I held The Last of Us at such a high regard, when I first played it. Not only was this a story that had such powerful growth and development in the midst of a post-apocalyptic world, but it had a character I could resonate with. It was a game that I finally felt represented in, as a queer person who was becoming more comfortable in their identity.
Now that I’ve finished Part II, I feel that they didn’t take this representation to a great place. I don’t feel that it delivered on an implied promise that it would be a win for representing queer people. It felt like they intended for it to be good, but the execution was clumsy, and focused on the wrong aspects of their narrative.
From this point on, there will be major spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II. You have been warned!
The only thing I really enjoyed about Ellie’s representation was how it was so normalized…at first. When Jesse confronts her about how Ellie and Dina kissed, the focus feels more on Ellie’s concern that she may be overstepping her bounds with Jesse and Dina’s breakup, and Jesse eventually shows he might be okay with the fact that Dina seemed to move on. I thought this was an excellent way to set the tone for queer representation that was so seamlessly woven into the world, despite the subtle “my girlfriend left me for another woman” vibes throughout the scene.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
We learn that Ellie had a fight with a man named Seth the night before, and we find out even later in the game (toward the very end) that it was Seth who instigated the fight by calling Ellie a “loud-mouthed dyke” when he got offended about her and Dina kissing in a public setting. The next morning, she’s forced to listen to his non-apology (he blames being drunk), accept sandwiches he made for her and Dina, but Ellie calls them “bigot sandwiches” when Jesse asks what they are, so I guess the gays really won that scene, right? (That was sarcasm, just so we’re clear.)
It’s one thing to establish the existence of bigotry, but it’s another to write scenes dehumanizing characters for being queer. Bigotry didn’t have a place in this world (much like it has no place in reality), because the trauma Ellie already faces throughout the story is enough. Why did we need to add homophobia? What does it do for her development to add tragedies related to her queerness?
It felt like a plot device to drive characters to fight for her, as opposed to being something she overcomes. She recognizes that Seth is a bigot, but we don’t see her having a victory over him. It’s Joel, a cishet (cisgender/heterosexual) white male, who solves the problem for her by pushing Seth away. This shows good allyship, but it felt like an unnecessary layer of conflict to make bigotry the reason why Seth attacked her. It felt like Ellie had so little agency, and it didn’t feel like any of the characters (minus Joel) did enough to show that she could truly be safe as a queer person.
I get that it’s post-apocalypse. I get that the world is unsafe, but feeling unsafe in your queerness is a whole different kind of threat. Ellie and Dina already go out and fight zombie-like creatures that won’t think twice about killing them; why are we also making them feel threatened due to their queer identity? Who is that representation for? If it’s for cishet people, why do they need to see us be the victims of brutal homophobia, other than to sympathize with us? If it’s for queer people, why do you think we need to see characters we’re supposed to resonate with be the victims of anti-queer behavior in a world where it will go unpunished? The “realism” argument seems flimsy here, considering that the world was overrun by a mushroom virus.
Despite Ellie and Dina’s knowledge of bigotry while growing up queer in a post-apocalyptic world, the writers make a very peculiar choice to make them unaware of the queer rights movements’ symbols, as shown by their visit to a queer bookstore.
The bookstore is an optional area to explore in the game, having no relation to the main story. The fact that this area could be completely ignored within the game already puts it in a place of non-importance. I’m sure the writers put it in there as a show of good faith, like “hey, look! We made a space for you!” However, it felt like an injustice to not make all players see this space to show what it would mean to a queer person.
The dialogue once you walk in the store as Ellie and Dina doesn’t deliver on any sort of potential for the queer bookstore. Ellie notices the giant rainbow flag, and sets a jarring tone when she asks what it’s even for. If you’re a queer person, or anyone who’s been involved with queer pride movements, this immediately shows you that these young queer people have no idea what a pride flag is. It’s powerful world-building, what good does it do a queer person playing this game, or someone who has yet to discover their sexuality, to see a queer person be perplexed by a symbols used to fight for their rights?
This is where my biggest problem comes in with this queer bookstore; there’s no teachable moments for Ellie, Dina, or the audience. While it’s good and realistic to write characters in a post apocalyptic world that haven’t learned about the symbols of queer culture, it serves no greater purpose if the characters are completely clueless about it. The only other items you can interact with in the store are a book that Dina shows Ellie that includes two women being flirtatious with each other, and a letter you find in the attached coffee shop from one of the owners to her same-sex partner. Meanwhile, Ellie and Dina make no comments about any of these additional findings, and there are no other points of dialogue about the bookstore.
