Video Gaming's Latest Breakthrough Moment

Video Gaming's Latest Breakthrough Moment

There are topics that mainstream video games rarely tackle, but lately, the list is getting shorter. It got shorter yet again last week. It happened in a PS3 game, or rather, in an expansion to a PS3 game from last year. It's something I can't not talk about. Spoilers for The Last of Us: Left Behind follow.

If you haven't played Left Behind, the add-on to last year's critically acclaimed The Last Of Us and plan to do so, bookmark this and go do that. If you're unafraid of some big spoilers, both for the DLC and the main game, read on.

The defining moment of The Last of Us: Left Behind (which I really liked) wasn't a death or a sacrifice, at least not for me — it was a kiss. Just a kiss, between two teenagers who happen to be surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and who also happen to be young women.

Left Behind focuses on Ellie, the foulmouthed, teenaged co-star of The Last of Us, and her friendship with another girl named Riley. Ellie and Riley were friends back in the Boston quarantine zone, before Ellie was bitten, before she was revealed to be immune to the zombie plague, and before she set off with Joel on a journey across the country.

As it turns out, Ellie and Riley were more than just friends — they were romantically involved. Near the end of Left Behind, as they dance atop a counter in a department store, Ellie finally asks Riley to stay with her, to give up her dream of joining the Firefly resistance and just... stay. Riley agrees, and so Ellie does the most natural thing in the world: She kisses her.

"Sorry," says Ellie, smiling.

"For what?" asks Riley, smiling back.

This is a really big deal. Not just because it was a sweet moment for a beloved character — though it totally was that. It was a big deal because video games have never suffered from an overabundance of queer characters (let alone two young women in a queer, mixed-race coupling), and the fact that one of the most popular characters in one of the biggest games of the last several years just "came out" on Valentine's Day should be treated like the event that it is. Ellie totally likes girls, you guys! How cool is that?

[Side note: That Left Behind was released on the same day as actor Ellen Page's moving, heartfelt coming out at THRIVE seems almost too poetic, and a perfect continuation of an at-times contentious story. Last June, Page called outThe Last of Us and Ellie for ripping off her likeness, and more than half a year later, both the character and the woman celebrated the same Valentine's Day by coming out. Next, maybe Ellie will announce that she's starring in a post-apocalyptic stage production of X-Men: Days of Future Past.]

Last week, shortly after finishing Left Behind, I hopped on the phone with writer and creative director Neil Druckmann to talk about the process behind the DLC's creation, the writing decisions he made, and what it was like to write a new chapter for everyone's favourite foul-mouthed teenager.

But first things first: When did he decide that the story was going to go this way?

"It's hard to say when the thought first popped into our head," Druckmann told me. "I was doing interviews with Faith [Erin Hicks, co-author of the prequel comic American Dreams, in which Riley and Ellie first meet] when we first announced the comic book and we both made the mistake where we were talking about Ellie and Riley and we said 'Oh, Ellie is really attracted to Riley.' I don't think we meant it romantically at the time when we were saying it, but then the thought kind of stuck in my head as we were writing that comic book 'Oh, what if they are romantically attracted to each other?'"

Video Gaming's Latest Breakthrough Moment

Druckmann told me that the idea of Ellie's preference for guys or girls never really came up while they were making The Last of Us, in part because aside from some oblique references made by Joel and Tess, there weren't really any romantic relationships in the game. "When we started working on Left Behind, it felt like the story wanted to go somewhere else," he said. "It wanted to go somewhere deeper, and that's where again, those early ideas I was talking about with the comic book came back up. What if they are romantically involved? What if the question of leaving or going is about more than just wanting to keep your friend around, it's wanting to keep the person you really love around?"

