We all know that LGBT characters in video games are rare, at best. The Last of Us stands out for having a somewhat major gay character in its story, one who isn’t a villain and who doesn’t die. That’s pretty big. After I played through the game, I had the opportunity to chat with Neil Druckmann, Creative Director at Naughty Dog. We spoke about Bill, the decision to make him a gay character, what it means for developers to write gay characters and women into games now, and what may happen to those characters in the future.
[Warning: Some spoilers for The Last of Us to follow]
GayGamer.net: I finished The Last of Us and wrote up a little thing on GayGamer specifically about Bill and his character, and I just wanted to talk to you guys about Bill and how Bill happened. Did you intend to make him gay immediately, or was his character written and then it happened? Or was it more organic than that?
Neil Druckmann: It was pretty organic. Bill – the way The Last of Us is structured, each location is kind of a short story; it has its own arcs and its own cast of characters. And we knew that Bill was going to represent, was going to serve a couple of functions in kind of a structural, narrative sort of way. One, was to show the damage a person can do to themselves when they’re just living out on their own, ‘cause that’s potentially, it’s a cautionary tale for Joel if he follows on instincts and he just wants to be by himself. But the second one was he was also going to be there to voice the concerns of what could happen if you care for someone. So those were just like very high-level concepts that we had for the level before we were writing the character. And then in writing the character, I was like “oh, well it’s much more interesting to say okay, here’s this guy who vocalizes all these concerns and says you should never care for someone else but actually deep inside he’s kind of the opposite of that, where he’s yearning to have a partnership, someone there to be with him.” So then became the idea that he had a partner that he was living with, they kind of looked out for each other. Someone he cared for and someone he failed in protecting. Again, kind of this cautionary tale for Joel. And then in writing the character, and it’s hard to articulate these things after the fact, but it felt like they were more than just survivors. That there was a deeper relationship than that. For lack of better term. And that’s how he became a gay character.
GG: I read the AMA [Ask Me Anything] that was up about a month ago, and I saw that you said that he was written to be a gay character, but that the actor, the voice and mocap actor, W Earl Brown, said it was more open to interpretation.
ND: I only wanted to… I said that because that’s what Earl tweeted one time. But yeah, the character was written to be gay. And at the same time, the writing was, I guess, ambiguous enough that I left the choices to the actor. So a lot of times I do that. I don’t define the backstories for the characters, and I let the actors come up with their own stuff. But, you know, at the end of the day, there is that gay magazine that Ellie takes out and there’s no question in my mind whether Bill is gay or not, but I wanted to give the performance into what he presented; maybe the subtext of what was going through is mind was different.
GG: Did the fact that there aren’t that many gay characters in gaming, was that part of the decision. Or was this completely story based and this was the relationship he had with Frank?
ND: There’s always intrigue when you’re doing something fresh, something new that you don’t see a lot in these kinds of stories. So I guess on that level it was kind of interesting to say we’re going to put that in there. I guess Frank could have been made into a woman to avoid that. But that was the first idea that came to mind. And actually, that’s actually interesting. The cinematic in the truck where Elle takes the dirty magazine, that was the first cinematic we captured for the game, before we even knew Bill was going to be gay. And actually the first pass on that scene, there was a girly magazine. And the line she said was “How does she walk around with those things?” And the idea that there would be a woman with huge implants. And that was actually animated and finished, and the we did the whole Bill arc and we captured those scenes and one of the animators, she actually mentioned that “ oh that scene is now inconsistent.” And thinking about it, I was like “well, I he could have had different magazines and he doesn’t have to have JUST gay magazines.” But then it was like, you know what, the arc was so subtle and could have been interpreted either way, I kind of wanted there to be proof, like that someone could point to THAT and say he was definitely gay. So we ended up recapturing that part, that little sequence where those lines are exchanged, and reanimating it to make sure the arc was consistent.
GG: A friend of mine who played completely missed it and he said “I didn’t even realize it was a gay magazine.” And I think part of that is that Bill counteracts a lot of the stereotypes we have, about gay people in media in a whole. He’s not your typical gay male you see in television or movies. You’ve said this has been intentional basically from the start of the story. So if someone said to you, “Well, I didn’t think he was gay at all, I completely miss that,” how do you feel about that? Is that not where you’re going with the character?
