The Last of Us Part II: the blockbuster game breaking LGBTQ+ barriers | Games

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A withdrawn-looking 19-year-old leans against the bar in a rustic barn decorated with fairy lights, watching other people dance, taking nervous sips. She is looking at another young woman who is spinning around the room with a couple of different guys. “I hate these things,” says a friend standing next to her. “Tell me about it,” she replies.

But then the other woman catches her eye and encourages her on to the dancefloor. They banter playfully; she looks torn between nervous excitement and visible discomfort. “Every guy in this room is staring at you right now,” she says. “I think they’re jealous of you,” her partner replies.

“I’m just a girl. Not a threat.”

“Oh, Ellie. I think they should be terrified of you,” she whispers, before leaning in for a kiss.

You wouldn’t normally expect a scene such as this in a video game that’s ostensibly about killing zombies. Given athat female main characters in games were a rarity until quite recently, the fact that one of the biggest releases of the year, The Last of Us Part II, stars a gay woman feels like a significant moment. Ellie is, in fact, the first gay star of any blockbuster game (indie developers have been less shy about exploring queer stories).





Dina and Ellie in The Last of Us Part II.



Dina and Ellie in The Last of Us Part II. Photograph: Naughty Dog

The Last of Us Part II is not a game about Ellie’s sexuality, or anyone’s, really; it’s a dark, violent and emotionally challenging revenge story, one that frequently makes you question what you’re doing as a player. But Ellie’s sexuality is a fact of who she is. We journey through much of the game with her girlfriend Dina (played by Shannon Woodward); we see her experience homophobia and have awkward conversations with the people who care about her.

Ellie is played by Ashley Johnson – a warm, wry and incongruously shy actor who had numerous credits in film and TV before landing a role in 2013’s The Last of Us. “I remember getting the scripts and the character breakdown; the very first drawing of Ellie will always be imprinted into my brain,” Johnson recalls. “Playing a lead female character in a game is already pretty cool, but the fact that she’s gay is even cooler, for me. Representation is so important.”

Most often in video games, if a character is gay it’s because you chose for them to be so. Role-playing games have long featured romance, and some developers pride themselves on offering players unrestricted choice; in BioWare’s 2011 fantasy game Dragon Age 2, characters of all genders are “player-sexual” and will happily reciprocate if you hit on them. But often there isn’t much weight to this version of in-game queerness. Your romantic choices never affect how a character moves through the world or how others react to them. Often your choice of romantic partner feels hardly more consequential than your choice of favourite weapon. Despite a history of gay representation that goes back decades – gay marriage was a thing in The Sims long before most real-world countries – games rarely have much to say about what it’s like to be queer in real life.

In 2013’s The Last of Us, Ellie was a supporting character: the funny, sarcastic teenage foil to gruff, conflicted, beardy father figure Joel, who transported her across America on a post-apocalyptic road trip. That changed with 2014’s The Last of Us: Left Behind, a short companion game that took players back to Ellie’s first romance with her teenage best pal Riley. It is a heartfelt and heartbreaking vignette of first love at the end of the world, following the girls on an irresistibly dangerous jaunt through a long-abandoned mall that, unfortunately, turns out not to be free of the infected. It was time I’d ever played from the perspective of a teen girl, and the first time I’d ever seen the intense, funny and sometimes confusing dynamics of female best friendship given any airtime in a game.





Ellie, right, with Riley in The Last of Us: Left Behind.



A young Ellie, right, with Riley in The Last of Us: Left Behind. Photograph: Naughty Dog

Amusingly, despite a pretty unambiguous kiss at the end of Left Behind, some players were reluctant to accept Ellie’s sexuality. “Whenever I’ve met fans at [conventions] there are still some people who ask: ‘Ellie’s not gay, right? She was just experimenting, right?’” laughs Johnson. “Ellie is VERY gay. She always has been and there was never any doubt about it. Hopefully, after this game people will stop asking that question.”

The Last of Us Part II is an extremely heavy game. Ellie gets drawn into a horrible cycle of retribution that takes her and the player to some extremely dark places, and Ashley says that much of it was really hard to shoot. But it’s not an unremittingly grim experience; there are moments of intimacy and levity that lift the mood, particularly the scenes between Ellie and her girlfriend, who at one point end up hooking up in an abandoned underground cannabis farm. “I love how Ellie and Dina’s relationship is depicted in this game,” says Johnson. “I think it’s so beautiful and fun, wholesome and sexy.”

Since 2013, when Johnson first played Ellie, representation has come a long way in games. We have seen more female characters, more racial diversity, and an explosion of stories about relationships and identity, from the supernatural teen drama Life Is Strange to millennial disaffection soap opera Night in the Woods. Queer characters and stories are starting to take centre stage in games: later this year, French studio Dontnod’s Tell Me Why will become the first game with a trans main character. And just as with film and TV, it is especially meaningful for young people to see themselves represented on-screen.

“I’m an incredibly private person, but when I do get to talk with people about this game, especially fans who are younger and figuring themselves out, I am oftentimes just reduced to a puddle [of tears],” says Johnson. “I’ve met teenagers who played the first game and Left Behind and said that it helped them feel comfortable coming out… It’s gone so far past just being a game for me.”

The Last of Us Part II is out now



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