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February 21
2014

Is Ellie Gay? Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann Weighs In on The Last of Us: Left Behind

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When Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us took the gaming world by storm last year some gamers were surprised to find that a major supporting character was gay. Bill, the gruff old man that players encounter during the main campaign, was a refreshingly understated queer character. We weren’t beat over the head with his sexuality, nor did conflict arise solely because of it. Rather Bill simply was gay, a fact that was never explicitly conveyed but rather discovered by players through subtle hints over the course of their travels with him.

We reached out to Naughty Dog about the character, and had a chance to speak with creative director Neil Druckmann. He talked about the creation of Bill, how his sexuality came about during production, and even touched on how the sexualities of most characters in the game went unexplored and were therefore open to interpretation.

This past week players got a chance to revisit the post-apocalyptic dystopia of The Last of Us thanks to the single player DLC The Last of Us: Left Behind. This DLC put us in full control of Ellie, who spent most of the first game as a computer controlled partner, as she recalls time spent with her best friend Riley.

Without spoiling *too* much, the events of Left Behind have led many gamers wondering if daring young Ellie just happens to be gay as well. There’s been a lot of debate surrounding the topic, so I decided to get to the bottom of it by reaching out to Druckmann once again.

Here’s what he had to say:

Spoilers Ahead

Before jumping into the gay stuff (which for the impatient is about halfway through the interview, nice and bold), I started off by asking Druckmann what inspired the team at Naughty Dog to revisit The Last of Us. Many have noted how complete the title feels, and whether or not more content would spoil the original game. He noted that way back when the first Uncharted game was finished Naughty Dog was curious about creating a shorter experience to put in the hands of gamers.

“You know it takes three to four years from the time of inception to the time you get something into the fans’ hands. It’s a really arduous task. We felt like it would be satisfying to do something in a shorter form. It never really panned out because we jumped right away into the sequel, and the resources weren’t there. So after The Last of Us this opportunity came up.

We said is there a story there worth exploring? We said to ourselves that if we can’t find something that we’re passionate about, then we’ll just pass and move on to the next thing. But we were drawn to this story; this gap in time between the American Dreams comic book that we put out, that introduced the Ellie/Riley dynamic, and the beginning of the game.”

Touching on the themes of this new story content, Druckmann discussed how the team wanted to explore Ellie’s story in the same way they explored Joel’s.

“There’s this parallel between Ellie and Joel, where they’ve both lost someone that’s really close to them and that’s really affected who they are. With Joel you get to play it and see it, but with Ellie you just get to hear her speech at the end and you have to imagine it. When we talked about what that story would be, and the interesting risks and challenges that were within that story, the team seemed interested in taking on that challenge.”

The-Last-of-Us-Could-Get-Sequels-But-They-Won-t-Star-Joel-and-Ellie-2
I mentioned the notably slower pace of Left Behind. There are significantly fewer battles in this content than in the main game, with most of the gameplay consisting of innocent activities in the mall like posing in photo booths. I wondered how the team came up with a sequence that shifted the tone from the main game to something softer and more fun.

“Well when we were brainstorming stuff, at first the first idea was just to do the filling in the gap in the winter. And while that story is interesting, and you see Ellie by herself….it didn’t feel like it had enough emotional weight or narrative weight. And then we approached the Riley sequence and what that added.

We’re kind of jumping back and forth and at some point we saw the two stories say something about one another. Without Ellie saying it, she’s remembering the last time she was at that mall and how she’s drawing strength from it.”

I asked Druckmann what the response has been like to the DLC’s more character-centric approach and slight shift in tone, and how he and the team at Naughty Dog approach the various kinds of responses they receive.

“Mostly positive. We’ve seen people really connect with the material and more often than not say their favorite parts are the parts where you’re playing with Riley. But not everybody, I’ve seen some action/hardcore gamers say those were boring. It’s been a mixed bag but mostly I’ve seen a positive reaction.”