Not everyone at Naughty Dog agreed that it was a good idea to define Ellie one way or the other. "Some of the questions at the studio," Druckmann said, "and some of the arguments were like, in defining her one way or another, are we taking away something from players? It wasn't defined, so people could imagine her being straight, or gay, or whatever. And my argument was, 'Well, those are the stories that are worth telling, that define these characters more and show who they are.' But I know some people will be upset. And they would've been upset in either direction. Someone would get upset by it. So you kind of have to shrug your shoulders and say, well, this is the story that we felt was worth telling and hopefully you're along for the ride."

Druckmann told me that in earlier drafts of the story, the romance was much more obvious. "The first pass was much more overt that there was a romantic relationship," he said. "Some of the feedback I got from Ricky [Cambier], who is one of our designers and Bruce [Straley], our game director, that it was too overt. That we can hint at more of this stuff, it didn't need to be so on the nose. Like when they were riding the carousel, Riley like, took some of Ellie's hair and put it behind her ear. They were like, 'Dude, this is so clichéd, you don't need this stuff, it actually works pretty well without all that stuff.'"

Video Gaming's Latest Breakthrough Moment

Ellie and Riley aren't the first gay characters to be featured in the world of The Last of Us — Naughty Dog was already recognised by GLAAD for the character Bill, a survivor Joel and Ellie encounter outside of Boston who, over the course of the story, is revealed to be suffering over the loss of his lover, a man named Frank. One of the game's more memorable moments comes after Joel and Ellie leave Bill behind and Ellie reveals that she's stolen one of Bill's porno mags, loudly pondering gay porn (and making Joel as uncomfortable as possible) before tossing the magazine out the window.

I asked Druckmann about the GLADD recognition. "It's super flattering," he said. "You try to do this work, and different kinds of people can connect to it. At the same time, it's a little weird that, you know, that we still make such a big deal out of it? Because for us, it's not a big deal. These just happen to be the characters we had at our disposal, and in making the story it felt like the best choice for drama's sake, for no other reason than drama. So yeah, it's flattering but at the same time, hopefully one day you don't have to give out an award or a list to say, 'Best Gay Character,' 'Best Whatever Character,' you can just have good characters."

It seems likely that there will inevitably be those who criticise Left Behind for tokenism, or of copying last year's Gone Home, which featured a similar story of two teenage girls in love. Druckmann told me that he and his team had already sketched out Left Behind before he played Gone Home, but that he did take The Fullbright Company's game into consideration as they worked. "We started working on the DLC pretty soon after we finished The Last of Us," he said. "And in fact the outline for the story, we were already working on it while we were finishing The Last of Us. And then we finished the [main] game and I played Gone Home and I loved it, and I met [Gone Home writer] Steve Gaynor at PAX and the first thing I told him when we had lunch was, 'Dude, when our DLC comes out, people are going to accuse us that we ripped you off or something, or that we're trying to ride your coattails, so just… be prepared for that.'

"Up until the last moment," Druckmann said, "we were debating whether to leave [the kiss] in or take it out and just leave it up to players' minds. And playing Gone Home, I was like, maybe it'd be better to take it out so people don't accuse us of saying 'Here's another lesbian story' or whatever. Ultimately, you have to forget about all these things and say, what was your original intention with the story? Is this the best choice for this story, ignoring all other things? And if the answer is yes, and it was yes in this case, then you just leave it in."

Video Gaming's Latest Breakthrough Moment

"If you had any doubts, [the kiss] takes the doubt away," he said. "Or at least, it should. I'm sure that some people will still have doubts. I know that there'll be some of that cynical criticism, people who'll say, 'Oh, you just stuck that in there to create more waves.' But ultimately, we just wanted to tell a different kind of story, we wanted to tell a romantic story. We had it at our disposal and it didn't matter to us that it happened to be two girls. It wasn't any more or less than that."

It may relatively cut-and-dried for Druckmann, but Riley and Ellie's romance will mean a whole lot to some players, particularly those of us who are starving for more diverse, nuanced characters in the games we play. Bravo, Naughty Dog, for telling the sort of story that mainstream video games are still only beginning to attempt to tell, and in so doing making the world of games a more interesting, relatable place. And good show, Sony, for staying out of their way and letting them do it.

