The Last of Us II Makes Up for the Original’s Tired Queer Trope

With the remake of The Last of Us Part I Now available, many fans are about to play an emotionally complex and morally thorny masterpiece for the first (or second) time.

The franchise has received praise for its rich depictions of female and LGBTQ characters, but for those who have portrayed The Last of Us: Left Behind – a DLC for the original version that is included in the upcoming remaster – it might be frustrating to see a hideous but all too familiar trope regarding Ellie’s sexual orientation. While The Last of Us Part II primarily atones for the narrative sins of its predecessor, the introduction of new characters in the sequel creates further opportunities for improvement.

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What’s wrong with Ellie’s narrative in The Last of Us: Left Behind?

The Last of Us: Left Behind was a later released DLC for the original title that takes place before the events of the main game. While largely exploring protagonist Ellie’s relationship with her childhood friend Riley, she also reveals how Ellie was bitten by an infected and discovered she is immune – the plot device that drives the base game. This wasn’t the only revelation of the DLC, however: fans also learned, through a tender kiss between Ellie and Riley, that Ellie is attracted to women.

Maybe to wink at the players, The Last of Us: Left Behind was released on Valentine’s Day 2014, a time when no main game featured a queer female lead. Honest reviewers have praised the game for making progress on this front. However, what happens right after the breakthrough kiss is all too familiar to many queer fans: terror, disaster and death. The infected appear moments after the kiss, both Ellie and Riley are bitten on the run, and then Ellie watches as Riley slowly transforms into an infected, with Riley presumably killing herself while still conscious or being killed by Ellie after turning around. .

This turn of events offers a pristine example of the narrative trope called “Bury Your Gays”. It involves introducing and then killing LGBTQ characters in quick or brutal ways and / or in disproportionate numbers. Decades ago, the authors (some of them are homosexuals) used this device to include LGBTQ characters in their stories, avoiding the appearance of “promoting” homosexuality in an attempt to circumvent censorship laws. Ellie and Riley’s story falls into a sub-category of “Bury Your Gays” known as “Out of the Closet, Into the Fire”, in which a character experiences extreme trauma or death, for example, being mauled by a zombie or watching their first love die – immediately after revealing their same-sex attraction. This trope deserves to be withdrawn, even if it feels a little more comfortable in the hyperviolent dystopia that is The last of us.

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How did The Last of Us Part II improve its queer portrayal?

Where is it The Last of Us Part I could be criticized for compartmentalizing its LGBTQ content into an optional DLC, The Last of Us Part II does the opposite: queer and transgender characters are at the heart of the sequel’s story. After the death of Ellie’s co-star Joel in the opening chapter of Second part, the player spends most of the first half of the game playing exclusively as Ellie. Through Ellie, players encounter Dina, who is attracted to both men and women, and a subsequent story arc introduces Lev, a young trans.

More than summarily presenting these characters and their queer stories Left behind done, the game dedicates a deep and exciting narration to each one. Through Ellie’s private diary, players can read about her struggle to decide if and how to tell her father, Joel, that she is queer, an internal dialogue familiar to many LGBTQ people. After Ellie and Dina share their first kiss, a man in their community calls them a homophobic insult, prompting the community leader to apologize. This provides a rare example of an accountability process for someone who caused harm, one that many LGBTQ people are denied.

A particularly touching choice by the developers was to have Dina discover she was pregnant after already agreeing to join Ellie in her quest for revenge. During their journey and beyond, players watch Dina struggle to love someone who is as deeply flawed as Ellie. Together they tackle pain, post-traumatic stress disorder-induced flashbacks, and the growth of a newborn baby. This kind of relationship complexity is rare in games in general, especially when it comes to same-sex couples.

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Where can the series go from here?

Though The Last of Us Part II is definitely an improvement in terms of LGBTQ representation, fans of the series are still asking the developers to do better. When Ellie and Dina are interrupted during their first intimate encounter with the news that Joel is missing, fans may feel an unpleasant resemblance to Left behind.

But it is in particular Lev’s plot that teeters on the brink of the pitfalls of Ellie and Riley’s previous narrative. Lev, after shaving his head, is expelled from his ultra-religious sect for violating the norms related to the sex he was assigned at birth. He and his sister Yara must escape and Yara’s arms are brutally broken by their captors before they escape. Lev’s mother refuses to accept him before she runs away from her, and when she later visits her to try to save her, he is forced to kill her in self-defense. During this ordeal, Lev’s assailants are crippling him (using the name he was given at birth), which is triggering some trans players.

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Many fans praise the developers for making Lev’s storyline the center of the game, demonstrating the impact of familiar and common rejection. They also praise them for intentionally hiring a trans man to voice the character. At the same time, other players argue that Lev is just another trans character who exists only to grieve and make cisgender players feel better about themselves. While opinions vary, it’s certainly notable that for all the rampant brutality of the game, what Lev experiences is particularly traumatic and inherently gender-related.

Some have speculated that any future game in the franchise could move away from Ellie and focus more on Abby and, by extension, Lev. This would give the games the ability to expand Lev’s storyline – and introduce more LGBTQ characters – while ensuring that there are moments of joy, healing, and redemption for the entire cast of characters.

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