A The withdrawn-looking 19-year-old leans against the bar in a rustic barn with fairy lights, watches other people dance and takes nervous sips. She looks at another young woman spinning around the room with a few different men. “I hate these things,” says a friend standing next to her. “Tell me about it,”
But then the other woman stands out and encourages her to hit the dance floor. They joke playfully; She looks torn between nervous excitement and visible discomfort. “Every man in this room is staring at you,” she says. “I think they are jealous of you,” replied her partner.
“I’m just a girl. No threat.”
“Oh, Ellie. I think they should be afraid of you, ”she whispers before leaning forward to kiss.
You wouldn’t normally expect such a scene in a video game that is supposed to be about killing zombies. Given that female protagonists have been a rarity in games until recently, the fact that one of the biggest releases of the year, The Last of Us Part II, plays a gay woman feels like a significant moment. Indeed, Ellie is the first gay star of a blockbuster game (indie developers were less shy about exploring queer stories).
The Last of Us Part II is not a game about Ellie’s sexuality or that of anyone. It’s a dark, violent, and emotionally challenging revenge story that often questions what you do as a player. But Ellie’s sexuality is a fact of who she is. We travel with her friend Dina (played by Shannon Woodward) through much of the game. We see her experiencing homophobia and having unpleasant conversations with the people who care for her.
Ellie is played by Ashley Johnson – a warm, ironic, and unsuitably shy actor who had numerous credits in film and television before playing a role in The Last of Us in 2013. “I remember getting the scripts and the character breakdown. The very first drawing of Ellie will always be imprinted on my brain, ”Johnson recalls. “Playing a female protagonist in a game is pretty cool, but the fact that she’s gay is even cooler for me. Representation is so important.”
Mostly in video games, when a character is gay, it’s because you chose it. Role-playing has long been romantic, and some developers pride themselves on offering players unlimited choices. In BioWare’s 2011 fantasy game Dragon Age 2, characters of all sexes are “player-sexual” and will be happy to reciprocate if you meet them. But often this version of the idiosyncrasy in the game doesn’t have much weight. Your romantic choices never affect how a character moves through the world or how others react to it. Often, your choice of romantic partner hardly feels more consistent than your choice of favorite weapon. Despite a decade-long history of gay representation – gay marriage was one 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 The Last of Us 2013, Ellie was a supporting character: the funny, sarcastic teen slide to a rugged, conflict-ridden, bearded father figure Joel, which she transported on a post-apocalyptic road trip through America. That changed with The Last of Us: Left Behind from 2014, a short companion game that brought players back to Ellie’s first romance with her best teen friend Riley. It is a heartfelt and heartbreaking vignette of first love at the end of the world that follows the girls on an irresistibly dangerous excursion through a long-abandoned mall that unfortunately turns out to be not free of infection. It was time I ever played from a teenage girl’s perspective, and the first time I saw the intense, fun, and sometimes confusing dynamics of women’s best friendship in any game at any time.
Despite a fairly clear kiss at the end of Left Behind, some players were amusingly hesitant to accept Ellie’s sexuality. “Whenever I met fans at [conventions] There are still some people who ask, “Ellie isn’t gay, is she? She was just experimenting, right?” Johnson laughs. “Ellie is VERY gay. It has always been and there was never any doubt about it. Hopefully after this game people will stop asking this question. “
The Last of Us Part II is an extremely difficult game. Ellie gets into a terrible vengeance cycle that takes her and the player to some extremely dark places, and Ashley says much of it was really hard to shoot. But it is not an incessantly dark experience. There are moments of intimacy and lightness that lift the mood, especially the scenes between Ellie and her friend who eventually settle in an abandoned underground cannabis farm. “I love how the relationship between Ellie and Dina is portrayed in this game,” says Johnson. “I think it’s so beautiful and funny, healthy and sexy.”
Representation in games has come a long way since 2013, when Johnson played Ellie. We’ve seen more female characters, more race diversity, and an explosion of stories about relationships and identity, from the supernatural teen drama Life Is Strange to the millennial soap opera Night in the Woods. Queer characters and stories are the focus of the games: later this year, Tell Me Why by French studio Dontnod will be the first game with a main trans character. And just like with film and television, it is particularly important for young people to see themselves displayed on the screen.
“I’m an incredibly private person, but when I can talk to people about this game, especially fans who are younger and find out for themselves, I’m often reduced to a puddle.” [of tears]”Says Johnson.” I met teenagers who played the first game and left behind and said it helped them feel good about coming out. It has gone so far as to be just a game for me. “
The last of us part II is out now