[WARNING: Major spoilers for the video game The Last of Us and The Last of Us’s downloadable content, Left Behind.]
A story about a grizzly, middle-aged man escorting a teenaged girl through a dark and dangerous landscape may not sound revolutionary on paper, but the 2013 zombie-apocalypse survival-horror The Last of Us, by developer Naughty Dog, takes video gaming into adventurous new narrative territory.
In The Last of Us you play as Joel, a survivor and smuggler living in a Boston quarantine zone after a worldwide pandemic turns infected people into vicious, twisted, homicidal creatures. Joel is convinced by the leader of a resistance group to smuggle 14-year-old Ellie out of Boston, beginning a sequence of events that leads to a perilous cross-country journey.
Again, the man-woman protection narrative has been done time and time again in video games, be it Ico, Resident Evil 4, et cetera. The difference is in the details. Ellie is one of the rare times in video games where a female character feels like a totally real person with power and agency, instead of a plot device. Joel is a fantastic protagonist (and anti-hero), but Ellie is the driving force of the story and one of my favourite video game characters of all time.
This is where those major spoilers really start.
At one point in The Last of Us Joel is gravely injured, and Ellie is left to save him and fight for their survival. The game’s supplementary downloadable content, Left Behind, released in January 2014, is split between this point in the story and flashbacks to Ellie’s life before she met Joel. In the flashbacks, she is visited by her missing best friend, Riley, and the two journey into a mall outside the quarantine zone, attempting to reconcile after a big fight the last time they were together.
The two make a big game of their adventure, eventually ending up in a department store, trying to sort out Riley’s desire to leave Boston and join the resistance. In the climactic, spoiler-heavy moment . . .
Wired writer Laura Hudson sums up what Ellie means to video gaming much better than I ever could, but one thing she doesn’t acknowledge in the piece (likely because of the obvious fact that it’s a major spoiler) is the queer content of Left Behind. Ellie’s feelings for Riley, beyond friendship, were barely hinted at in the main game, but in Left Behind they are steadily building until the kiss, a perfect moment I was hoping for but could have never anticipated in mainstream gaming.
In an interview released yesterday, Ubisoft Montreal employee Lucien Soulban, a veteran video game writer, mused, “So when are we going to see that gay protagonist in a AAA game? Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it’ll impact sales. So either we’ll see a bait-and-switch like the original Metroid with Samus Aran where we’ll find out damn near after the fact (PS: and Dumbledore was gay), or it’ll come out of left field with Rockstar, Valve, Naughty Dog or Telltale, perhaps.”
This had me considering Ellie in Left Behind. Much like a parent watching a beloved child growing up, my intuition told me of Ellie’s feelings for Riley during the main game, which proved well-founded in Left Behind, though the reveal is just short of a Dumbledore moment, the revelation of a character as queer as incidental afterthought to the main story.
I see The Last of Us and Left Behind not as completely revolutionary or as tokenistic, but as a watershed moment for video games, the sum of all the queer characters in their many wonderful and imperfect permutations that led to Ellie. I am hopeful that Ellie is the first of many new, thoughtful queer characters given the chance to have an adventure of their own.