Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
I’ve made myself perfectly clear how I feel about The Last of Us. I would have been content just having the story of Joel and Ellie be done with when it ended. Like many other hardcore fans who were pulled into the little stories TLOU’s post-apocalyptic world sprinkled throughout the game, I would have liked to see a new narrative from the other characters that lived and died during the main duo’s trek from the one and only planned singleplayer DLC.
Instead, we got a closer look into the history of everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed switchblade-wielding would-be savior of the human race, Ellie, and her relationship with her favorite person in the world before she met Joel, Riley.
Unfortunately for some, it was too close a look that they just couldn’t accept.
[There will be major spoilers for The Last of Us and Left Behind, and a very minor spoiler for Gone Home.]
With all the great moments in the 2 hour DLC, from Ellie first receiving the infamous book of puns to the watergun fights, all the attention was on ~the kiss~. Yes, if you still haven’t played the DLC and are still reading this, there’s no way for me to talk around it. After busting a couple of moves with Riley on top of a counter (which turned out to be a really bad idea), Ellie drops all pretensions of being fine with Riley leaving and tells her to stay. Riley was waiting for those words all along, and takes off her Firefly pendant with a smile.
Then Ellie kisses her on the lips for a good second.
I already saw it coming, but it was still a powerful scene. Here are two young girls finding whatever bits of happiness they could in exploring a mall during lockdown hours at the end of the world. The only thing pulling them apart is one’s desire to become more than what was offered to her in the government controlled city. But like the end of the main campaign, they decide that what’s best for them is to be together.
It’s sealed by an act of romantic affection that had been building up with their frustrations and flirtations playing hooky for the past hour.
Being realistic about the general makeup of the AAA gaming audience, I wasn’t surprised at all at the people who found it offensive and thought it ruined Ellie, the DLC, the main story, Naughty Dog, their lives, their children’s lives, video games, and life in general.
There are bigots in the world, and some of them play video games. That’s reality.
What I really find disappointing are the people who flat out deny any romantic implications from the scene.
“It was strictly a platonic peck from a best friend who didn’t know any other way to express her feelings of relief and joy!”
“She’s only a young teenager going through a phase overwhelmed by her emotions!”
“The world is totally different by this time, and kids aren’t sure what to do to communicate friendship in extreme situations!”
Never mind the hint of sensuality in Riley reintroducing herself into Ellie’s life, all the tension between the two over Riley leaving and the struggle to be straight with the questions and answers, all the longing stares and awkward looks to the side, the end of the carousel ride, the coaxing into the dancing, the entire premise of Riley showing Ellie all these surprises and gifts through their tour of the mall to have a good time with the threat of death lurking in the corner, and the immediate reactions after the kiss.
What is worrying is that the possibility of Ellie being lesbian or bisexual, that a teenage girl can have serious romantic feelings for another girl, is just brushed off and not given any sense of importance by some gamers. I’m reminded of one specific journal entry in Gone Home wherein Sam’s parents are in denial of her sexuality, and it just breaks my heart that it’s being realized in Left Behind’s case.
There would be a portion of those who would rush in to say that Joel’s decision to get Ellie out of the Firefly base was completely understandable because that’s what any father would do. There is a specific label for the relationship that Joel and Ellie develop, and it’s touted by many as to what makes TLOU’s story so strong, much like the bond between Lee and Clementine in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead Season 1 and Booker and Elizabeth in Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite.
And yet when it comes to this particular pairing where the romantic signals are flashing, it’s suddenly just a story about “love transcending the perils of a world gone crazy”. I don’t have a problem with that perspective, as it can make for a beautiful thesis for the stories that make up TLOU’s universe.
However, when you outright ignore that one aspect of the relationship, you’re removing a core element that makes the entire game such a multi-layered piece of art that touches people on all emotional levels. Romance is a part of what makes life so interesting, and with Naughty Dog exploring it with TLOU’s trademark restraint and nuance, its inclusion creates a richer experience.
And if it helps bring more acceptance to minority views in the AAA blockbuster space by recognizing the very human relationship between Ellie and Riley, the more variety and the more challenging narratives we will get. All the while satisfying our appetite for technical and visual wizardry.
We are not always defined solely by our gender, or our race, religion, career, or taste in video games. But we cannot overlook these identifiers that come together to help make us the complex beings that we are that get angry, laugh, cry, fear, and fall in love.