I've said in the past that The Last of Us ended so well that it doesn't need a sequel, but Left Behind has (perhaps predictably) got me wanting more in spite of myself. If in the inevitable sequel, they decide to have Ellie meet a cool girl up in Wyoming? That'd be just fine by me.

Video Gaming's Latest Breakthrough Moment

She deserves a little happiness, after all.


    That kiss to me didn't tell me she was homosexual. It was an extremely moving and powerful moment nonetheless and I took it as Ellie being so super happy at not losing her best friend forever. Though I'm not exactly sure I'd kiss my bestie in in that situation so it's whatever. I am not playing last of us to judge sexuality but to explore the masterpiece world that Naughty Dog made

    Last edited 18/02/14 10:18 am

      Sexuality is a social construct anyway, largely enforced by religious institutions to encourage breeding because increasing population is the best way to consistently grow your influence. In post-apocalyptic event scenarios where society is being rebuilt, you don't really have time to adhere to nonsensical pre-conceived notions and they sort of fly out the window. It's not impossible that someone who has been born into this world and only taught that kissing is a way of sharing intimacy or affection would have no problem kissing a best friend, especially at a powerfully emotional moment. The awkwardness that follows is your usual teenage confusion stemming from that, and I think the scene would have played out identically if Ellie's friend was a boy.

      This is not a homosexual kiss, because it's not really a sexual kiss (even if Riley does love Ellie and vice versa). It's a kiss between two young girls who needed to express the depth of their emotional bond, and have likely never had the idea of homosexuality explained to them, and certainly not been told it's something wrong or unusual. Which is how it should be, if you ask me.

      Edit: Just so it's clear what jacka is referring to, I originally typo'd "sharing" as "sharting" -_-
      I edited it right away but not before it was seen.

      Last edited 18/02/14 10:35 am

        Hehehe. That was a rather unfortunate typo...

        Last edited 18/02/14 10:41 am

        I agree. Well said.

    So... is that Gone Hone spoiler a major one?

      Damnit, that was sitting in my pile of shame to get to. So I vote yes as I now have part of the story spoiled.

    I'm excited for the future of character development in games. The fact that 90% of main characters are stubble covered middle aged white guys is a trend I hope we move on from. Smaller developers and indie devs have started the trend and I'm glad to see Naughty Dog following the trend with the undisputed biggest hit of 2013.

    The saddest thing is that this is in any way news, rather than being taken for granted.

    It didn't take a neuroscientist to figure out there was more to Ellie and Riley's relationship. Also alot of people said that it doesn't really count because it wasn't "sexual" enough to be considered homosexual (Matthew K @kermitron), but you have to remember the age of Ellie 13 (left behind) and the fact that anything more would have made it uncomfortable. An example of this would be Xcal joking that this would get him thrown in Jail. (ep 4).

    Last edited 18/02/14 12:01 pm

      Beyond the issues raised in the article I think it's nice to see a relationship developing that isn't just instantly and overtly sexual. I'm pretty tired of bonking being shorthand for "they like each other".

      There's more to liking and loving than gettin' down.

        It was more a response to the above comments that are saying Ellie isn't a lesbian because either it wasn't sexual enough (cite @kermitron ) or that it was her way of demonstrating her bond between Riley. (@theaptpupil ). It just feels like people are making excuses because they either didn't perceive Ellie that way or because they don't believe it is genuine. Regardless ND wanted to make Ellie a lesbian so that is their decision. If it was to make Joel's decision more powerful, it worked.