Riley_and_Ellie_Kiss

This is where things got gay. Literally. I asked about the kiss between Riley and Ellie, arguably the most talked about moment of Left Behind, and how it came about during production.

“It’s always hard to pinpoint the moment of inception. I know with Ellie I had some discussions about her backstory and who she is and I had some conversations with Ashley Johnson, the actress who plays Ellie, about who she is. As we started to brainstorm this story about Ellie and Riley for the DLC it sounded like it could go somewhere else.

We’ve already told this platonic love story between Joel and Ellie and we’ve told the story of the friendship of these two girls in the comic book… It felt like we wanted another dimension to it and since we already had these discussions of who Ellie is it seemed pretty natural to say, or at least ask the question, “What if these two girls were more than friends? What if they were attracted to each other? What if there was more to it?”

In some ways it felt like it could become more tragic because we see this high contrast: This is the happiest Ellie has ever been when they’re dancing in the department store and juxtaposed with this is a very sad but hopeful moment in the present where we see Ellie going forward past that point.”

The last time GayGamer spoke with Druckmann he mentioned Ellie’s sexuality as being up in the air.  I wondered how that played into this game’s development.

“Because we didn’t explore it [Ellie's sexuality] one way or another in the main game, it was up for grabs in this story.”

Speaking of Ellie’s sexuality, online communities everywhere have been debating whether or not the kiss makes these girls gay or not? Some have argued that these girls are young and so their sexuality couldn’t possibly be known to them. Other have said that a kiss between two gal pals is nothing unusual. Others still say they’re just confused because it’s the apocalypse (actual comment I read, btw).

“It is a little strange when I read stuff like “Oh girls are just confused at that stage.” or “They’re still finding themselves.” You could spend your whole life finding yourself.

Again I think it’s weird because if Riley was a boy this debate wouldn’t be happening. No one would say “Oh maybe it’s just a friendly kiss.” No one would question that. I think even if it was two boys I don’t think anybody would question it.

We try to write stuff that’s subtle and that can be open for interpretation, even if I disagree with that interpretation. I always say if there’s nothing in the game that disproves it then it doesn’t matter what I say; the material should speak for itself.”

Next I bluntly asked:

Is Ellie gay?

“Now when I was writing it I was writing it with the idea that Ellie is gay, and when the actresses were working they were definitely working with the idea that they’re both attracted to each other. That was the subtext and intention that they were playing with from the opening cinematic when they’re holding each other’s hands for too long, or when Riley bites her on the neck; there’s that chemistry there from the get go that was important for us so that we earned that moment when they kissed each other. So that it wasn’t just out of the blue but also wasn’t so overt that you’re like “Oh of course. Just get on with it.”

At this point Druckmann turned the tables on me and asked me if I felt they accomplished that. I told him that I did. There’s too much subtle, non-explicit storytelling at work to look at it any other way. From the aforementioned way the characters interact, to the Etta James love song that plays while the girls kiss, to the fact that this title was released on Valentine’s Day. All signs point to gay.

Druckmann doesn’t disagree.

“At the photo booth and the awkward moment there when they almost kiss, the way Riley calls Ellie her ‘girl’, these things could be taken either way but for me the sum of their parts is pretty clear.”

With the newfound knowledge that Ellie is gay I asked if there was anything from the original game that one might see in a new light.

“Only in as far as whenever she’s talking about Riley or talking about the arcade. Now you know there’s more weight to it…and the end when she tells Joel she lost her best friend I feel for her more because I know how happy she was.

Another moment is in the ranch house when Joel scolds Ellie and tells her she doesn’t know what loss is.

She does know.

I’ve seen on threads that people complained it was just inserted without any thought. That if they thought of it before [that she was gay] then it would have been in the main game, and I’m like “No.” If there was no romantic relationship for Ellie in that game then I can’t see it naturally, honestly coming up.”