When I vented about this to another queer friend of mine, they noted that Ellie was determined to get her revenge for Joel (a scapegoat for not tackling more important topics in this game, in my opinion), so why would she dawdle in a place that wasn’t important to their journey? Why should there be a teachable moment in this queer bookstore? Initially, I couldn’t come up with a better answer than “the writers have full control over this world. They could have done something.” My answer has expanded a bit more; why make anything optional in this game if it’s not serving some greater purpose, either for the player or the characters? Why make this queer bookstore optional, using our symbols and safe spaces just for world-building, and leave the protagonist clueless about it?
It wouldn’t be the first time The Last of Us added extra, non-essential reading material for background information. Why not include something to show Ellie the importance of the bookstore? To me, it felt like they were towing a incomprehensible line between normalizing the presence of queer people, but also putting them in a world where their presence still isn’t accepted by all. There was a dissonance between their perplexity to queer representation and their world’s intolerance of it.
I wanted to love the presence of that bookstore, but the writers took it in a direction that felt like it defeated its own purpose. It felt like it was just to show that these young queer people didn’t know anything about being queer. In terms of representation, that does nothing to educate cishet people, and gives queer audiences, well…nothing, really. The bookstore may as well have been empty.
Everything I brought up is really only the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the writers of this game letting down the queer community. In representing members of the queer community, they also included a trans character, and much like with their lesbian/bisexual representation, the intent for a powerful queer portrayal was there, but let us down in execution.
Brace yourself, because the trans representation is way, way worse. (CW: mentions of trans-related abuse and deadnaming)
We first learn about Lev’s trans identity when we hear the Seraphites, a religious cult, refer to his deadname, claiming that he’s now an apostate for shaving his head and defying his duty of being a wife to one of the Seraphite elders. Because Abby, the game’s other protagonist, hears the deadnaming, Lev asks Abby if she wants to ask him about why he shaved his head. What I did appreciate is that Abby asks if he wants her to ask, and I think that was a great way for the writers to show that Abby had some sort of understanding of his identity, and to not dissect it.
And again, the intent was there for something beautiful, but the writers didn’t deliver on that potential.
The relationship Abby and Lev form during their travels showed promise of Lev potentially being comfortable enough to share more on him being trans. Had they let this relationship form over time to where we could get his story on his own identity, we would get a much more powerful, accurate portrayal for what it means to be a trans person. The only bit we get from him directly is him feeling guilty for shaving his head, which put his mother and sister in danger due to defying Seraphite customs. While this is a realistic thought process, it shifts the narrative from empowering a young trans boy, to showing how his decision hurt his family. It takes his point of view completely out of the story.
We hear the story of Lev’s trans identity from his sister, Yara. She starts by asking how much Lev actually told Abby, and Abby says “not much. I heard your people call him [deadname]” which I found insensitive from a writing standpoint, since it seemed that Abby had accepted him being trans. Yara tells her, in a tone that seems so disdainful, that she was upset, and she even hit him after he shaved his head. She also mentions that if their mother were to see him with his shaved head, she would kill him with her bare hands. She then says something that made me feel like this story wasn’t written by a trans person, when she said “when he explained to me how he felt inside,” yet we never hear any of this from Lev. It feels like the people who wrote Lev’s story didn’t know how to write a trans character describing their own identity. It, yet again, frames Lev’s family as the victims of his trans identity.
Though Yara does a lot to protect her younger brother, it’s never quite clear how she feels about him being trans. She ends the story of Lev’s coming out by saying “I was so stupid,” and the context isn’t quite clear. Did she feel this way for defying the Seraphites? Or for treating Lev so terribly after coming out? Regardless, because the attention is so focused on her, rather than the trans person, it makes Lev’s story of being trans more about everyone else’s view of him being trans, rather than his own. His representation loses impact due to people who feel burdened by him being the only ones to discuss his identity.
The next stage of where Lev’s representation goes is where it gets intense, and the biggest reason why I gave a content warning before going into his representation.
Lev runs off on his own to try to save his transphobic, abusive mom from being killed in a massive attack on their homeland, but the player only gets to see the aftermath, which is her dead body against the fireplace, and Lev in shock in the corner of the house. I know how I felt when I saw this scene for the first time; I can’t even begin to imagine how much a trans person feel. The defense so many people had regarding this scene was in favor of post-apocalyptic brutality, and less about the fact that this mother must have tried to kill her son for being trans. No matter how you try to justify why this even happens, it is unnecessarily brutal to show this type of transphobia to the player.
If you’re thinking “I don’t see why this is bad representation,” let me ask you this: who exactly is that representation for?
If it’s for cishet people, why do they need to see trans people undergo brutal trans-related trauma to sympathize with them? To see them develop as a character? More importantly, if it’s for trans people, why do they need to see a character they’re supposed to relate to get their very life threatened for being trans? It’s already enough that they’re murdered disproportionately in a non-apocalyptic world, so why subject them to that targeted fear in a video game?
