Looking Back at the Queerness of “The Last of Us” Video Games

Author’s Note: Spoilers ahead.

Ten years and two generations of Playstation consoles ago, The Last of Us was released for the Playstation 3. It boasted an incredible narrative, introduced complex and morally gray characters, cast incredible voice actors, and touched the hearts of the many players who came to know the story of Joel and Ellie. The game’s release was more than just another post-apocalyptic zombie horror to fight your way through. It was a memorable tale of two initially vastly different people trying to hold onto things that were rapidly slipping away from them — humanity and innocence. And after all these years, the franchise has remained so successful that HBO has deemed it worthy of a high-budget TV adaptation.

Back when the game first came out, I’d heard a lot of hype surrounding the release. I was too scared of horror games and jumpscares back then. I also didn’t have the right console to play it on, so it slipped into the back of my mind until more recently. The story really hooked me about a year and a half ago. One overcast night while my partner was away on a trip, I loaded up The Last of Us for the first time. I’d just gotten my hands on a Playstation 5 and was eager to explore titles I’d missed out on. Plus, with the pandemic raging, I found comfort engrossing myself in other peoples’ stories.

I was also driven to play The Last of Us because I’d heard whisperings on the internet about one of the main characters, Ellie, being queer. I suddenly had the undeniable urge to play it. Maybe some of you feel similarly. Was it the courage I was working up to finally play a long narrative horror release — or was I just reaching for some representation in the games  I was playing? Either way, I wanted to play The Last of Us II first because of the queer romance, but I felt I wouldn’t be able to understand where the story was picking up in the second installment without playing the first. So, I booted up The Last of Us, opened a walkthrough article to ensure I could gather all the game’s collectables, and strapped in for a ride that was thoughtful, disappointing, and hopeful all the same.

As the game opens, you’re introduced to the state of the world in The Last of Us universe. A cordyceps mutation has caused widespread infection across the world, only leaving those without exposure to retain their physical humanity. Our two main characters are Joel and Ellie. Joel is a hardened smuggler living in a Boston quarantine zone, making a living by moving weapons and merchandise. He’s lost all his family, besides his brother Tommy, to the chaos of the apocalypse. On the other hand, Ellie is a young teenager, made an orphan at birth and born into a life of infection and hardship.

Sometime in the early stages of the game, Joel is tasked by the leader of an infamous rebel militia group to smuggle Ellie to a checkpoint and provide protection along the way. Joel is cautious and skeptical at first as to why he’s smuggling a teenager, only to realize that Ellie has been bitten by the infected, weeks ago at that point — and has shockingly not contracted any symptoms of the virus.

This sets off the pair’s journey across the country, searching for a group called the Fireflies who might be able use Ellie’s immunity to the virus to create a cure. What ensues during their trip feels like a long epic and contains memorable characters and tense sections that made me pause my game more than a few times. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to play the easiest or normal difficulty on this game. I felt tense enough during some sections without the added stress of more complex combat and fewer resources. Shooting, crafting, and sneaking are at the heart of this one’s gameplay.

Looking back on the game now, I can name a few memorable characters I wish had more screen time. Depending on if you’ve played the game before or how much you’ve read about the characters that will star in The Last of Us TV adaptation, you may have heard about characters Bill and Frank — played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett respectively in the adaptation. In this first game, they’re the only explicitly gay characters we get to meet.

Even though it doesn’t come up in the first game, we know that Ellie is queer and she is explicitly so in The Last of Us II. And from what I gathered from the show’s trailer, the series will explore a bit of Ellie’s sexuality — using material found in prequel game Left Behind, with Storm Reid playing Ellie’s friend and love interest Riley.

But without any knowledge of Ellie’s queerness in this first game, I took interest in the story of Bill and his lover Frank in The Last of Us. Despite the exciting casting for the TV adaptation of the game, we never really get to know the character of Frank beyond notes and dialogue that can be experienced in game. To say the least, he’s not really around in the game to interact with. And that leaves a heaviness in the air when it comes to getting to know Bill and his life of isolation.

Yes, the off-screen death of Frank in the game gave Bill, the character you get to interact with, more depth. Bill is objectively an interesting character to me and the little details they put in the game — from raunchy magazines you can pick up to elaborate booby traps you must diffuse — to show you his personality shines through. However, to me, the character of Frank in relation to Bill seemed like a lazy trope when I played the game. Burying your gays isn’t profound to me anymore. I’m not sure how people felt about that when the game first came out in 2013. I’m not sure how it was received, but through a present-day lens and given all the other things that could have happened to enrich queer stories, I don’t think it’s the groundbreaking material that some writers think it is. In the world of The Last of Us, everyone has lost something; for Bill, I don’t think it had to be a loved one to show why he is the way he is.

