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:
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.