‘Shrooms will make you gay. Or at least that was my discovery after searching “mushroom and sexuality” in an attempt to find some contrived metaphorical connection between cordyceps (the game’s zombie virus source) and sexual orientation in The Last of Us’ “Left Behind.” Like seriously, this is a major concern for trippers out there, an anxiety based around the social otherness that still remains around homosexuality. “Left Behind,” the first installment of Last of Us’s story DLC and a watershed moment in gaming, is also concerned with sexuality. In this expansion, Ellie’s sexual orientation is expounded on, suggesting that our heroin is gay. For the first time in a major AAA title, we, by default (unlike Mass Effect or the like), take on the role of not only a young female protagonist, but also one that categorically shies away from heteronormative standards. Ellie’s “coming out” should be celebrated and welcomed, as it’s a huge step forward for the medium in terms of representation and perspective. Not surprisingly, that hasn’t exactly happened within the gaming community. The reaction to Ellie being gay has been one of skepticism and resistance. This is problematic. It’s not about labeling Ellie, but about overturning the incessant dismissal that permeates the conversation the community is having about her sexual orientation. “Left Behind’s” exploration into sexuality has exposed the way normative paradigms inform our perception of relationships.
This problem (we’ll get into why later) came to my attention when coming upon a discussion thread on Reddit, my favorite source lately for default setting thinking. Really, I should have known better, but it was too late. I clicked into the comments and found the following brilliant commentary (sarcasm, for those that can’t read the subtext):
The first one isn’t the primary offender, but deeming Ellie’s kiss as the result of “wild/confused emotions” is the very the type of problematic thinking that underlies our perception of the romance in “Left Behind.” The second comment made me want to give up on Reddit altogether. The textual support here is flimsy at best: “Well, it’s her best friend, so she can’t be gay. It’s just a phase. An experiment.” Notice the lack of any support from the game itself. Very convincing. And it was, for 166+ people. Herein lies the issue. In Reddit’s defense, this skepticism arose in several other places. The utter dismissal and the support for this theory is disconcerting, as this wouldn’t at all be the case if it were, say, Ellie and Sam. Sure, the tensions are high and it’s an emotional moment, but would there be any question of Ellie’s sexuality if it was a heterosexual relationship being depicted? No. Everyone would merely go on to discuss their emotional responses to the scene. There would be no suggestion that “she’s confused,” “experimenting,” or “caught up in the moment.” Instead, a discussion of how emotionally powerful the kiss is would occur. Or the what if’s and what could’ve been of the relationship. Ellie and Riley were denied those sympathies. Instead, they were privy to the default thinking that continues to afflict the gaming community in particular, the abrasive projection of dominant ideologies into the cultural discourse. Yes, it may be silly to get riled up over comments on the internet, but the numerical support suggests that disregarding Ellie’s romance is symptomatic of toxic and commonly held preconceptions. One could cop out and say “oh well, it’s open to interpretation,” but the problem with that argument is that the evidence is certainly in favor of Ellie and Riley having a romantic tension between them.
Subtext. Subtext allows for something to be said without it actually being said, an implied statement. This is the difference between hearing “I’m fine” and hearing “I’m fine [broody look].” On the surface the same thing is being said, but we realize if we’re hearing the second sentence we’re probably in big trouble. Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann have shown to be inclined to underwrite, relying on subtext, and provoking more questions than providing answers. They love hinting at the truth of what’s going on rather than spelling it out for us. This is particularly true in both romantic relationships we observe in the game proper. The first being the relationship being between Joel and Tess. Although we never get to experience a hardcore make-out session (PDA that apparently is a prerequisite to solidify someone’s sexuality) their conversation and interactions are highly suggestive, more so than not, that there’s something more than friendship between them. The relationship takes on a distanced form because of their past traumas and current circumstances. Later on, we’re introduced to Bill, who continues to mention his “partner” and their falling out. If you pay close attention to the language and the emoting, the reveal that Bill is gay through the gay porn magazine with the “pages stuck together” isn’t much of a surprise. Again, subtext.
Now if we look at the many, many hints along Riley’s and Ellie’s misadventure you can find, you guessed it, subtext. If we hone in on the details and throw away our preconceptions of what a normal romance for 14 year old girls looks like, you see the context begin to change. The “dramatic situation” in “Left Behind’s” first act arises primarily from Riley running off and disappearing from Ellie’s life. This conflict is resolved quite quickly, a resolution that is established through the subtext. Ellie jokingly says to Riley, “I’ll be your friend again if it’s a dinosaur.” Not too long after, we see them in a Halloween store being “friends.” This reunion wasn’t said, but shown. From a screenwriting perspective, the story would, then, be over as their relationship has no room for development from this point on. Writer and director, Neil Druckmann, said exactly that in an AMA:
Ellie’s relationship with Riley starts showing a romantic undercurrent following the Halloween store scene. From that point on, the driving subtext until the end of the game plays out like a fight between two lovers. You’re allowed to pick the obviously non-platonic “love” theme in the photo booth without any signs of disgust or resistance on the part of both characters. In fact, Ellie and Riley make jokes in regards to that decision akin to those a boy and a girl would make to ease the tensions on their first date. Some notable lines that are blushing with ulterior meanings are Ellie telling Riley “We were good. We were better than good” and “You want out? I’m. I’m giving it to you.” My favorite suggestion that Ellie and Riley are romantically tied is the Walkman scene. Ellie carries around this Walkman with a tape that Riley gave her, a conventional romantic gesture within heteronormative relationships. The tape plays a cover of the song “I got you, babe” by Sonny and Cher, a husband and wife duo. Yeah, the suggestion that Riley and Ellie are in a romantic relationship is totally unconvincing (facepalm). Let’s check out a few on the lines from this love song:
They say we’re young and we don’t know [Hmm, sound familiar?]
We won’t find out until we grow
Well I don’t know if all that’s true
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you
The parallel between them and the song is undeniable. There are plenty more examples, but I’ll stop with these. The point is that there’s more textual support for the claim that Ellie is gay or romantically attached to Riley. Druckmann has my back again, here:
Of course, authorial intention isn’t the final word on any interpretation, as Druckmann’s humble response intimates. I will say though that although there may be no “one” interpretation there are certainly better ones.
Some would like to argue that this issue doesn’t matter, “love is love” or whatever platitude is used as a buttress. But it does matter. It matters because in disregarding the validity of this relationship you’re stealing something from someone. We’re undermining their way of life and dismissing their relationship’s worth. We’re perpetuating the idea that sexuality is a choice and, therefore, somehow lesser. We’re devolving an evolutionary move in the medium, and undercutting what should be a celebrated achievement. “Left Behind” isn’t a simple practice in political correctness, another disconcerting criticism. Ellie and Riley have a fully developed relationship. Their romance doesn’t come out of nowhere, but is expertly hinted at and fleshed out from the very beginning. Naughty Dog is obviously trying to break through the conventions and dominant ideologies that are entrenched within backwater cultural representation. We should honor that. We must realize that for that Redditor who happens to be a “girl who likes girls” and others like her, all their life all they’ve seen as valid relationships in games are the likes of Gordon and Alyx or Cloud and Aerith. In questioning Ellie’s relationship and her sexuality, we leave those who finally get a bit of representation they can identify with unnecessarily questioning themselves like their identity is a result of lunacy deriving from a bad ‘shroom trip.