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?'"
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.'"
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."
"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.
She deserves a little happiness, after all.