Riley's_Pendant

I shared that I couldn’t wait to go replay The Last of Us with this new knowledge about Ellie and Riley from Left Behind. Moments like when the player finds Riley’s pendant will be so much more loaded with the foreknowledge of Ellie and Riley’s bond. The Last of Us: Left Behind offers the potential to completely recontextualize the main game, creating a new experience the second go around.

Hearing this pleased the Naughty Dog creative director.

“That’s the kind of stuff we’re passionate about…I’ve seen some people say “oh there weren’t any new revelations. There’s nothing new.” Well I guess from a plot standpoint, if you wanted to know more about the Fireflies or the infection or you wanted to find a totally new character, then I could see that.

But to us adding a new dimension to a main character is a huge piece of storytelling. Now you can play the main game and if you get some new aspect to it or a character feels more real…that’s my favorite kind of storytelling. I enjoy that way more than plot-driven kind of stories.”

Next up we discussed the way romance is explored in modern gaming. Most games utilize romance purely as a mechanic, with little emotional investment. Relationships are achievements, a way to get stat bonuses, or the way to unlock a sex cut-scene.

In The Last of Us: Left Behind, romance isn’t a mechanic but rather works in tandem with the game mechanics to enhance the story. It’s an entirely new take on romance in gaming, and I was curious how Naughty Dog worked on this new approach.

“How do you take a romantic relationship and build it up on mechanics, some of them being action mechanics? That became the challenge.

Some of them were more set pieces, one-offs, that took immense amounts of engineering and design. The photo booth comes to mind. That’s something we worked on for months and months…with the audio and the blending of different animations and poses you could do to put you in the mindset of where Ellie and Riley are.”

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“From a writing perspective, these things are all just two girls having fun but how do they build on each other? When Ellie is putting on the mask that’s when Ellie forgives Riley and becomes her friend again. Then we have the brick throwing contest where we decided there would be an important question asked there. That way no matter who wins the contest their relationship still progresses. And then you have the carousel when Riley gives Ellie the gift, which leads directly to the photo booth where they almost kiss.

I felt like I was engaged. Ellie was starting to have fun with Riley then I was starting to have fun with Riley. It might not seem like it takes a lot but it does to get those things to be in sync.”

The Last of Us now has two prominent gay characters, a fully realized playable female character given her own adventure, and an overall diverse cast. It may not seem like much but this single title gives Naughty Dog a huge leg up on vast majority of the industry in terms of representation. Are these issues things that Naughty Dog is actively thinking about?

“I think it helps that we have diversity within the team. We have anyone you could imagine. I asked someone who is gay on the team questions about experiences they’ve had, or what they would find offensive or not offensive. Likewise with female characters I’d ask the women on the team their advice or for personal experiences to draw from when writing.

I think the biggest thing that helps us is that none of it is a big deal. Maybe it’s because we’re in LA where none of it is a big deal. We didn’t approach it from the standpoint of “Let’s make a point. Let’s take our protagonist and make her gay.”

To tell the best story that we know how we need to take this relationship somewhere else. It doesn’t matter that it’s two girls. If that’s where we need to go that’s where we’ll go.”

It wasn’t always a sure thing that Ellie would be gay, though. Druckmann revealed that at one point wondered how making her gay would be perceived, from all sides.

“One thing gave me pause and almost made me not want to do it. People talked about how Ellie is this really strong character so are we doing too much with her? She’s already a tomboy so by making her gay are we saying that all tomboys are gay? I see some of those comments now, but that wasn’t our intention.

Our intention was to tell a really good romantic story that I’ve never seen in a AAA game. I’ve never seen an effective kiss that really moved me in a game, and that was the challenge, and that’s what drew us to this.

So because of that we had to just shrug our shoulders to some of the criticism that will come. We’re after the best story, and if this is what makes the best story then that’s what we’ll do.

