The Last of Us was one of my all time favourite games. I loved both Joel and Ellie, I loved the story, I loved the support characters, the graphics, the enemies and the atmosphere – there are not many who can dispute the fact that this is a fantastic game.
I adored Joel’s and Ellie’s relationship, the character growth and bond is near enough tangible. There’s something about each character you like; maybe it Ellie having no parents and Joel’s daughter being killed, I’m not sure… but you know they need each other and that is beautiful!
Not only that, but their dialogue is perfect. Even when it seems moot or as a filler, it is pleasant to listen to; a treat! A team of talented writers brought their relationship alive with various dialogues that no cut-screen could portray.
There was always something about Ellie I really liked; whether it was her independent nature (making her relationship with Joel that bit more special), whether it was her personality, or whether it was the fact that someone made a game where they “side-kick” was actually useful, I can’t exactly say – but she was a perfect character overall.
Now, Ellie being born in a world where organised religion and large scale government have pretty much been annihilated, people are more concerned with staying alive more than anything else – there is no-one (as far as I am aware) who would have spoken to her about sexuality as, apparently, it takes an apocalypse for any stigma on the subject to be lifted.
As a character, Ellie enjoys her carefree nature. As an audience, so do we!
So let’s take a look at her in the prequel, Left Behind.
[MILD SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT ALREADY PLAYED]
Left Behind finds you with Ellie pre-Joel. She is that bit younger; that bit more protected from terrors out there. She is not naïve to the state of the world around her, but she also, I guess, has the folly of youth that she is invincible.
You play as Ellie, whilst she and her friend Riley begin making their way round a dark mall. They go through stores, play games, joke about and it’s genuinely a really cute stand alone game. There’s something about their friendship that seems so real, which I put down to the genius of the writers and animators over there. It’s a true friendship and there are some genuinely heart-warming moments in there.
As the narrative progresses, there is sometimes that niggling question that makes you think there may be something more – you don’t really question it too much because the age of the characters.
So you play on and you get to know Ellie in a whole new environment. She’s fun, she’s goofy, she’s funny, she’s caring, she’s competitive – she’s a kid! It gives her that depth that you didn’t quite get to see (but were aware of in the main game) and it’s wonderful.
It’s not long before Ellie and Riley get a little closer, leading to a scene where they are dancing with one another. It pauses for a moment whilst Ellie kisses Riley, and honestly, it’s adorable. I mean, everything aside, stigma of age, stigma of sexuality… for a cinematic in a game, it’s incredibly powerful. I think it’s one of those scenes that prove gaming is as perfect a platform for storytelling, as I always say, as anything else!
Anyway, Ellie apologises straight after only to be told there’s nothing to apologise for. They are interrupted and at the interest of spoiling no more I will end this section here.
They handle it beautifully. It is not in your face, it is not overplayed – it’s a brilliant portrayal, I’d say. It also answers a lot of questions in the main game. Ellie doesn’t talk about relationships or interests – maybe it’s because she is aware there was a stigma, but she herself isn’t affected by it. As a character, she is completely comfortable with who she is, including faults and strengths.
The handling of this character is perfect. Ellie is not used as a token for diversity – she is a real person who is a victim of the environment, just like everyone else in the game regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or sexuality.
I really respect Naughty Dog for their openness and their incredible prowess at producing games, but the respect resonates deeper within me because they make a real character, a beautiful character, a sweet, yet feisty character who’s sexuality is not what she is, it is who she is…
And that is someone who has faults, accepts them, deals with the world she has been born in to and knows she needs a companion. She knows she found one who needs the exact same thing as she does and appreciates that.
To anyone approaching the topic of sexuality in any creative form, please take note – this is exactly how it should be done.