On the 19th of June 2020, Naughty Dog released their magnum opus in the form of The Last of Us Part II. The game continues the story of the first, where Joel and Ellie must endure and survive in a dystopian world where much of the population is infected by a fungus that turns humans into zombie-like monsters. Although it garnered much controversy for its unconventional narrative choices and the brutality brought upon beloved characters, it has also been praised for its polished presentation and beautifully detailed environments. However, one of the most important aspects of The Last of Us Part II has to do with its diverse cast and its positive representation of LGBTQIA+ characters.
The Last of Us Part II kicks off a few years after the events of the first game. Joel and Ellie have settled in a peaceful community in Jackson and have managed to forge somewhat normal lives for themselves. Ellie has even made a few friends in Jackson. Her friends come from diverse backgrounds, and are able to bring unique cultural experiences to players. Dina, for example, is Jewish. When she and Ellie explore an abandoned synagogue in Seattle, Dina tells Ellie a bit about Judaism and, in doing so, edifies players, too. She also gifts Ellie with a beautiful hamsa bracelet. Such bracelets are popular in the Middle East. Neil Druckmann, director of The Last of Us Part II, has confirmed that diversity is a pillar of how Naughty Dog designs characters, and that the bracelet was inspired by his own Middle Eastern heritage.
Where The Last of Us Part II’s commitment to diversity shines most is with its positive representation of LGBTQIA+ characters and relationships. The Last of Us Part II is far from the first game to feature LGBTQIA+ characters. Examples include Missed Messages, an indie game which features a romantic relationship between the protagonist and her “goth gf”, as well as The Outer Worlds, which features an asexual character. However, while other games tend to skirt around such issues, leaving players to speculate and infer, The Last of Us Part II is brazen and proud of its LGBTQIA+ representations.
Perhaps the most sterling example of this can be found with Ellie and Dina. Their romantic relationship is presented in an unflinchingly honest and humanized manner that players from all backgrounds can empathize with. It illustrates the hardships that LGBTQIA+ relationships often face when Ellie must deal with Seth calling her a “not-so-nice word” after she shares a kiss with Dina. It also illustrates the love and warmth between Ellie and Dina, which is something that is universally relatable. The depth and realness of the relationship elevates it from mere tokenism to something that can be empowering.
So why are such representations important? Media has a non-negligible impact on us and the way we view the world. Not only do the characters of fictional works entertain us, but they also teach us more about ourselves and make us think. Having a diverse range of well-written characters can be validating and affirming, as it normalizes those identities. This is especially important for communities, such as the LGBTQIA+ community, that have often been marginalized in both the past and present.
Positive representations of diverse characters allow for marginalized identities to be humanized, and for those deemed the “Other” to be empathized with. If one has only come across negative representations of certain identities, being exposed to positive representations can negate the prejudices learned. As the poet Alice Walker once wrote:
. . .models, in art, in behavior in growth of spirit and intellect – even if rejected – enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence.
Some of the negative discourse surrounding The Last of Us Part II has resorted to critiquing the game for adhering to a politically motivated “agenda” through its inclusion of gay and trans characters. Such discourse only serves to demonstrate how needed increased positive representations of LGBTQIA+ characters are. With increased exposure to positive representation, taboos can be dismantled, and empathy can be established. To include a diverse range of characters in media is not to kowtow to political correctness, but rather it is to ensure that the stories we tell reflect the realities of the world we live in.
Video games are for everybody and, consequently, gamers should demand to see diverse and relatable characters that go beyond the cliché “angry man with a gun” that adorns far too many box art covers. The success of the The Last of Us Part II demonstrates that there is a genuine need and desire for a more varied range of characters in video games, including LGBTQIA+ identities and others that have historically faced oppression and stigma. Such diversity expands not only the world of video games, but also the world of gamers.