I’m hoping that the series does something different with Bill and Frank’s storyline. In fact, I’m glad that they’re putting a face to Frank and expanding his character more. I’m also hoping for a happier ending for Ellie’s first relationship, though, given the nature of the series and after having played through The Last of Us II, I don’t really know what to expect plot-wise.

In general, my hopes for the series are high. I’m excited for the characters I’ve sat with for hours on end to come to life on my TV without me having to control them. Apparently, there are only nine episodes, which seems like a condensed amount of time for the series to give us the entire exposition of the first game. But I’m hopeful. With HBO’s budget and a star-studded cast of new characters made just for the TV series — including my Yellowjackets crush Melanie Lynskey — I’m sure there will be moments of both nostalgic familiarity and exciting new revelations.

At the heart of The Last of Us is a story about humanity — the things you’ll do to protect it, lack thereof, and sometimes the inevitable loss of it. Perhaps the scariest things lurking in the shadows of The Last of Us aren’t actually the infected.


The Last of Us series debuts tomorrow, January 15, on HBO Max.


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Julie Gentile

Julie is a writer by night and marketing bot by day. She enjoys long video game playthroughs and pretending like she didn’t internalize every single episode of Glee. Contact her at julie[at]autostraddle[dot]com.

Julie has written 17 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. I don’t even game, have social media, or spend a whole lot of time on YouTube, except when I watch hours of The Last of Us game recaps and obsess over everything. So excited for the show and you’ve written a great intro to the franchise for those who didn’t know about this little (huge?) gem of a game.

  2. I am so excited for this show. I’ve been a gamer my entire life. I’ll age myself here but I received my first PC in 1984. I was five years old. It was a Tandy-1000 and it had Pong. I was the nerd that did coding when I was a kid, you know reading the code manual and following along, stupid stuff like that.

    Two years later, the Atari released and I received it for Christmas and I was hooked. Every game system that came out after that, I received for Christmas, Easter (yes, I was one of those kids where Easter was another Christmas), or my birthday. I’m talking Sega, Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy, etc. What can I say, I was an only child to parents that didn’t have a mortgage or car payments. We didn’t buy a new car until I was 14.

    Anyway, my love of gaming has been with me for almost 40 years. There was a moment in time where I didn’t play as much, but between Gears of War, TLOU/TLOU2, Fallout, Halo, Mario, and Call of Duty, I was pulled right back in and I make sure I play about 10 hours a week (you know work and home life need time too).

    In all honesty, I’ve played TLOU and TLOU2 each about a dozen times through. May not sound like much but trust me, it is. I mix it up with Fallout (another show I cannot wait for), and some Mario for a change of pace.

    I just glanced at my video game collection and the many shelves taken up for games to all my current systems, and yet I keep going back to TLOU/TLOU2/Fallout. They are the epitome of perfection, in my eyes.

  3. As a longtime reader and member I’ve always been a little sad our game didn’t get more coverage here! Especially the Left Behind dlc and the early Ellie/Dina story :) I’m really hoping with the new HBO show the series will find a much wider audience though!

    I got to see the first episode early and loved it. I have faith in the people involved that they’ll get the queer content right, for the most part. Though if you’re looking for happy endings this may be the wrong series to pin your hopes on! Queer and cishet characters included.

  4. TLOU 1 and 2 are hands down my favorite games I have ever played. I am a die hard fan, and was very pumped (and nervous) for the show to come out. I thought they did a magnificent job with the first ep, and from everything that I have read, I know the 3rd episode is entirely dedicated to Bill and Frank, and most reviews I have read state that episode to be absolutely incredible and tender and moving and just a superb piece of television. So I think your prayers will be answered in that!

    However, as Em said, this is not the series to rely on happy endings. No one gets a happy ending, all characters of all sexualities and genders included. So I don’t think it ends up falling into the bury your gay trope, as… kind of everyone dies or is ultimately scarred and changed.

  5. I bought TLOU around 2013, not knowing much about it probably beyond the blurb, picking it off the bestsellers list on Amazon. It ended up meaning a lot to me over the years. I bought Left Behind on release day and it was the first time a game left me physically shaking from tension, identifying with a queer game character, and all the more amazing that it built on a story and characters that I already loved from the original game.

    Since then I’ve played it numerous times on PS4 and likely PS5 in the future.
    I’ve made great friends playing the Factions multi player game who kept me sane the last few years including over the pandemic.

    I’m so happy to see the game getting recognition by wider audiences now via the show, and hopefully people I know who see it will recognise why I’ve harped on about it for so many years (!) and understand if they didn’t before that gaming is another fantastic form of media no lesser than TV, film, music or books. I’m so hyped to see the show once my girlfriend finally finishes the game soon so that we can watch it together.

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