Part of what excites us is doing what we’ve never done before. As a writer I’ve never told this story, this romantic story before. So I was terrified going into knowing that we’d fail along the way. To get the kinds of reactions we’ve gotten and to see people connect to these stories is great. It’s awesome.

Though I now get more hate tweets than I have ever before, but I’m kind of proud of those.”

Riley_and_Ellie_Photo_Booth_04

To end the interview I asked Druckmann if Left Behind is the last of The Last of Us.

“I’ve seen a lot of skepticism going into Left Behind. That we might spoil the story or ruin the impression of Ellie. And I’m sure we have, for some. But for most I think we’ve just added another piece to the puzzle.

Our approach will be, with what we’re brainstorming, can we come up with a story that doesn’t repeat what we’ve done before or doesn’t go in such a different direction that it doesn’t fit with what we’ve done before with The Last of Us? That’s our criteria for whether an idea will fit or not.

Left Behind does feel like a closure for us and these characters. We’ve won all these crazy awards and this just feels like a good place to just let go and move on to something new.”

One thing is for sure, whether or not Naughty Dog is done with The Last of Us, Druckmann sure isn’t.

“…I’d still love to come back to this world and these characters. Whether it’s a comic book or an animated short, which we almost did a few months back but it fell through.

Whether we make a game or not I’d still love to come back to this world.”

The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC is available now on the PlayStation store.

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About Sal Mattos

(Managing Editor and Writer) Sal lives in the beautiful city of San Francisco where he splits his time between playing games, watching copious amounts of television, and occasionally going outside. He has written for GayGamer and Gamezone. He studied creative writing and theatre at SFSU, and when not gaming can most likely be found on stage somewhere. You can keep up with him on twitter @salmattos

25 Responses

  1. avatar SR says:

    Wow, thank you for this wonderful article Sal. Thank you asking the blunt questions. I played “Left Behind” this past weekend and I’ve been playing games since the original Mario Brothers on Nintendo but this was the first time I felt a deeply personal connection to a game. I found representation as a gay woman and I could identify with Ellie. I never got to have that type of experience in my youth but thanks to Naughty Dog I did. And for many other people both straight and gay, they got to have it as well. Bravo. Now I too will go and play the main campaign again knowing for certain that Ellie was like me as a kid and that’s an awesome feeling indeed. Now please make a sequel because there’s so much more story to tell!!! :)

  2. avatar Leo Vader says:

    Great interview! I’ve been sucked into so many arguments about the topic of Ellie’s sexuality since this DLC came out and it’s nice to have actual quotes from Neil on the subject. TLOUs diversity was fantastic, Naughty Dog is really important for the industry right now.

  3. […] Is Ellie Gay? Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann Weighs In on The Last of Us: Left Behind by Sal Mattos […]

  4. […] a burgeoning bicuriosity. For what it’s worth, creative director Neil Druckmann has explained she was written to be gay, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is she’s a character we […]

  5. […] a burgeoning bicuriosity. For what it’s worth, creative director Neil Druckmann has explained she was written to be gay, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is she’s a character we already happen […]

  6. […] a burgeoning bicuriosity. For what it’s worth, creative director Neil Druckmann has explained she was written to be gay, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is she’s a character we already happen […]

  7. […] Last of Us. While Ellie immediately strikes players as solemn, brave, and mature, she’s also a little-known lesbian, whose budding romance is retold in the prequel Left Behind. The game includes a gay man, Bill, […]

  8. […] Anyone who wants to reject the notion of Ellie and Riley as gay should give the moments leading up to the now-controversial kiss another view or read any number of interviews with Druckmann, who has stated that Ellie was conceptualized as gay. Two such interviews, which raise a lot of good points about the nature of the debate over Ellie’s sexuality, can be found here and here.  […]

  9. avatar Nafsman says:

    In all fairness, you say “this wouldn’t be an issue if it was a girl and a boy or two boys” but it is known that young girls are a lot more experimentive than boys
    Of course in the today’s P.C. Age to insinuate two girls kissing is anything other than gay is seen as denial but I personally know straight girls that played around with other girls at Ellie’s age. Boys almost never do that, but girls do. Ellie was only 14 for crying out loud.