ND: Well, I’d point them to the evidence and say look at the scene in the truck again, because I think that if there’s any doubt, I think that kind of makes all that doubt go away. But I would hate to say oh we screwed up and should have been more on the nose with it, because that wasn’t an essential part to the story. It was just who he was, and beyond that it didn’t matter. I mean, it mattered in the fact that you saw how much he cared for Frank and I think when you have a romantic relationship with someone and you really care for them, it’s deeper than if it’s just your best friend. So on that level it mattered. But I think I don’t know what I could have done to… like I would hate for him to at some point say it, or for Joel to say it, or for Ellie to come out and say it, because then it would have felt like it’s too on the nose and there’s no reason to say it.
GG: Bill is a supporting character. Do you think a main character, if you could have treated the story the same way, with it being subtle? Or even put a gay character in as a lead at all. So I guess, broadly, your thoughts on gay leading characters.
ND: I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t do that. Cause at some point I think we were talking about whether Joel, we were entertaining the idea, but it didn’t work for the story because, you needed the daughter. Yeah, I think it could work. And obviously if you’re spending more hours, there would be more situations where it could come more to the surface. It’d become more obvious that it happened. But, again, if, for example… Ellie’s sexuality is never explored one way or the other. So you could say she is, you could say she isn’t and there’s nothing negating either argument. So let’s say she was, you could argue well why didn’t you put it in the forefront? Well, if her sexuality doesn’t play into the story. So you wouldn’t know. So it would depend. If you played a main character that had some kind of romantic story, obviously you would need to explore it and what that means in this world.
GG: Do you think that’s something we’re going to see more of in games in the future?
ND: Absolutely. I think just as developers, and the kind of people we have around the studio, is diversifying, I think from that aspect people are going to want to explore. For me, for example, I became a dad on development of the project, and those were a lot of the themes I wanted to explore. As more women become directors and designers, and more gay developers… they’re going to want to explore their history and the things that have inspired and affected them through their lives. The difficult part is, and I’m still wrestling with this myself, the more you explore those things… the more we have female protagonists or gay characters, the more scrutinized we get. The Last of Us has gotten more criticism for its treatment of female characters – even though we were very conscious of how we were treating it and trying to avoid tropes and treat them well – than any game we have in the past. But it’s also gotten the most praise for its treatment of female characters. You’re kind of entering a minefield whenever you explore those things, and you have to be okay that you’re going to get it from both sides.
GG: When you say scrutinized, do you mean by fans, by writers, journalists, or everybody?
ND: Kind of everybody. It was across the spectrum. And part of it was that The Last of Us is a violent game. When you have violent imagery and female characters that’s automatically a trigger for a lot of people. But, for us, for example, we were going to treat Ellie and Joel kind of similarly. We’re going to put them against the same stakes, the same threat. And the consequences of that threat are going to be the same. When Ellie dies you’re going to see a violent death, just like when Joel dies you’re going to see a violent death. But knowing that there are much more historical triggers for violent imagery against women. But again, without just treating them equally even knowing those two images are not equal, I don’t know how to approach it necessarily. For me that’s progressing and pushing it forward in the kind of characters we make, but knowing that at the same time we will get criticized for it.
GG: Turning back to Bill and sort of the game as whole. I notice that later on in the game we finally meet up with Tommy and he’s married to Maria and he mentions his relationship with Maria. And I was just sort of curious at the choice to have Bill say “partner” specifically. And this stuck out to me because I live in Massachusetts and same sex marriage is legal here. I don’t know if that was even a thought on the developers’ minds while you were doing this. Is it just not in Bill’s character, was it to stay away from some scrutiny? It really comes down to word choice. Why does Bill call Frank his partner when we have mentions of marriages in this fungus-infested future.
ND: It wasn’t consciously trying to avoid anything. I always saw Bill as… he kind of downplays a lot his relationships and how he feels about characters. So partner is kind of a very neutral way of referring to this other person. I guess he could have said lover, he could have said all these other things, right? But even struggling on how to say it to Joel to kind of downplay the whole thing. But once he cuts down the body and Joel sees the reaction, in my mind, that’s when Joel understood that’s what the relationship meant.
GG: For my own curiosity: are we going to hear from Bill again? Are we going to find anything more about Bill, or are we done with his story?
ND: Well the question is, how much more of The Last of Us are we going to explore? We don’t know yet. Right now we’re focused on the DLC and I can’t say who’s coming back and who’s not coming back for DLC. And there’s talk of potential sequel while at the same time we’re exploring a new IP. So I can’t say anything just yet. But obviously Bill survives. Bill’s one of the few characters that could come back.