          Whoa now, I feel like you're misinterpreting the point I was making. I'm not saying Ellie isn't a lesbian, in that she may have romantic feelings toward her female best friend - at least not because the kiss wasn't sexualsied enough. Jesus, that last thing I want is sexualised 13 year-olds. She may well be a lesbian. Then again, 13 is a confusing and hormonal time for teenagers under the best of circumstances, she might not even understand her feelings, not fully. She was later demonstrated to be baffled by penises when looking at a gay porno magazine, but this again is not out of order for a teenage girl so hardly a hint at to her sexual orientation.

          Anyway, my actual point was that society in general is too quick to apply labels and constraints on human affection, and that what we are being shown her is intimacy between two people who have been born into a world where those constraints are less likely to exist. Maybe Ellie loves Riley, maybe she's just a good friend. But we're wrong to label her a lesbian for kissing her. People shouldn't have to carry the social burden of sexual identity labels, especially in a world where society barely even exists anymore.

          Last edited 18/02/14 2:59 pm

            I understand your point on society's quick labelling. As the article said ND originally were going to make their relationship a lot more obvious. I get that that age is supposedly confusing (but I never felt the need to kiss another man.... not that there is anything wrong with that). I am still of the belief that it was to increase the importance of Joel's decision. ( I am sorry if i misinterpreted what you meant.)

              I guess my issue with that is that they toned down the relationship because it doesn't need to be overtly stated or labelled to be important and valuable to the character arc, which goes on to inform aspects of the story. Yes they kissed which does remove all doubt, but can also be interpreted as a moment of passion - which again, does not have to be tied to romance.

              I haven't played the DLC so I don't know what the references to "Joel's decision" are. I assume the DLC begins and ends before Ellie ever meets Joel so there's certainly a gap between the stories where a romantic relationship would develop more. In fact it's safe to assume that one did. And again, I feel like that's perfectly natural - like @gregorvorbarra said it shouldn't even need to be news, it should just be something we accept.

              But did Joel even know about it? He never met Ellie before he was told he had to transport her to the Fireflies HQ, so is the decision the one Joel makes to take Ellie from the hospital and prevent her being used in the experiment? I'm not clear on how her being gay (assuming she actually is) affects that. Because she's less likely to breed, and it increases the possibility that the chance of cure begins and ends with her? Is that what we're getting at?

              Last edited 18/02/14 3:26 pm

                Joel's decision to save Ellie at the end of the game is what i was referring to. By saving Ellie and thus removing a potential for a cure. Now assuming Ellie is a lesbian over the entire course of the remaining universe then whatever gene she has that makes her immune has 0% chance of being passed down to future generations. (sorry if I was vague about that. Also the DLC is a mix of both Ellie's time w/ Riley and When Joel is incapacitated.)

                  Yeah, see that assumes that Ellie won't decide to have children. Gay or not, even in a world without IVF, there's no reason she couldn't "take one for the team" if she wants to reproduce.

                  @kermitron Even then there is no guarantee that the immunity would pass down, and even if it did, what is the chance Ellie would give up the child. The "take one for the team" argument might take up to 1-99+ times to actually occur.

                  Oh, I'm not suggesting that Ellie would give up the child, I doubt any mother would. I just mean that it would be the birth of a new humanity that has an immunity to the spores. I think Joel's decision not to sacrifice Ellie's life in pursuit of the cure was the right one, though the game brilliantly portrayed the difficulty of making that decision.

    Meh. I was pretty disappointed by the DLC. I wanted so much more. Just as it was getting interesting, it was over.

    Gosh I was crap with my super-soaker.

      I'm sure you were doing it right - it wasn't meant to be a wet t-shirt contest.

      But mine did jam twice.

        It did kinda feel like spring break though!

    I was so shocked when it happened; my girlfriend had joked about them kissing in the photo booth a bit earlier and now it's clear that it was actually hinted at. I was just grinning after the kiss though, so awesome! Adds another layer of characterization and a chance to reinterpret the scenes with Sam and Bill's magazine. So damn cool; the slyness of releasing on Valentine's Day has got to be the coolest meta... thing, ever.

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