To get another perspective on the representation, I decided to collaborate with PleasantlyTwstd, a fellow queer Twitch streamer, writer, and activist. She and I agreed on most things regarding the representation, and had her own points that expanded more on why it needs significant improvement. She touched on more points in the game, like the concept of open relationships, as well as onslaught of misery done to our queer protagonist on the grounds of her both being queer and a woman. Here are her thoughts.
The issues come at you right out the gate with the queer representation, when you have Jesse immediately make jokes at you for stealing his girl. We didn’t make it fifteen minutes in before a good ole’ “lesbian stole my girlfriend” joke. Ellie, the titular character from the previous title, is bombarded with a minor accusation then immediately made to be friendly to a racist.
This literally sets the undertone for the rest of the game.
This game prides itself on having Dina and Ellie openly engage and embrace their gay relationship, only to have that exact ship be eviscerated by some revenge narrative, I guess, which grants Ellie permission to be rude and dismissive of Dina’s past, her pregnancy, and anything that she says after being open about being pregnant. (And thank god the dad of the baby is the one who has on a couple of occasions made it clear he’s a homophobe to some degree).
This game also shows Abby suffering from PTSD, from joining the military, only to find herself in the middle of the apocalypse in the world’s potentially wildest love triangle. She’s gaslit to accept that she has to be in said “open relationship”, accepting that her “partner” has got the other girl pregnant (and Abby is screamingly aware that she’s the “other girl”, despite her...gratuitous sex scene, in game), and she’s ignored pretty much for any and all needs she has.
The Last of Us: Part II is a story about traumatizing women in the apocalypse and forcing said women to navigate and endure it while the men in their lives scold them for wanting a crumb of agency or privacy, while also contributing little to nothing of value to the story, the game, the gameplay, any of it. Jesse spends his time getting shitty at Ellie for stealing his girl, then having little to offer when he finds out said girl is pregnant. Owen spends his time making Mel and Abby feel bad for wanting some level of affection that goes beyond “but you put your dick in me, please respond.” Joel dies immediately after spending the previous game robbing Ellie of her agency. And the one nice thing that the women did get (the relationship between Ellie and Dina) was immediately thrown into the trash the second the game ended with little to no explanation, leaving Ellie to have literally lost everything.
The representation is just all over and everywhere. Open relationships are portrayed as damning and confusing, lesbian relationships are shown as fruitless unless a byproduct of heteronormativity is injected into it, and trans boys, according to the game, aren’t actually real, since Lev is constantly traumatized just for being trans. The best part of the game was listening to Ellie and Dina talk amongst themselves...which then had absolutely no bearing on the story, whatsoever. It was just there to “feel nice.”
We have to sit through all of the trauma. All of the agony. We have to sit through fights. Through fever dreams. Through fingers being bitten off. Through awkward ass sex scenes (which did anyone notice how the lesbians only got an on screen kiss, but the hetero couple got a full scene? No? Ok!). It’s just….trauma after trauma porn, watching as Abby and Ellie are continuously pigeon holed into terrible decisions, continuously let down by their male cohorts, and continuously left out to dry by…honestly? Everyone. The story is about as deep as a puddle after an April rain on a perfectly paved street.
All of that said? I don’t think it’s ok to release a AAA high anticipation game with just:
- good graphics
- OK gameplay
- horrible story (that only frankly cishet people enjoy)
- dreadful plot holes
- from a developer with a rep of working its employees to death
- and a writer who can’t take an ounce of criticism
Y’all did all of this for a $60 game.
And, frankly, you should be embarrassed.
I can get better quality and storytelling from indies at $20.
The Last of Us: Part II goes for the mark, but misses it completely when it comes to queer representation. There’s so much potential for these characters to brighten this world with victories for queer rights, queer portrayals, and showing strength in the queer community, but it doesn’t act on any of that potential. Instead, it buries its characters under bigotry, and frames their motivations and narratives on characters that aren’t them. They remove so much agency from the characters that are supposed to represent us, letting them find no happiness, and none of their own development. I fully understand that it’s a post apocalyptic world, meaning it’s going to be dark and full of trauma, but that doesn’t mean the trauma has to be anti-queer.
It feels like the story wasn’t written by any queer people, as if they didn’t even hire a single queer person to write it. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about that, but any stories I see written by queer people (especially in modern times) are so much less focused on being victims of anti-queer trauma, and more focused on living our daily lives as a queer person. In a post-apocalyptic world, that could mean just us trying to do our best to survive. Writers can achieve that without making bigotry a focal point of a queer person’s story, and giving them more control over their own narrative.