Apparently, zombies are all it takes to make the video game world a gayer place.
In a video game market flooded with zombie stories, the title ‘The Last of Us’ may seem like one zombie story in the bunch. The game’s protagonists — middle-aged Joel and adolescent sidekick Ellie — try to survive what is left of the zombie-ridden world.
But the story of ‘The Last of Us’ is so much more than a post-apocalyptic survival story; it is an opportunity to shift the gaming industry to one of more LGBT inclusivity.
In the game’s DLC (downloadable content) titled ‘Left Behind,’ the focus is on Ellie and her friend Riley as they explore an abandoned mall. At the pinnacle of the plot Ellie and Riley kiss, revealing that main character of the game was a lesbian.
According to Adrienne Shaw, the developer of an archive of all LGBT content in video games, the majority of LGBT game characters are side content or buried in speculation — unlike Ellie, who takes the spotlights throughout ‘The Last of Us.’
“[LGBT characters] have been in the background in a lot of games,” Shaw said in a phone interview. “Between 1980 and 2005 we have found 207 characters who are LGBT. In the grand scheme of things, that is not a ton.”
When asked if Ellie’s positive reception as a main-role lesbian would encourage more LGBT main characters in games, Shaw said it was likely, though it would be a slow process.
“[The game developers] are testing the waters with DLC, and later on they will incorporate that into the main game,” Shaw said. “Right now we’ll see a slow influx of LGBT main characters. Companies will find ways to tell their stories, we’ll see a lot of content coming out of the indie scene.”
The voice actor who plays Ellie, Ashley Johnson, was excited about Ellie’s plot line and this milestone for the character, and was happy to see that people responded so positively.
“I was surprised by the way people reacted. We didn’t know how people were going to respond and I think I was more prepared for the negative comments,” Johnson said, “What I wasn’t prepared for was the positive ones. I’ve had so many men and women come up to me and told me things that sometimes they haven’t even told their parents.”
“It has profoundly changed my life,” Johnson continued.
“A lot of people have come to the actress who plays Ellie … and have told her playing that game and having Ellie as this role model gave them strength to come out to their friends,” Neil Druckmann, Creative Director and producer of the Last of Us said in an interview.
Some people were upset with this revelation, taking to the internet to reassure that this was just a ‘platonic’ kiss to signify friendship, instead of the romantic moment the game’s creative team said it was.
“It wasn’t my intention in writing that [kissing] scene for it to be platonic,” Druckmann told The Frame in July. “Actually, our intention in writing was that they’re gay … but I understand that people have different interpretations to the material.”
Despite some players who are uncomfortable with such a prominent character being revealed as gay, the overall response to Ellie’s sexuality has been a positive one.
The game won multiple awards, with the DLC alone receiving “Most Valuable Add-On Content,” and the character Ellie was awarded with “Most Valuable Character,” both at the SXSW Gaming Awards.
The story of “Left Behind” took a chance in showing that Ellie was a lesbian, and received praise because of it. But Druckmann’s goal was not to shoot for the sensational, but to show Ellie as the character she had developed into — and being gay was just a part of that.
“No, we don’t want a token gay character,” opinion writer Ashley Benjamin wrote for the Gamer Scene. “We don’t want to have a writer rub a character’s sexuality in our face. But the joy of coming to the realization that a character is LGBT can be a huge, joyful moment for a lot of people.”
The sequel to the game, “The Last of Us Part Two,” will again feature Joel and Ellie, though little else has been revealed about the plot. Though many fans are hopeful that Ellie’s sexuality will continue to be an important focal point in the story.
In terms of LGBT leads in video games, Shaw believes that developers and audiences are ready for a more inclusive game market.
“We’re past ready, video games have been around since the seventies and in every other medium there are gay characters,” Shaw said, and explained that the best way to go about that is to have more queer world building.
“It’s not enough to include a gay or trans character,” she continued. “[Developers] need to actively envision an inclusive game world, and hire more queer writers. Unless you have actual lesbians in the room writing that, it’s not going to hit all the right spots.”