Illustrated by Noel Guzman (They/Them)
**This article contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” (2013) and “The Last of Us Part II” (2020).**
The gaming community ten years ago was a toxic space for marginalized people, including the LGBTQ+ community. Video games in the early 2010s had minimal LGBTQ+ representation, and the scant representation that did exist portrayed LGBTQ+ people in an unpleasant light. The video games that were sympathetic to LGBTQ+ were few and far between and usually not considered triple-A games (a term for video games made by major video game publishers who have access to higher quality development and a larger budget).
When Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” came out in 2013, it cemented itself in video game history as a turning point for storytelling in video games. The video game has had a recent resurgence in popularity with HBO’s TV adaptation of the same name. With a new spotlight on “The Last of Us,” many fans feel nostalgic for the game’s emotional journey. Queer fans especially look back at the game with an eye for what it meant for the queer community at the time. Having queer characters in “The Last of Us” franchise in a story with themes of grief, rage, and love is significant to how intricate storytelling in video games can be.
“The Last of Us” examines a post-apocalyptic world in the middle of the 21st century overrun by humans infected by mutated cordyceps — fungi that can control the human mind — with non-infected humans struggling to survive by methods ranging from scrappy to cruel. Players follow Joel Miller, a father-turned-hardened survivor, as he navigates a world razed by cordyceps, fascist governments, and cruel survivors to deliver Ellie, a teenager immune to the fungal infection, to a group of scientists determined to derive a cure from her. “The Last of Us” is critically acclaimed for its emotional storytelling, with Joel and Ellie’s relationship at the forefront of that story.
Non-LGBTQ+ gamers highlight the familial relationship that develops between Ellie and Joel as the major point of emotional storytelling within the game. While this is true, Ellie’s role as an LGBTQ+ character struggling with common experiences like rage and loss adds an emotional depth that especially resonates with queer gamers. Her story does not revolve around her identity as a lesbian, but her experiences and how they inform her behavior are tied to her identity.
The way queerness manifests in “The Last of Us” games evolved from subtle hints at characters’ identities to textually queer characters whose stories do not solely focus on their queerness. Ellie’s relationship with Riley, Ellie’s friend who she grew up with in Boston, is explored in additional downloadable content for the video game, called “The Last of Us: Left Behind.”
There, players learn the origin of Ellie’s infection and immunity, and the loss that came with it. The theme of the survivor’s guilt that Ellie lives with after losing Riley mirrors the experience of living as a queer person and experiencing the loss of a loved one. Ellie and Riley admit their feelings for each other and are on the brink of escape from the warring parties that bind them when they are both bit by an Infected. Ellie and Riley could have run away together. They could have escaped from two militaristic organizations and, while they would have faced the plentiful obstacles of an apocalyptic world, they would have been free. Instead, Ellie must carry her survivor’s guilt, with Riley being the one who was left behind. Ellie’s experience with the loss of a loved one, a queer loved one, informs her decisions and behavior in the future when it comes to how far she will go to protect her found family.
In “The Last of Us Part II,” players are in charge of Ellie’s story four years after the events of the first game. Ellie establishes a relationship with a woman named Dina in the beginning of the game. However, she loses Joel at the same time. “The Last of Us Part II” then follows her journey of vengeance against Abby, the person who killed Joel. The game, however, provides an unexpectedly empathetic perspective toward Abby. Joel killed her father, and she sought vengeance against him in turn. The player later controls Abby and explores her own narrative of found family when she chooses to help a character named Lev, a transmasculine person, who was shunned by his cult-like community (who are also enemies of Abby’s group).
In her attempt to find closure with the loss of Joel, Ellie ruins her attempt to heal with her new family with Dina. Towards the end of the game, there is one moment of reprieve for Ellie when it seems that she has given up seeking revenge against Abby when Ellie and Dina go back to their home in Wyoming. Ellie, Dina, and their newborn child, JJ, live on a farm, peacefully. They raise their child, dance in the kitchen to music, and herd sheep. Still, when Ellie learns of Abby’s whereabouts, she is drawn to the call of revenge once more. When Ellie returns after finding Abby and Lev, she finds an empty farmhouse. Ellie’s obsession with vengeance sabotages her chances to create a new family and live happily and freely; it shows how the weapon of grief and rage works against oneself. The parallel representations of chosen families between Ellie and Abby complicate the question of how far one would go to protect or honor their found family (and who is in the right for doing so).
The interplay of queer grief, rage, and love is at the center of “The Last of Us” in the archetype of found family. Ellie’s grief and rage over losing Riley and being the sole survivor between them, the overwhelming knowledge that her immunity may be the last hope for humanity, Ellie’s dependence on Joel as one of the few people who care about her, her rage after losing him, her vehement journey for revenge, and how Ellie builds and loses her new family — all of these are tied to each other by Ellie’s desperation to cling to a family, to the people who see her as a person. Ellie treads the line of loving deeply to the point of self-destruction. Ellie depicts the extent that one could go to protect the safe havens found in a demolished world, but in turn, becomes a cautionary tale of survival and the desperation that comes with wanting to protect the people one loves.
Fans of the game hoped and were overjoyed to find that HBO’s adaptation continues to address queer lives with care. The TV adaptation, so far, paints Ellie’s struggle with these complex emotions in all of their intense hues. Ellie is far from perfect. She is quick to anger, she is brutal in her vengeance, she loves making puns, she wants to hold and be held as a person. Ellie is a complex, whole, queer person.
What does it mean that a fungus meant to brainwash, to control, to cause conformity is incapable of affecting a lesbian teenager? What does it mean that the greatest salvation in “The Last of Us” world takes the shape of a lesbian? What does it mean that, to be that salvation, she has to die? Would this game make martyrs out of queer people?
The answer to these are, of course, up to the players’ interpretation.
Queer folks can come away from “The Last of Us” with this: queerness never dies. The apocalypse cannot destroy queerness. Queer people are survivors. Queer stories, like “The Last of Us,” will continue to display the resilience of queer people and the multitudes housed within queer folks, from the fierceness of our love to the intensity of our determination.
Author: Bellze (They/Xey)
Artist: Noel Guzman (They/Them)
Copy Editors: JQ Shearin (She/Her), Bella (She/They)