    • avatar Thorin says:

      That’s nonsense. I know soooooo many guys, from all walks of life, gay and straight, who experimented as kids. It’s what kids do when they start getting older. Culturally it may be considered more “acceptable” for girls to experiment, but to say girls do it more than boys is absurd.

      It’s amazing to me that the game’s creator can go on record as saying Ellie is gay and people STILL find ways to debate it.

  10. avatar Chimalpahin says:

    “… from the time of inception” ha inception, ellen page,

    Still fascinating read gents

  11. […] 2, Mass Effect and even Last of Us have gay and/or lesbian characters. Did you know Ellie is gay? Neil Druckmann explains so, but that doesn’t deter people from loving her adorable […]

  12. avatar Nick says:

    To be perfectly honest no matter what this post says, I feel like Ellie has an undecided sexuality. Don’t you remember during the main story when she tells the younger brother she doesn’t want to end up alone.. She talks to him like she likes him. I mean it could just mean that she wants to get to be his friend. But I feel like there’s a romantic side to her and the younger boy.

  13. avatar Akame says:

    I actually don’t mind if Ellie is gay, bi, or straight. Who knows, it could be up to the player if she’s gay or not. Ellie was born after the apocalypse so Riley might be the only friend who was her age. So she might not have known what love is. Either way, she’s an awesome protagonist and I’m not going to hate her if she is gay.

  14. avatar Joe says:

    It’s so stupid that you would make Ellie a lesbian. This game is a 10/10 and Ellie was and is my favorite character in gaming history. Idc what the producers have to say. Don’t make Ellie a lesbian in the movie and the potential last of us 2. To me she’s not a lesbian and the only reason Ellie kissed riley was because Ellie didn’t ever feel love in her life or from her parents or anyone else (since her parents died and relatives left her)

    • avatar james says:

      why do you care if she is gay it does not change her character.
      and it obviously she is gay or at least bi.
      also she has other friends which was mentioned in the DLC but Ellie stated she was not as close to them and she stated they was mostly Riley’s friends. so clearly she was around other people her age but Riley was special to Ellie she stood out to her probably because Ellie was attracted to her.
      so if you have a problem with her being gay then don’t play the potential sequel or watch the movie you bigot

    • avatar Jordan says:

      I agree with you Joe. This really disappointed me, but I will assume she is not gay. I like your take on this whether it’s accurate or not.

  15. avatar Seth says:

    The kiss between Ellie and Riley is indeed “shocking” in terms of “I wasn’t completely expecting that”, however, the feelings between them are so beautiful and the lead up to the kiss is so amazing it shouldn’t be unexpected. The motion capture of the actors is so beautiful I cannot imagine this scene being played out in real life (as it couldn’t have been presented any better). While some might think this scene to be a teenager in angst about her situation and reacting in a sexual context within the situation, one only needs look at the scene twice (I myself thought it might be a “confused teen” situation until I viewed it again). I am so convinced that A: Ellie was in love with Riley and B: Riley loved Ellie, that I would base the entire eventual sequel story on it (however I do believe if a sequel were to be made, Ellie would develop some feelings towards Joel (a father/male sexual figure) and Joel would die).

  16. avatar Sam says:

    If Ellie is officially considered gay then that’s cool. Yet, while playing through the main game I never once thought that she was. As the creator said, there was no real romantic relationship for her in that story, there was barely one for Joel with Tess. Anyways, the only romantic relationship she could’ve had was with Sam and it’s obvious she was beginning to care for him.

    Really, I think in a world overrun by infected, gangs and rebels… You’re alone with a few others, well you’re going to ‘love’ those you grow close to. Ellie and Joel love each other in a platonic way, father and daughter. Joel was close with Tess, he obviously had feelings for her. Ellie was beginning to grow close to Sam.

