesn’t explicitly reveal that Ellie is gay, the writer of the game, Neil Druckmann, states that he wrote the character gay from the start but preferred to leave Ellie’s sexuality up to interpretation by the players. There is arguably some queer coding going on in the first game, but the subsequent DLC, “Left Behind,” solidifies Ellie’s sexuality as either gay or bisexual with the kiss she shares with her female friend Riley. So it may come as a surprise for some players that Ellie is gay, especially if they never played the DLC, but it probably shouldn’t be as much of a shock as some people are making it out to be.
The Last of Us Part II, on its own, is a great game. The story is beautifully crafted and emotionally impactful while the graphics and physics of the game are tremendously jaw-dropping and gorgeously constructed. But beyond these aspects, we have a game with a plethora of queer characters at the fore-front; we have queer characters that are complex and deep and who have a huge impact on the story beyond being whittled down to just plot devices.
There is an unfortunate history of using queer characters for shock value or using their queerness as a plot device. We see queer characters added to an otherwise heterosexual, cis-gendered cast in order to create diversity but we see little development of these characters therein. There is also a history of queerbaiting in popular media, creating characters that look and sound queer but aren’t explicitly so. Usually, this is done to attract queer people to the media while keeping the queerness of these characters in doubt so as not to unsettle the general public. Other times, inclusion is used to please a male, heterosexual audience through fetishizing its queer, usually lesbian, subjects.
But we don’t see any of this in The Last of Us Part II. These characters are explicitly queer; there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind. However, at the same time, these characters seem to live in a time where their queerness isn’t as judged as today. Rarely do we see other characters react differently based on the fact that these characters are queer. The only instance of this happening to Ellie is at the beginning of the game when Ellie refers to a man as a bigot because he used nasty language to describe Ellie after she kissed Dina. However, the man apologizes the next day and tries to make it up to Ellie by making lunch for her.
We can also argue whether or not the cult Lev is a part of is transphobic. Lev cuts off all his hair to resemble a man. But, because he’s seen as a woman in the eyes of the cult, it’s considered a crime. It’s hard to say if the cult is precisely transphobic given that we aren’t given a lot of detail about the beliefs and traditions of the cult itself. We only see the effect the cult has on Lev and his sister, and, as a trans person myself, seeing the siblings being ostracized by their family hits hard.
But the queerness isn’t the focal point, which is both beneficial and negative. The characters’ queerness is treated as all too normal and that in and of itself can be refreshing when the media uses queerness as a plot device. There is little comment from the story or other characters about queerness in the world of The Last of Us Part II. These characters just are and live as themselves. Which certainly can be important when some of us are hyperaware of queerness in society. But don’t get too comfortable because this is in no way a queer narrative.
Yes, Ellie and the rest of these characters exist in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world tormented by fungus zombies. But this world is far removed from the struggles that queer people experience every day in one way or another. We do see our queer cast come through with some troubles that queer people face today, but it feels tampered down, perhaps for the benefit of the cis-heterosexual audience or to focus on the revenge plot.
But better representation also means more queer stories and although this game features queer people, there is very little content to reveal the ways in which queer people function, survive, and grow in a society that, although becoming much more inclusive, still has a ways to go to accept queer identities. This is the queer narrative and is something we need to show more often so that people can understand what life is like on the other side.
And that’s not to say that there aren’t games that do this. Indie games have been groundbreaking in this area and have been paving the way for increasing diversity for many years. Games such as If Found…, one night, hot springs, Newfound Courage, and Dys4ia are groundbreaking because they elucidate queer narratives. These games show the world from a queer point of view and the struggles these people face.
But there’s also arguably the question of representation in The Last of Us Part II. Representation is more than just including queer characters in your stories. It goes beyond this fact and leads to questions of who creates these games and who profits from them. There are many queer creators who create queer indie games and are lauded as game-changers by increasing the diversity of videogames.
However, many people don’t realize the socioeconomic struggles of these creators; often time these games are cheap despite taking a great amount of time to create and the amount of emotional work that goes into them. Rarely are the creators fairly compensated for them. Beyond this, big companies are looking to these indie games and gaining inspiration from the labor of these queer creators. There’s too much to say about this subject alone, so if you’re interested to learn more check out this article. Suffice it is to say, although The Last of Us Part II is inclusive in its queerness, there is still some room for more representation.
There are few big-name games that are queer narratives so this is not to say that The Last of Us Part II is a failure. This game is arguably forward-thinking in that this is one of the first big-name, mainstream games that has a lesbian protagonist. On top of this, Naughty Dog’s success in representing queer people in The Last of Us Part II comes from consulting trans and gay people outside the company, not to mention the influence of the numerous queer people who worked on the game itself. They even cast a transgender voice actor, Ian Alexander, to voice their transgender character, Lev, which is a pretty big deal. Naughty Dog has made great strides to be inclusive and adequately represent queer folk, and it shows in The Last of Us Part II. But, despite this, we still need more queer narratives and the rest of the videogame world still has a ways to go to catch up to Naughty Dog.
The Last of Us Part II is a beautifully crafted narrative that has strong, well-developed queer characters at the forefront of its story. In this fact, the game excels and creates a refreshing game in the sea of heterosexual, cis-gendered media. But, at the same time, it isn’t a queer narrative and, as such, isn’t as groundbreaking as some people tote it to be. If we want to create greater inclusion of queer characters in videogames, we need big-box game companies to step up and let queer creators have a voice while moving away from just stories with queer characters to moving to stories about the queer experience.