After the revelation of Ellie's kiss in Left Behind, the downloadable expansion to The Last of Us, I decided two things. One, that I was sufficiently over being terrified of the game the first time to give it another go, and two, that I was curious whether or not the game would feel different knowing that Ellie was gay.
When I first reviewed The Last of Us one of the things that I most applauded the game for was the character of Bill. Bill was Joel's smuggling contact, a paranoid loner that lived in the overrun and extremely booby-trapped town of Lincoln. Joel and Ellie meet up with Bill hoping to cash in some favors and get a car to head west in.
Bill is also gay, something that you don't realize until you come across the body of his ex-lover Frank. Frank had grown tired of Bill's small-mindedness and set-in-his-ways attitude, and had attempted to steal the car battery Bill was going to give to Joel. In the process he was bitten, infected, and hanged himself after leaving a very rude note for Bill to find.
What makes Bill and this chapter of the game so awesome is the fact that for the first time I can ever remember a major character in a Triple A game was homosexual and was actually a regular person. Bill's story and personality would not have changed a single iota if Frank had been Francine, and I saw it as a major step forward for portrayals of non-hetero characters in gaming.
Now we're to understand that Ellie, who is essentially the secondary protagonist of 2013's biggest release, is not only gay, but according to Naughty Dog she was always written to be that way. It's telling, when you play the game through without that knowledge that there doesn't even seem to be a hint of that in the course of the plot. Like Bill, Ellie's so realistically portrayed and executed that her sexuality, whatever it may be, doesn't become some awkward statement. She is who she is.
In my second playthrough, though, I wanted to pay attention more. See if there were subtle hints that alluded to her sexual orientation. It's weird how it makes you reconsider things. For instance, Ellie steals comics and a porno mag from Bill's stash, making it a point to needle Joel by remarking on the enormous penis of one of the models while they are leaving Lincoln in their truck.
The first time I interpreted the scene as a young girl exploring the opposite sex. Now I see it differently. It plays much more as a strange bonding experience with Joel, someone she is still working very hard to get to open up to her. Being a teenage girl, that mostly means annoying him, but she's trying very hard to get him to crack a smile. If anything, it makes the scene deeper.
Then there's her relationship with Sam, who she and Joel run into with his older brother Henry in the bandit-held Pittsburgh. For the first time since leaving Boston, Ellie has someone her own age to connect with. The two share jokes, play with a stash of blueberries, and otherwise have a good time. It comes to a tragic end when Sam is infected while fleeing the city and Henry commits suicide after shooting Sam off of Ellie.
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Again, the scene comes out a little differently and even more nuanced and brilliant when you know about Ellie being gay. At first, you just assume girl-meets-boy, young love, etc. Maybe that's what's on Sam's mind. She initially lies and says he's a year older than he actually is in what might be a bid to impress her. From Ellie's point of view Sam is something else. He's someone that's been through the same horrific things she has that she can share with without a big emotional attachment. He's her friend, not a potential boyfriend.
Maybe it's the ending that most benefits from the revelation, though. Joel and Ellie's entire quest has been to try and help find a cure for the infection through her mutated immunity. That's her whole purpose, and the thing that keeps her going. What it is is a manifestation of survivor's guilt brought on by the fact that she had to kill the first girl she ever fell in love with after she succumbed to an infection Ellie is protected from.
Her quest is a one of chivalrous love. It's a monument to her broken heart. When Joel refuses to let her be killed in surgery so her brain can be harvested for cure research, he is essentially helping her to move past that broken heart. He won't let her kill herself because Riley died, just as Ellie healed Joel and kept him going after twenty bitter years of living with the death of his daughter.
How does Ellie being gay change playing The Last of Us? For the better, definitely. I hope other game makers take notice, and then maybe next time we won't have to slip the reveal in through DLC.