    My point is, Ellie’s gay and that’s fine, Left Behind was fantastic and I loved the relationship between Ellie and Riley, it felt very realistic. However, I feel that if Ellie and Joel’s alliance with Henry and Sam would’ve lasted then Ellie would have developed feelings for Sam. When these characters have lost so much, they’ll hold on to anything that they care for. That’s what I got from Ellie and Riley’s relationship.

    • avatar james says:

      i don’t think she liked Sam in that way it was probably the fact they were the same age and she thought of him as a friend.
      and i don’t think Joel was into Tess in that way. in fact i kinda thought Joel and Tess were like a father daughter thing. at least in Joel’s eyes because it looks like Tess would probably be the same age as Sarah if she grew up.
      so it is possible that Tess as a young girl was adopted by Joel who was not over Sarah death but still not damaged enough by the world where he would be distant to her like he was to Ellie.
      and saying that there relationship would still not be that close since it look more like they were 2 people who just joined up to help each other survive

  17. avatar Straightguy28 says:

    Found this article on the off chance just by googling “is Ellie a lesbian”. IMO it was pretty apparent that it was a romantic kiss and I found it to be quite an awesome “oh shit, hahah go Ellie” moment. I think it suited her part perfectly and the whole part of them making up and then dancing and sharing that kiss was beautiful. Straight, gay, whatever, who doesnt want to see someone make a connection and be happy? Its irrelevant if she is gay or not or if it even mattered to the story. Would the naysayers be just as angry if it were a boy she kissed and ultimately lost? Honestly, its 2014, love shouldn’t be hated or loved based only on genders. What matters is the story was told, it was beautiful and in the end it is the best game I have ever played. Full stop.

  18. avatar Quinn says:

    I’m a tomboy and in school people make fun of me and called me a lesbian which I’m not nor do I have anything against lesbians and gays.. but that being said it seems like they just made Ellie and Riley gay because they kinda act boyish and that kinda gets under my skin cause being a tomboy doesn’t automatically make you lesbian and to this day people think that way.

  19. avatar Adrian says:

    Deciding to make Ellie gay adds absolutely no depth to her character whatsoever. A beautiful friendship can be portrayed in a purely non-sexual way, just like if Frank’s lover was really his best friend as we initially thought would have done nothing to lessen his value as a character.

    Also, Ellie is fourteen fucking years old, and was probably thirteen or younger when she decided to kiss Riley. Not only is it inappropriate but there’s no extra sense of loss from her being a best friend to suddenly becoming a lover.

    I don’t mind characters being gay or lesbians but when it contributes nothing to the story or their characters then it becomes a huge waste of time and makes it look like someone was just trying to subtly insert their social agenda into the mix. Save that shit for the courtroom.

  20. avatar Ty says:

    I really enjoyed this DLC it was a great look at what happened to Ellie before, and during parts of, The Last of Us.

    As for the kiss it was kind of surprising in a. ‘I didn’t really see that coming’ kind of way but the moment you look back on everything you did over the course of the DLC it was perfectly placed and the build up was superb.

    When it happened on screen I raised an eyebrow for a second before chuckling. It was somewhat unexpected but by no means out of place and I feel like it helped flesh out Ellie even more than she already had been.

    You do have people who are going to go ‘They were just young and experimenting’ and fuck maybe they even have a point there but hell if Ellie is a lesbian does that take away from her as a character?

    The simple and short answer is no, the longer answer is Fuck No.

    This was another amazing look at the world of The Last of Us and the characters there in. Gay or not, as some have argued Bi or not, doesn’t matter at the end of the day Ellie is still one of the best characters ever created and no matter what anyone says her sexuality in no way will ever take away from that fact
    Hopefully we’ll be able to revisit the world of The Last of Us again some day soon but until then this was an excellent note to finish on.

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